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The Agony of Jimmy Quinlan (1978)

by on 2012/07/31

“In the brotherhood of alcohol, a member who stops drinking quickly becomes an outcast.”

* * *

Thank goodness I am a strict teetotaler. This 27-minute study of life on Montreal’s skid row in the 1970s should be enough for most people to rethink that second glass of wine.

The Agony of Jimmy Quinlan is the sort of documentary that I think we Canadians excel at creating. It trains a thoughtful, quiet and mostly sympathetic eye on an outsider, a small life. There’s nothing showy, there’s no glamour and no tricks. This film is simply a conscientious look at a quiet man, suffering a quiet sort of pain.

This film is for anyone who ever stepped over a homeless man on their way to their downtown office job without a second thought. This is for anyone who edged away from the smelly guy grasping a paper bag on the bus.

And I guess this film is for folks like me who know first-hand the destructive effects of alcohol.

My favourite uncle died in a flophouse in Vancouver. He tried for years to go straight. He had a job at a gas station, he was even studying to be a mechanic. But time and time again, he’d screw up, go on a bender, lose his job, crash his car, and fall completely and utterly apart.

He even spent most of a year living in one of our farm out buildings while he was trying to pull it together. That is, until one morning we woke up to find most of the furniture gone.

After that we would get the odd, boozy phone call around Christmastime. Then he died.

Jimmy Quinlan reminded me of my uncle. Middle-aged, soft-spoken, too proud to complain. The narrator shares that Jimmy is detoxing off of a habit that saw him consume “10 bottles of cheap Canadian sherry a day.”

We see Jimmy Quinlan, a former service man and sales person, through the first few days of withdrawal, retching, talking compulsively, then sweeping rooms, trying desperately to keep busy.

In the microcosm of skid row, Jimmy becomes an outcast. He’s no longer a part of the society that hangs out in derelict cars and throwing phantom punches on the corner, swapping bottles. The film capably demonstrates the climb out of this bottomless pit of alcohol and despair requires a man who possesses incredible strength.

With no predictable access to healthcare, no family and friends who have turned their back on him, we see Quinlan on the first harrowing days of that climb.

At the same time that this film was made, my uncle was well into his downward spiral. Mostly, I so hope Jimmy made a clean break from booze, and escaped skid row.

To me, there’s absolute nothing fun or funny about alcohol.

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Watch the full film here.

27 minutes and 7 seconds


One Comment
  1. Sean Fyfe permalink

    Jimmy did manage to escape the grim streets of Montreal. I met him in 1987 in North Bay where he was the night counselor at the North Bay Recovery Home. He helped many alcoholics and Jimmy died a sober man in 1999.

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