Canadian cultural modesty and U.S. artistic ambition in film

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Terrence Malick's film, The Tree of Life, opens today. It won the Palme d'or at Cannes, a big prestigious deal. Like his others, it inspires something nearer reverence than mere respect: for its "audacity and vision" in "excavating primal, eternal meanings" and for its "sheer beauty."

These abstractions are like the solemn voice-overs in his films, which scatter words like evil, wicked, "the spark." There are always gorgeous shots of nature that you tend to be aware of as gorgeous. I don't mean there's anything phony in his obsessions; he's a Christian seeker who makes lush films he agonizes over. For critics they may come as relief after too many movies about hangovers and superheroes.

So why carp? Well, David Orr, in his book on modern U.S. poetry, Beautiful & pointless, discusses the idea of "ambition." Artists there get praise for taking on "ambitious" themes, indicated by words like God, death or the origin of life. It's a U.S. tradition and can be impressive to Canadians who go there to work or study, as I did. But Orr suggests that simply deploying the words doesn't mean much. Those who don't use them might be delving as deep or deeper.

What's the cultural opposite of ambition? Modesty. That could be our cultural keyword. For a great example, go to the National Film Board of Canada website and try an interactive feature called Welcome to Pine Point.

Pine Point was a company mining town in the Northwest Territories from 1963 to 1988, then it closed down. Nothing remains beyond the marks on the highway. A former school bully, who developed MS, has built a website for it using voice-command technology. We hear him at work in the NFB feature, which was made by two alumni from the shit-kicking magazine, Adbusters.

You get a powerful, blow-to-the-stomach sense of impermanence from high-school graduation photos which, as the text across the screen says, show "no hint they knew that one day this all might end." Or from sports plaques on the school wall with many blank ones yet to be filled in. Even those scrawled texts convey a sense of transition. There's no sign of the old NFB Voice of God-overs that used to be provided by Lorne (Bonanza) Greene, for those who remember him. All that seems solid will vanish.

Yet Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, the filmmakers (if that's the term) find something positive in the extinction. "I can't help but wonder if Pine Pointers are in some way happier people -- if there is a kind of relief in having their hometown gone and their memories cast in amber." It's a stunning twist.

We live in the age of Too Much Information. There is a literal virtual war on Wikipedia between "inclusionists" and "deletionists": those who think everything that is, was or will be must be recorded, versus those who want to vigorously select and exclude. Pine Pointers have the happy medium: a past they can revel in but which won't burden them as they slog on into the future, because it ended. It reached a limit. I find such insights as profound as anything in Terrence Malick's films. But they don't come at us in lights on the marquee. They arrive modestly, in tentative onscreen scrawls.

There's even a sense of awe about nature -- "an industrial beauty you almost feel guilty for noticing" -- in juxtaposing abandoned mine pits with gorgeous northern landscape. Luckily, you don't need to choose between U.S.-style artistic ambition and Canadian cultural modesty. You can take in both. I plan to.

I'd like to add that in such projects the NFB stays true to its roots. It began as wartime propaganda in World War II, but soon decided to portray Canada to Canadians: showing loggers at work, for instance, in logging towns on screens set up in parking lots or hockey arenas, often using portable generators. It's the same now, and totally isn't. Talk about the mysteries of permanence and change.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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