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Back to the auteur 

Maverick Bruce McDonald, in town for a weekend workshop, is an underappreciated cult voice in Canadian film. Carsten Knox bows down.

Bruce McDonald is Canadian cinema’s enfant terrible. The Kingston, Ontario-born director emerged from the outlaw auteur movement created when Telefilm came into being in the mid-’80s , along with Patricia Rozema and Atom Egoyan. They shared the new face of Canadian cinema; movies for us, about us and made by creative people here who needn’t follow a career path elsewhere to make a living.

“Bruce’s thing comes from this youth culture angle, he in some ways reflected music-video culture, a fluid cinematic style,” says writer and cineast Ron Foley MacDonald. He’ll be giving a lecture on Bruce McDonald’s work on Friday at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, before a screening of Claire’s Hat, McDonald’s “director’s commentary from hell.” McDonald himself will be giving a workshop on filmmaking on Saturday and Sunday, sponsored by the Atlantic Filmmakers’ Cooperative. “In Canadian cinema it’s all about we don’t know where we are, we don’t know who we are,” says MacDonald. His films wrestle “with these very essential issues of identity.”

McDonald started with a quartet of powerful movies, starting with the punk road picture Roadkill, and followed in quick succession by Highway 61, Dance Me Outside and Hard Core Logo, recently counted in the top 20 all-time rock and roll movies by the editors of Blender. McDonald found time for great TV too, directing the funniest sitcom on the CBC in, well, ever: Twitch City. Then there was Picture Claire, and the outlaw was shot down.

“He kind of got blown out of the theatrical scene with Picture Claire,” says MacDonald.

Picture Claire was a Robert Lantos-produced $10 million feature that was supposed to be the commercial break for McDonald in the US. Starring Juliette Lewis, Gina Gershon, Callum Keith Rennie and Mickey Rourke, the film was conceived from a dream McDonald had about a woman betrayed by love. The picture itself is an unapologetically Toronto-based noirish caper thriller about mistaken identities, diamonds and murder. The leading lady, Lewis, an American, plays a girl from Montreal who doesn’t speak a word of English. Like all of McDonald’s films, it’s playful with the material, cross-stitching wildly anti-realistic moments to the tropes of a gritty thriller. It doesn’t quite hang together, and never found a distributor in the States.

McDonald liberated much of the footage from his feature, and reclaimed the working title, Claire’s Hat, for his documentary, which is basically about the mistakes he made by trying for the big Hollywood-style genre movie and denying what he thought was best for his story. It’s painfully intimate and confessional, taking to task his own role as an artist and as the author of his film and asking why it all went so wrong. It shocks with the kind of honesty that comes from someone who no longer feels he has anything left to lose. He even asks the ultimate existential question in his profession: why do people want to be filmmakers anyway?

MacDonald says Picture Claire is representative of McDonald’s efforts to pursue a career in Hollywood, something he may not have needed to do if auteurs were still being supported here. He sees the national film community as being industrialized to follow an American model, giving producers power over directors and other creative people and creating an environment where the only way to make money is through broadcast licences and media conglomerates. Success comes as a producer when you access government funds, not when you produce the film.

“The decline is quite fascinating,” says MacDonald, commenting how both Rozema and Egoyan now often go overseas to get funding and McDonald is forced to do a lot of television work. “The theatrical sector is like the wild west, where directors can use the cinema to its fullest, whereas television is much more limited. We’ve been trying to build a Canadian cinema for a really long time. This is in some ways about disappearing nationality.”

However, the news of McDonald’s cinematic opportunities is good. His cinematic examination of trash TV culture, The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess, played at this year’s Atlantic Film Festival, and he’s currently prepping two films, Gay Like Me and MaximumRockNRoll.

MacDonald is clearly looking forward to doing his bit to remind people of the director’s vitality. “He is someone who we’ve taken for granted. This is a guy who should be celebrated as a unique Canadian voice.”

Bruce Mcdonald lecture, December 9 at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1723 Hollis, 7pm, free, followed by Claire’s Hat, 9pm, $9.

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