Rose and John with Emmy: a power to persuade people to reveal their private stories
The camera follows the gay son of an ex-Anglican priest as he stalks the dimly lit corridors of a homosexual steambath. Wearing a towel around his waist, Peter Shaver—a selfstyled “sexual revolutionary”—slowly passes by a series of tiny white cubicles in which naked men lie sprawled, displaying their wares. Towels draped over genitals are the only indication that what we are seeing has been carefully staged for television. At the end of the sequence, we watch enthralled as Shaver finally chooses his man, enters a cubicle, drops his towel, revealing his bare bottom to the camera, and closes the door.
This is a scene from a documentary, Sharing the Secret, the most recent epic on the human condition by the awardwinning son-and-mother team, John and Rose Kastner. It is an intimate portrait of gay life which, true to the Kastner tradition, goes straight for the emotional jugular. Together they have patented an uncanny ability to probe the raw nerve of human experience, to articulate emotions with a potency almost unseen in the bland landscape of television. Four Women, the Kästners’ 1978 Emmy-winning examination of breast cancer, demonstrated their power to persuade their subjects to bare their souls—and bodies—for the camera. In a remarkable scene, one patient was filmed in her bathroom, examining her body, displaying her mutilated breast. In Fighting Back, 1980’s Emmy winner, television audiences watched four young leukemia victims suffer through chemotherapy and spinal taps, struggling to live and (with one exception) slowly dying while their families watched helplessly. In Sharing the Secret, a grossly overweight mother sobs, eyes dripping makeup, double chins trembling with the camera in a tight close-up. John asks her, “You have never seen your son and his friend actually kiss?”
Breast cancer, leukemia, homosexuality. Sitting in their living rooms, audiences are riveted as the Kästners train their cameras unflinchingly on these subjects, giving form and face to that unknown quantity that could be part of each viewer’s future. These films are created to hit home, and hard. We’re not interested in subjects like cannibalism or pedophilia,” says John. “It is the universal human stories that we care about. We’re populists, not elitists. We don’t go for psychiatric highfalutin stuff, and we’re not making judgments. A New York distributor said to me, ‘You have something very commercial: the ability to move
The question for some is whether the Kästners’ films aren’t a little too moving, flaunting the suffering of children, parading maimed bodies, violating sexual privacy. Ron Base, former television critic and now film critic for the Toronto Star, is disturbed by what he considers a “strong trend to real-life programming that emphasizes life and death situations. Shows like Fighting Back inevitably exploit a sensational element. It’s like watching That ’s Incredible, a U.S. series in which a guy ran through a tunnel of fire and nearly killed himself. To me, that’s ghoulish. The bottom line of my argument against Fighting Back is this: what do we learn from watching kids die before our eyes? I can’t imagine, if my child were dying, that I would let the Kästners film it. It’s grotesque.” Peter Herrndorf, vice-president of CBC’s English network, for whom the films are made, defended the approach. “It is John’s perspective that’s original. It sounds hackneyed but he—and Rose too—give people the courage to expose themselves on the air. John gets them in terribly intimate, painful, poignant moments and his work raises the question, ‘Do we have any business going so forcefully into other people’s lives?’ His work is hotly debated inside and outside the CBC but these people have decided that they want to share their experience.” In fact, the families in Fighting Back are the Kästners’ strongest defenders, insisting that the filming was far from gruesome. “That documentary was all truth and Michael really enjoyed making it,” says Nancy Cluff, whose brother Michael died during the shooting. “It gave him something to live for before he died.”
The Kästners are not only aware that their films make some viewers queasy—they expect it. “Oh I know that people say we’re sensationalists,” says Rose. “But we are all affected by cancer, by homosexuality. Fighting Back is the greatest film we will ever make. Cancer is worse than you can imagine. As soon as you find out, you become a leper. Those families felt so isolated, but they wanted to talk. Why not? It’s part of life. As hard as it was, we paid attention when everyone else looked away.” Their commitment doesn’t end with the shooting: when Fighting Back won its Emmy in New York in November, John was so elated he immediately called Elaine Cluff, Michael’s mother, from the lobby pay phone. Weeks later, he travelled to London, Ont., to present the involved families with an Emmy plaque to commemorate their participation.
While viewers and critics choose sides on the issue of the Kästners’ morality, there is no denying that John, with two Emmys on his mantel, an Oscar nomination for Fighting Back likely to arrive later this month and offers pouring in from across North America, is one of the most innovative talents in Canadian television. At 33, his credentials are staggering: an actor who has appeared in hundreds of radio and television productions since the age of 8; co-host with Alan Maitland of CBC’s youth current affairs radio program Action Set, at 20, a columnist for the Toronto Telegram, the youngest editorial writer in the country; producer of three shows for Screen Gems, including Under Attack and Cross Fire. Many will remember Kastner as the crazed creator of a series of candid vignettes on CBC’s now defunct 90 Minutes Live: The Singing Butcher, in which Kastner paid customers in a Vancouver meat market $5 to sing for their supper; Corporal Martin’s Singing Audition, in which Kastner
dressed the program’s producer, John Martin, in a Mountie uniform and a leg cast and had him croon (off-key) in downtown Toronto, asking passersby to rate his voice.
That ability to manipulate others into making fools of themselves turned into a gift in his documentaries for probing a sensitive point without seeming to sit in judgment of his subjects. Glenn Sarty, executive producer of the fifth estate, remembers About Face, one of the first shows Kastner did after he joined the program in 1975, showing how people born with hideous deformities of the head could be helped by operations which crush and reform the skull: “It was a macabre story but John, in his inimitable fashion, transcended a rather grotesque situation by bringing out the overriding strength of character of his subjects. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say he anticipated The Elephant Man but it can be said that years ago John was showing that kind of sympathy for deformed people.” This was only groundwork for his partnership with Rose. In January, 1976, his father, Martin, died and his mother, 51, plunged into “crazy things”—practising ballet for nine hours a day, for instance—to cope with her grief. That year, John suggested she channel her “explosive, obsessive energy” into projects with him, including Four Women. Now associate producerresearcher, Rose, says John, is “larger than life, like a character out of a Russian novel.” While raising four children—Susan, a thrice-married advertising executive, Peter, an actor and writer living in Los Angeles, John and Kathy, a television producer in Toronto-Rose also managed to write articles and love stories (mostly for Martin’s company, Export Publishing), translate the plays of Bertolt Brecht with her husband, author a set of 357 football cards (although she had never been to a game) and study dance with José Limón and Martha Graham. A small plump
dynamo, she bounces on her chair in the cramped CBC Toronto office she shares with her son, bragging of her powers to persuade people to tell their most private stories to the Kastner camera: “This may sound conceited, but I can get anyone I want on a TV program.” This is easy to believe—her charm is quite lethal. Scouring the country for subjects for Sharing the Secret, Rose contacted 500 gays willing to be revealed and pruned the list to 50 for John to choose from.
There seems to be a double standard at work: for a couple who make their living on having others bare intimate secrets, the Kästners are notoriously tight-lipped about their own skeletons. Rose hints at illnesses, tells details only off the record, and John follows quickly to edit with a warning: “Rose told these things to other reporters and they all respected our privacy.” The man who claims “We all like to pretend we are ordinary and boring but we all have a monkey on our back” is careful not to reveal his own monkey, insisting he is just “an ordinary, stuffy guy who survived the ’60s without smoking a joint or having a nervous breakdown.”
In fairness, the Kästners gave veto privileges to the participants in Fighting Back but no one requested cuts. “Of course there is always the question during shooting, ‘How far should we go?’ ” says Vic Sarin, a cameraman on all three shows. “But we are sensitive and it shows in the films.” Despite months of preparation and conversation to gain the subject’s trust, the shooting period is always unpredictable. “People don’t spill the beans in five minutes,” says John. “You have to tread very carefully, and it is slow and painful. Sometimes you roll film for 30 minutes before people will tell you their story. They need to feel their lives are more important than the documentary, that we will stop shooting and throw away the film if they so desire.” Rocco Fermi (a pseudonym) had fears of being exploited in Sharing the Secret “I don’t exactly wave banners about being gay but I believed I had something to say and it is not often in life you get the opportunity to say it. The film is better than I thought it would be—I cried. John is quiet, he drinks in what you’re saying and he mulls it over.”
For Kastner, a self-confessed workaholic, who spends as long as 18 months oft a 90-minute television program, who sacrifices his family life with his wife, Renée, for his work, the payoff comes when the subject starts to open up: “When it starts to happen, I soar. That is all I’m after. It is like I have reached past those magical barriers and a direct raw thing comes out from that person’s experience onto the celluloid.” With missionary zeal, Kastner is preaching that these experiences are meant to be shared, that they are not ghoulish or gruesome. “There is some tragedy in everybody’s life but we traditionally turn away from pain and agony. Conflict and hurt are the stuif of human drama and we have to learn to live with these things.”
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