- George Melnyk (Editor)
Great Canadian Film Directors. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Brian McIlroy
George Melnyk runs the risk of being cast as a modern day Malvolio, apparently believing that some Canadian filmmakers achieve greatness, and, failing that, should have greatness thrust upon them. The boosterism of the title to the book is somewhat off-putting to the cautiously minded academic, even if one is glad to see a Western Canadian university press promote the study of Canadian Cinema. It used to be the case that teaching Canadian cinema was a difficult task. In the 1970s, 1980s, and even 1990s, teachers were faced with problems of access to films and good textbooks. Questions were always raised around the quality of Canadian cinema, as if one were essentially teaching the subject only out of some misplaced residual guilt. True cinema, it was easily assumed, was elsewhere in Hollywood, Europe, and Japan. Thankfully, those days are mostly gone, and the one hundred plus students who regularly sign up for Canadian cinema courses at UBC, for example, clearly think so too.
One of the ways one can track this increased interest is the number of single-authored books and edited anthologies of critical essays on the subject that have appeared in the first years of the twenty-first century. These texts include Gene Walz’s Canada’s Best Features (2002), Katherine Monk’s Weird Sex and Snowshoes (2001), Andre Loiselle and Tom McSorley’s Self-Portraits: The Cinemas of Canada (2006), Christopher Gittings’ Canadian National Cinema (2002), Bill Beard and Jerry White’s North of Everything (2002), and Jerry White’s The Cinema of Canada (2006). We even now have a first- or second-year university-level introductory text, Film in Canada (2006), courtesy of Jim Leach. The Canadian Journal of Film Studies (est. 1990) has also been a leading light in this resurgence.
Unfortunately, Melnyk’s brief introduction makes no mention of these recent works, and thereby leaves the informed reader wondering if there is an assured rationale for those directors chosen, and those omitted. At a more general level, Melnyk is correct to observe that making universal critical statements about Canadian cinema is a challenge, an uncertainty created by strong regional interests, state dependence for funding, a powerful documentary tradition, and the absence of a central studio system. Little wonder he argues that a director-driven Canadian cinema has resulted.
The book comprises nineteen essays on Canadian and Quebecois filmmakers, organized as “Late Greats” (Kay Armatage on Joyce Wieland and Nell Shipman, David Clandfield on Claude Jutra, Jim Leach on Jean-Claude Lauzon; “Contemporary Greats” (Pierre Veronneau on Denys Arcand, George Melnyk on David Cronenberg, Bill Beard on Atom Egoyan, Christopher Gittings on John Greyson, Bart Testa on Norman Jewison, Peter Dickinson on Robert Lepage, Aaron Taylor on Bruce McDonald, Jennifer Gauthier on Lea Pool, Brenda Austin-Smith on Patricia Rozema, and Jacqueline Levitin on Mina Shum; and “Future Greats” ( Patricia Gruben on Gary Burns, Bart Beaty on Michael Dowse, Sally Chivers and Nicole Markotic on Thom Fitzgerald, Jerry White on Zach Kunuk, Paul Salmon on Don McKellar, and Kaali Paakspuu on Lynne Stopkewich). Melnyk’s taxonomy is arbitrary and untheorized. One is reminded of Jean-Luc Godard in 1984 wondering if there was a difference between himself, as a living person, and Francois Truffaut, who was then just recently deceased. While he bore the brunt of mostly anglophone derision, he was probably pointing to the fact that whether a filmmaker is alive or dead should not determine our critical view of the work produced. Surely, a better framework for the book could have been attempted? It is also odd to see the living filmmakers further divided between “contemporary” and “future,” for this leads to the faintly absurd situation of Mina Shum “promoted” above Lynne Stopkewich, absurd given that Mina Shum actually learned her art on a film that Lynne Stopkewich worked on as a major participant (The Grocer’s Wife directed by John Pozer). Is it because Shum has directed three feature films and Stopkewich just two? And yet, it appears here the moniker “great” can be applied to any Canadian who has made at least two feature films.
Such quibbles aside, we should be grateful that Melnyk has been the facilitator for some excellent essays. The most original pieces include those of Jerry White on Zach Zunuk’s career and artistic perspective, Jacqueline Levitin on Mina Shum’s difficult but fruitful creative negotiation of her Chinese Canadian status, Patricia Gruben’s thoughtful analysis of Gary Burns’ work, and Bart Testa’s valiant and exceedingly well informed attempt to cut through the misconceptions about Norman Jewison and his films. Students grappling with Canadian cinema for the first time will be grateful for Bill Beard’s views on Atom Egoyan, Kay Armatage’s feminist take on Nell Shipman and Joyce Wieland’s curtailed careers, Pierre Veronneau’s masterly overview of Denys Arcand’s themes, Brenda Austin Smith’s astute treatment of Patricia Rozema’s cinema, and Peter Dickinson’s critique of Robert Lepage’s oeuvre. It is also good to see attention given to Lea Pool, whose European sensibilities have tended to bracket her out of many Canadian and Québécois critical contexts. A few of the essays lack, to my mind, a compelling argument, but all of them provide useful information for undergraduate students to grapple with; and one assumes from the level of writing, and from the absence of theory for the most part, they are the intended audience.
The sins of omission are endless in any anthology, and I’m sure Melnyk would be the first to admit that another book could be published on a slew of other directors—Guy Maddin, Bruce Sweeney, John Paizs, Sandy Wilson, Anne Wheeler, Francois Girard, Andre Forcier, to name only a few. As it stands, the collection comprises some original work, many solid introductions, and only a few missed opportunities. The book enters an increasingly crowded field of general anthologies, however, and while it cannot match the depth and reach of Beard and White’s North of Everything, it does modestly succeed (and provides a choice for instructors) by incorporating Quebecois directors and films for the consideration of an English reading public.
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MLA: McIlroy, Brian and Melnyk, George. Achieving Greatness. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 July 2015.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 163 - 164)
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