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Whale Music (1994)

by on 2010/08/07

Hacker Renders and I extended our Canadian film odyssey into our annual trip to cottage country in August. I cast my black-clad, gothic blue-pallid paleness into the greeny-blue depths of a lake while Hacker Renders read a novel about a Neanderthal physicist dockside.

One dark, still cottage evening, we watched Whale Music, the 1994 feature film based on the book of the same name written by Paul Quarrington. In a Musoka coffee shop, I read a well-thumbed Outdoor Canada magazine and learned of Paul Quarrington’s recent untimely death at the age of 56 of lung cancer. Quarrington was an outdoorsman, avid fisherman, as well as the recipient of the Governor General’s Award for King Leary and Whale Music.

I knew (or thought I knew) some important things about Whale Music before the movie was slid into the DVD tray. I had listened to the Rheostatics Whale Music album many, many times, not to mention their profoundly beautiful song “Claire”, and had seen the band perform some of the songs live in Ottawa. I knew the story was loosely based on Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson’s bloated and drug-fuelled exile in the 70s.

Whale Music’s hero, Desmond Howl (Maury Chaykin) lives alone in his ruined seaside mansion. Howl fills his days visiting his filth-clogged pool, lying in bed (just like Brian Wilson did), composing music for whales and communing with hallucinations of his dead brother Dan (Paul Gross). Stumbling nakedly though life (literally), Howl’s life has assumed a certain rhythm until a young groupie, Claire (Cyndy Preston) scales his fortress walls and crashes on his couch.

Claire is a hard-bitten, tough-talking runaway from Toronto looking for a square meal and a brush with fame. Howl placidly welcomes this blonde interloper to Earth, asks if Toronto is “a planet from the Alpha Centauri system” and if she needs repairs for her space ship.  Far from deterred, Claire decides to stay, attracted by Howl’s habit of keeping vast amounts of money under his unkempt king-sized bed and his complete lack of interest in her sexually.

We soon learn that Claire is no stranger to mental illness herself, and has a tragic past of sexual abuse and brushes with the law. In the early goings of the film we see both characters flourishing in a strange pantomime of domestic harmony. Claire cleans and restores the mansion, while Desmond experiences a creative reawakening, penning one of his first pop songs since his brother’s tragic death and completing his “whale music” album.

Unfortunately there are serpents in the garden in the form of Howl’s hateful, money-grubbing, manipulative ex-wife Fay (Jennifer Dale) and Kenneth, Howl’s manager (Kenneth Welsh).  Soon the tenuous connection between Claire and Howl starts to unravel.

This quirky movie is propelled forward solely by the astounding, brave performance of Maury Chaykin who also passed away in 2010 at the age of 61 of heart problems. This elemental, bravura performance by Chaykin makes it well worth seeking out Whale Music’s dreamy,  murky tale of fame, insanity and love.

It seems fitting that we watched this film in a small cottage verandah overlooking a moonlit Ontario lake.

RIP Maury Chaykin and Paul Quarrington.

* * *

Rated 14A for language and mature themes

107 minutes

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