The Toronto Film Festival (TIFF) makes its impact each September by showcasing U.S. prestige product with Oscar-encrusted casts and international movies from world-class directors. It doesn't get much ink for its effort to promote Canadian movies, though heaven knows it's got a lot of them: 81 films (most of them shorts) out of the 349 on offer this year, or 23% of the entries. But the emphasis on local product is widely seen as an affirmative action project with little impact beyond its borders.
Indeed, to many movie critics from the U.S. and abroad, coming to TIFF is like visiting the home of some famous art collector. He takes you through rooms of his Picassos and Pollocks (the U.S., European and Asian masterworks), then leads you down a corridor where some gaudy daubs on lined paper are tacked to the walls and says brightly, "Now I'd like you to see my kid's paintings."
Fact is, TIFF's rise to prominence over the past three decades hasn't been accompanied by an emergence of Canada as an important national cinema. This country of 33 million has left less of an artistic footprint than, say, Hong Kong (6 million population) in the 80s or Sweden (4 million) in the Ingmar Bergman years. The provinces have produced a few notable directors David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan from Ontario, Denys Arcand from Quebec, Guy Maddin from Manitoba but their careers date back to the 60s, 70s or 80s. Other Canadians, like directors Norman Jewison and Paul Haggis and a slew of comedy stars, have packed their bags and emigrated to the dominant movie culture in the U.S.
But two of Canada's star auteurs have excellent new movies in this year's TIFF: Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and Maddin's My Winnipeg. How Canadian are they? Let's see.
RUSSIAN TO JUDGMENT
Cronenberg made his name in the 70s as the perpetrator of cleverly icky films Shivers, Rabid, The Brood that found an adult outlet for the fears at the root of the horror genre. His 1986 remake of The Fly still stands as an eloquent treatise on man's determination to cope with a degenerative disease: cancer, AIDS or, in this case, a slavering, 6ft.-tall insect.
Two years ago, Cronenberg's lagging career got a boost with A History of Violence, a project, based on a graphic novel, that this total filmmaker joined as director only. The tale of a small-town businessman (Viggo Mortensen) whom some visiting thugs say is a mob enforcer back in the big city, and the effect this has on his family, A History of Violence earned a heap of critics' prizes and two Oscar nominations. Now Cronenberg is, for the moment, a helmer for hire. His new film, which opens this Friday in some U.S. cities, was written by Steve Knight, author of the multi-ethnic London underworld drama Dirty Pretty Things, and it has a lot in common with that movie and with A History of Violence.
As in Dirty Pretty Things, this film is set in immigrant London this time, members of the Russian diaspora, some honest, most not. And like A History of Violence, it's about a mysterious gunman (Mortensen again) and his connection with an ordinary family drawn into the web of mob intrigue. Anna (Naomi Watts) is a half-Russian midwife who's come into possession of a diary whose secrets could bring down the gang empire run by restaurateur Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). She makes the mistake of giving the diary, which she can't read, to Semyon, and he assigns Nikolai (Mortensen), a hit man new to the gang, to keep an eye and a heavy hand on the midwife.
Eastern Promises (a flaccid title for such a taut film) has some sensational set pieces: a barber-shop murder in the first few minutes, and a long, brutal fight in a bathhouse between Mortensen and two thugs; they're armed, he's naked. But at heart it's a two-family drama, one being Anna's sensible English aunt (Sinead Cusack) and crabby Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski), the other Semyon and his son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Kirill is like a mutant Corleone: he has Sonny's hair-trigger impulses and Fredo's drug-addled weak streak, stemming from a need to be respected by his father and from Kirill's realization that he's not measuring up that Nikolai may be usurping his spot as No. 1 Son.
The movie doesn't rise above its genre conventions so much as it burrows into them, finding complexities and contradictions in the standard tropes. You'll learn plenty about the perils of disappointing a strong patriarch, not to mention the iconography of Russian gangland tattoos. Cronenberg orchestrates all this, and his dedicated cast, to turn out an exercise that is brisk, dark, compelling ... everything but Canadian.
A MAN, A PLAN, A CANARD: WINNIPEG!
After Sunday's screening of My Winnipeg, Maddin took some questions about his "docu-fantasia" on the Manitoba city he's lived in all his life. A man in the audience stood up and said he'd been born and raised there before moving to Toronto, and that he liked it. "Don't you like Winnipeg?" the man asked accusingly. Maddin smiled and replied, "You're the one who left it."
I suppose Maddin could make his movies anywhere. But no one else could make them. A crazy-smart mix of avant- and retro-garde, they address big topics (corporate greed, national identity, pre-adolescent lust, family betrayal) in a style that suggests an antique silent film rescued from a dump heap on Mars. The film stock is scratched, the actors declaim in bombastic gestures, the canned music hits overly ominous chords, and the printed intertitles often read like the mutterings of obsession ("Force!" "Must escape!" "What if???"). If this sounds off-putting, jump back on, because Maddin's films from Tales of the Gimli Hospital, his first full-length feature 20 years ago, to last year's silent feature Brand Upon the Brain!, and especially his magnificent 6-min. The Heart of the World, commissioned by TIFF in 2000 are headlong, heartfelt, weirdly sexy and a hoot. I don't want to diminish his artistic achievement, but the Maddin oeuvre is a joy to sit through.
Before seeing My Winnipeg, all I knew about the city was that Maddin came from it. After seeing (and adoring) the movie, I'm still not sure how much of it is verifiably true. A ramble through Google tells me that, as the film tells us, Winnipeg did have a huge department store, Eaton's, where the locals did most of their shopping, and an iconic hockey venue, the Winnipeg Arena, home of the Maroons in the Senior Hockey League and the Jets of the NHL; both these historic sites have been razed. In 1942 the city really did hold an "If Day," dressing its burghers up as Nazis to show its citizens some of the terrors of life under the Third Reich. There was indeed a paddock fire in the winter of 1926 that sent horses fleeing desperately into the icy Red River, where some of them died, frozen, their heads and necks sticking out for months like, Maddin says, "11 knights on a vast white chessboard."
But considering that My Winnipeg was sponsored by Canada's Documentary Channel, you may wonder how many of Maddin's other assertions are factual? Does Winnipeg have "10 times the sleepwalking rate of any city in the world"? Is it really "the coldest city in the world"? I don't know. To me these sound like the boastful statistics that adults feed to an imaginative, impressionable boy, and that stick in his head forever like the image of those frozen horses.
I also suspect that the portrait of his mother is partly fanciful. She has the melodramatic sulfur of the mad mom in one of David Sedaris' "memoir" stories, the domineering vindictiveness of a shrew-mother from 40s movies. In fact, she's played in the film by none other than Ann Savage, the virulent megabitch Vera in Edgar G. Ulmer's cheapo noir classic Detour. That was 62 years ago, and now, at 86, she is the icy Queen Maddin, standing in for all the city's overbearing women. (As narrator, he says, "Never underestimate the tenacity of a Winnipeg mother"). Still she pops up unbidden in her filmmaker son's memories. Again she quizzes her daughter Janet when the teen comes in to report that she hit a deer and a passing motorist helped put the creature out of its misery. Mother twists the story into an accusation that Janet had sex with a stranger. "No innocent girl stays out after 10 with blood on her fender!"
I do believe, because its recollections are stirred so powerfully here, that Guy and his family lived at 800 Ellis Avenue, with the ground floor a beauty parlor run by his mother and his aunt Lil, and the Maddin residence perched on the floor above. He says that a vent from the salon led directly into his bedroom, "bringing me every bit of gossip that roiled up from that gynocracy ... the smells of female vanity and desperation."
That home life, where father Charlie was off managing the Winnipeg Maroons hockey team and mother was clearly in charge, was so formative to Maddin that he's often recreated it in his films. Here, he decides "to vivisect his own childhood" by renting the old homestead for a month, casting actors as his three siblings and shooting scenes he remembers or imagines from his youth. Savage continues to impersonate his mother; his girlfriend's dog appears as Guy's long-dead pet chihuahua; and since, just before shooting starts, the woman who rented the place to Maddin decides she doesn't want to leave, she becomes an amusingly extraneous figure of the family portrait.
The open scabs Maddin keeps picking at after 40 years; the story of the man hired by the city to exorcise haunted furniture; the seances held in government buildings; the homoerotic camaraderie of the all-boys' swimming pool or the hockey-rink locker room all these gave me the giggles and the creeps. I haven't laugh so hard, or with such good reason, since seeing Borat in Toronto last year.
And I haven't often found such a cockeyed, clear-eyed justification for nostalgia which for Maddin can mean both homesickness and sick-of-homeness. His movie, whatever the man in the TIFF audience thought, has a passion and poignancy that can come only from an artist who loves his city, and its people, and his family, for its failings no less than for its chilly charms. An aging prairie town that has lost some of its grandest relics, Winnipeg is like any person, middle-age or older, who cherishes what he once had every bit as much as he regrets what's vanished. As Maddin suggested in the Q&A, home is a place that never leaves you.
I think My Winnipeg is the finest, funniest, saddest film I've seen in Toronto or at any festival this year.