*The Land of the Unknown: Roberto Minervini on What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? By Jordan Cronk. “Poetry floats up in my memory like sailboats in the fog”:Alexei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car! By Daniel Witkin. With Forever Presence: Jonathan Schwartz (1973-2018). By Max Goldberg. *Soft and Hard: Claire Denis on High Life. By Adam Nayman.
By Steve Gravestock
Much of Québecois cinema plays off or develops its own distinctive mythology. Even in a brazenly calculated commercial work like the province’s biggest 2007 hit, Nitro, riffs off the city-country dichotomy that has characterized Québecois cinema since the ‘60s. (The film follows a former biker/drag racer —now urbanized and therefore domesticated—who returns to the countryside to find a heart for his ailing wife. Many explosions and collisions ensue.) The other two significant successes of the summer –Ma tante Aline and 3 petits cochons—explored fractured families with absent or ailing parents, another prominent motif in Québecois work. (That said, there were a few cracks in the façade, most notably Bernard Emond’s devastating Contre tout espérance, a searing melodrama about a middle-aged couple who fall on economic hard times when the husband falls ill and the wife loses her job due to globalization and downsizing. Contre tout espérance insists that Québec cannot be considered an island unto itself.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, English Canadian film is the exact opposite. Few Anglo filmmakers have explored genuinely, recognizably national stories, or used what could be considered shared imagery or motifs. Part of this may be because of the widely divergent natures of the different regions, or it may be due to simple distance—thousands of kilometres separate British Columbia on the west coast from Newfoundland on the east—but the fact remains that there are few myths common to English Canada, or few that every region would buy into. (Then again, it’s also a widely shared belief among English Canadians that Canadian history is doggedly legalistic and prudent and therefore much duller than say American history.)
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Commentators like Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood convincingly defined Canadian literature in the ‘50s and ‘60s, arguing that Canadian art was characterized by the need to survive and a hatred for the harsh conditions in which they lived. Film critics like Robert Fothergill found similarly low expectations in key English Canadian films like Goin’ Down the Road (1970) and The Rowdyman (1972). But this ethos, which depended on the assumption of a significant rural population and a distinct and hostile divide between the outlying regions and the big city, faded when the population shifted from rural areas to metropolitan and suburban ones. The films and filmmakers that emerged in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were concerned with urban alienation, fractured identity (or identities composed of the detritus of pop culture), and the absence of roots, elevating this condition to a metaphysical state. (See, for example, the work of any of Toronto New Wave filmmakers like Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Peter Mettler, Clement Virgo, John Greyson, etc.)
With a few exceptions, these films met with little public acceptance (although, neither did many of their predecessors), though they did very well internationally and critically. Yet the earlier films acquired a kind of pop-culture status, possibly because they provided fodder for satirical TV shows like SCTV. Of course, the films from the ‘80s created the backbone of an actual industry in a way that their predecessors simply never could. Yet running through many of them is a culture that’s completely adrift, devoid of a common mythology or even recognizable shared motifs.
In this respect, 2007 was a different kind of year. Several filmmakers addressed subjects most Anglos would have recognized, if not automatically bought into. The most obvious example was Roger Spottiswoode’s Shake Hands with the Devil, an adaptation of General Romeo Dallaire’s first-hand account of the Rwandan genocide. Dallaire was assigned to head up the UN delegation to Rwanda with the purpose of upholding a very tenuous peace agreement between the government and rebels. When the president’s plane crashed, the country erupted with one racial group targeting another and eventually committing what most have defined as genocide. (Throughout this, the western world did nothing, much like they’re doing in Darfur today.) Disobeying direct orders, Dallaire refused to leave the country, sheltering whom he could at the UN delegation headquarters. His effectiveness was severely limited by his superiors’ refusal to let him intervene (he had the opportunity to stop some of the worst offenders by attacking a weapons cache before things fell completely apart), his limited manpower, supplies, etc. Towards the end, Dallaire was most effective as a witness, reporting the conditions he saw to the world via radio interviews, or as a thorn in his side to his ineffectual superiors at the UN. Upon his return to Canada, Dallaire had a rather public breakdown.
Dallaire’s story struck a chord with Canadians for countless reasons. For one, the man’s determination not to just walk away when virtually everyone else did was undeniably heroic. At the same time, it was a kind of heroism defined by limitations—and this is possibly why it touched many Canadians so deeply. As a middle power with a small army and deep economic and cultural ties to its far more powerful and, certainly recently, more belligerent neighbor to the south, Canada is accustomed to feeling compromised or, sometimes, powerless. (Possibly the most heroic action by a Canadian politician in the last four decades was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s refusal to join the coalition of the willing.) Dallaire functions as a kind of Canadian Lord Jim, a man who upheld widely held social principles no matter how implausible or impossible his objectives seemed.
As a film, Shake Hands is workmanlike and respectful (it’s somehow a little overly conscious of its burdens), but it’s buoyed by a stellar performance/impersonation by Québecois actor Roy Dupuis, who captures Dallaire’s turmoil perfectly while playing markedly against type. (Shaggy haired and normally rather scruffy looking, Dupuis is in some ways the physical antithesis of the clean-cut and barrel-chested General.) The film didn’t do nearly as well as anyone might have hoped, though it did break a million dollars at the box office, a rare occasion for an English Canadian film, with Dupuis’ presence surely helping draw in Québec audiences. The only other two English Canadian films to do so this year were Sarah Polley’s Away From Her and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.
On the other end of the spectrum is Laurie Lynd’s charming Breakfast with Scot, a comedy about a gay couple who wind up taking care of a very flamboyant 11-year-old boy, Scot (Noah Bernett), who’s addicted to feather boas and show tunes. One of the guardians is Scot’s uncle Ed (Ben Shenkman); the other is former hockey goon turned closeted sportscaster Sam (Tom Cavanaugh), who’s horrified that Scot’s behaviour will make him the target of bullies. So he sets out trying to make Scot more masculine. Needless to say, things don’t quite work out the way he plans and Sam is forced to confront his own prejudices. Like Shake Hands, Breakfast is as much about the way Canadians want to see themselves. Everything is resolved cheerfully, with everyone realizing the error of their ways and Sam eventually asking Scot to stay. (Even the local bully comes to accept Scot.) The film plays rather smartly off local rumours—there were persistent rumours that several players on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the ‘80s and ‘90s were gay—and wisely refuses to target the usual villains. Here, it’s Sam who has to learn the error of his ways. It’s a very liberal movie, and very Canadian.