Monday, February 11, 2008

David Secter's Winter Kept Us Warm (1965)

As a pre-Omnibus Bill film, David Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm (1965) is a film that deals with a subject which was technically still illegal in Canada, but this is not what makes it groundbreaking. The fact that it was the first Canadian feature to be invited to Cannes, gives it an important place in Canadian film history, but this, as well, is not why this film is groundbreaking. One must look deeper within the work itself and the way it fits in the society that it comes from to see this – deeper than mere anecdotal facts such as the above which are more akin to a statistical analysis as opposed to the sociocultural one that makes it groundbreaking. Specifically, we must observe how the film fits within the queer film context and how it contributed to its shaping. How is the way that the film deals with the subject of homosexuality special and why is this way of dealing with the subject important? Furthermore, the context in which the film takes place, namely the English Canadian universitary circle of the 1960’s, has a significant importance in relation to the subject of homosexuality, specifically, but also more broadly to the subject of Canadian national identity.

To examine this, I shall first consider the way the film deals with the subject of homosexuality – how is the subject broached and why? Second, I will explore at the Canadian context of the film – who are the characters and what space do they inhabit, what society are they part of and why is this important? Lastly. I will look at the way that the two subjects converge and influence each other. How the queer subject matter fits in the Canadian context and how does it influence it? Do they mirror each other in a way or are they separate and distinct entities?

To begin with, the subject of homosexuality in Winter Kept Us Warm, is presented in a very subtle way, a way which has caused many (then and today) to doubt that it is a queer film at all. Even in Richard Roud’s Cannes review, he writers ‘all of a sudden one realises that one has got it all wrong, that something quite different is happening there on the screen’[1] seemingly not identifying the film as queer until a certain watershed moment when he realizes what the subject really is. And indeed, one would have difficulty identifying the work as queer cinema from the get-go. The main characters are both presented as heterosexuals, complete with girlfriends and closeted denial (‘Oh come on, cut it out, Bev.’[2]). But despite this, we soon realize that Doug and Peter’s relationship is ‘more than male bonding and even more than frolicking in the snow’[3]

But why this ambiguity? Why this subtlety? The answer is twofold. One reason might be the time and place within which the film was produced. It would be conceivable that Secter would have had many more problems than he already had to bring this film to light if he was making an overtly gay movie. Considering it was his first feature and he had almost no budget, if he had to deal with a possible political turmoil that the production could have caused if it was deemed a queer-film, one could consider the possibility of the film never seeing the light of day. It is no wonder then that even some of the cast members did not feel they were making a queer film. The other equally valid reason could be simply the fact that Secter wanted to make a film about characters that were themselves ambiguous and unsure of their identities. This is to say, we are not sure (or are not supposed to be) of their homosexuality for the simple reason that they are not sure of it themselves. This does not only put the film in another dimension of narrative (one more complex than a mere precursor to Brokeback Mountain (2005)) but also gives it a certain authenticity. One would conceive that individuals in that time and that social milieu would indeed be confused and unsure of their nascent homosexuality.

On to the Canadian context of the film – it is important to note that the film does not hide its Canadian origin. Unlike other Canadian films that ‘often seem to disguise their nationality’ by hiding Canadian speech or artifacts like money and license plates[4], Winter Kept Us Warm doesn’t shy from showing us recognizable Toronto locations and filming exclusively on location at the UofT residence and campus. In this sense it overtly identifies itself as a Canadian film happening in Canada (as opposed to a Canadian film that could very well be happening anywhere in the world).

Other than geography alone, however, one must also consider the society and era in which this is taking place. Like mentioned before, the era is 1965 Canada, pre-Omnibus Bill, meaning that the subject of homosexuality isn’t only taboo, it is also technically illegal. Furthermore, the characters are not subjects that are already identifiable as marginal (like the leather-clad Bikers of Anger’s Scorpio Rising(1964) for example), instead, they are ‘worried young men in conservative suits and narrow ties learning folk songs and dating girlfriends.’[5] What this means is that the subjects in Winter Kept Us Warm are characters which would otherwise be welcome as examples of Canadian citizen by the conservative right. They are not characters that would already be dismissed by the viewer before even learning of their budding homosexuality. Furthermore, they embody an ideal that ‘the institution’ (be it the university-circle academia or the more conservative nation-defining cultural powers-that-be) would be quite happy to present as a paradigm of young Canadians (to other Canadians and to non-Canadians alike). In this respect, the Canadian nature of the film takes on a whole new importance: It does not only present itself as ‘overtly’ Canadian but it also presents a quite complex and previously unexplored facet of Canadian identity.

Finally, we can look at how the two subjects presented so far interact with each other. In his essay, Thomas Waugh explores the subject of the Queer nation and reaches the conclusion that the Canadian queer cinema adds up to a national cinema by its nature of “otherness” in face of the corresponding American models.[6] One can argue, however, that Canadian queer cinema also stands as a national cinema independently of its conformity or lack thereof against the American model. Much like the characters in Winter Kept Us Warm one can argue that the English Canadian cinema and more specifically its Canadian identity is one that appears conservative on the surface while containing a turmoil of self-questioning identity-searching underneath.

While one can be tempted to easily dismiss this argument of surface-conservatism by bringing up the various NFB documentaries and animated films, or even the many experimental works with which Canadian cinema is often associated with, one must look within the same type of cinema in order to properly characterize a national cinema. While it might indeed be true that Canadian cinema is known for films other than the narrative type, one must look at how the Canadian identity shows itself within each type of cinema rather considering the types themselves as an identity. Since Winter Kept Us Warm is narrative, one must consider the narrative film as a gauge. In this respect, the film is of great importance to Canadian cinema in as far as establishing an identify of identity-searching. Much like Peter and Doug are struggling with the question of their identity, so does Canadian cinema struggles to define itself in the face of other cinemas but more importantly in relation to itself. While the homosexual subtext is not directly indicative of the nature of Canadian cinema, one finds many parallels between the two. The pressure to conform (to hetero society or to our southern neighbours), the struggle to find an identity and the struggle to accept this identity, the difficulty in presenting this identity to others – all are examples of these kinds of parallels.

In conclusion, we have seen that Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm is not only a groundbreaking film but also an important part of the English Canadian national cinema. Starting with the queer nature of the film, we observed that the subject is presented in a subtle manner which created some ambiguity, albeit a natural and necessary ambiguity. Next I considered the Canadian context of the film, showing that it is an openly Canadian work and that, on the surface, it dealt with a part of Canadian society that is often associated with conservative and mainstream society (as opposed to a marginalized part of Canadian society). Finally, the interaction between the two subjects shows that not only is Winter Kept Us Warm a groundbreaking film in terms of queer cinema, it is also an important component of English Canadian national cinema. Overall one can argue that the film doesn’t make for a characteristic piece of either queer cinema or Canadian cinema, which in a way makes it even more Canadian than a movie that would be obviously Canadian and queer. It is this subtlety, this quiet but powerful nature of the film that makes it all the more Canadian than anything - perhaps it is even more Canadian than it is queer.

[1] Roud 1966, p154

[2] Secter 1965

[3] Waugh 2001, p288

[4] Locke 1977, p18

[5] Waugh 2001, p300

[6] Waugh 2001, p300


Locke, J. W. (1977). A Healthy Case of Craziness. Cinema Canada 41, 17-18; 20-21

Roud, R. (1966). The Cannes Festival. Sight and Sound 35.3, 154

Secter, D. (Director). (1965). Winter Kept Us Warm [Motion Picture]. Canada: Varsity

Waugh, T. (2001). Fairy Tales of Two Cities: or Queer Nation(s)—National Cinema(s). In a Queer Country Terry Goldie, ed. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 285-305.