Failure Hasn’t Spoiled Him Yet: Alan Zweig Succeeds in Spite of Himself


By Jason Anderson

Alan Zweig’s Hurt is steeped in failures, not all of them belonging to the film’s unholy trainwreck of a subject, Steve Fonyo. In 1984, four years after a similarly valiant effort by Terry Fox that won the hearts and minds of the nation, the 18-year-old cancer survivor from Vernon, B.C. began a cross-Canada run to raise funds for cancer research. Unlike Fox, whose run was halted when his cancer fatally spread to his lungs, Fonyo made it all the way from St. John’s to a beach on Vancouver Island. But 30 years later, Fonyo’s youthful glories couldn’t seem any more distant. Mired in substance abuse, bad romances, and penny-ante criminality—he apparently ekes out a living stealing and selling catalytic converters—Fonyo is largely the author of his own misfortune, but vigorously blames the world anyway.

Near the end of Hurt, Zweig does something that probably seemed like one of those good ideas when you’re making a documentary—and since the director has rarely bothered to do those sorts of things in any of his films before, you can guess how well it turns out. Zweig’s dynamic with his subject turns testy as the two travel to Victoria to revisit the site of the runner’s original triumph, which bears the name of Steve Fonyo Beach. (It’s easy to imagine that there may be a discreet name change in the works, given that the Canadian government already saw fit to strip the disgraced hero of his Order of Canada after a fraud conviction.) Zweig’s voice rumbles from somewhere in the backseat. “Do you get nostalgic?”

Fonyo’s expression tightens. “What does that mean?” he asks before muttering something about the director’s “big words.”

“It means thinking about the good times you’ve had in the past, like the day you came here to finish your run.”

Fonyo smirks. “Can’t believe this guy.”

“Pardon me?”

Zweig presses on, asking Fonyo about his feelings. “Yeah, it’s a little depressing for me,” he admits. He says he sometimes wishes he never did the run. By the time they’ve stopped the minivan, Fonyo is full-on pissed-off and refusing to come anywhere near the journey’s final destination. “Knock yourself out—enjoy my beach,” he yells at Zweig and his crew. “At the same time you can shove it up your ass, too.”

All this makes for a far more startling exchange than the kind of thing a typical documentarian might have originally hoped for from the trip, which is more B-roll footage of Fonyo to be exploited for maximum poignancy. There’s plenty of that elsewhere in Hurt, like the slo-mo images of Fonyo alone in a car scrapyard or walking in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where a crack-addicted Fonyo once woke up from a night on the street to discover his prosthetic leg had been stolen. But Zweig’s failure to make good on his intentions with the trip to the beach seems entirely suited both to the large and small fuck-ups that fill Fonyo’s post-fame existence, and to the filmmaker’s own habit of falling upwards.

Indeed, Zweig used to refer to himself a failure, and he meant it. He’s trying to stop using the word now, as he’s aware it may appear unseemly to keep running himself down when he keeps winning major prizes like the one he just won for Hurt, which debuted in TIFF’s inaugural Platform competition. Maybe now, after netting the approval of high-class jurors like Jia Zhangke and Claire Denis and besting competitors like Ben Wheatley, Gabriel Mascaro, and Pablo Trapero, Zweig is more like a recovering failure.

But still, as he has repeatedly said in interviews and in his own films, for the first two decades of his career, he failed. After a promising run of student shorts while studying at Ontario’s Sheridan College in the mid-’70s—Philip Hoffman and Richard Kerr were two of his classmates in what became known as the Escarpment School—he set out to make features, with largely miserable results. His only feature directorial credit was a 1994 adaptation of Linda Griffiths’ play The Darling Family, which disappeared with a haste that was rude even by the standards of Canadian films. “Get out” was the message that he received over and over from the industry, and after years of toiling on screenplays while surviving as a cabbie and desultory other transportation gigs, he finally began to heed it. Using grant money originally awarded for another sure-to-be-doomed feature project about a record collector, Zweig set out in 1995 to make a documentary that was fully intended to be his “swan song” from filmmaking, a Hail Mary from an embittered never-was who’d decided to do whatever the hell he wanted for the first and last time (not that anyone was gonna give a shit, right?).

Zweig spent the next five years working on the film that became Vinyl, recording hundreds of hours of interviews on Hi-8 video with the real-life sad-sack collectors he knew in Toronto, a club of which he was most certainly a member. Indeed, Zweig made himself one of his own interview subjects: pointing his camera at a little mirror perched on a cluttered shelf in his bachelor apartment, he outdoes his subjects’ litanies of misanthropy and self-loathing with his own circuitous exercises in accusation and self-flagellation, delivered in a raspy, grumbling voice that evoked a bone-tired Catskills comedian. He speaks about the death of his dog and the grim possibility that he’s blown his shot at having a family because of all the time and energy he’s used up hunting for records. Such is the Pigpen-like cloud of gloom hovering about the onscreen Zweig that it makes Vinyl’s most quasi-famous interview subject—curmudgeonly comics icon Harvey Pekar—seem as cheery as a pep-squad member.

Zweig made the first cut of Vinyl with editor Chris Donaldson in 1998 before running out of money. When it was ultimately released in 2000 the film reeked of failure through and through, though that turned out to be a virtue. For one thing, Zweig’s utter disregard for how a documentary ought to look and function helped forge a sort of anti-signature signature that would serve him surprisingly well, not just in Vinyl but in the two equally dyspeptic films that followed: I, Curmudgeon (2004) and Lovable (2007). Filming his friends in houses and apartments full of the weathered signifiers of long-gone Toronto bohemia, Zweig shoots in a manner best described as happenstance: zooms, swivels, and other camera manipulations don’t tend to turn out so well, but they stay in the movies anyway. Since Zweig rarely felt inclined to collect material that other documentarians would use in the editing suite to smooth over telltale gaps, the films are littered with ungainly jump cuts. Perhaps trying to compensate for the inevitable variance in room tone and other audio issues, Zweig litters the soundtracks with songs supplied by indie artists for cheap or for free. The flow of talk from his subjects is further disrupted by Zweig’s off-camera interjections: judging by the bluntness of some of his questioning and the badgering nature of many exchanges, it can seem as if he’s forgotten that he’s not actually talking to himself.

Of course, for all intents and purposes, he is talking to himself. In more recent years, Zweig would take to calling his first three films his “mirror trilogy,” a moniker that has as much to do with the shelf mirrors the director uses in his diary segments as it does with the wider sense that the films constitute a cinematic autobiography-by-proxies. As one of Zweig’s friends once told him, “You get the people you interview to tell your story.” The notion that Zweig had arranged his interview subjects into choirs of complaint became increasingly clear after Vinyl—which became the director’s first failed stab at failure by pretty much earning cult status straight out of the gate—and begat similarly solipsistic quests to discover the deeper meaning of grouchiness in I, Curmudgeon and the toll of singlehood in Lovable.

Yet that reading overlooks the fact that other than Zweig’s own mug in the mirror, Lovable’s gallery of talking heads is all women. (Zweig interviewed men as well, but they got cut.) In the four films Zweig has made since the trilogy, the autobiographical impulse in his work has continued to morph in surprising ways, taking him further away from his earlier sour solipsism. Instead, it’s become clear that Zweig is most interested in how his many hang-ups manifest themselves in the lives of people who are often very different than him, thereby prompting different reactions that he might have had or decisions he might have made.

Inevitably, some of these surrogate selves are failures of the first (or last) order. In A Hard Name (2009), Zweig interviews seven former convicts about life in and out of prison. Though the filmmaker is not a character this time around, he’s still very much part of the action, especially in a grimly hilarious opening scene in which he tries to help one ex-con through a disastrous attempt at meal preparation. (The dynamic here foreshadows his complex relationship with Fonyo in Hurt.) Though Zweig manages to keep certain questions to himself, it’s not hard to figure out what’s on the tip of his tongue (e.g., “What shitty circumstances would have sent me down the same path you took?” “Can you show me how to make a decent shiv just in case?”). What’s remarkable in Zweig’s regard for these men is his lack of pity. He sees them as guys not so different from himself, guys who did what they could with the very crappy cards they were dealt at a point in their lives when they weren’t nearly so tough; indeed, it turns out that one of the film’s subjects endured the worst of the Mount Cashel Orphanage, a facility that would later be notorious for its brutality. (Other ex-cons share similarly horrific stories of childhood abuse.)

This fascination with humankind’s capacity for resilience also drives 15 Reasons to Live (2013), Zweig’s most wide-ranging and hopeful movie. Loosely adapted from a book of essays by Zweig’s friend Ray Robertson, the film uses a vast variety of stories and people to illustrate the themes (Work, Solitude, Critical Mind, etc.) that typically give life a greater degree of richness than can be found in a record-store dollar bin. It’s ironic that, given the film’s efforts to convey a broad swath of human experience, its most affecting segments are the two in which Zweig speaks about his own life. The first of these animated interludes involves a series of mysterious gifts that a stranger left inside Zweig’s Plymouth Valiant; in the second, Zweig reflects on his relationships with cooler, more successful figures in Toronto’s film community (like Bruce McDonald and Don McKellar, both of whom had a hand in his turnaround with Vinyl) and describes a heart-wrenching encounter with actress Tracy Wright not long before her death in 2010. Whereas Zweig’s self-interrogations in the mirror trilogy could be maddeningly repetitive, his contributions here are as incisive as they are insightful. (And thanks to the deft use of Joseph Sherman’s animations, these Zweig-isms are not nearly as hard on the eyes as they used to be.)

As affecting as these moments are, the slicker, more TV-ready packaging of 15 Reasons to Live inspires a pang for other reasons. With the films’ increasing technical and thematic sophistication came the loss of that roughhewn-slash-slapdash quality and monomaniacal drive that gave the mirror trilogy its fundamental Zweig-ness. Thankfully, many of those elements would make a heroic resurgence in When Jews Were Funny, another 2013 effort that marked both Zweig’s first TIFF appearance and first big TIFF prize, a Best Canadian Feature honour (over the likes of Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la ferme). The film captures Zweig in the wake of getting married and having a child, two big events that he once believed would never happen. The birth of his daughter in particular provoked a crisis of faith and a questioning of identity: What did Jewishness precisely constitute for him, and how the hell was he supposed to pass that on to his progeny? Since he suspected the answer had a lot to do with comedy, in the film Zweig seeks the insights of wise and honourable men like David Steinberg, Gilbert Gottfried, and Henny Youngman. While Marc Maron and other younger comics are hip to the topic, the Borscht Belt vets clearly have no idea what Zweig is after, and have no compunction telling him how he’s wasting their time (an ancient Shelley Berman looks ready to punch him).

This time out, the lack of conventional B-roll means there’s plenty of awkward before-and-after interview moments to punctuate and accentuate the hostilities that sometimes ensue. Yet Zweig’s willingness to flounder if it means getting a little closer to a deeper truth has never been more exciting. If the mirror trilogy was often about Zweig’s search for interview subjects who could enact the script he’d already written in his head, here he’s making it up as he goes along, and the result feels fully alive. Even the staid, talking-head-in-comfortable-chair interview format is hardly a liability thanks to the conversational undercurrents of anger and bewilderment. On the whole, though, it’s a good thing that Zweig now lets other people handle the matter of framing, lighting, and shooting his surrogate curmudgeons.

With Fonyo, Zweig finds a failure worse than any he could have become, and more often than not the filmmaker rises to the challenge of taking stock of the wreckage. Despite Hurt’s occasional penchant for plaintively scored slo-mo B-roll, the film generally eschews the increasing slickness of Zweig’s post-trilogy efforts, especially whenever the crew is on hand to capture the conflict that may be typical of Fonyo’s daily existence. “My life is chaos,” Fonyo says, and he proves it in many scenes, the most discomfiting of which captures a violent altercation with his new girlfriend’s very sketchy ex.

At the same time, Hurt is the first of Zweig’s films in which the director’s own role is difficult to exactly discern. Given Zweig’s history of finding himself in his subjects, perhaps he sees Fonyo as his own worst-case scenario, an exemplar of failure who rose higher and fell further than the filmmaker ever did or could. There’s also the sense that Zweig regards Fonyo as a readymade movie character: in an interview for Norm Wilner’s podcast Someone Else’s Movie, Zweig notes the similarities between Fonyo and Robert Mitchum’s doomed small-timer in The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), both guys stuck in survivor mode who can never see beyond their most immediately pressing hassles and grudges.

In any case, Fonyo represents a new challenge for Zweig in many regards, and Hurt is the closest thing the director has made to a non-self-portrait besides A Hard Name. And whereas that film’s ensemble nature left some room for Zweig, this is pretty much Fonyo’s show to own. It’s worth noting that Zweig is not the first filmmaker to come knocking on Fonyo’s door: a prospective trailer for one of the earlier, abandoned attempts can be found on Vimeo. That may be why the ex-runner’s anecdotes can sometimes feel rehearsed, as if he were rehashing lines in the biopic that exists in his own head.

But when events overwhelm both men’s plans, they clearly struggle to make it all fit some kind of narrative they can understand. “Everybody wants a happy ending for a story,” says Fonyo in Hurt’s last moments, “and the way it looks now, there isn’t gonna be a happy ending.” Actually, viewers may have sussed that out from the flash-forward in the  very first images, which show Fonyo’s house surrounded by police tape. Throughout the film, Zweig wrestles with the question of how much he ought to do about the tragedy unfolding before his eyes; after the ill-fated beach excursion, he takes Fonyo to the home of doctor and writer Gabor Maté for a counselling session that’s momentarily fruitful.

In any other Zweig film, these interventions would elicit several vigorous rounds of self-interrogation, but here the filmmaker largely elides the questions that these actions raise. Given the many blows that Hurt delivers to viewers and the vividness with which Zweig captures his subject, it feels like a relatively small failure. But it’s still a significant one for an artist who’s so keenly aware of the gulfs that exist between our finest, noblest ambitions and the ways we endure all the cruel jokes that fate enjoys at our expense.