Winter Kept Us Warm (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Matthew Hays

Directed by David Secter; screenplay by David Secter, John Clute and Ian Porter; cinematography by Robert Fresco and Ernest T.L. Meershoek; edited by Michael Foytenyi; music by Paul Hoffert; starring John Labow, Henry Tarvainen, Joy Fielding and Janet Amos. DVD, B&W, 81 min., 1965. Distributed by TLA Video.

Everything about David Secter’s wondrous debut feature film, Winter Kept Us Warm, feels like a time warp. Indeed, while watching it, it’s difficult to decipher what is most striking: that a low-budget gay love story exists on celluloid from the year 1965, or that the film has managed to languish in relative obscurity for so long.

There’s something terrifically refreshing about it, too. Its innocence isn’t surprising given its point of inspiration: Secter, a twenty-two-year-old undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, suffered a painful bout of unrequited love for a dorm mate. He wrote about it, from the heart, and then decided he wanted to make a movie out of it. If the French Nouvelle Vague filmmakers had done it, Secter surmised, why couldn’t he? And where better to shoot the film then on the UofT campus, the location of his very own anguished emotions?

In Winter, a brash, outgoing Doug (a character based on Secter himself, played by John Labow) meets Peter (Henry Tarvainen), a quiet, introspective student. The two go through a number of the rites of passage required by undergrads. They dance and drink at late-night parties, and weather brutal hangovers, while Peter discovers the joys of the campus theater society. Both date respective girlfriends, but it’s the bond between Doug and Peter that becomes the film’s centerpiece. Secter was forced to keep things ambiguous so that his same-sex romance premise would fly under certain radars, but watching it today, the tension between Peter and Doug is unmistakable.

It is also, in certain key ways, an unmistakably Canadian production. The title itself—lifted from the poetry of T.S. Eliot—could well be the quintessential Canadian movie title. And even though the film is set in the country’s largest urban center, Toronto, there are nods to landscape and nature; at one point, Peter and Doug step outside to exchange a loving round of snowballs. Paul Hoffert’s delightful, jazzy score plays as the two frolic in nature with squirrels looking on. This scene is matched by an indoor sequence, in which the two men lather each other up and wash each other’s backs in the dorm showers.

At times, the acting in Winter is amateurish, but this only adds to the film’s considerable charm. While acknowledging the obvious and undeniable forces of homophobia, Secter is also quite clear in what he’s presenting: the story of love between two men. Even forty years later, when the Alberta, Canada-shot Brokeback Mountain (2005) told the story of two cowboys in love, the act of putting that narrative onscreen was seen as wildly brave, inspiring countless analytical articles and several anthologies (not to mention droves of bad, repetitive jokes in late-night talk-show monologues).

That many of Winter’s influences were French would have a fitting outcome: in 1966, it became the first English-language Canadian film to be invited to Cannes. There, Secter dined with Sophia Loren, head of that year’s jury. After two years, Winter Kept Us Warm would find distribution and releases in both the U.S. and Europe. The continental critical divide could be felt in responses to Secter’s film. Writing in The New York Times’ February 9, 1968 edition, critic Renata Adler praised the film for talking about what so few films before it seemed to address: college life. “It is surprising, for example, how very bleak are the rooms of college students, even in their modern affluence. One becomes aware that our society expects only students, criminals, the sick and the military to live in dormitories—with desks, beds and the shape of rooms so depressingly alike.” Apparently, Adler was so consumed by the dormitory décor that the nature of the two protagonists’ relationship somehow escaped her.

Cahiers du cinéma, by contrast, acknowledged the film’s homosexual essence while referencing the snowball-exchange scene. Their bond, Secter is telling us, is entirely natural—something that Cahiers critic Louis Marcorelles picked up on as distinctly Canadian: “The Canadian ‘grace’ remains. This freedom of tone, this camera as tall as a man, stopping on a whim to follow a squirrel, frolicking in the snow among the flakes.”

Winter Kept Us Warm’s very existence is worthy of celebration, especially now that it is finally available on DVD. But it is also noteworthy for what followed it: a long, tortured period of censorship and self-censorship, in which queer images were either denied or deleted, on screens both big and small. The very fact that Secter was operating so far outside of the Hollywood system gave him the freedom to make such a film on a budget of $8,000. (Notably, however, he did face questions from suspicious UofT bureaucrats, some of whom were uncomfortable with giving him the green light to use the campus as a location because they read into the script precisely what Secter was intending.) Hollywood, then in the throes of a brutal hangover from the ravages of McCarthyism, remained soaked in fear. What makes Secter’s film so refreshing was that it offered a respite from American mainstream cinema while echoing the independent experiments of such pioneers as John Cassavetes (who Secter also cites as a major influence).

Secter’s nod to the squirrel in the wilderness was fitting, given that he was working in the wilderness himself, in a country that didn’t have an industry to speak of, on a topic that hadn’t really even been named yet. Winter’s very Canadianness makes sense in retrospect, given that the country has spawned a veritable legion of notable queer filmmakers, including Patricia Rozema, John Greyson, Laurie Lynd, Jeremy Podeswa, Bruce LaBruce, and Ian Rashid, not to mention straight directors who have been identified as honorary queers, Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg.

Cronenberg even identified Winter as one of the reasons he was inspired to make films himself. In Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the filmmaker states that “Secter had somehow hustled together a feature film that was intriguing because it was completely unprecedented. And then the film appeared, and I was stunned. Shocked. Exhilarated. It was an unbelievable experience. This movie was a very sweet film.”

It is with agonizing relief that I herald Winter Kept Us Warm’s arrival on DVD. My colleague and mentor, Thomas Waugh, and I have been writing about this film at every possible opportunity, hoping to see it get the kind of notice and attention it richly deserves. After our combined efforts of writing about it and urging programmers to screen it at film festivals, Winter Kept Us Warm is now finally widely available to the public. To say it’s long overdue would be an epic understatement.

Matthew Hays teaches film studies at Concordia University in Montreal and writes for The Globe and MailThe Guardian and The Daily Beast. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press).

To purchase Winter Kept Us Warmclick here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.