The film, directed by Don McKellar, deals with the efforts of the citizens of a small Newfoundland fishing port fallen on hard times to attract a doctor. Ireland’s Brendan Gleeson was in it along with Canada’s Taylor Kitsch as the young doctor, and Newfoundland’s Gordon Pinsent, stealing every scene in which he appears.
It was something unusual for a made-in-Canada film, a smartly-written, well-acted, solidly crafted, quirky little movie whose ambition was simply to entertain audiences and not win a spot at the Cannes Film Festival. I’m involved in the fledgling Milton (Ontario) Film Festival, and when we showed The Grand Seduction as a Saturday night gala earlier this year, it was a big success. The audience loved it.
So why don’t Canadians make more movies like The Grand Seduction and why don’t they get more attention when they do? I’ve been trying to figure that out for the past forty years or so without much success. I tried to figure it out again yesterday on National Canadian Film Day.
In case you missed it, NCFD was an attempt, according to its website, “to throw off the shackles of fear and insecurity, stand together with Canadians from coast-to-coast and pat ourselves on the back for something other than various ice-related sports and sports-related donut shops.”
A fine ambition and I hope NCFD was a great success. Not to throw cold water on anything, but it is worth pointing out that the quest for a Canadian film identity remains as elusive today as it did all those years ago when I was writing about movies for The Toronto Star—more so now than ever.
As the Canadian director Atom Egoyan pointed out in the Star, film generally is an endangered species these days. You can imagine where that leaves Canadian films, in English Canada at least, never a healthy species.
Ironically, we have constructed all the bells and whistles around a film industry. We have a world-class film festival in Toronto, and there is a multi-million dollar film temple in the form of the Bell Light Box in downtown Toronto. There are numerous production complexes dedicated to the making of movies. We even have a Canadian Film Center, founded by Norman Jewison, where one can learn how to write, direct, and produce movies.
The one thing we don’t do in connection with the movies we seem to revere, we don’t actually make movies. No big deal, I suppose, except when you don’t create the thing you are celebrating, it does tend to get in the way.
If you do happen by the most fortuitous of circumstances to navigate the horrors of independent film financing and production and get a movie made, good luck in persuading anyone to distribute your masterpiece either in a movie theatre or on television.
Now I should amend this slightly to say we don’t make or see English Canadian films. In Quebec, audiences actually attend local movies (The Grand Seduction was originally a Quebecois film, La Grande Seduction, a big hit), although when I lived in Montreal there was much grumbling among Quebec filmmakers that local hits did not play well outside the province, even in French-speaking countries.
Canadian films in the rest of the country—cue The Grand Seduction—are mostly ignored. Homegrown movies account for a miserable 1.6 percent of the Canadian box office, down from a high of about three per cent back in the 1980s.
It’s unlikely to get better any time soon. As Egoyan reminded us this week, this is not a great time for the movies.
If you want to know what’s wrong, stick around Friday when Avengers: Age of Ultron is unveiled in countless multiplexes to a movie-going public eager to flock to see actors in tights playing comic book heroes saving the world in a cosmos of computer-generated effects. The original Avengers is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The latest edition is expected to make over one billion dollars worldwide before it is finished.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood wants to make more of this sort of thing, not less. No one is interested in making a Grand Seduction. Everyone wants the next X-Men (don’t worry; they are currently filming the next X-Men). What was once the mainstay of low budget black and white programmers (miss you, Buster Crabbe), has become a mega budget business and about the only reason Hollywood still exists.
Warner Bros. recently announced it will make no fewer than ten movies based on its DC Comics franchise. The Marvel arm of Disney studios will release eleven of its superhero movies between now and 2019. Prepare to be inundated with this stuff.
Ironically, the medium I grew up loving with such passion, has been creatively superseded by that supposedly vast cultural wasteland known as television. From The Sopranos (the series that started it all) to Mad Men, from Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire to Justified, Bates Motel, Downton Abbey and Broadchurch, these shows and many others form the vanguard of a revolution in TV drama unlike anything since the introduction of talking pictures.
This remarkable creative flowering has left movies looking old and tired, locked into overworked three-act formulas with predictable outcomes. Movies—and I hate to say this—have mostly become a bore. You can guess without going near a theatre this weekend how Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to turn out. I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen as Mad Men finishes its run.
So how did I celebrate National Canadian Film Day? Well, I recalled the first time I met a young filmmaker named Atom Egoyan. I fondly remembered attending one of the first screenings of Goin’ Down the Road, and I thought about standing around the set of The Grey Fox, two ground-breaking Canadian films of which we should all be proud.
After that, it occurred to me that it might be a better idea to concentrate on innovative ways to finance and distribute more Canadian films rather than all this other stuff that has nothing to do with actually getting movies made. Of course, that’s the hard part, isn’t it?
Then I sat down and watched the final episode of Justified.