Canadian Cinema Notes - p K...

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Unformatted text preview: p K] cicadas.to.own...o-vocounctotattoo-oaaoaooacooooc The academic study of English Canadian film has fol— lowed two broad lines of development since its emer- gence in the 1960s Each of these is rooted in a form of cultural nationalism, the predominant impulse in post— war English Canadian intellectual culture. One such line of development is that of cultural policy studies, the chronicling of the Canadian state’s response to the perceived threat to Canadian national culture repre- sented by the United States. Like Canadian media studies generally, this work is inspired by the political economy of Harold Innis (e.g. 1995), whose theoriza- tion of Canada’s economic and political dependence, first on Great Britain and, subsequently, on the United States, has been a prominent influence on Canadian scholarship in a variety of fields. Forseveral decades, the most substantial analyses of Canadian film policy were published in the research appendices which accompanied the reports ofgovern- ment commissions. Such reports still provide the most comprehensive overviews of the Canadian film indus— try and of state policies directed at this industy. In the last decade, however, communications scholars have undertaken a more highly theorized and comprehen- sive analysis of the long-term structural problems blocking the development ofa Canadian cinema. Dor- land (1991), Pendakur(1990), and Magder(1993) have offered analyses, rooted in the traditions of political economy, of that long process whereby Canadian film exhibition and distribution has remained under US Canadian cinema Will Straw control with disastrous effects on levels of investment in a national film industry. The significant role played by policy studies within English Canadian film scholarship is evidence of a more general privileging of state action within the cultural sphere in Canada. Those involved in film cul— ture in Canada have long reiterated the claim, first made by public-broadcasting activist Gordon Sparling in the 19305, that Canadians must choose between ’the State and the United States’ (cited in Magder 1993: 13). Popular and scholarly histories of Canadian cinema have typically offered a narrative in which a continuous experience of failure, beginning with the earliest arrival of cinema in Canada, is broken only with the heroic emergence of the National Film Board in 1939. A more recent wave of historical scholarship has challenged such accounts, noting the rich (albeit inter— mittent and unstable) legacy of attempts to found a national industry dating back to the turn of the century (e.g. Morris 1975). It is partly in terms ofthe role played by policy studies that divergences between French-language and Eng- lish-language film studies in Canada become clear. While English-language work has concentrated on the absence of an indigenous feature film industry, and chronicled the economic and political reasons forthis absence, histories of French—language, Québé— cois cinema have displayed a higher degree of tri— umphalism. (Not all French-language culture within CRITICAL APPROACHES TO WORLD CINEMA Canada, it must be noted, is produced within Quebec; nor is the entirety of Quebec culture produced in the French-language.) While, arguably, the dominant bar— rierto the development ofan English Canadian cinema has been imposed by the US industry, Québécois his- torians have tended to see the historical weakness of their own cinema as rooted in the long-standing under— development of a distinctive francophone culture within Canada and Quebec. The sense that this under- development was overcome in the 19605 and 19705, as part of what has come to be known as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, allows histories of French—language cinema in Canada to offer a more heroic tone. In the post-war emergence of a Québécois cinema, we may note two paradoxes. One is that federal institutions, such as the National Film Board and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, played crucial (if unintended) roles in fostering a sense of nationalist, even separatist, consciousness in Que- bec in the post-war period, in large measure by spon- soring and disseminating images of a population and geographical space undergoing a process of rapid modernization. The second is that, despite an even smaller population base than English Canada, franco- phone Quebec has produced a popularcinema (along- side its art—auteur cinema), one which, while ofvariable stability, is embedded in a star system, publicity appa- ratus, and constellation of collective cultural reference- points lacking in English Canada. Prominent examples of this popular cinema include Mon Onc/e Antoine (Claude Jutra, 1971) and Les Noces de papier ('Paper Wedding’, Michel Brault, 1989). The otherline ofdevelopmentin the studyof English Canadian cinema has had a more direct impact on the development of Canadian film studies itself as a disci— pline. This is the attempt to define the specificity of English Canadian culture, an enterprise which flour- ished amidst the surge of interest in the late 19605 and 19705 in defining a national culture. From a pre- sent-day perspective, these attempts bear the mark of an all too obvious essentialism, but in seeking to estab- lish the thematic and formal basis of national cultural traditions, Canadian writers were replicating processes observable in other national cultures before them. Margaret Atwood’s Survival (1972) was perhaps the most influential of the texts produced as part of this project. Through a detailed study of Canadian fiction, poetry, and drama, she concluded that the thematic unity of Canadian literature (in both its English and French language forms) was based on a persistent 524 preoccupation with the notion of survival. Writers on the visual arts were very often drawn to the argument that Canadian artistic practice was marked by a pre- occupation with landscape, and with the oppressive- ness (as much as the sublime beauty) of nature (e.g. McGregor 1985). In his influential book Movies and Mythologies, Peter Harcourt (1977) found a thematic unity for Eng- lish Canadian cinema in a crisis ofcharacter motivation. Looking at the scattered feature film tradition of the 19605 and early 19705, and at such works as Paperback Hero (Peter Pearson, 1973) or Rowdyman (Peter Carter, 1971) for example, he noted that the heroes of Cana- dian films were typically trapped in a real or emotional adolescence. Later, Geoff Pevere (1992: 36) would write of the stubbornly worrisome character of English Canadian films, regarding this as the appropriate response of one national culture to a powerful neigh- bour whose cultural artefacts include the constant exhortation to be happy. The sense that English Cana- dian feature films are typically more elliptical, unre- solved, and restrained in narrative and stylistic terms is by now a commonplace within discussions of this cinema. Less frequently addressed is the extent to which these attributes are typical of art-house cine— matic practices generally, rather than the necessary expression of a national character. The project ofdefining a national film tradition found itself increasingly marginalized within the discipline of film studies, as that discipline settled into the depart— mental structure of Canadian universities in the late 19705 and early 19805. The first degree programme in film studies in Canada was offered at York University in Toronto in 1969 (Morris 1991: 97). In Canada, as elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the rise of psychoanalytic, formalist, and ideological forms of analysis displaced, for a time, the question of the spe- cificity of national cinematic practices. indeed, for sev— eral years, there were evident tensions between the hermeneutics of suspicion which dominated film the- ory and the impulse to validate a national tradition which underlay much work on Canadian cinema. Fem- inist scholars and critics, writing in such magazines as Cine Action and Borderlines, were virtually alone in undertaking to address Canadian film practice from the perspective of those forms of analysis developed in such non-Canadian journals as Screen adnd Camera Obscura. More recently, as cultural theory in its Anglo- American variants has come to take up the question of nationhood, this work has served to revitalize Canadian Awe—4.; :4 -, film studies in important ways (e.g. Acland 1994). Indeed, Canadian studies itself, as a broadly interdis- ciplinary intellectual enterprise, has in recent years been marked by more sustained and vital diaologue with cultural studies. For two decades teachers of film studies in Canada have met regularly within the Film Studies Association of Canada (FSAC). While FSAC is a bilingual organiza- tion (in spirit, if not in practice), French-language scholars in Quebec are more likely to belong to the Association québécoises des études cinematograph- iques. The sole academic publication devoted exclu- sively to film studies work in English Canada is the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, founded in 1990. (Cinémas, a French—language journal published in Montreal, is, characteristically, glossier and receives wider distribution.) Most of the significant debates over Canadian film have transpired in a Cultural space in which the academic world and a broader sphere of intellectual culture overlap. Magazines such as Cinema Canada (now defunct), Take One, Cine Action, and PointofView, or periodicals ofthe political and cultural left, such as Canadian Forum and Borderlines, have done much to establish a critical tradition around Eng— lish-Canadian cinema. Indeed, the most important controversy over the future of English Canadian cinema, the so-called ’Cinema we Need' debate, began within non-academic magazines and has since became standard assigned reading for courses in Canadian cinema. (It is collected in Featherling 1988.) This debate was significant, in part, because it departed from the long-standing notion that a Cana- dian cinematic sensibility found its most natural expression in documentary forms. Typically, all partici- pants concurred that the appropriate Canadian aes- thetic was one which offered an alternative to the hegemony of Hollywood forms, but there was signifi- cant disagreement over whether the most effective alternative lay in the traditions of materialist experi- mental film or in new variations ofthe narrative feature. Bruce Elder, a prominent Canadian filmmaker himself, argued that only an experimental, non-narrative cinema, focused on the ’present’ of perception, might successfully challenge the means—end rationality ofUS narrative cinema. Among those responding, Peter Har- court (1985) and Piers Handling (1985) insisted on the need for the links to the social world offered by so- called New Narrative films, a cycle represented by such films as Sonatine (Micheline Lanctot, 1983) and Family Viewing (Atom Egoyan, 1987). R CANADIAN CINEMA In a variety of ways, this debate echoed similar debates of a decade earlier within film studies and radical film culture internationally, and it was easy to dismiss arguments in favour of a phenomenological, experimental cinema as outmoded. By the mid—to—late 19805, however, when the debate over ’The Cinema we Need' erupted, there were good reasonsto believe that an indigenous tradition of experimental filmmak- ing, from the work of Michael Snow through that of Brenda Longfellow, Chris Gallagher, and Bruce Elder himself, offered a firmerfoundation fora Canadian film culture than the intermittently successful feature, nar- rative films held up as an alternative. At the same time, as Kass Banning (1992) has noted, the tendency to dismiss documentary filmmaking as an anachronistic legacy of the Grierson period ignored the importance of documentary film in the development of a feminist film practice in Canada. Such films as Our Marilyn (Brenda Longfellow, 1988) and Speak Body(Kay Armi- tage, 1979) rework documentary within new, hybrid forms in which the influence of an indigenous experi- mental tradition is evident. As might be expected, the most interesting recent work in Canadian film studies is that which challenges long—established orthodoxies. Nelson (1 990) set out to undermine the National Film Board’s status as the most powerful expression of our national cultural autonomy, noting the Board's role within the Canadian state’s broader acquiescence to the security interests of the United States in the post-war period. More recently, Michael Dorland (1996, forthcoming) has suggested that the endless attempt within Canada to found a national feature film industry is in important ways the history of a 'fetish’. Young countries, he suggests, long for a feature film industry to serve as a sign of their national maturity and legitimacy. The principal effect of this longing, Dorland (forthcoming) argues, ’has not been a film industry per se, but elements of a film production infrastructure sufficiently established to support the periodic emergence of discursive forma- tions that produce talk about an imaginary or potential industry'. Arguably, the ’fetish’ of a national feature film indus- try has withered over the last decade, the effect of three interrelated developments. One of these is the emergence of an English Canadian auteur cinema, evident in the works of such directors as Atom Egoyan (e.g. Family Viewing 1987; Speaking Parts, 1989; Calendar, 1994), Patricia Rozema (I’ve Heard the Mer- maids Singing, 1987; White Room, 1991), Bruce CRITICAL APPROACHES TO WORLD CINEMA McDonald (Road Kill, 1989; Highway 61, 1991), and William D. MacGillivray (Stations, 1983; Life Classes, 1987). These works have reinvigorated a critical dis- course of auteurist interpretation, just as their success has inspired the acknowledgement that an English Canadian cinema may only ever be an art-house cinema with occasional cross-overs to mainstream suc- cess. At the same time, the number of Canadian firms producing speciality television programming has expanded, as part of a broader growth in the interna- tional markets for television programmes. A national industry which services these markets (particularly in such genres as animated and children’s programming, in which Canadian producers have traditionally done well) has taken shape, offering the levels of employ- ment and return on investment which, it was once hoped, would come from the production of feature films. Finally, Canada is home to an elaborate network of independent film and video co-operatives, an infra- structure nourished by the cultural activism of munici- pal artistic scenes. Much of the important discourse of and about Canadian film is now to be found in inde— pendent short films and videos (and in the critical apparatus which surrounds such works), of which Sally’s Beauty Spot(Helen Lee, 1990) and Ten Cents a Dance (Midi Onodera, 1989) offer noteworthy examples. It is here that the debate over cultural identity has moved from the conventional preoccupation with national specificity to embrace the complexities of identity pol- itics and the shifting status of the nation-state (for an overview, see Marchessault 1995). BIBLIOGRAPHY Acland, Charles (1994), 'National Dreams, International Encounters: The Formation of Canadian Film Culture in the 19305’, Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 3/1: 3—26. Atwood, Margaret (1972), Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (Toronto: Anansi). Banning, Kass (1992), 'The Canadian Feminist Hybrid Doc- umentary', CineAction, 26—7 (Winter), 108—13. Dorland, Michael (1991), 'The War Machine: American 526 Culture, Canadian Cultural Sovereignty and Film ' - n Canadian Journal of Film Studies, 1/2: 35—48. 7 — (1996), 'Policy Rhetorics of an Imaginary Cinema: A Discursive Economy of the Emergence of the ‘ a» and Canadian Feature Film', in Albert Moran (ed.), ' Policy (London: Routledge). A ; — (forthcoming), The Three Percent Solution: The I cursive Economy of the Emergence of the . —. Feature Film 1957—1968 (Toronto: University of T - ' _ Press). Featherling, Doug (ed) (1988), Documents in Film (Peterborough: Broadview Press). Handling, Piers (1985), 'The Cinema we Need?’, Canada, nos. 120—1 (July—Aug), 29—30. Harcourt, Peter (1977), Movies and Mythologies: T a National Cinema (Toronto: Canadian '-C r.- Corporation Publications). — (1985), 'Politics or Paranoia?', Cinema Canada, 120—1 (July—Aug), 31—2. Innis, Harold (1995), Staples, Markets and Change: Selected Essays (Montreal: McGil 0. University Press). McGregor, Gaile (1985), The Wacousta S - g Explorations in the Canadian Landscape . University of Toronto Press). Magder, Ted (1993), Canada’s Hollywood: The State and Feature Films (Toronto: University of Press). Marchessault, Janine (ed.) (1995), Mirror Machine and Identity (Toronto: YYZ Books and CRCCII). Morris, Peter (1975), Embattled Shadows: A .— . ' Canadian Cinema 1895—1939 (Montreal: McGi I University Press). — (1991), 'From Film Club to Academy: The : -_- of Film Education in Canada', in Réal La Roche. Ouébec/Canada: l’enseignement du cinénn - l’audiovisuel/The Study of Film and Video ( - l u Noireau: CinémaAction). Nelson, Joyce (1990), The Colonized Eye Between the Lines). _ Pendakur, Manjunath (1990), Canadian Dim , American Control: The Political Economy 1‘ ] Canadian Film Industry (Toronto: Garamond Pid' Pevere, Geoff (1992), ’On the Brink', Chem, (Spring), 34—8. ' ...
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