What Lies Beneath

The quixotic quests of Peter Lynch, from archeology to zoology
by Adam Nayman  posted June 19, 2008
Email  |  Print  
A  A  A

Weird Science: The Idiosyncratic Archeology of Peter Lynch,
Cinematheque Ontario, June 20-28, 2008

Peter Lynch is the great wanderer of contemporary Canadian cinema, traversing wide swaths of physical and psychological terrain in search of what he calls the "deeper myth." It's an idea that's within easy walking distance of Werner Herzog's oft-cited "ecstatic truth," and comparisons to the German master are inevitable given both filmmakers' predilection for (and reputation as) obsessive, questing types. When Grizzly Man was released in 2005, Canadian critics couldn't help invoking Lynch's wildly successful debut, Project Grizzly (1996), a simultaneously wry and awed account of how inventor/nutcase Troy Hurtubise—shaken by an unexpected encounter with a grizzly bear—endeavors to construct an ursine-proof suit out of whatever materials he has at hand. (The finished product, which sustains collisions with trucks, trees, and even a group of drunken motorcycle enthusiasts, would make Tony Stark proud.)

It's easy enough to draw a thematic through-line between that film and Lynch's subsequent Cyberman (2001), about the University of Toronto professor Steve Mann, who pioneered "wearable computing gear" in an effort to transform himself into the world's first actual cyborg (portions of the film are shot from his POV). And it's not hard to note the resonances between the director's Genie-winning short Arrowhead (1996), featuring Don McKellar in a virtuoso turn as a chatty slacker who finds a dinosaur bone in his high-rise's backyard and A Whale of a Tale (2004), in which Lynch himself attempts to disambiguate the background of an ancient whalebone mysteriously discovered in the Toronto subway system.

"You become aware of it because critics point it out to you," says Lynch of the various points of convergence in his work. "But it's also become more evident to me as I progress in my career that I'm attracted to certain things."

With its unmistakable allusions to Arrowhead, A Whale of a Tale reflects this symmetry even as it ducks down blind alleys. It's a rollicking, arcana-strewn odyssey though North America's museums and underground archaeological subculture—yes, North America has an underground archaeological subculture—that also constitutes an inversion of the archetypal Captain Ahab quest: it seeks not to destroy its elusive cetacean subject, but rather to help put it back together. Like Project Grizzly and Cyberman, A Whale of a Tale presents a man in thrall to a great passion, and it's to Lynch's credit that he treats himself no differently than his other protagonists—with a mix of admiration and ambivalence that tempers easy exploitation on one end of the scale and simple hagiography on the other. "It's easy to laugh at someone," he says. "Laughing at Troy [Hurtubise] is like shooting fish in a barrel. The audience is not going to give itself over to you if you put your own humanity over the humanity of the subject."

The needling tone of many current documentaries is something that makes Lynch extremely uneasy; another is a general inattention to aesthetics. "The documentaries that I love tend to be more cinematic," he says. "I find that there's a general lack of ambition in formal and sonic terms, which is why I'm not comfortable in the documentary realm. I'm in search of a bigger canvas." He found one in 1998 when he made The Herd, an epically scaled docudrama set in 1929 that recounts a government-sponsored reindeer drive across Canada's Mackenzie Delta, but despite its meticulous construction and impressive homegrown cast (Graham Greene, Colm Feore, and McKellar), the dramatic content and man-vs.-nature themes come off as stilted.

The director did better to break out of the documentary mold (while still indulging his interests in animal-human congress and bizarre technology) with the shorts Animal Nightmares (2003) and A Short Film About Falling (2007); the latter, which features a self-reconstituting chair, is particularly striking, harking back to Lynch's early days working in new media. He recalls helping organize video festivals in Toronto while the medium was still in its infancy, presenting work by the likes of Bill Viola, and visiting the set of The Cotton Club in 1983, where his friends were "basically inventing what we know now as Avid or Final Cut Pro." Lynch was also involved in the pioneering Toronto-based program The New Music, which predated MTV by a couple of years.

Lynch says the wellspring of his pop fixations was unremarkable—he was a Toronto high-rise kid who "watched a lot of American TV"—but that the ways in which his enthusiasms first manifested themselves were anything but regular. "From a young age, I organized chaotic events," he says. "I started off lighting fires, or stealing Mr. Bubble detergent and getting a group of guys together to put the bubbles in the fountains. The key was that it wasn't spontaneous—it was organized, staged, and talked about afterwards, like a rap session. The events got bigger and bigger, and I got more and more satisfaction from them. I continued this creative delinquency even later on—I worked at Coca-Cola and put glass in the bottles to slow down the assembly line. I felt like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.... There was something quixotic about trying to subvert the factory, and survive the boredom."

In a way, it was boredom—filtered through an intense personal memory—that inspired Lynch to make Arrowhead. His wife, editor Caroline Christie (who has worked on all his films), had brought him along to Italy where she was working on someone else's film; during a moment of down time, Lynch took a piece of paper and scrawled an outline for a film called 100 Views of a High-Rise, inspired by Hokusai's famed 100 Views of Mt. Fuji. "The idea was that there had to be a piece of the high-rise in every shot. And then, at the top of the page, I wrote ‘arrowhead' and drew an outline of the thing on the outside of the notebook. I was bored in Venice, waiting on a sound mix, and this thing from my past just came to me." The "thing" was an arrowhead that Lynch had discovered years before when his pool was being dug up—an object that he says still inspires him today. "It's become a beacon, and I've become a kind of archaeologist in the way I process and look at material."

Perhaps a better term would be crypto-zoologist: A Whale of a Tale features Lynch waxing rhapsodic about the image of a prehistoric whale surfacing off the shores of Lake Ontario. It's an image that sustains his quest even as it fades in the face of some less-than-ecstatic truths about his find; the flipside to the quixotic quality of Lynch's films is their attendant surfeit of disappointment. (The final passages of Project Grizzly are particularly deflating, although Lynch—and Hurtubise—would likely cite that old saw about the journey being more important than the destination.).

But the core quality of his work is optimism—that history can be learned from, that one's fears can be mastered, that one's physical limits can be transcended. "I lived on the edge of a valley," says Lynch. "The valley was representative of the primordial for me," he says, echoing the words of Arrowhead s protagonist - words that he wrote as echoes of his own experiences. "That's where I acted out all the things that I wasn't supposed to do in front of my parents. And when I go off to make a film, I'm back in that valley." 


Fighting Words

Fighting Words
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 12, 2014

Fighting Words, Part 2

Fighting Words, Part 2
by Imogen Sara Smith
posted August 20, 2014

On the Margins: The Films of Patrick Lung Kong

On the Margins: The Fil…
by Andrew Chan
posted August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: A Sense of Wonder

Robin Williams: A Sense…
by David Schwartz
posted August 12, 2014

Courtesy The Film Reference Library
Peter Lynch's Project Grizzly
Photo Gallery: What Lies Beneath


Adam Nayman is a film critic living and working in Toronto. He writes for Eye Weekly, Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, LA Weekly, and other publications.

More articles by Adam Nayman