Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Canadian Feature Film Solution? (Part 1)

The following is part one of three. The article you are about to read was first published in 1995. I'm reassessing it because it seems just as relevant today, as did thirteen years ago (even though some of the film references are dated). I've put my two-bits in at the end. Why? Because it's my blog. If you want to read the article in it's entirety, go here. Anyway, here is Part One.

Three Modest Proposals for the Canadian Film "Industry"
By John Harkness, from Take One No. 7, Winter 1995

After looking at it for a long time, I’ve decided that Canadian cinema is just fine. We make exceptional films like Jesus of Montreal, Dead Ringers and 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. We make interesting movies like Masala. We make deadly dull films like The Lotus Eaters and The Burning Season. In the long run, it doesn’t matter much what anyone says about the film industry, which will continue to lumber along, much as it has for the past decade or so.

Instead, I’ve decided to offer a series of proposals that I think would do the film business and the Canadian soul a world of good. They will do doubt be ignored. I prefer to think of myself as being ahead of the time.

1. Close All Film Schools for at Least Five Years

We have more filmmakers than we have projects for them to make, yet our film schools keep churning out little baby directors.

Jean Renoir, Kenji Mizoguchi, David Lean, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, David Cronenberg – none of these people went to film school. More great films have been made by people who never saw the inside of a film school than by people with graduate degrees infilmmaking.

I also have considerable doubts about what they are being taught. A few years ago, a friend of mine was working for the Academy of Canadian Cinema on their director-observer program that took young filmmaking students and put them on the sets of actual, in-production films. During the course of interviewing the applicants, she discovered that an inordinate number of students wanted to be the next Patricia Rozema. The idea that there were dozens of little filmmaking students out there, waiting to unleash their version of White Room on the world steals my sleep.

But what, you ask, about people who really want to make films? How can we deprive them of an educational opportunity? People who really want to make films will make films. If they are truly driven to make films, they will find a way. Personally, I’m with the American writer Flannery O’Connor, who, when asked if he thought that university writing programs stifled writers, said that it didn’t stifle enough of them. The same thing is true of filmmakers.

Broadly speaking, universities have two objectives. The first is to develop an educated human being capable of thought and ready to contribute to the well being of society. The second is to g
give a person the necessary skills to make a living.

Canada’s best and most successful filmmakers tend to make a film every three years or so. Denys Arcnad, one of our most successful serious filmmakers, took four years to get from Jesus of Montreal to Love and Human Remains. Film schools give students all kinds of skills, then turns them loose on a world where they can scrape together bits of money to make films that will never be seen. Before she hit with I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, one could find Patricia Rozema’s name in the credits of one of those kiddie shows (either “The Elephant Show” or “Polka Dot Door”) as third assistant director. I once asked her what the third A.D. did on a show like this, and it turned out that she was basically a kid wrangler. For this you need to go to film school?

When I say film schools, I include the Canadian Film Centre, whose chief contributions to Canadian cinema was its first class, which gutted Canadian cinema of a generation’s worth of superb documentary filmmakers – Janice Cole, Brigitte Berman, Peter Raymont – who have produced damn little since their tour through NormanJewison’s École de Haute Schmooze. The Centre’s most prolific graduate following six years of existence is Gail Harvey, whose two films, The Shower (aptly described by the Toronto Star’s Norm Wilner as “No Exit stage byMolson’s”) and the “erotic thriller” Cold Sweat would be an embarrassment if anyone had seen them.

The American Film Institute program on which the Canadian Film Centre models itself works because there is a large and centralized film industry to absorb its graduates. The Canadian Film Centre has had almost 100 residents since its birth, and there is no industry in Canada capable of absorbing that many filmmakers, producers, writers and artistes.

I went to film school in Regina and Calgary. One was a University, the other a tech school. From a film school perspective, I guess that's balanced. I also did not take out a huge loan, only what I needed and had to work to pay the rest. What am I saying? Skip film school. And like Harkness' article, it's not that they are bad, it's what and who they are churning out. I know I might be pissing on people's dreams here, but if you want to work you need a skill a production can use when starting out.

First ADing paid my bills and allowed me to buy a house. Writing and Directing has not, but I'm making progress in these areas after 12 years. One can even make an argument that film school can never teach you to tell a story. You don't want to learn that from them anyway, or all you'll do is tell stories like everyone else. You learn to tell stories by telling stories. You learn by doing.

Film schools use a model that is Hollywood. They do not teach you how to make a movie when you have no money and no crew. They teach you how to make a big movie. Nothing wrong with thinking big, but get real. You'll make your first film with next to nothing.

It is true that you can make contacts. But that will only get you through the door, but it won't keep you there. You must have something concrete to offer. If I had to do it all over again, I'd take my hard-earned dough and make something of it. Grab a camera and some like-minded folks and make your movie/short/doc or animated film. You don't need permission from anyone or any institution to do that.

Next post will be an exploration of film festivals. Are they of any use and why are there so many of them? Mr. Harkness has some interesting ideas about that as well.


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