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Saturday March 4, 2006

GORDON SHEPPARD, FILMMAKER AND WRITER 1937-2006

Polymath federalist thrived as a Quebec intellectual at a time when culture and separatism went hand in hand. His final work earned comparisons to James Joyce and Dante

Special to The Globe and Mail

TORONTO -- Tempting though it is to call Gordon Sheppard a Renaissance man or polymath, those terms just seem too small, even for someone who wasn't exactly a household name. An award-winning filmmaker, photographer and author of one of the most confounding books ever published in Canada, Mr. Sheppard inhaled the life of the Quebec intellectual, diving headlong into his art and befriending poets and fellow artists in the headiest days of separatism, when culture and politics went hand in hand.

Not bad for a WASP anglophone raised in Toronto.

He believed a serious artist should provide "publicly useful revelation rather than privately gratifying confession." Art that reflected ugliness was best left to others. His would "reinforce people's desire to go on living."

As an artist and a person, Mr. Sheppard was remembered as a perfectionist, "which helped him to push to the limits [of] what he was undertaking," recalled Quebec author and filmmaker Jacques Godbout. "At the same time, that sort of attitude did not permit him to stop, end something, and start all over again," continued Mr. Godbout, who first met Mr. Sheppard in the early 1970s. "You can try to succeed in making a perfect object all your life, or you can admit at a certain point that you give up. He never gave up."

Whether Mr. Sheppard created perfect objects is best left to the critics, who were mostly kind, but undoubtedly, he was willing to take risks. "He was afraid of nothing," said noted Quebec poet and playwright Denise Boucher, author of the play Les fées ont soif (The Fairies are Thirsty). "That was his big quality."

Though a strong federalist and an anglophone, albeit one who learned perfect French, Mr. Sheppard forged lasting friendships with some of the leading lights of Quebec sovereignty, including Gérald Godin, the poet, journalist and Parti Québécois cabinet minister; Mr. Godin's wife, singer Pauline Julien; film director Claude Jutra; and writers Gaston Miron and Hubert Aquin.

Mr. Sheppard was raised in Toronto in relative privilege. His father, Harry, was president of IBM Canada, head of the Toronto Board of Trade and a revered leader of the Canadian business establishment. Gordon studied politics and economics at the University of Toronto, and was "re-educated," as he put it, at Oxford University, where he obtained a master's degree in history.

Back in Canada in the early 1960s, he began producing documentaries for CBC TV and CTV, including a four-part film about three Canadian premiers from the 1930s, followed by The Most, a 28-minute black-and-white portrait of Playboy Magazine founder Hugh Hefner that won awards in six international film festivals.

For novelist and screenwriter Martyn Burke, the Hefner film was a turning point. After seeing it at McMaster University in Hamilton, where he was a student, Mr. Burke was "absolutely transfixed because this guy [Mr. Sheppard] was doing what I had dreamed of doing and was not sure could be possible," he recalled in a 2002 interview with the university's alumni magazine. "In those days, there was precious little Canadian film industry and novelists were people who resided in Paris, not Hamilton. All of a sudden, it made my decision so much more urgent."

Less glamorous work followed for Mr. Sheppard with appointments as a special assistant to Canada's Secretary of State and as a consultant on the arts to the federal government. In 1966, he authored the four-volume Special Report on the Cultural Policy and Activities of the Government of Canada, which led to the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corp.

The late 1960s and early '70s were meaty times: Back in his childhood home, Montreal, he lived with the actress Geneviève Bujold for a time; hosted a CBC Radio program on the arts; was a feature writer and reviewer for the Toronto Telegram; and wrote a children's book, The Man Who Gave Himself Away, about a man in his sixties who is dying. He also penned the lyrics for the Robert Charlebois song, Mr. Plum.

His first big splash was in 1975 when he wrote, produced and directed a feature film, the campy fantasy Eliza's Horoscope, handing Tommy Lee Jones his first starring role. Years later, Mr. Sheppard wrote Mr. Jones, blasting the actor for wasting his talents in substandard movies, but received no reply.

Hailed as "weird and wonderful" and "bizarre and fascinating" (but also as "very strange"), Eliza's Horoscope was compared to the work of Fellini and Bunuel. It garnered five Canadian film awards and earned Mr. Sheppard the kudo of Outstanding Canadian Filmmaker of 1975.

With a feature credit under his belt, California beckoned, and he worked for a short time in the music business in Los Angeles, where he became a vegetarian, weightlifter and self-described computer geek. Eventually, he returned to his beloved Montreal, the only place he ever really wanted to live, partly to ponder what had been a shattering event in his life.

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