Denys Arcand: A quick Québec film industry backgrounder — Post 1 of 2 (#189)
I’m actually in Montréal right now. While I’m here for the next few days, I’ll do my best to find time to hash out a few posts between my errands.
This will be a 2-part series on Denys Arcard and his place in Québec’s film industry and his role in helping to shape Québec’s modern society.
- Post 1 (this post) will offer you a general backgrounder which gives you the context for Denys Arcand’s place in Québec’s history of film making.
- Post 2 will cover his films, spanning two eras of cinema.
Québec’s and Montréwood’s film industry has a history unique from any other film in industry.
In a nutshell, Québec’s film industry is comprised of three general eras:
- The First Era: The pre-1960, Catholic Church controlled era, characterized by the Catholic church’s control and dominance over the industry (children under 16 were not even allowed to watch movies until 1961),
- The Second Era: the post-Catholic, Secularized Nationalist Era which lasted until just after 1980. Films in this era often took on nationalist subjects and overtures (very much towards sovereignty). Directors of this era very much embodied the ideals of Québec nationalism
- The Third Era: the International (and Post-Nationalist) Era from the early 1980s until present.
The above underlined “titles” I attribute to these eras are not formally recognized names, but from my vantage-point, I would argue they are fairly accurate descriptions of the eras.
Everything that characterizes Québec film can be said to relate to, or at least stem from one of these three eras. But what is most important to realize is that these eras were lead and carried by many of the film-makers themselves (rather than the other way around – which is a unique characteristic of Québec cinema… whereas other filmmakers elsewhere in the world tend to try to “fit the already-establish mould”).
Québec filmmakers of the first-era have all passed away.
The most influential, celebrated and well-known filmmakers & directors of the second era, for the most part, have also passed away. They included Pierre Falardeau (the creator of Elvis Graton which we saw in the last post), Claude Jutra, and Gilles Carle.
Of the big film producer names from the second-era, only a very small handful remain, one of whom is Denys Arcand (who also happens to be the biggest of them all). Because of the nationalist overtures of second-era filmmakers, they played a key role in crystalizing Québec’s post-Grande noirceur self-awareness and coming of age. They have profoundly marked Québec – and helping to shape the collective psyche to modern Québec’s society.
Filmmakers of the third era have come and gone since the early 1980s, and have achieved success on all ends of the spectrum (much like any modern film industry with a global outlook and global reach). The third-era films are not political (at least most are not), they have wide appeal in Québec , as well as elsewhere in Canada and the world, and they fit the mould of a globalized industry, accessible to all via the Internet, international marketing and international film festivals.
The next post will specifically look at Denys Arcand from the perspective of how he fits into the above.
Elvis Gratton – “Unveiled” (#188)
The last few posts touched on matters which have much to do not only with societal accommodations, and political correctness, but also matters involving society’s respect for others. Thus, for those of you who DO know “what” Elvis Gratton is, you may think I’m lacking a bit of tact and judgement by writing a post on Elvis Graton directly after a series discussing multiculturalism.
You may even be thinking “There he goes…– he’s going to hold Elvis Gratton above everyone’s heads as a statement of societal intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”.
Well, actually… don’t get ahead of yourself. I want to say that I AM going to hold Elvis Gratton up as a statement regarding bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and gross prejudice. BUT, I’m sure my take on it is going to surprise you. I’m actually going to tout Elvis Gratton’s place in Québec’s culture to illustrate some of the best of what Québec is – the best of its people, the best of its society, and Québec’s deep concern for others, regardless of their backgrounds.
I need to first explain who and what “Elvis Gratton” is (considering that many Anglophone Canadians may not know about Elvis Gratton).
To start, if I were to mention “Cheech and Chong”, most people in Anglophone Canada will definitely remember this iconic Canadian-American comedy duo (at least those who have a cultural recollection of 1980s)
Québec also has two similar cultural phenomenon – which are some of the most iconic, most widely referenced and biggest Québec pop-cultural hits of the last 35 years:
- The Québec equivalent which could embody the “stage comedy” aspect of Cheech and Chong could be the stage comedic duo “Ding et Dong” (popular in the 1980s & 1990s).
- But the Québec equivalent which could embody the “movie” aspect of Cheech and Chong probably would be “Elvis Gratton” — which not only spanned the 1980s with the release of several movies, but also continued will into the 1990s, and up to 2009 in a later televised series format.
Elvis Gratton was a series of comedy movies, centred on one main character named Bob Gratton. He had an ever-present sidekick best-friend, Méo. In the movies, Bob Gratton won an Elvis impersonation competition, it went to his head, and he lived a frankly bizarre life and an even more bizarre view of the world.
Posters for two of the six movies, not to mention 40+ television episodes
What made the movies stand out was the bigoted nature of its characters, the political incorrectness of the plots, nasty cheap shots at every possible aspect of society, and some of the most crass language and behaviours I have ever seen of any movies in Québec or Canada (if you want to learn every Québec swear word under the sun, you only need to watch 10 minutes of any of the given movies). The movie was so raw and crass, in fact, that I’m even a little embarrassed to attempt to describe it. I could go so far to say that it plays on themes which are downright racist (think of the themes of South Park x 10, or Borat x 20). Needless to say, you’ll be able to find sufficient movie footage of it online to see what I mean.
Why and how could such a series of movies and television shows be such a hit (to the point that I would describe it as an iconic cultural hit)? I think you have to understand the timing of it in Québec’s own modern history, in addition to understanding the movies’ creator’s own place in society.
In a nutshell, the first movie came out shortly after the first 1980 referendum. The subsequent movies came out between the two referendums and during the first several years following the 1995 referendum.
The movie director, Pierre Falardeau (died 2009), was one of Québec’s few larger-than-life directors (it’s difficult to not think of Québec cinema without thinking of Pierre Falardeau). Falardeau was a very public supporter of sovereignty, and brought a good deal of philosophical perspective to the arena – debating it from his unique vantage point of the creator of many of Québec’s most appreciated cinematic works. The loss of the 1980 referendum would have been a tough blow for Falardeau, as would have been the loss of the 1995 referendum. It’s pure conjecture on my part, but men and women like Farlardeau often express their frustrations through their artistic works. Their works can also embody a healing process for their own anxieties.
The fact that Falardeau chose to use the Elivs Gratton movies to make fun of the most taboo, most delicate, most emotional and most intense topics in Québec before and after the referendums could possibly have been his way of not only coping with the issues, but perhaps helping society to cope with the issues themselves.
When individuals internalize their own pain and thoughts, the psychological damage can be crippling. Thus phycologists encourage people to find a way to externalize pain and painful. I wonder if Falardeau felt that Québec society as a whole was also in need of a psychological therapy session and a way to externalize its referendum anguish. Perhaps he was using the Elvis Gratton movies as a “psychologist’s sofa” to allow Québec, as a collective society, to revisit and externalize what it had been going through during the 15 – 20 years surrounding the two referendums. Perhaps he used Elvis Gratton as a catalyst for Québec to “get it all out”, on their movie and television screens, so that society could begin its own healing process. After all, the referendums tore apart aspects of society, pitting segments of society against each other. The fact that Pierre Falardeau used some of the most crass and politically incorrect plots and humour with which to make people laugh was perhaps the only way he felt he could compel society to look at these issues head on.
Regardless if my above take on Elvis Gratton is or is not correct, the movies were a monstrous success. They were so successful and so popular that lines and language from the movies have been immortalized in every-day common Québec French (I have even used some of them myself in some earlier posts). In this respect, lines and scenes from Elvis Gratton movies could be to Québec what the lines and scenes of Monty Python are to Great Britain.
Because Falardeau perhaps used the movies as his own substitute for a defacto “Truth & Reconcilliation Commission”, he took on issues as complex and sensitive as the chummy relationship between the federal Liberals and Power Corporation (a media corporation), how Québec viewed and treated visible minorities and immigrants, how sovereignists and federalists treated and viewed each other, how disabled people were viewed by society, religion’s place in society, how people seemingly followed ideologies like blind sheep without understanding what they were following, some of the least desirable aspects of marriage… and the list goes on. He created comedic sketches making fun of all these matters, in the most crude and extreme ways – using the most crass language in French vocabulary. But it made the masses pay attention, and laugh. People laughed like you would not believe. Years later, I know people who still recall Elvis Gratton scenes, and who continue laugh at them.
I’m not sure if you read my earlier post on “Sugar Sammy” (click HERE for it). If you have not read it, I recommend you read it before reading the remainder of this post (it will put the following into perspective).
In the “Sugar Sammy” post, I made the specific point of emphasizing that laughter is the best medicine – especially when people can laugh at themselves. In the Sugar Sammy post, I used the example of comedy + language politics to make the point. However, in the case of Elvis Gratton, I’m using comedy + “sovereignty vs. federalism vs. society vs. everything else” to make the same point. Laughter lets people heal, and it allows people to reconcile. Under any other circumstances, the type of politically incorrect and controversial humour we saw in Elvis Gratton would have been condemned (after all, it contains repeatedly strong undertones of racist humour and other taboo topics). But in this case, the movies were not condemned at large – probably because Falardeau did a great thing… he used his talents as a producer to portray these topics in a manner to invoke laughter for the sake of society’s healing.
I think these movies did serve their purpose, and they did allow Québec, at large, to heal and to come to terms with the turmoil and emotion which stemmed from the referendums.
One specific example I can give you was during the Bouchard-Taylor Commissions (it was a commission which explored the whole issue of reasonable accommodations in the context of multiculturalism and interculturalism). The commission suggested that Québec cease to use the expression “Québécois de souche” (“purebred Québécois”) when refering to anyone whose roots in Québec can be traced back to white settlers in the 1600s and 1700s. Rather, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission suggested using the expression “French Canadian”.
Pierre Falardeau knew that these latter terms stirred up strong emotions from opposing aspects of society, almost to the point that it pitted certain groups against other groups, based on lines drawn by the opposing use of these expressions; invoking notions of nationalism, federalism and sovereignty. He therefore incorporated a puzzling mix of this confusing “identity” vocabulary into Elvis Gratton to come up with some of the funniest scenes. Prior to these movies, society likely thought there would be no way they could ever laugh at such emotional and gut-wrenching issues. But after the movies, everyone was laughing at these matters – to the point that many of these former “society-shredding matters” simply became cursory points of discussion. That is a very powerful transition – by any definition.
The scene to which I’m referring to above can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZS7sOOpELI.
From 2007 to 2009, for a period of three years, the movies were re-interpreted into a 3 year television sitcom. The fact that Elvis Gratton made the jump from the big screen to television in no way diluted the crassness or political incorrectness of the scenes. The television series was named “Bob Gratton” (not “Elvis Gratton”). It aired on TQS (today known as Télé-Québec). Again, I’m sure you’ll be able to find video clips of Bob Gratton online.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Elvis Gratton’s place in Québec’s culture illustrates some of the best of what Québec is – the best of its people, the best of its society, and Québec’s deep concern for others, regardless of their backgrounds.
I said this because after Québec’s society had its emotional “release” through laughter, by way of these very politically incorrect movies and television, society never really re-embarked on making fun of such issues, at least at a societal level, ever again (issues which, under any other circumstances, should never be made fun of… i.e.: it’s not OK to laugh at and make fun of people with cerebral palsy, such as the movies did with Bob Gratton’s side-kick friend Méo; nor is it ok to make fun of gay people, or Muslims, or developing countries and their people, etc. etc.). And in this spirit, after Québec’s healing-period via Elvis Gratton, Québec put this kind of humour to rest. It has never really crept back into Québec’s mainstream media again. I think this shows that society knows how and when to put things into context.
In my blog series talking about Multiculturalism and Interculturalism, I spoke of “isolated” flare-ups of culturally sensitive matters, as well as political point-scoring by “lone” political camps. But I truly cannot emphasize enough that these are just what I said: “isolated” and “lone” scenarios. They do not represent a tendency towards societal racism, intolerance, or bigotry. On the contrary, Québec is one of the most welcoming, caring and warmest societies in the Western and developed world. Québec may be soul-searching for the best way to integrate immigrants (and it may have its odd hiccups and growing pains), but frankly speaking, so too are Vancouver and Toronto, and other provinces have issues as they are dealing with these subjects. But on the whole, we (as Canada as a whole or as Albertans, Manitobans, Québecois, or Newfoundlanders, as well as individual towns and cities) do a much better job of dealing with these matters than other parts of the world. We tolerate and empathize with them more than most other countries in the world. How Québec’s society has waded its way through these matters is truly commendable and remains a model for other societies which are undergoing rapid diversification while, at the same time, they are facing questions on how to best deal with serious, complex, and intense questions of cultural and heritage preservation. All-in-all, Québec has pulled it off and continues to evolve.
We really have to be careful to differentiate lone political camps (ones who seek to capitalize on isolated instances from society at large) from society’s individuals who exercise the utmost humanity with which to build a compassionate, just and tolerant society.
Congrats! You’re making progress! (“Théatre St-Denis” & “Le Capitole”) (#185)
There are a number of readers who have been following my blog for a few months. I’m happy to have been able to offer some insight, and I enjoy reading some of your emails.
It takes time to get a sense of another culture when there is a linguistic barrier or physical distance. However, for those of you who are regular readers, if you were to visit Québec, if you were to watch some Montréwood television, or even listen to some of the news, you would probably already notice that the pieces are now starting to fall into place, bit by tiny bit. Much of what you encounter should now be making much more sense.
I was recently in Montréal and I walked by Théatre St-Denis. It is one of the most famous stage theatres in Québec. It features acts of all types. Some of the biggest names in Québec’s pop-culture have seen their careers launched at Théatre St-Denis, and it continues to feature some of the biggest stars.
A quick glance at the sign made me realize just how much ground has been covered in just the few short months of blogging about Québec, its pop-culture, and many other topics related to Québec and Francophone culture in Canada.
For the regular readers of this blog, the signs (below) should give you an idea just how much you have already learned about Québec’s culture in the last few months. Give yourself a pat on the back for wanting taking the initiative to learn more, and for your desire to acquire a greater cultural context of what Québec and Canada are all about.
Simply from having regularly read the blog posts, a good number of you will certainly recognize some of these names. You now likely know who they are, what they’re about, and how they fit into Québec’s overall culture. Here are four which might jump out at you:
- Stéphane Rousseau
- Véronic DiCaire
- Lise Dion
- Rachid Badouri
The last time I was in Québec City, I also snapped a photo of the performance sign hanging in front of the Le Capitole (the most famous performance theatre in Québec city, and also one of the most famous stage theatres in Québec).
Again, some of the names you’ll likely recognize are
- Ginette Reno
- Véronic DiCaire
- Mario Pelchat
This could be proof that learning about Québec, its culture, and Canada’s Francophone culture in general is not an insurmountable task – even if you don’t speak French. I’m trying my best to cover topics which are relevant, and which pertain to what normal people see in the media, on the street, as well as what everyday common people talk about over meals, at work, and at home.
I would even venture to bet that should you travel to Québec, that you would already be in a position to begin to feel like you are in familiar territory (from a cultural standpoint) – regardless of your French language level. Regardless where you live in Canada, hopefully you’re even beginning to feel that aspects of Canada’s Francophone culture are part of your own culture, at a very personal level. That is a very commendable feat, and I’m quite humbled to know there is a good number of people who are regularly following my posts.
So to those who are faithfully reading this blog, thank-you. I’ll do my best to keep bringing you new topics as time allows. Let’s keep moving forward, and let’s keep building bridges! 🙂
The official websites for
- Théatre St-Denis is http://theatrestdenis.com/en/
- Le Capitole is http://www.lecapitole.com/en/index.php
Should you travel to Montréal or Québec City, these websites (in English & French) have performance information, showtimes, and tickets.