Memo to David Cronenberg (and Pals) — time to saddle up

I believe in the social safety net. I believe in paying for schools even if I don’t have kids. Sometimes we do things we don’t want to do, because it benefits others. And by extension, we hope others will do for us in turn.

All this is a preamble to talking about Canadian film.

Recently it was announced there’s a proposal for a new specialty channel, Starlight, that would show nothing but Canadian movies, 24/7 — in an industry struggling, constantly marginalized with little theatrical exposure, limited advertising, and a generally indifferent mainstream press, it was felt maybe this would be the answer: a network devoted exclusively to delivering Canadian films into Canadian living rooms. The catch is: they want it a mandatory part of the cable package, adding two or three bucks to your cable bill a month. Not a lot, but still…

I wish there was more talk about this, in the press, in editorials and blogs, because regardless of whether it’s a good idea, or bad, or even workable, it at least could get the conversation going about Canadian film: where it’s been, where it is, and where’s it going.

There is a legitimate point behind Starlight — yet you can easily see the other side: Canadian film is already heavily subsidized by tax payers dollars…and now they want to charge us even more to put it in our homes? Apparently because not enough of us wanted to see the films in the theatre in the first place…or to even rent them on DVD. Egad! Where will it end?

But that’s where my initial seeming non sequitur comes into play: the social contract, as it were, and doing things that benefit others. Canadian culture is worth supporting. And jobs are created by a thriving film and TV industry. But, at some point, there also has to be reciprocation — a meeting in the middle.

The Starlight proposal has the backing of a number of folk within the Canadian film biz, including filmmaker David Cronenberg — Cronenberg who has more than once lamented in interviews how hard it is these days to drum up financing for the kind of movies he wants to make…and how the public just doesn’t seem to be there for him.

Now David Cronenberg is pretty much unique within the Canadian film biz…because he’s a name. No — I mean he’s a NAME! People have heard of him (whether for good or ill) even if they might never have seen one of his films. Atom Egoyan? Deepa Mehta? You could drop a water balloon in a crowded Canadian street and not get even a drop on anyone who had ever heard of them.

What’s more, that puts Cronenberg in a surprisingly exclusive club even globally, a director who is almost as much a “star” of his films as the actual stars. And while most Canadian filmmakers grumble they can’t even get a limited release in a couple of big cities, Cronenberg’s movies still regularly open internationally…even though he himself acknowledges it’s been a while since he’s had a hit.

He achieved this earlier, as Canada’s controversial bad boy horrormeister auteur, and these days tends to make, well, more artsy films which often impress critics…but tend to flounder at the box office. But still…he’s a name to conjure with.

But here’s the other thing: for a guy seen as a grand old man of Canadian film…his movies aren’t very Canadian. In terms of what you see on screen, his recent movies haven’t been set in Canada, nor do lead roles go to Canadian actors. I think the last time the hero role in his movie went to a Canadian was Scanners in 1980! So Cronenberg doesn’t make movies set in, about, or starring Canadians and he freely admits he’s pursuing a personal vision that doesn’t really seem to be very commercial. Yet Cronenberg is often held up as the Great Canadian director and he champions the notion of a publicly funded film industry and puts his name to a TV channel that the public, equally, is expected to pay for in order to support the industry.

So here’s my problem: Cronenberg, and others, seem quick to wrap themselves in the Canadian flag when it suits them, when they want money and support…and are just as quick to turn around and wipe their, um, noses with the flag the rest of the time. “Give us the money,” they seem to say, “and then f**k off!”

The public can be likened to the girlfriend who takes a second job to support her boyfriend as he pursues a music career…only to catch him in bed with a back up singer.

Now here’s the thing: once upon a time Cronenberg made movies that made money and he fought the Canadian Identity fight more than many. His early films were set in Canada, and though he usually featured a couple of imported “name” stars, usually the “hero” role would go to a Canadian actor. Granted, it perhaps said something about Cronenberg’s scripts, or his choice of actors, that the “heroes” often weren’t really the memorable — or even significant — characters. Probably the only Canadian actor to ever receive a career boost out of appearing in a Cronenberg film was Michael Ironside…playing the villain in Scanners. Still, when many of his compeers were all too happy to dress their sets with American flags and hire any old Hollywood actor they could find, Cronenberg was making “Canadian” movies…and making money, too.

So lest you think I’m criticizing Cronenberg mercilessly, I’m giving him his props, too.

Yet as time went on, his movies became less Canadian in terms of what was on screen. And, to be frank, even back with his “Canadian” movies they were often only nominally that — a license plate glimpsed in the background or something.

No doubt Cronenberg felt he made a few movies that turned a profit, he set a few movies in Canada, and now he is entitled to rest on his laurels and make the movies he wants to make, and the public should support him in his endeavour. Perhaps he seems himself as Canada’s Woody Allen, a one time cinematic lion who continues to make movies even though his box office successes are a thing of the past.

But most of the filmmakers of Cronenberg’s generation, the Spielbergs, the Scorseses, are still expected to turn a profit — they are still only as big as their last hit. When you’re talking about an industry that requires millions to mount a film, there are no free passes.

Cronenberg has suggested in interviews he has no interest in making movies that he isn’t 100% committed to. Apparently working at a job you don’t love every minute of is only something for lesser people…like you and me. Or is it? Or do the artists also have an obligation to bend a little?

I’m kind of circling my point, so let’s zoom in on it.

The point is: Canadian film is in trouble. The point is: Canadian film has been struggling since its inception, which was arguably the 1960s. The point is: Canadian filmmakers advocate for more funds, more support, more exposure — they lament a lack of access to theatres and lack of write ups in the press. Help us, Obi-Wan! they scream to the Canadian public.

And the public’s response might be: okay…but what do we get in return? Too many self-satisfied “visionaries” who practically brag about the fact that their movies aren’t really commercial and will sell out Canadian culture in a minute?

Filmmakers who want people to see their movies…but they don’t want to have to make movies people want to see?

It’s about building an industry, folks. It’s about making movies people want to see, and enough of them that it’s the norm not the rare exception — and not even great, award-winning movies, but simply movies people can watch and say: huh, that didn’t suck too bad (like they do about most Hollywood films). To create a climate where Canadian films are regarded by the Canadian public as simply…legitimate.

Instead we’ve got too many self-styled mavericks, convinced they are unsung visionaries, who want to make indie films but demand mainstream exposure. Filmmakers who claim that — Heavens! — they couldn’t work in the sausage factory that is Hollywood, where the creative spark is doused under a shower of commercial expectations…then wonder why they don’t get feted like Hollywood royalty.

Of course Canadian filmmakers do go mainstream occasionally. “Serious” Canadian filmmakers who make a mainstream film…that wasn’t very good and performs poorly and then they retreat back into making Art films. Why? A childish tantrum? “Well, I tried…damn you!” Or ego? “Well, there, I’ve proven my genius even slumming in “genre” (even if critics and the public were too dumb to recognize my brilliance) so now I can go back to making real movies!”

Every artist (director, screenwriter, actor, whatever) who goes to Hollywood dreams of being the acclaimed visionary who gets to do what he wants, when he wants: the director who gets final cut, etc. And most end up just being working pros who balance art with pragmatism, who find ways to make what the market needs…yet tweaking it to satisfy their personal vision. The artists who are given a free rein are few and far between, and they paid for that privilege with a career of successes behind them, kind of like accumulating stamps for a free sub with each sandwich you buy.

Tyrone Power agreed to a lot of swashbucklers in his day in order to get the studio to back Nightmare Alley.

And, in a sense, that’s what Cronenberg would say he’d done. He made movies that made money…now he should be allowed to spend his sunset years doing what he wants. Unfortunately, just like that free sub card has to get renewed, so does every artistic indulgence still need to be justified with a commercial success. Particularly when you are going to the public and saying: support me. The public wants to support you (artists frequently cite polls supposedly indicating most Canadians are behind the idea of a publicly supported film industry) but they want to believe you are trying, in turn. That if you fail to achieve a commercial success…then you try again, and again, and not throw up your hands in a huff and say: “Screw this! Your reward is you get to bask in my genius!”

We’ve been having these same debates for generations, and it’s getting old. Too many Canadian filmmakers are like loggers clearcutting a forest, unconcerned with the legacy they leave the next generation. As long as they get the money to make their movie, their way…they don’t care if the next generation is left to fight the same battles or, worse, the next generation finds public patience has finally been exhausted and the funds are cut off entirely. Is that the legacy they want to leave? Is that the legacy Cronenberg wants to leave now that his son, Brandon, is trying to make films himself?

Once upon a time, David Cronenberg made movies that made money — maybe it’s time he did that again. Find that creative compromise between what he wants to do, the themes he wants to explore, and what the market wants. Think of it like a western. Cronenberg is the aging gunfighter who hung up his six shooters, convinced he could enjoy his retirement in peace and tend his garden. But now the peons have come seeking rescue from the bandits of cultural destruction. So he must strap on his pistols, dust off his saddle, and ride to battle one last time, gathering a posse around him: Egoyan, Mehta, McDonald, etc. Although, to use our movie western model, I suppose, given their commercial successes have been few, they’d be more like the gunfighters who, part way through the film, admit their rep is a fraud (“The Dawson City Kid I supposedly out drew? I shot him in his sleep while he was dying of liver failure.“) but now is the chance to redeem themselves in the final crucible of battle (or, depending on the narrative, to get shot in the back like a coward while running away).

Unfortunately, the thinking of a lot of people in the Canadian film biz would be that they’d be the gunfighters invited to the peasants’ village, wined and dined and given a roof over their heads, and then when the bandits start riding down, they’d turn to the villagers and exclaim: “Us defend you? No, no, no — you’re supposed to protect us!” And they’d slam and bolt the doors leaving the peasants outside to face the bandits alone.

So what’s my point? Well, scrape off the barnacles of satire and sarcasm, detach the lampreys of my theatrical out-rage (and no, I’m not sure how I got from a western to a marine metaphor) and it’s this: yes, Canadian filmmakers have a tough row to how, obstacles in terms of distribution, marketing, and simple exposure — not to mention budgets. No one says it is easy. And obviously, realistically I don’t suppose Cronenberg could just wake up one morning and “decide” to make a hit — even back in the day, his box office success was uneven. But though a lot of Canadians, if pressed, will tentatively say they are in favour of support for filmmakers, there has to be a meeting in the middle. Canadians want to believe that, at the end of the day, Canadian filmmakers are genuinely trying to create a populist, commercial, Canadian, and — somewhere down the line — self-sustaining industry. Through trial and error and, yes, sacrifice. They don’t want to feel it’s like giving money to a homeless man so he can buy a sandwich…and then he immediately runs off and buys a bottle of booze instead.

Canadian film and TV is, potentially, on the cusp of something. We’ve actually had a few genuine box office successes in recent years, like Bon Cop, Bad Cop and The Trailer Park Boy. While on TV, there are probably more Canadian series registering respectable ratings than maybe any time in recent memory. And Canadian identity — not hiding behind faux American flags pretending to be American — is starting to push its way out into the global culture, with series like Flashpoint and others, however nominally, acknowledging they are Canadian on screen, not just in the fine print. Yet the stigma is that it’s still the exception that proves the rule of Canadian mediocrity.

So maybe now is the time for the push. The time when filmmakers ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. And if they want public money and, more to the point, public support, they have to prove they are willing to try and earn it.

And there is a breed who I think believes that. People like William Phillips (Gunless), Michael McGowan (Saint Ralph, One Week), and Jacob Tierney (The Trotsky). People like Jay Baruchel, God love him, an actor who has achieved some Hollywood success and genuinely seems to want to funnel that back into supporting Canadian culture. And Paul Gross, of course, even if I think he’s a great actor but (so far) only a competent filmmaker. But honestly — these are some of the guys I perk up when I see their name in credits, or hear are working on a new project. The guys who succeed or fail, at least are trying to give back what they’ve been given, and when they get knocked down, they don’t retreat into the self-pitying womb of “I’m an artiste” filmmaking…but come back with another stab at mainstream entertainment.

As for the others?

Maybe Cronenberg needs to be the role model — being, as mentioned, the biggest name in Canadian film history. The guy who if he announced he was ready to do a horror or sci-fi movie would probably have production companies lining up around the block. Maybe it’s time for him to make a deliberately commercial movie (without divorcing it from deeper themes and ideas that he wants to explore), but set it in Canada, and with a Canadian cast (okay, he can have Viggo Mortesen just ’cause he digs the guy, but there needs to be other, equally central roles for Canadians).

A movie that can say to Canadians — and the world — this is a Canadian movie…deal with it!

Help kick down the barriers and show that aiming for commercial success isn’t the same as selling out. Do it for Canada, do it for your compeers, do it so Brandon might not have to fight the same fights your generation fought.

The peons are at the door, David, hats in hand…what are you going to do?

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