A Canadian film editorial brought to you by The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies & TV

Confessions of a Canadian Film Critic:
..why this web site?...and why me?


I first established this web site over ten years ago. And in that time I’ve posted thousands of reviews, and over seventy essays/editorials. Yet in all that time, I’ve generally avoided saying too much about myself, preferring to keep the focus on the movies and Canadian entertainment -- kind of the opposite of much of the internet where autobiographical blogs and face books are all about self-confession.

And today, I’m still going to talk about Canadian entertainment…but atypically, this time by delving a bit more into my own personal life growth. How -- and why -- I got here, posting this web site. Along the way, I realize a lot of the dates probably won’t entirely add up. Put that down partly to a faulty memory…but also realize that just because a movie or TV show was released at a certain time, it doesn’t mean that was when I saw it, so its impact on me might actually have been a few years later. So, onward…

I have a confession to make: I don’t really love Canadian film.

Writing that kind of reminds me of the movie Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould in which Gould (played by Colm Feore) comments that he doesn’t actually like listening to piano music. It’s, of course, a humorously ironic line given Gould was an internationally famous pianist. And it’s probably a more common sentiment among artists than you’d think -- people who work in certain fields not necessarily being big fans of that field (perhaps because of the old adage about people who enjoy sausages wouldn’t want to see how they were made). Though when it comes to Canadian film and TV, it perhaps has an added ironic aspect -- namely that even as Canadian filmmakers will lament the lack of public support for their works, and will rail against the lack of proper funding…one rather gets the impression most Canadian filmmakers don’t really like or even watch other Canadian movies or TV shows. Oh, sure, they know how to play politics, so they’ll dutifully tell you how great Atom Egoyan (or whoever) is…but even then, they’ll rarely in interviews actually cite a film by name. And maybe that says something troubling about Canadian films and TV (assuming it’s true, and not just my misperception based on a few isolated anecdotes) if even the people in the biz aren’t really enjoying what’s being produced. In this day and age of blogs, you actually get an even better sense of what some Canadian industry people think and feel, and though they vigorously champion Canadian efforts, often when listing the things they watch just for enjoyment, it still tends to be American and British productions.

Sometimes, though, it might simply be a knee jerk response -- you and your work will be more special if you convince yourself little of value preceded you. I’m thinking of a recent interview with actor Enrico Colantoni (of Flashpoint fame) who seemed to make a kind off the cuff, pejorative comment about the earlier Canadian-made cop series, Night Heat. I like Flashpoint, and I like Colantoni in it -- but I also have pretty fond memories of Night Heat (admittedly, I haven’t watched reruns in years, so I won‘t say how well it has aged).

Anyway, this is all a bit of an aside, because when I started out saying I don’t love Canadian movies, what I meant is: I don’t necessarily have any especial passion for them. And, indeed, I don’t really love movies, period. Oh, don’t misunderstand. I certainly did -- I was as big a movie fan as anyone else. But time passes, you age, and change. The point is: I like movies (and TV). I like books, too. I like comics and radio plays.

What I love is stories and storytelling. The medium is simply the way the story is conveyed, and different stories are best conveyed by different mediums. They can spend hundreds of millions on Spider-Man motion pictures…and still not capture the spirit and soul of the better eras of the Spider-Man comics (say, the 1960s). While the original Star Trek made a great TV series and movies…but has always lost something translated into books and comics. I’ve commented in previous editorials about how much I like the CBC radio sitcom Monsoon House…but there’s a part of me that suspects it would lose an intangible something if it were restaged for the small screen. And so on.

So, if I don’t “love” Canadian” movies, why have I devoted so much time and money in chronicling them, and setting up this web site?

Well, for one thing, I’m over-simplifying. There was I time when I loved movies and TV more fervently than I do now. Like with any relationship, there are periods of passion, and periods of cool detachment, ups and downs.

But it’s also because my interest in Canadian film and TV arose, as much as anything, out of my interest in Canada itself. And as the dominant medium of the 20th (now 21st) Century, movies and TV serve as the tactical high ground in culture -- the hill that must be conquered if a flag is to be placed.

So when did my interest in Canadiana first arise? That’s an interesting question. And though I can’t be sure, and no doubt I’m grossly simplifying, I think I can trace at least one pivotal incident back to late summer in 1979, driving home with my family from Algonquin Park. Growing up in Canada is probably a bit different from growing up in a lot of other countries -- your sense of place and identity, as a kid, is a bit unformed. Living next to the US, most of the pop culture you imbibe is American, and lacks any blatant cues to remind you it originates in a foreign clime. You could enjoy British TV shows and movies…but you knew they were “different” from you, because they had strange accents, and drove odd-looking vehicles, and the police wore curious uniforms. But with American shows…the differences were subtler, and largely lost on a kid. I remember as a kid trying to fathom the relationship between the president and the prime minister, since the former was referred to in all the movies and comics I imbibed, while the latter existed in newspapers and magazines. It took a while before my little brain finally understood there was no relationship -- they were leaders of separate sovereign nations. To an adult, paying taxes, and reading the daily news, there would be less confusion (though still some I’ll wager). But to a kid, unconcerned with “real world” matters, whose understanding of the world was largely filtered -- and massaged -- through entertainment, and pop culture, the country in which I was born, was being raised and, in all probability, in which I would die, was barely a rumour…a half glimpsed phantasm flickering at the corner of my eye.

So then it’s 1979, driving home from camping in Algonquin Park, and we stopped off at a corner store for one thing or another. Being a kid, with no other responsibilities (my mother would be looking for the needed items), I did what I always did…I headed to the comics rack (this being in the days when comics were at the corner store, not specialty shops). Now, I suppose my sense of, and understanding of, Canada must have already begun by this point, else what I saw might not have struck my fancy as it did.

But there it was, in big bold letters: HE’S BACK! The comic’s cover proclaimed. Who? Why…Captain Canuck, Canada’s own super hero! I remember flipping through it and being impressed with George Freeman’s eclectic artwork, and the stunning use of colour that was unlike the staid hues gracing Superman or the X-Men at the time. But it cost a whopping .50 cents…more than I had on me (as a kid, my weekly allowance was basically whatever I could find between the sofa cushions). But after receiving a loan from my brother, I purchased it, we returned to the car, and started on the long ride home. And in the fading light of early evening, I started to read.

And I think that’s when it happened for me. That opening page of Captain Canuck #4, and a text caption describing a hijacked ambulance leaving behind “smog ridden Sudbury”. It wasn’t simply that it referred to Sudbury, a Canadian city I had heard of, when all other comics (and movies, and TV, and novels) referred to US cities like New York and Los Angeles…and Poughkeepsie. No -- it was that it referred to “smog ridden” Sudbury. See, I had heard about Sudbury’s smog, heard jokes and the like (yeah, yeah, I know the city has cleaned up its image since then). This was real. This was a reflection of the world I knew…in a comic book about a super hero, previously the exclusive domain of stories set against half-mythical places called Coney Island and the Everglades; places I had never been to, or seen for myself or, indeed, places no one I knew had ever been to or seen. And I realized there could be something just a little more powerful, a little enthralling, about something that was rooted in a place and identity you knew -- particularly if it involved a guy in tights battling world conquering megalomaniacs! (That is, Canadiana didn’t have to be relegated to the ghetto of literary novels and art movies…but could be reflected in populist, mainstream -- read: American-style -- pop entertainment).

I think a lot of stories benefit from being rooted in their time and place, whether it be American, British, etc. Again, I think I maybe picked up on this from American comics, where in order to make the fantasy of super beings seem more plausible, a growing emphasis was put on rooting the stories in identifiable cities, where the heroes would drop references to trendy bands and movies. As well, British TV series and movies seemed richer, more intriguing, for the British slang and local references -- even when I didn’t always get them. Why? Because you know the writer is writing from the heart, writing what he knows -- even it’s just as a backdrop for super heroes, or the hitherto unknown conniving grandson of Richard III! And though we are often told the opposite, told that settings are best if they are anonymous to make stories more universal, I don’t think that’s true (as I discuss here). Heck, think of all the American TV series that begin every episode with a shot of a city’s name, or all the ones with a place name right there in the title -- CSI: Miami, Beverly Hills 90210, LA: Law, WKRP in Cincinnati, Hawaii 5-0. Place is not seen as a necessary evil, but as a part of the narrative.

Anyway, so that was the beginning for me: not an especially auspices beginning, perhaps. If it was an epiphany, it went largely unnoticed by me at the time. But it was a seed -- a slow gestating seed that at first led to nothing more than my doodling my own Canadian-flag themed hero -- Captain Maple! (Later, Mr. Maple, then just Maple when I decided the “Captain” designation was too obviously derivative). But as time wore on, I became more conscious of my environment…a place called Canada. A place with its vast geography and dramatic historical events and colourful figures.

So how does all that lead to The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies (& TV) website?

I first established this site in 1998...but it’s origins date back much further. Specifically, to many years earlier when I read an interview with a programmer at First Choice (the precursor to The Movie Network) in which he mentioned that beginning as a kid, he had kept notes on every movie he had ever seen (which did him in good stead, now, as a programming director at a movie channel). I thought that sounded like a fun and intriguing hobby -- but even by that point, I had seen so many movies, I realized it was too late to begin such an enterprise…unless I made it more focused. I considered keeping records of every science fiction movie I had seen…or keeping notes on every Canadian movie I had seen. I chose the latter because I was starting much closer from scratch. By that point I had seen very few Canadian movies, yet was beginning to develop an interest in them, as much from a cultural perspective as a creative one.

Athough I began this saying I had no burning interest in Canadian films, that’s not entirely true. Like a lot of people, I initially had a negative impression of Canadian films as represented by the movie Dreamspeaker (cheap-looking, and unpleasant…where everyone ends up dead or insane by the end) and the TV series Littlest Hobo (cheap and, well, do I have to go on?) But then a few things came along that started to change my impression -- dramatically. One was the TV series Seeing Things (a very funny, very savvy, mystery-comedy about a psychic reporter) and the movie Ticket to Heaven (that was both an edge-of-the-seat suspenser…yet also an earnest, social document). I think those two things, more than anything else, turned me on to Canadian productions -- showing me Canadians could make things that were both like Hollywood productions, in Hollywood style genres of mystery, comedy and suspense…yet had their own, distinctive, style and flavour. Before you knew it, I was watching Canadian TV shows like Street Legal, Night Heat and Adderly, not simply because they were Canadian, but because I was enjoying them -- The Littlest Hobo fast becoming a fading memory. Along the way, my interest became much more than simply an interest in the movies and TV shows themselves, but in the behind-the-scenes trials and tribulations of this industry that was still in a prolonged infancy, Canadian film personalities and directors becoming as much characters to me as any role portrayed on screen, and I eagerly devoured books like Martin Knelman’s This is Where We Came In (and Genevieve Bujold becoming the longest celebrity crush I ever had -- me, a guy whose infatuation with pretty actresses usually lasted a few months until the next pretty actress caught my eye!)

What I also began to notice in Canadian productions, that distinguished them from American ones, was a style of filmmaking that I later learned was derived from something called Cinema Verite -- a style of filmmaking meant to evoke a realism, a realism it seemed to me Hollywood didn’t have (the difference may also have simply been my hearing Canadian accents, which might have sounded more natural to my ear, subconsciously, than the usual American accents I was used to hearing on TV -- who knows?). Or at least, Hollywood no longer had it by the 1980s, the period where my “awakening” occurred -- though Hollywood had flirted with it in the 1970s, even in mainstream, populist films. And in the case of Seeing Things, Ticket to Heaven and Night Heat, it was a realism used in the context of unreal -- or melodramatic -- stories: a psychic reporter, cops n’ robbers, etc. It’s not hard to understand the roots of such a style in Canada -- Canadian fiction filmmaking sprung out of the documentary form, with many early Canadian directors having begun as documentary filmmakers -- many with the NFB -- and even early Canadian TV series, like Wojeck and the anthology program, For the Record, were as much social-political exposes as fictional narratives. (Ironically, some of that “realism” may’ve been unintentional, simply a side effect of Canadian films and TV often shot on cheaper film than Hollywood productions…film stock closer to that used in documentaries!)

For a while, I remember thinking that what distinguished Canadian movies/TV from American ones was this added aura of realism, of plausibility. In fact, as a side point, my brother and I once discussed American actors who we felt kind of had that “Canadian” realism in their delivery, including Jeff Goldblum and Peter Weller…and within a few years, both would be cast in movies by the Canadian director David Cronenberg (The Fly and Naked Lunch).

Of course, this realist style was already on its way out, first with The Grey Fox, and latter becoming the new national house style with films by Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and others -- a style that was the polar opposite of cinema verite, being much more artificial and mannered, emphasizing sterile form over pseudo-documentary realism, what I came to think of as the “Art House” style.

During the early days of my hobby, and my setting out on my project -- a veritable crusade -- to keep notes on every Canadian movie I could see, it was as much about the hunt, the quest, as the end watch. At that point I only received three TV channels (including a CBC and a CTV affiliate), and though they aired daily, late night movies (something more unusual in this age of DVD and video stores) it was rare for them to air Canadian movies, and likewise, Canadian TV series were also scarce. I spent more time trying to find Canadian programs to watch than I did watching Canadian programs (including dutifully writing to those stations, suggesting they show more Canadian movies!). I would scour the local video stores, gradually becoming more and more expert. Like an entomologist training himself to detect the droppings of a rare beetle, I began to pick up on signs and clues. Things like actors names -- not just the Hollywood-based expats, but Canadian-based actors whose presence would denote a movie was filmed in Canada (eventually getting to the point where I could tell where in Canada a movie was shot by the presence of a regional actor)…even beginning to identify the kind of low-level American actors who would be the sort hired to star in a Canadian movie. I learned what titles most likely fronted a Canadian movie (if it had “America/American” in the title, it was a good bet it was Canadian). I got so I could wander through a video store, flick my eyes lazily over scores of clamshell boxes, and immediately zero in on that bottom shelf movie that would, on careful inspection, be revealed as Canadian! It was almost like a parlour trick -- “Yes! Amaze Your Friends!”

Funnily enough, I also found I could usually tell if a movie was filmed in Canada (even if it was a Hollywood movie) simply by the scenery -- Canadian scenery was more beautiful, more lush, more green. I know, it seems unlikely -- I mean, scenery respects no border. But I tell ya, with a surprisingly high accuracy, I could identify whether a movie was shot in Canada or the US just by the background scenery.

Along the way, I began assembling a mental list of older movies to look for, thanks to various Canadian film books, and spending God-knows how many back-killing hours hunched over back issues of Cinema Canada in the mouldy basement of local libraries (this being before the days of the internet -- or, least, before I was surfing the world wide web). Man, when I commit myself to a hobby…well, I should be committed.

Of course, as the years progressed, my hunt for that elusive and rare creature, the canadianus cinematic, became easier and easier. Video stores proliferated, each stocking their shelves with more and more obscure offerings, my TV channels blossomed from three, to a basic cable package, to deluxe/premium/whatever packages. And it went from spotting a Canadian movie being a twice a month experience, to something which occurred every week -- even every day. It got to the point where I was watching more Canadian movies and TV shows than I was American or other productions.

Which then opened my eyes to an interesting phenomenon. That I viewed Canadian movies and TV as programs in and of themselves. But many people, and film critics, clearly viewed them as side salads to the Hollywood main course which was their primary meal -- a culture of curios as I came to think of it. Canadian movies were often praised, not for being good in and of themselves, but simply in contrast to Hollywood movies. Something which I came to see as a bit stifling and self-defeating, condemning Canadian film to being forever an accessory, a footnote, to North American pop culture -- not to be appreciated for itself, but simply as a reaction. Reading over reviews of Canadian films, I couldn’t help noticing how many would be backhanded in their praise, simply as a way for the reviewer to knock Hollywood -- as in: “This isn’t a great movie, the acting’s weak, the middle drags, and the ending is non-existent…but go see it, ‘cause at least it’s not like that Hollywood crap!“ An example I tend to think of is the Canadian end-of-the-world movie, “Last Night” -- almost every (good) review I’ve read of “Last Night” praises it while deriding the bombastic Hollywood movie, “Armageddon”. Yet I’m not sure I’ve ever read a review of “Armageddon” that even so much as alludes to “Last Night”.

“Armageddon” exists for itself, to be enjoyed or disliked for what it is. “Last Night” exists, at least in the minds of some, to be a counterpoint to “Armageddon”. So if “Armageddon” didn‘t exist…would they still like “Last Night”?

Can a viable, self-sustaining entertainment industry be built on being an “alternative” to another, demonstrably popular, industry? Does John and Jane Q Public really leaf through the movie listings and say, “Oooh, let’s go to this movie, ‘cause it’s different from all those movies we actually like but aren‘t supposed to.”

Different is good, certainly, but I’m not sure it can be the sole selling point. Arguably TV’s successful Flashpoint is different from how a Hollywood version of the same premise would be handled, but that’s not how it’s being marketed. It’s being marketed as an exciting, suspenseful, police thriller -- which it is. It can crush creativity if we are defining “Canadian” simply as NOT “Hollywood” -- kind of narrowing the options for would be Canadian filmmakers.

Anyway, back to me…

Once I had assembled a rather healthy number of reviews, I pondered what to do with them. Was this hobby just to be mine alone, or was there something I could do with it? I contacted a few Canadian book publishers, pitching a Canadian-centric version of all those movie/video guides by the likes of Leonard Maltin and others. I was turned down -- not necessarily as a reflection on me (so they implied) simply it wasn’t the kind of book they would attempt. One or two editors even directed me to another publisher as a possibility…only to have that other publisher turn me down for the same reasons. (Years later such a capsule review book of Canadian films was published…by another reviewer).

Then…I discovered the internet. And the rest is history.

Rather, my brother and I were intrigued by the possibility of doing a website, as a joint hobby, and each of us with various interests, settled upon an umbrella site that would house a variety of pages. I remember our first experiments with HTML code (which my brother learned, then taught me, Luddite that I am) and a tongue-in-cheek Sarah Michelle Gellar picture page we cobbled together on the computer, just to see if we could master the codes for colours, and fonts, and links, and such. We were soon ready to do it for real.

But what could I contribute?

Well….I did have hundreds of capsule reviews of Canadian movies that no one seemed to want to publish in book form and which it seemed no one else on the internet had done already (certainly not with the same quantity). And so, The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies (& TV) was born -- along with Pulp and Dagger Fiction, Kingdom Kong (dedicated to the 1976 King Kong movie), The Ultimate Captain Canuck Tribute Page (another of mine), The Cimmerian Collection and the Masked Bookwyrm’s Graphic Novel Reviews. Though the Sarah Michelle Gellar page never left the hard drive. Alas.

Part of the point of the site was to provide a presence for Canadian film and TV on the web -- a massive site that would present Canadian movies in a collective context…as a genuine industry, with genuine stars, with a history, and styles, and mini-trends. And to present it in a populist, accessible form -- rather than concealed in the pages of a Canadian film book read only by those already interested in Canadian film, or hidden in the dusty basement of a library’s magazines archives. By presenting multiple reviews per page, and with links between related entries, it meant someone might come to the site looking for info on a particular film…and stick around to read about others.

And part of the point -- arrogant as it may be -- was to try and add a distinctive voice to the discourse…mine. A person who was not actually involved in the business, so could offer a certain perspective from a distance, yet someone who knew a fair amount about it from having read dozens of non-fiction books about the industry’s evolution and undertakings, zillions of magazine articles (many in back issues and so digested with the advantage of hindsight), and who had actually seen more Canadian movies and TV shows than most of those actually in the biz probably knew even existed!

Many of the people writing about Canadian film tend to approach it as though their job is advocacy -- to basically convince the public to see the movies, by hook or by crook (film critics hyping an art movie as though it’s some populist thriller). While conversely other pundits seem to go at it like a gleeful zombie killer and Canadian film and TV is the blasphemous undead and it is their sacred duty to deliver that one final head shot to finish it off forever. My hope was to stake out a middle ground, to be someone who came, not to praise Canadian film, yet not to bury it, either. Someone once told me I was well suited to this, because my tastes could be eclectic -- I could enjoy an obtuse art film as readily as a straight-to-video schlock flick (or, at least, I could look for the positives in either)…yet I could criticize both types just as easily.

And, of course, trying to stake out the middle means you can get it from both sides. I have my personal views, personal values that I would love to see reflected in the movies and TV shows of Canada (some I‘ve expounded on in earlier editorials). But they are, in the end, MY values, and not necessarily yours. So the idea I’ve tried to stick with, to use as my personal crusade, is simply to say that -- ideally -- Canadian movies and TV shows should be set in and/or about Canada and Canadian characters. Period. And even with this opinion, it hasn’t overtly influenced my reviews -- there are plenty of good reviews on my site of Canadian movies that are set in the US and star American actors.

Still, my notion that Canadian content should be defined objectively -- by making it about Canada -- as opposed to subjectively -- by designating arbitrary themes as “Canadian” -- has led to criticisms from all corners. From people who accuse me of being some mad nationalist, some rabid anti-American (usually from people who have made a career using Canadian tax payers’ dollars to make American-set movies)…and yet equally, I’ve been denounced as a hater of Canadian ideals and Canadian values for suggesting that to define Canadian films and TV by Draconian “themes” and “values” is at best creatively stifling…and at worst, fascist.

Recently I came upon an article/editorial (it’s hard to tell which, these days) in Maclean’s by Andrew Coyne in which he cavalierly lumped together “Flashpoint” and the “Stargate” TV franchises as basically being Americanized Canadian series made for the US market -- he saw them as indistinguishable. But the “Stargate” series are usually set in the US, featuring predominantly American characters, usually fronted by one or two imported actors, and, yes, are made primarily for US and international distribution. “Flashpoint”, by all accounts, was in production for a Canadian network before any US deal had been inked, and is set in Canada and features a Canadian cast. Presumably to Coyne, because “Flashpoint” is a pulpy cops n’ robbers suspense/drama, it made it intrinsically un-Canadian. It should be noted that I don’t think Coyne meant this as a criticism of “Flashpoint” (or “Stargate”) merely that to him they were indistinguishable. To me, their cultural significance is as different as night and day.

Set a movie in Canada, with a Canadian flag flapping in the background, or at least about a Canadian hero abroad, and we can all agree it’s Canadian…and we can see what values and themes the filmmaker wishes to harvest from that red and white soil. Focus on themes, values, styles to begin with…and who is it who gets to decide on what themes and values define Canada? You? Me? A producer? A critic? Stephen Harper? Jack Layton? Gilles Ducceppe?!?

(“Flashpoint” is an ironic example, because it is both set in Canada and, many would argue, does indeed reflect stereotypically Canadian values of tolerance and compassion -- making Coyne‘s assertion all the odder).

So for all those Canadian filmmakers who set their stuff in the US with American actors and wonder why someone like me tends to regard such efforts with ennui, now you know -- it’s not that I object to your efforts…it’s just that I don’t really care about them.

And so there you go…you now know more about me -- or at least, some of where I’m coming from -- than you ever wanted. And I wonder how many people reading this will shake their heads, befuddled and bewildered…and how many will nod subconsciously, seeing a little of themselves reflected in some of these mini-epiphanies that got me from there…to here.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

November 5, 2009

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