We’re used to thinking of Canadian films as being overt, unapologetic odes to all things Canadiana and often lesser versions of American films, and imitation Hollywood mainstream fare. With the exception of the one Canadian film-of-the-year release, like Les Invasions Barbares or C.R.A.Z.Y., it seems as though there hasn’t really been anything of note in Canadian cinema since Men with Brooms hit the screens many moons ago.
And so, as the 26th annual Toronto International Film Festival rolled around, I was shocked that two of the five films I had chosen to see hailed from the Great White North, considering I’d mostly lost confidence in Canadian film. But I was pleasantly surprised with my selections: Douglas Coupland’s first screenplay, Everything’s Gone Green, and some short films from the Shortcuts Canada Programme. What I learned was that we have a good amount of homegrown talent, with innovative ideas about cinematography and storytelling.
Everything’s Gone Green could easily be described as a Canadian Garden State, in theme, tone, and soundtrack, and certainly superior in soundtrack. My reaction to it was similar to that of Garden State; I didn’t mind seeing it, but it didn’t really do much for me at all. The characters are a sad and pathetic bunch, though more charismatic and less annoying than many of those in Garden State, but they still belong to that set of late twenty-somethings, bored with their dead-end careers and looking for some sort of “adventure” or “opportunity”.
Douglas Coupland’s first screenplay is a valiant attempt, though not quite my style, filled with little quirks and one-liners that are intended to be witty, but often fall flat. Nevertheless, Everything’s Gone Green is proof of the great potential there is for Canadian film. How refreshing to see Vancouver, beautifully photographed and on the big screen. The film especially draws our attention to this as every second scene contains a background shot of some film being shot in Vancouver, but that does not take place in Vancouver. The soundtrack is a real gem, which, featuring such Canadian acts as Broken Social Scene and Final Fantasy, could easily be better remembered than this good-but-not-great film. It’s nice to see Canadian musical talent having a screen presence.
The films from the Shortcuts Canada Programme – The Broken Hearted, Love Seat, La Tête Haute, Ninth Street Chronicles, Patterns 2, Patterns 3, and The Tragic Story of Nling - were some of the weirdest and most captivating films I’ve ever seen. Take your typical weird indie, arthouse fare, multiply the weirdness factor by one hundred, and you’ve almost got a good grasp of the degree of weirdness these films displayed. All the directors were present for a Q&A after each film. I think you would easily be justified in asking each and every one of them “what the…?” I took a friend with me who was not yet fully initiated into the strange conventions of arthouse cinema, who left the film with the conclusion that he didn’t understand cinema. Despite the weirdness, these films were undoubtedly very engaging and innovative.
Love Seat tells the story of a very twisted romance between a man who gets off on smelling the seat of his date’s chair, and his love interest, who gets off on punching him in the stomach in response to his ludicrous obsession with her seat. The Broken Hearted, a French film without dialogue, chronicles a break-up through a series of horribly symbolic images starting with the boyfriend’s family cutting out the ex-girlfriend’s heart and storing it in a glass jar when she returns his belongings. It all seems very meaningful, though I’m not sure it really was. What is certain, however, is that the film had an engaging and jarring visual style.
Perhaps the most technically innovative film was The Tragic Story of Nling, a veritable down-the-rabbit-hole-esque film that descends into alcoholism and cannibalism. In order to create the aesthetic of paper-cut-out characters, the filmmakers basically did just that. They filmed the actors, edited the film, then printed out each individual frame in black-and-white on paper, cut each up, and put the film back together.
My favourite short firms were Patterns 2 and Patterns 3, both sequels to a short film from last year that I did not see. Both films focused on, and exaggerated the patterns, in quotidian objects, whose intrinsic beauty is usually overlooked. The male lead wore a checkered shirt, the walls were painted in a simple pattern, even the bed sheets were patterned and their pattern accentuated and highlighted. Both were about yet another twisted love story between Michael and Pauline, neighbours in an incomprehensible romantic relationship.
Patterns 2 culminated in Michael sitting with a tall stack of 8.5 x 11 paper which he proceeded to fold into paper airplanes, then stamp with a red “Pauline” stamp, and send out the window into her apartment. We see the large stack of paper airplanes piling up in her bathroom. Told entirely in split screen, Patterns 3 is more absurd and more delightful than its predecessor. Pauline and Michael’s current story continues as they serenade each other to a chilling tune. Once you thought it could not possibly get any stranger, they pull out voodoo dolls of each other (“There is only one thing left to do: voodoo”) only to stab needles into them, as we watch the characters bleed in the corresponding body parts. This odd romance is interspersed with documentary-like interviews with each of them as they detail their incredibly boring and uninteresting not-so-cute meet at the laundromat. What does it all mean? That’s a question perhaps better left unanswered. What we’re left with is a unique, gorgeous, cinematographically brilliant film that’s just a little off-kilter.
After seeing several new Canadian films at the festival, I am better able to appreciate that there’s more to Canadian film than just the slow, boring, and often clichéd National Film Board “films” like The Take, for example. In fact, there are many creative Canadian filmmakers who, given greater support, and putting in a bit more effort towards the accessible rather than the experimental, could be making influential and wonderful films. Some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in recent years was the cinematography in Everything’s Gone Green and the Shortcuts Canada films. Yet we don’t really think of Canadian films as beautiful works of art – but they could be. There’s a great future out there for Canadian film and I’m looking forward to seeing what the ‘Canadjian’ blood will come up with next.