“The question of national cinema has been ultimately one of aesthetics and taste.”
–Charles Acland (1)
“It is something of a challenge…to think about English Canadian cinema as something other than a failed experiment in popular culture or a list of overlooked films.”
–Zoë Druick (2)
The aim of this essay is to provide a summary of, and some original remarks about, the central questions surrounding English-Canadian national cinema for an international readership. What is its nature, what are its specifically national characteristics, and what accounts for its spectacular lack of success in its home market? These questions have been addressed many times over many years by scholars of Canadian film, and here I would like to outline the history of this discourse and make some comments on it, as well as trying to see it through a slightly different lens. I will preface my remarks by calling special attention to one rather obvious particular fact: the fact of language. The first marker of Russian national cinema is that it is in Russian, of Italian cinema that it is in Italian. In the case of different nations that share a language, language is still a primary marker: the inhabitants of Great Britain speak English in a variety of ways, the inhabitants of the United States in another variety, all varieties easily identifiable by English speakers. Similarly, inhabitants of France speak their language differently than inhabitants of Côte d’Ivoire or Québec. English Canada suffers in this respect from an extremely important drawback: most English Canadians speak a variety of the language that is indistinguishable from a form spoken by many Americans. So, all other things being equal, an English-Canadian film can sound pretty much exactly like an American film. In this respect English Canada is, I would suggest, unique. In this historical time and place Hollywood cinema is the dominant force in the marketplace of most nations, and those nations have to struggle to maintain their national cinemas despite the fact that their languages are automatic difference markers, owing to the fact that movies are expensive commodities to make and Hollywood benefits enormously from economies of scale and possesses a catalogue of one-size-fits-all narrative types. But English Canada cinema is working against pulverizingly strong linguistic similarities which call upon them to achieve much more in national differentiation from the hegemonic American model than all other nations. This fact is a truism of critical commentary on Canadian (3) cinema, and indeed probably too much of a truism: the condition is taken for granted without a proper acknowledgment of just how dominant a factor it is. Its main effect is to render Canadian viewers’ task of “playing American” (4) much too easy, and to dangerously facilitate such a wholesale consumption of American culture as to overbalance their own culture comprehensively. Canadians, sharing a gargantuan border with the U.S., historically sharing for a century in the pageant of American culture through sports fandom, popular music, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, and movies, have developed an inner virtual American superior to any other on the planet, customers as well equipped for American culture as Americans themselves. (5)
Let’s turn now to the additional fact of Hollywood economic imperialism in the Canadian marketplace. This is an area that has received much scholarly attention, and one that also features prominently in the complaints of the Canadian industry itself. (6) Here we find the familiar picture of the chokehold of oligarchic distribution and exhibition that conspire to perpetuate Hollywood dominance on Canadian screens. In the wrestling match between Hollywood and the Canadian film industry for the prize of the Canadian box office, Hollywood, outweighing its Canadian counterpart by 200 pounds, hit Canadian movies over the head with a folding chair in Round 1 and has been sitting on their neck ever since. If a Canadian government referee ever objects to this behaviour, Hollywood’s tag-team partners, the MPAA and the State Department, climb over the ropes and throw him into the crowd – who see nothing to object to in the spectacle. The major distributors will not carry Canadian product, and the major exhibitors will not show it if they do. The percentage of English-Canadian films on domestic screens hovers somewhere between 1% and 2% (contrast Québec’s average for the past decade of 17.8%.). (1) Government efforts to legislate some kind of access to the Canadian marketplace by Canadian films have uniformly fizzled or faded to almost nothing. These numbers are so low as to prompt the question whether there really is an English Canadian theatrical film industry at all. Few governments have had the conviction, and none the brass, to realize the ambitious suggestions to create box-office quotas for domestic films, or box-office levies on imported films with proceeds going to Canadian production. Adding insult to injury, Hollywood earnings in the Canadian market have been folded in with American ones to form the “domestic box office” for accounting purposes. Instead we have Telefilm Canada allocating seed money to submitted scripts and productions, employing criteria for acceptance that lean heavily on the perceived ability of submissions to achieve eventual success in the marketplace. Canadian national cinema, if there is such an animal, is frozen out of its own theatres, can gain no purchase with its “natural” audience which has been colonized by Hollywood to an extent not paralleled anywhere in the world.
But that “natural” audience is a fundamental part of the problem. Canadian audiences will not attend Canadian movies even when they are given the chance. When confronted with this fact, Canadian viewers are likely to say “Canadian movies are no good,” or at best “why can’t we make good movies in this country?” Since some Canadian movies are good, as evidenced by awards, critical commentary, and foreign box office, we are left with a question that is more complex than can be answered by explanations rooted only in predatory Hollywood economic practices (which after all exist in almost every country), by explanations rooted in the quality of Canadian film, or even by the aforementioned linguistic closeness. There is a long history of Canadian movies (beginning in the late 60s and early 70s with the foundational classics Nobody Waved Good-bye [Don Owen/NFB, 1964 and Goin’ Down the Road [Don Shebib, 1971]) that were scarcely noticed in Canada until they got good reviews in the United States, at which point they returned to much better audiences. On the other hand, Canadian movies like The Fly (1986) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997) that might not even have been recognized by audiences as Canadian because of their lodgement in mainstream distribution and media have done well domestically. Meanwhile, a goodly number of the handful of Canadian films that have had great success in the U.S. market – for example the little peak around 1980 of Meatballs (1979), Scanners (1981) and Porky’s (1982), still the all-time box office champion – have not been celebrated as cinematic achievements, but have tended to be regarded rather as national embarrassments.
Why do Canadians dislike Canadian movies so much? The short answer is that they are not like Hollywood movies. But Canadians don’t appear to dislike American independent and foreign films to quite the same extent, so it must be somewhat more complicated than that. Is it because Canadian films do not reflect the experience – and the national identity – of the viewer, or is it because they do reflect those things? Audiences for most national cinemas are hungry for representations of themselves (Québec cinema is a prime example), but forty years ago Margaret Atwood was saying of Canadian audiences:
They’d become addicted to the one-way mirror of the Canadian-American border – we can see you, you can’t see us – and had neglected that other mirror, their own culture. The States is an escape fantasy for Canadians. Their own culture shows them what they really look like, and that’s always a little hard to take. (8)
“A little hard to take” encapsulates an argument about Canadian culture that Atwood was making in the 1970s and 80s, (9) and that, most famously, Northrop Frye had advanced not long before. (10) Frye’s argument (11) framed Canadian national identity in explicit contrast with that of the United States, juxtaposing the triumphalist linear east-to-west progress of colonial settlement in America with the early European arrivals in Canada – sailing down the St. Lawrence into the middle of nowhere like the French, or coming down through Hudson’s Bay in search of furs into an even more isolated vast emptiness like the English. Whereas in American national mythology nature was good, and to be bent to the will of the white Christian colonizer taking possession of a whole continent of land and wealth, Frye spoke of the “garrison mentality” in Canada, where to exit the fort was to court trouble, and Atwood traced the narrative characteristics of Canadian literature into an anxious pattern where nature was the tree that would fall on you, the bear that would eat you, the river that would swallow you up in its torrent, or the cold that would freeze you to death. (12) This was a national narrative of caution and a consciousness of vulnerability, of fear, even, and the diametrical opposite of America’s triumphal narrative of initiative, resourcefulness, self-reliance, and conquest. Insofar as these qualities survived into the twentieth century – and Frye and Atwood said that they did – it is to be expected that they manifested themselves in Canadian cinema as much as any other Canadian narrative form.
This brings us to the explicit and extended debates about Canadian national cinema itself. Critical attention to the national cinema in English Canada began even before the birth – or rebirth (13) – of domestic feature filmmaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The pioneers, indeed inventors, of this project, men like Peter Harcourt, Seth Feldman, Peter Morris and others, searched for a modus to identify what Canadian cinema was, and what it ought to be. The consensus of the lengthy discussions on the topic at the time was that in order to be distinctively Canadian, Canadian cinema had to differentiate itself strongly from American popular cinema, and that the most legitimate and rational way for it to do this was to pursue the “documentary model.” Actual documentary had been by far Canada’s most successful form of filmmaking, and in particular the National Film Board of Canada had been making fine and sometimes internationally influential documentaries for twenty years, the best of which could stand comparison with any cinema in the world. John Grierson’s mandate at the NFB to “show Canada to Canadians” could be transferred to the terrain of feature filmmaking, and we could make realist, documentary-like films in our own landscapes and telling our own small, particular, accurate stories. The resulting cinema – serious, socially conscious, avoiding all glamourization and rhetorical falseness – could then be a Canadian version of Italian Neorealism or British kitchen-sink, or resemble the work of filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray in India or for that matter John Cassavetes in the United States. Where Hollywood cinema was genre cinema, Canadian cinema could liberate itself from those lying conventions in unique projects reflecting actual experience. Amidst this first wavelet of Canadian features, critics of this mind found in, especially, Nobody Waved Good-bye, Goin’ Down the Road, Wedding in White (William Fruet, 1972), and The Rowdyman (Peter Carter, 1972) excellent examples of the kind of thing they were talking about, and thus the first canon of Canadian feature filmmaking was formed.
We begin to see here, then, the emergence of a criterion of “aesthetic nationalism” governing Canadian cinema. Canadian movies must not simply be Canadian, but Canadian in a particular way. Writing in 1986, James Leach can even make a de facto bald distinction between Canadian cinema and genre cinema. (14) The very idea that there might be a desirable Canadian genre cinema was clearly unthinkable during the 1970s and 80s and even beyond. The rather commercially successful cheap horror movies produced by such filmmakers as David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman, Bob Clark, and a commercially self-reinvented William Fruet were not just excluded from consideration in the noble work of critically shepherding a proper Canadian cinema into existence, but actively deplored as exactly the kind of thing that was likely to give Canadian movies a bad name. The most famous example of this mindset was the thundering denunciation of Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) by cultural critic Robert Fulford in the glossy monthly Saturday Night under the headline “You Ought to Know How Bad This Movie Is. After All, You Paid for It!” (15) (The film had a Canadian Film Development Corporation grant, and was rather unusual in actually making some money for the CFDC.) (16)
At this juncture it becomes clear that the call for a viable Canadian cinema had become inextricably intertwined with a call for an artistically respectable Canadian cinema. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether an artistically respectable Canadian cinema could not make room for some iterations of genre cinema, there remains a fatal contradiction in the project to foster an economically functioning Canadian cinema while admitting only a certain type of somewhat arty cinema, or a realist-documentary cinema without glamour and “entertainment” values. Other nations do not have to put up with these conditions. Italian cinema can give us not only Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni but boatloads of peplum, giallo, and spaghetti westerns. French and German cinema are full of worse-than-mediocre policiers; Dutch and Scandinavian cinemas have given us many inane comedies; and the cinemas of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are awash in puerile romances and bad action movies – all of these coexisting with much cinema of great worth. In the world context, debates about good and bad cinema, about serious cinema and commercial pap, about artistically vital films and tired and moribund films are taking place constantly, but none of them finds its judgements coterminous with the definition and actual existence of a national cinema. In Canada, the initial prescriptions put forward for national cinema excluded not only cheap horror movies but, as Peter Morris has pointed out (17), artistically respectable material such as the impeccably arty oneiric cinema of Paul Almond (18) on account of its non-observance of realist ground rules.
The champions and theorists of Canadian cinema during this period neglected to speak much about what the audience for a proper national cinema would be. Presumably it was people like themselves: intelligent, serious, aesthetically sophisticated people – or else pure-hearted citizens wanting to see their own world in a truly credible light, eager to learn. The notion arose that, in addition to providing the nation with another art to go along with literature, drama, and painting, Canadian cinema needed at least to some small degree to rescue Canadian viewers from enslavement to formula-fodder that was both too trashy and too American, with no recognition of the fact that these requirements doomed practically any Canadian film that fulfilled them to obscurity and commercial failure. Audiences didn’t just stay away from little Canadian art movies, they stayed away from all little art movies (although admittedly with an apparently particular animus towards their own). In the case of a pure art cinema such a relegation to the margins is to be expected, and can even be interpreted as a badge of honour; but in the case of a viable national cinema marginality is always a bad thing.
Charles Acland, in the stimulating 2001 essay cited in the epigraph, has also made the argument that Canadian movies have to be works of a certain kind, ultimately works for a minority taste. But he adds a distinct perspective in tracing this phenomenon to the origins of Canadian filmmaking from the 1920s onwards (following the collapse of the Allen chain of domestic distributors) in a public-minded sphere where there always an educational aim as a constituent part of the mandate. Eventually this idea bore fruit in the National Film Board, and even afterwards in feature filmmaking the tradition continued in the distanciation of Canadian movies from popular cinema, and in the development of what Acland calls the “expo-mentality” governing Canadian filmmaking, “an orientation to and for the special venue.”
Canadian cinema has rarely been a popular cinemagoing practice, and when it has, the films have been treated disparagingly and rejected by critics. Instead, Canadian cinema culture has thrived in parallel locations – the school, the film festival or retrospective, the exposition, the community hall, the library, the museum – in this respect, building upon the structures established by the voluntary societies of the 1920s and 1930s. Importantly, all are locations with cultural dispositions, that is, ways of approaching and appreciating culture, distinct from those of popular cinemagoing or video-rental. (19)
(I recall from the 1980s that during an experimental period during which NFB short films were shown before commercial features, young audiences would invariably groan aloud at the appearance of the Film Board logo – a recollection, perhaps, of all the NFB films that they had had to watch in Canadian school classrooms. Movies were where you went to escape from education.) Acland also draws attention to the often-observed fact that Canadian films could be found in the “Foreign” section of video rental stores, and remarks: “In this respect, the ‘foreignness’ of Canadian cinema concerns its affinity with an international art cinema. Here, ‘foreignness’ does not designate a geographical distance from the national territory but a distance from popular taste.” (20)
There is, then, a gulf between what the champions of Canadian cinema have imagined as their national art form and the actual viewing public. Certainly it would be ridiculous to blame critics and theorists of Canadian cinema for the economically dysfunctional nature of the industry. These personages stood on the sidelines, commenting and recommending and turning thumbs up or down, but they played at best a small role in the actual (lack of) success of their model of national cinema, or any other model. They represent only an admirably clear figuration of some of the central conceptual problems of a Canadian national cinema, specifically 1) the necessity of creating a distinction from Hollywood cinema and 2) the desirability of doing so by following up in feature film those documentary-like aspects of cinema which Canada had already demonstrated a particular affinity for. Overwhelmingly the main problem was, and is, the non-existence of an audience even close to sufficiency for the economic maintenance of a domestic theatrical industry. To blame this solely on the brainwashing effect of a hegemonic control of distribution and exhibition on the part of Hollywood or Hollywood-centred entities, or even, as some have done, on the Canadian government for failing to socially engineer the entire Canadian movie marketplace, is to make assumptions about what the Canadian viewer would be if s/he could be reverted to an imagined prelapsarian state before Hollywoodization. Appealing to the success of Canadian-content regulations regarding airplay for Canadian musicians as a model is, in my view, a non-starter owing to the fact that Canadian popular music is trying actually to be popular music, using popular musical forms and conventions. Whereas Canadian cinema – here is its tragic dilemma – cannot move away from the arty margins and to the popular centre because not only is that centre already utterly flooded by existing Hollywood product, but also Canadian cinema still labours under the necessity to be not-Hollywood. Even imagining a non-Hollywood popular cinema that would be Canadian is a thought experiment of imposing difficulty. Again: other nations can make popular (mostly bad) comedies, cop movies and action films that demonstrate national qualities; Canada can not. (21)
Why can it not? Following upon Acland, we may say that, yes, Canadian movies are characterized a priori as something “foreign” because their antitype, “ordinary” or “regular” cinema, popular cinema, is always already Hollywood – but this does not fully explain the inability of Canadians to imagine their own popular cinema. Here we may turn again to some of the older analysis of Canadian narrative culture. The first canon of Canadian cinema (Goin’ Down the Road, etc.) existed not only in a formal contrast to the Hollywood model; it also represented a narrative and thematic inversion. All of the films mentioned above, and many others of the period, incarnated stories of failure, futility and impotence. Merely to provide bare-bones plot summaries of Nobody Waved Good-bye, Goin’ Down the Road, or Wedding in White is to elicit cries of distress in one’s interlocutors at the landscapes of hopelessness thus revealed. The most comprehensive cataloguing of this quality remains Robert Fothergill’s mildly celebrated essay of 1973, “Coward, Bully, or Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother,” (22) which surveys over two dozen English-Canadian movies from the 1960s and early 1970s to find a recurring pattern of male irresponsibility, moral cowardice, selfishness, pathetic delusion, and abject failure. He goes on to speculate that this is due to Canada’s “younger brother” complex, whereby the nation had stayed true to its father Great Britain and forewent America’s Oedipal rebellion, and had its dutifulness and caution rewarded with no respect from anyone, while its older brother reaped the bountiful reward of initiative and self-reliance. (23) The biggest casualty of this process, Fothergill maintains, was Canada’s own self-image: it psychologically cast itself as defeated, powerless, incapable of great things. The “younger brother” thesis may thus be added to the “garrison mentality” thesis to help account for the prevailing negativity and pessimism of this foundational generation of national filmmaking. It may be argued that the adoption of the documentary model worked against positive narratives: happy endings are not a major feature of actual experience, and the banishment of the automatic goal-achievements of Hollywood genre cinema and of Hollywood’s elevation of characters to the level of movie stars is bound to create a darker picture, right? But by no means all feature films in the documentary-realist mode present such a miserable picture of human limitations: an Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945), a Pather Panchali (1955) or a Look Back in Anger (1959) are quite at home with a finally more hopeful vision.
In any case, whether from Frye and Atwood or from Fothergill, we observe a pattern in Canadian cinematic stories: a failure of heroic narrative. Scholarship on Canadian cinema has come a long way since the 1970s, and most scholars in the field now regard the Frye-Atwood model with contempt if not outright hostility. So utterly démodé, so fixed on the Canadian aesthetics of forty years ago, so linked to an Anglo-colonial way of thinking that puts white British conquerors in charge of everything, so blind to the regionalism and multiculturalism of the refigured national conversation, and as a critical method so oblivious to the political values of race, class, and gender – not to mention also to a more recent cinema! There is truth in this critique. (24) And yet much of the Frye-Atwood template that could be laid so revealingly across the canonical corpus of Canadian cinema of the 1960s and 70s still has some life in a more contemporary context. The Canadian cinema of Atom Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter and Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998) are very different from the Canadian cinema of Goin’ Down the Road or Wedding in White, but some basic characteristics also continue. Most important and overarching of all, often sitting more lightly over whatever depths of discouragement might lie below, is the famous Canadian skepticism. The fundamental fact inhibiting a popular Canadian cinema, then and now, is the inability of both Canadian filmmakers and Canadian viewers to see themselves in the role of infallible problem-solver, brass-ring-grabbing master of the narrative, in short in the role of the hero of a Hollywood movie. Canadians do not conquer the world. Patriotism itself, always a feature of Hollywood movies, is a vastly smaller phenomenon in Canada. In Canada a “patriot” is someone who took part in the (failed) Rebellion of 1837. (25) However much this outlook may resemble a textbook postmodern Lyotardian disbelief in grand narrative, its narrative and thematic qualities are not simply those of a weightless detachment and carefree epicurianism. Instead there hovers over it a sense of powerlessness and low self-esteem. Commenting on the question of Canadian national cinema in 1989, Robin Wood remarked that “a national character founded upon declarations of impotence is not going to carry anyone very far.” (26) But such was the circumstance of Canadian cinema of the 1960s and 70s, and to a considerable extent even later, when a constitutional necessity to differ markedly from Hollywood joined hands with a constitutional unwillingness or inability to see Canadian characters behaving as if they were American. To a considerable extent this is a problem of masculinity, a syndrome that forecloses masculine success stories and masculine genres (crime, war, action, adventure, Western), which are the patriarchal embodiment of male dominance in narrative. (27) Canadian women’s cinema does not suffer from this difficulty, and neither do story types – principally comedy – where heroic values are either muted or actually mocked. But despite the many competing story types to be found there, this masculinist success narrative remains the main tree-trunk of Hollywood popular cinema, and hence of popular movie-going in Canada. It is impossible not to notice how distant are the stereotypical traditional qualities of Canadianism – niceness, caution, politeness, tolerance, recessiveness, and so on – from the ebullient and often crass optimism and confidence of Hollywood and American culture as a whole. When Americans cast their eyes northward (not often) this is what they see. If indeed genre narratives are both a reflection and a producer of popular taste, then the dilemma for a Canadian popular cinema is in part the inability of Canadian content to be fitted into genre forms so uniformly associated with Hollywood – to such an extent that, again, “Canadian cinema” and “genre cinema” can plausibly be regarded as mutually exclusive categories.
Although Acland and some other scholars have addressed the question of what goes on in Canadian spectators when they look at Hollywood movies, the subject needs further airing. Acland says very commonsensically: “it makes sense to talk about how ‘at home’ U.S. movies are here, and how ‘come-from-away’ Canadian films are.” (28) Canadians are not at home in their own film culture. And yet are they truly at home in Hollywood either? The answer to this question must be: yes and no. As remarked earlier, inside every Canadian viewer there is an exquisite simulacrum of an American viewer. It is a condition experienced by very many international audiences for Hollywood, but in Canada it approaches a kind of perfection. Nothing needs to be translated or assimilated or figured out even a little bit. Complete language transparency, generations of marination in American culture, a lifetime of fandom, and the aforesaid aversion to Canadian cinema enable a truly direct and effortless reception. Canadians have stood with their noses pressed to the giant department-store window of American culture for so long that they can read it with a fluency approached, I would say, by no other nation. And yet, as with the goods behind the shop window, they know that these things are not for them to use and enjoy, except as spectators. Canadians, then, are the champion observers of American culture, but they can participate only vicariously. Americans can behave this way, have these aspirations, overcome these obstacles, win through to these goals, negotiate and finally dominate the course of their lives as conventionalized in Hollywood narratives; Canadians can not. They can only look on appreciatively, and somewhat wistfully, at the spectacle of their big brothers to the south dreaming, struggling courageously, and conquering, over and over again. This is a situation that rhymes perfectly with the patterns of Canadian cinema. There is a long and impressive list of quite good Canadian movies that shows what happens to Canadian protagonists when they try to act like Americans. This list would include, for example, Goin’ Down the Road, Don Shebib’s Between Friends (1973), Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero (1973), Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and The Fly, Peter Wellington’s I Love a Man in Uniform (1993), and Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo (1996). (29)
In all of these films, Canadians meet a dreadful fate when they try to behave like the heroes of Hollywood movies – that is, when they try to lead, achieve, explore, overcome, or otherwise take charge of their lives in a commanding fashion. Should a Canadian filmmaker try to make an “American” movie – a positive, violent action or crime movie, for example – the Canadian viewer is very liable to see that project as a truly unbelievable, indeed cringe-making, psychological spectacle, as well as inferior to its models from the standpoint of production values, polish, and star power. A number of films from the unlamented Capital Cost Allowance period (1975-82) fell into just this category, and were jeered at by all. (30) Canadian viewers as a class are, then, completely included in the target audience for Hollywood movies while also completely excluded from it at some fundamental level always underlying their perfect reception of these films. (31)
There is one exception to the widespread failure or absence of Canadian genre cinema, and that lies in the genre of horror movies. Horror was certainly the most commercially vital category of feature film production in the 1970s and 80s, even as it was being denounced from virtually all respectable standpoints as cheap, unworthy, gross, embarrassing, etc. A number of Canadian movies effortlessly joined the renaissance of low-budget horror taking place simultaneously south of the border, where the genre was being genuinely reborn and reimagined by movies from the 1970s such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Last House on the Left (1972), Sisters (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), It’s Alive (1974), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). In the 1970s and early 1980s we find in Canada, among other films, Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (1974), Ivan Reitman’s Cannibal Girls (1973), Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), Fruet’s Death Weekend (1976), Paul Lynch’s Prom Night (1980), Roger Spottiswoode’s Terror Train (1980), Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980), George Mihalka’s My Bloody Valentine (1981), J. Lee Thompson’s Happy Birthday to Me (1981), Jean-Claude Lord’s Visiting Hours (1982), and Fruet’s Spasms (1983), as well as almost the entire output of David Cronenberg from 1975 to 1986 (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly). These films made money, including in the United States. Scanners was the biggest money-maker in America for one week upon its release and was followed by two Canadian sequels (1991-2), as was The Fly, while Prom Night surpassed them with three sequels (1987-92), and both Prom Night and My Bloody Valentine were actually remade during 2008-9 as purely Hollywood productions, which surely suggests they had not been forgotten in the interval. Perhaps Canadian viewers did not receive any of these titles as Canadian movies (something Leach refers to as a fact that problematizes Cronenberg’s Canadian status) (32), but they were made mostly by Canadians in Canada, and many of them did nothing to disguise their Canadian settings (if also nothing to emphasize them). Many of them were conceived, produced, and marketed as CCA tax write-offs with little in the way of care or even thought put into them. (33) Many of them did, in truth, resemble their American counterparts to the point that distinctions between the two were not worth making, and so could be said to fail the “visible Canadian content” test.
But there are a couple of important points here. First, the movies that revived the genre in the U.S. – those I listed above – were uniformly cheap and nasty, and their failures as “well made” films in the areas of production values, dialogue, photography, editing, and acting placed them on at least as low a level as low-budget Canadian productions made by inexperienced people. (These failures, incidentally, could be and were construed by discerning critics as aesthetic advantages: the authenticity of a vile subject matter is asserted by a cruel, foul, and messy narrative environment, whereas a polished level of professionalism can only be an affront to it.) These American horror movies, distant from the relative Gothic gentilities of Universal horror movies of the 30s or Val Lewton’s moody RKO fare of the 40s, and less constrained by censorship than the drive-in fodder of the 1950s, were far stronger in their kick than anything in the genre before them. They were completely coincident with the arrival of X-rated violence and XXX-rated sex on American screens, and even more meaningfully with the crisis of ideology sweeping through the U.S. and Hollywood during the 1970s. Hollywood itself became anti-Hollywood to a great extent then, and produced a wave of anti-genre genre films such as The Wild Bunch (1969), Little Big Man (1970), The French Connection (1971), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), Chinatown (1974), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), The Parallax View (1974), Serpico (1973), and many others, which reflected a bitter cynicism about American aims and means never seen before or since. The darkness and violence of the “new” horror cinema was right at home in this environment, was in fact a kind of leading edge. Equally important is the fact that horror is in any event an atypical genre, and especially an atypical Hollywood genre, in its constitutional avoidance of reassurance and a grimness and will-to-destruction that are quite unique in commercial cinema. Perhaps the “final girl”, to use Carol Clover’s term (34), does survive in many of these films, but the rest of the scene is carnage and terror. And this is the one genre of all those practised in Hollywood that Canadian cinema has successfully adopted. All this is to point out that Canadian horror movies both of this period and later could thrive (at least relatively) because their genre was in itself so to speak anti-American, because it did not require any of that faith in individual initiative and good outcomes that Canadians could neither convincingly mimic nor happily swallow as examples of a cinema that reflected their own beliefs. At the same time their raw aggression was quite the opposite of the depressive “loser Canadian” syndrome marking the canonical docu-like “stories of our own,” while still inhabiting a production level low enough to be viable for a Canadian cinema-on-the-cheap.
Turning to other genres, we see instead strange absences. The Western is understood to tell the foundation myth of America, with its perpetual encounters of heroic individuals with the bountiful tabula rasa of the frontier, its perpetual negotiations between natural justice and the law and between the wilderness and civilization, and its final triumphant melding of all desirable elements however contradictory into a national alloy of the most sterling quality. Was the white settlement of the Canadian west so different from that of the United States? That is a matter for historians, of course; but what is easily visible to the naked eye is the complete nonexistence of anything remotely resembling a nation-forming myth of the frontier in Canada. Perhaps the east remained more of a wilderness for longer, and more a formative cultural battle between English and French, and the west consequently a kind of afterthought in Canadian discourse. The west in Canada was whipped into shape not by cowboys or local sheriffs but by the Northwest Mounted Police, a federal (not to say imperial) organ, and, as a uniformed and disciplined military force under government control, as far as possible from the American cowboy hero’s improvised and personally moral exercise of violence. In the white conquest of the Canadian west, nation-building virtue and heroic action, if any there be, are the province of the authorities, not the unusually gifted and largely unaffiliated individual. So, after the early silent period in which frontier stories were sometimes told in Canadian films (textbook example: Nell Shipman’s Back to God’s Country of 1919), the subsequent history of Canadian cinema offers very few examples of anything resembling a Western. It is true that by the time the 1960s-70s (re)birth of Canadian feature filmmaking occurred the Hollywood Western itself was suffering from a fatal illness produced by the ideological crisis of that period referred to above, and that it has never afterward achieved its former position as a functioning genre. But there simply is no Canadian myth of the frontier at any point. Of course this did not prevent Canadian filmgoers from enjoying Hollywood cowboy heroes from William S. Hart to Clint Eastwood as much as anybody. What the Western becomes in Canada in the extremely unlikely event that it raises its head at all is: 1) Pearson’s Paperback Hero, a “modern Western” taking place in a small town in Saskatchewan where the local young stud (a guy with a star complex) adopts the persona of a quick-draw cowboy and ends up shot down in the street by police as a demonstration of the impossibility of that idea; 2) Philip Borsos’s The Grey Fox (1982), in which an actual American highwayman (Bill Miner, known to the Pinkertons as “the gentleman bandit”) has to be imported into the action from south of the border to rob trains in British Columbia as sweetly as humanly possible while romancing a feminist professional photographer; or 3) William Phillips’s Gunless (2010), which centres on the comical consternation of a murderous American desperado in a Canadian town where nobody owns a gun.
The crime genre is almost equally underpopulated. The absence of crime movies is in some ways even more remarkable than the absence of Westerns, given the fact that the former has maintained an entirely thriving and functional status for the entire 40-year period since the Western’s effective demise. There is also even in Hollywood a tradition of crime movies that do not end well (starting from the beginnings of the genre where gangster protagonists would regularly end up dead in a gutter), so one would have thought that there might be a kind of space for moody or doomed Canadian examples, in the same way that the inherent negativity of the horror film allows a space for the anti-heroic Canadian sensibility. The most prominent existing examples are flamboyantly marginal ones like Between Friends (a heist movie so discouraging that The Asphalt Jungle pales), Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill (where the nerdlike Canadian hero wants to become a serial killer, “denouncing,” as Leach says, “the ‘colonial attitude’ which assumes that only Americans can succeed in this ‘competitive field.’”) (35), or Wellington’s I Love a Man in Uniform. The latter is in fact an allegory of Canadian viewers and American crime genre movies so perfect as to make one cry out in gratitude. The setting is unspecified, a standard North American city where the police uniforms are unmistakeably American but the occasional Ontario license plate shows up. Its hero, Henry Adler, is a recessive, bespectacled young bank clerk who is also an actor, and who lands a job playing the role of a kick-ass cop in a TV series. He is a moody, depressive man with a poor self-image, bossed around by his father and his bank manager and without a girlfriend, and he invests himself all too uncritically in the utterly banal cop character, to the point of wearing his uniform around in the streets and behaving like an actual police officer in real situations and even being taken for one by actual cops, while inserting bad dialogue from his part as appropriate. From here he progresses to complete derangement as he tries to enact the masculinity and power only this role can give him with increasingly catastrophic results, until he ends by shooting someone and then blowing his own brains out in his father’s house while watching the demise of his own character on the TV show. Brenda Longfellow notes most astutely:
In I Love a Man in Uniform, American culture is represented not as something external or foreign, but as a deeply internalized facet of our national psyche. […] In I Love a Man in Uniform, the dissolution of a Canadian “real” into American simulacra alerts us to the danger of permanent cultural assimilation. (36)
In essence, Henry is a dreadful warning of the dangers of being a too-naive Canadian spectator of American cinema, seeking to compensate for the absence of a powerful or heroic identity by falling all the way into the mechanism intended for American viewers for whom this constitutes a functioning part of an authentic national identity, instead of remaining firmly outside that storefront window as a Canadian must always remember to do. In fact, this character remains the same “loser Canadian” he has always been in narratives that positioned male protagonists in a situation calling for progress, self-realization, and achievement. (37)
Although, as mentioned above, Canada’s increasingly strong women’s cinema – movies made by and/or about women – has avoided the psychic death-spiral of so many male-centred films, it is impossible to classify most of it in genre terms. Thus it shares with its non-generic brethren the status of aesthetic difference from mainstream movies. In Hollywood, the strongest “women’s” movies are romantic comedies, often based on the sturdy formula boy-meets girl / boy-and-girl-hate-each-other / boy-gets girl, and featuring star personalities: Julia Roberts meets Richard Gere, Meg Ryan meets Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts meets Hugh Grant, Meg Ryan meets John Cusack, and so on. There are no Canadian equivalents to stars of this kind; the Canadian actors who have made it to stardom have done so exclusively in a Hollywood context and in another demonstration of the Catch-22 of a Canadian cinema that cannot be popular and Canadian at the same time. The closest thing Canada has to a Nora Ephron is Anne Wheeler, who possesses a filmography far beyond simple “relationship movies” and who is also lesbian. As is Patricia Rozema, another eminent Canadian woman director, whose mostly off-centre movies don’t get any closer to romantic comedy than a 1999 Jane Austen adaptation (Mansfield Park, 1999). And Deepa Mehta’s most celebrated films are set in India, with Indian characters and situations, and in any case lack anything like a rom-com sensibility. No, Canada’s most characteristic romantic comedies are perhaps the ones in which there is no actual romance, such as My American Cousin (Sandy Wilson 1985), where the heroine is 12 years old, or Kissed (Lynn Stopkewich 1996), where she is a necrophile.
This brings us to an area of the national cinema whose consideration has been perhaps unreasonably postponed, and that will now be treated in rather compressed fashion: what we may term the second-paradigm cinema that has displaced the first model of impotence and futility, a postmodern model of inclusiveness, variety, and decentredness. In a general sense the national narrative of English-Canadian identity in the twentieth century spent a long time in agonized attempts to define itself as something not-British and not-American but something different and unique. But nobody could actually discover what that identity was; the closest they could come was “health care” and “hockey” at home and “honest brokers” and “U.N. peacekeepers” abroad. People grew weary of being asked who they thought they were, and the questioners grew weary of their lack of success in getting any satisfactory answers. Without a strong narrative of its own, and under increasing attack from left/liberal critiques of its patriarchal, colonial, and racial/ethnic exclusivity, the old model changed. Canada was now more gender-sensitive, more region-sensitive. Canada was now multi-cultural, tolerant, a home where all differences were invited to thrive. Canadian identity was now gratefully described in terms of hybridity – gratefully by the Chinese-Canadians, West-Indian-Canadians, Lebanese-Canadians and all other hyphenated groupings because of the overt recognition of their ethnic and/or diasporic identities, and gratefully by the previous sole proprietors of Canadian identity as well, because they were at last relieved of the burden of trying to define what that identity was. The old crisis-of-no-essential identity has been replaced by a postmodern jamboree-of-no-essential identity. At the same time, hybridity and hyphenation in some ways continue to harbour the old problem in a new form. The “Canadian” half of all the hyphenated identities lacks solidity to the same extent as the older unhyphenated one did. This is evident in many cultural spheres, where the solid and substantial ethnic identities will celebrate their cuisine, their costume, their customs, in a Canadian context that seems like nothing but the neutral background against which these colourful elements are made visible. In Canadian cinema of the past 20 years, rich in hybridity and multiculturalism, the most masterful analyser of these relations is Atom Egoyan, one of the nation’s very best filmmakers. Egoyan is an Armenian-Canadian who has moved from the unconscious assimilation into mainstream white culture of his childhood to more and more complex levels of negotiation with his Armenian family roots. His first feature, Next of Kin (1984), already presented an allegory of personal identity in which “Canadian” identity was bland and empty, and “Armenian” identity was exotic and attractive: in a witty reversal of Egoyan’s own situation, its Anglo hero walks away from his own whitebread family (cruelly named “Foster”) and presents himself as the long-lost son of an Armenian family in Toronto. Subsequently, in Family Viewing (1988), The Adjuster (1991), and Calendar (1993), the picture was established of alienated and technophilic males excluded from an Old World identity existing within their own families that was somehow richer, deeper, more authentic than they could reach themselves – and that picture even contrived to maintain the old “loser Canadian” tradition of feckless heroes unworthy of their women by investing warm, authentic ethnic identity primarily in female characters (wives, mothers, grandmothers). In short, hybridity and multiculturalism have given the nation a new way to think about identity, but that sense of emptiness signifying “Canada” is still buried there.
Zoë Druick draws attention to the grouplet of “hoser” films – she cites principally Hard Core Logo, FUBAR (Michael Dowse 2002), and Trailer Park Boys: The Movie (Mike Clattenberg 2007) (38) – that use the “mockumentary” form to give exposure to the activities and values of, primarily, white working-class or underclass males. In all of these films, there is a presentation of this class of subject through the lens of documentary filmmaking, and the films are hence a kind of wild, irreverent acknowledgement of that bedrock of canonical Canadian filmmaking. But both subjects and documentary methods are raucously mocked. The ignorance, vulgarity, irresponsibility, and sheer stupidity of the principal characters are presented with the low-comic fervour of a Dumb and Dumber, (39) while the documentary project is even more ridiculous for devoting itself so pretentiously to such a gross object. And yet the subjects do, as Druick maintains, achieve a level of solidity and even authenticity:
It is challenging to explain the tenacity of this stereotype [of ignorant working-class white masculinity]. On the one hand, it seems to be a way of laughing about masculinity, one of the mainstays of comedy, while making fun of the working class. On the other hand, however, there is a kind of dignity and respect granted these characters precisely because of their modesty and lack of pretention. … [T]here is something about the constellation of unpretentious white masculinity that resonates with certain factions of the Canadian audience and it may be related to a backlash against an official culture promoting a centristic model of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. (40)
Druick goes on to suggest that this cultural stereotype perhaps reflects the quietly racist values of self-described “Canadian-Canadians” and suggests that “these Canadian films about hoser masculinity render performative the usually invisible apparatus of heteronormative, white masculinity in Canada.” (41) I would suggest, though, that the most Canadian thing about these films is the flood of scalding ridicule that they unleash upon both their subjects and the very idea of making a movie about them (that is, upon their own activity). The way they incorporate a low-budget filmmaking project into their own texts serves also as an ironic and somewhat self-critical reflection of the conditions of virtually all filmmaking in Canada, and especially of anything “independent.” These movies strive to preempt any criticism of their banal subjects and cheap methods by launching nuclear attacks on these aspects themselves before anyone else can; but in this way they do substantial damage to their ability to be at all serious and plant themselves firmly in the realm of scorched-earth satire. It is not that Hard Core Logo and FUBAR cannot finally achieve some seriousness, as Druick suggests, but the way is very hard and the collateral damage very severe. I would note, too, that the ending of Hard Core Logo catapults the movie directly into the category of utter failure and very, very bad outcomes, while the death of the filmmaker in FUBAR must be read either in the same way or as a joke so black as to make flat everything in the movie. The Trailer Park Boys franchise does, however, maintain a cheerful, self-reliant anarchy that constitutes one of the most positive things in recent Canadian cinema.
Altogether, even outside the category of multi-ethnicity and even leaving aside horror and other less widespread genre experiments, Canadian films have moved away from the first approved aesthetic pattern of low-budget realism and dour storytelling and into something much more various and lively. “Quirkiness” has now replaced dreary docu-realism as a catch-all description of Canadian cinema. The chapters on film in Geoff Pevere and Greg Dymond’s Mondo Canuck (42) are happy to catalogue the strangeness of recent Canadian movies, while Katherine Monk entitled her book on Canadian cinema Weird Sex and Snowshoes (43), and Pevere returned to the subject more pointedly in a little essay wherein he described the bizarreries in Canadian movies of the moment as “Fishy.” (44) Under this banner may be assembled all the eccentricities of noteworthy Canadian filmmakers such as Cronenberg, Egoyan, McDonald, Rozema, John Paizs, Guy Maddin, Don McKellar, John Greyson, Srinivas Krishna, Gary Burns, Clement Virgo, Thom Fitzgerald, Michael Dowse, etc., etc. The bewildering variety of idiosyncrasies represented by this collected work could not be further from any kind of unitary identity, and nicely mirrors the way that Canadian nationalism has moved from weak definition to strong anti-definition. But in one respect this cinema is no different from the one(s) it replaced: its aesthetic contrast to Hollywood and its continued rejection of a heroic narrative. Canadian genre movies remain anti-genre movies (I Love a Man in Uniform, Gunless), and if a Canadian graphic novel adaptation should make it to the screen as a Hollywood co-production (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World ), the hero remains stuck in his geeky, nerdy persona even while conquering super-villains. Even Canadian “independent” movies retain a distance from what can be the soft and self-congratulatory strains of American Indie productions (cf. the awful fate that overtook McKellar’s wonderful Last Night when it was the victim of unacknowledged theft in the repellently sentimental Seeking a Friend for the End of the World ). As a category, these movies massively fail to get a domestic theatrical audience, and they lose money at the Canadian box-office, get little or no U.S. distribution, and are financially saved, if at all, by European or Asian sales. They exist, as it were, over the dead bodies of their national audience. Whether the representations of themselves in Canadian cinema is dismal and earthbound or malleable and full of fantasy, Canadian moviegoers continue to dislike and avoid them. And their own national cinema continues to exist – unlike that of any other nation – in an aesthetic ghetto that very few choose to visit.
- Charles Acland, “From the Absent Audience to Expo-mentality: Popular Film in Canada,” (275-291) in David Taras and Beverly Rasporich, eds., A Passion for Identity: Canadian Studies for the 21st Century (Scarborough: Nelson, 2001), 286.
- Zoë Druick, “Cosmpolitans and Hosers: Notes on Recent Developments in English-Canadian Cinema,” (161-181) in Bart Beaty and Rebecca Sullivan, eds., How Canadians Communicate (3rd edition), Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2010), 161.
- From this point on I will abbreviate “English-Canadian” to “Canadian,” fully aware that French Canada has as much a right (if not perhaps as much an appetite) to be called “Canadian” as English Canada – and a far more viable national cinema. I feel it is just too cumbersome to have to employ “English-” on every occasion, and the notion of using an acronym like “EC” is not attractive.
- John Caughie has discussed this phenomenon in “Playing at Being American: Games and Tactics,” in Patricia Mellencamp, ed., Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 44-58.
- Acland phrases this idea simply: “arguably, English-Canadians are especially good at masquerading as Americans” (283).
- See, notably: Manjunath Pendakur, Canadian Dreams and American Control: The Political Economy of the Canadian Film Industry (Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1990); Ted Magder, Canada’s Hollywood: The Canadian State and Feature Films (University of Toronto Press 1993); Michael Dorland, So Close to the State(s): The Emergence of Canadian Feature Film Policy (University of Toronto Press 1998).
- Heritage Canada’s chart of Canadian box-office percentages for the period 2000-2010 can be found at http://www.pch.gc.ca/pgm/flm-vid/bxffce-eng.cfm?FS-ES=C#cn-foot. Charles Acland, both in “From the Absent Audience” and in “Screen Space, Screen Time, and Canadian Film Exhibition” (in William Beard and Jerry White, eds., North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980 [Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001, 2-18]), has given detailed arguments for why “percentage of screens” as well as some other metrics for exhibition of Canadian films are relative and uncertain categories. But the overall picture is not in doubt.
- “Canadian American Relations: Surviving the 80s,”  in Second Words (1982), 385.
- Not only in the essays in Second Words but most comprehensively in her monograph Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972).
- Frye’s comments are mostly found in two collections of essays, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (Toronto: Anansi, 1971) and Divisions on a Ground (ed. James Polk, Toronto: Anansi, 1984).
- And that of other cultural commentators of the era, such as Harold Innis (see especially The Strategy of Culture [University of Toronto Press 1952], and George Grant (see especially Lament for a Nation [Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1965], and Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America [Toronto: Anansi, 1969].
- The most detailed rendering of this argument is in Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.
- Commercial films had existed in Canada since the early silent era. One- and two-reelers were in fact distributed in the American marketplace and reasonably competitive before World War I cut off European films and allowed the formation of national distribution combines. 1919 is often given as a date when this transformation was broadly accomplished in the U.S. After that Canadian production slowed drastically and features were very rare and never successful.
- Jim Leach, “The Body Snatchers: Genre and Canadian Cinema,” in Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986, 357-69. Quoting Andrew Tudor to the effect that genre “by its nature, its very familiarity, inclines towards reassurance” (Image and Influence, London 1974, 181), Leach remarks that “this sense of security is precisely what is lacking, almost by definition, in the more traditional…Canadian cinema that explores…the uncertainties of Canadian experience” (358). Leach revisits his subject eight years later in “North of Pittsburgh: Genre and National Cinema from a Canadian Perspective,” in Barry K. Grant, ed., Film Genre Reader II (University of Texas Press, 1994, 474-493), and there his terms are rather different, though the difficulties of any kind of Canadian genre cinema are reinforced.
- Marshall Delaney (nom de plume of Robert Fulford), Saturday Night 90:4 (1975), 83-5.
- Jim Leach has this to say about Shivers and the CFDC: “The film is reported to have paid back its CFDC investment handsomely. … Cinema Canada named it ‘the fastest recouping movie in the history of Canadian cinema.’ Only Robert Fulford, who has not seen the picture since his Marshall Delaney days, claims it did not return its federal funding. ‘Contrary to what was reported, the CFDC received no money back from Shivers,’ he told me in 2003.” (Film in Canada, 102)
- See Morris, “In Our Own Eyes: The Canonizing of Canadian Cinema,” Canadian Journalof Film Studies 3:2 (Spring 1994), 27-44.
- Principally Isabel (1968), Act of the Heart (1970), and Journey (1972), all of them starring his then-wife, Geneviève Bujold.
- Acland, “From the Absent Audience…”, 286. He goes on to say that ‘The expo-mentality of Canadian cinema has led to the development of a lively and important circuit of film festivals. Much in the same way that many national cultures begin to cohere and appear whole at international festivals, Canadian film culture deploys the local festival to assert images of national participation.’ Then, recalling the attendance for screenings of Canadian cinema at the Toronto Festival’s annual round-up, he quotes Peter Harcourt (A Canadian Journey: Conversations with Time, Toronto: Oberon1994): [the] “yearly series of ‘Perspectives Canada’ screenings … without exception, play to packed houses. The fact that when the films move from the festival to the commercial screens elsewhere in the city, they seldom last for more than a few weeks demonstrates that, in present-day consumer culture, people are more interested in events than in films” (1994, p. 116).’ (287)
- Acland, “From the Absent Audience…”, 280.
- Christian Metz, in what one must hope was a playful frame of mind, has stated that “it is doubtful whether there have been true genres in the cinema other than American genres” (Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor, Oxford University Press, 1974, 252) – and Leach cites this remark in a chapter epigraph in Cinema in Canada (2006, 49). The existence of Feuillade’s crime serials, the rigourously coded genres and sub-genres in Japanese cinema of the 1930s, Bollywood musicals, Asian martial-arts genres, and many, many other examples give the lie to this notion.
- Take One 4:3 (September 1973); reprinted with a 1976 postscript in Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson, eds., Canadian Film Reader (Toronto: Peter Martin, 1977, 234-50).
- It should be recalled that Canada’s English population was from the beginning largely run by second and third sons of the aristocracy sent out to the colonies to compensate for their inability to amount to anything at home, and of American Tory loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. In 1842, Charles Dickens could remark during his first tour of North America that “the wild and rabid toryism of Toronto is, I speak seriously, appalling” (John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, Book Third: America [1972-74], e-book access at http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/jforster/bl-jforster-cdickens-3.htm).
- Atwood herself admitted in her Clarendon Lecture of 1991 that she had placed possibly undue emphasis on the savage wilderness while neglecting “the literature of urban life” in her analysis of Canadian literary narratives. See Atwood, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 5.
- Acutely summed up in the brief children’s poem by Dennis Lee:
William Lyon Mackenzie
Came to town in a frenzy
He shot off his gun
And made himself run, William Lyon Mackenzie
(Jelly Belly, Toronto: Macmillan, 1983).
The Canadian horror movie Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990) features a scene with two people making love on an American flag. Writer and director Ron Oliver had this comment: “The flag love making scene. Basically, Canadian patriotism doesn’t exist, so having them screw on a Canadian flag doesn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t get a rise out of the audience, Canadian or otherwise, because who really cares what happens on a Canadian flag?” (Caelum Vatsndal, They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, 207.)
- Robin Wood, “Towards a Canadian (Inter)National Cinema,” CineAction! 110:16 (Spring 1989), 59, quoted in Leach (1994), 476. Wood, an Englishman working at York University in Toronto, was an internationally important film critic and scholar whose basic indifference to Canadian cinema and all the issues surrounding it made him something of a skeleton at the feast of English-Canadian critical navel-gazing over the long stretch of his career.
- It is a point that Fothergill stresses, pointing out that perhaps the most egregious of the male protagonists’ sins in these films are against women, who are held up as far more mature and morally sound than their men. He goes on to single out a few movies made by women, or devoted almost exclusively to female characters, which do not share the general syndrome. It is a pattern that has largely survived into more recent times, when filmmakers like Sandy Wilson, Anne Wheeler, and Patricia Rozema have produced a more optimistic and robust cinema than most of their male counterparts.
- Acland, “From the Absent Audience…”, 280.
- In the field of the documentary feature, Project Grizzly (Peter Lynch, NFB 1996) is a truly textbook example of the same phenomenon; and in the realm of Canadian genre television – a venue much more differentiated and containing several examples of unironically presented American heroic narratives – Durham County (2007-10) performs a similar function.
- The Canadian Film Encyclopedia gives this capsule description of the CCA: The term “tax shelter films” refers to feature films made explicitly to take advantage of the provisions of the one-hundred-per-cent Capital Cost Allowance (CCA) for feature films introduced in 1974. This allowance created a tax shelter for investors, enabling them to deduct from their taxable income one hundred per cent of their investment in features certified as Canadian, and thus defer taxes until profits were earned. (To be eligible, films had to be at least seventy-five minutes long, have a producer and two-thirds of the creative personnel who were Canadian, and have at least seventy-five per cent of the technical services performed in Canada.) As a result, there was a boom in the volume of production in Canada, which rocketed from three features and a total budget expenditure of $1.6 million in 1974, to sixty-six feature films and a total budget expenditure of $172 million in 1979. [http://tiff.net/CANADIANFILMENCYCLOPEDIA/Browse/bysubject/capital-cost-allowancethe-tax-shelter-years-1975-to-1982] Peter Urquhart, in “You Should Know Something – Anything – About This Movie: You Paid For It” (Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 12:2 [Fall 2003], 64-80), rightly appeals to us to look with greater discernment past the received truth that the CCA era produced almost uniformly inferior movies.
- Some scholars have suggested that we need to reconfigure the idea of the Canadian national audience to more accurately reflect what Canadians actually watch – i.e., Hollywood – and to say, in effect, that if Canadians do it it must be Canadian. This line of reasoning seems to me to be circular, to erase any kind of colonialisation at a stroke, and altogether to beg the question: reminiscent, almost, of Richard Nixon’s “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” For hints or statements in this direction, see, for example, Acland op. cit., Druick, op. cit.; Brenda Longfellow, “Globalization and National Identity in Canadian Film” (Canadian Journal of Film Studies 5:2 [Fall 1996]).
- “[T]he attempts to situate Cronenberg’s films in a national rather than generic context often seem to obscure the ways in which the films are constructed and received.” (Leach 1994, 482)
- Caelum Vatnsdal devotes several chapters to the subject of horror productions in his engaging They Came from Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring 2004), and amasses a crushing quantity of detail as to the know-nothing commercial climate that gave rise to these films.
- Carol Clover’s description of the monster’s last victim, who very often survives the general cataclysm, first promulgated in “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” (Representations 20 , 187-228.
- Film in Canada (2006), 56.
- “Globalization and National Identity in Canadian Film,” 9, 11-12.
- The story is quite different on television, where (in particular) CTV has generated a stream of urban crime series from Night Heat (1985-9) to Flashpoint (2008-12) that are so similar to their straightforward American counterparts that they can be sold south of the border to networks and syndicators with some success, if not indeed come into existence as coproductions in the first place (e.g. Flashpoint [CTV/CBS], Rookie Blue [Global/ABC], and Motive [CTV/NBC]). This fact is the strongest argument against the theory the present essay is propounding, that Canadian audiences will not buy faux-American domestic productions. The whole sphere of Canadian commercial television is one that needs closer examination in the context of questions of nationalism in Canadian cinema.
- I am sure she would now want to add Trailer Park Boys: Countdown to Liquor Day, which won the coveted Telefilm Canada Golden Box Office Award (English) as Canadian box-office champion for 2009.
- This may seem to imply an American model for this form, but of course it dates back far beyond Dumb and Dumber (1994) to the Bob & Doug Mackenzie “Great White North” sketches on the SCTV comedy show, beginning in 1980. These two are truly the archetypal “hosers,” as Druick points out and as every Canadian knows.
- Druick, 176-7.
- Druick, 177.
- Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1996.
- Vancouver: Raincoast, 2001.
- “Fishy,” in North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980, ed. William Beard and Jerry White (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2002), 100-4.