Images from "Lonely Boy" and "Paul Tomkowicz" by Roman Kroitor (NFB)
He became a co-creator of the IMAX system, as well as developing technology to fuse the intimacy of hand-drawn animation with the possibilities of 3D.
The prairies are great at producing talent but not so good at generating fame, which might be why homegrown film genius Roman Kroitor isn't better known. Former Winnipegger Matthew Rankin is out to change that. The filmmaker and film scholar will be introducing a program of Kroitor's works at the Cinematheque, Friday, January 4th at 7:00 p.m. (Admission is free.)
Kroitor, who died last September at the age of 85, was an endlessly innovative filmmaker who combined technical genius with creative curiosity. His early, groundbreaking documentary work for the NFB and the CBC was a huge influence on the Direct Cinema, or cinéma vérité, in North America. Later, he became a co-creator of the IMAX system, as well as developing technology to fuse the intimacy of hand-drawn animation with the possibilities of 3D.
Kroitor has a strong connection with our city: He was born in Yorkton, Saskatchewan but as a kid moved to Winnipeg and attended high school and university here before heading east. One of his first iconic works, Paul Tomkowicz: Street-railway Switchman (1952), is a quintessentially Winnipeg film. A short documentary about a 64-year-old Polish-born Canadian whose job is to sweep and salt the streetcar tracks in the middle of winter, it has a simple, slice-of-life immediacy. ("It's hard work, but I am a healthy man. I eat lots of fat," says Tomkowicz in his stoic voiceover.)
But it's also an incredibly elegant work, with beautifully composed shots-- made up of snow and streetlights and the blackness of night - that unfold into an indelible sense of place and personality.
Universe (1961) uses special effects and animation to journey from Earth to the outer reaches of space. This is still a way cool film -- precise, stately and just a bit trippy. Fifty years ago, it would have been mind-blowing. In fact, the film did blow the mind of Stanley Kubrick, who drew on its look for 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Lonely Boy (1962) is not only a gorgeous period piece but a fascinating, completely current look at the cult of celebrity. The teen heartthrob who is sending crowds of bobbysoxers into screaming fits happens to be the 20-year-old Ottawa-born Paul Anka, but it could just as easily be Justin Bieber.
Kroitor's pioneering use of lightweight handheld cameras and portable sync-sound in this film helped create a casual, intimate, on-the-fly approach, which could catch subjects seemingly unaware and bring viewers right into the scene. This method is now ubiquitous - its idiot child is Reality TV - but Kroitor's work in the 1960s was revolutionary, influencing the whole documentary genre, especially "rockumentaries," from D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back to, well, This is Spinal Tap.