Canadian Film or How I Stopped Hating On Canada

Well...I will admit it, I am kind of wary of Canada. I have had some pretty lousy Canadian experiences in my day including, but not limited to, getting my car windows smashed in on a relatively busy street, being accosted by a self proclaimed "freak" on the street complete with giant (presumably) pet rat dangling form his shoulder, having my car destroyed by border inspectors, and attending a film festival that did not have a film projector (no joke!) when I went to Mass MoCA recently and came across an exhibit titled Oh, Canada, featuring contemporary artists hailing from the region, a pang of terror came over me...But then, as I wandered around the exquisite exhibit, I was reminded of the main thing I do like about Canada: arts funding.

Canada is one of those magical lands where the government supports artists living within it leading to the creation of such legends as VICE (whose founders rumoredly, under the guise of starting a zine, applied for a grant just so they could afford heroin which since has resulted in not only a magazine but a giant, successful, sometimes progressive, cultural, media entity), the Ottowa International Animation Festival (a haven for all things in cutting edge animation), TIFF (still haven't been to the festival proper but I know they have good taste!), and, most importantly, The National Film Board of Canada (providing funding for all kinds of filmic pursuits, a lot of which is available to watch in their online archive!). I know a lot of (especially North American) people who think that government supported artists can lead to a glut of do-nothings, to groups of kids whose worries are free from normal restraints regarding livelihood and whose work ethic isn't of the strongest kind (Berlin much?). Yet a side to the federally supported art culture that I had never thought about and that is clearly evident in this exhibit is innovation. Without the need for strictly commercialized, sell-able art, ideas can be bigger, louder, chances can be taken in a way that I see little of in the North American artistic terrain...especially in terms of film.

The film installations in the Oh Canada exhibit were nearly all incredible, with many fine examples of integrating film into a gallery/sculptural/installation setting- a thing that I think is becoming super prevalent in the underground/art scene as a direct answer to the Hollywood multisensory/3d/4d spectacular. There was also an amazing mix of crafty installations and digital technology bringing together a nice nod to the means of production and a perfect confrontation to the sleekness of modern design- nice one Canadians! There were films housed inside of sweetly felted tents with snow covered floors (pictured below), others were animations screened on multiple flat screen monitors inside of a miniature mountain/studio/house landscape, another on pristine screens placed inside the windows of elaborately staged sets (pic at top) of drunken white men and confused Natives reminiscent of a Natural History Museum exhibit gone awry (or, possibly, closer to the truth of history?), there was even a film projected onto sheets hung inside of a geodesic dome creating a hard line structure of obfuscation between the viewer and the daintily projected images behind them, yet another a stark video of an eagle looping on the mouth of an oil drum (pictured above).

Video artists have been trying to integrate film and installation for a long while it seems and for me it always has fallen short- even the vaseline drippings of Matthew Barney seemed juvenile and slapdash in my opinion. But each of the installation/video art pieces, even if I wasn't keen on the videos content exactly, showed a giant step in the artistry of installation, using film as a medium within other media and truly melding the art form into a new level. Even though the exhibit was dotted with tons of film/art originality the two pieces that I most enjoyed, whose intensity was so great, so transformative were ones presented in your standard black box screening room and another so out there I don't know if it even counts as film?

So the film that might not be a film was by Daniel Barrow. When you walked into this one dimly lit white walled room you saw a projection of a wavering scene on the wall. There was slight movement to the images as curtains wafted in the breeze and an ocean rippled in this odd bedroom scene that felt like a Hitchcock-ian matte painting for a Barbie playhouse titled The Mirror Thief (partly pictures directly above)...but I didn't immediately connect what was on the wall with the out of place industrial metal shelves, some kind of light sources and fan that were present in the room. The projections were all being made from overhead projectors- a household box fan, and a pan of water (responsible for the rippling waves!) added to create the layered, moving images seen on the wall! Incredible! So homemade and vintage but so intriguing and forward thinking- love it! The rest of the artist's work is pretty gruesome meets tongue & cheek, blending a nostalgia, humor and biting edge that is truly indicative of a generation of misspent youth knocking on the door of adulthood.

Then there was my favorite piece in the show presented in your normal black box of a room, stepping behind a dark curtain, feeling your way to a seat, a blasting overwhelming intensely building rock soundtrack (by Canadian rock gods GodspeedYou!BlackEmperor none the less!) taking over your senses to focus on the images in front of you. And the images! O my goodness! A haggard Ronald McDonald figure sits in a car as it slowly fills with water, glitter, refuse, mylar balloons floating to the roof in the slow pan around the outside of the car to make this beautifully tense atmosphere of decay (like that scene in Zabriskie Point only much more subtle and global in it's sad destruction). The camera slowly builds a darkened mood, the soundtrack loud and pulsing, the beleaguered clown figure inside the car smoking a cigarette in accepting denial of his doom, the camera moves around the car's bumper to reveal the sticker "We came here to destroy you." One of the best contemporary sociopolitical statements made in such a moving yet engaging way- this piece is of the kind that makes you remember why we make art, of what we can do and say with it, of why it is so important. AMAZING. The film, titled Chrysalides Empereur (film stills from internet seen here!), is (if my research is correct) part of a trilogy by the artist, Patrick Bernatchez, and I am now dieing to see the rest! This is the single best piece of film art I have seen in ages! Go Canada!
Okay, so maybe I will change my stance on Canada being that this exhibit was proof positive that Canadians are doing something far greater than hockey (& personally pissing me off) and truly pushing the boundaries of contemporary art and what it is capable of doing, saying, and showing!



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.