Part 1 - The Bridge Between Two Nights: Ambivalence in Canadian Cinematic Identity, and the Silence of the North

I want to extend my special thanks to the following people for their assistance in the research of this five-part article: Saul Rubinek, Frank Vitale, Karen Black, Stephen Eckelberry, George Kaczender, Jack Angstreich. I also want to thank my brother, who gave me the title of the Prologue, which is...

Prologue: A 49th Parallel of the Mind

C'est ce pont que je construis (It is that I build this bridge)
De ma nuit jusqu'à ta nuit (From my night to your night)
Pour traverser la rivière (To cross the river)
Froide obscure de l'ennui (The cold, dark stillness)
Voilà dans le pays à faire. (Here in the country to be realized.)

-Gilles Vi
gneault, (1928-present), Québécois poet, "Il me reste un pays"

As someone born and raised in the United States, and as one who enjoys a hearty intake of books and films, a great deal is heard about the "great American novel" and the "great American movie". One ultimately begins to question the litmus test by which an exalted status like either of these honors gets determined. Needless to say though, it is forever most every American writer or filmmaker's goal -- to hit that zenith, at which you truly characterize and represent the American national identity. But to what extent does the word "American" really play into the great work's identity? What does a work's national identity even mean, and does the same standard hold if one goes, say, north or south of the vast forty-eight state expanse? And more to the point, does the weight of that standard intensify in any specific case, and what are the ramifications of that?

Keeping that in mind, the concept of a national cinema is a curious one, and one might say a troubling abstraction. For natives of any given flag, “national cinema” remains shrouded in a veritable crazy-quilt of convolutions and conflicting agendas, all of which claim ties to nationalism. Also often stitched into this crazy-quilt are loaded distortions and subversions. Nonetheless, many tend to hold the position that a film should not just merely serve in representing a land, its society and its general sensibilities, but should instead fully embody and be them. Of course, shifting political climates, power structures and perspectives on history and popular memory enter into the equation when national cinema is discussed openly. Fascinating cases also enter the picture when things like Balkan cinema and what is breezily defined in rather generic and limiting terms as “third world cinema” are considered. This paradigm also applies for regional cinema. The key question that is often asked vis a vis the national cinema criterion is, “It’s good, but is it really a (fill-in-the-homeland) film?” Undue pressures are thus placed on filmmakers to deliver Cinema for Motherland. Members of the cinema cognoscenti have even gone as far as to claim that the existence of a national cinema is totally apocryphal.

"Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity."

-Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

In large part due to the works of documentarian, National Film Board founder and wartime Film Commissioner John Grierson and, slightly later, animator Norman McLaren, the Canadian film industry was truly born, although there were certainly lesser known progenitors of the country’s cinema working prior to them (these men are documented in the 1974 documentary Dreamland: A History of Early Canadian Movies 1895-1939 directed by Donald Brittain). However, it was never a nation with a solid foundation in terms of its film industry until the 1960’s; it should be noted that it was also around this time that Michael Snow's landmark, structuralist experimental and avant-garde epics began to emerge. By this time, the film-board’s base had moved from Ottawa to Montreal at a time of political unrest within the “two solitudes of Québéc.”

Although Canada had a fine background in documentary cinema, it was without a doubt overwhelmingly gratifying for Canada's non-entity of a film industry when ultra low-rent independent fiction films such as Claude Jutra's A tout prendre (1963), Larry Kent's The Bitter Ash (1963), David Secter's Winter Kept Us Warm (1964) and Don Owen's Nobody Waved Good-bye (1964) surfaced with little or no financial assistance from official production sources in Canada, and when most everything else of substance (and of lengthier run-time) carried a signature National Film Board of Canada impramatur. Even before these, feature films like Sidney J. Furie's double-bill of A Dangerous Age (1957) and A Cool Sound from Hell (1959), and René Bonniere's Amanita Pestilens (1963, produced by famous Ottawa film personality Budge Crawley and featuring a young Genevieve Bujold) seemed to vanish from sight, remaining unseen even today.

When the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC) was established in 1967 to initiate and stimulate a fully functional, financially sound film industry in Canada with the help of millions of dollars of government funding, and it was under its auspices that directors like David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman rose to later prominence. The already existing production company Cinépix often worked in cooperation with the CFDC. Attentions tended to shift, however, largely toward works intent on establishing a late-to-arrive Canadian identity in the cinema, and this yielded rather compelling results. This, it is important to note, was all under the aegis of the government. Heads of production were answerable to the Canadian Parliament.

The last six months or so, I have been heavily involved in exploring Canadian cinema in depth, and most of my film and literature intake have revolved around this subject, although there is not a great volume of works formally written on the subject. However, I continue to observe how the Canadian films I digest are all so profoundly and intensely personal, and in an altogether different way than most other works of international cinema when considering country of origin. One can easily assess the reasons for Canada's astounding brand of personal cinema. For one, the late-to-arrive Canadian film industry sowed its identity with the help of novice, passionate directors at a time when equipage was becoming more portable and when the American film industry was itself entering a bold period of personal filmmaking due to shifting audience interest.

One of the things I find fascinating is that each province of Canada has exactitudes in terms of cinematic stamp and sensibility, as one can distinguish, for example, a Québéc film from a British Columbian or an Ontario film with little to no effort. In the case of Québéc, unrest was in full bloom amongst Québécois at the outset of Canada's film revolution, during which time the long-ruling Québéc leader Maurice Duplessis (whose ultra conservative reign was known by many as La Grande Noirceur, or “The Great Blackness”) died in office, setting the stage for the struggle towards a new rule centered more around a balanced, pluralist socio-political climate. This era, which covers a turbulent span of six years in Québéc, is known as the Quiet Revolution.

On a personal note, the regional low-budget independent cinema that I love and admire so much is so often embodied in Canadian films of this time, but this time did not come without its quagmires. I intend to further examine this fascinating history with examples of films, excerpts from publications I’ve been reading and conversations with actors Saul Rubinek and Karen Black, and filmmakers George Kaczender and Frank Vitale, all of whom were working in the Canadian film industry at this key moment in its history. I also intend to examine the considerable, lasting impact of American funded tax-shelter films shot in Canada, as well as how they affected Canadian films that were devoted to a Canadian national identity of the time.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO with Northern Authorship: The Canadian Master Class Directors

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