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Remembering Quebec Filmmaker Pierre Falardeau (1946-2009)
by Alex Paquin

In 2004, Quebec filmgoers were subjected to the release of Jean Beaudin's "Nouvelle-France", a homemade historical romance in Hollywood's worst tradition. With a budget of $33 million, it would have counted as the most expensive Canadian film ever made had it not been a co-production. Nonetheless, it had all the earmarks of a bloated, overambitious film from the start: breathtaking locales with nothing interesting taking place in them, a slew of prestigious actors in small, affordable roles (Gérard Depardieu, Vincent Perez, Tim Roth), a director who had produced nothing artistically significant in over a decade, with the mess concluding with a Céline Dion song, written for the film, to hasten the exit from the theatre. Needless to say, it was a box office hit, but universally panned; one critic even lost his job and regained it in the course of a single day over his negative review. Then the enterprise sailed for France to recoup the rest of its budget.

Luckily, I never paid to see it, content that I was with watching it on television a few years later. The plot appears in my mind through a haze: There is a love triangle with a cruel husband and a romantic lover. The husband finds out about his wife's idyll and tries to ambush the lover, who, for a while afterwards, is thought dead while being nursed back to health by Indians (for, as we know, traditional recipe from ancestors much, much better than white man's medicine; did I mention this was screened in France?). Then, cribbing from the Corriveau case, the husband is killed and the wife is accused of the crime. Oh, and the British conquer New France during the film. I remember Depardieu delivering the news; that's the sort of thing you pay famous actors to do.

Good thing he is there, too, because, except for the odd cannonball here and there, and those people in red tunics with funny accents later in the film, you would never have known that a little event called the Battle of the Plains of Abraham had taken place; it does not appear in the picture. Reportedly, the makers could not afford to film it.

Who cares about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham anyway? This year marks the two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the event, and a planned re-enactment of the battle was cancelled because a few vocal Quebec separatists opposed it. Instead, the most publicized event commemorating the French defeat of 1759 was the Moulin à paroles, a series of important Quebec writings being read aloud on the Plains. Innocuous enough -- until it was announced that one of the texts to be read would be the manifesto of the Quebec Liberation Front, a terrorist organization that considered itself the Quebec equivalent of the IRA or the Basque ETA.

The QLF was infiltrated and brought down in the early 1970's, but not before it had committed a series of terrorist acts, usually by bombing symbols of political oppression. What guaranteed its place in history, however, was the October Crisis of 1970, which reached its apex with the abduction and murder of Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte, whose body was found in the trunk of a car a day after the federal government had implemented the War Measures Act.

By all accounts, the QLF manifesto, which became famous after being read on television as a condition for the liberation of another hostage (later released), was an important historical document. But was its being read on the Plains of Abraham, four decades after the events to which it was linked, an act of acknowledgement of its importance, or a celebration of its aims?

Quebec federalists, who already feared the separatist slant given to the proceedings, were appalled. However, Canada's self-proclaimed National Newspaper, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, noting the obsolete content of the manifesto, disregarded this anxiety and quickly reassured its readers that "reading these words is not trivializing; it is hoisting a previous generation of violent separatists by their own petards". Petard-hoisting or not, the Globe and Mail cartoonist, three days before, had given a more accurate impression of what his newspaper really thought of the matter. The cartoon depicted a Quebec separatist, flag in hand, reading a string of yada yada yadas from an interminable sheet of paper, while a beaver, wearing a t-shirt adorned with a maple leaf, was fast asleep, in the pose of the stricken victor in Benjamin West's famous Death of General Wolfe. It could hardly have been clearer: Quebeckers might pay attention, but Canada cares not.

It was perhaps to be expected, then, that when the Quebec filmmaker Pierre Falardeau, who had made a controversial film on the October Crisis fifteen years before, died at the age of 62 just two weeks after the Plains of Abraham commemoration, The Globe and Mail, the final arbiter of Canadian relevance, first gave him, as "one of Quebec's most eminent filmmakers", an obituary of all but eighty-four words, thirty-six hours after his death. (The original obituary, which had been wire copy, was later expanded upon, and a photograph was added, but Roman Polanski's arrest and the death of Willam Safire remained more prominently displayed on the G&M's arts section of its website.)

Quebec cultural matters are always a mystery, and a minor one at any rate, to the rest of Canada. In this respect, it would be interesting to know what Falardeau, ever the ardent separatist, would think of the English-Canadian coverage of his death. It is all too easy to picture him, head at an angle, omnipresent cigarette in hand (physically, he can best be described as a Quebec-bred Serge Gainsbourg), squinting in your direction, his wide-spaced incisors peering through a playful grin. Perhaps he would have considered you for a moment, stroking his beard, not because he was still mulling what to say -- he already knew -- but to build up suspense. And then it would come out, in the bluntest working-class Montreal accent, laced with the liturgical profanity that makes Quebec a truly distinct society, with a dash of the scatological swearing of the rest of North America.

Then, most likely, he would laugh. If you were on his side, welcome to the club; if you were against him, watch out. Or at least, since I never met him, that is how his public persona can be summarized. A Quebec critic described him as "a character kneaded in the dough of demagoguery, a caricature of himself, an old curmudgeon bloated by popular demand, yelling too loudly to finally better allow others to shut up", a result of years of struggling to secure financing, despite his talent and because of his politics; I could hardly have put it better.

Those who have never been acquainted with Falardeau or his films might tend to think he was the embodiment of vulgarity. Yet there was to his profanity such an artistry and a sincerity, with, underneath, a certain natural modesty that he would try his best to dissimulate -- for, in politics, which permeated his films even at his most commercial, modesty gets you nowhere -- that you would find his voice lacking without it. He was outspoken, often excessively so, and to him, the basic courtesy of not speaking ill of the dead just meant he had one last chance to get even with his fallen enemies. Even leading Quebec sovereigntists who mourned Falardeau's passing were cautious when dealing with his political views, although he insisted that independence could only be achieved through democratic means. As in all things, he seemed to protest too much.

His genres ranged from the documentary to historical drama, but his best-known work, though far from his best, remains the seminal comedy Elvis Gratton, released in 1985, starring Julien Poulin as the eponymous character.

Falardeau's Robert ("Bob") Gratton, garage owner, federalist hack, and Elvis impersonator, is the director's idea of the archetype of the colonisé Quebecker: a mal dégrossi (Québécois for uncouth) indulging in the quétaine (a dumber version of kitsch), worshipping at the twin altars of Canadian unity and the Master of Graceland. Much has been made of Quebec's fascination with Presley, as demonstrated by the existence of Elvis Story, a long-running Elvis stage show (since 1995), in which one singer, Martin Fontaine, portrayed the King for ten years before moving on to other projects. Perhaps that turned singing along to Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear in one's living room into a savvy career move, but Falardeau and Poulin's Elvis was not Fontaine's Elvis; not the youthful sex symbol who would offend millions as "Elvis the Pelvis", but the decadent Elvis of the later years, with a tapering film career and an expanding waist. Perhaps Presley was still capable of producing great recordings by the late sixties -- indeed, I find myself drawn to his not-giving-a-damn-anymore period, and I consider 1969's Suspicious Minds one of his most realized songs because of its exceptional credibility -- but he was turning into an embarrassment on the stage, to the extent that this later image of the King has now taken over in the public consciousness. Such is Gratton's Elvis -- tacky, graceless, with a lethal combination of sideburns, toupee, sunglasses and jewel-encrusted vermilion jumpsuit; only in Falardeau's universe would he win a televised impersonation contest and turn into a mainstay at second-rate Liberal Party fundraisers.

According to the expanded Globe and Mail obituary, Elvis Gratton won a Genie Award in 1983, which is surprising, not only because the film is, at its core, thinly disguised separatist propaganda, but also because it makes no claim of artistic merit -- quite the opposite: the film deliberately strives for bad taste to match that of its main character. What the obituary should have made clear, however, was that the Genie-winning Elvis Gratton was a theatrical short, later amalgamated with further Gratton shorts into a feature film of the same name (with the subtitle le King des Kings, often omitted). Its success on home video led to two full-length theatrical sequels (1999 and 2004, both directed by Falardeau) and a weekly television show (2007-09, without Falardeau), all starring Poulin; a few of Gratton's empty catch phrases, such as "think big" and "hey, ils l'ont-tu l'affaire, les Américains" ("hey, don't they really have it, the Americans"), have entered Quebec popular parlance as phrases of derision.

In the reports that followed Falardeau's death, one critic recalled telling him that the character of Elvis Gratton, in later years, had eluded his creator, to which the director replied that people would eventually understand his deeper aspects. Indeed, the second and third feature films, panned by critics (which Falardeau wore as a badge of honour), were closer to burlesque than reality; highlights included Gratton being resurrected, becoming famous in the United States, and using his wealth to defend his beloved Canada against the separatists. If such a thing was possible, it transformed Gratton into the caricature of a caricature, a parody character into a franchise with more interest in parodying itself than its original target (the closest Hollywood example I can think of is the last Austin Powers film). Sure, he still wore maple-leaf boxer shorts, and the Liberals could still count on his vote, but he had lost all semblance of reality.

The original Gratton was not perfect, far from it; for that matter, I know more supporters of Quebec independence who remind me of him than federalists. But despite the exaggerations, he was a character you could imagine living across the street, not a bad guy, but, you know, one you would rather avoid if you could. Whether you buy into Falardeau's less-than-subtle exercise in reverse psychology is no matter, as the character is a delight to watch in various settings and extended one-joke scenes. Picture, for instance, five minutes of Gratton, wearing a hula skirt, jumping on the springboard of an indoor swimming pool as though it were a trampoline, to the sound of Tyrolean music -- repetitive, overlong, yet impossible to stop watching. Imagine Gratton and his wife, on their vacation to the El Colonial Hotel on the tropical island of Santa Banana (the grand prize of the Elvis contest), discussing which pre-recorded baseball game they should listen to, then, recovering from sunburn as a result of using pasta dental as a sun lotion, watching a lilliputian dictator (named Augusto Ricochet, good taste being de rigueur) make a political speech on television. And how about seeing the protagonist attempt to gift-wrap a stationary bicycle, or to explain his ethnicity to a French tourist ("Francophone Canadian Americans of North America", and so on)?

The best scene is the film, encapsulating the character in five minutes, is a photo shoot in which Elvis gets caught up in his diatribe against separatists and their union allies, with the photographer nonchalantly encouraging him while immortalizing Gratton in increasingly absurd poses. "A little more to the right, please", he says at one time, which in Falardeau's oeuvre amounts to one of his more subdued political commentaries. However, it is impossible to laugh off Gratton's sexually harassing a hitchhiker, even when intentionally done in bad taste -- and it's a character trait that, to my knowledge, never reappeared in the Elvis Gratton canon. Likewise, the episodic treatment, as a result of cobbling together short films made independently of one another, is uneven. Yet by the end of the film emerges a clear portrait of Gratton which continues to resonate with Quebec filmgoers.

Falardeau and Poulin may have drawn their inspiration for Gratton from a previous film they made together, Pea Soup (1978), a documentary on working-class life made with rudimentary equipment (the National Film Board, perhaps in the aftermath of its six-year refusal to release Denys Arcand's documentary on Quebec's textile industry, On est au coton, that was judged too subversive, refused to lend the filmmakers a 16mm camera). I have been unable to watch Pea Soup in its entirety, but a few scenes from it are available online, including what appears to be the opening sequence, borrowing Disney's famous Tinkerbell opening -- illustrating the pervasive ubiquity of American popular culture, one of the recurring themes of Elvis Gratton -- to introduce the title, a handwritten "pea soup" in white letters against a plain grey background.

One of the most widely available sequences features an overweight child, perhaps ten years of age, eating from a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket between his legs. Filmed seated on the grass with a wooden fence behind him, he wears no clothes, except for a pair of shorts, shoes -- and a KFC paper hat. The camera films him, but this hardly seems to bother him, as he just answers the filmmakers' question with all the candor of a child who finds he needs not be afraid of his perfectly reasonable responses. What Falardeau and Poulin ended up recording was that the limited horizon of the working class, its encroaching limits ingrained at an early age. Asked what he would do if he won a million dollars, the child responded he would spend it all -- including on a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant -- and would not work until he had wasted all his money. Left to his whims, he would spend his spare time watching late-night films on English-language television, and his idea of urban renewal would be to tear down the schools and old houses to make way for parks. Not that he would need schools, as his professional ambition is to be a truck driver, like his father.

At ten years of age, such a dead-end life was a tragedy; aged forty, the same person, by then not only content but complacent, could have been mined for laughs as a Gratton archetype. Indeed, in a winter scene of Elvis Gratton, the protagonist wears a tuque inscribed "Oui mon colonel" ("yes my colonel"), produced as part of a long-running Kentucky Fried Chicken promotional campaign -- and I'm sure Gratton would have thought, in a moment of wit, that it applied nicely to the real Elvis as well.

This perhaps illustrates, more than anything else, the dichotomy between Falardeau the humanist and Falardeau the cruel ideologue. The former co-helmed (with his partner, Manon Leriche) Le Steak (1992), a sensitive documentary on boxer Gaétan Hart; the latter would skewer his affluent adversaries with Le temps des bouffons (1993).

Le Steak's Hart boxes because it offers an escape from the drudgery of working-class life, but without the rags-to-riches tale of Rocky. A three-time Canadian champion, Hart lost his only bout for the world title and slowly declined. Le Steak, thus, is not an account of his rise to the top -- that was twelve years before the film -- but what happens when one's glory days are far behind, and that all that is left to do is to hang on for as long as possible, because there is, and despite there being, nothing else ahead. We see Hart reminiscing over his life in boxing, that included the death of an opponent after a 16-day coma, and trying to return to top form after a retirement that had seen him fall into poverty -- far from Gratton, entrepreneur and esteemed member of the local chamber of commerce. Hart was a fighter, and in Falardeau's world, struggling against crass compacency was the most admirable of virtues; only through such a struggle could the noble character of the working class assert itself.

This rejection of complacency could be seen as the impulse behind Le temps des bouffons ("The Time of the Buffoons"), a 15-minute documentary on the annual banquet of Montreal's Beaver Club, filmed in 1985 but only released eight years later. The Beaver Club was an institution founded in an era when the fur trade dominated Canadian business, and to perpetuate this tradition, club members and local notables would, once a year, dress in the attire of two centuries ago, pretending they were still part of a bourgeois elite whose every gesture could influence the prosperity of the colony. In changing times, such a grotesque attachment to the past, by people seemingly so self-important that they could entertain ridicule of themselves (if only on their own terms), begged to be parodied. Luckily, Falardeau was on hand to record the proceedings for posterity.

In the documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, the legendary German filmmaker claimed, without batting an eye, that her Triumph of the Will was not a work of propaganda, for it lacked a voice-over narration to tell the viewer what to think. It was one of those numerous moments which made Wonderful, Horrible Life worth watching; how could this genius filmmaker, who demonstrated her keen understanding of the medium on so many occasions, make such a hollow remark which, if you happened to believe it, would turn her entire filmography into a streak of dumb luck? Yet, on that occasion, she preferred to be seen as naive instead of as a propagandist; in her context, quite understandable.

Le temps des bouffons features the exact opposite of Riefenstahl's approach in almost every respect. While the latter resulted from meticulous planning and complete cooperation from authorities (compare Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will to her earlier and comparatively slapdash Sieg des Glaubens, which received little support from the Nazis), Falardeau's seemed a much more improvised and amateurish effort, content with filming rather than staging; likewise, their aims were antithetical, and while the German was content to let the visuals speak for themselves, the Canadian saddled his already effective images with an extended narrative. Falardeau did not seem to be unduly concerned with poor video quality (Pea Soup was done with a tape camera, and edited in Poulin's chalet), nor did he need or seek the editing flair and the sense of irony of a Michael Moore; even the American director's approach could be called subdued in comparison. Skewering, to Falardeau, was an art, but if Le temps des bouffons is any indication, he hardly believed in subtlety or finesse -- not in this case, at least.

In Le Steak, he was content to let Hart speak for himself, and Falardeau's distinctive voice was only heard in the background, when he asked questions; this was also his approach in the few scenes of Pea Soup that I have seen (though I doubt it was the same in another scene I read about but did not see -- and wish I could -- where the filmmakers travel to Westmount, Montreal's posh upper-crust neighbourhood, and give us a Who's Who-style rundown of the inhabitants, house by house). In Le temps des bouffons, he complemented his images with an impassioned narrative that could be described as the quintessential Falardeau political rant -- an exposé of the invisible rich in their natural habitat, blending in with the politically connected and a motley selection of social climbers. Seeing them wigged and powdered up for the occasion was not enough; Falardeau still considers he needs to tell us:

"The full of sh*t bourgeois of today are costumed as the full of sh*t bourgeois of yore celebrating the good old times.... Each year, the big bosses met to feast their fortune. They ate, they drank, they sang.... That was the Beaver Club of 200 years ago. It was the mafia of the time. They bought everything: land, honours, medals, power; everything that could be bought. The fur gang slowly made up the elite of society. The thieves quietly became honourable citizens. They laundered dirty money by becoming bankers, lords, politicians, judges. That was the Beaver Club, in the beginning. Two hundred years later, their descendents, having become thoroughly respectable, are reliving this feast par excellence of colonial exploitation."

This "shame of mankind" having been exposed, Falardeau returns to a comparison to Ghana under British rule (not exactly a good idea, since the country went through several military coups after its independence), with which he had opened the film, providing him with a final punch that summarizes the man's humour and outrageous character: "In Ghana, the poor eat dogs; here, it is the dogs who eat the poor. And then they act surprised when we shove one of them into the trunk of a car."

However, when Falardeau's humanism collided with Falardeau's political agenda, both of which worked well enough independently, the result was often objectionable. Nowhere was this more aptly demonstrated than in his 1994 feature film Octobre, a work of historical fiction which actually told the story of how they "shoved one of them into the trunk of a car".

Octobre isn't a bad film; the story is deftly and briskly told, but it is done from the perspective of the four kidnappers-murderers; one of them collaborated with Falardeau on the script, and the director based his earlier feature film Le Party on the man's time in prison after his arrest. As for the victim, the Quebec politician Pierre Laporte, he rarely rises above the level of plot device, although a few scenes portray him in a sympathetic light. Even the ending credits seek to deprive the characters of their individuality: the kidnappers are "les Felquistes", members of the gang; he is "le ministre" ("the minister"), a representative of the authority they are rebelling against.

There is a thin line between humanizing a character and attempting to turn him into a sympathy magnet, and Falardeau's approach perilously straddles it with the kidnappers. One of them, for instance, is provided with the opportunity to say he embarked on a course of bank robbing and political terrorism because of the crummy jobs he used to have, such as the one where the night manager would fire any woman who resisted his sexual advances, and juxtaposing it with another unionized job where it took three employees to change a fuse, where waistlines were a reliable indicator of seniority, and where sitting on the job for a year just for a fortnight's vacation in Old Orchard was the modus operandi-- in other words, just another case of working-class alienation, another struggle against complacency.

But it was the additional details which pushed the film into untenable territory. In one scene, after the implementation of the War Measures Act, a Gratton archetype (wearing a fur coat as in one of Elvis Gratton's scenes, though Poulin does not appear in Octobre) starts ranting in a snack bar about how fantastic it was that the army was getting involved to get rid of all separatists, only to be put down by the waitress with a summary "you don't understand, do you?". Elsewhere, one of the kidnappers starts ridiculing the Justice Minister who told the media that the mafia would not be a target while the War Measures were in place (which suspended habeas corpus) because the government did not have a problem with them. Octobre weaves a compelling narrative suffused with tension (including a police raid across the street), but it is, disturbingly, a lesson in how to attractively present history by offering only the version of one side -- here the one with every reason to lie about its actions. By the end, the four protagonists are practically forgiven the murder of Laporte (which, it is worth mentioning, was what turned the population against the Quebec Liberation Front).

The reason for the murder, as laid out in Falardeau's film, lies somewhere between "we had no choice" and "he did it to himself", with, occasionally, an "it's the government's fault" thrown in for good measure. The film's conclusion shows Laporte breaking a window to call for help and attempt to escape, thereby cutting himself and losing much blood. The kidnappers cannot bring him to a hospital lest they be arrested, and their list of options is narrowed down to releasing him or letting him die. Finally they agree on strangulation, almost portrayed as an act of mercy; any guilt over the deed is expressed in the reluctance with which those saintly kidnappers carried out their assassination.

For this reason, the best film on the October Crisis remains Michel Brault's 1974 Les Ordres, which is so unconcerned with the protagonists of the event that their names are never mentioned -- including the QLF and its members, Laporte, and politicians at all levels (it is worth mentioning that a prominent QLF member virulently denounced that picture when it was released). What the 1974 film instead elected to deal with was the aftermath of the implementation of the War Measures Act, barely touched upon in Octobre: the arbitrary arrests of union leaders, democratic sovereigntists, intellectuals and artists who were imagined to be sympathetic to the QLF. As the War Measures Act had done away with the need for evidence, or to bring up charges, the enforcement of the law was excessive and followed by a collective washing of hands; everyone -- and the phrase is used as a leitmotif throughout the film -- was just following les ordres. Nobody was ever prosecuted, and, more disturbingly, nobody who gave out, or applied, les ordres was ever held to account. The collateral damage, at first glance, seemed to appear just as inevitable to one side as it was to the other, but Les Ordres had the courage to suggest that it was, on the government's side, done deliberately. Had Falardeau approached the subject matter from a similar perspective, it might have yielded a much more credible and morally ambiguous film; in Octobre, any moral ambiguity comes from constantly debating with ourselves whether we are watching history or propagandistic revisionism. In the end, caution wins out.

Falardeau enjoys maintaining the illusion that the QLF members were the 1960's descendents of the Patriotes of 1837-1838, a link which the group was wont to perpetuate. Its communiqués used Le Vieux de '37, a 19th-century illustration of a Patriote by Henri Julien, and it called its cells after old Patriotes, but the similarity ended there. The Patriotes were little more than a rabble organizing themselves into a makeshift militia, and their rebellion was not for independence, but responsible government in Lower Canada when democratic methods went nowhere (a similar rebellion, though less important or widespread, also occurred in English-speaking Upper Canada, today's Ontario); the QLF was a Marxist-inspired political action group with a marked preference for dropping ticking parcels into mailboxes. But never you mind, Falardeau's next and last historical film, 15 février 1839 (2001) would deal with those glorious Patriotes to forever close any loop he might have left open.

Like Octobre, 15 février 1839 would mostly take place in an exiguous indoor setting; instead of the suburban bungalow of Octobre, the later film was shot on location at Pied-du-Courant Prison, where the rebels were incarcerated after their defeat. As indicated by its title, the action takes place on a single day, as five Patriotes are awaiting their execution on the morrow. Politically, it is a far more acceptable film than Octobre; one does not sense the same egregious attempt at revisionism, and if revisionism there is, it is not limited to the film itself (nobody would defend the QLF nowadays, but the Patriotes have their own holiday in Quebec). Much of it stems from 15 février depicting the consequences of defeat instead of an ongoing struggle -- the rebellion is lost, Britain has reasserted control over its colony, and soon the infamous Durham Report would advocate the assimilation of French Canadians to prevent further incidents. The leaders of the rebellion would be hanged; for the others, exile.

Falardeau's film on the Patriotes was his last serious endeavour, and from a technical standpoint, it is among his finest achievements; it was also less hectic and more intimate than Octobre, even if hampered somewhat by too large a cast. But despite being popular and critically acclaimed, it was also a reminder that the politics of Falardeau were, by that time, antiquated. His views on immigration, for example, expounded in his Patriotes films, are both progressive and obsolete: "The English are using the immigrants to further their own supremacy, I don't care about your skin colour, if you're on my side, I love you, if you're against me, I hate you" -- which has led to much ambiguity.

Elvis Gratton featured a rare example of a minority -- another impersonation contestant known as Elvis Wong. Gratton laughed him off, and sure enough, Wong ended up in the finals, and was later brought back as Gratton's arch-rival. I am not certain what to deduce from this, but just last year, Falardeau was criticized for using a certain epithet against a Japanese Canadian he had chalked up in the "against" column; if not racism, a pernicious and hypocritical double standard based on compatibility with Falardeau's politics, in which being on the wrong side counts as "anything goes". If offensive labels were, to him, still good enough half of the time, might as well say racism.

Furthermore, the eight-year gap between the filming and release of Le temps des bouffons was significant. In the end, it was a dinosaur of one political stripe denouncing dinosaurs of another, forever locked into a battle where only the two parties involved would care about the outcome. The nasty truth, obvious to anyone but them, was that they had both lost. In the mid-eighties, both breeds -- the radical separatist and the Anglo-Montrealer capitalists -- were dying out; in the mid-nineties, despite a Quebec referendum (1995) which saw the last gasp of both groups, their battle would be of purely historical interest.

Unless you subscribed to Falardeau's theory of the incredibly rich pulling the strings of Quebec society from behind a thick velvet curtain, the Beaver Club members, much as they might throw their economic weight around, had long forfeited any active or visible role. Influential by proxy, perhaps, but no longer the overbearing elite which Falardeau loved to denounce. The factories of the seventies he filmed in Pea Soup, with their legions of workers and boot-licking vendus Québécois foremen, were long closed, first by free trade, then by an even larger process of globalization which devastated working-class unity by splitting it between the industrial leftovers and the booming tertiary sector. The suburbs developed, and a middle class emerged -- a middle class that failed to see the many ways in which this man Gratton had hit the target.

Ironically, the QLF manifesto, written for a working-class readership, has become a handy indicator of how things have changed. When its authors wrote that Quebeckers were living in a society of slaves terrorized "by the advertising of the great masters of consumerism, Eaton, Simpson, Morgan, Steinberg, General Motors", could they have imagined that, within forty years, the first four would have vanished, and the fifth would be on the verge of collapsing? This was what The Globe and Mail was referring to when it wrote that the manifesto, an "absurd historical curiosity", had no audience today. Poke it in all safety: it's dead, and nobody will dare claim the corpse.

However, Canada's National Newspaper, always petulant when separatists are involved, was rather too eager with its petard-hoisting. Would anyone claim that Wal-Mart, for example, represents an improvement over Eaton's, or that a distant, international elite, faceless and untouchable, is preferable to a local upper crust asserting its old-money privileges through the Beaver Club banquet? Falardeau was still fighting a struggle which had long vanished, both sides having been overtaken by obsolescence. Where his films were still relevant, the angle was oftentimes questionable, and the approach deficient.

Consider, for example, his film version (with Poulin as co-director) of Michèle Lalonde's poem Speak White, made for the National Film Board. The poem, now a classic, was written in 1968 for a demonstration demanding the release of QLF members, and it was first recited by Lalonde at the Nuit de la poésie in March of 1970 (an event filmed by the NFB). When Falardeau and Poulin released their version, in 1980, with the poem read by an actress (who was, interestingly, starring in an iconic children's television show at the time), it had lost most of its potency, and a few of its references were blunted by the passage of time.

Falardeau and Poulin's approach was to set the poem to file photos depicting historical events, and on occasion this was quite effective, although the author's own reading in 1970 was more convincing. However, by 1980, year of the first Quebec referendum on independence, the insult of "speak white", an old racial slur aimed at French Canadians since the late 19th century, had vanished. Coca-Cola's "pause that refreshes" was less and less a symbol of American commercial domination, and the references to the Watts Riots, or to Little Rock, Algiers and the Belgian Congo, while essential to the 1960's era of civil rights and decolonization, were passé. Likewise, Canadian society's entry into the post-industrial era put an end to the cliché of machinery-bound, grease-covered French Canadians. Soon enough, like Lord Durham's illiterate water bearers, they would be a thing of the past.

More importantly, the mentality denounced in Speak White maintained an impossible double-front war, one based on race and the other on language. In Canada, the racial part was soon put to rest, to be replaced by an inclusive multiculturalism that was already emerging by the late sixties. This multiculturalism is still the mantra of the age, and it was under its aegis, and not that of whiteness, that English has reigned triumphant ever since.

Much can be deduced from the fact that when Speak What, a poem parody of the original poem Speak White, was written in 2001, its author was an Italian-Canadian writing in French, Marco Micone. An excerpt from it went: "Speak what now / our parents already do not understand our children anymore / we are strangers to Félix's anger / and Nelligan's spleen." While this might have appeared brave at first -- pleading for multiculturalism to replace the seeming inferiority of French -- attacking Speak White thirty-odd years after the original was tantamount to Saint George tilting at a stuffed dragon on loan from the Smithsonian. Very few people would be left to care, and those who still did would likely be so entrenched in the past that their credibility would be practically nil. Speak White was, it seemed, a safe target.

Or not. "What Mister Marco Micone presents as his work is in fact not his poem, but a plagiary and a censure, literary revisionism, where he corrupts, hijacks, trivializes, denies one of the founding texts of contemporary Quebec poetry", came one of the replies, by a man proudly proclaiming himself a "political prisoner in October 1970" and objecting to such a poem by a "newcomer". Most of his accusations, not surprisingly, were off-base. Micone's poem was not a plagiary; if anything, it was a parody, and only in the strictest sense that poetry has to be intensely personal to be considered such could one deny that Micone's Speak What was a poem. "Corrupts, hijacks, trivializes, denies"? No; the poem does not affect the original, nor does it really seek to supplant it, much less of corrupting it.

Only the accusation of revisionism sounded true, not regarding Speak White itself, but regarding the political climate that led to its creation. Had Micone's parody been released in 1968-69, the response in nationalist circles would likely have been "tell it to the Italian parents of Saint Leonard", who were then sending their children to clandestine schools where they could learn to parlare bianco rather than stick with unilingual French schools. (In 1968, Italians in Saint Leonard were sending their children to bilingual elementary schools as opposed to French-language schools in a proportion of ten to one, with the overwhelming majority of the bilingual children, in an era before restrictive language laws, moving on to English-language high schools.) A mere generation later, Saint Leonard had become such a federalist stronghold that a Robert Gratton would have felt right at home there.

Speak What, not really that good a poem in the first place, might easily have been forgotten had Lalonde not reportedly decided to dump her publisher after it picked up Micone, and to forbid the two poems from ever appearing in the same anthology -- which, if true, is actually more damaging to the author of the older work than to Micone. It is, however, worthy of analysis as representing the shift in Canadian politics from uneven bilingualism to multiculturalism; from an overbearing sense of history to an era when split narratives would make such concerns irrelevant and turn those who still cared about them into irrelevant and bigoted relics of the old guard.

Either way, English triumphed, and some parts of Speak White are still relevant today as an indictment of the perceived cultural superiority of the English. Consider this excerpt (translated by Albert Herring): "Speak white / It sounds so good when you / Speak of Paradise Lost / And of the gracious and anonymous profile that trembles / In Shakespeare's sonnets / We're an uncultured stammering race / But we are not deaf to the genius of a language / Speak with the accent of Milton and Byron and Shelley and Keats / Speak white / And forgive us our only answer / Being the raucous songs of our ancestors / And the sorrows of Nelligan".

This brings to mind an anecdote from a French-speaking friend, who had wanted to apply to a programme, offered at an English-language university, to teach English as a second language at the elementary-school level. However, the entrance examination for the programme not only checked for mastery of English, which was fair enough, but also for "cultural awareness" -- i.e., the ability to quote Shakespeare, which, raised as he was through the French school system, my friend could not. Never mind that, despite Shakespeare's contributions to English, teaching the language, and as a second language, to school children could be achieved more efficiently by reading the newspaper instead of Othello. My friend enrolled into a similar programme at French-language university.

Hence Speak White, today, works better as a denunciation of the hegemony of English than as anything else -- in which case, Falardeau and Poulin's approach, using archive photos that root it in its original context, is less effective than a straight reading of the poem (as that of 1970). The country moved from the unhyphenated Canadians of Diefenbaker, at a time when the myth of two founding peoples would be scorned (exemplified by the original lyrics of The Maple Leaf Forever, composed in 1867, the year of Confederation -- "Wolfe, the dauntless hero came" and "the thistle, shamrock, rose entwine"), to the exceedingly hyphenated Canadians of the post-Trudeau world, where French Canadians would just be one more hyphen in a sea of hyphens -- all expected to express their hyphenations in the open-minded language of English.

Take, for example, the case of singer Céline Dion. A review of a book on the singer in New York Magazine felt compelled to point out that "her French work is allegedly nuanced, understated, and literary; she’s beloved by the cabdrivers of Ghana and the ruffians of Jamaica; and she unknowingly endorses questionable products in the market stalls of Afghanistan". The article unquestioningly asserts her universality; yet the key word in the sentence is allegedly. A rather unnecessary caution -- if anything, it's to the singer's credit, and, having listened to her French work, I would agree -- but one which reveals something else: No matter how international she might be, her French stuff remains, by and large, a mystery unworthy of elucidation.

Presumably, like for foreign-language original versions of large-budget Hollywood productions, only those devoted to the minutiae of Dion's career, and perhaps a handful of hardcore fans, will bother with her French recordings. Perhaps "literate" requires an understanding of French, but how much of an album do you need to hear to figure out if she's "nuanced" or "understated"? No, it is already decided that, whatever she may record in French in upcoming years, the only songs to be deemed important will be those she recorded in English. Will be excluded, to be sure, anything that predated her American career -- which, interestingly, took off thanks to a man whose advice her manager had sought: Colonel Parker.

In the world of letters, the prospect is even bleaker. In 1972, just four years after Speak White was written, Margaret Atwood, in her classic study of Canadian literature, Survival, included only one chapter on French-Canadian literature, twenty pages out of three hundred. It began thus:

"I approach this chapter with some trepidation, since I'm far from being well-read in Quebec literature. Although I've done some of my reading in the original (usually with the aid of a dictionary, I must confess), I've relied for the most part on translations, which can narrow your range considerably. For instance, if I were French-speaking and wanted to read English Canadian literature through translations, I'd be confined at the moment to fewer than ten novels. Though the situation is better for the English-Canadian wishing to explore Quebec, and improving all the time, there are still a lot of books which should be available and aren't. However, I'm assuming you're like me, -- that is, you learned French in high school, you can blurt out a few phrases when necessary, and you can read it but not fluently. Therefore, I've limited the discussion in this chapter to works available in translation."

I do not believe that Atwood's intent was to dumb down her chapter for her readers; I am convinced that, not trusting her own French reading skills, she refrained from bringing untranslated works into the discussion, lest she unwittingly distort their meaning, and this is to her credit. However, thirty-odd years later, Survival is still in print, and is reportedly still influential. It is difficult to object to it as a historical curiosity, and, despite my relative lack of knowledge of English-Canadian literature, it is just as likely that the rest of the book is equally antiquated. And Atwood openly encouraged the creation of a French-Canadian equivalent to her book, with, to parallel her own, a lone chapter on English Canada.

Still, one has to question the impact her book had on the English perception of French-Canadian literature. One prominent author in that chapter, Roch Carrier, is now, according to Wikipedia, "among the best known Quebec writers in English Canada"; likewise, his three books included in Atwood's reading list "sold better in English than in French". Carrier is indeed a major Canadian writer; his short story The Hockey Sweater, published in 1979, was not only made into an animated short film, an excerpt from it adorns the back of the current five-dollar bill. What Margaret Atwood's book makes impossible to assess, however, is Carrier's specific place in French-Canadian letters, as Survival's discussion of the subject is entirely filtered through the prism of English Canada, which decided a priori which works were worthy of translation, thereby making them available to her. Could it be that the French-Canadian works selected as significant by the English-Canadian publishing industry were chosen because they perpetuated a self-serving stereotype?

Similarly, why Survival has endured this long is unclear to me. Is it because of its historical importance, or due to its author's stratospheric rise to the status of grande dame of Canadian letters? Even she admitted, in a 2003 introduction, that it "seemed quainter and more out of date as these various years went by"; however, she elected against adding new material to the book. The current version of Survival, thus, is a time capsule, representative of its time, and complemented by Atwood's caveat lector. Fair enough, and perhaps even preferable to updating, for it demonstrates that in 1972 the literary scene of Canada on the English featured for the most part names from the British Isles; Atwood's chapter on First Nations even concluded with the remark: "All the books in this chapter are by white people. What the Indians themselves think is another story, and one that is just beginning to be written."

Fast-forward to 2007 and the publication of The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, a 700-page anthology put together by Jane Urquhart, writer-in-residence at the University of Guelph (Ontario), featuring the best short-form fiction the country had to offer. Or did it? According to one critic, the Penguin Book blended "intellectual woolly-mindedness with steely-eyed careerist calculation"; Urquhart, according to him, had made selections that could not qualify as bona fide short stories, sometimes by authors who could hardly be considered Canadian, but who were close, or could be useful, to her. The controversy was such that a year later, two competing Canadian literary magazines, The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries, openly denounced Urquhart's selections and joined forces to put together a Salon des Refusés, where alternate writers would be suggested.

The New Quarterly, in its introduction to the (sold out) Salon des Refusés issue, mentioned that the publisher of the competing Canadian Notes & Queries felt the Penguin book "was an important anthology, one which would determine which story writers are read in the coming years, and yet it had omitted many of the writers we both admire-accomplished, influential, innovative writers and, not coincidentally, ones we have published and promoted". At Geist magazine, Stephen Henighan added that "the Penguin logo guarantees that this anthology will become the standard reference for Canadian short fiction". This was, in other words, more than just another collection of short stories; it was the Canadian literary canon in the making, and this made the spat over the Penguin anthology worthy of mainstream attention.

Despite all the press coverage, only one voice pinpointed the major flaw of the anthology, and it was not The New Quarterly or Canadian Notes & Queries, not even the culturally astute Henighan, and definitely not the Toronto press. It came in the form of a mere customer review on an obscure website: "25% of Canada's population is French-speaking yet there is not a single work by a Francophone from Quebec in here. I wouldn't mind so much if it was the "Penguin Book of English-Canadian Short Stories" but that's not what it's called. Don't claim to represent the whole country's literature when you only represent part of it."

In other words, seven hundred pages and no short story by a French-language author, not even The Hockey Sweater, despite a distinguished French-Canadian literary tradition in the short form going back to the Catholicism-drenched folk stories of the nineteenth century -- in which, for that matter, the Devil routinely appeared disguised as l'Anglais. And despite The New Quarterly and Canadian Notes & Queries calling their joint venture after a famous French artistic event of the nineteenth century, their lists of alternates were exclusively comprised of English-language writers. What all the lists were, though, was charmingly multicultural.

It was also the kind of routine snub that led French Canada to create the Jutra Awards to reward its films instead of relying on the Torontocentric Genies to crown its best efforts -- despite any past win by Mr. Gratton's antics.

All of this explains why Falardeau's films, despite being outdated in several respects, and questionable in others, are still relevant today. They remind us that the fashionable universality of the age -- universality of art, with all its precise, objective measurements -- is a sham. What is afoot is no longer the "speak white" of Falardeau's youth, but the dismantling of borders in the name of an inclusiveness that is, as with Canada's cultural scene, the most abject of hypocrisies. What is the current universality, if not a variation on Saul Bellow's infamous "who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" of just fifteen years ago, without the colonialist undertones? What is the current universality, if not the triumph of the international language of English without the slightest desire to reach out to other languages, depicted as reactionary?

To those insisting upon an international, multicultural culture which must be of universal relevance; anything with a mind towards raising a cultural border fence, or manning existing ones -- which was what Falardeau's work was all about -- is immediately provincial, small-minded and suspect, hence summarily dismissed, if not denied an acknowledgement of its existence -- and this, regardless of the cultural strength of those raising the border. In what way is this supposed to be different from the economic globalization gleefully peddled by world flatteners such as Thomas Friedman? But Falardeau's films being anything but universal, the universality assessed his importance: "One of Quebec's eminent filmmakers" was worthy of eighty-four measly words.

It was cultural universality's final revenge. The universality represented, in Canada, by people who marvel at the evocative names of the writers appearing in The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories and cannot avoid remarking how this demonstrates the inclusive greatness of their country, or who consider that they have filled their quota of Quebec culture by watching Bon Cop, Bad Cop, a film which, if anything, only sought to demonstrate that ka-ching was a delightfully bilingual onomatopoeia (besides, there was the familiar presence of Colm Feore to soothe them). The universality is not interested in anything which stakes out its claim, which refuses to bow to outside demands, and which insists on being opaque to those not familiar with the subject matter; hence the universality is not interested in, and will have nothing to do with, the Falardeaux of the world.

Which is why, despite their shortcomings, we now need them more than ever.

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originally posted: 10/02/09 18:27:23
last updated: 06/26/11 07:54:04
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