Monday, August 14, 2017

A Cinema Of Imagination in English Canada

The release of Big Little Lies out now on Blu-ray is a reminder of what’s lacking so much in Canadian cinema: beauty, generosity and spirit. The community of and around these three mothers and their children is going through many challenges and problems but there’s a resilience that holds everyone together. The interior emotional world of these characters oscillates between anger and joy, sadness and humor. It’s by this fine balance, accentuated by a powerful soundtrack, that Big Little Lies captures a truth of the human spirit today. The image that comes to mind is that of Madeline telling people to fuck off with a smile as she has the best interest of her family and friends in mind. That is to mean well and to fight for it. In Big Little Lies everyone are themselves: they are complex characters that have experienced challenges, they are beautiful and full of emotions, they need to be loved and are loving, and at the end they get what they need (to cite the Rolling Stones song that plays during the end credits). If Jean-Marc Vallée is still the best working Canadian director it’s not because he has gone stateside and has more resources (though this is obviously a plus as it has given him more freedom), it’s because he proposes a cinema of three things: dreams, imagination and winning.
            So to repeat these three terms, since they are so necessary though actually scarce: dreams, imagination and winning. Dreams as it’s so important to believe in a future or another world where so many of today’s problems are no longer prescient and happiness is possible. Imagination as it’s necessary to believe, to imagine these possibilities and relationships to make them real. And finally winning as it through these wishes coming true and perseverance eventually paying off, which gives meaning to the struggle that it took to get there. Humanist beliefs for sure, but why have they become so hard to find and rare in an English Canadian cinema? Why is it when so many Canadian directors finally get a chance to make a film the end result is usually the opposite: reality, oppression and defeat? A collective imagination doesn’t have to essentially rely on social reality and its problems, an individual defeat that’s a symptom of institutional malaise. Why instead of dreaming success and victory that instead so many of these directors put forward defeat and failure? I know that the world is and can be a shitty place but this only makes the potential for imagination and victory even more important: at least in art it doesn’t have to be.
            Jacques Rancière can be valuable here as he has a novel manner to articulate the link between art and democratic politics. His concept of the distribution of the sensible refers to the communal forms of naturalized perception within a particular social order. For Rancière social formations are naturally oligarchic therefore the powers of artistic operations are capable of reconfiguring hegemonic perceptions of reality. Art is able to dispute any sense that existed meanings of socio-cultural life is inevitable. This can be seen in his two favored regimes of imageness: the artistic image for Rancière, which creates discrepancies within a given order of expectation of reality as it attempts to dismantle normalized standards of representation; and symbolic montage that connects disparate elements to create affinities, whose co-belonging shows these elements as being part of the same world, as it blends familiarity with mystery. Two other important terms are politics which for Rancière is anything that reframes the sensory community and police which is anything that reinforces the status quo.
            Through a Rancièrien perspective the positive qualities of this idea of an English language Canadian Cinema of the Imagination becomes political, in that they imagine a world of co-habituation while also troubling the apparatus, the institutions that circulate in the financing and distribution of these works. 
            The current genre of the English Canadian miserablist drama seems to be have been solidified by the institutionalization of the discourse formations of and surrounding the work of Atom Egoyan – whose films regularly denounces the problems of society and shows the effects of alienation, while routinely being celebrated for it – as this model, and themes about Canadian fiction like the garrison mentality and weird sex and snow shoes, has ended up creating a collective imagination of individuals being separated instead of finding a place within a larger social community. This ossification might have its roots in the creation of a state-sponsored fiction film industry in favor of social portrayals and in opposition to the communal popularity of American films. It can even be seen as disseminating into current CBC television productions like the reboot of Anne of Green Gables that focuses more on sensationalism and violence than the earlier joyous moments and accomplishments of its original. In this context programming can be seen as supporting this industry and curation favoring those that work within this system.
            Part of this problem is that there are so few directors with a clear, personal vision of hope. Instead of believing in coherence and breath the reigning model is that of fragmentation and group-consensus. Feeding social expectations and stereotypes instead of exceeding them.
If there’s a noble tradition in English Canadian cinema its roots can be seen in the work of Don Owen and Allan King: the documentary tradition, focusing on the people and streets of Toronto and elsewhere, as it hesitates towards fiction. In this middle-ground there is room for imagination to appear where through improvisation surprises can occur to show off what makes us unique. This tradition can be seen as continuing in the work of Kazik Radwanski (Scaffold) and Matt Johnson (Nirvanna The Band The Show). But there’s also a more imaginative Canadian film history hidden behind this: I’m thinking about the line that traces John Paizs’ Crime Wave to Matt Johnson’s Operation Avalanche in English Canada, and Gilles Carle’s La vie heureuse de Léopold Z to Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. in Québec. A leap to dreams, imagination and winning is possible and nobler. And there’s a history of these works in Canadian cinema that shows it has been done in the past. Some examples that come to mind includes King’s Who Has Seen the Wind?, Peter Mettler’s The Top of his Head, Donald Brittain’s Family: A Loving Look at CBC Radio and Terrance Odette’s Saint Monica.
So how to break the mold? How to combat individualism and cynicism? The answer, to restate it, is quite simple (though hard to achieve): find the possibility to dream, imagine and find success (how ever intimate it’s defined: it can be as small as two friends high-fiving after a rough day). Some recent examples that come to mind that strive for this includes Pierce Csurgo and Mitch Greenberg’s La Chasse and its fantasy narrative to recover a stolen painting; the expanded cinema route of Rebeccah Love’s live readings of short stories and plays and the over-ambitiousness of the longer short film Acres; or finally Mark Cira’s work that’s oversaturated with symbolism whether through the story of a young girl being diagnosed with diabetes (Sweet Yoyo) or an out of control Instagram short.
This Cinema of Imagination in English Canada would be one that’s loyal to one’s emotions and intellect. It would need to be faithful to one’s personal history and the people that have crossed it. It’s currently what’s so exciting about Canadian cinema and it might just have to take place at the margins: A small group of friends making work, coming together and dreaming that happiness and success is possible.

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