January 30, 2007

Telefilm's 1990's Policy and George Bush's Iraq War and Other Modern Disasters

I’ve gotten some email recently, overwhelmingly positive for the most part, but I did receive one that I found particularly flawed in its thinking. However, it demonstrates a very common mode of thinking which is the norm when it comes to the weak arguments put forward in an attempt to defend our Canadian filmmaking failures. “Apologists” is a word that comes to mind. Here is the email in its entirety:

In your latest essay (January 10, 2007), you seem to
be claiming that the Canadian government should only
fund "genre" movies. What kind of culture would we
have if we only fund popcorn movies? A strong culture
makes a balance between popular and artistic culture.
Would you really want movies like "Trailer Park Boys"
to be nominated at the Genie Awards for best film of
the year? Many countries make art movies that are
popular with audiences.

As for your argument that Canadian culture "hates"
Atom Egoyan, Don McKellar, Bruce McDonald etc. etc.,
it should be pointed out that the typical Canadian
"art" film is poorly advertised and distributed. You
should wait until these kind of movies get the
publicity and distribution they need before you can
claim that Canadian culture "hates" them.


In response, it seems that some clear-minded examination is in order. When we “do the work” and really examine the facts and reasoning, we see how this doesn’t make any sense when put in context with film history.

First, it makes the automatic connection that genre films are popcorn movies. In fact, genre films are simply films which have an identifiable audience because they have identifiable traits. However, they are hardly “popcorn movies” by default in some derogatory sense. On the contrary, the finest films ever made are clearly genre films. CITIZEN KANE is a biopic. THE GODFATHER is a crime film. THE SEVEN SAMURAI is a, well, samurai film -- a very popular Japanese genre. If one wanted to, one could go down the list of, say, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 greatest films and, with little trouble at all, identify which genre these genre films came from.

Go ahead, take a look. Which film is from the war genre, or the coming of age genre, or adventure, or horror, or black comedy, or, or… ?

And do something else while you’re at it: consider how each of these films did financially. And ask yourself why they did well financially. The inevitable answer is that they almost all cleaned house at the box office because they were superb films that also had an identifiable audience. And they had an identifiable audience because they were genre films.

Second flaw in this person’s thinking also demonstrates a very common and troubling flaw: that there is some sort of natural separation which must exist between popular and artistic culture. As the AFI list above demonstrates, this is ridiculous when it comes to considering the most expensive art form.

There is a truism in all modern art forms, and we would all do well to consider it. It occurs everywhere in example. Take painting. Back in the mid 1800’s, the French Salon held dominion, making pretentious works and promoting artists which few recognize today. Meanwhile, the impressionist guys where busy painting every day popular scenes in a fresh exciting way, which would appeal to a large audience. Who won out? And consider the story of Van Gogh. A common genre fanatic in taste himself, he purposely signed his work with his first name so that the average person would feel comfortable with his work.

The third flaw present in the email demonstrates that the author doesn’t understand the irony in his argument. He is unaware that Art House is a genre as well. It began, most would agree, with Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL back in 1957. Some might argue it was the BICYCLE THEIF that kicked it off, but really that belonged to the Social Realist genre. At any rate, a new genre called Art House was born and flourished through the 1960’s. The French New Wave, the Italian New Wave were both sub-genres of the genre.

I’m not going to go through the whole genesis of it all, but simply put, it was where the concept of the Director as Auteur was born. It remains the high point for the Baby Boomer Generation. It’s what they remember seeing in college and studying if they went to film school. For them, the Art House or Auteur Genre is the thing to shoot for. And as Canada has chosen socialized film-making, run of course by Baby Boomers, this is what we’ve gotten.

And this is why Canadian film has been a culture of failure.

You see, back then there was a substantial audience for that then fresh new genre. But in the Canadian case, we see that when you try and pretend you’re something you’re not, the films end up being weak attempts at being like something else. I am reminded of many essays and interviews with Canada’s biggest failed filmmaker, Atom Egoyan. He constantly pointed out how he doesn’t make genre films in those interviews from way back when. He attempted to make a case about how he doesn’t like formula, and genre is weak filmmaking, and on and on. Well, not only does this demonstrate he didn’t understand that the Art House film is a genre, but as we can see in his more recent films like FELICIA’S JOURNEY (serial killer genre), ARARAT (historical drama genre), or WHERE THE TRUTH LIES (mystery genre), he has absolutely no clue about how to handle any genre. Gee, why did the guy who made all these rambling and opaque arguments against genre films (while making films in the Art House genre), turn to make genre films and fail so badly at it? Is it because he’s more a poseur than a filmmaker? And a poseur who can’t see the irony in how hypocritical he has been?

And the fourth and final flaw, getting back to the email, comes in the second paragraph. The writer attempts to make the tired argument that Canadian films have failed primarily because Egoyan, McKellar, and the rest never got the exposure they needed for Canadians to fall in love with them. Or something like that.

Well, we can look at the history of the American Independent film boom in the 1990’s to see where that argument falls apart. Look at all those great movies that came out in the 1990’s from America. Look at all those guys who came out of nowhere with low budget (sometimes micro-budget) cool movies that rocked Hollywood starting around 1990 though to 1999. In fact, most of the top filmmakers in Hollywood all came out of that decade. Raimi, Aronofsky, Tarantino, Smith, Rodriguez -- the list can go on for a couple dozen names. And all of them made their first films with very little money at all, risking it all, and scoring at the newly emerged force of The Film Festival. The Americans were not alone: many English and some German names also come to mind as part of the cool 90's indie film gold rush.

Why did those people all succeed in making culturally relevant and popular money-making films and the Canadian crew fail so badly? After all, the Canadian guys had government backing. A force at places like Sundance. A presence at Cannes. Those American nobody indies had nobody. They made it, and they made it big time, because they were not handcuffed to a fantasy notion that culture and popular culture are separate. Nor did they hate genre films or look down on them and hold up some 1960’s director as auteur model as the thing to emulate.

It is impossible to know how many indie film Canadian superstars might have emerged if they were not shut out of the Telefilm’s pompous “high culture auteur” anti-genre mandate that blindly backed Egoyan and his failed generation of filmmakers back then in the late 80‘s onward. Certainly we know what happened to the best in front of the camera talent in Canada -- they fled south and many became A list stars. Unlike the behind the camera people, actors may struggle, but they don’t have to raise a million bucks to get a role.

What we do know is that the policy failed. Not many big distributors stepped up at the films festivals, enormous cheques in hand, and then promoted Canadian films across the world including Canada. They couldn't. Art House is a difficult genre to promote in recent decades, and the attempts at it coming from Canada were really pretentious and boring and nothing like as interesting and innovative as the European originals.

We can only hope that Telefilm has changed and is more prone to back films that Canadians would like to see, rather than crazily supporting filmmakers that Canadians ignore and hate.

We can only hope that we hear less about the crazy idea that Canada should promote a “star system” to help improve things. Or that we should give millions more to our colossal track record failures to make yet another “cultural” film, but this time we need to follow that up with more millions to promote it. As if that’s the big key to success -- more money rather than realistic strategy. Hey, George Bush is on the phone -- he’s got a war he’d like to sell you.
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