Part 4 - The Bridge Between Two Nights: Ambivalence in Canadian Cinematic Identity, and the Silence of the North

The Pulp on Maple Leafs: The CFDC, American Tax-Shelter Films, Southern Comfort and Canuxploitation

"If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."

-Margaret Atwood (1939-present), Canadian author

Throughout my friendship with actress Karen Black, I have had a few conversations with her about Hungarian-born Canadian director George Kaczender, with whom she has worked twice and speaks quite highly. The original question I posed to her was not about Kaczender as a director, but rather what prompted her to work more than once with a given director, other than out of financial necessity or convenience's sake. We also have had similar and multiple conversation about her numerous collaborations with Czech director Ivan Passer. Strangely enough, I caught more than a few of Kaczender's now obscure work when I was just a movie-crazy teenage kid, including In Praise of Older Women (1978), Agency (1980), Chanel Solitaire (1981) and Your Ticket is No Longer Valid (1982). All of these films, with the possible exception of the highly unusual latter, seemed more American than anything else, even though it never occurred to me to question and explicitly consider their national origin at the time of my initial viewings. In my later research and in my consideration of Canadian cinema history, however, these films seem rather logically placed in the timeline, considering the point at which they were produced.

Looking at the cast lists of these four Kaczender films alone, one starts to get the picture. Collectively, these four films feature the likes of Robert Mitchum, Lee Majors, Richard Harris, Susan Strasberg, Tom Berenger, Karen Black, Valerie Perrine, Helen Shaver, Timothy Dalton and Rutger Hauer. Needless to say, these are all performers who were no strangers to the American film industry and spent most of their careers spinning the wheels of its machine, with no other discernible Canuck connection. Each of these four Kaczender films can be conveniently relegated to popular genre slots. Chanel Solitaire, for instance, is a pristinely costumed, sexy, vacuously stylish epic biopic of Coco Chanel. Agency is a nifty, but ultimately flaccid and campy little conspiracy thriller about a nefarious advertising agency and an insidious plot involving subliminal messages. Martin Knelman, in his 1977 book, describes the dilemma that was just then emerging at the time he was writing:

"The Canadian Film Development Corporation is not an agency like the Canadian Council, with the objectives of supporting artists and subsidizing culture. No, the CFDC is an investment outfit, operating like a bank to stimulate production. Of course the CFDC does not invest exclusively in trash, but its rules for investment tend to favour precisely those people who least need backing. In order to qualify for CFDC money, you have to have other investors and a distributor. In other words, you have to be obviously commercial. In practical terms, this often means that producers line up investors and distribution through Hollywood studios. Almost inevitably, it turns out that while these films might be technically Canadian, they feature American stars, are geared to the American commercial market and are often controlled American businessmen."

There are moments in films like Agency and Your Ticket is No Longer Valid that speak more to a Canadian sensibility. Ironically, Agency almost unwittingly becomes an allegory for the Americanization dilemma, insofar as taking into account how the clearly American advertising corporation CEO Robert Mitchum edges his way into a company (in what could loosely be described as a hostile takeover) and exercises an all-powerful influence over his Canadian staff to produce ads with subliminal messages to enable him to position himself for realizing political ambitions. The implications should be obvious here: an American business model's influence on a fledgling industry and its desperately eager impressarios north of the border. If the other Kaczender films had not been admitted as evidence, I might assert that the director was perhaps working in a subliminal sense himself in relation to this possible message.

Film scholar Jim Leach accounts how part of the fear with a picture like Jutra's Kamouraska, as originally voiced by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, was that large and "more American" productions would contribute to a "climate of inflation" and that, by trying to appeal more to international audiences, there would result an overall loss of control of film production and the imposition of a conventionality of film language that suppressed not only a tradition rich in direct cinema but the distinctive personal voice of the Canadian auteur. Lefebvre, being of Québéc, was also concerned with the exploitation of Québéc folklore. The concern should not have rested in a decidedly arthouse saga like Kamouraska, however. That would be like crediting the ambitious, epic-length French "arthouse" masterpiece Les enfants du paradis (1945) for the wretched discredit of French cinema by sheer virtue of its scope.

Filmmaker John Trent's goals were similar to that of Kaczender. Trent was similarly nurtured by the Canadian Film Development Corporation for dutifully following what was becoming their standard operating procedure: import foreign talent to amplify marketing value outside of Canada and streamline stories into more genre-oriented products, thus the films become camouflaged and less distinguished as Canadian product. Ultimately, when it boils down to representation and national cinema, the films with the imported names would edge out the others and receive press by sheer virtue of the names themselves, thus obscuring works with true Canadian earmarks. This is all after a perhaps gravely naive hope that Canada could mostly maintain a personal cinema as a simultaneously popular mode of output. Trent films such as the Straw Dogs-clone Sunday in the Country (1973), the pale slapstick farce It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (1975), the sex romp Middle Age Crazy (1980) feature Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Newley, Isaac Hayes, Yvonne De Carlo, Stefanie Powers, Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret. I call the CFDC's "wannabe American films" of Canadian cinema the "southern comfort flicks". Alvin Rakoff, the director of such mega-budget Canadian films as disaster flick City on Fire, starring Shelley Winters and Henry Fonda, is yet another perpetrator of this southern comfort model.

In considering films like Jutra's early 80's pictures Surfacing and By Design, which are certainly films that aspired towards a status beyond that of a business deal, one notices an encroaching "southern influence" even in works by the great Canadian artists who had generally avoided the perceived excesses of such things as star-power in the past. Granted, the talent Jutra ultimately hired for both these films (e.g. Joseph Bottoms, Kathleen Beller, Patty Duke Astin) were not exactly hot American property at the time, and rather low on the totem-pole compared to the Mitchum or Lee Majors that Kaczender and Trent seemed successful in casting. However, for two films that called for specifically Canadian talent (particularly Surfacing), producers and financiers did the films no favors by demanding an overall American presence. Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing is still considered a great Canadian novel, about a Canadian woman in search of her father in Canada's northern wilderness. Even respected directors like Paul Almond took to directing films like Final Assignment (1980), an embarrassingly bad and very American action vehicle I had the displeasure of seeing half of on VHS at one point, starring Genevieve Bujold (Almond's muse in one of her worst roles).

However, it must be said that none of Kaczender's or Trent's "southern comfort" Canadian enterprises scored any surefire success and most of them disappeared in both the Canada and United States film markets with little or no fanfare. Frankly, they just were just too mediocre to withstand even the slightest audience scrutiny, let alone scrutiny from the critical establishment. There were, however, a couple "southern comfort films" of value and I am not trying to lump them all into the trash bin. Harvey Hart's The Pyx (1973), shot in Montreal and starring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer, is a wonderfully taut and quite excellent detective thriller with horror elements. "Shot entirely in Montreal" proudly emblazons The Pyx's opening credits sequence, and the film's Catholic symbiology informs the perennial Christian influence in Quebec. Hart also does a capable if slightly perfunctory job of directing MGM's Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971). Besides Canadian imitation, though, actual American films were coming to shoot up north of the border because, during the 1970's, Canada's newly legislated tax policies allotted for tax credits for U.S. films shot in Canada. Examples include the Canadian-lensed, American-funded Meatballs (1979, directed by the Canadian emigre Ivan Reitman) and Prom Night (1980), and the Florida-lensed, Canadian-crewed Porky's (1981, still the largest grossing Canadian film to date, factoring in inflation) and the San Francisco-lensed, Canadian-crewed Ticket to Heaven (1981). Both of these films live on in some way, mostly as enduring cult items. Jim Leach notes that, unlike radio and television, which both have strict Canadian content regulations, there is no protection for Canadian content in film. The distribution networks for Canadian movie theatres are largely controlled by the American studio system.

What the "southern comfort" and "Canuxploitation" films did was to establish a paradigm which took a good many years to finally die off, and it is arguable that it ever even did really die off, as CFDC soon was re-christened Telefilm Canada and still exists today. Its presence, while still perceptible, has waned somewhat from its late 70's heyday when CFDC was foregrounded and seemed almost omnipotent. Perhaps the film with the strongest sense of Canadian identity to emerge in the above-described period is 1982's The Grey Fox starring Richard Farnsworth, an enchanting "post-Western" film about an over-the-hill stagecoach-robbing desperado who is released from thirty years in prison in 1901. The film was ultimately picked up by Francis Ford Coppola and distributed by United Artists Classics in the U.S.

In 1894, Australian critic and social commentator A.A. Phillips coined the term "cultural cringe" to define a condition characterized by an inferiority complex causing people to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of others. If southern comfort and the tax-shelter period did anything other than produce mostly substandard product, it was to illicit the perilous condition of filmic Americanization into the consciousness of the Canadian national cinema, as I have defined it to exist in the 60's and early 70's.


Part 3 - The Bridge Between Two Nights: Ambivalence in Canadian Cinematic Identity, and the Silence of the North

The Simulated Shtetl: Losing the Charm of Jewish Distance in Canadian Cinema, and a Walk Down the Old St. Urbain's Street

"All day long, St. Lawrence Boulevard, or Main Street, is a frenzy of poor Jews, who gather there to buy groceries, furniture, clothing and meat. Most walls are plastered with fraying election bills, in Yiddish, French and English. The street reeks of garlic, and quarrels, and bill collectors: orange crates, stuffed full with garbage and decaying fruit, are piled slipshod in most alleys. Swift children gobble pilfered plums; slower cats prowl the fish market."

-Mordecai Richler, (
1931-2001), Canadian author, Son of a Smaller Hero (1955)

Being a Lubavitcher Chassid, albeit a decidedly odd one whose life hinges on a fusion of intensive Torah study and an undying hunger for independent and international cinema, I felt a strong desire to include this little detour in the heart of my Canadian study. However, this is no lark. This chapter is integral to a deeper discussion of the points engaged in the article as a whole, as I will examine how the Jewish Canadian microcosm directly informs the Canadian macrocosm, and vice versa. I have taken notice of how antithetical the Jewish-themed films of Canada are to the Jewish-themed films from most every other country, particularly the U.S. Perhaps among the most famous Jewish Canadian figures is venerated Montreal author Mordecai Richler, who is often regarded (perhaps recklessly) as the Canadian Philip Roth. Richler, whose writing bears only some resemblance to Roth, certainly possesses a style and a narrative drive all his own, completely disparate from Roth; nevertheless, the comparison is there to be made. The most famous of Richler's work, in both literature and subsequent film adaptations, is, of course, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the novel of which was published in 1959 and the film of which was released in 1974. Richler also has enjoyed adaptations of his other novels, including The Street (1977), Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978), The Wordsmith (1979, directed by Claude Jutra for television), Joshua Then and Now (1986), St. Urbain's Horseman (2007) and most recently Barney's Version (2010), all of which feature some form of Jewish subtext. Two of the films, including Duddy Kravitz, were directed by Richler's longtime best friend and fellow Canadian Ted Kotcheff.

However, other non Richler-based films such as Lies My Father Told Me (1975), The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick (1988) and an adaptation of Chaim Grade's well-regarded play The Quarrel (1991), the latter two featuring actor Saul Rubinek, suggest and outright demonstrate a sturdy and resonant Jewish voice existing in a most forthcoming sense within Canada's film industry, more so than in most other national cinemas. There are even oddly conspicuous moments in films like Robin Spry's NFB-funded Prologue (1970), a film about a group of 60's political radicals which opens on the close shot of two Jewish headstones that the two lead actors eventually walk past before the opening titles roll. There is never another nod in Spry's film to this peculiar, anomalous opening image. Granted, the United States has seen its share of Jewish-themed works but, with the possible exception of works like Fox's adaptation of Chaim Potok's The Chosen (1981), Jewish culture is exoticized and driven home with a big prettified sledgehammer rather than the sensitive, deft touch of Canada's filmmakers, who discard the forced, terminal quaintness that American films seems intent on perpetrating in similar works. One can even catch moments in more mainstream Canadian films like George Kaczender's Montreal-set Agency (1980) when ubiquitous Jewish-Canadian actor Saul Rubinek, playing an outwardly Jewish copywriter, jokingly places a yarmulke on his head before entering a funeral service in a Catholic church.

Much of the landscape and sets in films like Duddy Kravitz and Maximilian Glick seem almost shtetl-like in the most becoming sense. An early scene from the latter, for example, shows Saul Rubinek, playing a Lubavitcher rabbi, standing in the middle of a snow-covered field davening while donning the customary tallis and tefillin for his morning prayers -- the old-world Jew in an old-world landscape, but one which is actually twentieth-century Canada. For all we know, it could be somewhere in czarist Russia or Poland. To someone acquainted with shtetl literature, paintings and photographs of Jewish villages in eastern Europe, novels like Malamud's The Fixer or any artistic works that commemorate and preserve shtetl life well after their existence crumbled, Canada would seem a most sensible destination for the displacement of Jews. One can imagine, with very little effort, Duddy Kravitz's jaunts through the picaresque Montreal's so-called St. Urbain Street "Jewish ghetto" being transposed to a European Jewish ghetto. The St. Urbain's Street milieu is one that Richler knew all too well. He grew up there and many of his novels and stories are set there. Jan Kadar's Lies My Father Told Me (1975) is set in the same Montreal Jewish ghetto, in the 1920's. For the most part, things look very much the same in the filmic Jewish ghetto of the 20's as they do in Duddy Kravitz's 1950's. Then again, the old country is ever the old country, even if it's the new country.

Later, in 2005, Allan King's documentary portrait Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company would chronicle a core group of senior citizens living out their days at the Apotex Centre's Jewish Home for the Aged in Toronto. The sounds of classic Yiddish tunes like "Oyf'n Pripetchik," "Bay Mir Bistu Shein," "Tzena Tzena" and "Tumbalalaika" are often heard echoing the corridors. These residents have had a great stake in Canada's past. For example, Ida, one of our main characters, is the widow of the Toronto City Hall Controller, and Ida makes a point of clarifying that he was prominent in the "goy world" in Toronto. At another point, two of the women, Ida and Claire, gossip about a fellow resident who was married to a goy. Film writer and critic Michael Koresky writes, "These characters. with their varying levels of degeneration, form a valuable testament to a dying group of first and second generation immigrant Jews in Canada." The camera, for one, follows Ida in a quest to single-handedly eradicate the misplacement and displacement of Jews within Canada's cultural and social records, wheeling her chair through a lobby in search of photos of her prominent husband on an expansive hall-of-fame wall.

As a Lubavitcher myself, I am aware of a thriving cluster of Chabadniks and Chassidim living prosperously in Montreal and I myself would love to one day live in Montreal myself (also because I love the city and not just its Jewish cluster). Looking at the history of Jews in Canada, one gets a true sense of logic about the big picture. After repealing its law requiring the oath "on my faith as a Christian" in 1832, largely thanks to the Jewish Ezekiel Hart who made history by taking public office to a storm of controversy and outrage in 1807, Canada passed laws that were passed into the books guaranteeing Jews the same political rights and freedoms as Christians. A Jewish population began to accumulate around Montreal and, by 1850, there were approximately 450 Jews living in Canada. At the outset of pogroms in the Russia of the late nineteenth century, United States received the overwhelming majority of the immigrant victims of these anti-Semitic acts, but Canada was a destination of choice due in large part to the Canadian Pacific Railway's role in developing Canada after its confederation. As the twentieth century dawned, the Jewish population of Canada grew to nearly 160,000.

With each generation, there were the expected waves of anti-Semitism, perhaps the most grievous of which was the appointment of Frederick Charles Blair to the post of Director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources in 1935. Blair publicly counciled Jews to "divest themselves of certain habits" in order to attain the status of popularity held by "Canada's Scandanavian friends" and limited the number of Jewish immigrants admitted into Canada, thus limiting options for European Jews looking to escape the persecution and ultimate extermination during the years of World War II and the Holocaust. Blair further bemoaned the Jewish problem, rhetorically asking the reason for the unpopularity of Jews throughout the world, perhaps finding solace in the fact that he was not the only one with an open Jewish prejudice.

Overall, the Jews, the ones who had safely maintained Canadian citizenship before the embargo, prospered, particularly in Québéc City and, especially, Montreal. It would not be until the late 50's when Mordecai Richler would begin emerging as the Jewish voice in Canadian literature. A large majority of Montreal's Jewish population were originally quite resistant to Richler's work, considering it "bad for the Jews" (this was the main criticism leveled at The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz when it was first published in 1959). Residents of St. Urbain's "Jewish ghetto" in Montreal remembered Richler growing up as something of a hooligan who spurned his Jewish heritage and Jewish education, opting to skip out and play pool instead. Looking into his work, many realized that the mythic symptoms of "undesirable Jewishness" that resulted in the derision leveled at the Jewish people by the likes of Frederick Charles Blair in the 1930's were, all things considered, personified in the very existence of Duddy Kravitz as a character. One undoubtedly heard Canadian Jews kvetching, "He writes of us like we're gonnifs (swindlers)!" Kravitz is an almost sociopathic, opportunist little monster always with an eye towards the almighty dollar. The ironic part is that he is actually rather likable -- a classic quixotic Canadian in the tradition, one might say, of Shebib's heroes in Goin' Down the Road. It also did not reflect well upon Richler within Canada's Jewish communities that he married a shiksa (non-Jewish woman) and exhibited what many deemed the attitude of a flagrant self-hating Jew on a literary smear campaign. Now, however, Richler's reputation among Canadian Jews is mostly intact and even rather warm. His most apparent similarity to his American facsimile Philip Roth (who debuted in the literary world in 1959 with his first book, Goodbye Columbus, four years after Richler's first, The Acrobats) is that he shares a compatible, like-minded sensibility in depicting the prototypical modern Jew and his path in the pointedly modern world -- and after all, the equally irrepressible Duddy Kravitz and Alexander Portnoy would make a priceless cruising tag-team. The question is, which one gets the blond?

"Coming from Canada, being a writer and Jewish as well, I have impeccable paranoia credentials. I'm criticized by the feminists, by the Jewish establishment, by Canadian nationalists. And why not? I've had my pot shots at them. I'm fair game."

-Mordecai Richler

One source that came to Richler's defense around the time of the controversial premiere of the film was the Canadian Jewish News, with its front page emblazoned "Duddy Kravitz Not Anti-Semitic." Rabbi Eliezer, one of the rishonim of the Talmud (i.e. the leading 11th-15th century rabbis of the oral Torah who were the deciders of Jewish law) said, "A serious Jew is one who actively struggles with his Jewishness." To reiterate the Roberson Jeffers line from the last chapter, "Pleasure is the carrot dangled to lead the ass to market; or the precipice." These two quotes are key to realizing that the Canadian Jewish News' assertion about Duddy Kravitz's anti-Semitic status is correct.

Duddy is indeed a definitive example of the anti-hero figure and certainly the quintessential Jewish anti-hero -- a shameless, embarrassingly self-centered opportunist. But one of the things that allows Duddy to safely "go about his way" without the socio-cultural critics of his fictional persona digging in too deeply is the fact that he is victim of a commonly Canadian condition with which Donald Shebib's marginalized Maritimers, Pete and Joey, were afflicted in Goin' Down the Road: they have big city aspirations and big dreams of success, no matter how steeply the odds are stacked against them in Canada. Duddy is not the "victim" of Jewishness; however, the Jewishness is a secondary aspect. Pete and Joey's dreams in Goin' Down the Road are quickly dashed when they reach Toronto, and they wind up settling for Robinson Jeffers' carrot. What makes Duddy different is that he will not settle for Robinson Jeffers' carrot -- he, as a Jew from an economically challenged lineage and with the 1950's socio-cultural odds against him, is lunging right for the precipice and will accept no compromise. When Duddy finally confronts his uncle, who is on his deathbed, as to the reasons why he neglected him and quietly scorned him growing up, Duddy, for the first time in his life, is able to angrily open up to his uncle and reveal an equally hostile resentment and, ipso facto, reveals himself uniquely as a Jewish Canadian. A hyper-complex predicament, that.

He tells his uncle, "You don't think I read? I've read books, big deal! They always make fun of guys like me...pushers, guys who want to get somewhere. You know, I’m going to have place of my own one day. And when I do, there aren't going to be any superior shits like you to laugh at me or run me off." In this case, Duddy Kravitz defines an overarching Canadian spirit at large (the need to bust loose of one's imposed limits and achieve existential somethingness) and, when his own extra "baggage" is added, he becomes Rabbi Eliezer's "serious Jew" even more so as a direct result of his national identity. Thus, it no longer becomes the troubling Jewish stereotype about which many cried wolf. Duddy often appears somewhat proud of his Jewishness, a case in point being when he quietly but clearly judges his brother Lenny when he tells him that he much prefers the company of goyim to yiddin.

The Jewish Canadian predicament is also present in Richler's other novels as well, particularly St. Urbain's Horseman, which many of his devotees and scholars feel is his most important, most personal work. Mordecai Richler, the man who carried his youth on St. Urbain Street under his arm throughout his life's adventures and the Richler who still, in his own way, attempts to speak the truth of his rabbi grandfather, holds a mirror up to the Jew in the shtetl landscape of Montreal, and a larger Canada. Duddy Kravitz's grandfather is not a rabbi, but instead a poor immigrant, but everything Duddy does, every bad deed, is a misguided attempt to please his zeyde (grandfather), who tells him, "A man without land is nothing."

Martin Knelman notes that there was a boom on Richler property shortly after the film of Duddy Kravitz was released. It was Alan J. Pakula who originally bought the rights to St. Urbain's Horseman (which was produced as a two-part television film in 2007), followed by Norman Jewison making a bid for The Incomparable Atuk. Mike Nichols also pursued adapting Richler's Cocksure in 1976. The overarching point of this chapter of the article ultimately boils down to one thing. Hollywood product routinely chooses to "de-Jewcify" its films, unless the Jewishness can be overwhelmingly pronounced as cute, quaint or particularly other-worldly -- or if the film is about the Holocaust. Decades ago, a friend of mine who presented a script to a producer (co-written with Elliott Gould, who was still popular at the box-office) was immediately met with that standard Hollywood question, this from a Jewish producer no less: "Do the guys in this story have to be Jewish?," only to come right out and proclaim the whole affair was "too Jewish."

What is refreshing and fascinating about Canadian Jewish films, particularly the Richler adaptations, is that they unabashedly confront hard truths about Jewish identity and its conundrums, which exist fully within an unmistakably Canadian canvas. I am again flashing to an image of a wide-shot of Saul Rubinek as the Lubavitcher rabbi davening in the middle of a snow-covered field of Ontario in The Outside Chance of Maximilian Glick, which I first saw right around the time of my own bar mitzvah. I also flash to our hero's breeze through St. Urbain's Street at the end of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Clasically Jewish environs in the United States, like the Lower East Side for instance, predominantly died out much too early in U.S. history, and the magic itself vanished into thin air. Orthodox Jewish clusters exist in most every American city, granted, but what is fascinating here is that Jewish Canada appears so communal as to suggest the ethos of shtetl life, regardless of the populations' range of belief constructs, well after the U.S. incarnation faded away. Perhaps this explains why Sergio Leone used Montreal for a few of the locations featured in Once Upon a Time in America, which is set partly in New York's Jewish East Side of the 1900's. Paul Mazursky also shot extensively in Montreal for his Isaac Bashevis Singer adaptation Enemies, a Love Story, set in 1940's New York. It could be said that this observation might be the result of "Richlerisms" and/or machinations on the part of the creators of the works to perpetrate such an idyllic illusion, but one gets a strong sense of its complementary existence in reality either when reading someone like Richler or seeing a Canadian Jewish film. The St. Urbain's Street of the twenty-first century is highly gentrified, it would seem, however.

The character of Canadian Jewish cinema and literature, while appreciably and thankfully lacking most the meretricious contrivances and precious ornament that pervade other Jewish cinemas, also suggests a proportion to the actuality. Refreshing it is, for once, to not be trounced with overwrought and preciously distancing klezmer music at the appearance of a conspicuously Jewish character. The Canadian approach affects a "haimish" quaintness that is not cloying and, ultimately, it is an indication of Canada's early and enduringly deep-seated proclivity towards the personal in its arts and culture, enabling unencumbered, uncompromised portraits of this phenomenon. I said it before and I'll say it again: the old country is ever the old country, even if it's the new country.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART FOUR with The Pulp on Maple Leafs: The CFDC, American Tax-Shelter Films, Southern Comfort and Canuxploitation

Part 2 - The Bridge Between Two Nights: Ambivalence in Canadian Cinematic Identity, and the Silence of the North

Northern Authorship: The Canadian Master Class of the 70's and 80's

Patrie intime de ma foi, (Intimate homeland of my faith,)

Dans une immuable assurance, (In an enduring assurance,)
Je veux vivre encore avec toi, (I still live with you)
Jusqu'au soir de mon espérance. (Until the evening of my hope.)

-Charles-Nérée Beauchemin (1850-1929),
Québécois poet, "Patrie intime"

Claude Jutra: Québéc's Archaeologist Poet

It could be said that Claude Jutra is Canada's Orson Welles. I do not lightly make this claim nor do I make such a bold comparison to merely raise eyebrows. The analogy is not only apt because Jutra directed what is officially regarded as the best film ever produced in Canada, 1971's Mon Oncle Antoine, or because his follow-up film, 1973's Kamouraska, was an ambitious epic that wound up emasculated by its producers, much like Welles' follow-up film The Magnificent Ambersons had been, but also because Jutra struggled greatly towards the end of his life in producing work that he could call his own, striving to exist within the rapidly evolving world of filmmaking in both English and French Canada -- and as we all know, Welles' final decades were spent hustling for money to realize his sundry projects throughout decades when American cinema was often shaken to its core. Jutra's heart was buried so deeply in Québéc and his finest works were made for Québécois. He resigned himself to making television films for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the late 70's (1976's Ada and 1977's Dreamspeaker to name the two most widely known) during a self-imposed exile in English Canada. He immediately followed his brief television tenure by directing two compromised English-language features, particularly 1980's Surfacing, an ill-fated but nonetheless fascinating adaptation of Margaret Atwood's popular novel. The other was 1982's By Design, a now somewhat reappraised comedy about two lesbian fashion designers. He ended his career with one last francophone masterpiece in Québéc, 1985's La dame en coleurs, but is quoted to have said, "Sometimes I wonder: why are things easier for me in English Canada and so difficult in Québéc? Then I remember the answer: everything is more difficult for everybody in Québéc."

Jutra launched his career in cinema with a series of NFB-funded short films and documentaries (including the award-winning A Chairy Tale, co-directed with Norm McLaren) and completed his first feature film, the groundbreaking A tout prendre, in 1963. A tout prendre, seen now, fits more into the French Nouvelle Vague movement than most bona fide French New Wave films, and Jutra obviously owes much to those works, even though the film stands on its own two Canadian feet. By the time Jutra made his second feature, Wow (1970), which remains his most overtly political work, he was already something of a legend in Québéc. However, he was attacked throughout his career for what was perceived as a neglecting of a national cinema sensibility -- a cinema that would have more directly jostled Québécois out of its complacency. This brand of complacency is fascinating when you consider how the people of Québéc seemed to be getting impatient with their own complacency and were waiting for something to pry them loose from stagnation. Hence, there were bold cries for immediacy in cinematic intention.

Both Jutra's masterpieces, Mon Oncle Antoine and Kamouraska, were heavily criticized for situating their narratives deeply within an enclosed time period, rather than in the turbulent then-present, and as a result, the deep-seated politics of both films often failed to register in the cold light of day. What Jutra ventures to do is contextualize the current by depositing his stories in the safety of history. In the early 1970's, audiences seemed to prefer more didactically political and topical films by the likes of Denys Arcand, Gilles Carle and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, whose was identified by one critic in 1962 as "the Canadian incarnation of Godard". Mon Oncle Antoine is often designated as a "coming-of-age" film, but it is decidedly more of a tableau and a snapshot of a time and place than most coming-of-age films, which are more focused and resigned towards a single character, thus I find the designation facile and only somewhat accurate. As I will examine, many both now and at the time of its original release felt that the film did not fully exert or assert itself politically, and that its so-called "nostalgia" was ill-wrought. Of course, I beg to differ, strongly. Its nostalgia makes you want to actively participate in the film (i.e. climb into the screen), but this element is never made to be too precious nor does it obstruct our understanding of Jutra's political views concerning the past and popular memory.

Mon Oncle Antoine follows twenty-four hours in the life of a teenage boy named Benoit living in Black Lake, an asbestos mining town circa 1940. Kamouraska, at least in its 1983 director's cut, is a gorgeous-lensed three-hour period melodrama based on a bestselling 1970 Canadian novel by Anne Hébert, set in a frozen Québéc town of the 1830's and starring Genevieve Bujold, who plays a woman who has plotted with her lover to murder her husband. What is of note is that both films were based in some element of true incident and dug up remnants of a dark but halcyon past. Mon Oncle Antoine's primary location Black Lake was a key locale during the Quiet Revolution, and seemed to stand as a microcosm for the mistreatment of the working class under the Duplessis reign. Kamouraska is based on the real-life 1839 murder of Louis-Pascal-Achille Taché, and the story of the fictionalized events surrounding this crime can be taken as an allegory for the then-current tumult in Québéc, and a piercing assessment of a nation in denial of its past, in disgrace over its present and in doubt over its future.

Jutra could hardly be called apolitical. He was an ardent separatist who refused the Order of Canada, supported the Québéc sovereignty movement (which supported Québéc's right to exist as independent of Canada) and demonstrated against Duplessis during the revolution, and was also adamant in asserting two cultures and a French Canada's autonomy from English Canada. He hails from a liberal upper-class Montreal family who also vehemently opposed Duplessis' backwards-trained policies. However, Jutra tackles politics at a controlled distance in his films.

Martin Knelman, in his book This is Where We Came In: The Career and Character of Canadian Film, writes that "when Jutra tries to be overtly political, whether onscreen or off, you feel its a violation of something deep within his nature." In the same breath, Knelman continues, "Jutra's work isn't political in the same narrow, didactic terms as, say, Arcand's Rejeanne Padovanni or Michel Brault's Les ordres; yet maybe Jutra is political in a deeper way." This is exactly the case, and it could not be any more true. Jim Leach, in his book Claude Jutra: Filmmaker, notices that "Realizing that no form is ideologically pure, [Jutra] chose to work within existing forms, with the result that his films were rarely perceived as formally or politically innovative." I therefore will choose the path of political analysis of his works, even though this reading is only a single level.

What one must consider is, at this time in Québéc, to be political in one's cinema was the equivalent of being national and possessing the national branding of Québéc. I find Mon Oncle Antoine to not only be one of the best films, Canadian or otherwise, I have ever seen, but also one of the most intensely political films, even though its political statements are artfully camouflaged within an all-encompassing tableau of life in Black Lake, with a narrative intent on revealing larger and more revealing truths rather than limiting itself to the then-pressing topicalities; its ending is the young lead character's realization that things cannot continue in the muted manner to which the town has become accustomed. Benoit, for the first time, has learned to judge what he sees within his insulated, sleepy and dissipated world, and he is awakened to a harsh reality about the warped rhythm of routine of life in Black Lake. His now unforgiving eyes look upon his drunken sot of an uncle with a fierce sense of shame, and the film takes its title from the subject (the prosecuted) of Benoit's first-ever judgment. We are effectively set up for this revelation. Earlier in the film, the townspeople quietly but grimly accept the meager Christmas gifts thrown by the oppressive English-speaking mine-owner in a manner that suggests throwing swill to hogs. This all happens without so much as any measure of an expression of discontent from the miners and their families, who watch silently and guardedly as the boss passes through town in a sleigh haughtily puffing his pipe. They are clearly torn, simultaneously aware that any Christmas offering, even a pathetic trifle, is acceptable to the children who depend on it. It is our young hero Benoit who indulges in the only act of dissent.

As a presiding spirit over the film, we get not just Jutra the director but Jutra the actor, playing the role of Fernand, the taskmaster and bookkeeper of the general store owned by Benoit's aunt and uncle. Pauline Kael compared his presence in the film to that of Jean Renoir's presence in his La régle du jeu, writing, "While you are watching the movie, you realize that the spirit behind the movie is also present in the movie, in the performance of the director." The comparison is apt because Jutra the actor is certainly a presiding spirit but, beyond that, though, is the fact that, in the scene when Benoit catches Fernand and his aunt red-handed following an illicit tryst, Jutra allows his character to be the target of the boy's newly discovered judgmental eye, as well as allowing himself to be at least partly complicit in its first-ever unmasking. The allegedly non-professional actor Jacques Gagnon, who plays Benoit, has the film's finest bit of acting in this single scene, all with his eyes and almost totally without dialogue. On Jutra's part as the director, I see it as an exquisite personal admission of guilt and complicity on the part of the director; here, after all, we have the film's director willing himself into a just prosecution in precarious courtroom of a bedroom hallway -- i.e. "everyone in Québéc at this time in some way contributes to the tensions and problems like those depicted in the film, either by direct action or by complacency." There is a boldness in this staging and the arrangement of the film's action that is thrilling. This is a call to action.

The stage is being set throughout the film for a shattering final image, in which Benoit looks through the window and into what I like to call a "twisted Nativity" scene of a family gathered all around a casket on Christmas morning, mourning the death of its eldest son. Much like the end of Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (it should be noted that Jutra and Truffaut were friends), the film freeze-frames on Benoit peering through the window as he observes and digests a bitter pill of truth about the faulty world in which he lives, awakening from the dream now with an eye towards questioning what comes his way. At one point in the film, Duplessis is explicitly mentioned, albeit in graffiti on the wall of a public john.

This ending proves that the political can be poetic, and that bold political statements can emerge from the roots of a delicate story without total and immediate manifestation of its political objective. This is what the lauded "overtly political" Québécois films of the time seemed to lack profoundly. This is not to blithely be pejorative of a film like Arcand's Rejeanne Padovani, which is excellent on its own terms, although the pointedness of its political discourse is nothing that could reasonably be called novel. "Political cinema" is very much like mental rape to me (with filmmakers like documentarian Emile di Antonio excepted), and I often find it to be a kind of intellectual pollution, as your thought processes are compromised by a crafted manipulation of the status quo in an effort to call a viewer's attention towards truths that have been negotiated through shallow artifice. It's also an opportunity for an artist to perpetrate him/herself as chic, on which grounds, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard's most fervent critics assailed him, especially when entering his Maoist period. Here, at last, is a piece of political cinema that transcends and, in a sense, becomes not just transcendent, but transcendentalist.

"Le pauvre québécois, (The poor Québécois,)
Découragé, saigné à froid, (Discouraged, bled cold,)
Gagna son toit par le châssis (Its roof by the frame gained)
Et s'y pendit. (And hung itself there.)"

-Felix LeClerc (1914-1988),
Québécois songwriter, "La québécois"

Around the time Jutra was shooting Mon Oncle Antoine in Black Lake, Québéc found itself in the throes of the 1970 October Crisis, a series of events triggered by the twin kidnappings of government officials by members of the Front de liberation du Québéc, which had detonated a total of 95 bombs between the years of 1963 and 1970. The October Crisis was one of the few times in Canadian history when martial law seemed to rule, and civil liberties violations became the most prevalent. Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, spurred the chain of events by compelling the first peacetime enacting of the War Measures Act, and the widespread deployment of Canadian troops resulted. The Canadian military arrested and detained 497 individuals without bail. Every one of these individuals, except 62, were later released without charges.

There was little Jutra could do to inject impassioned polemics about Québéc's tremulous status quo into the material in Mon Oncle Antoine, although that did not stop certain francophone audiences and critics from censuring the film for an alleged lack of political conscience. Many seemed to hold by the opinion that the film was simply too immersed in a deluded nostalgia dream to be fully cognizant of what was happening around the time of its creation. The film's success in English Canada did not bode well either, for (as Martin Knelman noted) Jutra was in the embarrassing position of being English Canada's favorite French-Canadian filmmaker. However, if Mon Oncle Antoine elicited the original suspicion of a wayward political aversion in Jutra's work, then his follow-up Kamouraska did nothing but outright confirm it for them. What they got was an opulent literary adaptation, the likes of which were not at all a commonality in the cinema of Canada. Although critic John Hofsess made the claim that Kamouraska is apolitical, he added that the film "couldn't have been made anywhere in Canada except Québéc" and that its "psychic roots" are deeply embedded there.

I should note that I saw Kamouraska on VHS in its full 174-minute director's cut, prepared later for a television broadcast in 1983, a full decade after the film's aborted Canadian and French premiere. The original theatrical version ran a truncated 124 minutes. The full unexpurgated cut is sometimes shown on a 35mm print in Québéc but, to my knowledge, has never been screened in the United States. Kamouraska, which was co-produced (with Québéc's Carle-Lamy Productions) by Parc Film in France, functions in very much the same way as Mon Oncle Antoine with its delicate, poetical political implications and, from my perspective, an obvious reading of the film is an allegorical one. Elisabeth Tassy, played by Genevieve Bujold in what is widely regarded as her best-ever onscreen performance, enlists the help of her American-born lover, whose first language is of course English, to murder her husband, the Lord Squire of Kamouraska. When, after a few weeks of marital bliss, Antoine reveals his true self, a "live-in rapist" slob of overwhelming ill manner, Elisabeth becomes the lover of a rugged American-born nobleman named George Nelson.

Genevieve Bujold gives what is, without a doubt, the performance of her career in this film, and she has never been better in any single film before or since. Martin Knelman also holds this position as he has remained one of the film's key defenders, and even was so at a time when that allegiance was a rather unpopular one. Bujold won the Best Actress award at the Canadian Film Awards that year, but the film managed to just slip away in a manner that was almost unprecedented, despite its high profile and the inexorable status it held as a truly major production (the most expensive Canadian production in history up to that time). I can only think of the later American film Heaven's Gate to compare. That similarly epic film's own history of aborted release, its pull from theaters, its recut, its disappearing act and its re-emergence in full glory is extremely analogous to Kamouraska, which predated Heaven's Gate by a full seven years. Both films were eventually restored to their original director's-cut lengths.

Kamouraska marked the end of an era for Jutra, who discontinued his longtime working relationship with cinematographer Michel Brault (a filmmaker in his own right, responsible for the landmark documentaries Pour la suite du monde and Les ordres) after shooting wrapped. Reasons for the termination are unknown even to Brault, but his work on Kamouraska is textbook beautiful camerawork and lighting. Also important to note is that, in a political move, Bujold declined accepting her award for Best Actress at the Canadian Film Awards, claiming that she was standing by Jutra and his crew when they opposed the unification of Quebec.

Jutra's previously mentioned 1980 feature Surfacing is a film could have been absolutely brilliant, considering Surfacing author Margaret Atwood's similarly delicate "poetically political" touch and her feminist perspective on Canadian national identity; considering Atwood's stance, one must also keep in mind that Kamouraska revealed Jutra's gifts for entering a female psyche on film. The mind boggles to think what it could have been had Jutra been allowed to revise the script to his liking before it was locked for shooting. Jutra was brought in to replace another director and most of the elements of pre-production were already well in play.

Unfortunately, at the time, the Canadian film industry was beginning to show signs of buckling and bowing to trends which pandered shamelessly to U.S. film marketing demands (as I will discuss later in depth), so the film became a victim of a tampering blitzkrieg that limited the scope of its identity as a Canadian film, with all the fascinating, rich "baggage" that carries. Considering the source material, the adaptation's inherently Canadian identity must have proven difficult to mask for the producers. Jutra's creative hand was thus limited because of that and other reasons, and compromises unfortunately exist throughout. As it is, the film is average with flashes of brilliance that are all too intermittent.

At the first level, what makes Surfacing more exceptional above the other cases of this "Americanization backlash" occurring in Canadian productions is its deft approach to its setting: Jutra enters the Northern wilderness world unassumingly, without looking to recklessly define it, even though more certainly could have been done in fully realizing the land's potential in the story. Knowing Jutra's and Atwood's aptitude for being poetically political, the film's political stance is nowhere to be truly discerned, except through especially deep and exacting analysis. Jutra is known to have said in the wake of Kamouraska's original failure, "For us, a hundred years ago is prehistory. It is before everything." Surfacing's characters are partly in search of the prehistoric petroglyphs for which the main character's missing father had been searching, and, at the denouement, this father's ultimate revealed death in his search for Canada's "prehistory" is at the film's soft and distracted political center.

However, all this said, the "spirit of Claude" still presides over the whole affair and an artistic presence is felt even amidst the tragic compromises of its production. At a time of American tax-shelter films, it was a definitive example of a thumb-itching need to appeal to American marketing sensibilities (including the casting of American actors in the leads) and a drive towards a brandedly American financial excess that led to Surfacing's streamlined final product. The film failed to appeal to pretty much anyone, including Americans and especially Canadians. His final two films, By Design and La dame en coleurs (shot in French in Québéc, an appropriate swan song), ushered in a slight but ultimately feeble redemption for the frustrated master. Jutra, ultimately, was a man whose mind might as well have been sliced in half by the English/French Canada borderline.

"Une autre vie est là pour nous, (Another life is there for us,)
Ouverte à toute âme fidèle: (Open to any faithful soul:)
Bien tard, hélas! à deux genoux, (Although late, alas! on two knees,)
Je rêve d'elle!" (I dream of it!)"

-Louis-Honore Fréchette (1839-1908), Québécois poet, songwriter, "Le rêve de la vie"

Jutra's life did not end happily. The victim of early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, Jutra committed suicide by jumping into the St. Lawrence River in late 1986, only to be found five months later when the river thawed, with a sign around his neck reading, "Je suis Claude Jutra" ("I am Claude Jutra"). It was with that chilling, tragic farewell that Canada and Québéc lost one of its most distinguished artists (and one of its most frustrated), a little more than a year after his American avatar, Orson Welles, succumbed to an unknown illness. His impact on the national cinema, or what there was and is of one, cannot be underestimated. What is key to consider and ponder, however, is Jutra's role in lassoing and valiantly maintaining a Canadian identity in his cinema. For those who argue in favor of his considerable influence, it was perhaps the first time a Canadian national identity in its cinema could be acknowledged. His best work is unmistakably Canadian, and even his more dubious work bears a Canadian stamp. Few if any can undermine the value and enduring impact of his masterpiece Mon Oncle Antoine. Jim Leach, in his 1999 book Claude Jutra: Filmmaker, the first comprehensive study of Jutra's work, writes, "Jutra's problems were hardly unique in the history of Canadian cinema, but this only made it easier to think that his 'sad fade-out' was less a personal response to a medical condition than a symptom of a cultural condition."

"There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.
Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Leave us
Helpless, helpless, helpless."

-Neil Young (1945-present), Canadian songwriter, "Helpless"

Donald Shebib: The Margins Aren't Nowhere

Donald Shebib scored a critical and commercial knockout in 1970 with his micro-budget independent film Goin' Down the Road, and it is a work that still remains canonical in the annals of Canuck cinema. It is difficult to think of other Canadian works that are quite as high on the canon as this landmark drama shot with never more than four people on crew on 16mm on a $19,000 CFDC grant and the director's personal savings. Its reputation is comparable even to that of Mon Oncle Antoine, which is apt because it embodies the Ontario/Maritimer identity in Canada the way Antoine embodies the Québéc identity. Shebib, however, never scored another success to even nearly equal that of this, his first feature. What sets this a notch above the rest is its place in the national cinema as its been delineated here, and the certainty of its Canadian identity. If we are making pale comparisons to American films, various critics made a point of branding it the Canadian Midnight Cowboy. This parallel is grossly obvious, imprudent and uncomfortable. The film has a dedicated reality that could only be the result of non-professional actors like the ones in the film being directed into miraculously near-flawless performances. In the leads, unknowns Paul Bradley and Doug McGrath (who has the voice of Robert Blake and the face of a failed Steve McQueen impersonator) star as Maritimer buddies Joey and Pete, two buddies from Nova Scotia who pack up and wheel into Toronto on the 1960 Chevy version of a wing and a prayer, in search of a better life. On the doors of the dilapidated Chevy are the hand-painted words "My Nova Scotia Home". The story, of course, sounds perfectly familiar -- but observations of how customized and tailor-made the story is, all in an effort to examine the sad state of affairs revolving around the lifetime relegation of the marginalized (specifically Maritimers) to anonymous humiliation and thankless positions in society.

There is a 1972 television interview with Shebib from The Pierre Burton Show included on my DVD of Goin' Down the Road, in which the filmmaker unabashedly admits to being "turned off" by the act of reading and claims to have been largely television-educated, as he deems reading mostly a source of fatigue, even though his knowledge of pre-1940's classic films is encyclopedic and his appreciation of history seems exceedingly impressive. Even though the screenplay of Goin' Down the Road is credited to William Fruet (who would pen Shebib's follow-up film Rip-Off, then make his directorial debut with the excellent Wedding in White), one senses that the earthiness and salt-of-the-earth qualities of Pete and Joey are a direct result of Shebib's natural directing ability to color brightly within the fine edges of Fruet's outline drawing. I think of Texan-American independent filmmaker Eagle Pennell's approach in films like the extremely similar The Whole Shootin' Match (1977) and Last Night at the Alamo (1983). Shebib's film and The Whole Shootin' Match are quite similar because they are both ultra low-rent buddy films, but never pander to expectations of what buddy film are and/or should be.

The performances in Shebib's grand debut possess a snappy level of folksy, gloriously unpretentious, down-to-earth repartee that is difficult if not impossible to write to this degree. Knelman writes, "[the characters] are forced to exist as freaks in a [Toronto] ghetto culture for displaced Maritimers" where they "cannot blend into the background." The personal, and uniquely Canadian, implications of the story thus become poetically political. It is almost a poetic justice, then, that this anglophone film that does for the Maritime what the poetically political Mon Oncle Antoine does for northern Québéc is ranked together with the latter francophone work as one of the great Canadian films of all time.

"Everybody knows this is nowhere."

-Neil Young

The most point-blank way to say it: This film is a Canadian Film tried and true, and Shebib's NFB documentary experience shows. Our remarkably real protagonists suffer great indignities at the proverbial hands of the dehumanizing Toronto, which is forwardly intolerant of "their type of animal," and we empathize so much so with them that, amazingly enough, we can almost condone the two going on the run from a petty crime that ends in violence with Joey leaving his pregnant wife behind at the end of the picture...well, to any extent by which that choice can be condoned. The film itself is about indignity in its very nature, suffered at the hands of "backwater folks" on the fringes of dehumanized, rapidly Americanizing cities. We watch how the boys, with only $26 to their name, are reduced to working in a bottling factory upon their decidedly untriumphant arrival. Plans have fallen through and dreams are drying up fast. Whereas Joey observes that they made more money in the bottle factor than they ever did in their Nova Scotia home, that is not enough to reassure Pete's hardening cynicism. They find their only true solace in the French-Canadian secretary of the factory-owner, who provocatively struts her way past the "charmingly primitive" working stiffs.

To use a favorite quote, from Robinson Jeffers, "Pleasure is the carrot dangled to lead the ass to market; or the precipice." Pete and Joey start off hungering for the precipice and end up gracelessly settling for the carrot. And then that carrot gets taken away.

Interestingly, Shebib's follow-up film Rip-Off looks at the flipside -- as Knelman puts it, that film is about people who have "the social advantages that Pete and Joey were victimized for their lack of," who "can't live up to what the media says their lives should be." I admittedly have not seen this particular film, but I know that responses to it were somewhat hushed. Shebib, however, seems to know that their are discontents on both sides of the coin, and duly highlights this point in what I have seen of his later work (including 1973's Between Friends, 1976's Second Wind and 1981's Heartaches).

I hold by the theory that it was thanks to Goin' Down the Road that later films like The Rowdyman (1972, the first film ever to be shot in Newfoundland), Paperback Hero (1973, shot in Saskatchewan) and The Hard Part Begins (1974, shot in southern Ontario) emerged as portraits of quixotic figures in small, hidden-away Canadian hamlets -- all with dreams of mobility in all that word's connotations. For Jim Leach, this group of films explored "the tension between American dreams and Canadian reality," though I disagree with him when he claims that these films are simply "distinctive inflections of Hollywood models." None of these three really measure up to the success and lasting shelf-life of their paragon of a predecessor, but Goin' Down the Road is a tough act to follow and all are worthy follow-ups and filmmaker responses to the literal overnight smash-success of Shebib's film. It is perhaps fair to say that Shebib's film awakened the flame in Canadian filmmakers hailing from remote parts of all the provinces. Below you can view the visually rich opening sequence of Goin' Down the Road, which was shot partly by acclaimed Black Stallion filmmaker Carroll Ballard, with legendary Ontario cinematographer Richard Leiterman (the brother-in-law of Allan King) credited solely as cameraman.

Shebib, by the looks of things, is preparing a sequel to Goin' Down the Road forty years after the original, entitled Down the Road Again, which is scheduled for release in 2011. He never again hit the triumph of his glorious debut and, in 1981, directed what could accurately be described as the female version of his hit, entitled Heartaches, starring Canadian-born Margot Kidder and Annie Potts. This film has moments of greatness, but fails to reach the heights previously achieved. One of the more intriguing works in his filmography is a film that he wrote, the World War II-set Wedding in White (1972), directed by Goin' Down the Road's screenwriter William Fruet, and starring Carol Kane, Donald Pleasence and Road alumnus Doug McGrath. Again, with this film we have another compelling story of marginalization and cruel relegation, this time not to a pair of disenfranchised country boys or working stiffs, but to the teenage daughter of a working stiff who finds herself raped, pregnant and about to be married off to a dirty old man in an emergency wedding to save and preserve her family's reputation.

Whereas Claude Jutra operates within the scope of history with great freedom, a filmmaker like Donald Shebib operates within the cages of a cold modernity with the same freedom, and both are equally valid. What is astounding to realize is that there is certainly reciprocity between the two artists' output.

"Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I'm gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love."

-Leonard Cohen (1934-present),
Québécois songwriter

Frank Vitale: Valence Readings

The comprehensive nature of my exploration of Canadian cinema really started with the film Montreal Main (1974) back in August 2010. I was just starting to embark on my own feature-length film at the time and Montreal Main, directed by Frank Vitale, provided a boon and a true source of inspiration for me. A true work of self-reliance in filmmaking which looks and feels impressive by sheer virtue of its collaborative verve, Montreal Main opens with a byline which credits the entire cast with its creation. Right away, it starts with an impressively honest and thrilling admission to the entire cast's complicity in its brilliance. Shot on 16mm on a miraculous original budget of $17,000 (with $45,000 awarded later by CFDC for the film's completion), the film later premiered at the Whitney Museum in New York and is now considered something of (at least) a mini-masterpiece of Canadian cinema. The film follows photographer Frank (director Frank Vitale) and his motley crew of mostly gay male artist friends who live in the lower-rent part of Montreal's Main, as well as their acquaintances, the hip Sutherland clan, who live in the more residential, middle-class suburban part of the Main. Photographer Frank, who along with his friend Bozo (future director Allan Moyle) considers himself straight, becomes obsessed with the Sutherlands' 13-year-old son Johnny. The relationship is innocuous, mostly innocent and something of a paper tiger, which is proportionate to the film's understated approach to all of its material. Nothing really much happens in the central relationship in terms of direct action, but this relationship simply provides a catalyst. What is so brilliant, though, is that, in similar works about a man's adoration of a beautiful, innocent young one, like Death in Venice and Lolita, the author rarely if ever navigates the audience in an attempt to understand the other side of the equation, that is, the object of the lead character's desire, at least in any real psychological depth. Whereas it was more immaterial to those works, in Montreal Main, we are driven towards an attempt to understand the sexual confusion and ambivalence of the 13-year-old Johnny, and sometimes it even becomes more central than the sexual confusion of Frank. It is a film of attempts, often failed attempts as it bravely bows to the inherent complexity of the circumstances, but that does not make it any less penetrating. We know that, in some sense, the two fall in love with each other, but the substance of the relationship is beguilingly never clarified. There is a beautiful delicate balance and a kind of equilibrium achieved in this deceptively subtle tipping of the scales.

Montreal Main's sexual ambivalence continues a "grand history" of films in Canada with delicately handled homosexual subtext, and the delicate handling is salient and quite striking, and this feature is perhaps the only overt aspect of the film. Claude Jutra's A tout prendre (1963) and David Secter's Winter Kept Us Warm (1964) took great risks in confronting the subject of homosexuality on film at a time when it was even more taboo -- and also during the Canadian-cinema-as-we-know-it's infancy. The delicacy of the path and approach in those two early films, however, is more than a circuitous attempt to remain tasteful. There is a Canadian identity to be discerned when looking at Montreal Main, which was produced a decade after A tout prendre and Winter Kept Us Warm; it is not just that the dichotomy of Montreal's Main is as much of a character in the film as the people on display, but it is also, in a way, about Canada's ambivalence to its own persona, generally and in terms of its cinema. It often appears that Canadian cinema does not know what it wants to be. Montreal Main's characters do not truly know the inner workings of their own desires and, if they do, they are afraid of them and cower themselves away in some way, thus it is a "film of attempts" and ambivalence, ultimately emerging as a definitive Canadian film, and certainly one of the most artful the country has ever seen.

Also of note is the fact that Vitale, in his editing, masterfully mingles the rawness and immediacy of its stretches of verité-style performance with other exquisite, well-observed sequences that are almost Hitchcockian in terms of framing and montage-rooted tension-building (e.g. the scene involving Frank snooping his way through the Sutherlands' upstairs rooms). At every point, the audience is asking the questions it should be asking, not just about the film but about the frightening realms of the intensely personal we often dare not traverse, and about the people we hold close to us. I immediately watched the film again after my first viewing because I wanted to be taken back there and made to ask myself those questions again. There is also the clear admiration that Vitale has for his characters, who are all played by his friends. You feel Vitale's love for them to the extent that it fuels a desire to discover them more fully, even though they can be occasionally vexing, scary and often petty.

Montreal Main was resurrected just two years ago, restored (by Concordia University's School of Cinema and the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada) and given a series of screenings at various venues in various parts of Canada and the U.S. Even though the film scored with most critics, Vitale admitted to me that he did not know from where the suddenly renewed interest in the film was being generated. "I've asked academics about the film's new reputation, but I never quite get what they are telling me," he laughs. When I asked Vitale on the phone about his feelings about the film's relationship and strong bond to other earlier, similar Canadian works like Winter Kept Us Warm, he admitted, much to my fascination, to never having seen it.

Vitale followed Montreal Main with 1976's East End Hustle, a pulpy but somehow intelligently campy exploitation-type thriller also shot in Montreal, which seems a radical departure from the quiet, deliberate quality of his debut, but it is certainly a fascinating choice and I personally applaud going in new directions. Vitale, in our conversation, admitted to being embarrassed by that film now, stating, "I just wanted to make a film that would return its cost so that I could make another film after that. But the drive to make it was really practice. I wanted to learn how to make a regular film with a script and actors and all that. I realized after Montreal Main's critical success that I had not developed any standard dramatic filmmaking skills. East End Hustle's small following must be a result of the film's current distributor, Troma. That's the only thing I can think of to explain it."

Montreal Main also stars Allan "Bozo" Moyle, who went on to become a director in his own right, and who also appeared in Outrageous! (1977), another milestone in Canadian queer cinema. Moyle directed his first film, The Rubber Gun, which featured many alumni from Montreal Main. Moyle went on to direct films like the underrated Times Square (1980) and the fine Christian Slater-fueled youth movie Pump Up the Volume (1990), both in the United States.

Allan King: Canada's Reality Trip

Allan King was among a class of documentarians who exploited the elasticity of the form in ways that few other filmmakers dared at the time, coining the term "actuality drama" to denote the type of documentary film he patented. Known most for the trio of early "actuality drama" films Warrendale (1967), A Married Couple (1969) and Come On Children (1972), King would soon after bundle his direct-cinema documentary experience temporarily under his arm to helm a series of theatrical features, like the Depression-set saga Who Has Seen the Wind? (1977), the well-budgeted Universal picture Silence of the North (1981), shot in Canada's Northwest Territory and starring Ellen Burstyn, and Termini Station (1989), starring Colleen Dewhurst, before recently returning to his "actuality drama" roots with the digital-video works Dying at Grace (2003) and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005).

On the surface, the original three actuality dramas are direct cinema documentaries ostensibly in the tradition of Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles. What distinguishes King's work from those, however, is that King's films are even more about levels of performance. When I say performance, I am not merely suggesting the illusion that documentary subjects place in front of the camera as either filtered or juicier projections of themselves, nor am I explicitly speaking anything concerning the oxymoronic term "documentary reality," even though elements like this get peripherally explored in King's work. Like Frederick Wiseman's films, King's explore the inner workings of institutions, and an obvious analogy one might perceive is Warrendale to Wiseman's Titticut Follies, simply on the basis of subject matter. Critics of the time observed delightedly how Billy and Antoinette Edwards, the married couple of A Married Couple, were "wonderful performers." What is fascinating is that we get a portrait of King's given institution as theater and, with that in mind, there is reason why the term "actuality drama" is used in lieu of "cinema-verite documentary," and King's term is not the straining shibboleth some seem to feel it is. But King's films do belie the documentary classification.

The films are often structured to accommodate a narrative arc that fosters and heightens the classic drama inherent in their documentary platform; it is not an ordinary kind of arc. This was even more unusual and innovative then, when King customized and patented the technique, than it is today, as most of the verite documentaries of the time relied largely on a looser, more instinctual essayist brand of observational style in which it was the particular building of a message or a tonal perpetuation that most dictated the direction of the ultimate piece during the editing stage.

As Canadian film scholar and critic Robin Wood claims, "Through his unfiltered view and the way he pushes the boundaries of confined temporality and space, King allows life to progress unhindered by sentiment." Considering the claim I made just prior, Wood would suggest that the freeing of the material from a fiction filmmaker's customary imposed subjective investment opens the film up at both ends and allows it to breathe more than either an actual dramatic work of fiction or a documentary about the same subject would. And, at the same time, the works are not objective either. Ultimately, the suggestion I make about the plasticity of its narrative formalism renders, for me, King's form an entirely new one, neither true documentary nor constructed fiction.

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, for one, almost plays like a multi-character ensemble drama. King never shanghais the novelty of watching constructed actuality on the screen by staging interviews or inserting voice-overs (omniscient or otherwise) of any kind. Warrendale, A Married Couple and Come On Children also nix the formal interview format, respectively examining a home for troubled youth, the marriage nest and a communal house of free-spirited teenagers, with the latter of the three being the only created environment/institution. Frederick Wiseman examined similar institutions in another way entirely. To quote Wiseman about his own work, "I’m interested in how institutions reflect the larger cultural hues, so that, in a sense, is like tracking the abominable snowman; in the sense that you’re looking for cultural spoors wherever you go. You find traces of them in the institutions." Adam Nayman, in his recent essay about Allan King, writes:

"Like his contemporary Frederick Wiseman, King spoke about doing the majority of his work before the cameras rolled, inveigling his way into his subjects’ environment and getting a sense of its rhythms, and then handing things over to his crew. 'It’s like casing the joint,' he told me. King’s films are indeed rife with stolen moments, and yet one never feels (as one sometimes does with Wiseman) that anything is being taken away from the people on screen."

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE with The Simulated Shtetl: The Canadian-Jewish Identity Microcosm Informing the Canadian Cinema Macrocosm

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