Films or Filmmakers — where does the problem lie?


Why do Canadian movies have so much trouble finding success? Particularly at the box office, but even critically? Canada, after all, is a G7 nation — one of the richest in the world. So although the budgets for Canadian movies are minuscule compared to Hollywood films, there should still be cash lying around comparable to other nations. And there are professional casts and crews a-plenty — we know that because, heck, lots of Hollywood productions are shot here, relying, to varying degrees, upon the local talent.

Of course, the very association — physically and politically — with the United States may be a problem, Canada stuck in the position of being, well, the faux America, not seen as being America by Americans, yet not seen as being un-American by the rest of the world. I mean, one gets the impression that British productions can travel quite well globally, even outside the English-speaking world — British productions that barely make a ripple in North America might still do quite well in, say, France. And part of that is probably because, language barrier aside, the English are seen as European by other Europeans.

And this problem extends to French-Canadian films as well. There is often the cliche that English-Canadian films bomb, but Quebec films don’t. But I think the truth is that Quebec films may do well in Quebec…but still fail to travel well. (And even then, I think it’s more that even within Quebec a few films do well in any given year…but the majority of Quebec films still struggle even in Quebec.)

But is that the whole story? Or does the fault lie with the films themselves?

After all, perhaps what’s stranger — is that Canadian TV proves that this doesn’t have to be the case. It’s ironic that often naysayers will denounce Canadian TV as a failure, “hit” Canadian series failing to match the top audience numbers of hit imported American series. But these Canadian series still boast domestic audience numbers of a million or more. And these series are likewise sold worldwide and, in recent years, even winning spots on the Olympic Team of TV…the American networks!

So why the gap between TV and motion picture?

Well, obviously, there’s a difference in the audience’s expectation — and the audiences the filmmakers expect. There’s a gap between movie and TV audiences everywhere. Even in the United States more people probably watch an episode of Whitney in a single night than will see the Hunger Games in a month. But I think the intents are also rather different. TV is meant to entertain, and shows are concocted to do just that — whereas Canadian motion picture filmmakers often see themselves as “artistes”, and that it is the audience’s job to appreciate them, not their job to pander to their audience. Or, in a complete contradiction, movies that are meant to be populist often aim for the lowest, crudest common denominator (you know the films I’m talking about) whereas populist TV series like Rookie Blue, Arctic Air, even The Lost Girl or Call Me Fitz, still affect a certain, well, depth, they are still meant to be about well drawn characters, often dealing with issues or ethical dilemmas (yes — even Call Me Fitz!)

TV is where high brow meets low brow.

Which sort of then brings us to talking about…Carl Bessai!

Carl Bessai is a Canadian filmmaker who, one assumes, must be a veritable force of nature, smashing through all the hurdles and obstacles that leave other Canadian filmmakers bloody and bruised by the side of the road. He made his first feature film in 1999 and, as of 2012, has eleven features to his credit (in addition to a few shorts, docs, and episodic TV). In a country where filmmakers struggle — struggle like Atlas struggled to carry that ball of rock we call home on his shoulders — to get their films made, Bessai’s out put is nothing short of astonishing. Even “celebrity” filmmakers in Canada (David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan) don’t boast that kind of out put. There are a few — like Jerry Ciccoritti, though many of his productions are for TV (which might be slightly easier to arrange financing for because at least with a network involved, you know the checks aren’t going to bounce).

Yeah, whatever juice Carl Bessai is drinking, it needs to be mass produced for the rest of the filmmaking community.

Yet here’s the thing: Carl Bessai is a terrible filmmaker.


Okay, now that I’ve brought you up short, let me back pedal and say, of course he’s not terrible. Terrible implies incompetence, poorly synced sound and jerky edits. Terrible implies Ed Wood or, if you want to be snarky, Uwe Boll. Carl Bessai isn’t terrible.

But I have seen five of his eleven films…and not one of them do I regard as good, and most not even middling. I saw his two earliest films (Johnny and Lola — both aimed at a more arty, indie film crowd), his first slightly more “mainstream” film (Emile) as well as Normal, and then at the far end of the spectrum, his unapologetic pulp-horror flick, Severed. In fact, I recently picked up the DVD of Normal at the library, taking it home as part of my hobby of watching n’ reviewing Canadian films, and liking some of the actors in it (Carrie-Anne Moss, Camille Sullivan, Tygh Runyan, Michael Riley)…and then, just as I was about to crack open the DVD box, I glanced at the credits and saw Bessai’s name and, well, a certain ennui settled over me. It actually took me a few days after that to work up the gumption to watch it…and when I did, well, for me it didn’t really work. Again. Normal being of the “drama in the aftermath of a tragedy” genre — think 21 Grams or, well, a zillion others — without really putting its own thumbprint on the scenario

Now, obviously, this is just my opinion — I probably shouldn’t need to say that, but I will. Certainly Bessai’s films have received some good reviews — yet equally, they’ve received negative reviews. Or, perhaps worse, dismissive reviews, polite reviews. Heck, looking at the three reviews for Normal posted at the IMDB, funnily, all three basically had similiar reactions to me — they were kinder about it than I, but the flaws they noted, I noted. And looking over some of my reviews for his others films (given some I saw a few years ago and only have a vague memory of the details) I notice certain recurring criticisms cropping up in my comments: thin plots that seem to be struggling to justify the running time, weak endings, and character dramas in which the characters are poorly developed.

Granted, that might not indicate anything. I supposed 60 percent of bad reviews of any film would probably say the same thing.

Now obviously, I don’t know anything about box office returns or DVD sales. It could be Bessai is prolific because he really does have his finger on the pulse of the market place and his movies do what they need to do in terms of box office gross. Although, on one of the DVD extras for Normal it’s mentioned it took them 4 years to get the financing lined up, indicating that Bessai’s name on a project isn’t necessarily seen as automatic box office gold by potential investors. But as I say, with 11 movies in just over a decade, one assumes Bessai is a filmmaking dynamo — not just in terms of the actual filmmaking, but in terms of the pre-production, the hustling and the networking (perhaps he doesn’t need sleep!). He could probably give seminars on Canadian movie making that should be mandatory for up-coming filmmakers. And despite my negative attitude, he clearly has people in his corner, not just the investors, but casts and crews, his films often boasting an impressive thespianic display of the local Vancouver talent pool, ex-pats like Moss, and even, on occasion, international movie stars like England’s Sir Ian McKellen.

That’s why I’m going at him — because, let’s face it: he can take it. My blog post is the equivalent to a mosquito trying to stand up to an on coming ferrari. The ferrari won’t be slowed down one whit. As such I can say what I want to say — what I feel I need to say — without having to feel unduly guilty about it (and, yeah, I do actually feel guilty about saying nasty things, believe it or not). And besides, it’s Bessai’s very success that makes him a useful talking point.

Because when trying to consider Canadian film, it’s worth looking at the filmmakers — the guys (and gals) who time and time again show up at the festivals with their latest offing, when in so many cases none of their previous films did any better. It’s not even so much to say they shouldn’t be given a second (or third) chance…but in many cases, there’s little sense they are growing as artists. That even if this film or that was flawed, you can see the sparkle of potential in it, and you can believe they are learning from their mistakes.

Actor-turned-director Jacob Tierney is a guy who’s made a few films of varying success, including Good Neighbours and Twist. His best film was The Trotsky, and even though I enjoyed…I felt it should’ve been better than it was. Yet I still kind of look forward to his next films, because for all that there are problems, there are equally good things about his films that means I’m still cautiously optimistic he’ll not just make a good film (which The Trotsky was) but a great film. His films often have solid “hook” concepts, and often boast good scenes. If I had one piece of advice to give him, I’d probably say: hire a tough minded editor, man. Your films could use some tightening.

Unfortunately, one gets the impression a lot of filmmakers don’t listen to critics — whether it be Bessai, or Tierney, or anyone else. Surrounded by sycophants and yes men, they are reassured of their genius, and even if their films manifest the same flaws (spelled out for them in reviews) time and again, and their movies fair poorly, they are convinced the problem lies with the audience, or the reviewers. Yet failing to realize that, even if that’s true, those are still the people you need to win over.

What’s curious is also whether there has been shift in the critical regard toward Canadian film. Perhaps not — perhaps I’m just out of the loop, and the mainstream press has their poster childs for Canadiana still. But I remember years ago (years and years ago) when the press almost seemed to talk about a Rat Pack of Canadian film: Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Denys Arcand, Bruce McDonald and a few others. It was trendy to laud them (box office numbers be damned) as though they mattered and were blazing a trail for Canadian film. Celebrated as much for what they promised as for what they delivered. Years later, Egoyan still makes news, though mainly with Americanized erotic thrillers that tend to tank; Arcand has all but faded back into the anonymity (from an Anglophone perspective) of Quebec cinema. Rozema’s projects are few and far between and though McDonald keeps chugging away…I suspect even a lot of critics who heralded his Roadkill and Highway 61 would have trouble naming his recent efforts.

And I’m not sure there are any new Golden Boys. Now maybe it’s just that I’m not paying as much attention as I did when I was younger, when I spent more time reading about Canadian movies than I did watching them. But are people like Carl Bessai names to conjure with among the mainstream press? Or are they effectively flying below the mainstream radar? Have we so given up on the expectation of a “successful” film industry that we aren’t even interested in pretending we think there are torch bearers today?

Are there filmmakers who excite? If only with their potential? Or is the best we can muster a polite nod and a “say, that movie wasn’t too bad.”

Now, here’s the thing: when I criticize these filmmakers it’s not like I’m pointing to the opposite — the Canadian film paragon to whom others should aspire. Indeed, often filmmakers who have enjoyed their time as the critical “Golden Boy” I’ve not been much impressed with either, such as Atom Egoyan. And even with American films I tend to focus more on the movie, whether the premise interests me, than I do on the director making it — for all that directors are seen as the kings of Hollywood. (Indeed, I’m more likely to be wooed by a scriptwriter who previously wrote something I enjoyed than I am the director).

There are some — if only because they seem to understand (and aspire to) the mainstream more than their compeers. Tierney, as I said. Michael McGowan (Saint Ralph, One Week). William Phillips (Gunless). Maybe Sudz Sutherland (Love Sex & Eating the Bones, Guns)

But maybe the problem in Canada is we remain too much fixated on the filmmaker, as opposed to the film. The “auteur” as it were. (Years ago I came upon a quote from a funding executive who said they weren’t supporting films…they were supporting filmmakers). Maybe that’s why Canadian TV enjoys greater success, because the story, the project, is the main thing. Maybe too many motion pictures fail to catch on at the box office because it was never really the film itself that caught on with the people funding and making it. Does Carl Bessai get his movies made because people are blown away with the potential in the stories…or because he says: “I’m Carl Bessai, damn it, and I’ve made a lot of movies — so trust me!”

I mean, if you are going to give credence to a filmmaker, it should be because of the films he or she has made. That is, don’t say, “I like this filmmaker, so I like this film” but rather say: “I liked this film, so I’m interested in what this filmmaker will do next.”

Now nothing is objective — as I say, I might hate a film…and another reviewer might praise it, or vice versa. There are Canadian movies that I have liked…that still bomb and, perhaps more troubling (from my point of view), received indifferent or negative reviews.

In truth…quite a few movies get bad — or at least middling — reviews anyway. That’s kind of the problem with judging Canadian films versus American or British film. Because you can leaf through your local paper and read reviews of the current crop of American films and, honestly, most of those reviews will be pretty indifferent, too. The difference, as I’ve noted before, is that if a reviewer gives a bad review of an American film, it’s just a bad review of that film…even if it’s the tenth bad review he’s given a film in a row. Yet if he gives a bad review of a Canadian is seen as indicative of the entire industry, and every film that came before and every film that will come after.

And no, I’m not done yet. Next time (if all goes well) my “guide to making good movies” — ain’tcha just on the edge of your seat?

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