“I love being from Canada. I love Canadian things,” comic actor Mike Myers is quoted as having said in film critic David Spaner’s new history of the Vancouver film business. “Why don’t we have more movies that are distinctly Canadian?” The irony of the question, coming as it does from a Canadian superstar actor who makes movies without a trace of Canada in them, is not lost on Spaner, but the real dilemma facing Canadian film in general (and Vancouver film in particular) gets a bit misplaced in Spaner’s comprehensive examination of film on the Canadian west coast. While Spaner is right to identify Vancouver’s independent filmmakers as the oppressed in an industry that is overwhelmingly focused on American blockbusters, his book underscores a more difficult problem, the one that no doubt tripped up Myers: How, exactly, do you define a movie as being “distinctly Canadian,” and once you’ve defined it, how do you manage to make it?
Spaner’s account of the development of Vancouver’s film industry reaches back to very beginning of the medium, to the city’s first movie theaters and early attempts to build a film studio business in the city. In the heyday of Hollywood, stars moved in and out of British Columbia. Peggy Yvonne Middleton moved south and became Yvonne DeCarlo, and a young Boris Karloff passed through on his way to stardom, only to end up working in construction when acting jobs proved hard to find. The unvarnished, seedy effect that Hollywood would have on Vancouver, though, is symbolized for Spaner in Errol Flynn’s 1959 visit to the city. The booze-addled, fifty-year-old actor came to Vancouver, a seventeen-year-old girlfriend in tow, to sell his yacht, but his excessive lifestyle caught up with him there. He died in the apartment of a friend on Burnaby Street, and Vancouver found itself the subject of Hollywood’s sordid headlines.
Skip forward several decades and Vancouver becomes a northern suburb of California’s film industry. Attractive tax laws and other financial incentives have made Canada a popular destination for American film studios looking to maximize their profit margins, and Vancouver’s spectacular natural setting and relative proximity to Hollywood have drawn the American industry to British Columbia in droves. A billion-dollar service industry has grown up around the imported business, and Vancouver has become one of the top four centers of film production in North America.
It’s not necessarily a success story, however, according to Spaner, and Vancouver’s enormous service industry, with its tendency to pump out film and television of dubious artistic merit, has overshadowed the vibrant but virtually unacknowledged independent film scene that has flourished in Vancouver over the last half of the twentieth century. Spaner attempts to uncover that scene, focusing primarily on the products of the University of British Columbia’s film school, from the films of Larry Kent in the early 1960s to a particularly successful group of students who converged at the school in the late 1980s. Kent, Spaner claims, set the example for ambitious young auteurs who would come after, and the UBC crowd of thirty years on — John Pozer, Bruce Sweeney, Mina Shum, and Lynne Stopkewich among them — picked up the torch and made such acclaimed films as The Grocer’s Wife, Double Happiness, and Kissed. Swimming against the current of mediocrity, all of these filmmakers resisted the pull of Hollywood and made films brimming with integrity and authenticity.
But if Spaner implies that integrity and authenticity are key characteristics of Vancouver’s independent film, he is not so clear on what delineates authenticity and what causes a film made in Vancouver to be a truly Vancouverite film. Surely films made in Vancouver by Hollywood studios in which the city stands in for some other (usually American) locale are not authentic, but what about an American film made and set in Vancouver? Does a film need a Canadian director in order to be a Canadian film? What if the Canadian director is directing an American studio film? Do the actors have to be Canadian? And if they’re Canadian, can they be Canadian actors who have moved to California, or do they need to reside in Vancouver? If the cast and crew are Canadian, and the story is a Canadian story, is it still a Canadian movie if the director is from Toronto, the relatively Americanized city that Spaner calls “Hollywood North by Northeast”?
Spaner’s definition of “distinctly Canadian” film is perhaps so vague because he spends so little time discussing the films themselves. Although his profiles of Vancouver’s independent filmmakers (as well as many actors, both indie and studio-reared) are exhaustive, his examination of their work is cursory at best. The reader — especially a non-Canadian, non-Vancouverite reader — gets little sense of what these ostensibly groundbreaking films are all about, beyond a sentence or two of plot summary and the number of Genie Award nominations received. As a result, his argument for the significance of Vancouver’s indie film scene seems to be missing a big piece: the films.
Spaner’s book is undoubtedly the most complete history of independent film in Vancouver one is likely to discover, and as such, it fills a previously unexplored, although somewhat large, corner of North American film history. He packs the pages with enough names and faces to suggest that Vancouver is something more than a cheap place for American studios to manufacture schlocky product. Unfortunately, however, his who’s-who approach provides little beyond a family tree of the city’s film scene, and there is not much hard evidence that Vancouver is home to a coherent, artistically important, or even “distinctly Canadian” indie film culture.