A Matter of National (In)Security

I’ve added a post-script at the end of this post…

The funny thing about people (such as myself) lamenting the lack of a greater sense of “identity” in Canadian entertainment, and exhorting Canadian storytellers to be more confident about who they are, culturally speaking, is of course: that it’s hardly a dilemma unique to Canada. Indeed, look through (artistic) history and the same frustrations and arguments recur. Go back centuries and, say, Italian or German operas tended to dominate the European theatre scene — even when not written by Germans or Italians. Until composers in other countries said, hey, why not bring some of ourselves to these compositions?

Ironically, when someone like me does bring it up, often the contrary assaults tend to be of the sort accusing me of making a mountain out of a mole hill, or that Canada is alone in these irrelevant debates.

But I was thinking about how a few years ago I read a quote from Sir Ian McKellen — movie star, screen icon, and popularly Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings movies — who apparently at some function made a comment lamenting that it wasn’t British filmmakers who had taken The Lord of the Rings (a seminal literary work of British origin) and turned it into a billion dollar grossing film franchise. It fell, instead, to a New Zealand filmmaker working with an American studio. It wasn’t that McKellen was anti-American, nor wasn’t, doubtless, grateful for the successes he owed to Hollywood, nor that he was unhappy being cast as Gandalf. It was merely that, as an Englishman, he couldn’t help thinking that, hey — that could’ve been ours, if British filmmakers (and producers) with vision, and temerity, and courage, had stepped up to the plate. The profits from just one of the LOTR films could’ve bankrolled a whole series of British movies! No doubt his regret buoyed by the fact that McKellen was old enough to remember when Britain’s film and TV output really did make it a rival for Hollywood.

The irony is that, of course, many nations today would look at Britain’s current film and TV industry, and its successes…and still be green with envy!

Yet even with the success Britain continues to have, you can still hear the same laments that you might hear from someone in the Canadian biz. Frustration over too little funding, and that there isn’t enough work, and that too often, even when actors and filmmakers start to rise…they immediately pack up and move to Hollywood. And so on.

As I say, the frustrations and dilemmas Canadian artists struggle with are heard elsewhere.

Every now and then Canadian filmmaker will suggest what Canada needs is a quota system, to insure Canadian films get shown in the theatres, and a strengthening of TV Canadian content rules which are, generally, treated as not much more than a joke by programmers. Whenever such a thing is suggested, it is treated as heresy, “protectionism” being viewed as the surest sign of a dead and failed artistic community. Yet then the other side is that — supposedly — Canada is just about the only western nation not to have strong protectionist measures to nurture its entertainment industry. All Canadian filmmakers are suggesting…is something in keeping with what Europeans take for granted.

As I say, many nations feel a certain lack of vision and identity in their films, and long for something more.

A few years ago two of the biggest Australians in Hollywood — Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman — were recruited by an Australian director to star in a sweeping epic called…Australia! You can’t help seeing in that a cathartic outlet for an industry — and ex-pat stars — desirous of something truly grand to represent their homeland.

Can you imagine Canadians doing something like that? Who are the biggest Canadians in Hollywood right now? Rachel McAdams? The two Ryans? Maybe Ellen Page? Can you imagine someone recruiting them to star in some sweeping epic called…Canada?

Nyah, neither can I.

Indeed, perhaps a frustration with Canada and Canadians is that when Canadians make it big…they often seem eager to distance themselves from their roots, like a small town kid who’s moved to the big city and wants to forget all about hicksville. Like Pip who’s embarrassed when Joe comes for a visit. You get very little sense of solidarity, or people wanting to use their influence and success and pay it back.

Consider that when British filmmaker Christopher Nolan makes Hollywood movies — he’s quick to draw upon the U.K. talent pool (I mean, Batman Begins starred at least 5 U.K. actors). Can you imagine a Canadian doing that? Other than Victor Garber in a supporting part in Titanic, has James Cameron ever hired a Canadian actor for a significant role? And in a previous post I commented on how the bigger, more international David Cronenberg’s films get…the smaller the Canadian presence.

Norman Jewison was often regarded as the grand old man of Canada’s ex-pat Hollywood community — yet rarely, if ever, actually hired Canadians for his films. Now, to be fair, that might have been deliberate. Jewison might have felt that if he actually hired Canadians, suddenly instead of being the avuncular Godfather of Hollywood’s Canadian community, and known for his Canadian parties, it would all get tainted by Canadians simply sucking up to him hoping for a job.

Anyway, I’m getting a bit off topic. Which, after all, was initially about how all countries can be a little insecure, a little protectionist.

Yes — even the United States of America.

What? I hear you gasp. Surely not!?!

Often the U.S. — and Hollywood — is held up as the great example of level playing field, where talent alone is the issue. But is it?

Certainly, there are no absolutes. There are occasional Hollywood movies set in foreign climes, or about foreign heroes. But they are definitely the minority (and usually it balances out: a foreign hero…played by an American actor; or an American hero, played by a foreign actor adopting an American accent; etc.) While on TV…are there any series currently on American network TV in which the setting and the hero are both not American? (And yes there are recent Canadian series like Rookie Blue but as I and others have pointed out, the “Canadianness” of these series is so muted, one gets the impression many American viewers don’t even realize they aren’t set in the U.S.). Occasionally you’ll have a series set abroad…about an American hero. Even more rarely you might have a series set in America…with a foreign hero (I’m talking the character, not whether the actor is non-American but putting on an American accent). Now contrast that with the TV schedule of other nations (like, well, Canada…where the majority of shows are essentially about foreign heroes in foreign lands).

I’ve written before about how often the lead roles in Canadian movie and TV shows are often reserved for imported Hollywood actors. Producers will sometimes admit they did that because they “needed” a Hollywood name. But needed…for what? Who was demanding it? Sometimes you’ll even see Canadian movies where the lead role went to an American…and then on the posters, they have to emphasize the supporting cast because this imported “star” isn’t actually famous enough.

It doesn’t take much perusing of message boards and even professionally published reviews and editorials to find (some) Americans grumbling bitterly, wondering why there are so many Canadian actors in some TV show or movie — even when it’s a Canadian co-production. The leads are American but, clearly to them, everyone should be American in the cast.

And people have long commented on how hard it is for, say, British TV series to crack the American market. Critically acclaimed British series that are ratings hits throughout the world…but in America are only allowed slots on PBS stations. Coincidence…or a sign of a certain protectionism, whether official or unofficial?

And the arch-jingoism that can creep into a lot of American movies and TV shows (from American heroes who win wars single handed, American presidents who settle international crises with just a stern look, or simply dialogue assuring us America is “the greatest”) can be viewed one way, as unflappable self-confidence…but viewed another way, as deep rooted, soul quaking insecurity, of storytellers who desperately want to believe it to be true — and to convince the rest of us it’s so.

My point? Merely that, yeah, even Americans can be a bit insecure and culturally protectionist. It’s just they’ve done such a good job, for so long, no one even calls it that.

So…no big revelation today. Just refocusing the lens a bit, and pointing out that all countries, whether England, or Australia, or even the seeming unflappable cultural Titan that is America, have their moments of insecurities, their fears that they don’t have a strong cultural presence, or, like England, that they once did but are losing theirs, or, like America, that they will lose theirs if they don’t fight for it tooth and nail every time it’s challenged.

With that said: yeah, I think Canada could certainly win a medal in the cultural insecurity Olympics!

Addendum added Oct. 13: A little while after posting this I heard a CBC radio interview on Q with an American film critic who was lamenting the lack of “serious” movies and the rise of popcorn spectacles. And at one point he lamented (I can’t remember his exact words) the de-Americanization of these films. How, because they are intended for an international market, they are losing their American identity. Now the irony is most of these movies are still set in America about American heroes, but presumably he was worried that the details, the flavour, of American life was not being caputured! So how’s that for an illustration of my point about cultural insecurity being universal? American movies, about American heroes, dominate the world…and he still worries they aren’t American enough! Adding to the irony is that I think he actually referred to “our” culture…even though he was talking to a Canadian interviewer!

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One Response to A Matter of National (In)Security

  1. KO says:

    Christopher Nolan is a dual citizen of the UK and the US. So he should be described as British-American filmmaker