Canadian National Cinema

Christopher E. Gittings

The past two years have seen a bumper crop of books devoted to topics in Canadian cinema. Some of these have been excellent and broadly useful, for example, North of Everything: English Canadian Cinema since 1980 (edited by Bill Beard and Jerry White, 2002). Others have been flaky and dubious (see Katherine Monk's, 2001, Weird Sex and Snowshoes and Other Canadian Film Phenomena), while still others have been small in scope and offbeat, but still rich and valuable (for example, Like Mangos in July: The Work of Richard Fung, edited by Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto, 2002). Christopher Gittings' ambitious Canadian National Cinema falls into the first category, and as the first monograph of its kind - not counting David Clandfield's fashion model-skinny, out-of-print, and regrettably error-filled 1986 volume Canadian Film - that attempts to consider the entirety of the Canadian national cinema from theoretical, critical, and historical vantage points, it represents a considerable achievement.

With the goal to "track and interrogate the signification of nation" across the history of film production in Canada, Gittings positions his text in the fertile theoretical ground of representation and what he calls the dialectic of nation and anti-nation, investigating the ways in which the nation and national citizens (and "others" of various stripes) have been imagined by cinematic images from 1908 to 1998. Largely comprised of close reading of films both canonical and not, the book's theoretical orientation interrogates the racism and sexism of colonialist discourses of early-twentieth-century "nation building" films sponsored by bodies such as the Canadian National Railway and Government Motion Picture Bureau, and the pan-Canadianism proffered by institutions such as the National Film Board of Canada.

Several of the close readings in these early sections are outstanding examples of theory and history working together in the service of insightful and critical explanations of films reflecting cultural phenomena. Particularly excellent is Gittings' illuminating section on the almost never seen Secrets of Chinatown, a 1935 Canadian production set in Vancouver, originally conceived of to take advantage of British Empire cinema quota legislation - it is one of the "quota quickies" - and directed by Hollywood veteran Fred Newmeyer (best known as co-director of the magnificent Harold Lloyd comedy Safety Last [1923]). Gittings demonstrates the virulent racism of the text and discusses it as a document of then prevalent viciously anti-Chinese social attitudes and as a formative moment in cinematic constructions of the nation in Canada.

Another strong feature of the book is the compelling readings it offers of relatively recent features, particularly those with a resistant thrust, in his chapters on Aboriginal, multicultural, feminist, and queer films produced in Canada. That these alternative practices are largely characteristic of contemporary feature film production in Canada there can be no doubt, and the readings Gittings offers, situating films such as John Greyson's The Making of Monsters in a historical trajectory of the "signification of nation," is compelling and satisfying.

One perhaps unavoidable but nevertheless distracting problem with a book with such a wide scope as this is that certain facets of a national cinema will necessarily be underexplored. Theoretically and critically rigorous, Canadian National Cinema is rather thin in the history department as evidenced by its breezy third chapter, "Producing a National Cinema," which offers a meagre historical account of state interventions in the production of national images, through various policies and bodies such as the National Film Board of Canada and the Canadian Film Development Corporation. And although this brief history of policy formation is better than none at all in the case of a national cinema so dependent upon state interventions, it does, perhaps because of its brevity, wind up reproducing some questionable assumptions, especially the sweeping, nationalist-derived dismissal of films in the popular idiom - the genre films of the tax-shelter boom of the late 1970s, for example - as being necessarily "American" in character.

As well, Gittings' generosity with cited sources - that is, his willingness to let others speak for themselves at length - renders his position on some issues obscure. For example, the section on David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers usefully recounts and summarizes the blistering debate over charges of misogyny that surrounded the film, but unfortunately Gittings never makes his own position on the debate clear. One might extrapolate from the relentlessly critical stance of the book with regard to cinematic representation that Gittings sides with those who charged Cronenberg's film with misogyny, but he never comes out and says so, and his short discussion of the film is completely overwhelmed by other critics' arguments.

Another minor problem is Gittings' attempt to sidestep the question of one national cinema or two within the geographical boundaries of the state. Gittings is correct to point out what he calls "dynamic moments of intersection and imbrication" between the cinemas of Canada and Québec, citing Homi Bhabha's dictum on the " 'impossible unity' of nation." However, one might ask if "dynamic moments of intersection and imbrication" between Hollywood (for example) and Canadian cinema might not be at least as instructive as points of comparison as those between English Canada and Québec. On the one hand, the inclusion of such celebrated Québécois works as Mon oncle Antoine, Les Ordres, Le bons débarras, and Le Confessional in Canadian National Cinema suggests that Gittings sees no distinctive Québécois national cinema. On the other hand, beyond some attention paid to a few canonical works, the clearly distinctive history and practices of Québec's cinema remain underexplored by the book. Had Gittings done as Beard and White (2002) have in their anthology North of Everything, and stuck to examinations of English Canadian cinema, his book would have been a more theoretically sound counterpart to Bill Marshall's (2002) recent and thorough study Quebec National Cinema, since a fully articulated concept of the idea of national cinema itself must surely be in place before its possible elucidation. In this sense, Gittings' partial inclusion of Québécois cinema is insufficiently motivated or explained by the theoretical premises underlying his text.

Despite these little problems, Canadian National Cinema is a largely successful and ambitious text that not only provides an innovative overview of the terrain but also looks to be a likely springboard for future scholarship. Gittings' refocusing of the discourse surrounding the Canadian national cinema onto the "cinematic production of nation" provides rich seams to mine for future scholarship in the field.

References

Beard, William, & White, Jerry (Eds.). (2002). North of everything: English Canadian cinema since 1980. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Lee, Helen, & Sakamoto, Kerri (Eds.). (2002). Like mangos in July: The work of Richard Fung. Toronto: Insomniac Press.

Marshall, Bill. (2000). Quebec national cinema. Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Monk, Katherine. (2001). Weird sex and snowshoes and other Canadian film phenomena. Vancouver: Raincoast Books.



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