Wednesday, December 02, 2009


The reasons that Canadian films don’t “catch fire” in the US are various and may include the idea that their films are too good for us to appreciate! But to be a little kinder, there are other factors. One of the more subtle and interesting is the “Wacousta Syndrome,” which is not much discussed on the States’ side. “Wacousta” was a novel about a fort and what a safe haven it offered to a people struggling to survive in a pretty harsh place, the Canadian prairies. The Canadian social consensus was that communities, even walled ones like the wealthy enclaves we sort of resent these days, are good, proper, and morally justified. The American idea was far more based on the fortunes of the individual and their resourcefulness. Success was the result of genius and effort, not community solidarity. The American Western is often about the heroic individual who has to save a wimpy, unformed and possibly corrupt town.

Canadian Westerns are hardly even defined as a category. I will suggest a candidate for this non-category: “Edge of Madness,” based on an Alice Munro short story I haven’t read, reinvented as a movie by Anne Wheeler. The core of the tale is about how much hardship and emotional challenge a person can take without madness and what their relationship to the community ought to be. Can the community save them or should it eject them, if necessary, through a hangman’s trapdoor?

A young and appealing but evidently insane woman shows up at the Red River “fort” where the authority (this is 1851), who is more of a Hudson’s Bay employee than a Mountie, must decide what to do with her. She insists that she killed her husband but she calls out a second man’s name. She is put in jail, a confinement she finds reassuring, while things are sorted out. I won’t tell you much more than that, since it’s basically a murder mystery unfolded through flashbacks.

I suppose that to a city person, the little homestead this woman comes from and the long land with its stands of small trees along the river are both empty and scary. To me they look like home, since my father’s family homesteaded in northern Manitoba and the terrain is not that different from here. But also, currently in a cold wave that will sink to and below zero farenheit, I’m very aware of just how deadly a mistake can be. Everything depends upon planning, which is even more important than money.

Family/community fits between planning and money because the crucial safety net is often other people who come to help, who take you in, who teach you what works and what doesn’t. People who think they know it all and use force to subjugate the people in their household are doomed. (This theme is also explored in the movie “After the Harvest”, adapted from the novel “Wild Geese,” by Martha Ostenso which I reviewed a few years ago.) Sure, there’s a first flare of success, but the bill comes due. Unless you’re in an American movie.

I’m finding these movies in part by using Netflix to locate movies that include Tantoo Cardinal because I admire her so much. In this movie she embodies ordinary care and concern for others, an autochthonous moral foundation across this entire continent, not attached to “nation.” One of the recurring stories from “Indian wars” is the individual compassionate woman, often old, who would creep out at night to help a wounded or punished person, even an enemy.

If Canada is to the USA as woman is to man, assuming the usual stereotypes of gender, then it makes sense for fine Canadian movie directors to be female. Not unlike the Indie directors Jane Campion and Sally Potter in Europe, Wheeler has had the advantage of government support for the Canadian film environment. She has not thrown away her energy on trivial subjects or shoddy work. But she hasn’t been quite so experimental as those two continental directors. This movie is a calm, authentic depiction very likely to have been enacted repeatedly in frontier days when people risked their lives to take root in what they believed to be “unowned” land. This was only one of romantic misapprehensions that motivated their decisions, like the orphan girl in the story believing that if she were a “good wife” who could attract a strong man, she would be safe and happy.

"The predisposition to murder is rooted in feelings and beliefs people have toward government and their fellow citizens," said Randolph Roth, author of the book ‘American Homicide’ and professor of history at Ohio State. I want to come back to this, but one of the lessons of this absorbing story is that the three young people struggling on their homestead come to grief in part because of turning away from the community. The brutal and obsessed murder victim is the driving force of what can’t be quite called a family since it’s only his young brother and orphan wife and he feels no need to protect them, only exploit them. When the neighbors extend good will he sneers at them and even shoots at them.

The young ones, in their desperation accepting this point of view, have only each other. Their natural affinity becomes sexual and the threesome triggers murder. When they are alone together and after considerable suffering, they each turn to the community -- away from each other. In an American film this would never do. Our romantic standards require that they either live together forever or die together, not find happiness apart.

One of the nice features of the plot (I have no idea how much of this goes back to the Alice Munro story.) is that the younger man is the more emotional and unskilled one, while the young woman has a marketable skill (sewing) as well as being literate. The man is merely strong and healthy and must have a guide. The woman has an occupation. There’s another sociological dimension, not much explored, in the origin of Hudson’s Bay factors on the Orkney Islands, a community of strong morality and independence without antisociality.

If I were showing this to a class, I would screen it juxtaposed to “The Missing” in which the Tommy Lee Jones character is the hero, though his daughter is also strong. He is not abusive. All that is projected away onto the Indians.

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