In defence of Canadian film

by Patrick Harrison

(This was my first editorial for Taxi Vancouver Mag.zine, October 1997)

If it sends a shiver up my spine to see a blue five-dollar bill change hands in Exotica, if my pulse quickens when a Royal Canadian Legion badge flashes past in The Sweet Hereafter, if I dig my nails into the armrest when I hear a Quebecois accent in Highway 61 -- it's because of the frightening absence of these Canadian minutiae in most of what I see around me.

Civil-rights activists fight for the fair representation of minorities and women in the media.  We take part in these debates, sometimes, as if they were about us.  They aren't; they're about America.  Canada has always been further ahead in representationism, simply because our pitifully small culture industry is fueled by our comparatively liberal-minded government and not profit-mad corporations, who 'identify' more with pointy-eared aliens than with a female second-in-command.  What we should lobby for, perhaps even in U.S. Congress, is the fair and equal portrayal of Canadians in the media.  Though we outnumber U.S. blacks, we are even more sadly underrepresented in mass culture.

I'm now the Film Section Editor for Taxi Vancouver, so I suppose you should know where I'm coming from, and read the film section with grains or flakes of the appropriate seasonings.  I don't claim to question everything, but from the perspective of a young Canadian filmmaker, the world seems a confusing and frightening place.  30-Year veterans of the industry have trouble funding their films.  Hard Core Logo lost money.

The current starving-artist indie scene is like a white-collar coal mine.  We buy our own tools, work slave's hours, occasionally blow ourselves up, and hope someone will pay us, 'discover' us.  This may be a fine approach for novelists, painters, dancers, singers, stand-up comics, cellists, poets, or driftwood sculptors, but filmmaking is an expensive hobby.

Why Canadians consider it a frivolous luxury to support culture, I'll never understand.  Hollywood is as vital to the U.S. Empire as flying a flag at the embassy; both are purely symbolic, but serve functions as pointed as bayonets.  Hollywood serves as an advertisement for American music, fashion, ideology, and products, and what endeavor could survive without advertising?

When I saw Independence Day, the crowd cheered and clapped when New York, L.A. and Washington were destroyed.  These were such stirring spectacles, of course, because of our complete acceptance of the fact that America is an invincible world power; from the Big One to the Gulf (with the Vietnam blip) they casually trounce their opponents.  The vision of someone defeating them was indeed frightening.

But, of course, it was only the first act.  America brought together the brainy Jew (Jeff Goldblum), the brawny Black (Wil Smith), the WASP veteran-President (Bill Pullman), their purely supportive wives, their ultimately-justified super-secret government megaprojects, and every single piece of military hardware they'd ever built with all those $150 screws and bolts.  The aliens suffered a blistering defeat and America was again supreme.

Independence Day was just as effective as Red Dawn (which the Defense Department funded) and Top Gun (for which the US Navy lent a million-dollar-a-day aircraft carrier for two weeks); it showed the world that America will not go down.  And it charged them eight bucks a pop to find out.

Is there anything remotely as powerful to promote Canadian ideals like peace, diplomacy, poutine, and (gasp) a little bit of socialism?

America, the greatest culture squatter in history, is simply putting their stuff out there and we are falling to attrition.  Heavy rotation turns contempt into impulse buying.  Occasionally we attempt to compete with them on the 'level playing field' which free traders seek to promote, by producing cheap action flicks set ambiguously in America.  As free traders secretly know, we usually lose.  That's why they want free trade.

And just so's the free traders can continue tittering, let me point out the new gigantic studio in Mexico which was built this year for (Canadian) James Cameron's Titanic.  Besides reinforcing the great American cultural legend for the umpteenth time ($200 million feature about the Halifax explosion, anyone?  Oh, I see, there was already a Heritage Moment...), it also establishes a cheap film production facility in our NAFTA partner.  Yes!  NAFTA!  AAAH!  In Mexico, they just put pepper on their plate.  Then shoot you.

Remember, every feature film and every season of a TV series is a separate production, and the decision where to shoot can be made on up-to-the-moment info.  The whimsical ravings of David Duchovny should serve as a warning that the Vancouver film industry is merely a useful colony, which can be abandoned, like all colonies, for Mexico, Portland, or God knows where.

And as for those blue five-dollar bills -- the Wall Street Journal has called upon Mexico to stop using the peso. The bigwigs of the financial community have already started the wheels in motion for a single North American Free Trade Zone currency. It's just part of globalizing trade, I suppose; nothing to do with culture at all.