Movies and Mythologies
Coast to coast fever

by Blaine Allan

from Jump Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 37-39
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

Peter Harcourt, Towards a National Cinema (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1977). 171 pp. paper. $3.95.

Peter Harcourt's book Movies and Mythologies gathers transcriptions of a series of eight Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio programs broadcast in 1975. Subtitled "Towards a National Cinema," Harcourt's study proposes to inquire about the creation and recognition of national cinemas, using as examples various nations at different periods in film history. Instead, he delivers a pocket-sized and questionable history of film in the first six chapters and, in the last two, a provocative although limited assessment of the Canadian cinema.

Establishing the book's readership is a primary consideration: Harcourt aimed his radio lectures at an introductory level audience, and he has made no subsequent adjustment in converting his work to print. Therefore, the tone of the book is conversational rather than scholarly, as Harcourt assumes a familiar and comfortable role: that of a lecturer or teacher. In his previous book, Six European Directors, Harcourt discusses the importance of his work as a teacher, how interaction with his students has often affected his own thinking on movies. Not only has he always stressed the importance of personal response for his students, but he himself continues to examine films explicitly according to his own response. For instance, his chapter "Luis Buñuel: Spaniard and Surrealist" examines Buñuel in national and artistic traditions. In Movies and Mythologies, Harcourt attempts a project more social and historical than personal, to describe relations between national cultures and the films made in those nations. His method, however, has changed little. An anecdote of his first encounter with BITTER RICE ("an Italian film where the women were so uncultured that they didn't shave beneath their arms and so seemed constantly savage and smelly"), or other such turning points in Harcourt's life may have engaged radio listeners. In print, they often get in the way of cogent cultural analysis.

Harcourt's study is rooted in Roland Barthes' concepts of mythology. For his purposes, Harcourt appropriates Barthes' aim, to uncover cultural assumptions, the "what-goes-without-saying," and applies it to the construction of national identity. In so doing, he points to a contradiction which Harcourt admits he cannot resolve:

"On the one hand, mythology can be seen as a distortion of history; on the other, same form of mythology seems to be necessary to achieve the feeling of a national identity. It helps provide the images and stories that unite a variety of disparate individuals to make them feel same cohesion as a group. In (sic) helps provide a mirror in which they can recognize themselves, as it can provide patterns of behaviour upon which they can model themselves." (p. 2)

Harcourt thus endorses myth-making as an integral part of identity-making, ignoring Barthes' attitude which is more critical:

"Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History. In it history evaporates. It is a kind of ideal servant: it prepares all things, brings them, lays them out, the master arrives, it silently disappears: all that is left for one to do is to enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it comes from. Or even better: it comes from eternity." (Mythologies, St. Albans: Paladin, 1975), p. 151.

Both Harcourt and Barthes imply that mythology has a controlling but subservient relationship to the individual: it provides a mirror or it acts as an ideal servant. Barthes, however, disdains such concealment. In order to examine mythologies fully, the history which, as Barthes says, "evaporates" must be reintroduced into discussion.

But what kind of history is Harcourt's History? The first two chapters are promising: Harcourt re-examines the origins of film and the Hollywood studios with a keen eye to the industrial basis. He makes a clear case for Edison's progress- and profit-based motivations. On the other hand, he distorts Lumière severely. In Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film, Erik Barnouw describes the Lumières' worldwide, licensed exhibitions, later cut back to a manufacture-and-sale operation; Harcourt never takes their shows out of the Paris cafes.

As early as the second chapter, though, Harcourt's examination falls into piecemeal structure. Overall, it reads as an uncomfortable survey of critical methods (authorship, genre, localized cycles or movements such as the New Wave) and chronology. He pushes the question of national cinema, supposedly the central problem of the book, to the side even though the book is built, chapter by chapter, according to specific national cinemas (one chapter on French and Italian, one on British, one on French New Wave and American of the 1960s and 1970s, and so on). The notable exceptions are the last two chapters, on Canadian cinema. Vigorously written, they appear to be Harcourt's reason for the whole book or for the radio series, for they truly have something to say about a subject he values deeply. I see the strength of these two chapters as, ironically, a result of Harcourt's negative starting point. He writes in his introduction:

"Why have so few Canadian's a consciousness of themselves as a nation? Why, for instance (except for Pierre Berton) does there seem to be no national myth? What are the forces that have prevented this "distortion" of our own history, this kind of popular interpretation of our nation's destiny that might make historical facts effective as myth?" (p. 3)

Harcourt evidently sees himself as working from below rock bottom.

"They set tables in New York to listen to Levesque who claimed he was George Washington.

"Then Trudeau went to the States and claimed he was Abraham Lincoln.

"The Americans were confused."

 — From the commentary of THE CHAMPIONS
(d: Donald Brittain, 1977)

Toronto born, Harcourt has lived the past eleven years in Canada after a lengthy stay in England. While he was there, he was able to view the exportable output of the National Film Board of Canada/Office National du Film du Canada. The Board's product of this period, 1952 to 1967, forms the basis of Harcourt's seventh chapter, "The Canadian Cinema — The Years of Promise." The date of Harcourt's return to Canada, 1967, roughly coincides with the starting point of his final chapter, "The Canadian Cinema — the Challenge of the Present." Harcourt's insights into isolated texts are, I find, valuable. His overall project, indicating modes of analysis that include awareness of cultural assumptions within the work, is less successful. His range of failures and successes will become clearer as I examine Harcourt's look at the Canadian film scene. (Here I should make it clear that, like Harcourt, I'm writing as an insider, a Canadian who observes the Canadian film situation with some prior knowledge, interest, and a good deal of anxiety.)

The English Canadian film industry has always appeared to fluctuate between vibrant life and imminent death. Feature film production has generally served as an indicator. A peak was reached around 1973 in English Canada with the release of THE ROWDYMAN (d: Peter Carter, 1972), SLIPSTREAM (d: David Acomba, 1973), BETWEEN FRIENDS (d: Donald Shebib, 1973), and PAPERBACK HERO (d: Peter Pearson, 1973). From Quebec, Claude Jutra followed the success of MON ONCLE ANTOINE with KAMOURASKA (1972). These and other 1ess known Canadian films reached markets in Toronto and Montreal especially. Afterwards, however, there appeared to be nothing left for 1974 except the major production THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (d: Ted Kotcheff, 1974). Aside from the isolated and remarkable success of that film, a lull in the industry appeared before the recent obvious highs, OUTRAGEOUS (d: Richard Benner, 1977) and WHY SHOOT THE TEACHER? (d: Silvio Narizzano, 1977).

The schizophrenic nature of the Canadian film industry can be accounted for economically. On the one hand, it has no Hollywood, no highly organized studio or independent source of capital. On the other, it hasn't the total government support, which, for example, helped along the rise of the Polish film in the 1950s or the Czech New Wave of the 1960s. Canadian filmmakers find themselves in between these two economic poles. Government funding supports almost every Canadian feature film. The National Film Board and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, government agencies, act much like Hollywood studios: they can commission scripts, provide personnel, and make, release, and distribute the product. The Canadian Film Development Corporation and private funds back independent productions.

The Film Board's major product, as Harcourt makes clear, is not the feature film, but the shorter documentary. Harcourt compares these shorts to poetry, and the feature to the novel. The comparison may be reasonable for the films Harcourt examines and admires. These are the "Unit B" or "Candid Eye" documentaries of 1952 to 1967. With these films, the Board has built its reputation for technical excellence and innovation, and for benign inquiry into Canada and its people. CORRAL (1954) involves the saddling of a half-broken horse in the foothills of Alberta; PUAL TOMKOWICZ, STREET RAILWAY SWITCHMAN (1953) is a nine-minute portrait of a Polish worker in Winnipeg; CITY OF GOLD (1957), narrated by the inevitable Pierre Berton, shows Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, a heart of the gold rush in the Klondike days; THE BACK-BREAKING LEAF (1957) is a study of tobacco farming in Ontario. These and especially the Board's portrait of singing sensation Paul Anka, LONELY BOY (1962), all represent the Board's contributions to the growing use of techniques and themes adopted by U.S. cinema verité. These films were internationally distributed and seemed to fulfill John Grierson's vision, that the Board "should be devoted to bringing alive Canada to the Canadians and to the rest of the world." (p. 134. Grierson reads needed vigor into The National Film Act, 1950, which actually calls for "films designated to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations.")

Harcourt admits that he severely limits his view of the Board. However, he also perpetuates a myth rather than account for it. If the National Film Board were to make only the type of documentary film which Harcourt discusses and values so highly, it would perish before another fiscal year passed. The Board gained its starting momentum by making government-sponsored films for the Second World War effort. It produced sponsored films all through Harcourt's so-called heyday of the NFB/ONF, and continues to do so.

Specifically, the Board designs and produces films and filmstrips commissioned by Canadian government ministries and agencies. (Across-the-board cutbacks in government spending a couple of years back generated intense financial pressure in the NFB/ONF. The film production allowance was among the first to go in each-ministry's budget: consequently, the Board was among the hardest hit of all government agencies.) These films and filmstrips are actively used by educational systems throughout the nation. An extremely effective free distribution system within the country forms a basic part of the Board's operations. (I spent some time in the United States recently, and it was a minor shock to discover that people actually rented NFB/ONF films.)

The Board is a government-sponsored agency of film production and distribution with a ready inroad to the educational systems of Canada. Thus it is one of the most useful and willing ideological apparatuses available to the State. In fact, since its inception, the Board's film work has presented Canadians with specific ways of seeing themselves as Canadians and as human beings. Any examination of the work of the National Film Board within the context of Canadian culture begs a survey of such sponsored work. They form the bulk of the Board's output, but Harcourt chooses to ignore them in favor of the "quality product."

The schism between personal response and cultural context appears in Harcourt's discussion of LONELY BOY. The film is a portrait of Paul Anka in 1961, when he was one of pop music's superstars. Anka is interviewed on-camera, as is his manager who discusses the making of Anka into a star figure. We see Anka in performance onstage and in more candid moments off stage (including the notorious retake of a supposedly spontaneous event, in which the filmmaker asks Anka to "do the kiss again"). Harcourt writes of the film in highly evaluative terms: "one of the most extraordinary documentaries of all time," "Particularly painful is the moment when…," "nicely satirical." Such a tone makes the description infectious and colorful. But he winds up his thoughts on the film, writing, "LONELY BOY in an exceptional example of a film that is indigenously Canadian." Why? Because of Harcourt's response? Perhaps because as Harcourt describes, the film makes us "feel that something is going wrong"? A case can be made to the contrary — that Anka is presented as a cosmopolitan personality; that the concert we see takes place in Freedomland, USA; that, in fact, the film is hardly Canadian at all. I hope that I admire the film as much as Harcourt does, but I still see little justification for his assertion of what a Canadian film is.

Harcourt devotes his final chapter to a view of the Canadian feature film situation. Here he strikes at some practical problems of Canadian national cinema. He is concerned not with mystifying mythologies, nor with authors and genres, but with hard cash facts. The Canadian filmmaker is independent, not studio-bound. A good portion of his/her time and energy is spent raising money rather than making movies. Yet even the funding of a film is not enough to assure national success or even recognition. Even the most noted and successful feature filmmakers (Pearson, Shebib, Jutra, Allan King) are in continually precarious positions. To keep working, they have made films for the CBC, half-hour or hour-long dramas or documentaries. Don Shebib bitterly notes the plight of the Canadian independent when he speaks of raising financial backing. You need, he says, "enough to hang yourself" (cited by Joyce Nelson in JUMP CUT 12/13). The question of public support for a Canadian feature film is central.

The element of choice on the part of the consumer also bears on the problem. Like the situation at the NFB/OHE, there are the "quality" pictures, such as BETWEEN FRIENDS or SLIPSTREAM. On the other hand, there are others which do well at the box office: CANNIBAL GIRLS (d: Ivan Reitman, 1972), SHIVERS (U.S. title: THEY CAME FROM WITHIN) (d: David Cronenberg, 1975), DEATH WEEKEND (U.S. title: THE HOUSE ON THE LAKE) (d: William Fruet, 1976), RABID (d: David Cronenberg, 1977). Perhaps they're not dedicated to "bringing alive Canada to Canadians and to the rest of the world." (They're all pictures of violence: they might be more dedicated to "bringing to a brutal end…") They are, again, not the movies Harcourt values. They represent a "Continentalist" pole, one which asserts an American influence and produces films for an internationalist market. Economically sound, culturally murderous, a Nationalist would argue. (A point of some marginal bearing: Reitman, who was involved with all the above "Continentalist" pictures, and who is now co-producer of NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE, recently noted in a radio interview that while his films had been given some 5% of the total money distributed by the Canadian Film Development Corporation, they had returned about 40% of the money paid back to the CFDC)

Perhaps because Canadians have not supported those films Harcourt (among others) values as Canadian, the economic base of the problem disappears, and the cultural level emerges as determinant:

"When a group of people become (sic) aware of its own mythology, its own sense of history, its particular customs and habits of speech, it is on its way toward discovering itself as a nation and not just a colony." (p. 145)

In light of these thoughts, Don Oven, talking about his 1964 film NOBODY WAVED GOODBYE, has penetrating and pointed observations:

"Canadians don't really see themselves very well. It's very interesting when the film was shown in New York, I went with various people to see the film; and seeing the film in New York, it looked so like Toronto. I mean you suddenly realized there's only one place in the world with people like that, and that's Toronto. And there's only one place where streets look like that, only in that city, you know. And suddenly it became recognizable as a special place in the world." (p. 143)

Toronto, yes. Canada? Not necessarily. A viewer from Saskatchewan might have had different thoughts.

Harcourt's position is pluralist, with a National tendency rather than Continental. His introduction includes a disclaimer:

"I hope that I don't appear to be either a naive Nationalist or a raving Marxist. If one is a teacher, a writer, a commentator, Nationalism provides one with a space from which to speak; just as Marx's determination to relate cultural activities to the class that supports them provides us with a methodology appropriate, in my view, to the understanding of the culture in our country." (p. 4)

The fault in Harcourt's Nationalism becomes evident in the resulting view of Canada as "amorphous" rather than regional. Discussion of Quebec makes this assumption a crucial question. Harcourt's critical method is the pot in which Quebec, as well as other, Anglophonic, regional cultures are melted and mixed to form the Canadian alloy. For instance, he constructs a brief comparison between Jutra's À TOUT PRENDRE (1963) and King's RUNNING AWAY BACKWARDS (1964) as if to demonstrate that the state of Canadian cinema is consistent "from coast to coast."

Filmmaker Gilles Carle relates an exodus of Quebecois filmmakers from the NFB/ONP in the early 1960s specifically to the Quebec situation:

"It was tied in with politics, with poetry, with the novelists and, let's say in the '50s, new ideas came about the identity of Quebeckers, about independence, about the way we wanted to live. The attitude toward our own culture had been very depressive, and we came to say to ourselves, We're not the sons of the Queen of England, but we're human beings. We're as interesting as anybody else … What changed everything is that the people here themselves started to want to make their own kind of film." (p. 152)

A few pages later, a propos of a different question, another Quebec filmmaker, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, notes that such a reaction came "after being colonized or alienated by others — by the clergy, by the English, by the French, by Americans — after four centuries of alienation and colonization…" (p. 164) The attitude and reaction belong to Quebec, but Harcourt twists the implications of Carle and Lefebvre's remarks and appropriates them for Canada as a whole. Quebec, however, functions in a specific relation to English Canada, as well as to the other nations and cultures which have colonized it. Perhaps the traditional view of Canada as a federal whole embodies a basic contradiction vis-à-vis Quebec: it exposes the difference between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and still attempts to plaster over the political crack with a patch of "national unity." Rather than dealing with this contradiction, or with cultural differences within the whole, Harcourt attempts his own type of pluralist patching. He argues for a solid thematic connection between Franco- and Anglophonic cinema in Canada, while asserting that the Quebecois have used film to explore their own distinct culture and heritage.

One element which distinguished Quebec from other cultures, Harcourt rightly indicates, is its language. Claude Jutra and al1 Quebec artists working with words are quick to point out that français quebecois differs from français parisien (teachers of the French language are just as quick to state this, usually giving Quebec the short end of the status stick). Jutra comments that Pierre Perrault's use of the lower St. Lawrence people and their dialect in, say, POUR LA SUITE DU MONDE (1963), or Michel Tremblay's plays set in East End Montreal have ennobled the languages (p. 145). Moreover, I would add, they indicate a regionality within Quebec itself. (The Outremont, a Montreal repertory cinema, notes such language distinctions in its programmes: "en anglais," "en français," "en quebecois," and, for Tremblay's and Andre Brassard'S IL ETAIT UNE FOIS DANS L'EST, "en montrealais.")

But regions are distinguished by more than language differences; there are more regional differences than that of Quebec/English Canada. In a land as vast as Canada, natural geography and resources, and the ability to conquer and exploit them determine boundaries and distinctions. Regional friction, especially on economic grounds, does surface regularly. Facing a particularly cold winter with an imbalance in distribution of energy products, Alberta slogans appeared a couple of years ago, encouraging westerners to "LET THE EASTERN BASTARDS FREEZE."

One region is distinct from another in appearance — Saskatchewan prairies look nothing like the rocky Newfoundland shores. Moreover, different regions generate specific forms of work and types of people. In terms of the movies, I'm thinking simply of setting and character and the relations between the two — concepts which are by no means new to Canadian cultural studies, especially of painting and literature. But on another level, regions rarely hold final creative or economic control over film production. It's in the hands of the "eastern bastards" in Toronto and Montreal. Decentralization is happening on some planes of production. The NFB/ONF, rooted first in Ottawa, then Montreal, has recently set up production offices in Vancouver, Halifax, and, ironically, Toronto. Allan King's production WHO HAS SEEN THE WIND?, shot in Saskatchewan, was supported in part by an unprecedented grant by that province in return for a program of workshops for Saskatchewan film people — bringing Eastern expertise to the West, as it were. In one province farther west, Alberta film personnel have benefited from more frequent production work, both domestic and U.S., using the province's varied landscape for location work. Based in that province, Canadian producer Fil Fraser recently scored with WHY SHOOT THE TEACHER?

Harcourt states in his introduction that Movies and Mythologies is directed at "the casual moviegoer who might like to have, in a nutshell, some information about the growth of national cinemas as well as some guide lines concerning an approach to our own." For the world cinema, his work is less than enlightening, simply essays on various national cinemas using established critical methods (to be fair, his section on British film does stand taller than others, but I suspect mostly because of spokespeople-filmmakers such as Ken Loach and Lindsay Anderson, whom Harcourt quotes at length). For the chapters on Canadian cinema, these "guide-lines" finally become an ultimatum: a question of whether or not Canadians will support Canadian film. Whether, as he says, "we are for them or against them."

Here, as throughout the book, Harcourt's presentation is simplified and reduced to essentials. For an account of film history and world cinema, such an approach can be deceptive and dangerously elementary. Particularly for the non-Canadian reader, the Nationalist/Continentalist approach that Harcourt describes might serve as a bridge to the problems of Canadian cinema. In examining the field of feature film distribution, it is quite solid footing. To his credit, Harcourt devotes considerable space to a trenchant argument against the U.S. dominated distribution/exhibition oligopoly present in Canada. The effects of this system have clearly repressed commercial Canadian filmmaking. The Nationalist model, however, ignores distinctions within the nation. For his Canadian readership (from the above statement and the national radio network origins of the book, this is obviously Harcourt's audience), the model is not sufficient. English Canadian features that Harcourt admires — PAPERBACK HERO, THE BOWDYMAN, MONTREAL MAIN — clearly present a region or milieu, as does NOBODY WAVED GOODBYE. They are distinct not only from U.S. films but also from each other. They are located, respectively, in the Prairies, on the Atlantic Coast, East End Montreal, and Toronto and its suburbs. Each presents distinct types of people in various social standings, living types of lives appropriate to that area. The Quebecois film makes such distinctions (and further cultural and racial ones) more obvious than these sample English Canadian movies, which share at least a language.

Harcourt emulates Margaret Atwood's Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Each is intended as a fresh start, as an introduction, and as a polemic. Both examine a body of work and tease out thematic unities. When such unities are constructed in ignorance of, or to mask over, regional and cultural differences, the critic runs the risk of obscuring the mythology s/he is attempting to expose. Simple acceptance of the concept of a Canadian cinema implies assumption of a kind of blind faith in the concept of "Canada." To scrutinize the former without questioning the bases of the latter (and recall that Harcourt's stated project is the examination of national cinemas within national cultural contexts) is necessarily transitory, possibly counter-productive. Harcourt's provocative critical voice can work to obscure distinct elements and tendencies in Canadian film culture, which must, finally, be taken into account. To continue a critical dialogue on Canadian film without acknowledging and incorporating thoughts on regionalism is, to use the Allan King film title again, akin to running away backwards.


Two notes which I couldn't insert gracefully into the text:

To the best of my knowledge, Movies and Mythologies is not presently published or distributed outside Canada. I purchased my copy at Cine Books, 642 Yonge Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2Z8. Alternately, the publisher is CBC Learning Systems, PO Box 500, Station A, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5W 1E6

The second note concerns a distracting flaw in the first edition of the book. There's no way of tracing the blame for the number of minor typos in the text. In a time of "instant books" and ever more quickly approaching deadlines, one comes to expect a quota of minor errors. Such gross mistakes as the inversion of an entire phrase (and when the words are not the author's own but part of an extended quotation from MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, set apart from the body of the text) one might expect to be caught at the proofreading stage. And let's face it, despite his stormy career, Sam Peckinpah has never made a movie called RIDE HIGH IN THE COUNTRY (no matter how much he or his critics would like to).