It must be summer when CBC fills up its Saturday night schedule with Canadian movies instead of Hockey Night in Canada. I’ve been enjoying their summer series The Filmmakers, in which each week, Johanna Schneller conducts a half-hour interview with panelists and the director of the film that airs after each show. Last night’s instalment was with Don McKellar and his 1998 film Last Night which he wrote, directed and had the lead role.
Last Night was Canada’s entry in the ten-film 2000 Vu Par series, in which each film (produced in different parts of the globe) envisioned how the world was going to change once the clock hit midnight on January 1, 2000. Other contributing nations included Taiwan (Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole), Mali (Abderrahmane Sissako’s Life On Earth), even the good old US of A (Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life). These were produced in the midst of the global panic over Y2K, and many of the resulting films were as low key as Y2K ended up being.
Before we continue, I should tell a story about the first time I saw Last Night. It was at The Royal Cinema one weeknight in January of 1999- yes, that time when Toronto was literally buried in snow, and Mayor Mel called in the army. We were still digging ourselves out of the white stuff the night of that screening. Indeed, after the movie, I hopped onto the College Streetcar to come home, only to find that it couldn’t get up the street. Thanks to shovelled snow pile head high on the curb, cars were forced to park further out onto the street, often blocking the streetcar from continuing on its track! As a result, to get us going, passengers would go out and push cars out of the way! How Canadian! Imagine experiencing this after seeing a movie where people are upturning automobiles and streetcars!
Assuredly, some of last night’s dialogue prior to the screening involved the movie's distinct "Canadian-ness", with its tone of frustration (few of the characters succeed in doing what they want for their last night on earth), and settling for less (which is a microcosm of Canadian film production in general), and the unexpected humour of it all. Indeed, upon seeing Last Night again for the first time in 17 years, I was reminded how much it was a “who’s who” of Canuck cinema. In addition to McKellar himself, the ensemble cast included such familiar Canadian faces as Sandra Oh, Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, David Cronenberg, Arsinee Khanjian, Charmion King, Robin Gammell, Genevieve Bujold, and Tracy Wright. Even Jackie Burroughs, Francois Girard and Bruce McDonald show up in “squint to see them” cameos!
Frustration was also an unfortunate by-product of the viewing experience last night. It looked like we were watching the film through a shot glass. I’m no expert on formats (especially in relation to upgrading materials made before the high def revolution), but to my eyes it resembled an ill-advised attempt at bumping a standard def transfer to high def, instead of doing a proper scan from the source material. Come on, CBC co-produced this film initially- they must have better elements than this!
Even so, I’m glad that this series exists. Seriously, if CBC doesn’t do it, who will? I was a loyal viewer of their Cinema Canada series, airing on Thursday or Friday nights throughout the 1990s, which presented homegrown films new and vintage. And because this was CBC, more people had the chance to see them: it was a refreshing alternative to the constricted distribution system which hijacks our cinema from being seen by the people who want it. But Last Night’s presentation was an unfortunate reminder of the difficulty to see Canadian films made even in the 1980s or 1990s. Why is it that most of our cinema can only be seen in squiggly VHS dubs (either taped from TV -when CanCon legislation would be honoured by airing films instead of Cash Cab reruns- or from their fleeting appearances on home video labels)? We’re only talking about stuff that’s 20 to 30 years old!
I guess the presentation and preservation of our film heritage is much like our citizenship and the characters of Last Night: we’re used to making compromises, accustomed to settling for less, and too polite to do anything about it.