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|Written by Joe Lipsett|
|Tuesday, 05 May 2009 19:00|
Since Ottawa's Mayfair Theatre reopened in January with new owners and a more diverse line-up of films, I've kept my eye out for interesting opportunities to see movies that aren't screening anywhere else in the capital. Imagine my excitement when I found out that the Mayfair would be playing the latest film by Canadian director Bruce MacDonald (Hard Core Logo, Roadkill). The film, Pontypool, features a zombie uprising in a small Canadian town that may or may not be spread by speech, and the preview made it look pretty cool.
In preparation for seeing the film, I spent some time checking out reviews, trailers, screencaps, and online discussions. One of the interesting themes that continually recurred in the discourse concerning the film was that Pontypool could have been really great if only it had a bigger budget, more recognizable actors, and better distribution (it's been playing the festival circuit).
These complaints are familiar . . . and frustrating. I've heard them many times before, always in relation to English-language Canadian films. It got me thinking about why I'm passionate about Canadian films, and why so many Canucks avoid them like a case of swine flu.
The answer, in short, is that Canadians don't like their own cinema.
Here is a sample of responses I've received over the years from people about why they don't like our home-grown films:
"Too dark and gloomy."
"They're all cheap looking."
"Too much weird shit."
I've grown to accept these somewhat weak excuses (Oh no, dark films! Guess you didn't enjoy The Dark Knight too much, huh?), but whether or not people like Canadian films, it's important to acknowledge that they do have a role to play in our lives.
Canadian films are symbols of Canada.
The truth is that Canadians don't have a true national identity. We have an idea of who we are and what we stand for, but when asked how to differentiate ourselves from any other nation, there's a blank look. We can fall back on stereotypes (hockey, donuts, toques), but these are caricatures, not qualities. Canadian films represent this inability to define ourselves. We don't know what 'Canadian' is because there is no master narrative for the country, and this shifting status is symbolically present in films about characters, cities, and narratives that emphasize a periphery-centre (us vs. them) relationship.
Okay, sure all the gay stuff, the sex with dead people stuff, the depressing 'escape from small town in the Maritimes' plotlines may not be your cup of tea, but let's face it: this is Canada and this is who we are. These films are symbolic of the Canadian experience: we're a little uncertain of exactly who we are, we're not quite American, but we're not living in igloos either. We're just a little off-centre, that's all.
Academics studying Canadian cinema have identified recurring themes and character motifs: our males are cowards, bullies or clowns; our women are strong and empowered; our genre films are just a little off (a gunslinger showdown is interrupted by a man riding a tractor in Paperback Hero); and we have a strange love/hate relationship with the Canadian wilderness (werewolves come out of the woods in Ginger Snaps and Paul Gross gets his foot caught in a bear trap in Cold Comfort, but it's unclear if these events are any worse than Mimi Rogers' Ginger Snaps character talking about menstruation at the dinner table, or Gross being held captive by a psychotic madman and his daughter in Cold Comfort).
As much as I hate the excuses, I do recognize that there are valid reasons why Canadians don't watch Canadian films. Most of the excuses are structural in that they are based on the systemic circumstances:
1. Canada has been under the imperial thumb of the American media since the dawn of our own industry;
2. We have no system of distribution or exhibition to access Canadian films; and,
3. Nobody likes CBC (which is where a majority of the 30+ Canadian films produced each year end up)
It's not like we haven't tried commercial filmmaking before. In the '70s, when the government opened up a tax loophole for rich investors to write off 100% of their investment in Canadian films, we tried making American films for about half a decade. When the policy was closed, it was because the films it produced were garbage (a broad generalization, but also, sadly, true for the most part), and because nobody watched them. Sure, there were a few successes, including the focus of last month's Canadian Cinema Canon, Porky's, as well as Meatballs and Alfred Hitchcock's I, Confess, but for the most part the Tax Shelter Era remains a dark period in Canadian filmmaking.
A similar policy was introduced in the early 2000s to encourage the production of more commercially oriented films. The result was films like Going the Distance and Decoys* (road trip and horror films, respectively), but these efforts were also box office flops. The only successful English-language Canadian films in recent years have pretty much all stared Paul Gross. Whether this means we don't want Canadian films that use American film conventions or we just prefer their version, Canadians don't seem to enjoy Canadian commercial films very much.
So where does that leave us? We more or less continue to exist in the same cultural vacuum we have always lived in: Canadian films continue to be made and not seen, American films continue to dominate Canadian screens, and the industry in both countries trucks on.
If I could make one argument, it would be that there are Canadian films that are far more worthy of your time and money than some of the generic Hollywood blockbuster. Sure, not everyone is going to give up X-Men Origins: Wolverine to see Pontypool (if you can track it down), but maybe - just maybe - next time, instead of checking out the latest Transformers film, you'll consider checking out the cheap-looking weird-shit Canadian film that's available.
You may just find your own little symbol of yourself reflected back at you.
*Partially filmed at the University of Ottawa!
Joe Lipsett previously considered the cultural importance of contemporary horror films.
Sorry, but if movies are in French, they aren't "For Everyone".
Anglo and Franco...
I think the problem is more with English Canadian films, as Joe suggests in his article. Every time I look at a Quebec newspaper's arts section, they're releasing another one of those super-popular 'Les Boys' movies.
...suggest that the real issue (i.e. problem), then, is actually distribution. Joe seems to suggest the same thing. English Canadian films are being made; there just isn't a distribution system to get them into theatres, so they end up on the CBC at two in the morning. Alan Zweig's documentary Vinyl is one of the best documentaries I've seen, and yet the only place I've ever actually been able to watch it is on Canadian television long after Saturday Night Live has ended.
Joe, you are speaking my language.
Well said. Your best point is, "If I could make one argument, it would be that there are Canadian films that are far more worthy of your time and money than some of the generic Hollywood blockbuster."