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Working on Screen

Working on Screen: Representations of the Working Class in Canadian Cinema

Malek Khouri
Darrell Varga
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Working on Screen
    Book Description:

    As themes in film studies literature, work and the working class have long occupied a peripheral place in the evaluation of Canadian cinema, often set aside in the critical literature for the sake of a unifying narrative that assumes a division between Québécois and English Canada's film production, a social-realist documentary aesthetic, and what might be called a 'younger brother' relationship with the United States.

    InWorking on Screen, contributors examine representations of socio-economic class across the spectrum of Canadian film, video, and television, covering a wide range of class-related topics and dealing with them as they intersect with history, political activism, globalization, feminism, queer rights, masculinity, regional marginalization, cinematic realism, and Canadian nationalism.

    Of concern in this collection are the daily lives and struggles of working people and the ways in which the representation of the experience of class in film fosters or marginalizes a progressive engagement with history, politics, and societies around the world.Working on Screenthus expands the scholarly debates on the concept of national cinema and builds on the rich, formative efforts of Canadian cultural criticism that held dear the need for cultural autonomy.

    Contributors:Bart BeatyScott ForsythMargot FrancisDavid FrankMalek KhouriJoseph Kispal-KovacsAndre LoiselleBrenda LongfellowSusan LordJohn McCulloughRebecca SullivanPeter UrquhartDarrell VargaThomas Waugh

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8368-6
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    This excellent collection of essays on representations of the working class in Canadian cinemas reminds me of my grandmother.

    Clara Gertrude Waugh (1884–1961) was a Jackie Gleason fan. When I knew her, my father’s mother was a working-class widow subsisting on her pension in a rooming house in South London, Ontario, sharing many a pot of tea and a communal TV set with the other elderly women who lived there. Grandma Waugh’s taste also includedDon Messer’s Jubilee(Canada, 1958–69) and romance novels, and reflected her Middlesex County class roots and culture. I didn’t get it at all,...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. Introduction: Working on Screen
    (pp. 3-22)

    There is by now extensive film studies literature on the subject of Canadian cinemas – mainly in relation to national identity but also in connection with genre, style, historical periods, specific filmmakers, and more recently gender and sexuality. Prior to the 1980s, film critics tended to define Canadian cinema through the connotation of national cultural traits that were imagined as specific to the Canadian experience. Those traits were introduced as embodiments of national identity and, as Peter Morris points out, those works that tended to be celebrated and canonized were those that best reproduced this explicit cultural nationalism.¹ These films were...


    • 1 In Search of the Canadian Labour Film
      (pp. 25-45)

      Is there a Canadian labour film? The question has been on my mind for a long time, probably since the first time Isaw Salt of the Earth(Herbert Biberman, 1954), the classic American labour film that has circulated among labour educators and cultural activists for more than half a century now. The question remained with me in the 1970s and 1980s, when I first began to teach Canadian labour history and think about the ways film could be used in the classroom and in the popularization of history. I can remember my frustration, first in trying to identify such films,...

    • 2 Communists, Class, and Culture in Canada
      (pp. 46-72)

      This chapter will discuss the cultural activism and politics of Canadian Communists, and their sympathizers and fellow travellers, in the thirties – the peak of a brief but vibrant anti-capitalist cultural movement – and, more summarily, into the forties and fifties. These young revolutionaries formed theatre and dance troupes, literary journals, film and photo groups, painters’ clubs, and artists’ unions; planned films and workers’ symphony orchestras; energetically wrote stories, poems, and novels; and painted images of the working class at work, destitute, and engaged in struggles. They organized baseball teams and summer camps. They imagined a revolutionary working-class culture integrated with the...

    • 3 The Image of the ‘People’ in the CBC’s Canada: A People’s History
      (pp. 73-92)

      Walter Benjamin’s important invocation to ‘rub history against the grain’ offers a conceptual link between critical theory, the everyday, and political activism with respect to the narration of history.¹ Benjamin problematizes official/nationalist history as an idealization of state power, whether in the form of military conquest, or political or business leadership, or in the equating of scientific and technological development with social progress. The appeal of Benjamin’s thinking to film and media scholarship and to progressive thinking across disciplinary boundaries is the emphasis on cinema-like images that ‘flare up briefly’² to lift the veil of aura and individual autonomy, revealing...


    • 4 Work It Girl! Sex, Labour, and Nationalism in Valérie
      (pp. 95-112)

      Quebec national cinema is often hailed for its challenging and provocative films about women’s social status. Pioneer filmmakers such as Anne Claire Poirier and Mireille Dansereau and later artists such as Léa Pool began in the early 1970s to make inroads into the burgeoning film community, creating works that utilize themes of women’s subordination and struggle for equality in Quebec society. Their efforts, under the rubric of government-sponsored programs such as the Groupe de recherches sociale and En tant que femmes constitute a major chapter in the history of Quebec film and of feminist cultural politics in Canada generally.¹ Yet...

    • 5 Not Playing, Working: Class, Masculinity, and Nation in the Canadian Hockey Film
      (pp. 113-133)

      Hockey holds a privileged space in the Canadian imagination, producing a distinctive form of national celebrity: the professional hockey player. As a potent signifier of class, nationalism, masculinity, and race, the Canadian hockey star is a locus for contestation between popular and highbrow articulations of what constitutes the acceptable range of Canadian identities. The limits of this signification are coded not only in contemporary sports pages and on broadcasts ofHockey Night in Canada, but also in a growing number of Canadian films that have sought to mobilize representations of hockey as commentaries on the state of Canadian society. Richard...

    • 6 Other-ing the Worker in Canadian ‘Gay Cinema’: Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden
      (pp. 134-147)

      Upon its release in 1997, Thom Fitzgerald’sThe Hanging Gardenquickly claimed the attention of film critics as well as gay communities in North America. Subsequently the film went on to gain recognition in several film festivals. Among the awards won by the film was Canada’s prestigious Claude Jutra Genie.¹ Enthusiastic reviews and commentaries in mainstream media and in trade and academic cinema journals alike eventually helped the film attain acknowledgment as a welcome addition to the canon of Canadian ‘art cinema.’ Along with the positive reaction from the general public, theGarden’s ‘gay theme’ – which tackles a young gay...

    • 7 Whose Museum Is It, Anyway? Discourses of Resistance in the Adaptation of The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum into Margaret’s Museum
      (pp. 148-158)

      The filmMargaret’s Museum(Mort Ransen, 1995) is the end result of a lengthy and meandering evolution of literary texts by Sheldon Currie: beginning with a ballad written in 1962 (‘The Ballad of Charlie Dave’), to the short story ‘The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum’ (1976, republished in 1979 and 1995), to Wendy Lill’s radio (1991) and stage (1995) plays based on this story, and finally to the novelThe Glace Bay Miners’ Museum(1995), a text that is not, strictly speaking, the ‘source’ for the filmMargaret’s Museum.¹ This linage is extraordinary by any standard, but certainly as far as...


    • 8 Activating History: Sara Diamond and the Women’s Labour History Project
      (pp. 161-177)

      People are scattering: young children, men, and women of different races. Their hand-painted banners are dropping to the ground, where they are being trampled by the police horses. Police drag off several men while others cover their heads, crouching forward under the weight of the police batons falling upon them.

      Although this description sounds like a recent anti-globalization march, the image would not be seen on an activist video or website because what I have just described is an image from 1935 cut into a series of other archival images in a video made in 1992 by Sara Diamond and...

    • 9 Dirty Laundry: Re-imagining the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Construction of the Nation
      (pp. 178-204)

      As Marnie Flemming comments, ‘everybody has a train story,’³ but most of these tales narrate the intrigue of train voyages and not the racialized and sexed history of the railway’s role in constructing the nation. However, the latter are the landscapes explored in Richard Fung’s videoDirty Laundry(1997). Here the liminal space of train travel intersects with the contested histories associated with the Chinese bachelors who built the most dangerous sections of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The title,Dirty Laundry, references both the stereotype of the Chinese laundry and the notion that aspects of Chinese-Canadian history have been considered...


    • 10 Look like a Worker and Act like a Worker: Stereotypical Representations of the Working Class in Quebec Fiction Feature Films
      (pp. 207-234)

      Discussing representations of the working class in Quebec cinema (or any cinema for that matter) entails at least two problematic notions: first, that the working class can be identified as an entity and, second, that this entity can be represented. The latter issue is especially difficult to apprehend when dealing with feature fiction films. Virtually every cinematic practice in Europe and North America that would qualify as ‘fictional’ or ‘narrative’ focuses on individual heroes or very small groups of protagonists. This trend raises the question of the fiction film’s ability to representanylarge group in general and the working...

    • 11 Inscriptions of Class and Nationalism in Canadian ‘Realist’ Cinema: Final Offer and Canada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks
      (pp. 235-245)

      This chapter examines two made-for-television films,Final OfferandCanada’s Sweetheart: The Saga of Hal C. Banks,produced and released under the auspices of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) in 1985. Both films enjoyed a large viewership by virtue of being broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) during prime time. Both films promise the opportunity for examinations of two important sets of events in Canadian labour history. They drew on the long-standing Canadian realist film aesthetic most commonly associated with the National Film Board – the documentary and the docudrama. Further examination of these two films, however, reveals...

    • 12 Rude and the Representation of Class Relations in Canadian Film
      (pp. 246-267)

      This chapter is an attempt to describe the absence of representations and discussions of class relations in Canadian films and Canadian film culture. This absence includes a general lack of interest in labour histories, the experiences of class struggle, and the complex relations between ideology, class, nation, gender, and race. I argue that, while there are rare exceptions, the dominant tendency in Canadian cinema is to ‘dematerialize’ and depoliticize representations of class relations. This evident in the documentary and experimental traditions, as well as in the history of feature films made for export, most of which jettison references to Canadian...

    • 13 Counter Narratives, Class Politics, Metropolitan Dystopias: Representations of Globalization in Maelström, waydowntown, and La moitié gauche du frigo
      (pp. 268-282)

      While an enormously disputed and internally differentiated body of literature, theories of globalization provide a resonant framework for reading contemporary Canadian cinema as a field shaped by international flows of money, textual influence, and ideologies, as much as by national determinations. There is, perhaps, no better place to begin an analysis of this topic than with Arjun Appadurai, who has devised an expansive model that encompasses (as is well known) the cross-border flow and social integration of transnational ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes.² For Appadurai, this broad dimensional approach to globalization necessitates a deep rethinking of issues of mediation...

  10. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 283-290)
  11. Contributors
    (pp. 291-293)