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One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema

by George Melnyk

To casual observers, Canadian film must seem like an almost newborn art, with the country’s internationally acclaimed filmmakers – Egoyan, Cronenberg, Lepage, Arcand – all having emerged since the 1960s.

Of course, this isn’t the case. Films have been shown in Canada almost since the birth of the medium, and as George Melnyk writes, production studios were built here by the beginning of the First World War. But this early history remains obscure, which is why Melnyk’s work, written for a non-academic audience, is so noteworthy.

Melnyk, who teaches communications and Canadian studies at the University of Calgary, faces a difficult task with this modestly sized book. A cultural history spanning a century has to weave together many strands, and the fitful development of Canadian cinema makes that tough work. The silent era saw commercial features produced in Quebec and Ontario, including American “northwoods” melodramas that transposed the Western genre onto Canadian landscapes.

In the 1920s, Hollywood made “quota quickies” in Canada to offset restrictions against American films in British theatres. The birth of the National Film Board in 1939 – just in time to begin a tremendous production of propaganda films – sealed the documentary as the Canadian genre of choice for decades to come.

Canadian film scholarship is a small field, Canadian film history even smaller. A few titles have emerged in recent years, notably Katherine Monk’s thematic study, Weird Sex and Snowshoes, and a reference work, Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film. But there has been no historical overview of the field since Peter Morris’s Embattled Shadows (1978), which covered the subject only until 1939.

As Melnyk acknowledges, there is a distinct reason for this: the main growth of Canadian cinema has come at a time when academics have eschewed broad historical narratives. The rise of Quebec nationalism, and the development of totally distinct traditions in Quebecois and English-Canadian films, only complicate the issue further. This leads to one critical question: does it make any sense even to talk about Canadian film as a whole?

Melnyk’s answer seems to be: maybe. He focuses on the past 40 years, when both English Canada and Quebec saw tremendous growth in their production capacity and artistic reach. Working in separate chapters, he samples the work of the Quebec New Wave of the 1960s and English-Canadian pioneers like Allan King and Don Owen before moving on to contemporary works.

The use of thematic chapters makes One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema easier to digest, but it also defeats Melnyk’s purpose. He isolates contemporary women filmmakers in a separate discussion, and similarly ghettoizes “experimental and cult films” – gathering Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow with contemporary auteur Guy Maddin rather than with their artistic peers.

That grouping reflects Melnyk’s rather scattered historical analysis. His work is a synthesis, and at times there isn’t enough history to synthesize. Having done little primary research, Melnyk is often left to rely on statistics and guesswork to determine filmmakers’ motivations and audience preferences.

What’s more, Melnyk seems uncomfortable with the various instruments of film theory, making dutiful nods to the feminist and post-colonial critiques of the past two decades without daring to draw interpretations of his own. Other than a few obvious points – the central role of the state in film production, the NFB’s importance in developing talent and shaping directors’ sensibilities – One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema lacks a thesis, and therefore lacks direction. In a work that aims to inform a broad audience, this is a serious fault.

Melnyk’s narrative is also far duller than it should be, reducing colourful figures like John Grierson and Pierre Perrault to dry sketches. Still, it’s a start. For all its faults, One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema fills a large and important gap in Canadian cultural history.