At Whistler's film festival, there’s fresh hope for Canadian movies
Brian D. JohnsonDecember202004
COMING IN FROM THE COLD
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
At Whistler's film festival, there’s fresh hope for Canadian movies
IT’S ONE OF THE MOST unforgettable scenes in Canadian cinema: as a steam locomotive rounds a mountain curve, belching a huge column of black smoke, a rider on the tracks up ahead tries to outrun it with a herd of rustled horses, then sends them galloping down the steep embankment at the last minute as the train hurtles past their flanks, perilously close. The movie is the 1982 classic The Grey Fox, an astonishing first feature that
Vancouver’s Phillip Borsos directed at the tender age of IT. Borsos was a filmmaker with an exquisite eye for character and landscape, English Canada’s answer to Quebec’s Claude Jutra (Mon Oncle Antoine). He had no desire to make little Canadian movies. He struggled to make graceful, heroic stories on a Hollywood scale but without Hollywood compromise. The ordeal of shooting Bethune (1990) in China and the llth-hour collapse of his plan to film The Cider House Rules, broke his heart. When leukemia cut short his life at age 41, the dream of the Great Canadian Movie was visibly dimmed.
Last week I hosted a tribute to Borsos at the fourth annual Whistler Film Festival, as it inaugurated a $10,000 prize for Canadian features in his name. It got me thinking. Twenty-two years after The Grey Fox, where do we stand? Where are the great Canadian movies? Our most recent triumphs have been what Oscar likes to call foreign-language films: Zacharias Kunuk’s Inuit epic, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, and Quebec director Denys Arcand’s elegiac masterpiece, The Barbarian Invasions. Quebec’s thriving cinema, with its captive culture, has always been a special case. But in English Canada, the big screen’s horizons seem to be forever shrinking as it tries to find an audience.
We make a lot of small, worthy pictures that vanish after a token gesture of distribution. There are exceptions. But our star directors, Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, have been too intent on charting the darker recesses of the psyche to explore
the kind of populist cinema Borsos championed. Our biggest film-TV production company, Alliance Atlantis, has more or less given up making movies—no money in it. And our biggest mogul, Robert Laníos, has been mired in the no man’s land of international co-production, concocting decorous period escapades that are just nominally Canadian— The Statement and Being Julia. On both the big and small screen, Canadian drama is
withering from financial malnourishment. And with the rising dollar and a non-competitive tax-credit system, even American production in Canada is down.
“I don’t think we’d be able to make The Grey Fox today,” says its producer, Peter O’Brian, who was part of the jury that selected the first Phillip Borsos Award at the Whistler festival. O’Brian points out that The Grey Fox was one of the genuine successes to emerge from the notorious tax-shelter era (1974-82), in which Ottawa allowed
film investors a 100-per-cent capital cost writeoff. That era nourished a lot of dodgy Canadian movies with B-level American stars—a phenomenon O’Brian would later satirize in his own ill-fated directorial debut, Hollywood North (2003).
Bizarrely, O’Brian wasn’t the only filmmaker at Whistler to have made a Hollywood North spoof. Actor-writer-director Don McKellar was on hand to present Childstar, the story of an aspiring auteur (McKellar) who babysits a bratty young American actor on a Toronto film set. You start to wonder what’s up with this industry when, after riding a gondola through the dark to a mountaintop party, you end up in a room with two guys from Toronto so frustrated by filmmaking in Canada that they’ve been driven to make satirical movies about it.
But both O’Brian and McKellar, along with most of the Canadian film industry, have been cheered by a recent bit of news: the appointment of Wayne Clarkson as the new executive director of Telefilm Canada, which dispenses some $250 million a year for film and TV production. Clarkson succeeds Richard Stursberg, who decamped to the CBC after leaving a rather bitter legacy among the film community. In a failed effort to bolster Canadian cinema at the box office, Stursberg tried to shift Telefilm’s mandate toward more commercial genres, and contracted Beverly Hills’ Creative Artists Agency to shop for scripts, stars and financing in Los Angeles.
McKellar has been one of Stursberg’s harshest critics. “I’ve been to festivals across the country,” he says, “and heard all these appalling stories from filmmakers who were turned down by Telefilm because they basically said, ‘We love it, but that’s not in our mandate anymore. We want genre films.’ I kept telling Richard, ‘Why don’t
you just say they should be good films?’ ” More cinéphile than bureaucrat, Clarkson, 58, ran Toronto’s film festival in its formative years, and then, as chairman and CEO of the Ontario Film Development Corp., nurtured the early work of such directors as Egoyan and Patricia Rozema. He’s spent the past 14 years incubating new talent— and overseeing feature film projects—as executive director of the Canadian Film Centre. Appointing Clarkson, says McKeliar, “was a more positive step than any Telefilm has made in the past three years. It says they’re going to take movies seriously— Wayne’s a movie guy. You used to have to twist
arms just to get Telefilm to concede there was a cultural component to their mandate.” Clarkson stresses he has eclectic tastes that aren’t limited to high art. “I Vke Meatballs. I have no issues with Porky’s.” But he adds, “It’s not my nature to look to Hollywood for a resolution of issues that are pretty much within the 49th parallel.” With the decline in Canadian TV drama and the layoffs in the film and TV industry serving U.S. productions here, “we have a near perfect storm,” warns Clarkson. “I’m a firm believer that a strong indigenous industry is the way you can cushion those cyclical crises. And emerging talent is going to play a very im-
portant role in my priorities—where is the the next Atom Egoyan, the next Patricia Rozema? Where’s the next Phillip Borsos?”
Well, that may be Phillip’s 18-year-old son, Angus, an aspiring filmmaker with a distinctive talent. At the Whistler festival, Angus presented issues., a sublime 25-minute portrait of young skateboarders carving rhapsodic signatures through Vancouver’s urban space. With this remarkably accomplished film, Angus shows something of his father’s eye—a lyrical sense of composition and movement, and a cutting rhythm of soft landings set to music. He also conveys a certain poignancy, capturing a Neverland of acrobatic whimsy—kids skimming curves from hard edges of concrete and steel. One of the film’s stars is Angus’s 15-year-old brother, Silas, a skateboard ace who’s also starring in Sk8 Life, a second feature drama from Wyeth Clarkson (deadend.com)—who happens to be the son of Telefilm’s Wayne Clarkson. Small world.
The new generation of filmmakers is shooting from the hip, with digital video. Among the Canadian features receiving world premieres at the Whistler festival, the one that received the inaugural Borsos prize was Papal Chase, a nervy guerrilla documentary by comic iconoclast Kenny Hotz (Pitch). Hotz, who describes his approach as “Michael Moore on acid,” took a $1,000 bet that he could meet the Pope during John Paul’s seven-day visit to Toronto in 2002. Faking press credentials and getting harrassed by RCMP snipers, this Jewish prankster tries every conceivable scam to make eye contact with the pontiff. He also dresses up as Satan and tries mingling with World Youth Day pilgrims.
Meanwhile, Grey Fox producer O’Brian hasn’t given up on epic ambitions. He’s now planning a western about Sitting Bull’s relationship with a Mountie, Maj. James Walsh, in southern Saskatchewan during the 1870s. And he’s negotiating with a major U.S. producer to raise some $25 million—even if that means an American star (rather than, say, Paul Gross) might end up cast as the Mountie. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, the star of that Great Canadian Movie, The Grey Fox, was Richard Farnsworth, a Yank. [ffl
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