Ashley Petkovski
No Comments

The Trouble with Harry

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

Harry Rasky was one of Canada’s most celebrated documentary filmmakers. So why is he so unknown today?

The archives on the third floor of York University’s Scott Library aren’t exactly welcoming. The buzzer-only admittance, white tables and fluorescent lighting suggest a trip through the Cuckoo’s Nest rather than any hallowed halls of academia.

“I’m looking for the Harry Rasky archives,” I tell an archivist.

“Sure,” she says. “What did you want to see?”

“Um, everything?”

She tries to hide her amusement and tells me that it’s 2:30 p.m. The archives close in two hours. During my initial phone research, “Harry Rasky” had become synonymous with “never heard of him” and “unfamiliar with his work.” I figured a few hours at the archives would be enough to sift through whatever it was this Rasky character had to offer. The archivist returns with a list of his files—correspondence, transcripts, writings and hundreds upon hundreds of hours of film—collected from 1953 to 2005. Still resisting the urge to laugh, she suggests I start with one file. Maybe I can make it through that. Maybe.

The amount of material donated by Rasky to the archives is overwhelming. When the documentarian and journalist died at the age of 78 on April 9, 2007, he left behind a catalogue of more than 50 films—mostly telling the stories of visual artists, writers and performers, personalities such as Marc Chagall, Leonard Cohen and Robertson Davies—and a history of contributions to both print and broadcast journalism. Rasky’s home in Toronto’s Rosedale is a modest size with a one-car garage, yet it’s a far cry from the poor Jewish neighbourhood where Rasky grew up. The living room boasts one of Rasky’s overflowing desks and a mantel holding many—but not all—of his 200-plus awards. The multiple medals, trophies and certificates are bookended by his two Emmys. A name tag from York University hangs from a light on the kitchen table and a blue canvas director’s chair from the University of Toronto occasionally sits in the main hallway. His wife of 42 years, Arlene, assures me there is a lot more where that came from.

“He was a persistent, continual filmmaker that made films that he wanted to make,” says Lois Siegel, a photographer and video production professor at the University of Ottawa. While it isn’t a stretch to call Rasky a revolutionary in the documentary world for his distinct style and notable subjects, it isn’t a stretch to call him a relic either. A year after his death, many of Rasky’s films remain under archivist lock and key. Finding a Canadian broadcaster to air documentaries on the arts is difficult today—especially for films featuring Rasky’s focus on high art, including drama and literature. Although he’s considered a pioneer Canadian newsman, it’s not surprising that regardless of his well-stocked archive and mantel, Rasky’s name rarely rings familiar. Much of what is remembered about him seems to be of his own creation. As nearly everyone I speak with tells me, Harry Rasky was always Harry Rasky’s greatest promoter. Without the creator himself around to support his work, Rasky may be forgotten, his passing representing the way the documentary film industry has changed in Canada.

Immediately following Rasky’s death, he was memorialized as Canada’s “poet with a camera,” noted for the famous names he made movies about and the way he made them, blending elements of biography and drama. While working on Hall of Kings, a 1967 film about Westminster Abbey, Rasky began developing the formula that would structure most of his future films. He worked with a small crew and called the shots. While he interviewed those involved with preserving the Abbey, Rasky also assembled a team of actors and chose a narrator to recite poetry in and around the building. He merged the readings with his journalistic interviews, and shot scenery and art with a moving camera. A television and film critic for the Los Angeles Timesinvented the term “Raskymentary” in the 1980s, referring to this distinctive approach to storytelling. According to Arlene, Rasky believed that making films on the arts, culture and religion should serve a positive purpose for himself. “You have an obligation, he felt, and he felt deeply, to improve the world,” she says. “And he felt that if you’re going to dwell on everything that’s ugly, he didn’t see how he could make a contribution there.”

Rasky often had difficulty dealing with the “ugly.” Arlene believes Rasky had a strong social conscience, but he often stayed away from covering hard news subjects that took too much of an emotional toll on him. “Harry couldn’t sleep at night, he would be so disturbed by things,” she says. “He couldn’t watch the news. He would leave the room. There was a time where he had to see everything, but he couldn’t stand it.”

Now the ugly side sells. Documentaries are issue-based, and the news media seek conflict and real-life drama, largely ignoring Rasky’s humanist approach. When it comes to arts coverage, today’s viewers are apt to tune into E!’s True Hollywood Story or VH1’s Behind The Music, shows that revel in melodrama. In contrast, Rasky mentioned his subject’s dark side only in passing. Rasky’s films, often celebratory in tone, can come off as arcane and pretentious, especially to an audience content to recognize Mikhail Baryshnikov as Carrie Bradshaw’s Russian boyfriend on Sex and the City, rather than the ballet dancer who sought political asylum in Toronto in Rasky’s 1974 Baryshnikov.

Although his films did not entirely avoid the tough aspects of his subjects’ lives, and his non-art films took on stories that were often related to injustices and man-made disasters, Rasky’s take was reflective of the eternally optimistic aspect of his personality. Praise for his subjects is easily found in both Rasky’s interviews and narration. He explored sore subjects in what has been called a “gentle, yet probing” manner, avoiding what Ian Campbell, assistant to the director for some of Rasky’s films, says pure journalists use—the “go for the jugular” approach. However, these portraits were also criticized for being fawning, simplistic and predictable. Mike Boone at Montreal’s The Gazette noted in a 1999 write-up on Christopher Plummer: King of Players—Plummer’s moment to “bask in Rasky’s hagiographic spotlight”—that Rasky “could be relied upon for praise rather than burial.”

These days, however, Rasky doesn’t seem to have many enemies left. Some of those who have criticized his work in the past have forgotten about the films entirely. Anne Rochon Ford once criticized Rasky’s The War Against the Indians in a letter to the editor of the The Globe and Mail. While she then challenged the lack of female perspective in the film’s attempt to chronicle Aboriginal history, Ford no longer remembers the film, or much of her critique.

In 1946, three years before Rasky found his first journalism job as a stringer at the Northern Daily News in Kirkland Lake, Ont., Edward R. Murrow established the first American television documentary unit at CBS in New York. Networks and viewers had great expectations for television, and Rasky, like so many other young newsmen, wanted in. While working in radio in 1950, Rasky learned of CBC’s intention to launch a television station, and was soon hired in the news department in 1952. He broadcast the network’s first live news story, and helped to develop CBC Newsmagazine, a weekly show that allowed him to make his first documentaries. Director Norman Jewison, whose early work at CBC concentrated on the music category of arts programming, remembers working in the basement of CBC’s former building on Jarvis Street. Television was an exciting new medium, he recalls, and few were sure of what they were doing. “People were trying to give us some insight into what we were going to do because we didn’t know anything! Nobody knew about television at that time.” The network aimed to deliver content that bridged the territory between information and entertainment, and expected Canadians to seek out intentionally demanding programming. However, this great dream of television as a medium for education and the exploration of Canadian culture was quickly interrupted by the reality of an audience already weaned on American programming, which provided information with a lighter hand. Soon after launching, CBC began looking for ways to make its programming more entertaining and engaging. In addition to playing with quicker cuts in the editing room, to mixed results, the public affairs producers tailored Newsmagazine to cover more diverse stories and show shorter documentaries. Although the network launched with the intention of showing real Canada to Canadians, the take on public service television changed almost as soon as it was developed.

By the ’50s, the thinking at CBC was to offer Rasky a more senior position, but at age 26 he was reluctant to settle in. He wasn’t interested, so he freelanced in Europe and Toronto before heading to the United States to find more opportunities in the documentary field. He was employed by CBS under Murrow in 1956, but was soon fired because of company downsizing. For several years, he freelanced in the U.S., but by the ’60s independently produced, one-off films were eclipsing documentary serials in popularity and network presence, and viewers wanted the medium to explore contentious current events. The idea that documentaries could advocate for awareness and change was becoming a mainstream notion. While Rasky was able to sell short news documentaries to most of the major American networks and, occasionally, to PBS and CBC, he tried to branch out from the issue-based ghetto. He’d pitched plays and arts documentaries to networks all through the late ’50s and ’60s with little success. In the winter of 1966, months after the birth of his first child, Holly, Rasky had the chance to go to Vietnam to shoot war footage for ABC. According to Arlene, ABC accepted Rasky’s films but changed the scripts, as the network was adamant about remaining uncritical of the war. As he wrote in his 1980 autobiography, Nobody Swings on Sunday, seeing a grenade roll by his feet while waiting for his luggage at the Saigon airport was the breaking point.

From then on, arts and culture became Rasky’s primary subjects. Former CBC program director Thom Benson brought Rasky back to the network in the early ’70s, accepting a film project about George Bernard Shaw. Writer Eric Koch, who was involved in public affairs, arts and sciences during several of Rasky’s years at CBC, says Rasky’s reputation as a consistent, talented filmmaker helped establish his lasting relationship with the broadcaster. He bargained for and won his dream arrangement—a filmmaker working within CBC, with creative independence and a small, consistent crew. Rasky’s contract essentially guaranteed him a yearly salary of $50,000 in exchange for a film. He was allotted a portion of CBC’s budget—usually $100,000 to $250,000—to make a film on a subject of his choosing. Rasky still had to seek approval, but his ideas were rarely rejected. He was free to choose the format his films would follow, many of them nearing the two-hour mark, and often had a say over the number of commercial interruptions in a film. Howard Aster, Rasky’s publisher at Mosaic Press, says Rasky was obviously in charge of every film. “It was his project,” says Aster. “He did the research, he did the interviewing, he did the filming, he did the editing. He did it all.”

Rasky’s ability to get things done his way was a product of his tenacity and a belief in his own ability. His attention to the “I”—or his “ego,” as many refer to it—is remembered with fondness, amusement and the occasional hint of annoyance. “A lot of people didn’t like him because they thought he was pompous and an egotist,” Aster says. “Which I think was probably true. If you didn’t have a strong ego, you couldn’t sit in front of a Tennessee Williams, an Arthur Miller or a Leonard Cohen and try to get into them. You have to have a strength of personality to do what he did, and having succeeded—that drove his confidence even further.”

Rasky took involvement in his films to mean getting out from behind the camera, particularly in later years. He began to see the budgetary benefits of hiring himself as narrator and took to appearing as interviewer. “It’s a different mode of storytelling,” says Campbell, “much more personal rather than coldly objective.” Rasky also wasn’t in the habit of using quick cuts and brief sound bites. He conducted interviews in locations where subjects felt comfortable, putting them enough at ease to speak at length. Christopher Plummer, an old friend and colleague of Rasky’s, remembers he was both a proficient writer and interviewer. “He tried to surprise you and keep you fresh,” Plummer says of being interviewed for King of Players. “It was a tough journalistic technique of interviewing which he brought onto film.” Rasky’s onscreen presence was occasionally part of the story, as it was in the Plummer film, but it also served to remind audiences that this was, without a doubt, a Harry Rasky film. It’s a technique that has been used, for better or worse, by Michael Moore. Coincidentally, Rasky is often seen looking a bit like Moore’s long-lost intellectual uncle in his trademark hats, wiry hair, glasses and the occasional ascot, narrating from a variety of moving shots. But while Moore’s films are over-the-top, controversial looks at issues of social and political concern, Rasky instead serves as a comforting, familiar presence—more tour guide than instigator. In the current documentary market, Moore’s style is synonymous with success, and there is as little room for Rasky’s style as there is for his subjects.

Rasky worked consistently through the ’70s and ’80s, but eventually networks began to ration their dollars to documentary programming. Canada is particularly tough terrain for those looking to sell arts documentaries. Eileen Thalenberg, a partner at Stormy Nights Productions, one of only a few companies producing any arts documentaries, says Bravo is a rare broadcaster open to producing and accepting innovative films about the arts in Canada. She says that while Stormy Nights receives support from CBC for other projects, it rarely receives support for its arts documentaries.

Audience support can also be a problem for arts documentaries. Viewers of films like Rasky’s, which are more traditional in their high art approach, aren’t getting any younger, and according to Thalenberg, broadcasters argue that this audience isn’t being replaced. New viewers aren’t raised with the kind of arts background that was instilled in previous generations. The documentary form began to shift drastically in the ’80s as the storytelling took on elements of drama and other television genres in order to adapt to the commercial environment. According to Canadian documentary film historian Kirwan Cox, changes to the form—much like changes to television in general—were the result of technological advances and even the birth of MTV, which helped create and foster audience expectations for quick cuts.

Rasky’s films weren’t made for audiences who learned about colour from Boy George’s makeup palette rather than Degas’s paintbrush, and about drama from Stephen Patrick Morrissey rather than George Bernard Shaw. CBC’s never-ending plight to reach younger viewers didn’t mesh with the sorts of films Rasky made throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Although Rasky released two of his biggest issue-based films, The War Against the Indians (1992) and Prophecy (1994), during that decade, they still contrasted starkly to the television programming of the day. It had become a Reality Bites world.

Rasky stayed the course, but eventually CBC wanted change. Plummer acknowledges that Rasky’s relationship with the network wasn’t always good. “He was always locking heads,” he says, “always bitching about them because they were never coming up with enough money for what he thought he not only required, but deserved.” The network demanded shorter running times, and Rasky found it harder to have his ideas accepted. Aster says CBC was still showing interest in documentaries, but demanded that Rasky work within an hour-long time frame. “It had to fit into a 48-minute format, and the format defined the extent of what you could do,” he says. “Harry wouldn’t do it.”

The last film Rasky made under CBC’s contract, Prophecy, at two hours and 15 minutes, proved he couldn’t adapt. His attempt to explain the stories of the world’s major spiritual prophets and their influence on society meanders. The visuals are strong, but even Arlene admits the film was too long and not necessarily successful in getting Rasky’s theme and purpose across.

In the spring of 1995, Rasky returned to Toronto after a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park. As he did any other day, he called CBC to check up on his latest project. He was told he didn’t need to come into the office that day, as he was no longer an employee. Budget cuts, he was told, resulted in his removal from the payroll. Although Rasky was free to pitch films to CBC, both he and Norman Campbell, two of the only remaining network veterans, were no longer staffers. “It was just such a horrible killing of a person, really, is what it was,” Arlene remembers. “I don’t think they know what they did.” Ultimately, the bureaucratic structure made it difficult for Rasky to blame anyone. “Harry definitely felt wronged and was devastated,” she says, “but like he said, ‘How can you get mad at the post office?’”

Before his layoff, Rasky was one of only a few filmmakers able to control the content and production of his films while still having network support. Recently, documentary film has become recognized as a form that can present information in a fast-paced, entertaining and commercially viable way on the big screen. Documentaries are popular, as the success of Toronto’s Hot Docs festival, the presence of documentary-focused cable channels and the amount of young filmmakers appearing on the scene suggest. Filmmakers now have more opportunities to make and broadcast films independently, thanks to advances in digital film and Internet technology, says Kass Banning, a cinema studies instructor at University of Toronto. Working independently as part of a television institution, however, is increasingly impossible. Documentaries on television are often outsourced, and, according to Siegel, those made in-house are now subject to increased creative control and tighter budgets. Most independent filmmakers in Canada are required to seek sponsorship and sell their films internationally, or sell to niche television networks that are dedicated to documentary programming, but not available to most cable viewers.

Rasky’s work changed slightly after he was no longer on contract. According to Campbell, who worked on two of Rasky’s last projects, the post-CBC-contract work was not of the same quality. When Rasky first began making movies, documentaries would often be assured inclusion in next season’s schedule under the ideals of a public service mandate. Now those trying to sell films have to compete with commercial programming based on which show can garner the most profit. Although Rasky did sell more projects to CBC, he was given smaller budgets. In 1997 he quipped to Boone at the Gazette that the process of making a movie now meant “getting in line with the kids from Ryerson film school to plead his case to the brilliant people in charge.”

Rasky made his final film in 2005, Modigliani: Body and Soul, a big-budget project partially funded by philanthropists Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, which aired on TVOntario. His creative pace had slowed, and in 2006, he was entertaining an offer from CBS while working on a project called Pianos Six with his former cameraman, Phil Pendry. Pendry has been trying to secure additional funding from CBC to update Pianos Six, and to get a Rasky retrospective film made, but so far CBC isn’t interested. Rasky’s wife, too, has been struggling to get the pieces of his creative estate together, and eventually wants to donate the material.

One year after his death, it’s still hard to tell what the name Harry Rasky will ultimately mean to Canadian television. Although it isn’t difficult to make an argument for Rasky’s importance in terms of his individuality and his inexhaustible, acclaimed output, the state of modern documentary films and audiences implies that Rasky’s influence may have to be remembered by those who were there to see it happen.

“Harry wanted you to see the subject and tell you as much as he could, and make it interesting,” Arlene says about her husband’s impact on Canadian film and journalism. “He hated that word, ‘documentary’—he said they were generally programs about how to cure syphilis.”

Reality bites, indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

sixteen + seven =