Don’t look back – the Ron Mann interview

Ron Mann is an internationally heralded archivist of counterculture. But when it comes to his own work, he prefers moving forward.
May 1, 2009

Ron Mann has a lot of stories to tell. There’s the one about the time he went to see a jazz performance while on acid, during which the musician played six instruments using only one half of his body. There’s another one about a row of shops in Nova Scotia where the shopkeeper at each one connected with a different film of his. And once, walking in New York with his wife, carrying a ukulele, a man stopped his wife to say, ‘He must be a fun guy.’

When you speak to Mann he has a reflective air about him, but somehow, getting a retrospective at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival and conference this past April hasn’t made him reflect on his life’s work. ‘This friend of mine turned 50 recently and I gave him a copy of [the D.A. Pennebaker classic Bob Dylan doc] Don’t Look Back,’ laughs Mann. ‘I don’t really look in my rearview mirror, that’s what I do in my films.’

Though reflecting on his career isn’t something he chooses to do, it’s something he’s quite good at doing when asked. One thing you learn pretty quickly in talking to Mann is he doesn’t see himself as a documentary filmmaker. Though he clearly has a love for film as an art form, he sees himself more as a cultural historian. Sitting in the library for hours, finding rare stock footage and making records of history are the things Mann is dedicated to. ‘I see film as a kind of container of 90 minutes, where the film itself is the archiving of this culture,’ he says.

Mann was born in 1958, coming from the period between the ’50s and the ’60s when society was changing from a time of mass conformity to an era in which people were finding, and freeing, themselves. For Mann, his youth was a period of questioning mass culture and authority. ‘There’s a metaphor in a lot of the films of how we moved from one decade to another,’ he says. With 1992′s Twist it was the evolution from the period when people would dance with partners exclusively, to a time when people started to do their own thing and express themselves individually on the dance floor. (”From squareness to awareness’ is what I used to say,’ says Mann.) Likewise, the earlier Poetry in Motion (1982) looked at poetry’s move from the page to the stage, when poets such as the Beats made the art form more of an oral tradition rather than something to be read in your bedroom with a cup of tea.

When Mann was 16 he worked for a summer in Toronto’s much-loved, and now shuttered, record store Sam the Record Man. He started out working in the main floor’s pop/rock department. But after an incident involving a flying disc and the near decapitation of a customer, Mann was moved to the jazz department which was deemed safer because there were rarely any customers in there to decapitate. This move brought about Mann’s love of jazz and eventually lead to the birth of his first feature documentary, 1981′s Imagine the Sound, which also explored evolution; this one examining innovations in, and new ways of listening to, jazz.

While Mann sees his films as archiving culture, they also archive the societal reactions to each cultural evolution. With Comic Book Confidential in 1988, Mann examined another art form, this time one that parents objected to because they thought it would turn their children into deviants. From that point, Mann moved to document a number of historical excursions into mass hysteria. Twist did it with reactions to a dirty little dance; Grass with the parental, governmental and pop cultural revulsion towards marijuana; and 2006′s Tales of the Rat Fink, featuring contributions from John Goodman, Ann-Margret and Jay Leno, with the adverse reaction to Hot Rod culture (and Ed Roth’s accompanying artwork).

‘There’s a kind of mutant deviancy that we have,’ says Mann. ‘By trying to suppress that deviant culture, we’ve kind of mutated it. And this is our culture. Straight society completely tried to keep it under control… I’m trying to make it more upfront and reflect the vast amount of people who are part of [it]. There are other people besides myself who want to see these movies and are reflected by that culture.’

Mann’s style of filmmaking is partially a reflection of the work of his mentor, Emile de Antonio. He met the director of Millhouse, In the Year of the Pig,/i> and Point of Order early on in his career and was inspired by his collage style of filmmaking. According to Mann, de Antonio was influenced by painters like Robert Rauschenberg and musicians like John Cage, and he calls collage art the art of the 20th century. ‘I try to emulate his style, specifically in Grass which Roger Ebert called ‘a cut and paste job,” Mann says, laughing. ‘I’d rather have that than ‘two thumbs up’ any day.’

Mann also picked up on de Antonio’s agitprop style early on because of his enthusiasm for his subject matter. Over the years he doesn’t think his approach to filmmaking has changed, as he still approaches each film the way he used to with his Super 8, in an amateur fashion. The last descriptor Mann would use for his work is ‘slick.’

He also maintains his enthusiasm for the ever-evolving documentary genre. ‘The form has changed, and I think I’ve helped contribute to that change in the sense that I’ve made these movies using animation, stock footage, music and Cuisinart-style cinema,’ says Mann.

As much as Mann doesn’t feel like a doc filmmaker, he also doesn’t feel that he’s part of an industry. ‘I’m part of a collective of people who really care about cinema,’ says Mann. ‘There are a handful of us.’

Thus, while his filmmaking is more about recording history than it is about making commercial films, his distribution company, FILMSWELIKE, is solely built as a means to get films to a public that they otherwise wouldn’t reach. When Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s film The Weather Underground couldn’t find a distributor in Canada, Mann called up his friend, music promoter Gary Topp, to see if they could help. It wasn’t meant to be the launch of a company, but rather a way to help promote a movie they liked. While it has evolved, for Mann, FILMSWELIKE is a hobby, not an extension of his career.

‘It’s not done out of an ambition to build an empire of quirky movies,’ says Mann. ‘It’s more [about] saying, ‘There are some really great movies out here. Pay attention, folks.”

And he’s genuinely optimistic. He believes that many mainstream studio films underestimate the intelligence of the viewing audience and that more filmgoers would rather see intellectually stimulating work. This is also why another part of him is devoted to helping out fellow filmmakers through simple support. ‘De Antonio once said, ‘If we don’t help each other we’ll never move forward,” he says. ‘I believe that.’ Mann has helped a number of filmmakers to get their projects made, as executive producer on projects ranging from Jim Shedden’s Brakhage (1998), to last year’s acclaimed Examined Life from Astra Taylor, and, most recently, he helped Tony Coleman to make Mighty Uke, a doc on ukulele enthusiasts (hence the ukulele story off the top).

Mann began making films in order to document stories and experiences before they vanished, and that’s still his impetus. Aside from his own stories, Mann feels that docs are constantly reflecting global visions that one might not otherwise come into contact with if not for film. Audiences connect with stories they all can relate to, and, according to Mann: ‘In the end, all we have are stories.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.