MONTREAL - Sheldon Cohen knows full well that he’ll always be known as the guy who made The Sweater and he’s okay with that.
He directed the 1980 National Film Board animated short that is one of our country’s most iconic films. For many of us, when we first saw this hockey-themed flick back in grade school, it was one of our first experiences of local film culture.
The seasoned Montreal filmmaker looks back at that film, and the rest of his career, in the recently published memoir This Sweater Is For You! The book features a slew of illustrations, both from The Sweater and other Cohen films, and, given the film’s importance in Cohen’s life, The Sweater occupies a central place in his narrative.
In a chat at a west-end café the other day, Cohen still seemed surprised at how The Sweater remains the gift that just keeps on giving. He was talking about how it has a life of its own. He’d just been in T.O. for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s homage to The Hockey Sweater – which is the title of the book penned by Roch Carrier with illustrations by Cohen – and that had him once again thinking about how this story “just seemed to resonate and touch a nerve with Canadians and even more so in English-Canada, which is interesting.”
It all started in the spring of 1978 when NFB producer Marrin Canell came into Cohen’s office to tell him he’d just heard a short story on CBC Radio. The public broadcaster had asked Carrier to pen a tale about the often-tense relationship between English and French culture in Canada and the Québécois author responded with this inspired short story about a boy in small-town Quebec who is devastated when his mother, by mistake, orders a Maple Leafs jersey from the Eaton’s catalogue. He and all his friends are – you might have guessed – hardcore Canadiens fans in general and fans of Habs legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard in particular.
Cohen said he was never the most likely candidate to make this film.
“On so many levels,” he said. “On the sports level, I’m not an avid hockey fan. On the language thing, I hate to say it, but my French is really not great. And the whole Catholic Church was really foreign to my upbringing, which is so central to the story. A little village – I grew up in a big city.”
But he thinks maybe that cross-cultural mix is part of what makes The Sweater so special.
“There’s a certain awkwardness in it as a creative piece,” Cohen said. “Roch (narrating) in his broken English and me as an English-Canadian describing a French-Canadian story. There’s something that just doesn’t fit all around and makes it very endearing. It wouldn’t work if we didn’t come to it from these different places. In fact, if you hear the French version of The Sweater, Le Chandail, it has a whole different feel. It’s like a François Truffaut film, more sophisticated. It kind of loses the homegrown charm we feel in the English (film).”
Cohen’s next project is a lot closer to his own life – he is talking to the NFB about developing a personal memoir/animated short inspired by a life-changing experience last year. Cohen, 62, had a heart attack in August and had to have open-heart/quintuple-bypass surgery.
He’s doing fine now, but he thinks the story is a natural for an animated film that he wants to title My Heart Attack.
“A lot of it is a comedy of errors. I had my heart attack while a dog was having a heart attack. Everyone was paying attention to the dog and I was trying to get their attention. It was kind of like a Larry David episode.
“I want the film to be part comedy but part serious because the recovery is way more than I ever thought it would be. I want to bring a voice to something that’s unaddressed. So the second part of the film will be much more serious.”
The odd wrinkle is that the heart attack happened about halfway through the writing of the book. So just as he was taking stock of his life on the page, he went through the kind of health scare that often leads people to take a long, hard look at their life.
“It really pulled the carpet out from under me. It changed my life. I wake up every day grateful. I know it sounds corny. But I’m just happy to be alive and take on a new day. It’s certainly given my work a kind of invigoration and freshness, which I probably wouldn’t have had without this experience.”
I will post the film in the first comment window..- Les