Does art imitate life? It does in the movie My American Cousin, showing this Saturday night at the Civic Theatre. The story behind the film — a bored teenager’s summer of ’59 is turned around when her runaway cousin turns up in a flashy red convertible — is director Sandy Wilson’s own story. Wilson grew up in the Penticton area, and her American cousin Butch really did turn up, on the run, in a Roadster.
It’s a golden-days-of summer coming-of-age film that harks back to those glorious and painful moments of adolescence we can all relate to — no matter in which decade we were teenagers. Wilson lived it, and in a way, so did we all.
Wilson grew up and became a filmmaker, directing the cinematic version of her story all the way to the silver screen and six Genie awards. Now, she keeps the film canisters stacked in her living room where they make a great end table — and occasionally loans them for a good cause, such as a farewell film night at Vancouver’s Ridge Theatre and, on May 25 at 7:30 p.m., the farewell to 35mm night at the Civic.
How Wilson came to own the print is a story, too. Rushing to pick up the “wet” print to make a festival deadline, the lab tech made her an offer. “Would you like to have your own print?” he asked Wilson. “Because my truck needs tires.” Directors don’t usually get to own a print. $500 later, Wilson had one — and the lab tech had four new tires.
This came in handy when a print became wayward en route to the George Pompidou Festival in Paris, France; Wilson just happened to have one to ship. While teaching film at Capilano College, the reels went missing for a decade, but they came back, and now — thanks to a lab tech with bald tires — the film is Nelson’s darling for just one night. Wilson’s thrilled, because she loves Nelson; she taught here with Don McKellar during the BC Festival of the Arts in the 90s.
I love that My American Cousin is our last picture show of the pre-digital age. The film, shot in and around Penticton, is a true BC film. I love that, as art director/associate producer and (now) Nelson resident Phil Schmidt explains, the female star and Best Actress Genie winner Margaret Langrick was “discovered” across the street from Wilson’s Kitsilano home. Because Canada is just small enough that it could happen.
Small can be big: Schmidt came to Nelson to do props for the film Housekeeping, and stayed. Thirty years later, it’s Schmidt’s connection to Nelson and My American Cousin that brings Wilson’s end table to the Civic’s screen — an end table that, according to the Canadian Film Encyclopedia, is one of the most successful Canadian films ever.
Saying goodbye to print films is bittersweet. Like folks who revere vinyl over CDs, many will tell you that print films have a quality all their own.
I’m glad we’ll be able to see this beloved 1985 film in its original format, and as a bonus, have it introduced by Wilson and Schmidt in person, who will answer questions after the credits roll — bringing art to life.
Unlike Wilson, Butch did not grow up, by the way. The renegade cousin died tragically in a car accident in 1965, at the age of 23. But his memory lived on in the heart of a filmmaker. And this film will live on in the hearts of Nelson folk, just as the Civic Theatre has — and will for a long time to come.
The Civic Theatre goes digital in early June, bringing new Hollywood Blockbusters and some great art-house films this summer.