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04.03.09

canadian


CANADA IS HOLDING ITS VERSION OF THE OSCARS tomorrow night, an awards show that's apparently as unencumbered by an audience as the films it celebrates. A story about the Genies in today's National Post starts off by reciting the ritual truism - "Celebrating Canadian culture can be a difficult undertaking." - before surveying the national movie scene on the eve of its annual celebration.

Like so many barely-disguised pleas to buck up and support Canadian culture, the story ends up doing a fine job of reminding us why most Canadians remain indifferent, even hostile, to the products of our homegrown cinema. "When Telefilm Canada last did a head count in 2006, less than 5% of English-speaking Canadians shelled out money to see a Canadian movie in theatres," writes Katherine Monk, "despite the best efforts of marketers and distributors - as well as motivated film groups who make it their mission to see Canadian product in theatrical release."

Monk has a vested interest of sorts in the subject - she's the author of Weird Sex and Snowshoes, a 2001 survey of Canadian film whose title was a jokey but weirdly accurate summary of what you can expect when sitting down to some of our homegrown cinema. She does her very best to make a case for supporting films made here, but like the best efforts of so many of our producers, writers, directors and actors, the result falls somewhat flat.

"This year's field of best picture nominees may fail to conjure a whoosh of recognition," Monk writes. "Amal, Ce Qu'il Faut Pour Vivre, Normal, Passchendaele, Tout Est Parfait. Outside of Paul Gross's First World War saga, which takes its name from a battle site seared into the hearts and minds of Canadians, it's safe to say these titles failed to make it into the mainstream consciousness."

With two films out of the five vying for best picture coming from Quebec - and therefore even easier for English Canadians
to ignore than films in their own language - I can only speak with something like authority about the remaining three, one of which I've actually seen, which makes me part of a distinguished minority in this country.

Much as I wish it was true, Monk is falling back on some shopworn rhetoric by describing the name Passchendaele as being "seared into the hearts and minds of Canadians." Would that it were true, but thanks to the diminished state of historical education in this country, it's fairly certain that the number of people under thirty who'd recognize the site of the First World War battle is probably as select as those who've bothered seeing a Canadian film.

Paul Gross' film probably won't do much more searing, either; a mediocre war film and a worse melodrama, it had the distinction of being barely set in the place for which it was named, and actually took place in a frontier Calgary that Gross did his level best to portray as a hotbed of ignorance, intolerance, and lethal jingoism.

Monk gets several long quotes from Carl Bessai, the director of Normal, the only other English language film vying for best picture. "I know Normal might not have been the most popular film, but the Genies aren't about popularity," Bessai tells Monk.

You can say that again. A quick search for reviews of Normal results in some sobering reading - especially if your name is Carl Bessai. It's a tale of dysfunctional moderns, told in the style of American indie pictures like Crash and Magnolia that Philip Marchand described in the Toronto Star as the story of "highly disturbed individuals."

The characters, Marchand writes, "are not richly developed , but it seems characteristic of this genre to highlight one-dimensional individuals. The director also bets heavily on the audience's willingness to accept certain conventions: TV 'weather girls' are bimbos desperately wanting not to be bimbos, and that love between teenagers has an innocence and virtue denied affairs between adults, and those poaching on adolescent turf."

Jennie Punter of the Globe & Mail calls it "a predictable ride from the get-go," while Liz Braun of the Toronto Sun describes "wooden acting and cringe-worthy sex scenes and sometimes both at once ... It's actually kind of depressing to watch good actors wasted in this fashion." With reviews like this, you can be sure that Genie-nominated films - up for best film of the year, no less - aren't about popularity.

Remember that these are reviews for a film that was judged to be one of the best made in Canada this year. I wasn't terribly excited by anything in the running for best film at this year's Oscars, but I'm certain that they all averaged reviews more enthusiastic than Bessai's. With this in mind, you have some idea of why I have dreams where I realize that I'm Canadian, and that they're the ones where I wake up screaming.

The truth is that Bessai is the kind of director whose films have almost no life outside of the festival circuit, and even there nearly every critic I know regards sitting through them as an ordeal they have to endure for the sake of local content. After the festival screenings and the (apparently) inevitable Genie nomination, it doesn't sound like Canadian directors like Bessai have much need of an audience, as the national film sausage making machinery has done its bit in rubber-stamping their resume.

"The Genies reflect the diversity of Canadian film. And to be recognized by your peers is a huge honour because it's an acknowledgment of the creative success," Bessai tells Monk. "The Genies also mean something in the States because they understand that they're our Academy Awards. And if you're nominated for best director, to them, that counts for something."

For the life of me I can't think of a success story that verifies Bessai's scenario, but the list of Canadian talents made big down south in the Post piece - hot young actors like Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling and Ellen Page - are conspicuously short on Carl Bessai films, or much more than juvenile roles in Canadian TV before the big break that sweeps them south to real stardom.

The producers of the Genies have these actors on the wish list that they hope would attract younger viewers for the show, but it would help if they were actually nominated for something. As long as they can make a lot more money in predictable rides with cringeworthy sex scenes made in Hollywood, that's probably unlikely, though Sara Morton, the cultural bureaucrat in charge of the show, gamely tries to talk up the celebrities in attendance for tomorrow night's show - names such as Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Susan Sarandon and Ellen Burstyn.

It would be a stellar line-up - if it was the early '80s, and we were at the a festival in Cannes, or Berlin, but it sums up the time warp that our national film industry remains mired in, and if we press ahead, we should be making films that people want to see around the time that the medium goes the way of burlesque, or the zoetrope.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved

WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

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