Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

National Identity, Canadian Cinema, and Multiculturalism

Scott MacKenzie
University of Glasgow

In discussing the roles played by nationality, the nation-state, and identity in contemporary global culture, Arjun Appadurai notes that: "We need to think ourselves beyond the nation. This is not to suggest that thought alone will carry us beyond the nation or that the nation is largely a thought or imagined thing. Rather, it is to suggest that the role of intellectual practices is to identify the current crisis of the nation and, in identifying it, to provide part of the apparatus of recognition for postnational forms."1 It is my contention that in relation to cultural production, in many ways, Canada is already postnational and multicultural in nature and therefore offers us insight into what shape a multicultural, postnational cinema might take.

In thinking about the role of multicultural cinemas in the postnational world, one of the things which is intriguing is Canada’s status as both a coloniser and a postcolonial nation-state. Indeed, there are some broad similarities between Canada and other postcolonial nations, but it is these similarities which foreground profound differences. For instance, while Canada, India, and Hong Kong were all colonies of the once mighty, now barren, British Empire, their situations as colonies were obviously quite different. Yet, a similar colonial logic was used as justification for the colonialization of both the sub-continent and Canada. This similarity often goes unnoticed: in the 1931 Statute of Westminster, Canada’s constitution was not repatriated, as the British government felt that without the BNA act being ensconced in the UK, the Canadian provinces would to a large extent decentralise the federal system—which is the very same worry that British Conservatives have in regard to Scotland now. Therefore, Canada’s Constitution was only repatriated in 1982, and had to be negotiated with Margaret Thatcher. This all took place 35 years after Indian independence. Québec had also felt the wrath of British colonial mentalities with the infamous Durham report of 1839, which argued for their complete assimilation for their own sake. Because of these past-oriented incidents and because of the proximity of American culture, Canada has never totally escaped a colonial mentality. And in the perverse North American colony mentality, one of the European nationalities that colonised the country (the Québecois) now feel colonised by the other invading nationality (the English) while the English in Québec often now claim colonised status at the hands of these very same people, who feel colonised by the rest of English Canada. And while all these white colonial subjects argue about who colonised whom first, the indigenous people and the multi-ethnics, who were colonised by both groups, are left out of the equation.

This dissolution of a clearly defined Canadian nation has led some to call the country the first post-modern State. Charles Levin, for example, uses the quandaries posed by the ambiguities of Canadian nationalisms as a salient example of the consequences of existing in these postmodern circumstances:

Although Canada is officially a 'duality', the number of possible Canadian nations is far greater, since not only the province of Québec, but all the provinces secretly want to become ‘independent’. Moreover, the aboriginals are divided among themselves over how many nations they comprise, and whether these belong to Canada, or to some larger aboriginal nation which is also part of Canada, though not actually belonging to it. Each of this growing number of nations wants to have nothing to do with the others: and each bitterly opposes the attempts of the others to leave. 2

As well as being the first postmodern and perhaps first postnational state, Canada is also the first co-dependent State, where each nation needs the others in order to preserve its own fractured and highly tenuous sense of identity. Identity, in this context, can only be generated through the projection of an "other" who is both dialogistic and antagonistic in nature.

It is this continual identity crisis that makes trying to define "Canadian culture" so difficult. What constitutes Canadian cinema—popular, art, multicultural or otherwise—has long been a preoccupation of Canadian cultural and film critics. Yet, despite this attention, there is no clear answer to the question. To talk of Canadian cinema, in the first instance, seems oxymoronic. After all, with the majority of Canadian screens showing nothing but American feature films, and the majority of our audiences seeing and enjoying these same films, where can one begin to conceptualise a properly "Canadian cinema"? Can "Canadian cinema" simply mean the films made, in the titular sense, in Canada, which some Canadians perhaps have seen? For instance, during the tax shelter years, would one consider popular "Canadian" film to be productions like Ivan Reitman's Meatballs (1979), Bob Clark's Porky's (1983) or Alvin Rakoff's Death Ship (1980)? If this is the only way we can define popular Canadian cinema, is the effort really worth it? Indeed, one of the key problems facing us as we attempt to define a minor national cinema is outlined by Mette Hjort, who argues:

To be a member of a minor culture is to encounter the problematic nature of publics, for inferior status within a hierarchy of cultures is directly linked to attitudes of public indifference or overt disdain. It would appear that in the case of minor cultures, lack of interest is expressed, not by one, but by multiple publics, only some of which are located outside the boundaries of the nation-state. 3

It is against this backdrop of overt disdain or indifference on the part of Canadian film audiences—who typically prefer American products—that many have attempted to define a Canadian cinema. Perhaps, then, we should refine the definition so that popular Canadian film is cinema that is seen on Canadian screens, films which, in economic terms, are relatively successful, and which don't simply mimic the style, content, and ideological disposition of Hollywood cinema. Might one also wish to postulate that popular Canadian cinema shares common themes, concerns, and preoccupations? Indeed, throughout the years, a variety of critics have attempted to define Canadian cinema as a reflection of Canadian life and culture. This debate as to what could constitute a truly Canadian cinema came to a head with the publication in 1985 of R. Bruce Elder's manifesto "The Cinema We Need." 4 In this essay, Elder attacks the attempt on the part of Canadian filmmakers to make "New Narrative film": a cinema that is different from Hollywood cinema's desire for traditional storytelling and which draws upon, in part, the aesthetic of the Canadian avant-garde. Elder claims that Canadian narrative cinema will never be able to compete with American products and that this "New Narrative cinema" engages in a process of vandalization and commercialisation of the Canadian avant-garde tradition.

This debate, then, posited that there were two traditions of filmmaking in Canada, the documentary realist tradition of the National Film Board—whose aesthetic prevailed even in non-Board productions and in fiction films, as Elder notes—and that of the avant-garde, which challenged dominant modes of representation both in Canada and "mainstream" cinema in general. As Peter Morris points out, this process of canonisation excludes many aspects of cinematic production in Canada, in an attempt to create one or two national 'styles': "[ . . . ] the equation of national cinema and national identity was an assumption shared unproblematically by many. By 1978, this nationalist assumption had already conditioned a critical approach that emphasised that Canadian films should speak to and from the Canadian milieu, and should address the essential characteristic of being Canadian." 5 Following these arguments, then, films produced as part of a national cinema are made, at least in part, in order to define a culture. This definition seems limited when one begins to explore the diverse exchanges that take place within a culture around a national cinema. It is crucial to remember that films are often used, talked about, critiqued, and appropriated in ways the filmmaker could never have imagined. As a result, it is important to examine the inter-relationship between the cinema and other discourses within the private and public spheres of culture. One must pay particular attention to the ways in which cinematic texts are used and appropriated by a culture in its quest for self-definition. In this regard, it is also essential to consider not only the art-cinema of a given culture—films which often play primarily to foreign audiences—but also the popular cinema of a national culture. As Ginette Vincendeau and Richard Dyer point out in their analysis of European cinema: "The popular cinema of any given European country is not always acknowledged even in the general national histories of film in that country. When it is, it is generally marginalized in favour of often little-seen but critically acclaimed art film traditions, and even this limited awareness rarely extends beyond the study of a nation written in that nation." 6

It is my contention, therefore, that the best we can do in terms of "defining" a national cinema, let alone a multicultural national cinema such as the one found in Canada, is to point to a certain tension and tendencies within a given film culture. From the vantage point of the late 1990s, if Canada does have a popular cinema, this is the cinema we have: one that has meshed within its narrative structures avant-garde and experimental elements, derived both from Canadian experimental film and video and from European art cinema—most notably the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders. Canada’s indigenous cinema, therefore, is always in dialogue with another. Furthermore, the technological effects of image-making technology on Canadian culture described by Elder in his essay have become, in the 1990s, one of the dominant themes of Canadian cinema.

While it is, as noted above, preposterous to suggest that all "Canadian" films share the same concerns, certain themes and neuroses certainly recur quite frequently. What I wish to address presently is one such constellation of themes: the relationship between technology and voyeurism in Canadian film. Granted, films from all cinematic cultures engage in self-reflexivity, but in many Canadian films there is also a profoundly self-conscious concern with the incorporation of cinematic and televisual images into the overall aesthetic of a film, as can be seen in the work of Cronenberg and Egoyan. In Canadian films which have a multicultural theme, such as David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), Atom Egoyan’s Family Viewing (1987), Robert Lepage’s Le confessional (1995) and Srinivas Krishna’s Masala (1991), these concerns are also manifestly present. Indeed, in discussing the work of Atom Egoyan, Peter Harcourt notes that "[t]his intense concern with images is distinctly Canadian. Growing up saturated with images of the United States, we have a special problem in distinguishing between what is imaginary and what is real." 7 Harcourt goes on to note that "[ . . . ] Videodrome is perhaps the ur-text for a whole generation of Toronto film-makers." 8 I would go further and suggest the film stands as the beginning of a new multicultural, Canadian cinema that also embraces works such as Masala, Le confessional and Life Classes. While Egoyan downplays to some extent the influence that Cronenberg's work, and Videodrome in particular, has had on his career, he does state: "this notion of how we are encouraged to hallucinate and the idea that there are shadow worlds that exist in tandem with our reality was, for me, the most compelling aspect of Videodrome."9 In order to examine Canada's overwhelming pre-occupation with how images affect audiences, I'd like to examine two films that seem, on the surface, quite different: Cronenberg's Videodrome and Krishna's Masala. Cronenberg's film offers the central image of recent Canadian cinema, positing a quite literal hybridization of Canadian and American culture, while Krishna's film is one of the earliest and strongest examples of Canadian multicultural cinema, embodying many of the principles of cultural intersection found in contemporary cultural anthropology. To come to terms theoretically with multiculturalism, one must be able to analyse the intersections between cultural practices. For instance, Richard Shweder attempts to redefine the anthropological endeavour in such a way as to allow for the analysis of cultures in contact with, and transforming each other. 10 What Shweder offers us is a means of analysing the intersections of cultures; to see how the practices of different collectivities living together can bring about the existence of new community formations. In order to examine the possibilities of collectivities coming together to form new communities, I now want to turn to Canadian cinema as an example of the problems faced in both the production and analysis of multicultural film. By examining the incorporation of both American and Hindu culture in Canadian film, we shall see how these interfaces transform the aesthetics of Canadian cinema and how the political and cultural landscape of Canada necessitates a multicultural cinema.

Videodrome is perhaps Cronenberg's most "Canadian" of films. The film concerns itself with Max Renn (James Woods), a producer at the Toronto cable television station Civic TV, channel 83. Civic TV specialises in pornography and violence, and Max is always looking for more profitable images. On a television talk show, Max meets radio self-help personality Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and, via television, media prophet Dr. Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley). This encounter sets up the trajectory for the rest of the film, in terms of the contesting philosophies that govern the characters and the film itself. At the same time as Max is appearing on the talk show, Harlan, Channel 83's cable "pirate," pulls in a signal for "Videodrome," a show featuring torture and murder to the exclusion of all else. Tracing the signal to Malaysia, Harlan attempts to pull in a full episode for Max, who is interested in broadcasting the show on Channel 83. Harlan succeeds and, in the process, discovers that the signal actually originates in Pittsburgh. Max shows "Videodrome" to Nicki, who turns out to be quite game for sadomasochistic sex. What Max doesn't realise is that the Videodrome signal causes a brain tumour and hallucinations in its viewers, and that these have already killed O'Blivion.

At this point the film becomes a first person narration, as the audience only has access to the diegetic world of the film through Max's hallucinogenic experiences, and it becomes impossible for the viewer to distinguish between what is "real" and the hallucination. This is not only reflected in the narrative structure of the film, but also in the philosophies espoused by the characters themselves. The characters therefore offer a meta-commentary on the experience the viewer has watching the film. For instance, the philosophy of Dr. Brian O'Blivion is that the media have not only created a new environment, but the only environment that still exists.

O'Blivion's vision of the televisual image is one which, quite self-consciously, echoes that of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. This vision of the electronic image as an internalised part of the sensorium is a current that runs throughout much of McLuhan's work. We can also hear the echoes of Elder's pronouncements on the effects of American media in McLuhan. Whereas Elder believes that technology kills art, and therefore destroys our inner life, McLuhan posits that technology has become a part of us; an extension of our nervous system. We can hear the echoes of Brian O'Blivion in McLuhan's statement in The Medium is the Massage:

All media work us over completely. They are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. 11

While influenced by the use of the televisual image in Videodrome, Masala raises a different set of questions. Srinivas Krishna's first film tells the story of Krishna (Srinivas Krishna), a first generation Indian immigrant to Canada. Krishna's parents had been killed in the Air India bombing, on a plane Krishna himself was supposed to be on. After going through rehab, Krishna tries to come to terms with his remaining family and with his hybrid status as "in-between" Canadian and Hindi culture. The film parodies both the cultural icons and generic traditions of Canadian and Hindi cinema. For instance, the God Krishna appears during periods of worship on the television set, bringing together traditional Hindi culture with both the culture of consumerism and the technological preoccupations found in Canadian cinema. In relation to the merging of cinematic styles, Masala features song breaks such as those found in popular Indian cinema films such as Raj Kapoor's Shri 420 (1955) and Shyam Benegal's Bhumika (1977); yet Laloo, Krishna’s uncle, sings songs and fantasises about being "Lord Laloo"—obviously in the British and not Hindi sense—and about being the richest sari merchant in Canada. The fantasies of all the characters in these song sequences reflect profoundly Western desires: flying lessons, finance capitalism, and porn-aesthetic sexuality.

Television becomes the central trope for the hybridisation of culture in Masala. While the grandmother prays to the television and talks to Lord Krishna through it—much like the stories of families dressing the television in garland during the airing of the 103-part Mahabarata in India—the young boy in the family, Baboo, wants to be a real estate agent when he grows up. He has been worshiping the television as well, but the message he receives is a quite different one: big letters flashing "no money down!" Eventually, though, capitalism and tradition merge as the grandmother and Lord Krishna have the following exchange through the television set, as the family, living in a consumerist society, is strapped for money:

Lord Krishna: Lord Krishna answers your summons. How else can I help you?

Grandmother: Help? I asked for your help and so far nothing!

Lord Krishna: I risked my life for this?

Grandmother: Yesterday only, the bank officer came again.

Lord Krishna: Relax, darling, relax. I have planted the seeds, now we must wait for the flower to grow.

Grandmother: What kind of devil are you? I don't need any seeds or flowers. A couple of thousand fucking dollars is all I ask.

Lord Krishna: Sorry, sorry, sorry. You seem to forget I am your god. I know what you do not know. And I will not tolerate bad language!

Grandmother (pointing remote control): `click!'

Later, when Krishna intervenes with a long, God-like monologue, as the RCMP bust up a Sikh toilet paper smuggling ring, a Sikh ring-leader states: "Can you for a moment cut that damn pantheistic Hindu crap? I'm a modern man, I have my own god, so scram. . . . Do you think our people still need you?"

The film also strips bare the lack of depth in Canadian cultural iconography. For instance, the government representative who attempts to "repatriate" a stamp found by Baboo's father (who is both a mailman and a stamp collector) is from the "Department of Historical Artifacts and National Heritage, a branch of the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture of the Federal Government"—an obvious indicator of the level of bureaucracy and pompous self-worth present in the country. The precious cultural artifact that needs preserving is a "three pence stamp, the only surviving copy designed in 1851 by Sir Edward Fleming himself. It is also the first stamp to portray an animal other than Homo Sapiens Sapiens." Any country that needs to preserve this kind of superficial culture seems quite pathetic in the eyes of the film. The RCMP officer who attempts to break the Sikh smuggling ring arrives on horseback in full RCMP regalia, and ties her horse to a parking meter; here we can see the iconography of the two cultures coming into conflict, quite consciously reminiscent of the battle in the 1990s over the ban of Sikh turbans in the RCMP. In Masala, the media transform all culture into consumerism, and a profoundly capitalist, if not American way of seeing and experiencing the world. The television becomes the central trope for this leveling process; gods, money, desires, and history can all be reduced to their effectiveness in the production of capital. This is clearest in the relationship between the grandmother and Lord Krishna: religion becomes one more commodity through which customer service is offered. If Krishna can't offer the grandmother a better fiscal "deal" for her son, then she can take her worshiping elsewhere.

I have pointed to instances where mediated images become key signifiers in the popular cinemas of Canada. What remains to be considered is why this preoccupation exists in the first place. One reason could be that Canada, because of its geographical size and sparse population, has always fetishized technology as a means of bridging gaps; we can see this in the fetishization of everything from railways to satellites. Another could be the presence of America, as a nearby, imperial geographic space, but perhaps more profoundly, as a mediated space that has interpolated Canadian culture to such a great degree. As Atom Egoyan notes, "Perhaps it's fair to say that one of the residual effects of our colonial experience is a very particular view we have of parents or people who are in a position of responsibility. We are all just now understanding the relationship to both what the explicit British colonial influence in Canada was and what the American cultural colonial experience continues to be." 12 Here, Egoyan is speaking of his own works, and those of filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin. He continues this line of analysis when he addresses the ambivalence towards technology found in the films of Cronenberg, in McLuhan's writing and in his own works:

As a culture, we are so completely overwhelmed by our access to American identity through technology. All of our major cities are no more than 200 miles from the border. From a very young age, we've all been bombarded with images of a culture that's not ours but seems to mirror certain aspects of our upbringing. But we're fundamentally different in many ways; in order to understand ourselves, we've had to understand our own relationship to these images which have completely crept into our cultural and social make-up. 13

Lynne Stopkewich, the director of Kissed, makes a similar comment:

We're constantly defining ourselves through difference. Our culture is owned by the Americans. You're always looking in, always pressing your face up against the glass. It's a great place to be, because it gives you a distance from which you can be critical, not just of the other but of yourself at the same time. A lot of people have talked about the coldness, the calculation in Canadian filmmaking. I think that's part of it. 14

Perhaps, then, Canadian cinema can be understood, in part, as being both wary of, and fascinated by, the images of the south that embrace us so. Canadian cinema can also be seen as de facto multicultural in nature precisely because there's no Canadian identity to set at the center of these films. Despite the paranoia of the right, it is possible that through what Charles Taylor has called the politics of recognition Canada will finally have a national cinema, although one that is inherently multicultural in nature. Taylor's argument rests on the term recognition, often evoked by minority groups and by those defending multiculturalism. This individualized identity is connected to a notion of self-determination, to the extent that moral judgments are no longer "divine"; instead, the sense of "right versus wrong" emanates from the self. In turn, this moral view brings about a subjective reflexivity, where discovering one's "true" inner self becomes the key to authenticity. This is the kind of conflicted, negotiated identity that one finds at the heart of many Canadian films. What unites the aforementioned films is precisely the attempt not to define Canadian culture or to posit what "Canadianness" is, but instead to question the hybrid image-space created in the Canadian imagescape. As Appadurai notes: "[ . . . ] transnational social forms may generate not only postnational yearnings but also actually existing postnational movements, organisations and spaces. In these postnational spaces, the incapacity of the nation-state to tolerate diversity [ . . . ] may, in fact be overcome." 15 It is this "in-between" space that gives multicultural Canadian cinema its "distinct" identity.

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