Coming soon to a website near you is a review of a wretched Canadian item called Fetching Cody. It's totally undistinguished in the annals of CanCon: lazily name-checked "social issue" (street kids), thoroughly flubbed archetypal resonance (fairy tales), ill-advised attempts at humour (wait for the gay kid who blows his head off), all adding up to one more patient dead on arrival. The amazing thing is not that it came out bad, but that it came out at all.
There was no real reason the movie had to happen. Any half-intelligent person who read the script would know that its head was planted firmly up its ass, and if director David Ray had a highlights reel it would almost certainly have shown him to be tentative and imprecise. Yet the movie got made- and there are scores of movies just like it, from people with the same unformed ideas and the same clumsy execution. One doesn't just get the idea that the system is broken, but that by and large Canadians do not know how to make movies.
The simple truth is that Canadians are unconsciously suspicious of carefully-crafted aesthetics. We're big on annexing those great "social issues," but we're too timid to take the next step and provide a visual/sensual/structural representation of those issues: the mere mention of an important subject is sufficient for a Canuck filmmaker to break out the Dom Perignon and congratulate him/herself for his/her heroism. Doing anything beyond that would somehow seem frivolous: instead of deepening the argument with fine-tuned, well-observed details and an emotional core to give it urgency, we see it all as window-dressing to be discarded.
I have nothing against dealing with big subjects, but then you better not dishonour them. The Dardenne Brothers are a case in point: nobody would accuse them of being frivolous, but their films are extremely careful in how they use the camera and how they sketch the damaged world they depict. You could write papers on the sociological detail, the Christian resonances in The Son and L'enfant, and the strategic use of long traveling shots. The Brothers know their craft, and they use it to give their stories complexity and resonance. But in Canada, all you have to do is show up and they'll pour on the grant money.
The extent of the damage can be measured by the recent, disastrous Stursberg regime at Telefilm. You'll recall that Richard Stursberg was hired to build audiences by greenlighting pop movies- but look at the sorry films that resulted and you'll know that our fear of frivolity had an unusual blowback. We had taught ourselves that the feeling of pop was useless that we taught our filmmakers that a pop film was something that was inherently crappy. That was the unspoken definition, and the results were the crappy films we demanded they be. Say what you like about Michael Bay, but he knows how to shoot and cut to make you feel something. But in Canada, feeling itself is suspect- seriousness rules. And not even seriousness: the name-checking of seriousness, which is perhaps the most deadly frivolity of all.
The rule of mediocrity makes it impossible to establish any kind of organic film culture. On the one hand, there is the fact that most Canadian films die on the table, making it hard to follow truncated careers; on the other is the vast indifference of the Canadian public, which makes attempts to critique the problem all but invisible. The dialogue between filmmakers and critics isn't there- not just because we live in anti-intellectual times, but because everyone is atomized and nobody communicates with anyone else. So directors exist in an intellectual vacuum: nobody pushes them, and the fact that the rest of cinematic Christendom is doing the same lazy things only encourages them- on those rare occasions that they're paying attention.
So I find myself exasperated once again with a situation that keeps getting worse. Canadian filmmakers continue to protect themselves from aesthetic complexity, and there's nobody around to tell them different. Any suggestions on how we could change this?