O Canada…we see thee rise, The True North strong and free! : Reassessing Canadian Cinema
It has only been in the past year that we at Krasker began tagging titles in our catalog with the subject heading Films: Feature Foreign (Canadian/Quebecois French), but the need for such a designation is clear. Canadian cinema is fertile ground for critical analysis–a country whose home-grown talent offers up a unique perspective on the world and which is, increasingly, exploring this point of view with daring visual gusto.
Too often Canadian filmmakers have been overlooked in this country–or rather their “Canadianness” has been overlooked, as scholars and critics treat their works as a sort of extension of U.S. cinema, thereby blurring the borders that define Canadian cultural and aesthetic experience to the point of invisibility. Furthermore, when an attempt to distinguish Canadian Cinema from our own is made, Canadian film is all too often portrayed as a counterpoint to the United States experience–the quirky neighbor to the North, a pale imitation of the United States, Hollywood on a shoe-string budget in a colder climate. Adding a complicated layer to these modes of interpretation is the long-standing tradition of Hollywood, lured by financial incentives, to use Canadian locations as “stand-ins” for places in the United States. Indeed, the repackaging of Canada as the United States has been a profitable business for our northern neighbors, and an ironic detriment to the native Canadian film industry. A shrewd analysis of this practice’s effect on global and native perceptions of the Canadian cinema can be found in David L. Pike’s essay (featured in Bright Lights Film Journal) Across the Great Divide: Canadian Popular Cinema in the 21st Century.
So “What does Canada say about us?” cries the US! Often the answer is a smug confirmation of the States’ “superiority,” with portrayals of Canadians as quaint, ineffectual rubes that stand no chance of undermining the U.S.’s premium on “savvy”. One consistent Canadian response to this arrogance is to revel in self-deprecation, exploring the Canadian “inferiority complex” through the medium of comedy, a tactic that, when taken to its subversive extreme has succeeded in launching a huge cream pie in the puss of its southern cousins. At the epicenter of this rebellion is the iconoclastic comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, whose television show which ran in the 1980s and 90s set the gold standard for Canadian rebellion–in contrast, the weak as water cuppa served up by fellow comedian Mike Myers missed the mark with its air of pandering to Hollywood’s perception of Canada as a nation with a perpetually low self-esteem.
And hence we return to the sad state of affairs that Canadian film has rarely been assessed in its own right, leaving us to ponder the question, “What is the Canadian voice, if not merely a tentative acquiescence to U.S. superiority?” Like most cinema produced outside the U.S., it has been credited with a greater cerebralness, taking stock in the hallmarks of independent cinema: less flash, more talk, more thought. Indeed, one of the seminal works of Canadian cinema, Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) is a film that sensitively portrays people whose lives fall outside the false glitter and glamour of the Hollywood dream factory, and has been warmly embraced as a story that rings truer than the template-driven popcorn movie. However it must not be overlooked that Rozema’s masterwork offers up a unique and daring aesthetic that helped usher in a greater emphasis on avant-garde sensory experience and it is crucial to note that one of the major attributes that increasingly distinguishes Canadian film today is the realm of the visual–as more and more filmmakers push the envelope of ocular rapture.
The visual? Ocular rapture? Canada? Again we confront the limitations people feel compelled to place on Canadian artistic expression. Yet to discover Canadian cinema as a landscape with more to offer than snowy vistas and maple leaves is to be delighted–and one such filmmakers that exemplifies this trend (and whose work can be found in the Krasker collection!) is Guy Maddin.
It is hard to describe the work of Guy Maddin…a few words and phases come to mind: a pastiche, cinematic collage gone wild, a fusion of silent era filmmaking aestethic and the contemporary, certifiably insane. Perhaps you just have to check it out for yourself and two works in our collection that Maddin is perhaps most identified with are The Saddest Music in the World (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). The Saddest Music in the World tells the warped saga of a Winnipeg-based brewery owner Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rosselini), who also happens to be a double amputee covetous of a man’s glass prosthetic limbs, and her deranged search for–you guessed it!–the saddest music in the world. She launches an international contest to find this elusive musical treasure and subsequently several storylines converge as people race to Winnipeg for the contest. Maddin sets his Winnipeg in the dark days of the Great Depression, and appropriately plumbs the depths of 1920s and 1930s cinema in creating an at times overwhelming visual experience. If Joseph von Sterberg and Busby Berkeley had a child, who then proceeded to go on an acid trip and take us a long for the ride, the result would be this film.
Along the way, Maddin makes some deft observations about U.S.-Canadian relations: one of the central characters is a patriotic Canadian at odds with his American ex-pat son and visions of a drab Winnipeg are tensely juxtaposed with over-the-top Hollywood styling. Furthermore, the at-all-times surreal aesthetic constantly considers and challenges stereotypical perceptions of Canada as the United States’s “plain Jane cousin,” and in so doing, Maddin casts Canadian filmmaking (and Canadian filmmakers) in the role of aggressor–assaulting the viewer with a visual feast that makes the usual U.S. fare taste bland in comparison.
Brand Upon the Brain! likewise provides a stunning visual experience, but whereas The Saddest Music in the World also revels in the aural Brand goes in the very opposite direction: it’s a silent film. Intriguingly, it is a film about Guy Maddin…or at least a version of Guy Maddin. In Brand we follow a young Guy as he wiles away his days on a strange island he will one day inherit. Mystery and odd characters abound, naturally, and the viewer can’t help but wonder what is Maddin trying to say about himself and his art? The silent film device begs a connection between the Canadian artist and a “silencing” of Canadian culture in general; the silence of Guy’s world makes the viewer ever-presently aware of it. At a time when sound film is the norm, the realm of the quiet grabs our attention as much as the silent screams of the bold cinematography and production design make us cock our heads to listen. It is worth noting that the original film did not have a recorded sountrack and upon initial screenings boasted live accompianment and foley artists for the production of sound effects–creating further distance between the Maddin’s Canada captured on screen and the ability to create a sound, a voice if you will, that people will pay attention to. A musical score was added later, however, and is provided on the Criterion DVD release available in the Krasker collection.
~By Mary Bowen, Krasker Film/Video Services