Vive Le Canada

REVIEW: Dreaming in the Rain: How Vancouver Became Hollywood North by Northwest
Date: Monday, December 15 2003

(Dreaming in the Rain, David Spaner, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003,, 224pages)

[this review originally appeared in print in Vancouver's The Rain]

This book promises to answer the question on everyone's lips: How did Vancouver become Hollywood North by Northwest? But Vancouver-Province film guy David Spaner's book, sadly, reminded me of the old Schoolhouse Rock episode about how a bill becomes law. Instead of taking us into smoky backrooms, big-money deals and national political juggling acts, Spaner simply tells us, "First, you make your movie. Then it gets into the Toronto Film Fest, Sundance, and Cannes. Then all your friends do the same, and your city becomes a big movie town!" Simple as that. The rest of the book is just tea-party anecdotes.

And, come on? Hollywood North by Northwest!? Does Toronto really need to be pandered to, in the very title of Vancouver's brag book? Especially when this tome is just one more attempt to package the wildly variable film scene in this burg into two homogonous streams-- Hollywood vs Canadian Indie -- connected by some fine, photogenic gossamer threads, and then declare them to be an international, not to mention national, treasure?

It is perfectly reasonable to say that Vancouver's filmmaking owes everything of itself to Hollywood, Ottawa, Toronto, and New York, and yet owes them nothing of its soul, much as a child owes everything to its parents but yet can only be its own free spirit. And the picture that emerges in Spaner's book definitely suggests this thoughtful concept. But there's too much time spent on the huzzah, for instance, of Errol Flynn's off-duty shenanigans in town, and on the fine points of Bruce Sweeney's aesthetic approach, when to tell this book's story there's no reason that the opposite approach couldn't be just as valid - or invalid. How does Sylvester Stallone approach his character? How does Ross Weber do at the box office? Instead of slobbering over auteurs, one of my favourite pastimes, but out of place in a functional history, Spaner should be breaking down the steps of the so-called West Coast Wave.

Do the seven films of this Wave: John Pozer's The Grocers Wife, Sweeney's Live Bait, Lynn Stopkewitch's Kissed and Suspicious River, Mina Shum's Double Happiness, and, um, Sweeney's Dirty and Last Wedding, really make a city? Especially when their prominence is based, yes, partly, on their qualities - though production values and artistic merit vary wildly among them - but mostly on clearing those first institutional hurdles which separate underground filmmaking movements from official national cinema? Hurdles over which these filmmakers, all close personal friends, boosted one another? Why does Spaner fail to examine how or why The Grocer's Wife got into Toronto at all? Was the fest's national funding at stake if they failed to represent BC? Who decided to open the fest with Last Wedding, years later? Who invited Dirty to Sundance, and why? How did Cannes find out about The Grocer's Wife? What institutions, organizations, people, connections, and so on, were in place, slogging away, eyes open, the moment Pozer popped out his print and started filling out fest applications? Those questions, if answered, would be useful, especially re: Ross Weber's No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, which, in this book, is treated as a seamless part of the Wave, but is quite the opposite: its critical and distribution failures suggest the limit of the Wave's importance and power.

Spaner's focus is also extremely vague (not to be confused with the Nouvelle Vague, which is typo- ed in this book as Vogue). He meanders off into television to discuss DaVinci's Inquest, because, well, it's kind of relevant and important, but it explicitly overrides his focus on narrative features- so if he's going to break for that, why not spend just as much time with X-Files' Chris Carter as with DaVinci's Chris Haddock? The former has had as much a personal hand in putting this city on the film map as anyone, and David Duchovny's anti-Vancouver ravings have carved this city's name in fire in all our hearts, one way or the other. Why does Spaner wander off for a famous Paul Robeson musical moment? How is that more relevant to our film scene than the underground filmmakers of the early 80s, Rimmer, Razutis, Gallagher, etc? How does Spaner decide that a family-financed, Commonwealth-content-law British film of 1933 is not independent, but the current wave of Cancon / Telefilm / Alliance-Atlantis projects are?

There's a broad range of underground works, critical flops, and / or boring Canadian industry production that is completely ignored in this book, as if they would diminish Spaner's thesis. What about Barbecue: A Love Story, Late Night Sessions, Horsey, Mile Zero, Come Together, Walk Backwards, Lola? What about Illeana Pietrobruno's two features, wildly popular on the gay and lesbian circuit? Why is Anne Wheeler only mentioned in passing, though her films have been more important economically and internationally than other Vancouverite works (and she, at one time, snatched even Sweeney's federal funding away with her Cybil Sheppard movie)? Why are the bad Hollywood filmmakers such fun to poke at, but bad Vancouver ones seem not to exist? If there is some mystical combo of quality, cultural impact, economic clout, institutional approval and anecdotal pizzaz at work in Spaner's taxonomy, I wish he would make it explicit. Instead, the most tempting analysis from all this is that the Province's (and maybe the Sun's) archives might have been the determinant of whether some item was worth including in this book. If you have any concept of centrally-programmed, mass-market, corporate entertainment news, you'll see its logic at work in Dreaming in the Rain: decontextualized, neatly packaged, disempowering even as it pretends to salute personal achievement.

Heck, not once does he mention the Blinding Light, nor does his list of interviews include Alex MacKenzie. Enough said.

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FLICK HARRISON is a filmmaker / writer in Vancouver. His digital feature film “Sex, Drugs, Love, Marx…” is available for screening anywhere! See his trailers, articles, and more at armed! His column on politics and film appears biweekly on Vive le Canada.

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