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The Globe and Mail

Peter Morris put Canadian cinema in its historic context

Peter Morris, right, is seen with former TIFF director Piers Handling at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Peter Morris, excavator of Canadian films, exhumed fragments of a forgotten cinematic history and fashioned them into stories celebrating the hucksters, visionaries and pioneers who helped build a country.

"[He was the]éminence grise of Canadian film studies," said colleague Brenda Longfellow. "Canadian film studies owes Peter an extraordinary debt for the diligence and meticulousness of his excavations."

Morris, who died on Feb. 2 in Hamilton of cancer, was founding curator of the Canadian Film Archives in Ottawa and founding president of the Film Studies Association of Canada. He edited the Canadian Journal of Film Studies and taught film studies at York University.

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His magnum opus, Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema 1885-1939, first published in 1978 and reprinted in 1992, continues to be essential reading for film students across the country and helped introduce a broader readership to the history of Canadian film.

"With Embattled Shadows he was the first person to bring together an analysis of Canadian cinema with Canadian history in a personal yet scholarly and rigorous manner," said Ron Burnett, president of Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

"His political philosophy was very progressive. It came out of a tradition that looked carefully at the role of the working class in popular culture as well as in documentary cinema."

His book was the first history of Canadian filmmaking, covering the years up to the establishment of the National Film Board in 1939. Among other things, Morris identified how the use of natural settings and documentaries became a particularly Canadian priority, in contrast to Hollywood's studio locations and more traditional storytelling.

In the book, Morris described a crew of filmmakers hired by CPR in 1904. These men followed the tracks, clutching their cameras, on a flatcar travelling from Montreal to Vancouver.

They were given strict orders: no snow or ice scenes. The 32 short films, called Living Canada, were travelogues intended to entice Britons to settle in Canada. Nobody wanted frigid air to frighten them off.

He wrote about Robert Flaherty, who filmed a Baffin Island Inuit community during William MacKenzie's 1913 Arctic expedition. The film was destroyed in a fire, but it led to Flaherty's next project: Nanook of the North.

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American film companies used Canada as settings for stories featuring villainous French-Canadian lumberjacks, Yukon gold prospectors, and noble Mounties. Who could forget Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), crouched on top of a potbelly stove in the Klondike, shivering?

And then there were early films like When Snow-Time is Joy-Time, and When the Moose Run Free. These inspired a journalist at the Ottawa Citizen in 1935 to write:

"If life in the Dominion is as these films suggest, we might expect Canadians to engage only in fishing, golf and the observation of wild animals. There are practically no industries, very little work, and no working people."

Morris might have agreed with his summation, but he had a deep interest in examining the work of early filmmakers in an historical context.

"It might be interesting to speculate why we, as Canadians, have ignored our own history; why, in the case of film, we have even assumed that there is no history worth considering," he wrote.

Morris was born in Britain in 1937. His mother died when he was a baby and he was quietly adopted by his widowed great aunt Lillian when he was a year old.

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His father visited him a few times when he was a boy, but was always referred to as "Uncle Herman." Peter wasn't told about the adoption until he was a grown man.

His aunt ran a small hotel in the seaside town of Blackpool, in Northwest England. Peter helped out by clearing tables, a bit of bell-hopping and sleeping in the bathtub when the hotel was overbooked.

It wasn't until he was a young man that he learned he had two brothers, who also had been adopted out. And he was middle aged before he discovered he also had a sister back in England with her own tales to tell.

"I suppose over the years I was given a mixture of truths and half-truths and even perhaps some lies," he wrote her in an e-mail.

After earning a bachelor of science at the University of Nottingham in 1958, Morris married his first wife, Margaret, and they moved to Canada. Eventually they had three children.

He continued his chemistry studies the University of British Columbia, but soon realized that film interested him more than chemistry. After achieving his masters of science in 1961, he effortlessly shifted to the study of Canadian film, and never looked back.

Shortly thereafter, he moved with his family to Ottawa to become the founding curator at the Canadian Film Archives. He also lectured on film studies at several universities in Ontario, including McMaster, Carlton, and the University of Ottawa. His marriage ended in the late 1960s but he maintained a strong relationship to his three children.

His son Simon remembers his dad surprising him with a ventriloquist's dummy as a Christmas present when he was nine, introducing the boy to the charms and mysteries of vaudeville.

Simon also recounts how, surprisingly, Morris had taken him to only two films during his childhood. 2001: A Space Odyssey was one of them. "He told me, before the film started, that one of the apes in the opening scene was an ex-girlfriend."

Morris's daughter, Kirsten, enjoyed watching the classic British sitcom Fawlty Towers with her father. The show was about a hotel owner faced with all kinds of antics at an English seaside resort. It no doubt provided flashbacks to his own childhood.

In 1976, Morris accepted a position in the Department of Film Studies at Queen's University, in Kingston. By this time, film courses were offered at most Canadian universities.

His scholarly work continued and he soon became editor of the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, a publication of the Film Studies Association of Canada, and the country's leading academic peer-reviewed journal in the field.

Part of Morris's legacy was his successful attempt to bridge the divide between English and French Canadian cinema. He claimed that Canadian film criticism "developed into a tendency to examine differences between the two cinemas rather than their similarities." He allied himself closely with Québécois critics.

"Peter helped this movement to have Quebec films known in English Canada," said Pierre Véronneau, director of collections at Cinemateque Quebecois.

"He liked to discuss global perspectives on cinema as well. A film, it is aesthetic, but he tried to understand why we have such a cinema in Canada."

In 1984, Morris published The Film Companion, referred to as a quick-read encyclopedia. Véronneau praised it for its inclusion of films from French Canada.

In 1988, Morris accepted a professorship with York University's Department of Film. During his tenure he was co-ordinator of the Fine Arts Cultural Studies Department. While there, he wrote David Cronenberg: A Delicate Balance about the Canadian filmmaker. It was published in 1994.

"Developments in Cronenberg's career have often paralleled changes in Canadian film itself," he wrote. "His story is also the story of 30 years of Canadian cinema."

Morris retired from teaching in 2002 and enjoyed time cruising the coast of Chile with his second wife, Louise Dompierre, whom he had married in 1979. They watched and discussed endless hours of film together, and he was also working on a manuscript tentatively titled A Passion Delayed, on Canadian film and television, 1939-1968.

Brenda Longfellow called him a cross between a Victorian gentleman and one of Santa's most devoted elves.

"There was something of the imp in Peter, who relished the good fight, whether this was walking on picket lines in sub-zero weather or battling against the pomposity and inevitable injustices of university administrations in one of his many leadership roles."

Morris leaves his wife Louise, children Kirsten, Simon and Jonathan, and six grandchildren.

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