The best filmmaker memoirs are the ones that feel like movies themselves, whether it’s the epic, melodramatic sweep of Roman by Polanski or the wry, anti-establishment farce of Luis Buñuel’s My Last Sigh. To these ranks we can now add You’re Not Dead until You’re Forgotten, John Dunning’s posthumously published autobiography, which takes its cues from the late French-Canadian B-movie impressario’s thriftily produced films. Written with the assistance of Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein, the book is fast, frank, and endearing, not in spite of its occasional cheesiness, but because of it.
“It wasn’t until I was sixteen that it occurred to me that I didn’t officially exist,” writes Dunning early on, describing the circumstances that led to him being born in Verdun, Quebec, without a birth certificate – and setting a tone of relentless self-deprecation that extends to plenty of corny jokes, yet at times also borders on existential despair.
The major contradiction of Dunning’s life was how a shy, tortured, physically infirm kid from the suburbs of Montreal developed into a formidably successful producer who was routinely referred to as the “Roger Corman of Canada.” Dunning explains that his love for movies started early, working in his father’s theatre in the 1930s. As he traces his personal development from popcorn jockey to cinema manager to self-taught distribution whiz, he also tells the story of Canadian cinema in the second half of the 20th century – a fraught history that seems more akin to a dime-store penny dreadful than a Heritage Minute.
You’re Not Dead until You’re Forgotten starts getting more familiar in its later sections, when the likes of David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman arrive on the scene, and – with Dunning’s help – start building vanguard reputations. For his part, the author expresses pride in his role in launching their careers, even as his own languished into the 1990s. That the book also starts to feel rushed toward the end is understandable given Dunning’s ill health while he was writing it; the abruptness of the conclusion is tempered by a series of testimonials by the author’s key collaborators, including Cronenberg, who regards his former producer as a kindred spirit and an “archetypal filmmaker” – another way of saying that John Dunning was a legend.