The Bitter Ash
1963, Starring Philip Brown, Alan Scarfe, Lynn Stewart. Directed by Larry Kent.
"If you're looking for an exploitation movie, The Bitter Ash is not it. There isn't enough sex."Larry Kent, Take One magazine, July, 2003
Larry Kent might not think his film is lurid enough to fall under the grimy banner of "exploitation," but most would be hard pressed to refer to his film as anything but. A condemnation of "square" society, The Bitter Ash is awash in drugs and Canadian liquor, and seethes with a generational anger that builds to a violent climax "not enough sex" is almost besides the point. Combining the low-budget ambiance of a Doris Wishman film with a frenetic series of improvised dialogues that would make Paul Morrissey and Andy Milligan proud, the only thing separating The Bitter Ash from a 42nd street grindshow picture is a deceptive advertising campaign.
Canadian film had barely gotten off the ground in 1963 when Larry Kent, a 26-year-old University of British Columbia student, decided to make a feature with $5,000 and a handful of friends from UBC's drama department. Not that this was completely unprecedented, mind youonly six years previous, 24-year-old CBC writer Sidney J. Furie surprised everyone by making A Dangerous Age, the first "modern" Canadian feature about a young man attempting to rectify traditional and romantic notions of love and marriage. Unable to find distribution for his film, Furie eventually left for England. Picking up almost exactly where Furie left off, Kent's The Bitter Ash could almost be a sequel. Had A Dangerous Age's self-absorbed protagonist somehow succeeded in marrying his teenage sweetheart, he certainly would have struggled with the same pressures of marriage as do the characters in The Bitter Ash.
After an ultra-low budget hand-drawn opening credits sequence, newspaper typesetter Des (Alan Scarfe) learns that his live-in girlfriend Julie might be pregnant. Feeling trapped and worried about the possiblity of marriage, he hits the streets and meets Laurie (Lynn Stewart), who has just had a baby with her husband, an absurdist playwright named Colin (Philip Brown). Through flashback, Laurie reveals her story of neglect. Even when his wife became too pregnant to continue waitressing, Colin still refused to get a job, believing that the play's the thing"I'll show them!" he screeches as he scrambles through yet another manic edit.
The centrepiece of the film is a series of beachside monologues, in which Laurie runs off on a desperately suicidal rant in response to Des' cynical condemnations of society. The next night, Des sneaks past Julie to go to a rent party with Laurie. Through a marijuana haze, Des looks for casual sex amongst the bongo-crazed revelers, but ends up back with Laurie. When Colin discovers them together, he isn't too impressed with the attention that Des is giving his wife, and tempers soon explode.
Much of The Bitter Ash is spent contrasting blue-collar Des with the hedonistic young intellectual Colin. One scene features a mid-afternoon poetry reading where Colin passes along a jug of wine to his friends, intercut with shots of Des trading small talk with the boys in the break room at the printing press. Des hates his life, and feels that poverty has doomed him to be "a number" working at a mind-numbing job to support his future "robot" wife. In the film (and in most subsequent films by Kent), every portrayal of marriage is shown to be an absolutely soul-crushing experience. Even when Des and Laurie sleep together, it's an expression of self-loathing, not love. Getting out of bed, Des immediately turns violent and hateful towards her in a scene that wouldn't be out of place in Milligan's The Ghastly Ones.
The Bitter Ash bridges the "beat generation" films made in Canada in the late 1950s with the later, more personal films to come. Julian Roffman's The Bloody Brood, William Davidson's The Ivy League Killers and the aforementioned A Dangerous Age all featured "angry young men" living on the fringes of society, albeit imprisoned inside orthodox b-movie plots. The Bitter Ash raised the stakes by adopting a looser, grittier style. One only has to compare this film's realistic and unstructured party sequence to the contrived hipster posturing of The Bloody Brood to see that Kent was more interested in tapping into the cinema verit tradition than making an impact on NFB documentaries like the Candid Eye series.
Still, "realism" is a relative term here, because the frank look and feel of The Bitter Ash is undermined slightly by the film's lack of budget. The audience is kept at arm's length with an obviously overdubbed dialogue track and a sparse, omnipresent jazz score gives the film an otherworldly quality eerily similar to Doris Wishman's Bad Girls Go to Hell. Despite this, The Bitter Ash is still an obvious predecessor to straightforward CanFilms like Nobody Waved Goodbye, Christopher's Movie Matinee and Kent's best known opus, High.
Kent tried to avoid the pitfalls of the notoriously unresponsive Canadian distribution business by roadshowing the film to Canadian universities, but he still had trouble connecting The Bitter Ash with an audience. The opening scene, which showed Des and Julie in bed and offered a brief flash of nudity, immediately came under fire from censors. The Bitter Ash was refused by campuses in Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In all, only four universities even showed the film, including UBC, despite the enthusiastic responses from young audiences.
Although still not fully recognized because of the controversial nudity and drug use, The Bitter Ash is a fascinating exercise in cynicism and anger, a fiercely personal film that pulls together the best elements of the 1950s Canadian b-pictures and presents them in a fresh and believable way. An underrated classic.