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Does Anyone Know How to be Canadian Anymore?
or: I'll give yoo a twoonie for yur Relic-hat, eh?



 
 

Does any one know how to be Canadian anymore? And by that, I'm talking about Canadian storytellers -- specifically filmmakers -- the supposed guardians of the national soul.

I've been thinking about this, off and on, for a while, in various forms. Partly it was something someone said to me, pointing out that so many of the people involved in the Canadian movie/TV biz -- particularly actors, but also writers and directors -- move to Hollywood, only returning to their native land long enough to shoot a film or TV show, collect their checks, then wing it back to sunnier climes. And the question was: doesn't that kind of mute their ability to be Canadian -- to really reflect the Canadian experience -- when they spend all their time in another country?

I've mentioned before how many Canadian movies and TV shows pretend they aren't Canadian, and are set in the United States. Then there are the Canadian movies which, though they don't say it's set elsewhere, don't actually say it is Canada, either. And even a lot of movies and TV shows that are set in Canada...often just throw in a shot of a Canadian flag waving in the background and figure, there, we've done our part reflecting the Canadian identity.

Recently a lot of random, inconsequential things started piling up which, taken on their own, mean nothing, but when viewed in tandem...well, pushed me to thinking...

There was the black comedy movie, Siblings -- Canadian made, Canadian cast...yet nowhere on screen is there any indication it is Canada. It doesn't say it's not, it just doesn't say it is. In it there's a scene where a nasty piece of work (played by Sonja Smits) snidely refers to a latent homosexual as "queer as a three dollar bill". See, the point of the expression is that though there are one and two dollar bills, there are no three dollar bills, hence such a thing would be "queer", as in odd, as in...

Oh, wait! In Canada, we don't have one or two dollar bills. Those were replaced years ago by the one and two dollar coin -- generally known as the "loonie" and the "toonie" (or twoonie). Personally, if I were to use the expression "queer as a __" I'd say, "queer as a three dollar twoonie".

At another point in the same movie a character refers to "the third grade" school level when, generally, in Canada, people say "grade three". It's not a big distinction -- Canadians say "third grade" from time to time. But it's still seen as a more American phrasing.

Then I caught a few minutes of the Global teen drama, Falcon Beach -- haven't yet watched it enough to post a review. I just caught a few seconds...in which a character was waiting to hear about her university application to Harvard. Falcon Beach is set in Canada, and good for 'em. But, you know what? Not too many Canadian kids apply to Harvard, or other foreign universities. Some do -- but most don't. So I'm just saying I flip on this Canadian show, catch a random scene...and it's making an American reference.

In the mini-series Terminal City characters act flustered about a new TV series where the characters swear on air...when on modern Canadian TV, you'd be hard pressed to find a series not rife with profanity! In an episode of Naked Josh, the characters debate society's puritanical attitudes to nudity, citing the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" controversy. But in Canada...there hadn't been much controversy about that. In fact, in most Canadian circles, there was amusement about why Americans were freaking out about it.

These were both set-in-Canada shows...but seemed more to be reflecting American attitudes.

And then there're accents.

There was The Associates, with its cast of legal eagles including an Englishman and a Southern Belle -- and though Tamara Hickey's southern twang was sexy as all get out...when was the last time you heard a Canadian lawyer with a Dixieland drawl? In This is Wonderland, Ron Lea joined the cast in its third season, playing a Canadian (a relative of some of the other Canadian characters)...yet speaking with a bit of a New Yawk accent. In Ken Finkleman's At the Hotel, we are treated to a hotel full of characters, with a variety of accents...including a few thick-as-molasses American accents. But none that are noticeably, idiosyncratically Canadian. And though the money that changes hands in At the Hotel appears Canadian...most of the references are American.

And for the record: I'm talking about deliberately put on accents, as opposed to real ones: Tamara Hickey doesn't have a southern drawl. And taken on their own, why not throw in an American accent for variety's sake? Americans emigrate to Canada, after all. But it's when all these things are lumped together, a different picture forms.

What kind of seems to emerge is a portrait of people in the Canadian film biz who, even when they want to be Canadian, just aren't very comfortable with it. And that's because, well, a lot of their influences are other films -- American films.

Harvard applications, American accents, and "three dollar bills" seem appropriate to them, because that's what they see in the movies they watch.

But that's not really art, that's creative bulimia.

I'm just not sure it's really reflective of Canada, or what most Canadians' day to day lives are like.

A while back someone told me about overhearing a conversation between two people -- shopping in Toronto's Bohemian Kensington Market, yet -- trying to identify a longshoreman's type toque. And one of them described it as a "Relic hat" and the other instantly knew what was meant. Relic being, of course, a character in the old Beachcombers TV series who wore as his kind of signature garb that sort of cap.

Yet I wonder if a description like that ever cropped up in the cop show DaVinci's Inquest? "Yeah, the suspect's a white male, mid-thirties, last seen wearing a Relic hat"?

Poutine has become almost an unofficial national dish in Canada, even as it's not available much outside Canada. Domestically you're hard pressed to find a diner or fast food joint, including Canadian branches of American chains, that haven't added it to the menu in the last few years. Yet how often do you see characters in a Canadian movie or TV series chowing down on a plate of the stuff?

And those are just examples of nonchalant Canadianisms. If Canadian filmmakers are so reluctant to include those -- or ignorant of them to begin with -- it's no wonder broader social or political Canadianisms rarely make it onto the screen.

Rooting a story in a more identifiable Canadianess isn't just for cosmetic effect, but can also add layers of depth and meaning to a story.

In the movie Jet Boy, a city kid living a grim life as a boy-prostitute and with a junkie mother watches reruns of the Canadian series The Forest Rangers -- the contrast between the boy's gritty urban life and this idealized televised fantasy of carefree kids living in a forest creates a genuinely poignant resonance.

The movie Marion Bridge derived its title from a Canadian location, as well as a popular folk song. When the movie eventually ties those things into its narrative, revealing the significance it holds for the story and the characters...the result is surprisingly powerful.

Sometimes I'll watch Canadian movies and think how an added, Canadian spin to a scene might actually jazz it up a bit.

In the movie Twist -- a retelling of Oliver Twist, but grittily set among male prostitutes in Toronto -- Francophone actress Barbara Michele Pelletier plays a good hearted waitress (the Nancy character) who kind of mother hens the boys. Watching the movie, I thought of what (in my opinion) could've been a good scene: they should have had it be that she's trying to teach the boys French (maybe insisting they order their burgers in French), and when they grumble, she could cheekily chastise them by saying: "You'll never be prime minister if you don't learn French."

I just thought that would've been an understatedly poignant scene. The Quixotic idea that she's trying to instill in them ambitions -- that they might someday be prime minister -- when most will end up dead in an alley before they're 21, could've been almost heartbreaking. I dunno...it was just an idea, a quintessentially Canadian scene, that came to me while watching the movie. (Of course, it was partly inspired by my reading how some U.S. Republicans were trying to cast aspersions on then-Democratic candidate John Kerry by suggesting there was something untrustworthy about him because he spoke (gasp!) French -- when, in modern Canada, a prime minsteral candidate who wasn't bilingual would have a handicap.)

Canadian filmmakers lament that Canadians don't watch their movies...maybe it's partly because they often don't truly reflect the Canada the viewers experience in their daily lives.

In the end, I'm reminded of the American movie The Jerk, in which a white guy (played by Steve Martin) is raised by black people. And though he thought he was black...he just didn't have that mythical black rhythm (it was a slapstick comedy -- the ethnic stereotype humour was meant to be silly, not offensive). Anyway...some Canadian filmmakers make me think of that: people who want to be Canadian, who will tell you they're proud to be Canadian...but they just don't have that rhythm.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Mar. 22, 2006

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