Histoire(s) du Canada

Beginning to See the Northern Lights

First things first: One of the year's most anticipated big-budget Canadian movies is a romantic comedy about curling called Men With Brooms, proof positive that local cinema has a long way to go toward entering the 21st century. So when three smart, somewhat fashionable, homegrown films (waydowntown, Hey, Happy!, and Maelström) are opening in the same week in New York City—a stamp of approval more meaningful than domestic box-office success—Canadians are surely asking themselves: What the hell happened?

A brief, revisionist history of Canadian cinematic hipness begins in the late '80s with an unshaven, hash-smokin' schlub, Bruce McDonald, persuading a theater-trained aesthete, Don McKellar, to abandon his first love and co-author a rollicking road movie shot through a jaundiced, rock 'n' roll eye. Bruce McDonald's Roadkill and its follow-up, Highway 61, were among the first films to identify a threat to Canadian identity not in the French-Anglo divide but in American cultural imperialism. Less artistically frigid than David Cronenberg's body-horror films or Atom Egoyan's intimate epics of repression, they also introduced Canadians to the figure who would become the omnipresent ambassador of Canadian coolness for the next decade: Don McKellar. Canadians remained nonchalant. In 1998, a year that found McKellar in no less than four films, nobody would dare argue that Canadian film was getting hipper—for every Last Night (McKellar's directorial debut), there was a Red Violin (his second collaboration with François Girard and a multilingual Canadian example of "Cinema of Quality").

With McKellar retreating to supporting roles (including a supremely square office drone in Gary Burns's waydowntown), the Time of Don has since partially eclipsed. Meanwhile, rather than pursuing the pot of gold—exemplified by the journey from the Maritimes to Toronto in the Canuck classic Goin' Down the Road—Canadian filmmakers are content to stay at home, despite inclement weather, language politics, and a lack of sexy places to get drunk. Looking inward and outward at the same time, the new Canadian vanguard gathers currency because of vague similarities to other alienated indie films with international appeal. While retaining regional characteristics, what makes them hip is that they aren't typically "Canadian" (that is, typified by documentary realism, identity insecurity, technological determinism, insufferable boredom).

Noam Gonick's raunchy Hey, Happy! might be dubbed a John Waters throwback, but is more influenced by subversive gay auteur Bruce LaBruce, and Gonick makes its apocalyptic Winnipeg landscape more of a character than Waters's Baltimore. Further west in Calgary, Burns is writing insightful comedies about idle slackers who prefer talk to work; whoever was the first to compare Burns to Kevin Smith should be sued for slander. A recent crop of Montreal filmmakers are also dedicated followers of fashion: Denis Villeneuve's quirky Maelström channels the late Kieslowski, while the film's cinematographer, Andre Turpin (whose just-as-playful sophomore feature, Soft Shell Man, screened at Sundance), has learned a lot from Wong Kar-wai.

Though Villeneuve harbors high-art pretensions—along with Tom Waits, his soundtrack includes invented Nordic chorals, and Maelström was inspired by Richard Strauss's final vocal works, Four Last Songs—how serious can one take a film narrated by a fish? Juxtaposing the mundane realities of Canadian daily life with surprising flourishes of urbane (in Gonick, more suburbane) surrealism, this new, off-kilter style owes as much to the McDonald-McKellar nexus as to the late-'80s channeling of the unconscious by the Winnipeg Film Group. (It is here that hypotheses about art and cold weather bear the most fruit.) Two figures to highlight in writing this history are the neglected John Paizs (Crime Wave), often referred to as Canada's David Lynch, and Guy Maddin, a frequent contributor to these very pages.

Maddin's career has reached a peak with The Heart of the World, a short film distinguished from his other retro fantasies by its energy-driven, melancholic monochrome style, in no small part thanks to co-editor and cinematographer deco dawson, an award-winning shorts director himself. While Atoms continue to rotate around the nucleus and a Pacific new wave continues to swell in Vancouver, the 2002 film holding the highest hipness quotient may be Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, which slaps the fresh freneticism onto a feature-length black-and-white . . . ballet. The made-for-CBC movie premieres next month at Winnipeg's FilmExchange, an all-Canadian festival that kicks off with local shorts being projected onto a screen of snow. If it's not hip, at least we know it'll be cool.


Related Stories:

Jessica Winter's review of Hey, Happy!

"Hey, Happy! Director Noam Gonick Foresees Apocalypse, Rewrites Bible" by Guy Maddin

"waydowntown Director Gary Burns Braves the Great Indoors" by Don McKellar

 
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