My friend Howard Curle passed away on August 12. When you know someone for 35 years, they become a part of who you are and their sudden absence is like losing a piece of yourself. And in Howard that piece was a sweet, tempering influence … he was kind, generous, knowledgeable, serious yet full of good humour. I miss him and always will. For now, all I can do is offer a few memories of all those years he was a part of my life:
I first met Howard when we were both working for the now long-gone Mary Scorer bookshop in Osborne Village in the summer of 1987. Weekday evening shifts tended to be pretty quiet and Howard and I would sit behind the counter chatting. It didn’t take long to discover our mutual love of cinema and I embraced the opportunity to trade opinions with someone who knew a lot more than I did.
Although I had dropped out of the University of Winnipeg in 1982, I signed up for Howard’s History and Theory of Narrative Film course that Fall at the University of Manitoba, where he toiled for years as an underpaid sessional lecturer. I had no plans to resume university studies, but took the course out of personal interest because I really liked Howard. In that class, every week he would screen a feature, working his way up from the ’20s to the ’70s. His enthusiasm was boundless and contagious and his emotional engagement with the movies he showed was palpable.
The title “Professor”, with somewhat old-fashioned connotations, never seemed odd, artificial or out of place when applied to Howard. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and the history of cinema and his passion was passing that knowledge on to the thousands of students who took his courses over the decades, initially at the U of M and eventually on staff at the University of Winnipeg. Howard took his role seriously, but delivered his knowledge with humour and undisguised emotional engagement – a friend who took one of his courses a few years later as part of his fine arts program recalls Howard crying in class at the end of Chaplin’s City Lights.
Before meeting Howard, I tended to pontificate and argue with people about my opinions; he helped me to focus my thoughts and find reasoned justifications for those opinions. He told me that the essay I wrote for the class on Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) made him re-evaluate his opinion about Capra – he had viewed Capra as a progressive arguing for Roosevelt’s New Deal, while I read the film as expressing a distrust of government and a belief in leaving social action to those who know best, that is to those whose virtue has enabled them to accumulate great personal wealth. (Howard also had a hand in helping me make my second professional sale as a writer; my final paper in the course, on Patricia Rozema’s I Heard the Mermaids Singing , was bought by Cinema Canada.)
Despite the odd dynamic of being in a teacher-student relationship while also developing a friendship, my connection with Howard did a great deal to improve my self-confidence and we became close during that year. Close enough that when I embarked on my first short film, Incident at Pickerel Fillet, at the Winnipeg Film Group in 1989, I asked him to play the lead. Although he always took things seriously, he had a sense of humour and threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of a pompous academic who delivers nonsense about aliens with a straight-faced intensity.
Having completed that film in 1991, the following year I cast Howard again in my brief segment of a group project called The Exquisite Corpse, this time as a derelict alcoholic living rough in a back alley. As fastidious as he was, he gamely allowed us to dress him in filthy clothes and rub dirt on his face and hands. There was no conscious intention on my part to torment him, but there’s no denying that casting him against type produced a (perhaps private) humorous effect which pleased me. Howard didn’t mock what he was asked to do, but treated these indignities with the same seriousness as everything else he did. In fact, he gamely agreed to appear in other Film Group members’ movies and also in quite a few of the film projects of his students.
For my third short film, The Adventures of Stella Starr of the Galaxy Rangers in the 23rd Century, he again played a scientist dealing with hostile aliens. Perhaps if I had continued making films he would have remained a fixture, my on-screen alter ego, but I moved on and it was another twenty years before I got Howard in front of a camera again, when he appeared as one of the interview subjects in Carfree, a documentary I made with Janine Tschuncky about living in the city without driving.
Howard remained a part of my life throughout the intervening years. When I met Dave Barber at the Film Group, I discovered that he and Howard were friends going back to the ’70s, and together with filmmaker John Kozak, with whom I took an editing course while making that first film, they formed a tight-knit group whose friendship also revolved around movies – John and Howard had been together at NYU in the ’70s, and they had all been making amateur films back in their teens and twenties.
As a late-comer to this group, I initially felt like a bit of an interloper, but I found myself accepted as an equal member and one of the real pleasures of my life was our regular get-togethers at Howard and Bev’s apartment for dinner and a long evening of discussion about what we had been watching since our last meeting, sharing opinions and recommendations and occasionally engaging in energetic disagreements. I felt completely at home on those evenings once I had settled in; nowhere else in my life could I talk at such length about movies without my other friends getting bored – but here, the interest never flagged and our various differences in taste and opinion reflected our individual idiosyncrasies while reaffirming the importance of movies in all our lives.
Between those cherished evenings, Howard and I would talk fairly often and even more frequently exchange emails – always revolving around movies and movie-makers, sharing recommendations and urging one another to take a look at some recent discovery. For his classes, Howard would rent movies to screen for his students, but as video rentals went into precipitous decline through the early ’00s and my collection rapidly expanded, Howard would regularly ask to borrow DVDs.
I had always been nervous about lending things out, even to friends – how many books had vanished over the years when borrowers failed to return them? – but it was impossible to say no to Howard’s course-related requests, and eventually I was lending him DVDs and Blu-rays simply because I wanted him to see something which I found interesting so that I’d have someone to discuss it with. This habit eventually expanded to include other friends and my possessive hangups gradually fell away. And so, in a way, Howard helped me to mature and shake off some of my long-standing neuroses surrounding material possessions.
Although I tend towards being quite solitary, some of my most enjoyable evenings over the past couple of decades were those in which Howard, sometimes accompanied by Bev, often alone, would come over for dinner and an evening of watching movies – usually two per session. I always felt some personal disappointment when he didn’t like something which was a favourite of mine, and conversely felt validated when he shared my liking for something, but in either case our discussions would serve to hone my opinions. In this way, Howard played a definitive part in shaping what I have been writing for this website over the past decade.
Although diagnosed with cancer four years ago and undergoing numerous rounds of chemotherapy which took their own toll, Howard remained engaged with life, visiting, going to the theatre, phoning and emailing, discussing movies he had seen on TCM, even contributing a couple of posts to this blog. On August 2, he and I went to see Jordan Peele’s Nope in a big, almost empty multiplex, and he was as acute as ever as we discussed our problems with the film while I drove him home afterwards.
Whether or not we agreed on a particular film, we shared a sympathetic relationship with cinema and its value in our lives. Although I took only one course with Howard thirty-five years ago, and we had settled into a lasting friendship over the ensuing decades, in a sense I remained his student and drew on his passion for movies to enrich my own love of film.
Howard passed away on the evening of August 12. He is irreplaceable; knowing him played an enormous part in shaping who I am today.