RECOLLECTIONS OF RALPH BROWN
I first became acquainted with Ralph Brown in the autumn of 1968, just a few months after being appointed Treasurer of Toronto Film Society and being elected a Director. In addition to being appointed Treasurer, I had been named Membership Director, and in that capacity had the responsibility of arranging the exchange of complimentary membership cards between the TFS executive and those who managed the three other film societies then active in Toronto.
Of these, the most prestigious were the French Cine-Club of Toronto, which presented rare and distinguished films en Franςais sans sous-titres Anglais, and the Film Society of the Japanese-Canadian Cultural Centre in Don Mills, which presented a marvellous variety of Nipponese films, generally with English subtitles. However, while I saw many superior films that would not otherwise have been screened in Toronto, it did not take me long to discover that a high proportion of those attending were not drawn by a love of film and the film medium, but rather to hear the spoken language of their native land.
I well remember the delight I experienced in viewing a fantasy entitled Dieu a Choisi Paris, in which an eccentric inventor creates a magic movie camera. This he uses to capture images from the past, and more particularly those from “la belle époque.” Using both actual footage from cinema archives and simulated archive footage, the film exhibited a delightfully tongue-in-cheek approach to history and the creative artists, thinkers and personalities whose genius illuminated this era. However, while I was laughing with delight, the mass of the audience was sitting on its hands–despite their fluency with the dialogue I was only getting 25% to 35% of. After experiencing the same phenomenon at the presentation of Jacques Tati’s hilariously enjoyable Playtime, I became aware that what the majority of the audience wanted from their cinema-going was not pantomime or communicative visuals, but lots of spoken French!
The Centre Film Society exhibited a totally different attitude toward programming. After attending just a few of their showings, one gained the impression that whoever selected their programmes experienced happiness and delight in viewing films and was setting out to recreate that joy within an almost family-like audience. At the end of the season, the perceptive viewer realized that the central thread linking all the diverse films in the programme had been the unspoken and unwritten instruction: enjoy, enjoy!
It also soon became apparent that the activator who kept Centre Film Society oriented to this concept was Ralph Brown. Yet, for all the fact that he was, in actuality, the Society’s powerhouse, his leadership was always unpretentious and casual, and in its operations, Centre Film Society exhibited the same characteristics. Rather than attempting to build on its successful programming to move to larger quarters and attract a wider audience and more prominent public image, the Society operated for almost a decade in the intimate auditorium of the Learning Resources Centre on Eglinton Avenue West, and membership was restricted to its seating capacity.
The combination of the intimate auditorium and the high proportion of long-term subscribers who renewed year after year produced what could be described as a family atmosphere. This was reinforced by the coffee and cookie sessions at intermission and after the show, and in this atmosphere, discussion about the evening’s programme–and films generally-flowered and flourished.
Indicative of almost family atmosphere within the Society was the standing invitation to those members who, by reason of family or business commitments, might not be free to attend some Sunday evening showing. Once or twice during the years, Ralph’s chatty programme notes would announce that the films to be presented on any Sunday evening would be previewed at Ralph’s home on the preceding evening, and any members who might not be free for the Sunday show were invited to attend. All that was asked was that they phone in advance.
From friends in TFS and in the media I learned that the name Centre Film Society derived from the Catholic Information Centre, and that a high proportion of the directorate had a connection with it. However, in the seven or eight years in which I attended CFS showings I do not once recall any programme that could be considered as illustrating a distinctly Catholic point of view. Rather, the underlying concept could be described as a deep concern from the human condition and the enjoyment of the cinematic works that illustrated and illuminated it.
This humanistic approach to programming was particularly apparent in the short films that Centre Film Society presented, some of whose images are still sharply engraved in my memory. At a time when I, as TFS Statistician, was putting on paper audience ratings of 40, 35, 30 and lower for the intellectually clever but sometimes emotionally sterile shorts that the TFS programme committee had a proclivity for, again and again I found myself wishing that TFS could give a wider exposure to some of the outstanding shorts presented by Ralph Brown and his fellow programmers.
However, if Ralph’s innate modesty and respect for the privacy of others precluded him from pressing his convictions in conversations with other filmgoers, one was always aware that ethical and spiritual considerations played a major role in guiding his actions and opinions. Where this was most evident was in the programme notes that he prepared and mailed out to his society’s members–and to the Directors of Toronto Film Society.
Possibly the term “programme notes” is a bit of a misnomer, because on many occasions Ralph would include short comments on items or developments that interested or intrigued him–many of which had no connection with either his upcoming programme or the world of film–but were written in a decidedly individualistic and personal style. Although I never told him so, I referred to these items as “Ralph’s Quirks”–and looked forward to them with interest.
In one such item, for instance, he referred to the fact that Dorothy Burritt of Toronto Film Society could be considered responsible for the establishment of the Centre Film Society, and he promised to recount the story in a future issue. Sadly, he never got around to writing the story for any of the programme notes he was to write in the two or three further years in which Centre Film Society was to operate.
For me, the item for Ralph’s typewriter that provided the clearest indications of his personality and his convictions as the tribute appearing in the CFS programme notes following the death of one of Toronto Film Society’s founders, George Patterson. Presented in the CFS notes for the January 6, 1974 showing of Dead End, and headed THE DEATH OF A FRIEND, it runs as follows:
“I can’t say that I knew George Patterson that well, yet I did know him over a period of many years, and always felt comfortable in his presence.”
“I first met George in 1948, felt him to be sincere, kind, chatty and friendly. George was himself–said what he felt, not what he felt he should say. He was an early member of our society and often sat in on our group discussions. George ‘loved the movies’ for the truth or delight that was in them. His reviews in the Toronto Film Society notes were well written, concise and most personal. What’s more, his reviews are just about the best I have read as they were “written from the heart.”
“George’s time to die had come–and it will be for all of us, eventually. I hope I, along with you, will be able to meet him again in the after life, as he was a person well worth meeting.”
The same could be said of Ralph Brown.
by Douglas S. Wilson