Academic journal article CineAction

From Big Snow to Big Sadness: The Repatriation of Canadian Cultural Identity in the Films of Guy Maddin

Academic journal article CineAction

From Big Snow to Big Sadness: The Repatriation of Canadian Cultural Identity in the Films of Guy Maddin

Article excerpt

Much has been made of the dwarfing of Canadian cultural heritage and identity by the neighbouring behemoth that is the United States. This anxiety proves especially true when one considers the canon of Canadian cinema, where early Yankee-produced Yukon adventure films and Bombardier-endorsed corporate propaganda were answered in the wake of the Second World War with the reactionary and largely compensatory slew of government-subsidized documentaries which constitute what Jim Leach refers to as Canada's "national-realist project." (1) With the ostensible exception of Quebecois cinema, which has benefited greatly from both the unique cinematic sensibilities of francophone filmmakers such as Jean Pierre Lefebvre or Denys Arcand, and the eager responsiveness of Quebec's embedded francophone audience, it appears as if Canadian cinema has largely failed to produce a filmmaker who can singularly articulate the national experience in a way that approaches the mammoth cultural resonance of American counterparts of the John Ford or Robert Altman variety. And while the talents of Arcand, Cronenberg and Egoyan have certainly drawn the eye of world cinema upon Canada (however fleetingly), these filmmakers have failed to speak to issues of Canadian identity with the same level of intellect and necessary absurdity as Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin.

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Here, I will examine how issues of national and local identity are portrayed in the work Canadian writer/director/cinematographer/editor Guy Maddin. First, I will analyze the historical misconstruction of Canadian identity on film at the hands of Hollywood, drawing largely from Pierre Berton's Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image. Next, through a discussion of the relation between the filmmaker and the cinematic city which serves as his base of operations, I will situate Maddin within the Canadian national filmic project as specifically a Winnipeg filmmaker and articulate exactly what differentiates the sensibility of a Winnipeg filmmaker from the rest of Canada's larger cinematic body. Finally, I will speak to Maddin's position as the preeminent contemporary Canadian auteur and chief mythmaker. In doing so, I will make the claim that Maddin, through his highly allusive style and idiosyncratic approach to Canadiana, is a filmmaker who has not only reimagined Canada's national history but that of cinema itself in the interest of repatriating Canada's dominion over not just its own national cinematic narratives, but its national and cultural identity more generally.

America's Northern Frontier: Yankee Images of Canada

In Hollywood's Canada, an analysis of half a century of American (2) films about Canada, historian Pierre Berton provides an exhaustive account of the phenomenon which he calls the "Americanization" of Canada's national image. "So powerful," writes Berton, "was the Hollywood image of Canada that in many cases it was accepted as the real thing--even by Canadians." (3) His unease is rooted not exclusively in the concern that the image of Canada, both nationally and abroad, has been cinematically commandeered and consequentially compromised by the United States. For while Berton is apt in noting the importance of "the earnest and often brilliant documentaries of the National Film Board" (4) to the Canadian cinematic project, he stresses the value of a more representative portrait of Canada in commercial movies: being those which popular audiences are regularly responsive to. How this consistent cinematic misrepresentation of Canada has transpired historically is often, not surprisingly, in accordance with the classical tenets of American mythologizing.

The traditional image of Canada, propagated as frequently on our own souvenir t-shirts as in the films Berton dissects, is one of unsullied wilderness, big snow, sex-crazed courier des bois and implausibly moralizing Mounties. Many of the films detailed in Hollywood's Canada depict Canada as being the same sort of unspoiled frontier (depicted most commonly in the sweeping vistas of the American Western) that had collapsed in the United States following the proliferation of the modern metropolis and the resulting shift to urbanity. …

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