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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.

David Cronenberg’s Silent Hell

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 16: The Awkward Quiet

The scariest thing in a David Cronenberg film isn’t the chilling body-horror practical effects or the strangely stilted performances. It’s the long, awkward stretches of quiet.

Watch Naked Lunch, Scanners, or The Dead Zone and pay attention to the background music or lack thereof. A Cronenberg film doesn’t need to rely on creepy strings or jump-scare stings. More so than anyone in our series so far – yes, even Jordan Peterson – Cronenberg’s films are distillations of the nihilistic, the amoral, and the meaningless, presented (for the most part) without ornamentation.

There is blood, and there is gore, and there are transformations into fly-men, and all of these are great selling points for a film trailer. But these concessions to traditional horror are never the point of a Cronenberg film. The point is that the characters were already monsters, and the only thing that has changed is that now they look like monsters.

Canadian Culture Creators And The Intellectual Dark Web

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 15: Jordan Peterson Rising

Henceforth, we break with the kitschy and safe government-approved forms of Canadian culture. It’s all rebels, mavericks, and misfits from now on. Some of these culture creators are famous and “acceptable”, and still others are infamous and “dangerous”. But they all have one thing in common – Canada was too small to contain them. They were either too talented, too controversial, or both.

Filmmaker David Cronenberg, who we’ll be covering next week, is one of these outsiders who you might have heard of – possibly because The Simpsons parodied one of his films, possibly because of those Rick and Morty episodes which feature body-horror abominations known as Cronenbergs, or because you have used that .gif from Scanners of the balding man whose head explodes. For those who have no familiarity with this wild world, I’ll ease you in with a quick analysis of a group of admittedly strange people you have definitely heard of: the Canadian members of the Intellectual Dark Web.

Douglas Coupland And The Hopeful (?) Future Of Canadian (?) Culture

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 14: Generation X Origins

If someone was to ask me what the future of Canadian art and culture looked like, I would point them to the work of Douglas Coupland, the influential author, playwright and visual artist. How influential is he? Chances are you know a Generation X-er, or that you are one. If so, you can thank Coupland, because he invented the term.

Unlike the other authors I’ve introduced, however, Coupland doesn’t exactly belong at the commanding heights of High Canadian Culture, because he is an obsessive chaser of the zeitgeist, and like many of the Canadian directors, actors, musicians and other personalities I will introduce going forward- he keeps one foot on either side of the 49th parallel. As such, he has been (somewhat justly) accused of lacking depth, but he more than makes up for that in accessibility.

Jazz VS. the Nazis: Esi Edugyan’s Extraordinary Half-Blood Blues

Deconstructing Canadian Culture, Part 13: A Novel I Cannot Recommend Enough

So as our series on major Canadian writers draws to a close, it’s time to ask the big questions that hang over everything: Who or what is to blame for the current state of Canadian literature? Why the tiny clique of writers who must content themselves with being the “Canadian Twain” or the “Canadian Bronte” or the “Canadian Faulkner”? Why the over-reliance on over-hyped creations like Atwood or Boyden? Where is the counterculture pushing for change, any change?

After spending more than a decade enmeshed in Canadian politics and culture, the only conclusion I can draw is: There is no impetus for change. Canadians simply don’t care whether they have a robust culture or not. Because if they did, there would be artists and funders and a homegrown Canadian counterculture movement, just like there is in every other country.

But, as the case of Esi Edugyan proves, there is no interest in building such a counterculture movement, even when the perfect leader of that would-be movement is right there.

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