Shot on glorious 16mm black-and-white film and made for a miniscule budget of $16,000, Greg Hanec’s 1985 Downtime is an extremely subtle and delicate film. This first feature made through the Winnipeg film group examines the maladroit relationships formed between four main characters: The Woman (Maureen Gammelseter), The Man (Padraic O’Beirn), Debbie (Debbie Williamson) and Ray (Ray Impey)). Downtime is ultimately about failure — our failure to communicate, our failure to establish meaningful relationships and our failure to overcome our own fallibility. However, the story behind Downtime is almost as depressing as the one that plays out on screen, which has kept it a relatively unknown landmark in Canadian “loser” cinema despite having much in common with American independent filmmaking of the 1990s.
Downtime follows two main characters, the Woman, a shy introvert, and the Man, who seems to personify quiet desperation (Hanec declines to name them, signifying both their insignificance and their universality). The Woman and the Man perform their daily mundane routines, including their jobs as a convenience store clerk and a janitor, respectively. The Man is interested in the Woman and continually, awkwardly, attempts to ask her out without success. Finally, the Man resorts to robbing the convenience store where she works while wearing a scarf around his head, an act that can be read as either an attempt to exert power over the Woman or as an attempt get the Woman’s attention. Of course, this attempt also fails. The Woman doesn’t respond to his demands for money and the act is finally interrupted by a little kid forcing the Man to abandon his feeble robbery attempt.
It’s not shocking that the Man can’t pull off the robbery — his life is a series of failures. In one scene, we watch him sitting in front of the television slowly flipping through the channels, only to return to the channel he began with (of course, a hockey game), a mundane, insignificant act that seems like an appropriate allegory for the film. Lethargic lives in stasis or, more accurately, a portrayal of existential angst and despair people in their early 20s often experience.
The other significant characters, Debbie and Ray, are a couple whose obviously doomed relationship unravels through the course of the film. Debbie is an extreme extrovert interested in developing a relationship with the Woman after awkwardly forcing a conversation with her in a laundromat. Debbie insistently asks the Woman questions in an attempt to get her to open up. The Woman is reluctant to talk to her, however, and Debbie is socially inept and impervious to social cues. Eventually, Debbie tells the Woman about a party to which she is “probably gonna go, for sure.”
Of course, the party is just another example of defeat. Ray, Debbie and the Woman knock on the door of a quiet suburban house. An old man comes to the door and Debbie asks, “Does Carol live here?” Without opening the door the old man says “No” and shuts off the porch light. The three of them stand outside in the dark and the Woman asks Debbie if this is the right place. Unable to read social cues, Debbie re-assures her that this is the right place and knocks again! The old man tells them to go away and Debbie asks “What’s with this guy?”
By the end of the film, Debbie and the Man are no closer to having a relationship with the Woman despite fighting for her attention and affection. Of course, the irony of the film is that the relationships in this film aren’t worth pursuing in the first place. The Woman — the Man and Debbie’s object of desire — might have a rich inner life (suggested by her days spent drinking tea and reading paperback novels), but her social life is, by all accounts, desperately boring.
Although frequently compared to Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Downtime only really shares common stylistic elements — both were shot on black-and-white 16mm film, both make use of wide shots and long takes and both attempt to capture a mood through their style. While this might be worthwhile comparison, it’s more fruitful to examine Downtime as part of a subgenre of films often referred to as Canadian “loser” cinema. This subgenre of Canadian films, which includes Goin’ Down the Road (1970), Skip Tracer (1977) and Paperback Hero (1973), is defined by protagonists who fail due to their own ineptitude.
Building on those films from the 1970s, Downtime seems to extend the standard reading of the Canadian “loser” antihero due to its use of a female protagonist, while at the same time it reinforces our own cultural image as inferior. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between American “loser” cinema and Canadian “loser” cinema is our tendency to embrace it, identify with it and wallow in it. Canadians are not appalled by, nor do they pity, the loser. We also do not study them from a distance: we embrace our inner loserness, we are the loser. It seems that Winnipeggers, especially, suffer from this cultural inferiority, as Winnipeg is a neglected region of the Canada (especially when compared to any of the major centres like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal). Nevertheless, it’s possible to enjoy endless days of slacking in Winnipeg due to its relatively low cost of living.
Like Don Shebib’s proto-“loser” cinema classic Goin’ Down the Road, Downtime also features a unique use of space between scenes. In Goin’ Down the Road, each scene is followed by a montage set to music and, in Downtime, each scene is bookmarked by a static external shot of Winnipeg. These moments give the film an internal rhythm and provide a release from the claustrophobic environments that Hanec’s characters inhabit, while still reinforcing the monotonous and routine.
Beyond its place in Canadian cinema, Downtime is a film concerned with the mundane, very much anticipating films like Clerks (1994) and Slackers (1991). Had it been made 20 years later, Downtime would easily be considered part of the Mumblecore movement due to its embracing of awkwardness, extreme low budget and presence of non-actors. That said, everything about the film was made with an economy of means; the cast, crew, editing, lighting and dialogue were also minimal. Making the most out of these limited resources, the film makes excellent use of negative space, with the “action” often taking place off screen, and minimal dialogue.
Hanec hasn’t been particularly prolific since Downtime was released (although he remains a staple of the Winnipeg film scene, paints and makes sound/projector performances). His most recent film, Think at Night, was shot on 16mm over the span of 15 years and takes place in one night — the characters age 15 years in one night! Think at Night began shooting in 1992 and wrapped in 2007, but is currently stuck in perpetual post-production purgatory. The film will undoubtedly get finished, but it will be on Hanec’s terms. Downtime has already demonstrated the uselessness of speed. As a director, Hanec readily plays the archetypal tragic antihero held back by his uncompromising integrity, a character trait that allows a person to work on a feature length film for more than 20 years. In his second feature, Tunes A Plenty (1988), Hanec plays M.C., a musician whose obstinate integrity leads him to refuse any opportunity that may lead to selling out directly reflecting Hanec’s beliefs regarding artistic integrity.
This has notably affected the film’s ability to connect with its intended audience. The story of Downtime is accurately described by Winnipeg filmmaker John Kovac in his 2002 Take One article, “Downtime: A minimalist comedy of despair,” as follows:
This remarkable and complex film created considerable excitement when it was first shown in Winnipeg in the winter of 1986. Praised by local reviewers, and supported by Telefilm Canada as an official selection at the Berlin Film Festival, there was an anticipation of a lengthy festival run, continued critical success and theatrical distribution. But rather inexplicably, none of this ever materialized. It never received distribution and has languished in the vaults of the Winnipeg Film Group for the past 15 years, virtually forgotten. Yet Downtime deserves its place in the canon of Canadian cinema. It’s a hidden treasure that needs to be rediscovered and marvelled at by a new generation of filmgoers.
More than 10 years later, the film still remains relatively unknown outside of Winnipeg even though there is a digitally-restored DVD available. One can only have faith that Downtime will one day return to the big screen and garner the attention it deserves as a seminal Canadian “loser” classic.