When I write posts, I don't (necessarily) want people to blindly agree with me -- but I want them to think about why they disagree.
Which brings us to Canadian director Atom Egoyan. Egoyan's latest film, The Captive, has premiered at the Cannes film festival. A thriller featuring Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, and American actors Rosario Dawson and Mireille Enos, The Captive has -- apparently -- been garnering less-than-enthusiastic reviews.
Egoyan first made a name for himself as part of a wave of auteur Canadian filmmakers that gained attention in the 1980s, which included the likes of Patricia Rozema, Bruce McDonald, Sandy Wilson, Deepa Mehta, Don McKellar and Denys Arcand (the latter already established but enjoying attention in the Anglophone market). Arguably only Egoyan remains a big name today -- at least in film circles.
And here's the thing: I don't like Atom Egoyan's films.
Part of that is simply taste (which we'll delve into more in a sec) -- I'm not a fan of his stylistic aesthetic. But I would go even farther and say that I don't even regard Egoyan as a particularly good filmmaker.
Yet he was, is, and doubtless will remain for the foreseeable future, the poster child for Canadian cinematic excellence. (Which is why I don't feel too bad about dissing him -- I'm sure he can take the hit.)
Canadian film and TV is my hobby. I've watched it, written about it, advocated for it, and criticized it for literally decades. And, frankly, a lot of the filmmaking lions that stride across the veldt of Canadian cinema are people whose work I don't actually like. I like Canada, and I like movies -- but that doesn't mean I uncritically love Canadian movies!
Maybe it gets down to whether you prefer "movies" or "films." My taste runs the gamut from pop entertainment to quirky indie films. But generally I'm a meat and vegetables kind of guy (or for you vegetarians, I'm a tofu and stir fry kind of guy). I like a story (that means a plot with a beginning, middle, end, and a few twists along the way). I like interesting scenes. I like characters. Give me characters that I can care about, or at least interest me, and I'm half way to enjoying the movie. I love subtext, theme, metaphor, symbolism -- but to enrich plot and character, not to supersede them.
Personally, I find there's a heavy-handedness to Egoyan's films that borders on campy. He directs his actors too often like they are ciphers, solemnly muttering lines that seem freeze dried for shipping to a Film 101 class, their actions often driven by the symbolic meaning rather than genuine human motivation. His plots can seem a disjointed mishmash of themes, story threads, and flashbacks as though even he's unsure how to edit it together.
Probably my favourite Egoyan film (just to demonstrate that I really do give these guys a chance) was the relatively obscure and ultra-low-budget Calendar. Why do I regard it as my favourite of his films (damning with faint praise though that might be)? Precisely because it seemed the most human.
So now Egoyan is facing critical scorn at Cannes with The Captive -- following on the mixed reviews and weak box office that met his recent efforts like Devil's Knot, Chloe, Adoration, Where the Truth Lies, and others.
Nor is he alone in being a prolific and respected Canadian director with a string of critically and commercially underperforming films under his belt. I was going to name names but decided not to. As it is, I feel guilty enough about kicking Egoyan when he's (momentarily) down.
Part of the discrepancy maybe relates to my film/movie analogy. Canadian filmmakers often aim for the festival circuit rather than the corner bijou.
Still -- who cares what I, personally, like and don't like?
But it can be a problem if these movies fare poorly at the box office. I mean, Michael Bay (Transformers) can afford to shrug off negative reviews because he has the ticket sales to fall back on. But what do we say if box office is tepid and yet even critical consensus is less-than-favourable (and thanks to sites like Rotten Tomatoes, it's easier to get an overview of the general opinion)?
Cynically, I wonder whether it's really that filmmakers like Egoyan are experiencing slumps -- or is it that critics are only now noticing the designer label on the Emperor's clothes?
Perhaps the problem is Canadian film, with its limited commercial hits, is quick to turn toward idolatry. If we can't have a Steven Spielberg we at least want our Ingmar Bergman, our Akira Kurosawa. And we're quick to hoist onto our shoulders anyone who even remotely seems like a possible candidate.
To me, the Canadian filmmakers that I grudgingly, cautiously, start to look forward to are not necessarily the filmmakers who indulge in the flash and sizzle of spilt screens and camera tricks, nor the filmmakers who affect an austere style of long shots and cello music scores -- but the ones who have a knack for the human. Who can direct actors, who can put a scene together, who can tell a story and make me laugh, cry, or perch on the edge of my seat -- filmmakers who know that if you're thinking about what a good director they are, then they haven't done their job.
I'm more likely to be cautiously interested in the next film directed by Michael McGowan (Still Mine) or Sudz Sutherland (Home Again).
In Canada, where domestic actors are rarely perceived as having "box office draw" fame, the PR focus is shifted to the filmmakers, with directors like Egoyan, Deepa Mehta, David Cronenberg and others often being the default "stars" of their films. But that can lead to a climate where the film itself -- and whether it sounds like an interesting story, or is well made -- becomes secondary to the name in the credits. But the general public doesn't necessarily care (or even pay attention to) who directed a film, choosing what tickets they buy based on whether the film itself sounds like something worth seeing.
Maybe the cult of the auteur is a religion best observed in a more commercially successful entertainment industry.
I remember once reading a quote from a film funding executive who said that they supported filmmakers, more than films -- anticipating greatness to come. But maybe the way to assess whether someone is a great filmmaker is when they actually make a great film.
Or maybe I'm wrong.
Please, tell me I'm wrong.
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