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I Would Like to Acknowledge…

Part 1 of a new series on Australian culture

The entrance to the Stringybark Creek Bushwalk is not far from my apartment a couple miles north of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia. If you planned a hike in this government-funded nature reserve smack dab in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world – Sydney is home to 5.7 million people – you could be forgiven for thinking you might not see much bush on your Bushwalk, but you’d be wrong.  Soon after you set off, the sights and sounds of the city are swallowed by the densely packed canopy above. Forty minutes and a few random turns later you start to wonder – especially if you’ve decided to go without your phone for the afternoon – whether you’ll be able to find your way back home. A half hour later, emerging from the Bushwalk a few steps away from a pub with a Sunday schnitzel and beer special, you wonder why you were ever worried in the first place.

William Shatner: To Boldy Goof

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 25: Faking It Until He Made It

For some, the word “goof” is associated with a dim-witted but lovable Disney character. For Canadians, “goof” is the ultimate insult, on par with being called a child molester. Walk into a bar in Canada and call someone a goof and you will get your ass kicked.

A “goof” may be completely harmless and well-meaning. The goof wants to be liked. But something is… off about him. His behaviour isn’t quite normal. It’s persistently annoying. He’s the opposite of the level-headed Canadian exemplar.

People notice and target the goof. Women won’t touch the goof. If you see him, cross the street. His actions can’t go unpunished. And he’s got to reassert his place in the social order by fighting.

Sometimes, however, the goof gets the last laugh. They want to call me a goof? I’ll show them just how goofy I can be

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you get William Shatner.

Leslie Nielsen: Accidentally Absurd

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 24: The Funniest Thing in a Movie Where Jokes are Delivered Almost Every Minute

Surely, Leslie Nielsen was never supposed to be a serious actor? Well, I am serious – and don’t call me “Shirley.”

Nielsen – who has always been a sort of Canadian Adam West to me, utterly and earnestly oblivious to how ridiculous he comes off – is an important dividing line between the serious actors I’ve discussed in previous weeks who would often find themselves caught up in the campiest of schlockfests, and the Canadian actors who began as clowns and later craved respect, such as Mike Myers and Jim Carrey.

Plummer and Sutherland brought gravitas to ridiculous roles, and, as we’ll see, Carrey and Myers tried to inject some levity into serious drama. Nielsen is different because – at least initially – he wasn’t going for over the top humour or deadpan seriousness. There’s a Chaplinesque passivity and calm on display as he boldly soldiers through silliness like the Star Trek forerunner Forbidden Planet.

Donald Sutherland: Grit Personified

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 23: Toughness Tempered with Gentleness

“Grit” is a concept we will be returning to when we discuss the place of sport in Canadian culture, but for now it serves as a way to distinguish between ethereals like Christopher Plummer and Mary Pickford and Donald Sutherland, the legitimately cool, relatable rogue.

“Grit” is also not uniquely Canadian. Harrison Ford exudes grit. Nick Nolte has it in spades. Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Charlton Heston… I could go on. But Sutherland is no hardened cowboy, no scruffy nerf-herder. He may have been one of the Dirty Dozen, but his role in that infamous operation was to “stay out in the drive” and impersonate enemy soldiers. In M*A*S*H* (the film) he was Hawkeye Pierce,  a well-known lover but no fighter. When he ends up body snatched in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pointing and shrieking in that memorable scene near the end, the opposite him reacts with sorrow as well as fear.

Christopher Plummer: A Modern Prospero

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 22: As Blue-Blooded and Upper Canadian as They Come

To criticize a universally beloved 89-year-old titan of stage and screen – possibly best known as Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music, a role he famously detests –  is a thing not easily done.

This is the man they brought in to save Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World after Kevin Spacey’s heinous deeds were exposed at the height of #MeToo. (He will not be the last Canadian on our list that acted as a calming force during that period of justified outrage.) Spike Lee trusted him enough to cast him in two of his films. He played a Klingon with a hilarious eyepatch and “The Emperor” in a schlocky Star War ripoff, Starcrash, with the same grace and aplomb as his many, many Shakespearean turns – Henry V, Hamlet, Caesar, Mercutio, Lear, and, yes – Prospero.

But as Christopher Plummer himself will readily admit, his life has been a charmed one, mostly free of the struggle and want common to most actors. Plummer’s easygoing yet authoritative presence, his capability and durability, and above all his magical ability to project order cannot be truly understood unless you know that he was born to the cream of Canadian society, the great-grandson of Canada’s third Prime Minister, John Abbott.

Mary Pickford: The Archetypal (Canadian) Actress

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 21: The Blank Screen

The history of Canadian actors is unlike the history of Canadians in any other medium. Canadian novelists are celebrated at home and barely noticed abroad. Canadian musicians are oddities and curiosities with hardcore fanbases. Canadian directors are singular visionaries who engage (or refuse to engage) with the meaning of life itself.

But Canadians have been such an integral part of Hollywood that you have to remind people that a famous actor is, or was Canadian. And so, as I introduce the archetypal Canadian actress – Gladys Smith, aka Mary Pickford – I really have to squint to pick out what makes her Canadian.

The Reitman Family’s Blissful Ignorance

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 20: Space to Laugh an Easy Laugh

Meatballs. Space Jam. Kindergarten Cop. Animal House. And above all, Ghostbusters.

These are just a few of the easy, breezy, morally loose and lighthearted comedy classics either directed by or produced by Canadian film legend Ivan Reitman. I don’t have to introduce or analyze them, because you know them all. You can quote lines from them. These films were memeworthy before memes were a thing.

Everything about the guy just screams likeability. Reitman was happy to lend some of his middle-to-low-brow cred to more artistically-minded Canadians – he produced Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and helped David Cronenberg with a couple of his early projects in the ’70s. Kids can – and probably should, these days – watch his films and delight in them. Actors like Bill Murray, Danny DeVito and Sigourney Weaver loved working with him, and years later he helped give birth to the “Frat Pack” comedy explosion with 2003’s Old School. Even SJWs have to build around or subvert the structures he creates rather than trying to tear them down – that’s how you got “Lady Ghostbusters.”

Paul Haggis’ Superficial Gloss

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 19: Promising More Than He Delivers

The Oscars are long over, and not a few commentators were of the opinion that the latest Best Picture Winner, Green Book, was the worst film to claim the prize since Crash, way back in 2005. Not a great comparison to be sure, but think about it this way: In our outrage-driven culture, and against ever-more virtue-signaling efforts like The Shape of Water and Moonlight, Crash somehow managed to hold the title of Worst Best Picture Ever for 14 years.

Atom Egoyan’s Stammering Grief

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 18: Ararat

I wish I could tell you that Atom Egoyan’s films are as interesting as David Cronenberg’s or Guy Maddin’s, but they aren’t.

Are they more realistic? Sure. His characters stammer and mumble. They speak quietly and move clumsily. They affect pained expressions instead of Maddin’s exaggerated silent movie mugging.  But then again that may be the point. When life seems meaningless, or when disaster strikes, people don’t always spend an hour in makeup, shoot a few takes before the director yells “Cut!” and then break for lunch. Sometimes people just freeze or go numb.

Egoyan and his wife, actress Arsinee Khanjian, know of what they speak. They are intimately familiar with grief and loss and can be justly credited with raising awareness of the Armenian genocide, which they explore in depth in Ararat.

Guy Maddin’s Surrealist Madness

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 17: The Saddest Music In The World

What do you do when confronted with the absurdity and meaninglessness of life? Peterson tries to make sense of things with Maps of Meaning and Rules for Life. Cronenberg chooses to exaggerate way, way past the most horrific boundaries imaginable. But Guy Maddin takes a different approach and leaps out the escape hatch into insanity.

Maddin can best be described as a hybrid of Dostoyevsky, Dali, Freud and Chaplin. He is the dark side of Findley and Davies, with their conventional narratives, their organized and rather dry Jungian taxonomy of archetypes. But then again Findley and Davies were representatives of Southern Ontario Gothic, where even the supernatural is peaceful and orderly. Maddin is from Winnipeg, Manitoba, a place buried by -40 C cold, hemmed in between rivers and lakes, split by railways going out in every direction, and the site of the General Strike of 1919, where 30,000 working men and women were crushed by the Northwestern Mounted Police, the fore-runners of those cheerful, helpful, red-coated Mounties.

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