Celluloid Cities

The downtown visions of filmmakers from Arcand and Egoyan to Shum

Once upon a time the paradigm of Canadian film history located the documentary as the foundational genre, and the rural, whether dense wilderness or vast, largely unpeopled landscape, as the foundational subject. Funded at first by the Canadian Pacific Railway at the turn of the last century and then by the National Film Board just before and then during the Second World War, the first extended efforts to represent Canada on screen showcased the natural world, often in implicit opposition to the crowded, oppressive worlds from which many Canadians had fled, either voluntarily or by force. For a long time, this paradigm helped to inform our understanding of the dominant characteristics of Canadian cinema. Americans might have funded Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North in 1922, but the subject of that important, romantic documentary was nothing less than the vast Canadian North and the hardy people who managed to endure it. The discourse that emerged to articulate coherence for Canadian literature shared the same metaphors, with somewhat different values. Northrop Frye’s hugely influential construction of the garrison mentality in his conclusion to Carl F. Klinck’s Literary History of Canada famously inflected the natural world with menace. Humanity had to barricade itself in to keep the outside threats from getting through. In this view, the uncontaminated spaces of the wilderness were also the menacing forces of annihilation. Of course, those doing the barricading were Caucasian, determined to keep the savage landscape from leaking in.

In English Canada, at least, we spent a lot of time and good, creative energy in the latter half of the last century establishing through art, film and literature a (white) Canadian identity in association with nature. Today we have enough distance from that discourse to locate that discussion in its own time and geopolitical place, recognizing how much we have shifted to a language of global citizenry and to a Canada that no longer craves unifying definitions. Today, we would be theorizing how we used to talk about Canada and Canadian art not so very long ago for ostensibly nation-building purposes. How quickly such conversations have turned quaint. How things have changed.

Frye also observed in the 1970s that Canadian literature could not fully mature until we had a sustained experience of the urban, the novel being essentially a fictional study of the individual in society. Notwithstanding Frye’s assumption about what makes a work of literature mature, the same might have been said about Canadian cinema at the time, although film is not necessarily bound by or dependent on the individual’s progress in society. Film wants to do other things with the visual field and it is challenged by the inevitable constraints of time to enliven our experience, perhaps to shock us. At some point, literature and film follow their own destinies, just as so many university film departments have split off from literature departments to form autonomous program units.

George Melnyk’s study of Canadian film is, in some ways, an old-fashioned project with an earnest mission—to explain the way Canadian film of the last two decades has helped shape and is a reflection of our perception of urban experience and, in turn, notions of Canadian identity. Where we might have stopped worrying over the notion of that identity in art and literature, in Film and the City: The Urban Imaginary in Canadian Cinema Melnyk still wants to show us we have much to learn about who we are, in all our sophisticated geographic and urban diversity, by looking at a number of feature films of the last two decades. While the work claims to adopt an interdisciplinary approach to understanding some dozen or so Canadian features, it deliberately avoids the kind of dense theorizing of art and culture that inform a lot of current writing about the experience of both film and the city. For the most part, it also avoids the kind of analysis that would reveal the material conditions and constraints on the actual physical production of these examples. Does budget size matter? Sources of funding? Location access? Canadian regulatory film policy? Weather?

Instead, Melnyk returns to a fairly out-of-fashion reliance on auteurism—that is, he reads the films in question not so much as physical but as autobiographical products, directly shaped by their creators’ unique personal, psychological, intellectual, and aesthetic histories. These are directors who grew up in Canadian cities and so are filming their experience, however filtered and transmuted, in fictional or semi-fictional terms. In Melnyk’s view, the films they make have as much to say about their own lives and attitudes as they do about the cities and cultural milieux in which they set their dramas. Whether the films themselves are better appreciated or enhanced through such an approach is best left up to the spectator. Most of us like to know something about the relation of the work to its designated creator, and so we can safely say we get a lot of that here.

That said, reading books about films that you have not seen is not unlike listening to a friend talk about his or her dreams. Really, who cares? Canadian films have such limited distribution in this country that only a relatively small cohort of spectators will find pleasure in all the specifics of plot, character and composition that pile up here. Melnyk acknowledges this sad fact of the limited Canadian scene, how could he not? We are still held hostage to the imperialism of Hollywood and the philistinism of the box office. Our theatrical distribution system is weak and the political will to change it practically non-existent. Technology is finally affording more access to more creative products, but will Canadians choose to see more Canadian films given the opportunity? One hopes that the odds of access will yield larger audiences. There is always a great pleasure in watching yourself or your city on screen. Television is helping to prove that delight with the six-year success of The Republic of Doyle, a series that was as much about the city of St. John’s as it was about Alan Hawco’s punch-prone detective.

It would be heartening to know that readers did care about the films in this useful study. Film and the City offers us a broadly drawn map of the Canadian urban scene, or mise-en-scènes, as the study moves geographically from east to west, from old to new, and from “faith” (the first chapter on the Montreal of Jésus de Montréal) to “dysfunction” (the last chapter on the Vancouver of three unevenly judged features). That journey tells its own tale. As we bounce from Quebec (Montreal and Quebec City) to Toronto, then on to Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, we get the increasingly queasy sense that the urban imaginary of the new has a lot less going for it, literally and figuratively. Melnyk might not have intended it, but it is hard for, say, the Gary Burns of waydowntown, which is set in the oxygen-deprived glass prisons of Calgary skywalks, to compare all that favourably with the Denys Arcand of Jésus de Montréal, which is set in the splendid streets and parks of everyone’s favourite port city.

To be fair, this study is not about judging one film, auteur—or city—over another but the sheer amount of space and attention that Melnyk devotes to Arcand and his Montreal, and then to the Montreal of Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo, and further to the Toronto of Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, indicates how much more possibility and vision the cities of the east have inspired in these directors, at least to date. The Calgary of Burns’s waydowntown or of his Radiant City is, perhaps unavoidably, a site of mall culture, as Canadian as The Gap, and as personable as a treeless suburb. No good can come of anything here, even if the films in question make this very point adequately. By the time we get to the Vancouver of Mina Shum’s Double Happiness, Bruce Sweeney’s Last Wedding and Bruce McDonald’s The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess, we are not even sure where we are anymore. The further west we travel the more anonymous, generic and undifferentiated the urban experience seems to be. Not surprisingly, the films set here are bound to suffer somewhat from the absence of what we might call spatial confidence.

The Winnipeg of a Guy Maddin, however, is an unreal and admirable landscape—rather a mindscape, where the city of The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg becomes a “fabled entity … rich in fantastic stories that grow forest-like out of its nutrient-rich gumbo. When Maddin fables his city with surreal explanations, he removes it from the temporal zone and gives it an aura of timelessness.” Indeed, Melnyk’s work flies when it moves into the films and through the cities the author really digs. To be sure, it is hard not to admire the magical ways a filmmaker like Maddin can transform the punishing climate of his hometown into a “psychohistoric and psychogeographic” reality, “giving the city a certain convulsive soul, dominated by sorrow for past sins.” This particular section of the book is well worth attention for its enthusiastic defence of one of Canada’s most private and weird imaginations. One might very well never see Winnipeg as anything but a Maddin film after reading this spirited endorsement.

The westward march across the cinematic screens is not the only organizing principle of this work, however. Reaching for structural continuity, Melnyk relies on three key elements to help his “unravelling the complexity of urban representation”: spatiality, visuality and orality. In other words, the cinematic narratives described in this study depend on setting, storytelling and audience response. For the most part, this organizing device is serviceable enough, and helps us move from film city to film city—and from auteur to auteur—with relative ease of transport. As rich in detail and as illuminating as much of the work is, however, there is a little too much of the compare-and-contrast reflex about it, so that there is a tendency to say with heavy obviousness that A is both like and not like B. Better to keep moving from film to film and city to city without all the traffic signs. We know the directions. We know the cities. This is Canada.

It is helpful, though, to be reminded of the brief historical period in which these films were made—only yesterday. Melnyk’s thesis depends upon our realizing that the urban imaginary, as described therein in all its difference, diversity and dysfunction, replaces the earlier “nationalist-realist rhetoric” of the last century. That rhetoric, as mentioned, depended on an embrace of the natural world for self-definition. But most of us live in cities and so it is that the films about us should be set there. More to the point, the filmmakers live in cities, and it is their stories we are being invited to see, at least as Melnyk would have us understand it. He prefers, fairly enough, to label the films of this two-decade period postmodern for their self-reflexivity, and for their treatment of history as social and personal construct. It is also fair and wise to recognize that these films mark the end of the celluloid era, as we have since moved into the digital age and are no longer making or watching films on the plastic strips we once so naively thought would last forever. Everything about filmmaking, so-called, is changing, and the urban imaginary is as offered to us in the films of an Atom Egoyan or a Patricia Rozema will be represented differently by a new generation of auteurs who are harnessing new technologies to tell their stories. Canadian identity might not have anything to do with any of it—except for funding and, even there, nothing is certain.