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Denys Arcand: His place in Québec’s history — Post 2 of 2 (#190)
This is the second post in a two-post series on Denys Arcard (you’ll need to refer to the first post for the context of what follows. Click here for the first post: Denys Arcand: A quick Québec film industry backgrounder — Post 1 of 2
Arcand is quite significant on four fronts:
- He is the most important, “still-surviving” influential “second-era” filmmaker to have made the transition into a third-era filmmaker,
- Like other former second-era filmmakers, he has for the most part abandoned the ideals of the second-era when making third-era films (of which his third-era films have been his most successful),
- Both his second and third-era films are extremely well-known, influential, and have marked Québec’s and Montréwood’s film industry forever.
- [Note: when I refer to the expression Montréwood, it denotes a much more “Montréal” specific phenomena related to Québec’s pop-culture, rather than a province-wide activity]
- He is probably Québec’s greatest filmmaker of all time.
Québec’s film industry really didn’t take off until the beginning of the second era, and Arcand was born at the right moment to be of the right age when he became fully engaged as a filmmaker (from a nationalist and age-bracket point-of-view). His first films came out in the early 1960s, and he created, or participated in the creation of 10 major films from the 1960’s until the first referendum in 1980.
Of these second-era ultra-nationalistic films, a few have marked Arcand’s place in history (they were films kept the ball of nationalist momentum rolling, or at least they gave the ball a few good, hard spins). “On est au coton” from 1970 is one of the best known.
“On est au coton” was actually censored by the National Film Board based because it did not meet Board policy standards (The NFB had the authority to censor it because it was a private matter owing to the fact that they produced it – not because of government censorship [we’re not that kind of country, after all]). I think uncensored versions of it only began to be sold on the open market during the last 10 or 15 years. The film’s theme was about francophone labourers of the 1950’s, working under appalling conditions in Québec’s Anglophone-managed textile industry (I’m sure you can infer the spin Arcand took with this film). The film also included two members of the FLQ (a Québec terrorist organization from the late 60’s / early 70’s) calling for armed revolution. On one hand, it was held up as a lightning rod for those calling for sovereignty. On the other hand, others decried that it twisted reality by sensationalizing issues which were not reflective of the reality for the majority. Regardless, it was a long time ago (45 years ago), and I believe it’s good for everyone to be fully aware of film and the context of the time. But it was a matter for another generation and now for the history books – I think most people recognize that. The film has been made available for free online viewing on National Film Board’s website at the following address: https://www.onf.ca/film/on_est_au_coton/.
It’s interesting to note that On est au coton gave rise to an expression commonly used in modern Québec French: “Être au coton” means “to be at one’s wits end”
Other well-known Arcand films, from Québec second film era, were Québec: Duplessis et après (regarding the politics of the Quiet Revolution), and Le Confort de l’indifférence, which mourned the loss of the “nationalist dream” following the 1980 referendum. For many, this latter film signalled the end of Québec’s second–era of films.
From the 1980s onwards, Denys Arcand, like most other major filmmakers, abandoned the themes of second-era films and concentrated on populist, modern and all-inclusive films with global appeal.
After the 1980 referendum and after his film Le Confort de l’indifférence, I think Arcand felt there was no more point in creating films which created ideological divisions in society, or which had nationalist aspirations — and he laid that aspect of his filmmaking to rest. Even if one wanted to make a point, one could still do it in an inclusive manner — just as any family dispute can be discussed without making individual family members feel isolated or rejected. In passing, this is also why I do not ascribe to the notion that nationalistic debates are “tribalistic” in nature (at least in our context in Canada), because tribalism denotes a “them and us” connotation – whereas I’m of the mindset that we’re all in this together, that it’s a family affair, and that it is to be discussed in this latter context.
In an interesting comparison, just as Denys Arcand chose to make Le Confort de l’indifférence to signify the end of second-era films, Pierre Falardeau chose to make Elvis Gratton to signify the end of second-era films, and to then move on with life (see the post on Elvis Gratton).
It was the mid 1980s transition towards third-era films which really saw Arcand’s artistic genius and abilities take flight. I think it is owing to the fact that he liberated himself (and his movies) from second-era constraints that he was able to finally produce works which found universal appeal. His subsequent success was phenomenal.
I’ll briefly mention some of his most successful third-era films. But I’ll provide you with Wikipedia links if you want more information.
Le Déclin de l’empire américain (1986) was an Oscar nominee. Its sequel, Les Invasions barbares (2003) won an Oscar.
Jésus de Montréal (1989) won the Jury award at Cannes and an Oscar.
Subsequent successful films included Idole Instantanée (2005), L’Âge des ténèbres (2007), and Le Règne de la beauté (2014).
Other notable information: Denys Arcand also has made many short films. He has been decorated with Canada’s, Québec’s and even France’s highest awards. He is highly sought after for interviews, and been the invitee on many of Montréwood’s most high profile talk shows. His works and life are also the subject of intense study at university and in academic circles. In essence, he incarnates Québec cinema on many levels, and has set the bar for generations to come.
If you’re learning French, I’d recommend taking in some of the above-mentioned films. Not only will they provide you with an interesting way to practice your French, but they will provide you invaluable cultural context.
Related post: Montréwood Movies
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.
Free online films from the National Film Board (#109)
The “National Film Board of Canada” (l’Office national du film du Canada) is a federal arm length agency which produces films of various lengths.
If you’ve driven through Montréal on the 40, you may have seen their national headquarters alongside the freeway. They also have offices around the country (you’ve likely seen their offices on 104th in Edmonton, or in other cities around the country such as Toronto and Vancouver).
Of the thousands of films they have produced, they’ve also won thousands of awards, including 12 Academy awards.
Some of their films are now Canadian and Québec classics, instantly recognizable across Canada. Examples are The Sweater by Roch Carrier and The Log Driver’s Waltz by John Weldon.
The NFB / ONF has a great website, as well an APP you can download for your iOS or Android device. They include dozens and dozens of free films in an array of categories: classics, history, documentaries, and other ways Canadians have viewed themselves and the world throughout the last several decades.
There are good number of films from Québec, subtitled in English, which provides perspectives from that angle (including some films from the pre-Quiet Revolution era and during the Quiet Revolution). It’s a good way to get a little more acquainted with episodes in our history by viewing life, rather than just reading about it.
The website address is here: https://www.nfb.ca/
- Under “Films” at the top, click “Channels” to gain access to all the categories
- Under “Films” at the top, click “Explore” to gain access to the entire online film directory.
- You can toggle between French and English at the top if you want to switch languages. This will change the narration language for many of the films.
The Wikipedia article about the NFB can be read by clicking HERE.
Have a look around the site. It will give you hours of entertainment. You’ll likely run into a good number of things about our history that you likely didn’t know before, both on Anglophone life and history, Francophone life and history – as well things we definitely share in common. It’s a great way to gain an additional perspective.
Enjoy your trip through our history and culture!
If you’re a movie lover, this travelling festival is for you (#108)
If you’re within a day drive from Montréal, or if you want to fly in for 3 or 4 days, here is an event which you might want to take in…
“Les Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois” is an annual film festival which will present hundreds (yes, hundreds) of Québecois and Montréwood films, all within 10 short days (a mix of long and short films). This year’s Rendez-vous will be held from 19 to 28 of February, 2015 in the Quartier des spectacles / Quartier Latin district of Montréal (East of downtown).
They haven’t yet come out with what movies will be shown (we will have to wait until February 4th), but last year 300 films were shown, of which 100 were premiers. That’s a lot of movies for just 10 days.
The festival’s official website is found here: http://www.rvcq.com/festival-32e
But there’s a reason why I’m bringing this up so early…
There is a “travelling film” component to the festival, in which they take the movies on the road across Canada – and they may be in a city close to you in the very near future.
In the run-up to the festival in Montréal, movies will be show between now and February in
- Prince Edward Island (Click here for the movies & info): http://www.rvcq.com/tournee-2015/itineraires/orleans
Unfortunately, apart from Prince Edward Island, the dates have yet to be announced (the festival already passed through a number of other cities in the last few months). Dates seem to be announced approximately one week in advance. When dates are announced, they’re listed here: http://www.rvcq.com/tournee-2015/itineraires/ottawa
But this is one more reason to check in with the local Francophone association or assembly of your province. See if they might have dates, not only for these films, but for any others being shown in your part of the country.
Another tid-bit of info: It looks like two movies already talked about in earlier blogs, 1987, and Gabrielle are among the line being shown in the run-up to the festival in February.
All said and done, even if you cannot physically make it to the festival, this still gives you an idea just how many Montréwood movies are out there each year. Don’t be afraid to push your French and purchase some online viewings through streaming venues. Even if your French isn’t up to par, many movies come with English subtitles.