Jeff Barnaby has died. Fuck.

In which Norm deals with the shocking passing of Jeff Barnaby, one of the wildest talents this country has ever seen.

A promotional image of Jeff Barnaby wearing a shirt featuring the Cleveland Indians' racist mascot Chief Wahoo. Because

This newsletter was going to be about Shout! Factory’s delightful new Blu-ray release Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon and why I’m not rushing out to see the new Halloween movie, but then I got an e-mail that Jeff Barnaby had died, and all the breezy joy just went away.

More accurately, I feel like I’ve been punched in the throat.

I can’t say I knew Jeff terribly well – we only met in the flesh, what, three or four times? – but he was a horror nerd and I was a horror nerd, and we immediately connected over a shared admiration for practical makeup effects and old Fangoria covers, and how the spirit of classic horror movies influenced the look and feel of his first feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls.

We could talk about what Jeff’s films did for Indigenous representation in Canadian cinema, and how his casting of Devery Jacobs, Michael Greyeyes, Brandon Oakes and Forrest Goodluck in his projects – and more specifically how he saw them, fashioning heroic roles for them that showcased their qualities as actors – made them instantly accessible to casting directors all over North America at the exact right cultural moment.

Jeff's vision of Indigenous action heroes in BLOOD QUANTUM.

But other people will do that, and with far more insight than me. When Jeff and I talked about it, I got the sense that it was just how he worked: He wanted to make movies with people he knew and trusted, and the movies were challenging and weird and rooted in Indigenous stories because that’s who Jeff was; they were never going to be anything else. Of course those were the worlds he'd build.

I had the last slot on the Rhymes press day – hey, look, the NOW interview is still up! – so we just hung out and kept talking for a while afterward. He told me he was going to make a zombie picture next, if they’d let him. Five years later he brought Blood Quantum to TIFF, and it’s nothing if not a proper zombie picture, splattering ideas across the screen in equal proportion to the gore spraying everywhere.

The young leads of RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS affect a very Halloween vibe.

Jeff was one of those rare filmmakers who functioned almost exclusively on intuition, charging forward into a project and trusting he’d be able to shape it into an organic entity in post-production. It gave his films a messy and sometimes wobbly feeling – Rhymes for Young Ghouls has some supporting performances that do not fit the picture’s tone at all, and Blood Quantum has more ideas bouncing around inside it than it can comfortably hold. But from moment to moment, those movies play, and there’s never any question as to who’s behind the camera. I’d compare him to Terrence Malick, but he’d be annoyed by the comparison; couldn’t I pick someone cooler?

And yeah, we can argue about the relative coolness of Malick all day, but that’s the thing: Jeff’s gone, so now we can’t. I will never get to hear him rhapsodize about Coppola’s Dracula again, which he picked for his episode of Someone Else’s Movie – surprising me, because his movies and Coppola’s stateliness didn’t really line up in my mind.

But of course I’d forgotten just how feverish and unrestrained Bram Stoker’s Dracula actually is, and how its go-for-broke invention feels very much like Jeff’s own thing. And then Jeff and I got to talking – over an extremely unreliable Zoom connection, since this was just a few weeks into lockdown -- and for an hour everything made perfect sense. You can find the episode right here. Maybe just bookmark it for now, though.

I hope Jeff got to watch Dracula one more time, at least. In 4K, on a really big screen. And I hope he left behind two or three novel-length scripts for someone else to figure out how to film. I just want to be able to reconnect with him that way, even if it’s only in flashes. There was too much of him for just two features.

You can stream Rhymes for Young Ghouls on Netflix and Crave, and Blood Quantum is supposed to be on Shudder but I got an error message. It’s on Blu-ray from Elevation Pictures, though.

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