Academic journal article CineAction

The Imagined City: Toward a Theory of Urbanity in Canadian Cinema

Academic journal article CineAction

The Imagined City: Toward a Theory of Urbanity in Canadian Cinema

Article excerpt

Canadian cinema, like most national cinemas, has a strong sense of place. Place often carries geographic connotations--oceans, grasslands, tundra, boreal forests and mountains and the flora and fauna associated with them. Geography in turn carries seasonal identities such as snowy winters. Canadian film scholar Jim Leach calls this orientation toward place in Canadian cinema the "the nationalist-realist project." (1) In this project it is the natural reality of Canada that is privileged as the abiding way to visualizing national identity.


Since the beginning of cinema in Canada images of unspoiled wilderness and unpopulated spaces have been posited by the colonizer as "Canadian" in opposition to Europe's urban historicity or America's tumultuous cityscapes. One need only reflect on the agrarian propaganda films of 1900 sponsored by the CPR or such classics of Canadiana as Back to God's Country (1919). Ironically, the popularity of "location" shooting of American-produced films in Canada in the latter half of the twentieth century has allowed the Canadian landscape to be used as a substitute for American landscapes with Alberta being an example of a contemporary landscape that replaces the "lost" landscapes of the American west. The much-lauded documentary tradition in Canadian film was both an outcome of this naturalism and the national-realist project and its signifier.

The literary scholar W.H. New considers the concept of the land "a verbal trope" in Canadian writing. (2) He writes how Canadian culture created a "language of land" and a "reading of land" as the basic ingredient of national identity in both fiction and nonfiction representation. (3) This old country/new land dichotomy was a product of European exploration and conquest and of the culture that evolved from it. For example, the doyenne of contemporary Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood in her Clarendon Lectures in English Literature at Oxford University in 1991 admitted privileging "the North, or the wilderness, or snow, or bears or cannibalism .. [over] the literature of urban life" in her lectures on Canadian literature. (4) It was, she implied, much more fun to talk to the English about how their cultural fantasies of Canada had played out in its indigenous literature than to discuss urban life, which they knew so well. (5) It was a bow to an exoticization in which the city is presented as a monolithic anti-land without differentiation or specificity. Concepts of identity that are grounded in the nationalist-realist project view the globalized present of cyberspaced urbanity as a uniform and anti-nationalist monoculture.

Yet we intuitively know that people visit other cities simply to experience their otherness, be it Toronto for Americans, Venice for Canadians or Mumbai for Swedes. If we lived in a universe of small city-states, like the Greeks did, rather than nation-states then the nationalist identification with distinct geographic features would evaporate and be replaced with a focus on urban difference rather than urban similarity. Curiously, the universality of first world urban experience proposed by nationalist-realist ideology allows cinematic representations of urbanity to hold within them opposites. For example, the 2006 UK film Breaking and Entering allows the spectator to visualize and imagine London as a distinct cultural entity while simultaneously offering the urban viewer identification with its leitmotif of gentrification and migration now associated with most cities in the world. As a result urbanity embraces self-referential multiplicity, while rejecting superficial categorization. London is different but its problems are similar to that of other urban centres.

The Canadian feature film, which began in earnest in the 1960s, has been a product of urban culture, economics, and sensibility. (6) "The cinema, as commodity and art form," writes Allan Siegel, "has been inextricably linked to the cultural and economic realities of the city. …

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