July 15, 2006

Return of the Great Canadian Cinematic Hate-On

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?


Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Fuck I hate Canadian movies !

If I have to see another film about homeless junkie gay man-whores, I'll stab myself in the forehead.

Scott said...

The only way to make better Canadian movies is to go make better Canadian movies. Pull a Truffaut and pick up a camera, write a script, figure out how to make it work. If others won't do it for us, we have to do it for ourselves.

James Allen said...

H-Man wrote:
If I have to see another film about homeless junkie gay man-whores, I'll stab myself in the forehead.

But do they eat pudding? (Or would they eat back bacon in Canada?)

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I don't find that ratio of "visionary" films, proportionately to Hollywood, is any worst in Canada. We make fewer films, and most of them are at least partially if not completely government subsidised, ie. smaller budgets. In the last two years we've had at least two films which I consider "world class" in form and in content: FAR SIDE OF THE MOON, NOTHING and LES INVASIONS BARBARES. I can't think of a single Hollywood film in the last two years that was more thoughtful or emotionally involving. Yes, quite a few hacks get through the Canadian system, and the current drive towards more "commercial" fare is as boneheaded as it is pointless, but what of our visionaries; Cronenberg, Egoyan, Lepage, Arcand, Natali? If you attend Canadian film festivals, you will also find less-known works as worthy of consideration, but who, for one reason or another, fail to find distribution or their audience. The films exist, but unfortunately, because of certain prejudices or simple bad luck, nobody champions them. Try to find BECAUSE WHY or TWO THOUSOUND AND NONE by Arto Paragamian.

Hollywood also has the advantage of attracting international talent, but unfortunately, for every Michel Gondry (who manages to maintain his integrity amidst the money), there are 10 Wolfgang Petersens.

tmhoover said...

H-Man: You've got it all wrong. I have nothing against homeless junkie gay man-whores (if I did, there goes my Saturday nights), nor do I think you should either; it's the sloppy, inept and frankly exploitative manner in which they're handled that rankles. Any subject can make a good movie; what's needed is the care and diligence to make sure you're doing it right (as Van Sant and Araki have done on the homeless junkie etc. score before).

anonymous: Point well taken about the ratio of Hollywood schlock to actual movies. And yet, I would argue that on some level, the H-wood schlock at least works- i.e., it understands the task it's set for itself and takes care of business. In Canada, I see people fumbling blindly in the dark, completely baffled by the issues of form and structure- they don't know what they want and can't be expected to take care of much else.

I must also confess to being resolutely unimpressed with your "visionaries" list. Though Cronenberg is unimpeachable, I find Egoyan to be a frigid emotional coward, Lepage to be quite turgid, Arcand to be a self-piteous lump and Vitali to be quite cold and icy blue. There's a modicum of visual skill in Egoyan and Vitali, but nothing you'd call decisive or integral.

Still, perhaps I was just in a foul mood after the Fetching Cody debacle. I could probably ratchet things down a touch (okay, a few touches), but mostly my criticism still stands: we need to get down to the business of understanding the aesthetic task rather than the smoke screen of name-checking issues (a crime of which Egoyan, Arcand and Lepage are all guilty).

Come back, Francis Mankiewicz- all is forgiven!

Chad Evan said...

The problem is puritanism. The left has always been as susceptible to this soul-desroying malady as the right, and these days I'd say more susceptible. As long as the often unconscious assumption that beauty and form are trifles of the petit bourgosie (pretty sure I misspelled that)exists, souless, DOA works of alleged art will be the result.
Just my two pennies worth of idiocy.

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

it's the sloppy, inept and frankly exploitative manner in which they're handled

That's partly the problem, me thinks. They do it in the boring verite way with hardly anything to say, but that's not all of it. There is a distinct lack of vision in Canadian cinema. The filommakers know that all they have to do is pick up a camera and point it a 20 something malnutritioned acting school punk walking around stoned, to please his target urban chic audience which are probably the only people who watch Canadian films. They are targetting their audience in no less cynical way then how hollywood does it. Van Sant has a vision when he makes "My own private idaho" with King Lear in background, but all "Twist" is doing is ripping his idea off to satisfy the quasi-intellectual twats who love films so much that they see three of them a year.

Shit man, I just wanna watch a Canadian film worth watching.

p.s. I'm leaving out Cronenberg and Egoyan out of discussion for obvious reasons.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous again - still too lazy to start an account. Sorry.

All things being equal, what's the difference between NOT going to see awkward, careless Canadian dramas annd NOT seeing Hollywood shlock? As far as I'm concerned, very little. All I know is that I have to avoid seeing much more Hollywood schlock than awkward Canadian dramas. I resent having to see all their trailers, though.

I appreciate that my list of great Canadian filmakers may not equal yours, but I don't know what you mean when you write that you find (for example) Natali is cold and icy blue. Have you seen the film NOTHING, or even CYPHER? Do you find him cold in the same way Kubrick is often accused of being cold and emotionally distant? I'm not comparing the two in any way, but I just don't understand your point of view. Personally, I get more out of his intellectual games and playfulness with genre that I do from Peter Jackson's endless use of slow-mo and obvious musical cues to underline emotion, to use an example from one of the filmmkers whose work has been regularly praised on this site (although not necessarily by you).

I haven't liked the last few Cronenberg films, but I can't deny his position as an artist of integrity, skill and seriousness. I'd still rather see any one of his films over the best by, say, Gore Verbinski, whom I find has nothing but showmanship to offer. I find it hard to beleive that anyone who has seen FAR SIDE OF THE MOON could easily dismiss Robert Lepage so easily, and not at least acknowledge the intelligence and singular vision at work. Loving it is one thing. Denying the work's ambition, intellectual honesty and integrity is something else. I find the words you choose to dismiss Egoyan in particular suggest a resentment beyond not being emotionally moved by the films themselves.

Or perhaps it's jsut me simply not agreeing with you.

ADT said...

An interesting discussion as always, Travis, and one I might have something to say about later, once my brain reconstitutes after this hideously hot Toronto day. For right now, and in response to H-Man's plea to find a Canadian film worth watching, I'd like to alert everyone to the existence of a genuine, world-class Canadian film that could hold its head up proudly on the international cinema circuit without any of the special pleading our critics usually break out for homegrown product: David Christensen's Six Figures, which should be appearing on DVD soon after a criminally minimal Canadian release and no US release at all (outside of a showing at MOMA, I believe).

Adam N said...


man, I was going to bring up Six Figures, since I did drag you (and TMHoover) to see it. But it is, as you say, the real deal. One of the best films I've seen all year.

Vikram said...

The problem is in large part the system, in my opinion. Anytime you get an industry that is so dependent on government grants, you often end up not having to make movies with any competency or an idea to grab any audience - even with the recent "mandate" to make commercial films. More specifically,you end up making films that satisfy the politics/public aesthetics of the people that sit on the granting committees and in Canada they seem more interested - as Travis points out - in the name-checking vs. any competency or quality. Basically, the pendulum is swung to the other extreme of pure-commercialism ie. half-baked, self-absorbed efforts whose raison d'etre is simply to qualify for funding.

That may seem harsh but my friends and I watch a lot of Canadian film and what Travis has described is how we feel as well....anyway, my two cents.

Jefferson said...

Not a Canadian film, but God help me anyway ... I have just watched Krull.

tmhoover said...

Vikram: Glad you agree on the quality of Canadian films, but I hasten to add that I don't think government funding is exactly the problem. Recall that the German New Wave was largely dependent on grant money to survive, and it produced Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, von Trotta and a host of other justly-esteemed filmmakers. Plus, if we just opened it up to the market, I fear that Canadian film would be crushed absolutely; not exactly the solution I was hoping for.

The problem isn't the money, but the criteria: we need to encourage formal play and intellectual curiosity, and that's something that money sources alone can't buy. There needs to be a public debate on what actually is important in Canadian culture, and at the moment nobody cares. If more people did- which would require something more substantial than "Canadian film sucks! You fix it!" -we might be able to move forward. But the intellectual vacuum in which CanFilm operates is the problem, and if both the money folks and the filmmakers would get over that, we might be in business.

Canada likes to think of itself as separate from America, but it's largely unconscious as to what goes on under its roof. Perhaps that's due to its quality (though we manage to produce a fairly creditable literature), but we need people to delve into the meaning of this stuff rather than just dismissing it as crap. We need to dismiss it as crap AND talk about what we actually want- which is the hard part.

Anonymous said...

Our vast country tends to inspire vast generalities when discussing/bemoaning Canadian Culture—so; I’d suggest the first thing that needs to change is the ingrained prejudice and flippancy which accompanies innumerable reviews of Canadian films. “Canada is a nation of amateurs”—is a clever opening line, but it reflects the tiresome defeatist attitude (one which oddly enough, tends to come more from Canadians than anyone else) which, in my experience, tends to upend most productive discussions of “Canadian Kulture”. No need to pretend that embarrassing, barely watchable stuff like “Ill- Fated” or “The Bay of Love and Sorrows” are unsung masterpieces as a misguided show of solidarity—but, we should be equally dismissive of grand, unqualified statements like” (by and large) Canadians do not know how to make movies” and one-line dismissals of worthy (if not genius) artists like LePage, Arcand and Natali. So, my first suggestion for film critics would be:

At this year’s TIFF—make an effort to avoid most of the major Hollywood product (especially the Oscar bait—which will be in theatres shortly) and focus primarily on the Canadian entries, by-pass the press conference with Brad Pitt—and chat up those lonely Canadian filmmakers—ask them what should be done about Canadian films. Write and publish same. The only way an organic Canadian film culture will be established is if Canadian writers (and publications) make a point of showcasing that same culture. I pointed this out in an earlier post—but, I’d much rather read a little bit about Clement Virgo or Natali—rather than the umpteenth dissertation of “Elizabethtown” or junket interview with Jennifer Aniston. Of course, I’d have to be pretty naive about the vagaries of North American media in order to believe this would actually happen. The “vast indifference” of the Canadian public is engineered by an American dominated exhibition system and the consistent refrain that yes, we do indeed suck—worse than Michael Bay in fact (!).

Bull flop—say I. So, here’s the answer—no one is pushing our filmmakers—OK—so PUSH them baby. (And maybe lighten up on the “You’re not as good as the Dardennes or Haneke—so, let’s just forget it” stuff.) More importantly, if Canadian theatres are not showing Canadian films—well, we’ve got to force them don’t we?

To once again steal and re-appropriate Harlan Ellison: Canadian film does not suck. It is sucked.

Alex Jackson said...

Eh, as far as Egoyan goes I liked Exotica quite a bit but Felicia's Journey and The Sweet Hereafter have to be, respectively speaking, the most tasteful films ever to be made about serial killers and incest.

I have some vague ideas about this. I guess that I would like to subscribe to the idea that capitalism is the purest form of democracy and the most reliable index of a people's mindset. That the film that earns the most money is Canada is then the film that most reflects Canadianness. This is of course a lie. There are few instances in which people consider buying a ticket to a film as showing support for it. I don't know how you can properly support something that you haven't seen. What you are you really supporting is the ad campaign, the actors, the director, or even the location of the theater.

But on the other hand I'm not sure that Canadianness can really be assessed by committee. Nor do I think it should. If Canadian filmmakers were really successful in making their films Canadian than they would have little utility on a global market except as antropological studies of Canuck civilization. One of the criterions of great art, I've come back to again and again, is universality.

tmhoover said...

Dave: It would indeed be a good idea if Canadian theatres were forced to show Canadian films. That would create a base of operations so that the films weren't so under the radar- and might inject them into the mainstream so that they might be issues for more than four people. No argument here.

And believe me, Brad Pitt at the TIFF is something I scrupulously avoid- while making a point to see the Canadian Open Vault every time, in the interests of knowing the big names my country's cinema. I'm all for more press discussion of Canadian film- in fact, I'm frustrated that there isn't more, because if more people took an interest in CanCon we might be able to get people to be activist about changing it.

Bear in mind that I once hammered away at Toronto's film reference library watching Canadian films so I could crack the code and determine what it was I didn't like about it. And I expect every film-inclined person who has the access to such an institution- which admittedly isn't many people (but might be in the major film centres of T-Dot, Montreal and Vancouver- to do the same. In lieu of an above-ground forum for CanCon discussion we have to create our own- and the fact that people don't means that filmmakers are shooting blindly instead of focussing their arguments or honing their aesthetics.

Admittedly, I've been more cogent on this subject and was perhaps so ticked off at Fetching Cody that I foolishly vented my spleen at random. But I still think something's broken in Canadian film. And saying that American film is bad doesn't do it for me. As Don McKellar pointed out during the hated Stursberg regime:

"Every American director that I know, they always want to make good movies. I've never met someone, say, who wants to make schlocky action films, or just pure entertainment. I told Stursberg, 'you know, I've never heard any American be as crass as you are.' I'm talking about the sleaziest agents, the sleaziest producers. Every American has ambition, they want to do quality films. They just have a different sense of what that is..."

When I watch American crap, I see someone invested in its crappiness. Maybe that's a fine distinction, but it's an important one for me, for when I see Canadian films, I see either sullen duty or complete apathy. Even someone operating at the level of Egoyan is like that: whatever mad skillz he may posess, he's doing things he feels required to do rather than what he wants to. An American film gives the impression that someone (a complete idiot) wanted to do it; Canadian films, for me at least, by and large don't.

Everybody go see Six Figures, though. It is indeed a great film, and the best exception to my hostile rule.

Chad Evan said...

Amen, Alex.

Bill C said...


Any Canucks here see the trailer for Mary Walsh's Young Triffie's Been Made Away With? Has all the earmarks of Canadian offal: gangly title (I challenge you to remember it without glancing at this message); poaching of actors from the current hit sitcom ("Corner Gas"); cheap-ass production values; alphabetical-order cast; and a jack of all mediae at the helm who's not nearly as multi-talented as she thinks she is. The trailer itself is so ineptly cut that my friend kept insisting it was an ad for a television show.

Anonymous said...

this is not anonymous. I'm ken laing, ken_lnow@cogeco.ca On my TMN grid, I just saw the listing for a Movie called "Sorority Murder". I checked the cast: 4 unknown female names. How did I know it was Canadian. I didn't for sure, but I suspected so I went to IMDB and, although I had to dig deep, by checking on the company credits, I finally found the word Canadian. In the good old days, TV Guide used to list the nationality of every movie. I think the Canadian government stopped them from doing that in the Canadian edition. From that time on, you had to guess. Well, it was easy to guess then and with all the political correctness nowadays, it's even easier.
I thought I would watch The Morning After with Jane Fonda the other day. It was a mistake. Instead I wound up watching part of Burning Daylight ..... a bad Canadian effort that stood out as Canadian and stunk. Where is Gerald Pratley when we really need him.

Ken Lang