Yeah, But… (The Rozema Manifesto)

I was doing a bit of Googling to check a couple of facts and ideas for my next post and I came upon this recent Globe and Mail piece by filmmaker Patricia Rozema that was billed as a “manifesto” for Canadian film. Admittedly, it was pretty airy, more a wish list than anything. But I guess that’s why it’s a manifesto as opposed to, I dunno, a blueprint.

And some of what she says is interesting, or worth looking at, but a lot…well a lot just strikes me as the same old same old. Rozema writes about the need to explore cross-media — making use of the internet, youtube, video games, etc. Even suggesting films as we know it are on their way out (which can smack a little of a kid not picked for the team storming off and saying: “Well, I didn’t want to be on your stupid team anyway!”) And that’s fine — and far be it for a Luddite like me to say “nay” to exploring new media opportunities. But it also strikes me as the old problem in Canadian film (and flashbacks to Sam & Me promotional sun glasses!): talking about re-painting a house to make it more appealing when you need to be laying new pipes and tearing up the rotted floor boards.

The best way to make more successful Canadian movies…is to make better movies!

Okay, yes, I know that’s stupid and silly. “Better” is a subjective concept. What I like, you might not, and what Rozema hates, you might think is cool.

Rozema has a point when she says (I’m paraphrasing) we need to get two or three successes in a row. I’ve said before a problem facing Canadian film is a kind of stigma. A badly reviewed American film is just a badly reviewed film, even if it comes on the heels of ten other badly reviewed American films. A badly reviewed Canadian film is seen as symptomatic of the entire industry, and the whole biz is expected to carry the shame of its failure. As such, even when a Canadian movie is successful, even when people like it…it is often regarded as the exception that proves the rule. So it would help to have a public mentality that allows bad Canadian movies to be regarded as simply bad movies, and good Canadian movies as simply being good movies. Yet with that said: wishing it won’t make it so, and that’s not really a strategy.

Too often in Canadian film there’s a feeling that no one wants to address the issue that maybe a lot of Canadian movies don’t do well…because a lot of them aren’t very good. Or, to phrase it in a less incendiary way, a lot aren’t very commercial. I mean, even when critics (or fellow filmmakers) praise a movie, often it can seem more like they admire the film, they appreciate the film, they applaud what the filmmaker was going for (or simply are pals with the filmmaker) — as opposed to genuinely in their hearts saying: “That was a great movie — I loved it! I laughed! I cried! I was on the edge of my seat! I’m going to buy a DVD of it for my shelf to put right next to all the American and British films that I really love!”

I’d love to know what movies the cream of Canadian cinema have on their DVD shelf. All those people praising Canadian film and saying the problem is only that they aren’t being supported by a fickle, brain-washed audience…do they actually have many Canadian movies nestled between their DVDs of Casablanca and Inception, between Tootsie and The Bridge on the River Kwai?

Even her suggestion that there needs to be greater collaboration between English and French filmmakers is problematic. I mean, I totally agree — simply because the country should be working together. But I also think we may have blown out of proportion the mythology that Quebec has a successful film industry. It has a more successful one than English-Canada…but that’s not quite the same as saying it’s a hit making machine. Indeed, given the stereotype, I was quite surprised a few years ago when I watched a documentary about Canadian cinema and the man-in-the-street interviews with Quebecers seemed surprisingly similar to those you’d get from English-Canadians…francophones grumbling about boring elitist films that bomb at the box office!

I’m not sure it’s that Quebec churns out a lot of successes…so much as every year two or three (out of scores of films) do okay. Which, admittedly, is better than English-Canada.

But I also worry people overlook a major factor in the success of Quebec pop culture. The thing is, I’ve watched a lot of Quebec films and, honestly, I can’t necessarily say by and large I’ve enjoyed them in a significantly greater percentage than English-language films, or that I regard them as necessarily better made films. And I’m not sure if English critics (or French ones) have entirely factored in a major component: language.

Of course if you speak French you are going to prefer to see a French Quebec movie as opposed to a sub-titled or badly dubbed English language film, or even a French film where everyone has a European accent. If Hollywood made all its movies in German, I suspect you would find English-Canadians would watch a lot more English-Canadian movies.

Is the success of Quebec films and TV really because they make better films and TV, that the filmmakers are tuned into the culture…or is it maybe that they just have the protection of a language barrier? Is the reason English-language versions of Quebec shows like Sophie, or Rumours, or even He Shoots, He Scores failed really because they were just mucked up in the translation…or is it because, maybe, they weren’t really that great to begin with?

Now as I say: I agree that the English and French film and TV communities should be working together, and there should be more crossovers in talent (particularly francophone actors we don’t see enough in English) — and Bon Cop, Bad Cop was a highly entertaining romp. But I just worry that, as with so many things, too much emphasis can be put on the abstract theory rather than the cold fact. Quebec has made some decent films…but that doesn’t mean everything made in Quebec is decent. Or that English-Canadian film can be saved simply by following the French-Canadian model…or by getting a youtube channel.

All of which makes a nice prologue to my next post — stay turned…

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