Indigenous film, global dreams1
For most of the film critics who have given it any thought, the term “Canadian Popular Cinema” is a vexing oxymoron. In a paradox that goes a long way toward explaining the peculiarities of the subject, success in Canadian film is generally defined as failure to be popular, while popular success tends to make the “Canadianness” of a film invisible to the canon of Canadian national cinema. To wit, seven films on the list of the fifty highest-grossing films of all time in the United States (including number one) can be quite straightforwardly defined as Canadian: starring Canadian-born actors (Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers, Dan Aykroyd, Rick Moranis, Nia Vardalos) or featuring Canadian-born directors (Ivan Reitman, James Cameron).2 Of these seven, only My Big Fat Greek Wedding is usually regarded as Canadian, and then only so as to beat it with the stick of betraying the Canadian setting of Vardalos’ original screenplay, the nationality of the local crew, and the Toronto setting disguised as the more “universal” setting of Chicago. Nevertheless, box office is a standard criterion for assessing popular culture. Indeed, it is the criterion used for the Golden Reel Award, presented since 1976 by the Academy of Canadian Film and Television to the “Canadian” film with the highest domestic earnings. And here at least, the list of winners wreaks havoc with fine critical distinctions regarding Canadian national cinema. The Care Bears Movie (1986) is followed by Denys Arcand’s art-house hit Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain (1987); Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (1990) by the low-brow Québécois sketch comedy Ding et Dong le Film (1991); David Cronenberg’s cool masterpiece Crash (1996) is sandwiched between Disney’s Air Bud (1997) and the cyber-noir Johnny Mnemonic(1995).
Is it possible to posit a Canadian identity capacious enough to embrace a basketball-playing canine, a dysfunctional family of sex-addicted academics, a razor-sharp but narratively incoherent cyber-future, and a pair of down-and-out stand-up comics, goofy as only the Quebeckers can make them? As the favored national metaphor of the “Canadian mosaic” makes clear, however, such a capacious identity cannot at the same time address the radical incommensurability of the different tiles in the mosaic. In their encyclopaedic homage to Canadian pop culture, Mondo Canuck, Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond admirably demolish the invisible wall separating loyal Anglo-Canadians from those who fled to Hollywood. Another divide remains intact, however; they find room in their volume for only a single entry on Québécois film, the dubious inclusion of Claude Jutra’s masterpiece Mon Oncle Antoine, generally considered the best Canadian film ever made, but unlikely ever to have been seen by the majority of the populace. The entry on Jutra also contains a feature on “Canada’s Coolest French Language Movies,” but that list enumerates seven art-house gems, flouting the very criterion of “forms of pop with a national profile” which ostensibly structures the book.3 Fair enough as criteria go, but it still begs the question of what to do with a francophone culture that is eminently popular, is shared by around a fifth of the total population of Canada, and has placed five of its own films in the province’s twenty-one top-grossing films of all time: only six Hollywood films — the three installments of The Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, the first Harry Potter movie, and Titanic outperformed the recent hit Bon Cop Bad Cop on its home ground, with the historical melodrama Séraphin just behind, trailing only Spiderman 2 — and note that the top film on the list prominently features the dulcet tones of Quebec’s own Céline Dion (who does get her entry in Mondo Canuck), not to mention the expatriate talents of Mr. Cameron. We can say, in other words, that what to do with the success of Canadians in Hollywood and what to do with the success of Canadians in Quebec are the two great divides that haunt the familiar refrain of Canadian cinema studies over the four decades or so since Toronto produced its first feature film, the refrain that ponders in despair: why is Anglo-Canadian film so unpopular?
This essay has two goals: first, to take a long, hard look at the artificial divisions that drive popular and critical perceptions of Canadian cinema; second, to discover what, if any, qualities unite the disparate components that in fact shape this cinema as a whole. I begin with the divide between Canada and Hollywood, with a close look at the frankly commercial productions of the “tax shelter” years (1974-1983), followed by a comparison of comic Canadians in Hollywood and indigenous English-Canadian productions. The second part of the essay studies the “solitude” of the commercially healthy Québécois industry and its shifting relationship to the rest of Canada and the rest of the world. I conclude with a brief consideration of English-Canadian cinema in the new context of these divisions. In writing this essay, I have, for the most part, not concerned myself overly much with standards of artistic value. Although artistic value is an important evaluative component in reviewing a film, and in many types of textual analysis, I do not find that it is the most effective mode in which to write cultural history today. Rather, what becomes apparent in the present context is that auteurist approaches and modernist illusions about the creative and economic independence of the filmmaker artist that dominated cinema studies during the 1960s and ’70s, when they had a fair amount of interpretive validity in both the creation and the distribution of world cinema, have lost much of their validity in a globalized market in which filmmakers, actors, technicians, and producers move readily between diverse categories and genres of film that continue to be rigidly maintained by many critics. A closer look at the divergent perceptions and realities of the great divides of Canadian cinema can in fact tell us a good deal about the theory and practice of national and global filmmaking in the new century.
Canadians in Hollywood and Hollywood in Canada
Canada is the essence of not being. Not English, not American. It is the mathematic of not being. — Mike Myers
The Canadianness of certain stretches of Hollywood is nowhere near as invisible, at least north of the border, as it was a couple of decades ago. Indeed, Canada’s authoritative biweekly business journal, Canadian Weekly, celebrated this new visibility when in 2005 it inaugurated an annual Celebrity Power List of Canadians in Hollywood, and signaled that a new generation of invisible Canadians — the anodyne likes of Brendan Fraser, Avril Lavigne, Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling, Matthew Perry, and the newest and blandest leading man, Star Wars’ Hayden Christensen — are safely ensconced down south.4 Mondo Canuck provides similar evidence of a relaxation in the strict delineation between party-liners and defectors: it sports blurbs from Atom Egoyan and Naomi Klein on the back cover, and the authors revel, if somewhat self-consciously, in claiming Pamela Anderson (#1 on Canadian Weekly‘s 2005 list, #2 the following year), William Shatner (#5 both years), and Keanu Reeves (#3 both years) as their own. The catholic boosterism of Wyndham Wise’s Toronto-based magazine Take One has pursued the same tack over the past fifteen years, devoting several issues to famous Canadians in guides that promiscuously mix locals and expats in an attempt to put the historical record straight.5 Still, Wise’s editorial policy is otherwise carefully restricted to Canadian content; historical features note the presence of Hollywood Canadians but contemporary coverage basically ignores them. Like most such distinctions, this editorial divide is purely conceptual. Toronto is the second-largest film and television production center in North America; already ten years ago, Canadian animation was a $150 million dollar a year industry, and Canadian animators and programmers north and south of the border have been responsible for an impressive number of innovations in the field over the last couple of decades.6 Moreover, nearly every one of the most highly-lauded filmmakers of the Ontario New Wave, the heart of definitions of recent Canadian cinema, has worked on both sides of the divide, and sometimes in a highly self-conscious meditation on the process, as in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park, or Bruce McDonald’s Picture Claire. Egoyan and Rozema have dabbled in television; McDonald has embraced it, both the cult Canadian series Twitch City and Toronto-made American content, including eight episodes of the Showtime series Queer as Folk; nearly all of the show was directed by English-Canadians, among others established “independent” directors Kari Skogland, Jeremy Podeswa, Thom Jones, and John Fawcett. Iconic actors such as Callum Keith Rennie, Sarah Polley, Molly Parker, and Don McKellar have demonstrated an ability to move even more smoothly between one mode of work and the other, simultaneously juggling television, Hollywood, and “Canadian” film work. Others, such as Mia Kirshner, used two striking turns in Anglo-Canadian art film — Egoyan’s Exotica(1994) and Arcand’s Love and Human Remains (1993) — to transition from bit work in Canadian television to high-profile roles in American film and television, including The Black Dahlia (2006), 24, and the Vancouver-shot L Word.
But to what degree does the presence of these actors qualify their work as Canadian? Can we, for example, consider Sarah Polley’s star turn in Dawn of the Dead (2004) to have any relevance to Canadian popular cinema, beyond the fact that the film was shot in Toronto and also featured a cast more than 50% Canuck?7 One route is to refer to the long history of what many writers have seen as the bland and unthreatening leading Canuck men from Walter Pidgeon and Glenn Ford to William Shatner and Christopher Plummer and the female counterpart Pevere and Dymond define as “Ice Cream Canuck,” “as pure and nice as a downy snowfall,” embodied in Mary Pickford and Deanna Durbin.8 And certainly the steel-willed moral compass Polley so memorably embodied in the teenaged incest victim in Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter resonates in her role as a Milwaukee nurse in Dawn, just as it does in supporting parts in big-budget productions such as Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim (2000) and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Weight of Water (2000). Fredric Jameson famously argued that every third-world narrative is an allegory of colonialism, and it wouldn’t be hard to see Polley’s outspoken social consciousness and well-known left-wing views motivating her choice of roles (and filmmakers’ choice of casting her) in a way that inflects her character in a manner analogous to the use of Ving Rhames as her co-star, referencing the long debate about the significance of George Romero’s use of African-American actors in his original zombie trilogy. Granted, Polley’s iconic weight is invisible in a way that the race of an actor seldom can be, but that invisibility befits the trademark invisibility of English-Canadian identity. Polley’s characters throw their weight around through silence; for example, her character sabotages the scheme of lawyer Mitchell Stephens (played by Brit Ian Holm) in The Sweet Hereafter by omission rather than commission.
What distinguishes actors such as Polley, Rennie, Parker, and even Kirshner, and directors such as Egoyan, McDonald, or the francophone Léa Pool from actors such as Reeves, Carrey, and Myers and directors such as Norman Jewison, Reitman, and Ted Kotcheff is that the former straddle the divide, crossing back and forth — some, of course, more successfully than others — and retaining the allegorical weight of their dual identity on both sides. True Hollywood Canadians, by contrast, have a Canadian identity only in their invisibility. They are visible, that is, only for Canadians intent on claiming them as their own, alert to hidden signs of those actors’ Canadianness or exercised at the lack of any such signs. Like Québécois star Roy Dupuis’ tenure on the Canadian-produced cable television series Nikita (U.S. La Femme Nikita), Rennie’s work on a number of series, including guest appearances on Canadian-produced shows The X-Files, The L-Word, and Smallville, and a major role as an American police detective in the popular export series Due South, provides face recognition in the States but registers as Canadian only at home. The ability to recognize Canadian locations, Canadian faces, and Canadian dollars masquerading within American hit television series itself provides a common, oppositional, subversive identity that is uniquely Canadian because unavailable to any other national culture. At the same time, recognition of those same locations, faces, and money used in indigenous product provides an equally strong reassurance that something uniquely Canadian is being preserved. As Rennie puts it, “I prefer living the life I want to live and I can do that far easier in Canada. I’ve never participated in L.A. the way one is supposed to as an actor. … Maybe there’s more melancholy here, more desperation. I do believe different places make you focus differently.”9 Or, as we read in a feature on Polley discussing the simultaneous release of Dawn and the English-Canadian hockey gambling movie Luck, “It’s shocking to see Canada’s girl from Avonlea hold her own in a brutal horror movie.”10 Both statements reveal the underlying assumption of a preserved identity — and many Canadians, I am sure, would have no problem reading the consumerist subtext of the film in terms of Canadian human beings versus American zombies. As Polley tartly responded to a Hollywood interviewer’s question “If you could shoot a celebrity who would it be?” “I said George Bush would be No. 1. There was this huge silence. Then this pained hissing sound as she looked at me with these shark eyes.”11
There is a simple explanation for the fact that film professionals, writers, and fans cope perfectly well with this situation on a practical basis and yet still observe the great divide in their perceptions: the collective trauma known as the tax shelter years, when, common wisdom has it, Canadian cinema was held hostage to the money-grubbing forces of Hollywood. The tax shelter years extended from the passage of the 1974 Capital Cost Allowance Act legislating a 100% capital cost tax deduction for any film produced with a certain percentage of Canadian funding, actors, and crew, until the deduction was reduced to 50% in 1983. The period peaked in the unprecedented production of seventy Canadian films in 1979, the high-water mark, quantitatively, of the industry.12 This period has also long been regarded as the nadir of the industry, the height of its invisibility as a national cinema, and the source of a slew of films, some commercially successful, some not, with nothing whatsoever to do with Canadian cinema, notwithstanding their having been funded with government money, involved Canadian actors and crews, and been shot on Canadian locations.13 If nothing else, the near unanimity of critical vituperation is symptomatic of the seminal importance of this period for defining, if only negatively, the identity of Canadian cinema over the past twenty years; moreover, it was precisely during this period and under its influence that nearly every one of the filmmakers now considered the cream of Canadian national cinema began their careers.
A revisionist look at the period has long been in order, and it has slowly started to take shape, somewhat piecemeal, over the past few years, primarily under the umbrella of cultural studies, approaching the period less with regard for formal quality than in terms of theme and ideology. Urquhart’s is the most thoroughgoing piece of revisionism; he concludes with a close reading of three “ignored” tax shelter films made in 1979 — Suzanne (Robin Spry, 1980), Yesterday (Larry Kent, 1981), and Hot Dogs (Claude Fournier, 1980) — which, he argues, are heavily invested in a discourse of national unity in the shadow of the Quebec referendum of 1980.14 According to Randy Thiessen, the proverbial sellout Porky’s, until recently the highest-grossing Canadian film ever, offers in fact a typically Canadian analysis and subversion of Hollywood images of masculinity.15 Caelum Vatnsdal has uncovered discernibly “Canadian” content in such tax shelter horror films as My Bloody Valentine (1980) and Deadly Eyes (1982); indeed, he makes a convincing argument that the resolutely low-brow, mostly exploitation-based genre filmmaking covered in his history of “hoser horror” constitute a veritable branch of Canadian cinema, if a branch decidedly checkered in quality.16
Both Urquhart and Vatnsdal make double-pronged arguments for opening up the conception of Canadian national cinema to encompass the production of the tax shelter years. First, they argue that the productions must be regarded as Canadian by virtue of their local popularity and their (however compromised) Canadian origins. “It’s not an expression of nationalism as much as a simple appreciation of the sometimes shameful, sometimes hilariously skewed cultural mirror the films hold up to us,” writes Vatnsdal on the “legitimacy” of his “irrational attachment” to tax-shelter horror films.17 Second, they both single out films that intertwine Canadian settings and preoccupations — the Cape Breton mining town location of the “creative kills” of My Bloody Valentine; the moral culture clash of undisguised Montreal amidst raunchy sex comedy in Hot Dogs. At the same time, both writers argue that an account of the tax shelter years must take these films “as they are” rather than as critical preconceptions have them to be. Implicitly, both thus call for a contextualized understanding of Canadian cinema beyond the highly subjective and historically unreliable criteria of quality.
Since Canada is invisible in the ostensibly Floridean setting of Porky’s, Thiessen’s recuperation of the film takes a solely thematic approach, arguing that the “excessiveness” of the film’s representation of masculine ideology “functions as a critique of that masculinity and how it has typically been represented in film.”18 A classical reading against the grain of the film’s surface, Thiessen’s essay accumulates enough evidence to persuade of the possibility of a “very Canadian resistance” wrought into the explicitly exploitative structure of the original gross-out teen comedy. Indeed, this author at least has always seen in the hapless protagonists’ desperate efforts to penetrate the floating and paradisal confines of Porky’s whorehouse a displaced allegory of Canadian filmmakers’ ambivalent and insecure desire to penetrate the paradisal confines of Hollywood from their northern outposts. As with the “radical inadequacy” of so many male Canadian protagonists, the fraught relationship of the great divide is a time-honored trope of Canadian art cinema, from the strategic casting of Ian Holm as poaching lawyer in Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter and the unctuous agent tempting the Passion Play’s cast in Arcand’s Jésus of Montreal, to the more explicit reworkings in Bruce McDonald’s mockumentary Hard Core Logo (1996, above), where the lead guitarist is defecting to the commercial indie California group Jenifur or in Don McKellar’s Childstar (2004), where the experimental filmmaker/driver ends up frolicking in an L. A. beach house with Jennifer Jason Leigh.19 Neither explicit content nor implicit theme are the exclusive province of art film, or of good films (Urquhart and Vatnsdal are tactful enough not to enumerate the number of Canadian art films that fail the quality test without offering even the less rarified pleasures of the genre film in compensation; nor do they mention that the art film tends to rely almost as heavily on sex and violence to drive its narrative as horror, soft-core, and sex comedy do).
Long-time producer Peter O’Brian’s directorial debut, the 2003 film Hollywood North, took the subject of the tax shelter years head-on and produced a typical English-Canadian comedy — given a generous $7 million budget, it failed to land a U.S. distributor and went straight to DVD — that, he claimed, he had been trying to get funded since the script first came to his attention in 1983. Boasting an extremely clever set-up, courtesy of two screenwriters with intimate experience of the tax shelter years, Hollywood North tells the story of an enthusiastic young “Canadian” lawyer (Matthew Modine) who buys the rights to a classic Canadian novel, Lantern Moon. In order to get it produced, however, he must hire a washed-up and coked-up action star (Alan Bates), a senile “Canadian” director (John Neville) and a nymphomaniac “Canadian” starlet (Jennifer Tilly) and reimagine the whole thing as the action picture Escape from Bogotá. The first joke is that the major roles are all played by non-Canadians; the exception is Sandy Ryan (Deborah Kara Unger), an experimental filmmaker who, under the guise of shooting a making-of documentary, sneaks her own project — an avant-garde Anglo-Québécois Romeo and Juliette — through processing under Bogotá‘s rapidly disappearing budget. Sandy wraps her film, leaving Bobby in the lurch and the film in the can. Hollywood North is replete with in-jokes — posters of Cronenberg’s tax shelter classic Shivers fill the background as Bobby inks the deal; the novelist, visiting the set, comments, “If God were Canadian, he would come down and destroy this production.” Unfortunately, the execution does not for the most part live up to the script, and, while the depiction of the excesses and disasters of the period is spot on, the film neither moves past its easy target nor functions consistently as straight satire. O’Brian has claimed that the twenty-year delay in bringing the script to life was due to the industry not being ready yet to laugh at itself. Choosing to cast Americans in the Canadian roles while Canadians called the shots off-screen is a clever reversal, but the inability or lack of desire to cast actual Canadians as themselves — a strategy that worked so well in Robert Altman’s analogous satire, The Player (1992) — suggests that Anglo-Canadian insecurity still has not recovered from the tax shelter years.
Doubtless the tax shelter years hold a few surprise discoveries of real quality; what they offer in much greater quantity is the cultural material for a detailed case study of the interaction in Hollywood North between Canadian and American modes of production and national identities, a case study that would be all the more effective if combined with a study of that same interaction in Hollywood itself. I suspect that if one were to produce a Bordwell-style formal analysis of the tropes of classical Canadian Hollywood cinema, one would find a predominance of the so-called Canadian themes not matched by a control group of non-Canadian cinema, but complemented in fascinating ways by the Canadian content of the tax-shelter films. This does not mean that the films will suddenly turn out to be closet Egoyan or Rozema, but that careful readings outside of the conventional perception of lack of meaning will reveal unforeseen connections.
There is not space here to perform such an analysis, but I do want to discuss briefly the highest-profile contribution of Canadians to popular cinema of the past thirty years — comedy — and suggest some of the ways in which this genre is reflected in the failed commercialism of English Canadian cinema. The Canadian domination of modern sketch comedy is well-known north of the border and even sensed vaguely in the States. Not only did Toronto’s Second City spawn John Candy, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and, later, Mike Myers, stars of comedy shows SCTV and Saturday Night Live, but, as Pevere and Dymond note, Toronto native Lorne Michaels was basically responsible for making the careers of all of the early SNL stars, who were unknown before he cast them on the show.20 The expert parody and deadpan gags that punctuate the low-brow action of Ivan Reitman’s wildly successful comedies from Meatballs (1979) and Stripes (1981) through Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II (1989) arise from this source, too, as do those of so many of the movies spun off of sketch characters, a film genre SNL andSCTV brought to a new height of exploitation, including Bob and Doug McKenzie’s hoser epic, Strange Brew (1983), a rare example of blockbuster English-Canadian comedy. In the following decade, the two biggest movie comedy stars were Southern Ontario natives Carrey and Myers, both of whom began their careers as impersonators and parodists, immersed in the pre-cable culture of network television and syndication reruns.
The Canadian domination of sketch comedy has given rise to arguments that the genre’s form itself is indebted to Canadian modes of relating to pop culture; in particular, as Pevere and Dymond suggest of Carrey, “a certain segment of the Canadian sensibility … forged in the electronic-age identity gap between where you live and what you watch.”21 In other words, the “specifically Canadian dilemma to sort out the differences between images imagined for us by ourselves and images imagined for us by other people,” has come to mirror that peculiar global sensibility once termed “postmodern” and now usually called “ironic” whereby life in general is lived out in a gap “between where you live and what you watch.”22 It is, moreover, a sensibility regarding media with roots dating back to Marshall McLuhan and defining Anglo-Canadian art cinema as much as its pop culture exports, most famously in Egoyan’s brittle depiction of what he defines as the projected image as a “screen,” a container of something of personal significance to the viewer at the same time as a receptacle of passive spectatorship.23 As director Lynne Stopewich expresses the same idea, “We’re constantly defining ourselves through difference. Our culture is owned by the Americans. You’re always looking in, always pressing your face up against the glass. It’s a great place to be, because it gives you a distance from which you can be critical, not just of the other but of yourself at the same time.”24 Like her Vancouver compatriot Gary Burns, Stopewich works through this difference by using our expectations of Hollywood genre conventions in deflected and unexpected ways, although Burns plays these twists more for satirical humor in films such as waydowntown, while Stopewich wrings them for shock value in Kissed and Suspicious River.
An attitude of distanced but passionate appropriation equally permeates Don McKellar and Bruce McDonald’s numerous collaborations, not only the films Roadkill (1990), where McKellar’s neophyte character boasts of appropriating the American tradition of the serial killer to rural Ontario, and Highway 61 (1992), where McKellar’s hapless cornet player finds himself traveling from Thunder Bay through the heartland of American clichés to New Orleans, but also in the cult CBC comedy series Twitch City(1998-2000), where McKellar’s couch potato Curtis watches TV all day while trying out new roommates. Even more than McKellar and McDonald, who scatter allusions to pop culture through all levels of their work, from music to dialogue to casting, the critical writing and filmmaking of Winnipeggers Guy Maddin, Noam Gonick, John Paisz, and Caelum Vatnsdal reflect an attitude of simultaneous immersion in and alienation from Hollywood genre movies that they clearly regard as quintessentially Canadian. Promiscuously blending popular genres without regard for a unified form, neither parodic nor straight, simultaneously global in their tropes and local in their settings and production, their films appeal both to Canadian critics and to popular subcultures: Tales from the Gimli Hospital played a year as a midnight movie in Greenwich Village; Gonick’s first feature, Hey Happy! (2001), was marketed primarily as gay porn; Top of the Food Chain (1999), Paisz’s pure pastiche of 1950s sf alien flicks was released on DVD as Invasion! Although they may easily be watched by an American audience without noticing the Winnipeg content, local settings and allusions (Officer Gayle in Invasion! is introduced blasting native sons Bachman Turner Overdrive in his police cruiser) abound, just as Mike Myers insists on incorporating Canadian allusions, or “messages to home,” as he calls them, into his Hollywood vehicles.25
Jennifer VanderBurgh argues in her comparison of publicity materials for Ghostbusters and Videodrome that what is at issue is a perception of English-Canadian cinema rather than necessarily a reality.26 The same perception is at play more generally in the examples I have discussed here. While there are extremes — experimental Canadian films that are never exhibited commercially or shown beyond the confines of their sites of production; Hollywood transplants who have carefully expunged any allusion to their northern heritage — the majority of products of English Canada, Hollywood, and Hollywood North are mixed bags, just as the majority of Canadians in film work simultaneously, alternately, or sequentially in all three milieus. What’s more, one could easily argue that the extremes described above are equally defined by what they so carefully exclude, as much in Bruce Elder’s seminal rejection of commercial filmmaking as in James Cameron’s flight to Hollywood.27 Although the long-maintained opposition between cultural specificity and economic recoupment (to borrow VanderBurgh’s expression of the terms) that grew out of modernist manifestoes of independence from the marketplace was never especially applicable to a medium that has been defined in economic terms since its technology was perfected by inventors and manufacturers such as Edison and the Lumière brothers, it has over the past couple of decades become an increasingly untenable ideology. This is not to say that degrees of artistic integrity are no longer relevant, nor that some products express form and content in more artistically successful ways than others, nor that standards of quality no longer apply. But it does mean that criticism needs to become as adept as members of the industry long ago became at negotiating the multiplicity of interconnected modes of contemporary film production, and view it as a range of possible choices, each posing a series of advantages and disadvantages and bringing with it a set of economic and representational consequences — a situation not so different structurally than the multicultural identity that has long defined Canada as, in Scott MacKenzie’s words, “the first postmodern and perhaps postnational state.”28
In a Galaxy near You
Anglophones tend to see Hollywood as the Mecca of film. Francophones, for their part, prefer to challenge Hollywood without at the same time having to uproot themselves from the cultural map: they want first to succeed at home.
— Michael Spencer and Susan Ayscough, Hollywood in Montreal
The very existence of a vibrant commercial film culture with an identity apparently quite independent of Hollywood both ratifies MacKenzie’s assertion about Canada and disqualifies it. There is, on the surface, little that is problematic about defining Québécois cinema as a national cinema — little, that is, except the province’s uneasy status as part of the larger unit that is Canada rather than an independent nation. As the hit film adaptation of the hit sci-fi comedy TV series expressed it in its title, Dans une Galaxie Près de Chez Vous,Québec is geographically right there but culturally way out there. Consequently, while the great divide between English Canada and Hollywood is constituted by problems of invisibility and sameness, the divide between English Canada and Quebec is built on painfully visible issues of difference. This difference is visible in a number of ways beyond the language barrier. First, there is the critical tendency either to treat Anglo-Canadian and Québécois as wholly distinct cinemas, or to treat the films of both traditions solely in terms of art cinema, what André Loiselle has termed “English Canada’s Quebec cinema.”29 Meanwhile, Anglophone critics and Telefilm Canada bemoan the seeming inability of English Canadian films to match Québécois cinema’s appeal to a popular audience (at least in Canada). Québécois critics exhibit pride in the province’s indigenous industry while refusing to pay serious attention to the genre fare that until recently constituted the lion’s share of the local box office.
And the genre fare is certainly idiosyncratic, steeped in the unique history of a province that until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s was as conservative and isolated as anywhere in the world, exploited economically by English Canada, ruled with an authoritarian and paternalistic hand by the conservative Catholic postwar government of Maurice Duplessis. Moreover, as Bill Marshall has observed, Quebec’s relationship to France is far more conflicted and far more profound than Anglophone Canada’s relationship to England, since France is simultaneously a colonial master and a model of cultural resistance.30 Québécois cinema has long claimed a market share in excess of 15% (far greater than Anglo-Canada’s scant 1%), but this market share was first established at the end of the 1960s by a series of films (scandalously) funded by the CFDC and produced by Cinépix, known in Anglophone circles as “maple syrup porn” and at home more literally as “films de fesses” (“butt movies”) or films de cul” (“ass movies”).31 Rather than the sophisticated and cosmopolitan sex farces and melodramas France had been exporting since the rise of Brigitte Bardot in the late fifties, maple syrup porn was, as Loiselle argues, heavily indebted to the episodic plotting and subversive tradition of the burlesque, which it framed in a conservative and depoliticized structure that provided tidy closure of any liberation its display may have implied.32 Following her liberation from the convent to become a topless dancer and exclusive call-girl, for example, the eponymous heroine of Denis Héroux’s blockbuster Valérie (1969) finds happiness and motherhood in a conventional marriage.
Similar to the unbridled sexuality of post-Franco cinema in Spain, Québécois film combines free sexuality, rebellious individualism, and a certain crudeness of expression with social conservatism and a view of sexual politics quite at odds with those in Anglophone Canada or the United States. As Vatnsdal writes of Cinépix’s preference of Cronenberg’s script for the horror shocker Shivers (1975) over the softcore picture he wanted them to give him, “a horror movie, rather than another Catholic sex farce, would be the best way to get Cinépix products into the puritanical United States.”33 Horror, with its sexualized violence and ritualized sadomasochism, until quite recently was restricted to English Canada; whether in soft-core or the closely related sex farces that make up the bulk of popular Québécois cinema, the belle province has always preferred the more straightforward carnivalesque of burlesque. Rather than individuals struggling against violent forces beyond their control — a fitting allegory of an Anglo-Canadian struggle for identity against a rampaging Hollywood behemoth perhaps — this burlesque tradition, as Loiselle stresses, highlights “the body as a pantomimic tool of resistance against oppression, quite literally snaking its way out of impasses and achieving sexual gratification.”34 Rather than horror’s stress on loss of control over the body, evident most famously in Cronenberg’s body horror but a hallmark of the Canadian genre in general, the sex comedies that dominated the last decades of the twentieth century stress the body’s search for liberation, pleasure, and autonomy.
Cruising Bar (1989, Robert Ménard), the highest locally grossing Québécois film of the eighties, is paradigmatic of what Loiselle terms the “farcical primitivism” of the province’s indigenous comedy.35 Cruising Bar is dominated by Michel Côté’s virtuoso performance in four separate loser roles: Jean-Jacques the Pawn, a philandering spare car parts dealer; Gérard the Bull, a metrosexual ’80s yuppie; Patrice the Lion, a mulleted cokehead; and Serge the Earthworm, a spotty geek, all out looking for sex on a Saturday night. One of the province’s most enduringly popular actors, Côté has played (and won awards for) both comic and serious roles for nearly thirty years; he is equally celebrated locally for his starring role in the long-running (1979-2006) theatrical sketch comedy Broue. Like Broue, Cruising Bar is built around its character studies rather than a narrative; events are highly compressed, and comprehensible only in the four-way comparison driven by extensive cross-cutting between optimistic preparations for seduction, comically pitiful and degrading efforts to succeed, and final solitary misery, with the single, deus ex machina exception of Serge. Jean-Jacques ends up trapped in bed with his wife at a singles hotel for middle-aged swingers; Gérard’s hook-up ends in impotent humiliation; Patrice’s failure to stay clean loses him once again the girlfriend he has just won back. Serge suffers the greatest set of trials, battered in a slam-dancing new-wave bar, then cornered by a very large and amorous suitor in a gay bar, before finally being gifted with a trophy girl at the film’s conclusion.
As Loiselle argues, the burlesque film’s happy reversal of loser into winner runs counter to the Anglo-Canadian convention of loser heroes, a tradition that equally characterizes the “quality” Québécois films canonized by that tradition, from Mon Oncle Antoine through Déclin‘s serial philanderer Rémy.36 It is quite fascinating to viewDéclin, the second biggest hit of the eighties, in the context of comedies such as Cruising Bar, and not only because Rémy Girard would become a prominent figure in them, starring not only in the 1993 hit La Florida, but in the wildly successful franchise of ice-hockey films,Les Boys (1997-2005; # 4, 6, 7, and 12 among Québécois films, and #20, 23, 25, and 52 on the all-time list, head-to-head against Hollywood). Cruising Bar is patently a response to Déclin, its loser-quartet a parodically mundane refraction of Déclin‘s glamorously hedonistic academic males. The connection is stressed by the casting of Geneviève Rioux, who plays the grad student cum massage girl, arguably the most positive character in Déclin, as Patrice’s beautiful ex-girlfriend in Cruising Bar, the only character in the film whose physical appearance and desires are not thoroughly mocked.
Arcand’s men are financially and sexually successful (at least in the terms set by the genre); they are articulate and smugly content with their lot in life. The women are every bit their equal financially and sexually — even the exploited adjunct Diane (Louise Portal) and the grad student Danielle appear relatively comfortable with their current lot in life. While, as Loiselle suggests, Déclin owes its local success to “the sexual humor and sensual imagery” that document the octet’s “apolitical hedonism,”37 it is equally important to distinguish its slick visuals, masterful dialogue, and tight narrative construction from the episodic parody, slapstick humor, and ramshackle production values that characterize the rest of the genre. Rather than playing to the locals, Déclin is supremely conscious of its place in the rest of the world, not merely through the thematic thread captured in its title, but also in realizing characters whose accents and desires are comprehensible beyond the borders of Québec (part of the reason for the film’s success in France was that it could be released without subtitles). Moreover, the presence of Yves Jacques’ unapologetically gay and sexually active Claude as a member of the quartet not only raised the titillation quotient, it also marked one of the first appearances in mainstream cinema of a gay character qua character, not to mention one of the first cinematic depictions of HIV/AIDS as a mainstream fact of life rather than the scourge of a marginal subculture.
The film’s long first movement, cross-cutting between the four women exchanging anecdotes at a health club and the men exchanging anecdotes while they prepare an elaborate meal, does closely mimic the episodic and comparative structure of Québécois comedy. While disrupting certain expectations — the women are working out while the men are cooking — this opening meets others — the episodes are sexually explicit, smart, and often very funny. Furthermore, the images of the flashback tend to deflate the words of Rémy, the character who physically and behaviorally most resembles the genre’s conventionally bumbling losers, depicting his obsessive philandering as a series of comic humiliations rather than the smooth conquests his words tend to suggest. Rémy’s stories also include an episode of racial and gender stereotyping the equal in crude offensiveness of anything in the genre. Rémy takes a visiting African professor disappointed with his inability to seduce a Western woman to find a prostitute on the rue Ste-Catherine; they eventually bungle into a transvestite, a moment, needless to say, of the utmost embarrassment to them. To be sure, the characters’ uncensored and unapologetic opinions are an important component of Déclin‘s originality; as opposed to the typical Québécois comedy, they equally beg the question of the film’s condemnation of its characters’ refusal to face the consequences of their opinions and actions that structures the denouement. Rather than the comic structure of its generic relatives, Déclin is, strictly speaking, a tragedy, with Rémy brought low by Dominique’s calculated betrayal of the secrets of a serial infidelity that all concerned had, up to that point, treated as comedy.
The refusal to cater to the norms of polite discourse as regards race, class, and gender is part of what constitutes popular Québécois cinema’s self-identification as other; like the accented speech itself, nearly incomprehensible to outsiders, it is a badge of honor, a marker of the degree to which a film refuses to aspire to an audience and a relevance beyond its own province. Arcand has proven adept at straddling the divide, appealing to both audiences equally. The homophobia that motivates the humiliation of Serge in Cruising Bar can be read in this sense as a riposte to Déclin‘s cosmopolitan sophistication, just as the transmutation of Claude’s gay cruiser into Gérard’s effete but heterosexual Don Juan reduces and contains an autonomous and comfortably other sexual identity within the safe codes of failed heterosexuality. We are not meant to judge Cruising Bar‘s quartet, nor are we meant to judge bit players such as the homosexual monster who ravages Serge; we are meant to laugh at the exaggerations while enjoying their transgressive excess. The same holds true in a comic drama such as Les Boys, when one of the team of middle-aged losers (the yuppie lawyer, naturally) is outed by a partner fitted with so many cliché of queerness that even the previous year’s Birdcage pales in comparison. In good comic tradition, however, even the gay loser can be redeemed in the end — all of the couples are present as the unlikely team scores an improbable victory over the skilled opposition of the “goons.”
The comedy genre inaugurated by the episodic and satirical sketches in films such as Cruising Bar and Ding et Dong, le Film dominated the Québécois box office until quite recently.38 Indeed, its only competition for popularity has been the venerable historical melodrama, which had its origins in the postwar Duplessis years: the lucrative 1949 adaptation of the radio play Un Homme et Son Péché and its sequelSéraphin (1950), and the 1951 blockbuster, La Petite Aurore, l’Enfant Martyre, based on a “true story” from the end of World War I, in which the young Aurore is tortured to death by her evil stepmother — even the noble cure cannot save her. A telling representation of the ideology of the Duplessis years, La Petite Aurore has also long been recognized for the national allegory it clearly expresses.39 Present in ironized and refracted form in Jutra’s brilliant portrait of provincial life in Mon Oncle Antoine, as well as in his later adaptation of Anne Hébert’s frontier novel Kamouraska, the historical melodrama returned full force in the 1980s as a series of collaborative efforts, many of them produced simultaneously as extended miniseries for television and as feature films for the cinema. Most successful was Les Plouffe (1980, Gilles Carle), an account of the struggles of a working-class family in 1940s Montreal, based, as so many were, on an earlier novel (1948), radio serial (1952), and television series (1953-59). Maria Chapdelaine (1983, Gilles Carle), based on a 1913 novel, and adapted by the French in 1934 and 1950, is even closer to the formative mythology of the province. Set on a remote farm, it chronicles the choices of young Maria (Carole Laure) between a local farmer, a suitor returned with wealth from Boston, and a rugged logger, or coureur de bois, for whom, of course, she tragically falls. The savage beauty and brutal isolation of the north Québéc woods is a constant theme in the melodramas, often paired with the more liberated and cosmopolitan life in the big city.
Whereas the comedies are primarily centered around issues of masculinity, female characters take center stage in melodrama, as is typical of the genre. The heroines carry a substantial allegorical weight as personifications of la belle province, torn between the compromised values of city-based wealth, the deadening routine and harsh poverty of rural homesteading, and the wild romance of going native. The genre was primarily confined to television during the 1990s, especially in the 20-episode saga of Les Filles de Caleb (1990, Jean Beaudin), viewed by nearly half the population of Québec, and its equally popular sequel Blanche (1993, Charles Binamé), both adapted from a series of novels by Arlette Cousure which follow the travails of a mother and then her daughter from the late nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth. Both series use the central female figure to dramatize the tension between forces of modernization and tradition, with Catholic morality occupying a complex middle ground. In Les Filles de Caleb, Emilie (Marina Orsini) chooses Ovila (Roy Dupuis, above with Orsini) over her career as schoolteacher, and ends up raising her family on her own after her husband leaves her for the wilds of Abitibi. In the sequel, Emilie’s daughter Blanche (Pascale Bussières) cannot bring herself to sacrifice her dream to be a doctor to marry her beloved Napoléon (David La Haye). Moving to Montreal, prejudice forces her to settle for nursing school; her career takes her, after a number of tragedies, to Abitibi as well, where she battles pettiness and prejudice to establish herself as the only medical resource in the region. As with Aurore, Blanche’s name signals her allegory meaning; we find in her a message that frames feminism and progressive choices within a narrative framework that punishes every attempt at liberation. When it finally rewards her, she is allowed to marry the simple and good man Clovis (Patrice L’Ecuyer), who rescues her after her dispensary burns to the ground.
The series demonstrate the fluid boundary between television and film: star-making vehicles for coureur de bois Dupuis as well as for Bussières; they were directed by two accomplished filmmakers, and featured the same supporting cast visible at the cinema. Binamé would parlay his success with Blanche into an art film trilogy (Eldorado, 1998, Le Coeur au Poing, 1998, La Beauté de Pandora, 2000), but his lasting impact would be in melodrama. He followed up Blanche with the 11-episodeMarguérite Volant (1996), also starring Bussières, and set this time in the eighteenth-century aftermath of the Seven Years’ War. Seven years later, Binamé restored the historical melodrama to the silver screen with a glossy remake of the fifties film, radio, and television serial, Séraphin: un Homme et Son Péché, which grossed over $9 million in Québec, the most successful local film ever until eclipsed by Bon Cop Bad Cop in 2006. Dupuis reprised his coureur de bois role, while relative newcomer Karine Vanasse played his young beloved who is forced to marry North Country miser Séraphin (Pierre Lebeau) to save her father’s (Rémy Girard) general store. Refusing to consummate her love for Alexis (Dupuis), Donalda (Vanasse) eventually lets herself die from the cold, trapped by the incompatibility of individual passion and social morality.
Not surprisingly, the success of Séraphin led to a flurry of historical dramas and biopics — Nouvelle-France (2004, Jean Beaudin; on the Conquest), Le Survenant(2005, Erik Canuel; turn-of-the century), Aurore (2005, Luc Dionne, a remake of the 1951 film), Monica la Mitraille (2004, Pierre Houle, on the life of the famous Montreal bank robber, Machine Gun Molly), Ma Vie en Cinemascope (2004, Denise Filiatrault, on the tragic life of the legendary singer Alys Robi, played by Pascale Bussières), and Maurice Richard (2005, Binamé, on the hockey legend, played by Roy Dupuis).40 With the notable exception of Maurice Richard, these films all treat central female characters who suffer either through love with coureur de bois figures (the first two) or from the circumstances of their own lives and choices. Certainly, there is a time-honored symmetry in the way that comic male anarchy balances tragic female melodrama. In the obsessive revisiting of specific historical myths and moments there is also a certain masochistic voyeurism, as if watching over and over again tragedies that could not be prevented. The remakes are not revisionist, however, in the way that 1960s and ’70s westerns corrected the triumphalist mythology of the American west. The female bio-pics are a new addition, and they combine the convention of suffering virtuous women with a new sense of empowerment and accomplishment — Alys Robi, after all, was the first globally successful Québécoise of either sex, but the film stresses her battle between the Church’s rigid moral strictures and her love for a married man. The specifically Québécois, expressed through the desires of the central female protagonists, is inevitably at odds with outside forces, whether they be imposed authorities of church and state or the economic forces of money and colonial exploitation. The spectacle, too, glorifies the indigenously Québec, the stunning natural vistas and the inevitable winters.
Historical spectacle crosses national boundaries better than contemporary satire, and the latest batch of Québécois melodrama boasts, for the most part, exceptional production values, and strong acting and direction. The burgeoning DVD market has meant that many of them are being distributed beyond the province, but the datedness of the drama has continued to militate against broad distribution. It is other types of films that have crossed the divide out of Québec. In the late 1980s, Arcand and Jean-Claude Lauzon (Night Zoo, 1988; Léolo, 1992) led a brief flurry of international interest with films that were also quite popular at home. The situation has repeated itself in the new century, as auteur films, such as those of Denis Villeneuve and André Turpin, have done respectably at the box office, while Arcand’s return to the world ofDéclin in Les Invasions Barbares (2003) ranks fifth all-time in Quebec box office, won the Academy Award for best foreign film, and was a worldwide hit. Mambo Italiano (2003, Emile Gaudreault), a coming-out story set among the Italian community in Montreal, and La Grande Séduction (2003, Seducing Doctor Lewis, Jean-François Pouliot), a quaint, English-style comedy set in a tiny fishing village, received global distribution and positive reviews, and rank among the top twenty films in popularity. Two more recent genre films, Bon Cop Bad Cop and C.R.A.Z.Y. have topped the local record list, the former also overtaking Porky’s as the most successful Canadian movie ever made.41 Neither, however, has yet captured a U.S. distributor, although C.R.A.Z.Y. has played to good crowds just about everywhere else in the world.
What these films share which the conventionally indigenous Québécois films do not is an outlook that is simultaneously local and global. Just as Arcand’s films of the eighties juggled art-house expectations with local comedy (or melodrama and religion, in the case of Jesus of Montreal), so these more recent films have taken various paths to contextualize the purely Québécois. What is especially interesting is that audiences have embraced these films at least as much if not more than the earlier comedies and melodramas discussed above. Lauzon in many ways set the mold for one form of Québécois cinema when he adapted the slick visuals and pulp aesthetic of French cinema du look hits such as Diva and Subway to a sentimental tale of masculine anxiety in Night Zoo (1988), and the raunchy surrealism of Fellini and Céline to Montreal’s East End in Léolo (1992,above). Even more important in retrospect was Léolo‘s eclectic soundtrack, blending Tibetan chant and the Rolling Stones to create a background that reflected what a boy in the 1960s might have heard growing up, what the director liked to listen to, and what a global audience would recognize and enjoy, rather than allegiance to a strictly homegrown culture. Villeneuve and Turpin have used similar techniques to depict a contemporary world in which twenty-somethings are cosmopolitan in their tastes and global in their aspirations, if also shallow in their ambitions and still rooted in an identifiably Québécois landscape.
These films were mildly popular; those that broke through all also put forth an implicit allegory of their own filmmaking situation. Although never explicitly voiced, nor necessarily intended as such, the presence of such themes in the structures of these films is symptomatic of their reach beyond the explicit focus on Québéc as a self-contained and to a certain degree unchanging monad. La Grande Séduction, for example, begins with a self-consciously national myth, Amélie-style, of the isolated fishing village full of hard-working men and women who live simply, decently, and with a healthy regard for the passions, before showing them rendered impotent by unemployment and welfare. The conclusion of the film, once they have succeeded in luring a plastic container factory, rescreens the opening imagery, implicitly arguing that they have restored the virility they had lost. Although the mild comedy in between has little of the crudity of the classical Québécois comedy, the book-ended sound effects of a village-wide orgasm echo the convention, while the improbable success of their loser scheming mirrors the conventional reversal. But the plot itself mirrors the situation of Québécois cinema — reaching toward Montreal for an Anglophone (although fluent in French) city slicker doctor who must be seduced by deception before his jaded eyes can be opened to the beautiful soul of the place, embodied in postmistress Eve (former child star Lucie Laurier), the only villager who refused to play along to begin with. The village may have been eviscerated, the film implies, but the eventual marriage of wealthy doctor to local girl will generate a new slew of offspring. That the film refuses to address directly the contradiction inherent in preserving its local beauty via exploitation by a factory owner is little short of an admission of the true character of this new industry as the dream factory of images rather than a material producer of goods.
Revisiting the terrain of Déclin sixteen years later, Les Invasions Barbares is both a statement of the vibrancy of the Québécois film industry and a signal of its irrevocable transformation. Here, too, outside money — embodied in the dying Rémy’s investment banker son based in London — drives the project, drawing together Rémy’s estranged friends just as French co-production money assembled the scattered talent, a feat that certainly would have been impossible to duplicate in an analogous Hollywood situation. Rather than defining the new film, the sex talk that starts things off and with which the members of the reunited clan banter with each other often seems gratuitous, performed for the sake of each other, or even an empty ritual of nostalgia. Cameos byJésus de Montréal‘s Marie-Joséphine Tremblay as the nun administering communion and Gilles Pelletier as the priest unable to sell the Church’s massive collection of unwanted art and relics reinforce the sense of an old guard in decline; venerable actress and famed director Micheline Lanctôt’s turn as the tough-tender nurse who administers the fatal drug to Rémy and Arcand’s brief appearance as a union flunky in an ironic allusion to his days as an activist documentarist clinch this subtext. In fact, the new guard dominates the proceedings, and is far more convincingly played — this is their world, after all, Arcand seems to be suggesting. Roy Dupuis’ role as a streetwise drug detective alludes to the current vogue for genre films in commercial Québécois cinema, and his own popularity in those films. Darling of the new wave of Québécois filmmakers, Marie-Josée Croze embodies in her heroin addict the dangerous promise of this new local filmmaking, threatening to lure Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) away from his French trophy wife. It is no accident that these three characters are connected to one another through the intoxication, addiction, illegality, and purchasing of drugs rather than the pleasures of talk and sex. In this context, the invasion metaphor of the title includes not merely cancer and 9/11 but also heroin and foreign capital into the film industry of Québec. Self-indulgent at times, Arcand’s film is also an extremely generous paean to the past, and nowhere more so than in his extraordinary demonstration of the power of the documentary tradition — there could be no stronger image of the process of aging than witnessing the ravages of time on the faces of actors most of us had last seen in the 1980s, brave enough to appear as they are, in stark contrast to most of their Tinseltown counterparts.
Bon Cop Bad Cop and C.R.A.Z.Y. have a less complex thematic relationship to the great divide than Les Invasions Barbares; what distinguishes them is their ability to make a truly popular Québécois genre cinema while borrowing so much from outside its bounds. Erik Canuel’s buddy picture shamelessly translates the black/white race chemistry of Hollywood’s 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon to the relationship between Anglo- and French-Canadians, a theme so ripe for the taking that screenwriter (and star) Patrick Huard claims he kept it completely secret for fear someone else would come out with it first. Played for crude and stereotypical laughs, mercifully and bilingually mocking both sides of the divide in good Québécois fashion, Bon Cop Bad Cop‘s dual point of view makes for a uniquely Canadian experience, as the uptight Protestant played by Colm Feore and the scruffy rebel played by Huard trade insults and clichés about a topic that for the most part barely ever appeared explicitly in the movies, and certainly not in a serial killer picture. The first body is stretched across a sign on the border between Ontario and Quebec (heart in the former, backside in the latter); the murderer turns out to be a rabid hockey fan taking revenge on the removal of so many teams south of the border. The first genre film to match Hollywood in one of its own specialties — rather than, say, a sketch comedy or a historical melodrama — Bon Cop Bad Cop even did it on a shoestring budget of $8 million. As in Les Invasions Barbares, the money being thrown around may be peanuts by American standards, but in Montreal, $8 million can go a long way.
Recently voted the best Canadian film of the last twenty years, C.R.A.Z.Y. is, like Bon Cop Bad Cop, a Hollywood genre film — in this case, the period piece coming-out film — done Québécois style. Wedding the slick associational style of the new Québécois cinema with teen-com humiliation and a tight narrative arc anchored by Michel Côté’s award-winning performance as the old-school father,C.R.A.Z.Y.‘s most innovative component is also its most complicated: the $600,000 worth of rock-and-roll classics bought for the soundtrack out of Vallée’s own pocket. Both generations are defined by their musical tastes. Pater familias Gervais is so obsessed with singer Patsy Cline that he names his five children after the letters of her signature song (hence the film’s acronymic title); he annually performs karaoke to Charles Aznavour’s own signature song of escape, “Emmenez-moi.” While Gervais, and his relationship to protagonist Zachary, is defined by the American and French culture of the fifties and sixties, Zachary listens exclusively to British and American rock. Key scenes are set to “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Space Oddity,” “The Great Gig in the Sky,” “Shine On, You Crazy Diamond,” and “White Rabbit,” reminding us not only that music became global in the sixties and seventies, but also that, as a gay protagonist, Zachary is an alien but inescapable presence in popular Québécois culture. This time lapse effect — that the earnestness of Zachary’s torment makes us have to take his plight seriously even after so many films in the genre and so many parodies of it — may partly explain why C.R.A.Z.Y. has played so well in the Catholic countries of Europe and Latin America but has not yet been picked up for distribution in the States. That, and the fact that when Vallée put up his own money to pay for music rights, he decided to leave out the expensive territory of the United States from the deal, meaning a cost of several hundred thousand dollars an American distributor would have to cover. Maybe not an intentional snub, but certainly a not-so-subtle signal of the future of a global Québécois cinema, learning to export its idiosyncrasies, if not across the great divide into America, then certainly into the rest of the oppositional world.
Both Sides Now
Thus caught between a successful indigenous film culture and a global dream factory, English-Canadian cinema is rightly conflicted about its identity. And yet, it is precisely the consciousness of being caught between the stools that drives its most effective filmmaking, and characterizes its actors and directors. Although Egoyan stumbled a bit when he incorporated Marie-Josée Croze and a bundle of Québecois neuroses into Ararat, his film about the Armenian holocaust, Patricia Rozema was able to use Pascale Bussières very effectively as a slightly alien presence in her own coming-out drama, When Night Is Falling, achieving a crossover success that firmly established an English-Canadian niche market for gay- and lesbian themed independent film.42 The biggest hit English-Canadian cinema has had recently that was conceived as both commercial and Canadian is Due South star’s Paul Gross’ curling comedy, Men with Brooms (2002), which succeeded not only in wryly deflating the clichés of sports film in general, but also deadpan parodied the middle-aged weekend warrior cliché of the wildly successful (locally, at least) Les Boys trilogy. Moreover, since curling identified the heroes as quintessential Canadian losers, their climatic defeat of the “world champ” to win the golden broom is patently a defeat of the evil empire. Men with Brooms is equally self-conscious about its relation to Hollywood Canada, casting former leading man and now parody king Leslie Nielsen as Gross’ father. Released the same year as Men with Brooms, the big-screen adaptation of the hit television seriesRed Green, Duct Tape Forever (2002) reversed the confrontation, rehearsing the show’s conquest of PBS by having the members of Possum Lodge construct a giant goose out of duct tape to enter into a stateside contest, modestly hoping the third-prize money will let them save their lodge. The giant goose is a Canadian Trojan horse, opening in its anus rather than its stomach, hiding, among other things, a hockey stick in its hollow innards. The American duct tape (conspicuously donated by Scotch, whose product is all over the film) masks over the Canadian bricolage of a frame. But the veneer over the makeshift is sticky inside, and keeps threatening to capture the lodge members. As befits filmmakers whose Canadian sketch shows achieved success in the States, these comedies are sanguine and light-hearted Canuck takes on crossing the great divide.
Litotes, or dramatic understatement, and deadpan are the classic Canadian weapons against Hollywood excess and obviousness, and the popular comedies in fact share this trope with English-Canadian art film. Don McKellar’s debut feature, Last Night(1998), posits a seriously anticlimactic apocalypse, Canada-style. The humor of Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991), the first of his films to be released commercially in the States, was so deadpan, the characters’ affects so dulled, that Stateside audiences took them seriously as realistic Canadian characters. The first wave of Canadian features was devoted to Canada itself; the second wave was heavily focused on the two divides. Rozema’s breakthrough debut I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) mobilized the Québécois sophistication of Paule Baillargeon’s lesbian art dealer against naïve Sheila McCarthy’s Anglophone misfit. McCarthy went on to a supporting role in Die Hard 2; Baillargeon stayed in Quebec. In his second English-language film, Stardom (2000), Denys Arcand took the opportunity to skewer Québécois, English-Canadian, and American versions of media type, casting Montreal Francophone Jessica Paré as a hockey-playing Anglophone, Dan Aykroyd as the restaurateur she seduces to his doom, a cameo by Patrick Huard, and a juicy role for Robert Lepage as an art photographer who documents everything around him. Told entirely through the diegetic cameras of Bruce (Lepage) and the mainstream media, the film is ultimately exhausting and obvious; what Arcand makes abundantly clear is that the media know no borders, and that cultural identity changes at a whisper of lust, lucre, or blind ambition.
Ian Iqbal Rashid’s A Touch of Pink (2004) slyly refracts that least bland of all leading men, Cary Grant, into weirdness by anodizing him at the hands of Kyle MacLachlan, right, a Washingtonian who simply oozes Canadianness. “I hate Toronto,” complains Grant’s ghost as he advises Alim on his love life, “is it always so uneventful?” The queer outlook, the film argues, like the Canadian perspective it tropes, can appropriate Hollywood for its own purposes, regardless of its original intentions. Deepa Mehta’s musical comedy/romance Bollywood/Hollywood (2002) takes an equally irreverent look at several different film industries in its play on multiple identities, ethnicities, and generic traditions. Mehta even pokes fun at her friend Atom Egoyan, having the pretentious Sue cite him as her favorite director, only for Rahul to respond, “I thought he was American.” Like the earlier Masala (1991, Srinivas Krishna),Bollywood/Hollywood and A Touch of Pink use the fluid cinematic identities available to English-Canadian filmmaking to explore fluid issues of ethnic and sexual identity.
Precisely because of its invisibility, English-Canadian cinema offers myriad possibilities of assumed identities. Graham Greene can play the noble savage in Dances with Wolves (1990) and the following year incarnate a liberal nightmare of trickster vengeance in Clearcut (1991), not to mention a major role on Red Green and in Duct Tape Forever. While its self-image tends to be that of the dead-end cul-de-sac most literally realized in Vicenzo Natali’s comedy of whiteness, Nothing (2003), English-Canadian film may in fact be closer to a round-house of identities, a junction point where the different solitudes meet, exchange, and argue with each other. A negativist might call it a blank slate, but English Canada has proven over the past four decades that nothing holds images better than a white background.
- Research for this article was partially funded with the generous assistance of a Canadian Studies Research Grant from the Government of Canada. [↩]
- The films are: Titanic (1997, #1), Shrek 2 (2004, #3), Shrek (2001, #30), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000, #33), Bruce Almighty (2003, #41), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002, #44), and Ghostbusters (1984, #45) (BoxOfficeGuru.com, “All-Time Domestic Blockbusters,” (January 4, 2007). [↩]
- Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond, Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey(Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1996), 112-15, x. [↩]
- Alex Mlynek and Rachel Pulfer, “Power Players: Canada’s Top Actors,” Canadian Business (August 14, 2006): (January 2, 2007). See also the half-serious, half tongue-in cheek checklist of Canadian content on top-rated TV shows on Sean Moffitt’s Buzz Canuck blog, “TV Buzz – Canada’s 43 Most Buzz-able TV Programs” (February 17, 2006): (January 2, 2007). [↩]
- Take One 12 (Summer 1996), Take One 15 (Spring 1997), Take One 27 (Spring 2000). [↩]
- Pevere and Dymond, Mondo Canuck, 4-7. [↩]
- Kevin Zegers (of Air Bud fame), Michael Barry, Lindy Booth, Jayne Eastwood, Boyd Banks, R. D. Reid, Kim Poirier, Hannah Lochner, Sanjay Talwar, Tim Post, Matt Austin, Philip DeWilde, Luigia Zucaro, Geoff Williams, Mike Realba, David Campbell, Philip MacKenzie, Laura DeCarteret, Georgia Craig, Tino Monte, Chris Gillett, Derek Keurvorst, Dan Duran, Neville Edwards, Sandy Jobin-Bevins, Nathalie Brown, Liz West (according to IMDB biographies or deduced from IMDB filmographies). [↩]
- Pevere and Dymond, Mondo Canuck, 93. [↩]
- Cynthia Amsden, “The Tao of Callum Keith Rennie,” Take One 35 (December 2001 – February 2002): 16-19, at 17 [↩]
- Brian D. Johnson, “Living Dead, Losing Luck,” Maclean’s (March 29, 2004): 40. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Peter Urquhart, “You Should Know Something — Anything — about this Movie. You Paid For It,”Canadian Journal of Film Studies / Revue Canadienne d’études cinématographiques 12:2 (Fall 2003): 64-80, at 65. For a brief account, see the article “Capital Cost Allowance,” Canadian Film Encyclopedia, The Film Reference Library: (January 2007); based on The Film Companion, ed. Peter Morris (Toronto, Canada: Irwin, 1984). [↩]
- Urquhart, “You Should Know,” 66-7. [↩]
- Ibid., 71-7. [↩]
- Randy Thiessen, “Deconstructing Masculinity in Porky’s,” Post Script 18:2 (Winter/Spring 1999): 64-74. [↩]
- Caelum Vatnsdal, They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2004), 147-50, 164-65, 229-31. [↩]
- Vatnsdal, They Came from Within, 166. [↩]
- Thiessen, “Deconstructing Masculinity,” 65. [↩]
- See also Urquhart’s observation that tax shelter films present a “recurrent thematic preoccupation with ‘selling out'” (“You Should Know,” 70). [↩]
- Pevere and Dymond, Mondo Canuck, 195. [↩]
- Ibid., 29; see also Pevere, “Ghostbusting: 100 Years of Canadian Cinema, or Why My Canada Includes The Terminator,” Take One 5:12 (Summer 1996): 6-13. [↩]
- The language comes from Peter Harcourt, “Imaginary Images: An Examination of Atom Egoyan’s Films.” Film Quarterly 48, no. 3 (Spring): 2-14; at 6. [↩]
- Atom Egoyan, “Surface Tension,” in Speaking Parts, ed. Marc Glassman (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1993), 25-38; at 25, 28. For more on the theoretical discourse on the “the meaning of the technological experience” from MacLuhan to Arthur Kroker, see Harcourt, “Imaginary Images,” 6; Cameron Bailey, Scanning Egoyan.” CineAction! 16 (Spring 1989): 45-51; and the introduction to Matthias Kraus, Bild — Erinnerung — Identität. Die Filme des Kanadiers Atom Egoyan (Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 2000). [↩]
- Wally Hammond, “Cold Comfort: Lynne Stopewich on Sex with the Dead,” Time Out 1429 (1998): 73; qtd in Scott MacKenzie, “National Identity, Canadian Cinema, and Multiculturalism,” Æ Canadian Aesthetics Journal 4 (Summer 1999). [↩]
- Peter Howell, “Stars Share Inside Jokes,” Toronto Star (August 4, 2006): D1. [↩]
- Jennifer VanderBurgh, “Ghostbusted! Popular Perceptions of Canadian Cinema,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies / Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques 12:2 (Fall 2003): 81-98. [↩]
- For Elder’s influential manifesto, see Bruce Elder, “The Cinema We Need,” Documents in Canadian Film, ed. Douglas Fetherling (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 1988): 260-71. [↩]
- MacKenzie, “National Identity.” [↩]
- André Loiselle, “Simply Subversive or Simply Stupid: Notes on Popular Quebec Cinema,” Post Script 18:2 (Winter/Spring 1999): 75-84, at 76. Both George Melnyk’s One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) and Christopher Gittings’ Canadian National Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2002) treat Québécois film to a reasonable degree alongside their primary focus on English-Canadian cinema; both focus on the art cinema. [↩]
- Marshall, Quebec National Cinema (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), 75-102. [↩]
- Loiselle, “Simply Subversive,” 80; see also Yves Lever, Histoire générale du cinéma au Québec, 2nd ed. (Montreal: Boréal, 1995), 305-10. [↩]
- Ibid., 78-9, 82. [↩]
- Vatnsdal, They Came from Within, 97. [↩]
- Loiselle, “Simply Subversive,” 78. [↩]
- Ibid., 76. For box office details, see Cineac’s “Top 100 Québec (Films québécois),” (January 2, 2007). [↩]
- Loiselle, “Simply Subversive,” 79. [↩]
- Ibid., 77. [↩]
- As Marcel Jean notes, fourteen of the top twenty Québécois films at the box office between 1997 and 2004 were comedies (Le Cinéma québécois, new ed. [Montreal: Boréal, 2005], 109-10). [↩]
- Jean, Cinéma québécois, 29; Loiselle, “Simply Subversive,” 78. [↩]
- Jean, Cinéma québécois, 112. [↩]
- Marcus Robinson, “Box Office Just Average in ’06,” Playback (December 18, 2006): 9. Adjusted for inflation, of course, Porky’s still beats out Bon Cop by a good $10 million; moreover, it took in over $100 million in the States (“Did Cops truly bust Porky’s?” Toronto Star [October 12, 2006]: A29). [↩]
- Some of the better known examples are Anne Wheeler’s Better Than Chocolate (1999), Jeremy Podeswa’s Eclipse (1995) and The Five Senses (1999), Ian Iqbar Rashid’s A Touch of Pink (2003), as well as the more radical work of John Greyson. [↩]