O Canada: GFF celebrates New Canadian Cinema

Welcome to Glasgow Film Festival's celebration of New Canadian Cinema, the weirder but much more friendly neighbour of Hollywood

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 17 Feb 2017

There are many reasons to love Canada at the moment, not least for its matinee-idol prime minister's recent visit to the White House where he took on Donald Trump’s bizarre power handshake and won. Its contribution to cinema is also pretty formidable. For starters, the nation gave us our two favourite actors named Ryan (Gosling and Reynolds), but in general Canadian filmmakers is blowing up right now, whether it’s in the arthouse (Xavier Dolan, Stephen Dunn) or the multiplex (Denis Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallée).

Glasgow Film Festival, ever the sharpest programming team around, have sensed this rumbling in the tectonic plates of New Canadian Cinema and brought a baker’s dozen showcase of features across the Atlantic to this year’s festival. Two of them played the festival last night, one an oldie (Crime Wave) and one mint fresh (Weirdos). Both directors (John Paizs and Bruce McDonald, respectively) were in town to introduce their films; both films played to packed cinemas; and both were wonderful.

The skew-whiff charm of Bruce McDonald's Weirdos

The first in the unofficial double bill was McDonald’s utterly charming Weirdos, a 1976-set road movie shot in evocative black and white. The plot could be sketched on a single side of a cig paper, but any thinness of story is more than made up for by the richness of emotions as we follow teen couple Kit (Dylan Authors) and Alice (Julia Sarah Stone) as they hitchhike to the home of the former’s estranged mother.

It becomes clear to the audience early on that there’s a disconnect between these strangely chaste lovers (“how can we have goodbye sex if we haven’t had hello sex yet?” Alice says to her reluctant bae), and it may have something to do with the fact Kit’s two essential items on the journey are Andy Warhol’s autobiography and a blow dryer – the artist also makes fleeting appearances as our sexually ambiguous hero’s “spirit animal”. We’ve seen a million of these indie self-discovery movies done badly (see GFF’s opening film Handsome Devil), but Weirdos’ mix of nostalgia and pathos proves pretty irresistible.

The leftfield nature of New Canadian Cinema

McDonald, last night wearing a nifty gilet and Hardee combo, is a veteran of Canada’s lively indie scene, with cult items like Roadkill, Hard Core Logo and Pontypool to his name. In Weirdos’ credits he pays tribute to “the other Canadian weirdos” on the country's film scene, like fellow filmmakers Atom Egoyan (Exotica) and Don McKellar (Last Night). We asked McDonald what he thought made Canadian indie cinema so left-field.

He reckons their close proximity to the Hollywood dream factory is a major factor: “Well we live next door to the big parade. We can’t make films starring big famous movie stars, so to cut through that noise we try to be a little sideways,” he explains.

“You think about some of the filmmakers we have, like Guy Maddin, from Winnipeg, who makes these beautiful strange, almost silent films, or Atom Egoyan, who has this peculiar love for voyeuristic things and weird family dynamics. So I guess we reach for something that’s a little bit off the mainstage, and that will hopefully catch the attention of the other weirdos out there who are slightly disenfranchised from mainstream movies.”

The wild comic invention of Crime Wave

McDonald went on to point out 1985’s Crime Wave as one of the first example of this approach – without realising its director, John Paizs, was in the audience watching. “John kind of, in a sense, kicked off this with his beautiful and emotional but kind of sideways way of looking at the world.”

To Crime Wave, then, and we see exactly what McDonald means. GFF’s brochure calls it “sitcom noir, or maybe Tex Avery splatter” and we can’t do any better than that description. The film centres on Steven Penny (played by Paizs), a strange young man with ambitions of being a great “colour crime movie writer”. The problem is he can only write beginnings and ends to these stories; the middle sections elude him.

Steven has one adoring fan: Kim, the young daughter of the family in whose garage the writer lives. She's ever encouraging, archiving Steven’s discarded story drafts in crumpled balls under her bedroom rug for posterity and finding him a writer partner in a local wanted ad who can help him finish his masterworks. The problem is, Steven’s new partners approach to writing these tales of violence and murder is, shall we say, method.

It’s a joyous, uninhibited film, with each frame fit to burst with visual jokes and ideas. Scenes resemble at times live action Far Side panels, delivering buckets of deadpan, obsidian-black comedy. If there’s a funnier Canadian film out there, we haven’t seen it.

Crime Wave is a great movie about movies too, and a jubilant celebration of the transformative power of the imagination. As Kim reads the crazy alpha and omega of Penny’s stories direct to camera, these lurid thrillers play out in their full technicolor glory as films within the film.

Crime Wave was clearly way ahead of the comedy curve. “So much of what I was doing was pretty new at the time,” says Paizs after the screening, looking, save for a few grey hairs, identical to the young man we see in the picture. “But since then, I’ve seen stuff that I know I was doing first – coincidentally perhaps, or not so coincidentally – get spread around.”

While the film still feels bracingly fresh three decades later, we see exactly what Paizs means. He was the soldier laying down on the barbed wire for other comic stylists to follow in his wake during the boom of indie cinema in the late-80s and 90s. We’re not sure if Crime Wave made its way into the consciousness of filmmakers like Hal Hartley, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson or Jared Hess, but their movies certainly feel indebted to Paizs’ cock-a-hoop invention.

Eleven more films play in GFF’s True North: New Canadian Cinema strand, with most featuring Q&As with their filmmakers. We heartily recommend you seek them out.

Window Horses: 17 Feb, GFT, 6.30pm | 18 Feb, GFT, 10.45pm
Little Annie Rooney: 18 Feb, GFT, 3.30pm | 19 Feb, GFT, 1.30pm
Below Her Mouth: 18 Feb, GFT, 8.45pm | 19 Feb, GFT, 11am
Werewolf: 19 Feb, GFT, 6.15pm | 19 Feb, GFT, 10.45am
Boundaries: 20 Feb, CCA, 8.45pm | 21 Feb, CCA, 1.15pm
Old Stone: 20 Feb, GFT, 86pm | 21 Feb, GFT, 11am
The Demons: 22 Feb, GFT, 8.15pm | 23 Feb, GFT, 10.45am
Angry Inuk: 23 Feb, GFT, 6.15pm | 24 Feb, GFT, 11am
Hello Destroyer: 25 Feb, GFT, 5.30pm | 26 Feb, GFT, 1.25pm
A Cool Sound From Hell: 25 Feb, GFT, 1.30pm
Celtic Soul: 26 Feb, GFT, 4pm