It’s a historic event here at the Independent, folks: Just this once, we’re going to talk about Canadian film and filmmakers without once (okay, just once) mentioning the name Guy Maddin. Maddin’s sensibility might be the most mutatedly Canadian of any filmmaker working north of the border, but he’s not the only one up there.
David Cronenberg (b. Toronto, 1943)
Sometimes called the King of Venereal Horror, Cronenberg first came to the attention of American (and, really, Canadian) audiences with 1981’s Scanners, a sci-fi freaker featuring the most memorable exploding head in cinema (it was filmed using a latex model filled with dog food and chicken livers, blasted from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun). Since then, he’s paved a trail of creepiness that includes Dead Ringers, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Crash, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ. Mutation and technological alienation are important themes for Cronenberg, who shoots all of his movies in Toronto—a city that always seems vaguely futuristic on film. Quotable quote: “Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: They confuse reality with illusion.”
Atom Egoyan (b. Cairo, Egypt, 1960)
Born in Egypt to Armenian parents and raised in western Canada, Egoyan is the country’s most decorated filmmaker, with seven Genie awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar), five Cannes awards and four from the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival under his belt. His wife, Arsinée Khanjian, acts in all his films; in 1993’s enigmatic Calendar, she plays the wife of a photographer compiling a calendar of Armenian churches who becomes entangled with an Armenian guide. Egoyan, an early experimenter with video, frequently includes televisions and monitors in his work, which often explores delicately or mysteriously intertwined relationships. His best-known films are The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey; a new feature, Where the Truth Lies, is currently in postproduction and slated for release next year.
Norman Jewison (b. Toronto, 1926)
Call him Mr. Clean: a capable, if workmanlike, producer/director whose chief talent is for coaxing excellent performances from his actors to advance relatively simple stories. He’s fallen off the map a bit in recent years, but for a time in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Norman Jewison was a household name with The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Rollerball (1975). Jewison’s triptych of racial-injustice movies (1967’s In the Heat of the Night, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story and 1999’s The Hurricane, the latter two starring Denzel Washington at the advent and peak of his celebrity, respectively) was inspired by a hitchhiking tour of the American South when he was 18 years old.
Norman McLaren (b. Stirling, Scotland, 1914)
The Canadian Film Board has long been an incubator for innovative animation, and the single most innovative animator—in Canada or otherwise—was Norman McLaren, a Scot by birth who settled in Canada after filming the Spanish Civil War and living briefly (and penuriously) in New York just prior to World War II. Though he didn’t invent it, McLaren refined the technique of working directly on film stock, drawing, painting, etching with small chisels and otherwise manipulating the medium every which way, and with captivating results. Begone Dull Care is an eight-minute explosion of colors and shapes set to an improvised piano score by Oscar Peterson; Lines: Horizontal is an undulating procession of finely etched lines, period, with a haunting accompaniment by Peter Seeger. So obsessed was McLaren with his work that when he won an Oscar for his 1951 film Neighbors, in which a flower growing on a contested property line sparks a murderous battle between cardigan-clad homeowners, he didn’t even know there was such an award.
John Paizs (b. Winnipeg, 1958)
John Paizs, a university chum of fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, is one of the unsung heroes of Canadian cinema. Then again, there hasn’t been much to sing about lately: With a 14-year hiatus between his last two features—1985’s Crime Wave (not to be confused with the Sam Raimi movie of the same name) and 1999’s B-movie send-up Top of the Food Chain—Paizs’ reputation rests chiefly with his first films, of which Crime Wave is the best, and also the only feature. Paizs also stars as Steven Penny, a would-be writer of “color crime novels” who’s great at beginnings and endings but not so great at coming up with middles, and who further can only write by streetlight. Prone to bouts of catatonic self-doubt, he seems bound for oblivion until his landlord’s preteen daughter starts sending the false starts she’s retrieved from Penny’s garbage can to a sociopath only too eager to collaborate with the budding young talent. Shot in simulated Technicolor, Crime Wave looks like an educational film gone horribly wrong. Paizs’ 1981 short, Springtime in Greenland, has been called Canada’s first postmodern film.
Jeremy Podeswa (b. Toronto, 1958)
Jeremy Podeswa’s first job in the movies was as an assistant to Norman Jewison on the director’s 1987 film Moonstruck. His first work as a director was his debut feature, Eclipse, and episodes of Canadian TV series like Traders and North of 60. Podeswa has also worked extensively in American television, helming several episodes each of Six Feet Under, Queer as Folk and The Chris Isaak Show, but he is perhaps best known to American moviegoers for The Five Senses, a drama about a lost child starring Mary Louise Parker, for which he won a best-director Genie. Quotable quote: “You could have the best director of photography or the best art director in the world, but if you have a bad actor in a movie, then you’re really screwed.”