December 21, 2012 by LeVoyageur
PBS was a vital part of my youth. I do not have strong memories of early PBS, although Electric Company was a big favorite. It was in my teen years when it offered a view of the world that went beyond our two or three local channels, introducing me to documentaries (gasp!) and foreign films (shock!). At 14 this was heady stuff.
I have never been a big movie buff. I go months, if not years without stepping into a cinema. I am not the type to remember lines and see films over and over. But there are two films from my younger days that have long remained vivid in my memory, if hazy on the details. They were both shown on PBS during my formative years.
One was The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, shown on American Playhouse in 1982. It was about a boy. It starred Matt Dillon who quickly became my first screen-idol crush. I have a feeling I’m not the only one. . .
The other was a ‘Christmas’ film, in the sense that Christmas is dark and full of allusions to company towns, death, and the transition from a rural, agrarian culture to a modern one. This was the film Mon Oncle, Antoine, made in Quebec in 1971.
This film was also about boy. It was ostensibly a coming of age movie featuring the travails of Benoît, a forgotten French Canadian kid, orphaned (presumably) and living and working with a careless relative at a store in a small mining town.
The bigger story was, as I mentioned before, a bit darker although I didn’t fully pick up on that when I was young. Alex and I recently watched it again, and this time the full weight of the movie’s message came through much more clearly.
Set during the tenure of Maurice Duplessis, the Quebec premier whose era is known as “The Great Darkness,” it features a small town populace afraid to confront the greedy owner of the asbestos mine that towers over them. Duplessis, as seen in the character of the owner, sought to reinforce rural Quebec, striving to ensure the dominant powers remained a conservative church and state.
In the film, the traditionalism favored by the conservative cultural forces appears as a culturally backward, poor, and suspicious people peering out from behind dark windows in the company town. In contrast to this is the irrepressible, stoic Poulin family whose life is lived outside the gaze and control of the boss: they are the real Québécois, the true habitants. And the boy Benoît, a bit of a stray waif, is constantly peering from the outside in, captivated by the unknown, unraveling secrets as he watches life unfold. He is fully part, yet fully separate from the culture around him.
This was all lost on me as a boy. What I remembered most vividly were the stark white scenes of a Quebec winter, not unlike Northern Michigan. I remembered a boy a little like me. I remembered the last scene, also stark, which I can now understand as rich in symbolism. (But I’m not giving it away.)
And I remember sitting in our living room, watching the film with rapt attention, snow falling outside, the post-Christmas stretch of vacation plodding and a bit dreary as Mom washed dishes in the kitchen and Dad sat reading by the window, smoking his pipe. But that quiet day was made memorable – by a film about a boy from Quebec, shown on our little local PBS station, long before digital, long before internet allowed the universe to come streaming into our homes.