Those Cold Days in the Park

This piece originally ran in Vancouver Review #26, Fall, 2010. Since then, That Cold Day in the Park has finally been released on Blu-ray. Also, when making the VR Media book trailer for George Stanley’s After Desire (New Star Books, 2013) last year, I deliberately sought to recreate one of the opening shots from the film just to see if anybody would notice! And it’s an interesting yet little-known slice of Vancouver history.

I often take a shortcut through Tatlow Park. It’s a quick and leafy route into Kitsilano, linking Point Grey Road with the quiet sidestreets leading home to my apartment near Alma Street and Broadway. On the northwest border of the park sits a massive white block of an apartment complex, the X-shaped Killarney Manor built in 1956 on the site of a former eponymous mansion. My accountant once lived there, and in 1968 so did the fictional character Miss Francis Austen in Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park.

Made a year before his 1969 Hollywood breakthrough M*A*S*H, it signaled the start of a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Vancouver. He came back in 1970 to make the greatest western ever, McCabe & Mrs Miller, on the side of Cypress Mountain. But the lesser-known That Cold Day in the Park is unusual in that it features Vancouver as itself and of its time: a very tightly wound, repressed city barely out of the 1950s and confounded by the onset of the 60s.

The film’s merits are much debated by Altman-philes. It is the first of his obsessive psychodramas dealing with the inner lives of women (you’re better off with his 1977 film Three Women) yet it’s a fairly engaging tale of obsession, loneliness, class and social divisions and sexual repression, embodied note-perfectly by lead actress Sandy Dennis in the role of Miss Austen. Until its recent re-release on Blu-ray DVD, it’s been a tough film to track down. Its last Vancouver outting was a rare and welcome screening curated by Michael Turner at the Cinematheque a few years ago. It opened a double bill with McCabe.

As an art film it slightly misses the mark because, as was the case with many of Altman’s more personal films, its hermetic mood is at odds with its half-tilt towards mainstream convention. But as an artifact for Vancouver historians it offers rare glimpses onto the street and into the heart of our city during the most turbulent year of the 60s. In it, Vancouver is a sleepy Anglo colonial backwater not fully ready for the Summer of Love even though it has already passed. We are petty. We are naïve. We are stuffy. We are deeply conservative. We are white. Or at least that’s the grim subtext that seems to linger long past the film’s violent denouement.

In hard terms, there are tantalizing glimpses of the courthouse (now the VAG), Seymour street outside the Penthouse Nightclub, A subterranean bar on Granville Street near the Vogue, Coal Harbour houseboats, the Terminal City Lawn Bowling Club on Fir Street and of course, Tatlow Park. There is also the big house at 3148 Point Grey Road, which was commandeered by Altman for the shoot. He gave then-“landlord” David Wisdom $100 to clear himself out (along with then-tenant Jeff Wall). Known at the time as the “Peace House” it served as a crash pad for the Grateful Dead who were gigging here someplace like the Retinal Circus (now Celebrities). The three story turreted mansion has since suffered an 80s sterilization; try imagining a “crash pad” along Point Grey Road now.

The film has similar value to Vancouver as The Conversation, or even Dirty Harry has to San Francisco. Their narratives skirt all the expected period clichés of cool radical hippiedom, instead offering existing-light, street-level peripheral views of the cities as they really were.

Everytime I walk through Tatlow Park I look up at Miss Austin’s apartment window (the film’s interiors were studio creations in West Van) and I look for the bench. The trees are taller, the path reconfigured and the bench long gone. But something remains of that Vancouver, as persistent as winter drizzle.

Mark Mushet
©2015 VR Media