Highway 61 Revisited

By Byford, Chris | CineAction, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Highway 61 Revisited


Byford, Chris, CineAction


This article grows out of an introductory communications course where students were asked to undertake a structural analysis of Bruce McDonald's Highway 61 (1991). The film is easy fodder for a classic structural analysis given the radical juxtapositions it presents between the pristine rural Canadian north and the decayed urbanized American south. However, I wanted the assignment to uncover not simply the oppositional structure of the film but the way such oppositions are complicated by the film. As I will attempt to show in what follows, Highway 61 represents the border where cultural oppositions between American and Canadian cultures come to take on meaning.

So much film scholarship in Canada has, and continues to be premised on a series of binary oppositions--centre/margin, loser/hero, masculine/feminine, victim/victimizer--each of which is informed by the central opposition of Hollywood Cinema/Canadian Cinema. The study of Canadian film has embodied two opposing views: on the one hand, there is a belief that Canadian cinema is potentially emancipatory in its ability to bind vast expanses together through the delivery of a shared and authentic vision of Canadian culture. On the other hand, there is a view of Canadian cinematic culture as one of technological dependency on the American film system, as the "locus of human domination both in terms of a dependent political economy and a concomitant loss of cultural heritage." (1) Thus, by embodying the two polar views of cinematic technology as at once liberating in its evocation of a shared Canadian cultural identity and harmful in its implantation of American ideology, the study and theorization of Canadian cinematic culture has tended to operate on a rather grand and abstract level. The two competing perspectives of technological dependency and technological humanism leaves us between the dystopian and utopian sensibility.

Another approach has been suggested by Jose Arroyo who has argued that Canadian film scholars should not "avoid American cinema [or popular culture in general] but examine its role in Canada from a Canadian perspective. To study Canadian cinema in isolation from Canadian cinematic culture can at best result in a partial understanding." (2) Arroyo's insight is important especially in the context of the globalizing media and the cultural diasporas that make up Canada's cultural landscape. An analysis of Canadian Cinema can no longer assume that such a category is simply transparent and static but must be located in the context of a "Canadian cinematic culture." To take such a context into account means asking questions about popular culture in Canada, it means acknowledging that this culture is largely American. This does not signal an end to Canadian film scholarship but rather it brings another dimension, a complexity, to the analysis of Canadian cinema. Highway 61 interests me first and foremost because it is a film that is very popular with Canadian youth (certainly with most of the students I have shown it to). The film's distinctly Canadian popularity is, somewhat paradoxically, the result of its incorporation of American popular music. Before moving on to an analysis of the film, I wish to turn very briefly to the original Canadian road movie, Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road (1970).

Oh God said to Abraham "kill me a son"

Abe said "man you must be puttin me on"

God said "no", Abe said "what"

God say "you can do what you wanna but

the next time you see me comin you better run"

Well Abe said "where d'you want this killin done"

God said "out on Highway 61"

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose

welfare department wouldn't give him no clothes

They asked poor Howard where can I go

Howard said "there's only one place I know"

Sam said "tell me quick man I got to run"

Oh Howard just pointed with his gun

and said "that way down Highway 61"

Well Mack the finger said to Louie the king

"I got 40 red white and blue shoestrings

and a thousand telephone that don't ring. …

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