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Robert Altman Won't Film in Canada Neither!
..and so there!


 
 

There has been a building resentment toward Canada in the U.S. film business for a while. Due to a combination of, in Canada, the low Canadian dollar, plenty of experienced crews, and various tax incentives and, in America, the sky-rocketing cost of movies because of ballooning star salaries and costly special effects, more and more Hollywood movies are filmed in Canada. I don't mean these are Canadian productions, or even co-productions between Canadian and U.S. partners. I mean, these are fully American productions, filmed in Canada (though with Toronto pretending it's New York, or Vancouver pretending it's Los Angeles).

Needless to say, this is bad for American film professionals. Not actors, writers, or directors, who all get flown up to work on these runaway productions. But for crew and technical people it means their jobs are flying north to Canadian crews.

When resentment breaks out in various protests (I think T-shirts with a bullet hole riddled maple leaf were popular at one point) it's often treated with derision by Canadian commentators who see in the Hollywood complaints sour grapes being cried by a people too accustomed to being the centre of the universe. I'm much more sympathetic. A lot -- no, I mean a lot -- of U.S. productions are being filmed in Canada, and if you're a U.S. camera man or gaffer, it's got to be cutting into your livelihood. And when you have American producers and American actors being paid millions while you can't even get a job...of course you're going to be pissed. Granted, instead of knocking Canada, such bitterness might be better directed at an industry which would rather pay an actor 20 million dollars than pay the crew's union rates. But who said anger is always rational?

At the same time, the derision expressed by Canadian pundits can be understood as well. Canada is so used to getting the fuzzy end of the lolly pop that they're amazed that, for once, Canadians are getting the sweet n' sticky end. And there's also an element of comeuppance. For years Canadians have bitterly decried the stranglehold on the entertainment industry Hollywood has, and the fact that America rarely even acknowledges Canada exists. Englishman Michael Caine can play Englishmen in Hollywood movies, Scotsman Sean Connery can play Scots...Canadians like Donald Sutherland and Carrie-Ann Moss are only allowed to play Americans in American films. The argument, petty as it may be is, "you stole our culture and identity...the least you can do is give us jobs". The paradox in Canada-U.S. relations so often seems to be that, when Canada asserts itself as an independent nation with independent goals, some Americans rage against the notion that Canada should have the temerity to regard itself as a separate nation...yet then, when Canada tries to meekly sit at the American table, as one of the family...they are turned on as dirty foreigners (one assumes there would not be the same level of animosity if, say, Florida was wooing California jobs). Needless to say, Canadians can find themselves damned if they do and damned if they don't when it comes to Canada-U.S. relations -- a lesson Canada's newest prime minister, Paul Martin, would do well to heed before he completely humiliates himself in his sycophantic rush to prove himself George W. Bush's number one boy.

A few years ago an American comedy, "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut", presented the story of a hysterical U.S. declaring war on Canada, and the satirical song, "Blame Canada!" even received an Oscar nomination. It was intended as a joke...but an oddly prophetic one.

In recent years we've seen a frequently unexplainable hostility directed at Canada from some quarters in the United States. After the terrorist attack of 9/11/2001, some American commentators blamed lax Canadian border security -- the venerable TV newsmagazine, "60 Minutes", even did a piece on the danger poor Canadian security posed to the U.S. The fact that the killers did not come from, or through, Canada didn't stop the baseless accusations from persisting for months. In 2003, a massive blackout plunged much of Ontario and the north-eastern U.S. into darkness. Barely had power been restored before American politicians were practically flinging themselves before microphones to blame the source of the trouble on Canada. The fact that the source of the blackout turned out to be Ohio, USA never resulted in any formal apologies that I was aware of.

Given that history, one can be forgiven if some Canadians might be a little sceptical of the recent "mad cow" crisis in the U.S. which has also been attributed to Canada. Since the current U.S. administration had no problem using erroneous reports of terrorist links and weapons of mass destruction to justify a war, the conspiracy minded might ask how seriously can one take reports of DNA tests confirming the Canadian origin of the cow in question, particularly if that same administration thought blaming Canada might save the American cattle industry? After all, initial reports were oddly confused -- tags didn't match, the description of the American cow didn't jibe with the information on the Canadian cow it was alleged to be.

But I'll leave that for JFK-theorists to dwell on.

Um, where was I? Oh, yeah...film!

Some American celebrities have joined the list of those who decry these runaway productions of American movies being shot in Canada. These are celebrities who, one assumes, are taking what they feel is an unselfish moral/political stand since they are largely unaffected by these runaway productions (they still get the roles). Some have gone a little farther. American legend Robert Duvall hasn't just attacked the idea of runaway productions, but has gotten more personal, belittling the talents of Canadian actors and criticizing some of Canada's more left-leaning laws.

Such attitudes aren't universal. In fact, it's possible that there has even been a slight increase in the number of Hollywood films set in Canada in recent years. Presumably film makers have found themselves asking, if we're shooting in Canada to save money, why add to the cost by dressing up Canadian cities to look like American ones when it'd be cheaper to just let them be Canadian?

Still, the latest critical voice to weigh in on the subject of Hollywood productions shooting in Canada is venerable director Robert Altman who has gone on record as saying he won't do it, and that he even walked away from a film when he was told he'd have to shoot it in Canada to save money. The fact that Altman would want to stand up for American jobs is certainly admirable (one wishes more Canadians were as patriotic about Canada as he is about America). And, of course, Altman carefully puts it on the level that it's simply an artistic compromise to shoot a movie in Toronto if it is not set in Canada. In other words, we are to infer, he doesn't hate Canada, he doesn't "blame Canada" (to echo the song), he's not xenophobic toward Canadians, he just feels a movie that is not set in Canada should not be shot in Canada.

Which then raises a question.

In his long career Altman has set and filmed movies in various lands -- "Vincent & Theo" and "Ready to Wearr" in France, "Gosford Park" in England, and these movies feature at least some characters native to those lands. But never has he made a movie about Canada. Altman's latest film is called "The Company" where he brings his trademark realism and multi-character approach to a story about a ballet troupe. It is set in Chicago, I believe, and presumably filmed there. But "The Company" stars Neve Campbell, a Canadian actress who has long since moved to Hollywood. Campbell's early artistic training was as a ballet dancer and she is a producer on the film and given a story credit.

Now here's the thing: Altman, like others, seems to be playing the politic game of not saying he has anything against Canada or Canadians, but that if a movie is called "Chicago" (to use an example cited by Altman) it should be filmed in Chicago. But following that train of logic, shouldn't Altman, the great defender of artistic realism, the man who filmed "Gosford Park" in England and "Ready to Wear" in France, shouldn't he have set "The Company" in Canada? After all, the movie's star/producer/conceiver is Canadian...in fact, Campbell's only real experience with the world of ballet would be in her native Canada (she did ballet before she did acting, and she was acting long before she moved to Hollywood). Therefore, assuming there is no anti-Canadian bias on Altman's part, doesn't the movie demand that it be set in Canada, just from an authenticity point of view?

So what's my point? I guess I don't have one, not really. Like the character of "Mr. Interesting" in old Frantics' comedy sketches, I just think it's interesting. It's interesting to ask what's it all about? There seems to be a Catch 22 at work advocated by people like Robert Altman: movies shouldn't be filmed in Canada unless they're set in Canada, but he won't set movies in Canada, either.

Which leaves what, exactly?

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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