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Canadian Pride:
...Oxymoron or just endangered species?


It's Canada Day, and so in the spirit of that holiday, I've decided to try to throw together a few disparate ideas that have been simmering in my brain for a while.

Recently in the news was the story that a Canadian author, Rebecca Eckler, was suing the makers of the hit American comedy, "Knocked Up", claiming it was ripping off her book, also titled "Knocked Up". As far as I can tell, in Canadian circles, Eckler hasn't received much sympathy, the concepts in both being fairly generic. Since I have seen neither the movie, nor read the book, I have no opinion. But a telling aspect of the debate that's relevant to this editorial occurred in an essay Eckler herself wrote about the similarities, in which she points out the lead male in the movie is supposed to be Canadian and she remarks "I still can't figure out why the fact that someone was Canadian would add value to any movie". Okay, sure, she's just trying to point to similarities to her book, but I think it reveals something else to -- a dismissive, even contemptuous attitude many people in the Canadian media/entertainment field have toward their own country. In fact, ironically, it's that very attitude, in part, that probably means Eckler's complaint has received such a chilly reception from Canadian pundits.

What? they say. An American ripped off a Canadian? How absurd!

In TV writer Denis McGrath's blog on the topic, he even sets up the controversy by saying he knows someone'll try and turn it into the "little Canadian vs. the big American" thing. But though I can think of a few instances where Canadian artists have claimed they were ripped off by Americans, I can't actually think of any where the Canadian media treated it as anything more than an amusing novelty story -- an absurdity.

McGrath's comment, I suppose, is another common characteristic in Canada: to set up a fictional, archly-patriotic obnoxious Canadian -- a straw beaver if you will -- so then the "level-headed" commentator can rebel against it.

Moving on (we've got a lot to cover in a little time).

There were two movies that were made a couple of years back, one American, one Canadian, that offer some fascinating comparisons. Jersey Girl (USA) and Playing House (CDN) are both quite similar concepts, both involving a career obsessed yuppie in New York who finds themselves a single parent, losing their job and retreating to the quirky safety of their parents' home in the boondocks -- in one, home is New Jersey, in the other, it's Ontario, Canada. In both, the career obsessed parent has to grow and adjust to the notion of having a child to look after. And both attempt to reclaim the life they had. There are of course, significant differences -- for one, I really enjoyed Jersey Girl, whereas Playing House was more okay (and Jersey Girl is decidedly more working class). But where the divergence becomes interesting is in the final denouement. In Jersey Girl, the Jersey boy decides the New York fastlane isn't all it's cracked up to be, and returns to his working class New Jersey home permanently, to raise his daughter. In Playing House, the heroine successfully returns to her New York life, once more leaving behind the safe but, we infer, spiritually unsatisfying Canadian home.

Obviously, you can't really compare two movies and expect to draw some profound, all-defining conclusion. But I thought they were interesting in their separate "messages". For the Jersey-bred filmmaker Kevin Smith, New Jersey, at least in his movies, remains a viable environment for a character to live and thrive...while to the Canadian filmmakers behind Playing House, the message is "Canada is a nice place to recharge...but you sure as spit wouldn't want to live there."

And what this all relates to is the notion of Canadian identity and, yes, Canadian pride as evinced by those we expect to reflect it the most -- our artists and filmmakers. The ones who siphon millions of dollars from the public purse to make their movies, who are the first to bemoan when the Canadian public doesn't go to see their movie, or turn on their TV show.

And there's a sense there are just too many people in this country -- in the artistic fields -- who aren't really comfortable with Canada. Their characters live in "the city", and outsiders come from "east" or "west" -- place names are rarely used. No one pays for their coffee with a toonie and no one, ever, ever, says "eh?" I alluded to some of this in an earlier essay, and now I'm delving into it a little more deeply (and naming names). There seems to be an almost unconscious feeling that there's something illegitimate about being Canadian.

When characters do refer to Canada in movies, it's often in the context of how "boring" it is, and how exciting America is (My American Cousin being a kind of quintessential example). Now, come on, be honest: have you ever sat around with your friends, grumbling about how "boring" Canada is? Of course not. Because in the context of most people's everyday lives, Canada is as exciting, or unexciting, as anywhere else. Ah, but if you're an aspiring filmmaker who wants to become a superstar...? Then, yeah, America holds out a tantalising promise that Canada doesn't. But that still doesn't mean it's an accurate, or appropriate, reflection of most Canadians lives.

I was thinking about this purusing Denis McGrath's blog -- McGrath's a Canadian TV writer who maintains a lively blog (lively meaning it's updated regularly!) discussing TV in general, and Canadian TV specifically. McGrath's blog is probably one of the biggest "Canadian" spots on the web right now...yet McGrath frequently makes allusions to the fact that he's originally from America, sometimes referring to how he doesn't always understand the Canadian psyche. Okay, fair enough. Except... After a while, I started tallying up some of his references, crunching a few numbers, bringing to play my rusty math skills...and as near as I can tell, McGrath moved to Canada when he was eight years old! He hasn't lived in the US since he was a child, yet still tends to identify himself as a transplanted American, even suggesting in some blogs that he votes in U.S. elections! As much as McGrath is an advocate of Canadian television, there's a part of him that would rather still be that eight year old American boy than a 38 year old Canadian man.

McGrath occasionally plugs his up-coming Canadian mini-series -- Across the River in Motor City. Which, though set partly in Canada, as the title implies, clearly roots some of the story in the U.S.

Which then brings us to The Best Years (no really, my segues make a certain kind of sense). The Best Years is Global's latest attempt at a teen drama. It initially received some lukewarm reviews and McGrath, though, defended it, and defended its creator, Aaron Martin. Fair enough, again. Yet The Best Years is set in the States with mainly American characters (replacing Global's Falcon Beach, which was set in Canada). There is one character in it who is supposed to be Canadian. When we are first introduced to him, the joke is that he was mistakenly put in the "foreign" student dorm. Later, when the heroine remarks he's not what she expected a Canadian to be, he responds "Why do you think I left?"

In other words, Global's only Canadian series currently airing...is set in the States, about American characters, and where the (presumably teeny bopper, impressionable audience) is told that: a) it's silly to think of Canada as a separate country from the U.S., and b) all the cool guys move to the U.S.

Ah...makes your chest swell with national pride, don't it?

And this leads into considering the whole notion of Canadian identity, Canadiana, and how Canadian movie folk really feel about Canada. You see interviews all the time with Canadian celebrities who've gone south to Hollywood. And though in American interviews, they often allude little if at all to their Canadian background, when being interviewed for Canadian media, they're happy to proclaim their love for Canada, how it made them who they are, and how it's the bestest country in the whole world...just before they slip back on a plane and fly back to their California home where they've taken out American citizenship.

I was thinking about this coming across some media reports about Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman who had flown back to her native Australia to get married. Around the same time, TV starlet Emilie de Ravin also went home to Australia to get married. And I wondered how often do Canadian-born Hollywood celebrities fly back to Canada to get married? Okay, I can't be entirely confident in writing this because I really don't know much about it. But I do know that Canadian rock star Avril Lavigne's recent marriage to another Canadian rocker took place...in California.

Sometimes Canadian celebs do make a little effort to acknowledge their Canadianess -- Mike Myers once showed up on the David Letterman Show wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt; during some of the classic rockumentary The Last Waltz, The Band's Robbie Robertson is seated before a Canadian flag. But when it comes to using that "Canadianess" in their art, they tend to be more gun-shy. In the entire musical canon of The Band, I think only one song (Acadian Driftwood) was Canadian in content. Mike Myers apparently claimed his Wayne's World character was based on his own youth growing up in Canada...but he relocated it to the U.S. Myers has also had huge success playing the British Austin Powers, pairing his comical hero with British and American love interests, battling American, Scottish and Dutch villains -- but with nary a Canadian in sight. In fact, Myers has tended to popularize his Scottish ancestry more often in his movies than his Canadian identity! Then there was Pamela Anderson who wrote a novel (or co-wrote, depending on what you believe) that was clearly meant to be a inspired by her life, her heroine's life path mirroring her own...save her heroine was from Florida, not B.C.

And I could go on.

So what's my point? I dunno. You tell me.

It's just there's a feeling that a lot of Canadian artists bemoan the lack of support and enthusiasm they receive from the public...even as they are often the worst practitioners of national pride. At Canadian filmmaker Jim Henshaw's blog, he makes some good points in an earlier blog (Sunday, April 15, 2007 "A NATION OF AMNESIACS") about Canadians having amnesia about their own history, and angrily denouncing Canadian executives who were cool to his proposal for an uber-Canadian movie. Yet the joke is, if you look through Henshaw's cv, he's spent most of the last thirty years working on movies and TV shows that pretended they were American. In other words, he's spent decades contributing to that very amnesia -- a climate that marginalizes Canada and Canadian culture -- then is surprised when he's having trouble drumming up support for his Canadian project!

(Okay, I have a certain sympathy for Henshaw -- long ago Henshaw wrote and starred in a very Canadian comedy called A Sweeter Song, and for that alone he deserves kudos. In fact, Henshaw is presumably one of those embittered cultural soldiers that have accrued over the years. A guy who got tired of banging his head against a wall, and so decided it was easier to sell out than keep fighting. So I do have sympathy -- 'course, Henshaw also wrote the episode of Friday: the Thirteenth: the Series, "My Wife as a Dog", about which the less said, the better).

For a lot of Canadians in the biz, Canadian identity is something they'll do, reluctantly, if paid, but it's not something they tend to instigate. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis happily admit their Canadian McKenzie Brothers personas came about only because they were ordered to create something Canadian. While Paul Haggis created Due South because he was asked to develop a series about a Canadian in the U.S., but when working on his own, without Canadian money, Haggis has little interest in drawing upon his Canadian roots.

The reason I harp on Canadians in the U.S. is because we are constantly told the Canadfian film and TV biz doesn't have the money that Hollywood does. So maybe's it's time to make the Hellmouth work for us (if you'll excuse a Buffy the Vampirte Slayer reference). If Canadians with clout in Hollywood -- whether it be Myers or Haggis, James Cameron or Jim Carrey -- were to use their clout to make movies with a Canadian identity, who knows what could be accomplished?

But, as noted, clearly very few of them have any interest in that. So the question is: why?

I think it's because a lot of them grew up with the notion of the U.S. as the centre of their universe (just as an earlier generation of Canadians tended to view England that way) -- and they've never quite grown up enough to separate their youthful idolatry from sobre reality. Often in Canada we hear the phrase "anti-American" to refer to Canadians who might seem a little overly critical of America -- and though some Canadians can just seem kneejerk, even bigoted in these views, often "anti-American" is used to dismiss those with moderate or reasoned opinions, or even those who -- gasp! -- dare to see Canada as having some advantages over the U.S. Yet strangely, no one ever uses the phrase "pro-American" to refer to those Canadian pundits and self-styled philosophers who are equally kneejerk in their assumption that all things American are wonderful and, more important, better than Canada.

It's ironic that in the first Alien movie, we had an American and British cast, and the national structure was ambiguous -- the characters' ground control was in the politically neutral Antarctica. Yet when Canadian James Cameron was tapped to do the sequel, Aliens...suddenly he makes the movie about U.S. marines in outer space! I also remember a few years back seeing an interview with a Canadian science fiction writer who had written a story that he had set in the States. Why? According to him, it was because the future he envisioned just seemed more American. The catch? The concept in his story was extrapolated from some political policy that originated in...Montreal, Canada.

Setting stories in the U.S. with American heroes just seems "right" to a lot of Canadian filmmakers, because they're imitating the previous generation of Canadian filmmakers who set their stuff in the U.S. -- and the cycle continues.

As well, there's a real self-loathing at work in the minds and attitudes of some Canadians in the media. It makes them feel good to feel bad about Canada.

We are constantly told that Canadian history is boring compared to America -- usually in the context of someone flogging their Canadian history book that they claim isn't boring. In other words, there's sometimes a desire on the parts of Canadians to run Canada down to make themselves seem more exceptional. And, of coures, it tends to backfire.

So after that long, rambling diatribe (or whine, if ya prefer), what's the solution? Well, off the top of my head, I can't think of one. You can't legislate national pride -- well, you can, but that's called fascism. My intent, as always, I suppose, is just to toss the idea out there, to maybe get a few people thinking, and talking (and they'll tell two friends, and so on, and so on...)

I just think there's a problem when so many of the people working in Canada's cultural industry don't seem to have much respect for -- or even knowledge of -- Canada.

Addendum: Jim Henshaw, to whom I refer in the above piece, took umbrage at my reference to him and, indeed, to my entire post and penned a rebuttal at his blog (I can't link to the specific post, but it's easy enough to find, posted July 18th, under the title "Lucy! Ju Gots Some Splainin' to Do..!") On one hand this is good -- I said I wanted to get people talking, and thinking. Unfortunately, to my mind, Henshaw misconstrued -- if not deliberately misrepresented -- much of my arguments and points. And though I tried posting a comment -- twice -- on his blog, it never appeared (I was going to be catty and suggest he was deliberately censoring views not his own but, to be fair, it could equally have been a computer glitch). Anyway, since I did say I wanted to get people talking, it's worth checking out for the "other" side -- but see if you can spot the contradictions and distortions that I felt were there, particularly when compared to his earlier post (Sunday, April 15, 2007 "A NATION OF AMNESIACS") in which he blames television for not better representing Canadian culture. (And I have to conclude that Henshaw no longer remembers his movie "A Sweeter Song", in which an entire sub-plot dealt quite explicitly with the concept of "selling out" Canadian culture to the American dollar).

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

July 1, 2007

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