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Peter Kastner, Canadian artist

From Friday's Globe and Mail

I'm sitting here with Peter Kastner's last five-string banjo. I was also heir to his first. He died of heart failure in his car in Toronto this fall, at 64.

Peter was the star (in the mild Canadian sense) of Canada's first feature film, Nobody Waved Goodbye, in 1964. It was modest, improvised and a surprise international hit. Before that, he'd done Canadian television. Two years later, he starred (in the U.S. sense) in Francis Ford Coppola's You're a Big Boy Now. Then came a U.S. television series, The Ugliest Girl in Town. It flamed out. His career skidded badly, including a stint as a courier in Los Angeles, when he sometimes delivered to homes of people he had worked with. He averted his eyes and hoped they wouldn't notice. He moved to Boston, taught in the school system, had a breakdown and returned to the schools as an audio-visual technician, also training kids in videography, editing, etc. A few years ago, he moved back to Toronto, where he performed in coffee houses and showed videos he made.

We went to high school together. He was the first person who explained to me what dialectical materialism is. Same thing for the Method (in acting). He was wry, multitalented, puckish, ironic and political. But in a long obit in the Toronto Star, Martin Knelman said Peter's life had become "a bizarre twist on [the 1950 Hollywood film] Sunset Boulevard," with Peter as an "incarnation of Norma Desmond, the deluded former star of silent movies."

This isn't just mean-spirited. It's wrong, in an instructive way. Norma Desmond never doubts the absolute value of Hollywood success. She yearns only to get it back. Peter was always ambivalent and critical. He was a Canadian. He had alternative models and an alternate viewpoint. His parents were leftists who translated some of Bertolt Brecht's Marxist plays. They seem to have pushed him toward U.S.-style success, but that other, critical, political side of him would have held him back. It's far easier to reject that kind of success once you have it. When you don't quite make it, like Peter, you fear it might just be sour grapes on your part. I think he was tormented by such dilemmas, which are familiar to Canadian artists. Are they still here because they want to be, or because they couldn't succeed there?

There may have been some of that defensiveness in the strident, passionate responses of Canadian artists to Stephen Harper's crass, bullying attacks on them in the last election campaign. I wish I knew what Peter was thinking then. He was still an artist at the end but in a modest way, like his first film. He made videos - a humble form - with Jewish seniors in Toronto. He sang with the Jewish Folk Choir. He performed at the Free Times Cafe doing songs of his in folk-political mode. ("We've got testosterone ...")

This modesty of approach breaks down the barriers between artists and others. Artists, too, are pushed in this society to meet the demands of the marketplace (for sitcoms, ads, bestsellers), just like factory workers (RIP), service employees, teachers - who also try to act with integrity, skill and, yes, creativity. The U.S. star system tends to obscure what's universal in making art. There's them up there, and us schleps down here. I don't think Peter so much failed in the United States as used it to help define the kind of artistic success he wanted. He was en route to that when the journey got cut short.

He was also the first person I knew who played a five-string banjo. When I left for college in the U.S., my pals bought it from him as a farewell gift. I've had several since then. When Peter's wife, Jenny, told me he'd died, I mentioned it. She asked if I'd like his last, as a kind of symmetry.

Final note: Starting tomorrow, there will be a six-night Toronto run of the Coppola film with Peter, at Reg Hartt's Cineforum on Bathurst below College, across from the beer store, as Reg says.

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