Noted People II

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A Little Fellow from Gambo: The Joey Smallwood Story

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

They’ve got that right, not only because he is a little fellow from Gambo (Newfoundland, that is), but because he keeps on telling everyone that he’s a little fellow from Gambo. Premiere Joey Smallwood is the real McCoy, and a yarn-spinning self-mythologist at the same time.

This kind of bring-us-up-to-the-present biographical film is invaluable. It gives us our public figures, and for more than just a soundbite’s or an assassin’s bullet of an instant. You get duration, with analysis following. But you also get the simultaneously disconcerting and bracing uncertainty that comes when the story you’re hearing isn’t over yet. (Cf. Emile de Antonio’s America is Hard to See [1970, q.v.].) The political present tense!

That’s the positive view, and quite properly. On the other hand… This documentary sub-genre is invaluable, but it’s inherently frustrating too. By its nature it doesn’t tell you what you want to know. Or maybe it’s telling you that you never really can know. That much is evident from a very striking sequence near the beginning of the film in which three Newfoundland journalists sit in a bar, arguing about who Smallwood actually is. Then they cut to the man himself, watching that same assembled sequence in the editing room. (This, by the way, is very quietly and maybe more profoundly what the Maysles brothers were up to with their much more famous Rolling Stones/Altamont film, made in the very same year as this one.) Smallwood properly observes that the journalists are like three of the blind men who were trying to figure out that elephant. They’re all right, but they’re all wrong.

Who’s fault is that? Smallwood is fantastic in Michael Rubbo’s stupendous 1974 National Film board documentary Waiting for Fidel (q.v.), which records his unofficially diplomatic trip to Cuba just after leaving public office. Here, on his home ground and still ensconced in power, things are a bit more complicated. Smallwood is a real character, and he’s magnetic, and he’s got the Celt’s gift of/taste for the gab. He is also vain and petty and despotic. The sequence with that mendicant looks really good, and leads to some interesting discussion about the need for and place of laws, with the complications they always bring. But the sequence with that mendicant also a stunt, a bit of Lonely Boy posturing without the reveal, the exposé that puts it into proper perspective. And there’s definitely something else going on with the John Crosbie footage! Note the looks of actual hatred on the faces of those placard wavers. The way that Smallwood dismisses protest registers, momentarily, as almost swashbucklingly bold. Linger though; it’s also quite unpleasantly, even quite aristocratically dismissive.

The next point is incidental, but must be mentioned. What, may one ask, is Smallwood’s future biographer wearing? Ah, the past. Also, Joey’s poor deputy, who seems such a faithful man. More documentaries should be made about little fellows like this!

The Rothschild sequence is a really clear and slightly cringe-inducing example of the camera game, as is the visit to Wesley’s chapel in England. They’re all laying it on rather thick, the faux-humility, the self-aggrandizement. But as Jean Rouch said and lived, acting is still being, isn’t it? Back at the bunker, Smallwood shows us his vast library, and his proprietary pride in it is actually kind of poignant. Vanity is just another name for insecurity, isn’t it? Or maybe little fellows have a right to their pride, when they manage to make something big of themselves.

The film’s last sequence ties legacy and actual biographical particularity all up, and quite beautifully. We’re outside, and it’s a-blustering. The last Canadian province! There’s a small ceremonial afoot. Smallwood’s grandkids aren’t putting up those flags like he wants them too, and they’re making a mess of that salute too. He is bemused with them, and his eye sparkles with affection, and you can almost see all of his effort and learning and hubris settle into a very specific, appealing place. He may have been a Father of Confederation, and the first premiere of Newfoundland. But in the private sphere, something predates and outlasts all that. Our kids will get us, but, after all, we have begot them.