Tending Towards The Horizontal


I was asked recently to be on a panel of filmmakers discussing "Canadian Vision." My first reaction was to decline. I thought, 'What do I know of this? I am no authority.' And 'What is there to say, is there such a thing as  Canadian Vision?'  and further,'Who cares?'  Then I thought that, after all, I am Canadian so I must know something about the topic and that perhaps right now, in the wake of Free Trade, Oka, Meech Lake, and The Gulf War, it might be important to identify and openly discuss matters of vision—Canadian vision. ( All this use of the term "Canadian" should not conjure up a flag-waving, totemic, let's-fight-to-the-death-for Nationalism. In Canada we joke about having no national identity, let alone one we swear allegiance to; but rather nation , in Simone Weil's terms, as  accumulated knowledge, culture and appreciation of differences.) We Canadians do seem to have a picture of ourselves as JUST, HONEST, PEACEFUL and as SURVIVING WITHIN the land, as a MOSAIC of DIFFERENCES, as ISOLATED COMMUNITIES/ INDIVIDUALS, and as NORTHERN and DISPERSED. Whether these ideas are borne out or not in actual political actions or whether they are the myth we function within or the ideal we strive for or strive to overcome, I don't know that it matters. I wondered, though, how we know ourselves, where have the images of ourselves come from? From within, from experiencing Canada, from a collective memory, from reflections of ourselves constructed here? What about the United States influence, cultural colonization? Already this complicating of the issue, of not seeing questions in one-dimension but from many sides, seemed "Canadian!"


And so I started to think about films, works with themes of Family, Quest, Identity with heroes who are everyday people who face death, who survive, who carry on and I looked to myself as a Canadian and a filmmaker and tested out with myself what characteristics of my film practice, style, aesthetics or ethics I could attribute to being Canadian. The question, though, was vision not identity, so I tried to understand the vision underlying choices, themes, formal devices—like manyness and interrelatedness. I construct  films from very many images with meaning or a sense of the film coming in an accumulation , different images retain their multiple meanings or valences and are related through juxtaposition, through rhythms of editing, an accumulation of glances. There is a tension between relatedness or merging and aloneness. I take more of an observational position with my camera, a glance, rather than a studied look. I observe what is around me, the everyday, not the monumental or exotic nor is the filmic treatment highly composed or stylized -not the perfected image but the roughness of the human, and the mystery that is in the everyday. My films seek more to describe than contrive. I try for an honesty—no glorified images, no pat endings, no answers or easy outs.


At about this point in my deliberations, the thought came to me that had I been asked to speak on a panel on Feminist or Women’s vision instead of  Canadian, I would say almost the same things! Is Canadian 'female'? AND, for that matter, isn't experimental film 'female' also. Certainly, when placed in relation to the United States mainstream as 'male' in the sense of dominating and 'normal' to which Canadian and experimental are oppressed or colonized 'other', the case might be made. All three, 'female', 'Canadian', 'experimental' share a position of outsidership, and the knowledge that comes from that perspective. Also, the marginalization of that knowledge. Invisibility. Also in common are conditions of production, values and practices: the making of personal films and of low-tech or kitchen-table filmmaking, non-linearity, fluidity, bodily filmmaking, plurality or the polyvocal and ratifying of the indefinite.


I had undertaken to research the topic for the panel and so was reading an analysis of Canadian literature by Gaile McGregor, "The Wacousta Syndrome." I was struck by how thoroughly the description of Canadian vision and the methods of its enunciation in Canadian literature she identified fit my own and other filmmakers works and practices and supported my identification of this work as in some ways 'female'. She speaks of the hero's struggle "not to do, but to be"; that the novels advocate "domestic virtues: tolerance, reticence, decency, a clean house". She notes the gender reversal so that the landscape is rendered as male and home the central symbol. She notes the depiction of the artist as unheroic, self-effacing and the practice of writers' collecting material from real life, writing as collagists and identifies their fiction in relation to a documentary stance and as navigating a "ridge between control and accommodation." She speaks of the books' "elliptical form of expression...less susceptible to contrivance and artifact" and she appreciates the unwillingness to give a satisfyingly unified presentation or conclusion. She states that the books are structured such that we are given  "...the juxtaposition of unmeliorated modal alternatives rather than pretending to reconcile them. The result is a complex aesthetic object which is simultaneously despairing and affirmative." She speaks of the Northern frontier as one of "limits of endurance" and the importance of the horizon motif comparing vertical( male, American) and horizontal (female, Canadian) perspectives: the former, characterized by a romantic hero, self-absorption, ego-centric; the latter wherein "context is crucial... seeking images of wholeness rather than aloneness..." She sums up the Canadian world relation as "being towards". When I read this chapter, it confirmed for me (confirmed especially here since I have a film entitled "Tending Towards the Horizontal"!) what I already always knew, that I am Canadian and Female and that perhaps the extent to which I feel at home in Canada and with Experimental film is the extent to which they intersect in an ethic or world view.


Barbara Sternberg - written for "The Visual Aspect: Recent Canadian Experimental Films" catalogue, 1991, edited by Rose Lowder