“New Canadian Documentaries”

July 7-20 at the National Gallery of Art

In Hollywood movies, Canada usually poses as something American: British Columbia becomes Alaska, Toronto apes New York, Vancouver fails to convince as D.C. Yet Canada is much more than a ready-made stage set, as the National Gallery of Art demonstrates with its fifth annual survey of new Canadian documentaries. To the filmmakers who benefit from the (relatively) generous funding that’s made Canada a (relatively) major documentary center, their country is a land of offbeat dreamers—some of whom, of course, dream of nothing so much as leaving it.

A quartet of young Canadians who have departed their homeland are featured in Bollywood Bound (July 20 at 2 p.m.), an account of three women and one man who felt drawn to their other homeland: India. These emigres were attracted not by patriotism, culture, or even cuisine—one is shown biting into a McDonald’s sandwich with palpable relief—but by Bombay’s film industry. Seduced by the sweep, music, and pageantry of Indian movies, they headed to Bombay, a city that could hardly be less like tidy, affluent Canada. As the aspiring stars tell their stories, they disclose some unexpected details: Some are calculating, one is spiritual, all are (or were) naive about India and Bollywood. Too Indian for Hollywood, the newcomers are surprised when they’re generally deemed too Canadian for Bollywood. But there is still hope for stardom via India’s rapidly burgeoning satellite-TV industry, which is less tied to tradition. Nisha Pahuja’s film would benefit from less gimmickry and more context—do these four represent a larger trend?—but its unusual take on East-West culture-clash themes sustains interest.

Four other films, each highlighting a single eccentric, are presented in contrasting pairs: intellectual visionary with small-time loser. The first such duet is Tyler’s Barrel and McLuhan’s Wake (July 13 at 2 p.m.), which links a film about a 20-year-old whose only goal is to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel with one about the cultural legacy of ’60s media guru Marshall McLuhan. Tyler Canning has been obsessed with the cataract on the U.S.-Canada border since he first glimpsed it as a little boy. Now, followed by a camera crew, he moves from the boring small town of his youth to tacky Niagara Falls, where he passes time while awaiting the right moment to stuff himself in a custom-made barrel for the three-and-a-half-second drop that could kill him. Matt Gallagher’s documentary doesn’t go exactly where you’re expecting, but then neither does Canning, who has a few more problems than is initially apparent.

If Canning may never become as famous as Evel Knievel, Marshall McLuhan once came close. Such McLuhanisms as “the global village” and “the medium is the message” have passed into the vernacular and been reformulated to great success by the likes of Jean Baudrillard. Yet the University of Toronto professor had only a brief run as a public intellectual, a period director Kevin McMahon illustrates with old clips of McLuhan with Woody Allen, Barbara Walters, and Rowan and Martin. McLuhan died in 1980, but his celebrity faded before that, in part because his original analysis gave way to whimsical experiments in typography and increasingly arcane metaphors. He has found a fitting acolyte in McMahon, a documentarian who prefers montage to commentary. The director, whose visually inventive and intellectually thin Intelligence showed in the 1999 Canadian documentary series, wraps McLuhan’s legacy in quotations from Poe and Finnegans Wake and images of Times Square and the sea, mystifying his subject more effectively than Laurie Anderson’s narration explains him.

It could be said that the career of Steve Mann picks up where McLuhan’s left off. The world’s first self-styled “cyborg,” Mann is a University of Toronto professor who wears a computer almost all the time. (He takes it off to swim, and perhaps to sleep.) Peter Lynch’s Cyberman (July 14 at 4 p.m.) even looks a bit like McLuhan’s Wake—look, there’s Times Square again—but in this case, many of the low-res images come not from the director’s fancy but from the webcam embedded in Mann’s sunglasses. Such cybersages as William Gibson appear to salute Mann for immersing himself in the brave new media world, but aren’t we all neck-deep in cyber-imagery these days, whether by choice or not? What the cyber man is doing becomes radical only when he pits his built-in video-surveillance gear against Wal-Mart’s.

Cyberman shows with Le Coq de Montreal, which offers variations on two of these films’ themes: Like Tyler Canning, Serge Legace is a man on the margins, and like the Bollywood-bound kids, he wants to be a star. Some 30 years after he started stealing cars, the 46-year-old ex-con hopes to hop from the front page of Allo Police, a garish Montreal crime tabloid, to the movie screen. Legace may lack self-awareness, but he has a tough-guy mug that’s earned several small parts in prison flicks. Still, it seems entirely possible that Le Coq de Montreal will be his biggest film role.

In its way, Much Ado About Something (July 7 at 4 p.m.) also contrasts a genius and a chump—assuming, of course, that you buy the thesis of the many amateur scholars whom director Michael Rubbo traveled Europe and North America to interview. These quixotic researchers claim that Christopher Marlowe, while exiled in Italy, actually wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. This hypothesis does explain a few things, including the actual Shakespeare’s apparent lack of education and the many Italian locations and exile themes in the Bard’s work. One difficulty: History records that Marlowe was dead when Hamlet, Macbeth, and the rest were written. The Marlowe partisans can explain that, and Rubbo—an Australian who’s a National Film Board of Canada veteran—buys much of their argument. Although the documentary does include a few voices unequivocally denying that Marlowe could have ghost-written Shakespeare, it doesn’t worry about equal time for the conventional wisdom. This literary mystery offers the series’ most compelling narrative, but Rubbo’s predilection for oddball theorists is characteristic of the Canadian documentary’s identification with crackpots, outsiders, and other wrong-side-of-the-tracks savants.

Zaza’s parents don’t know much about their son, but they do understand one thing: He’s 31 and unmarried. In their Georgian-Jewish-emigre circle, this is unacceptable. A perpetual graduate student, Zaza (Lior Ashkenazi) is well-subsidized and otherwise indulged. In exchange, his battleship-like mom (Lili Kosashvili) and slight, seemingly affable dad (Moni Moshonov) expect him to take a wife and sire a grandson. Ultimately, the vehemence of those expectations mutates Late Marriage from social comedy to psychological horror flick.

Israeli director Dover Kosashvili’s first feature tells a classic story, but not in a classic way. The director sidles up to the central events, opening with a series of episodes that introduce the demimonde and as many secondary as primary characters. Thus the movie begins with a scene in which a woman bathes her crabby husband, illustrating patriarchal privilege but not the tale’s patriarch. The demanding bather turns out to be Zaza’s uncle, a minor member of a delegation that’s about to meet yet another possible bride for his nephew.

Only 18 but seemingly more than capable of handling the passive Zaza, Ilana is not an old-fashioned girl. An aspiring designer, she greets Zaza and his entourage wearing a revealing gown of her own design, and invites the prospective groom to her bedroom to show him her portfolio of sexy fashion drawings. Zaza seems intrigued by Ilana’s bravado, but this scene is another false start. In fact, Zaza has already found his soul mate. But he can’t introduce Judith (Ronit Elkabetz) to his parents because she is undesirable four times over: (1) divorced, (2) the mother of a young daughter, (3) three years older than Zaza, and (4) of Sephardic heritage.

When Zaza escapes his family and goes to meet Judith, the film’s tone shifts again. The two make love in a lengthy, moderately explicit, defiantly naturalistic scene. Although the lovers disregard Zaza’s parents’ wishes, Judith is not without regard for tradition. She devises a love charm to bind Zaza to her, a fetish that’s different in form but identical in intent to the one her lover’s mother slipped under Ilana’s bed. Mom’s charm didn’t work. Can Judith’s possibly sustain her romance when Zaza’s parents discover her existence and come to her apartment to insult and threaten her?

Intriguingly off-kilter in structure and startlingly disagreeable in content, Late Marriage turns “happily every after” into an ancient curse. Although parts of its story are grotesque, the film is disturbingly believable. Kosashvili says the script’s primary events aren’t autobiographical, but you can’t help but notice that he cast his own mother as Zaza’s avenging mom. CP