1-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​i​n​a​u​g​u​r​a​l​.​1​-​1.4 | Straw PDF


Cross-Border Visualities and the Canadian Image

In the court­room scene of the 2002 film Chica­go (dir. Robert Mar­shall), Rox­ie Hart (Renée Zel­weg­ger) is being tried for the mur­der of her abu­sive boyfriend. Shot in Toron­to, and fea­tur­ing a num­ber of Cana­di­an per­form­ers, this scene con­dens­es, I will argue, com­mon pat­terns by which Cana­di­an cul­tur­al mate­ri­als share visu­al space with oth­ers orig­i­nat­ing in the Unit­ed States. I begin with this scene as a way of rais­ing a set of ques­tions hav­ing to do with pop­u­lar visu­al­i­ty in Cana­da. In what ways do images pro­duced in Cana­da betray some of the broad­er fea­tures of Canada’s rela­tion­ship to a vari­ety of cul­tur­al else­wheres and, most notably, to the Unit­ed States? If we are right­ful­ly sus­pi­cious of attempts to iso­late visu­al forms that are coher­ent­ly or exclu­sive­ly Cana­di­an, might we speak, nev­er­the­less, of char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly Cana­di­an inflec­tions of the image?

My inten­tion here is not that of rush­ing to devel­op a Cana­di­an ver­sion of the “pic­to­r­i­al turn” that has been observ­able across the human­i­ties over the last decade (Cur­tis 95). Giv­en the rich tra­di­tions of art-his­tor­i­cal think­ing already con­cerned with image-mak­ing in Cana­da, this could only be both belat­ed and pre­sump­tu­ous. (See, among many exam­ples of impor­tant work, Nel­son; O’Brien and White). By treat­ing sev­er­al images in terms of the ways in which they stage some of the predica­ments of Cana­di­an cul­tur­al expres­sion, how­ev­er, I hope to con­tribute in a spec­u­la­tive fash­ion to the study of Cana­di­an pop­u­lar visu­al­i­ty. Some of the images to be exam­ined here are pho­tographs and paint­ings; oth­ers are sequences from films. These are not all “pic­tures” in the same way, of course, and those that form part of nar­ra­tive fea­ture films invite read­ings that would acknowl­edge their larg­er tex­tu­al sur­round­ings. Nev­er­the­less, the audio­vi­su­al excerpts dis­cussed here func­tion as rel­a­tive­ly cir­cum­scribed tableaux that allow me to detach them, for the pur­pos­es of analy­sis, from the larg­er nar­ra­tive struc­tures to which they belong.

Fig­ure One.  Colm Feo­re in Chica­go.

Fig­ure Two.  Sean McCann in Chica­go.

Economies of passion

In the court­room scene that serves as the cli­max of Chica­go, sec­ondary roles embody­ing stuffy legal author­i­ty are played by Cana­di­an actors. Colm Feo­re plays Har­ri­son, the pros­e­cut­ing attor­ney (Fig­ure One); Cana­di­an char­ac­ter actor Sean McCann is the pre­sid­ing judge (Fig­ure Two). Their appear­ance in such roles res­onates, at least slight­ly, with long­stand­ing stereo­types about Anglo-Cana­di­an char­ac­ter and its leg­endary invest­ment in notions of order and pro­pri­ety. Both of these actors are per­haps best known for hav­ing played Cana­di­an Prime Min­is­ters in tele­vi­sion minis­eries (Feo­re in the 2002 series Trudeau, McCann in the 1988 series The King Chron­i­cle.) Nei­ther has more than a few lines of dia­logue in Chica­go, how­ev­er, and McCann, in par­tic­u­lar, is list­ed far down in the film’s cred­its. To Cana­di­an view­ers of Chica­go, mem­o­ries of Feo­re and McCann in these ear­li­er roles can only enhance their asso­ci­a­tions with author­i­ty, even as the same mem­o­ries make their dimin­ished screen time in Chica­go seem all the more humil­i­at­ing. The well-known Cana­di­an char­ac­ter actress Jayne East­wood (Goin’ Down the Road, King of Kens­ing­ton) appears for a few sec­onds ear­ly in the court­room scene, shrunk by the mag­ni­tude of this large-scale Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­tion to the sta­tus of a bit player.

I treat this scene as hiero­glyph­ic for the ways in which it offers an image of mate­ri­als (peo­ple, spaces, objects) over­laid with­in a dis­tinc­tive arrange­ment that con­dens­es a broad­er set of rela­tion­ships. The court­room scene in Chica­go becomes a visu­al sur­face on which are laid bare some of the eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al arrange­ments that struc­tured the mak­ing of the film. The scene expos­es these rela­tion­ships, not by some­how elab­o­rat­ing a meta-lan­guage with which to speak of them, but by visu­al­ly stag­ing pat­terns of sub­servience and stereo­typ­i­fi­ca­tion that have longer his­to­ries. Chica­go does this, in par­tic­u­lar, through a tele­scop­ing that is typ­i­cal of Hol­ly­wood films shot whol­ly or in part in oth­er coun­tries. In such pro­duc­tions, usu­al­ly, per­form­ers who are promi­nent in nation­al enter­tain­ment indus­tries out­side the U.S. appear with dimin­ished pres­ence rel­a­tive to the U.S. stars who sur­round them.

More is involved here, how­ev­er, than the pre­dictable con­sign­ment of Cana­di­an per­form­ers to roles of sec­ondary sta­tus. The rela­tion­ship between inter­na­tion­al stars and Cana­di­an per­form­ers in films like Chica­go reg­u­lar­ly express­es what Mar­ta Sav­igliano, writ­ing about the glob­al cir­cu­la­tion of musi­cal forms, once called the “polit­i­cal econ­o­my of pas­sion” (Sav­igliano 1). This econ­o­my takes the form, Sav­igliano sug­gests, of a “track­able traf­fick­ing in emo­tions and affects” (Sav­igliano 1). The ver­sion of this traf­fick­ing to be dis­cussed here is minor both in its scale and in the lev­els of inequity it pre­sumes and rein­forces. Nev­er­the­less, a dis­tri­b­u­tion of emo­tion­al inten­si­ties is one effect of transna­tion­al co-pro­duc­tion arrange­ments that set charis­mat­ic stars from the U.S. indus­try at the cen­tre of dra­mat­ic nar­ra­tives, then fill the back­grounds of these nar­ra­tives with per­form­ers, hired local­ly, whose bod­ies func­tion as social texture.

As is so often the case with U.S. films shot in Cana­da, the most promi­nent Cana­di­an actors used in Chica­go appear as fleet­ing fig­ures of judi­cial or bureau­crat­ic author­i­ty. The appear­ance of Feo­re and McCann in Chica­go’s court­room scene expos­es the lim­it­ed exporta­bil­i­ty of Eng­lish-Cana­di­an “star­dom,” but it also repeats a pat­tern where­by local­ly-hired per­form­ers occu­py the roles of pas­sion­less enforcers of social or legal dis­ci­pline. (As a result, and not inci­den­tal­ly, these local­ly-hired per­form­ers tend to be over­whelm­ing­ly white, mid­dle-aged and male.) This is all the more strik­ing­ly the case in Chica­go, whose star per­form­ers (Richard Gere and Renee Zel­weg­ger) express them­selves in libidi­nous musi­cal fan­ta­sy num­bers that are inter­spersed through­out the court­room scene and make use of its space. Nei­ther Feo­re or McCann par­tic­i­pate in these num­bers, fig­ur­ing, as they do so clear­ly, on the side of a real­i­ty prin­ci­ple to which these musi­cal sequences are opposed.

As has been not­ed by oth­ers, Cana­da was once the source of exot­ic, pic­turesque land­scapes that film­mak­ers employed as dec­o­ra­tive back­drops (Git­tings). Now, arguably, Canada’s sta­tus as a source of cin­e­mat­ic raw mate­ri­als has been trans­formed. Our cities, tout­ed as being vir­tu­al­ly indis­tin­guish­able from those of the Unit­ed States, are now more like­ly than our nat­ur­al land­scapes to serve as the set­tings for Amer­i­can films. Increas­ing­ly, the rec­og­niz­ably Cana­di­an ele­ments in present-day Hol­ly­wood films shot in Cana­da (or in U.S.-Canadian copro­duc­tions) are human fig­ures whose func­tion, with­in urban nar­ra­tives, is that of the emo­tion­al­ly flat, func­tion­al nar­ra­tive detail. At the same time, the nar­ra­to­log­i­cal func­tion of such char­ac­ters usu­al­ly requires that they serve as momen­tary, frus­trat­ing imped­i­ments to the cen­tral char­ac­ters’ tra­jec­to­ries of tri­umph or self-real­iza­tion. Like the deten­tion-dis­pens­ing geog­ra­phy teacher played by Cana­di­an actress Jayne East­wood in the 2007 film Hair­spray (shot, in part, in Hamil­ton, Ontario), Cana­di­an per­form­ers in Chica­go often pop­u­late a dra­mat­ic back­ground of insti­tu­tion­al and moral­is­tic forces against which the lead actors must strug­gle. (East­wood her­self turns up first in Chica­go as a snoopy land­la­dy delay­ing the sex­u­al liai­son between Rox­ie Hart and her boyfriend.) Oth­er cas­es of such uses of Cana­di­an per­form­ers in Hol­ly­wood films shot in Cana­da, among hun­dreds of pos­si­ble exam­ples, include John Boy­lan as “Offi­cer Brucks” in Harold and Kumar Go to White Cas­tle (dir. Dan­ny Lein­er, 2004), Andrew Gillies as “Prin­ci­pal Wood­house” in The Vir­gin Sui­cides (dir. Sofia Cop­po­la, 1999), Ken­neth Welsh as “Vice Pres­i­dent Beck­er” in The Day After Tomor­row (dir. Roland Emmerich, 2004), and Que­bec actor Al Dubois as “Pan Am Exec­u­tive No. 1” in The Avi­a­tor (dir. Mar­tin Scorcese, 2004).

The dra­mat­ic “thin­ness” of these roles con­trasts sharply with the psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­i­ty and affec­tive expan­sive­ness of the lead­ing roles played by Hol­ly­wood stars. This dis­tri­b­u­tion of Cana­di­an per­form­ers, as back­grounds and block­ages to the plea­sure-seek­ing tra­jec­to­ries of pop­u­lar nar­ra­tives, can­not help but invoke (and nour­ish) long­stand­ing ideas about Canada’s place with­in broad­er moral and emo­tion­al geo­gra­phies. Among oth­er respons­es, it invites us to con­sid­er Kier­an Keohane’s claim that a promi­nent fea­ture of Cana­di­an expe­ri­ence is the sense of our own enjoy­ment hav­ing been stolen from us (32.) Arguably, as well, the func­tions typ­i­cal­ly assigned to Cana­di­an performers-–those of nar­ra­tive inter­rup­tion and irritation-–somehow res­onate with these per­form­ers’ indus­tri­al sta­tus, as local resources bureau­crat­i­cal­ly imposed upon a film’s pro­duc­ers by union reg­u­la­tions and co-pro­duc­tion agreements.

Stag­ing the nation

We might, through the famil­iar method­olog­i­cal pro­to­cols of cul­tur­al stud­ies, want to treat the court­room scene from Chica­go as mate­r­i­al invit­ing a resis­tant read­ing. Cer­tain­ly, it is easy to imag­ine a rela­tion­ship to this image which reclaims it as fun­da­men­tal­ly “Cana­di­an,” by not­ing how the pres­ence of Feo­re and McCann reorders, for Cana­di­an view­ers famil­iar with these actors, the rela­tion­ships of fore­ground to back­ground pre­sumed by the film’s mak­ers. This seems less use­ful to me, how­ev­er, than a con­sid­er­a­tion of the labour done by these images them­selves, as they gath­er up and arrange the con­stituent fea­tures of a com­plex transna­tion­al rela­tion­ship.  This work takes place across series of images that works to estab­lish and sta­bi­lize cer­tain reg­u­lar­i­ties, pro­duc­ing a nation­al ver­sion of what Mir­zo­eff has called “inter­vi­su­al­i­ty,” the effect of cul­tur­al­ly spe­cif­ic “inter­act­ing and inter­de­pen­dent modes of visu­al­i­ty” (Mir­zo­eff 7). As Cana­di­an per­form­ers cir­cu­late through the back­grounds of Amer­i­can audio­vi­su­al texts, their hazy famil­iar­i­ty as actors or actress­es (often derived from their tele­vi­sion appear­ances) under­pins the slight­ly reas­sur­ing (and quick­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed) ele­ments of social con­trol or moral con­ven­tion that the roles they play are so often meant to enforce. This expe­ri­ence of vague­ly rec­og­niz­able faces thick­en­ing the social struc­tures with­in (and against) which charis­mat­ic lead per­form­ers pur­sue their des­tinies is a per­sis­tent, if gen­er­al­ly unac­knowl­edged, fea­ture of the inter­vi­su­al­i­ty of Eng­lish Cana­di­an audio­vi­su­al culture.

Treat­ments of visu­al imagery in the Unit­ed States have often been con­cerned with the capac­i­ty of pic­tures to gath­er up the con­stituent fea­tures of nation­al belong­ing and, in Jack Hogan’s phrase, “stage the nation” (100). The con­cern of such stud­ies is nor­mal­ly with the work of images in crys­tal­liz­ing a coher­ent, col­lec­tive sense of pur­pose and iden­ti­ty. Writ­ing about icon­ic exam­ples of Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phy (like the image of the flag-rais­ing at Iwo Jima), Hari­man and Lucaites sug­gest “that pho­to­jour­nal­ism pro­vides resources for thought and feel­ing that are nec­es­sary for con­sti­tut­ing peo­ple as cit­i­zens and moti­vat­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with and par­tic­i­pa­tion in spe­cif­ic forms of col­lec­tive life” (13). The process sug­gest­ed here is one by which frag­men­tary fea­tures of a col­lec­tive imag­i­nary are mold­ed togeth­er with­in a “visu­al elo­quence” that gives expres­sive full­ness to scat­tered, inchoate sen­ti­ments (3). Clé­ment Chéroux’ book-length analy­sis of press images of the events of 11 Sep­tem­ber 2001 shows how icon­ic pho­tographs of the twin tow­ers in flames were dis­placed quite quick­ly, in the days fol­low­ing those events, by oth­er images (most notably, those of New York fire­fight­ers hold­ing a flag) that res­onat­ed more force­ful­ly with imag­is­tic tra­di­tions expres­sive of nation­al cohe­sion (and with the Iwo Jima pho­tographs, in particular).

In con­trast, the “visu­al elo­quence” of images cir­cu­lat­ing in Anglo Cana­da is reg­u­lar­ly seen to be under­mined by the col­lec­tive sus­pi­cion that such images are too bla­tant­ly imi­ta­tive of mod­els from else­where (usu­al­ly the Unit­ed States), or that their cir­cu­la­tion with­in pub­lic life is intend­ed to ful­fill civic pur­pos­es whose con­trived and offi­cial char­ac­ter is only too obvi­ous. Some of the most inter­est­ing analy­ses of Cana­di­an visu­al­i­ty have dealt with the projects of nation­al cohe­sion embed­ded with­in canon­i­cal or insti­tu­tion­al­ly cher­ished cas­es of image pro­duc­tion. As Anne Whitelaw has shown, in her influ­en­tial study of Cana­di­an art muse­ums, the con­sol­i­da­tion of a nation­al painter­ly tra­di­tion, with the Group of Sev­en painters at its cen­tre, was insep­a­ra­ble from the des­ig­na­tion of emp­ty land­scapes as core fea­tures of a col­lec­tive nation­al expe­ri­ence (Whitelaw). In her analy­sis of the Her­itage Min­utes short films (1991- ) and CBC doc­u­men­tary series Cana­da: A People's His­to­ry (2000-2001), Emi­ly West traces the man­ner by which dis­parate fea­tures of nation­al his­to­ry and col­lec­tive mem­o­ry were assem­bled with­in  rep­re­sen­ta­tions that treat­ed Cana­di­ans as eter­nal­ly mul­ti­cul­tur­al and tol­er­ant (West). All of these projects were direct­ed at “stag­ing the nation,” by offer­ing visu­al resources for the nour­ish­ment of civic cohe­sion and virtue. Each, to dif­fer­ent degrees, floun­dered when the images around which they turned failed to res­onate ful­ly with more quo­tid­i­an expe­ri­ences of place, iden­ti­ty, and social cohesion.

My own inter­est here is less with such instances of Cana­di­an visu­al­i­ty, which seek to “stage the nation,” than with images that stage fleet­ing instances of co-pres­ence between ele­ments we may rec­og­nize as in some way Cana­di­an and oth­ers that come, just as clear­ly, from some­where else. A key ana­lyt­ic ques­tion posed by images in gen­er­al is the man­ner in which the spa­tial prox­im­i­ty of ele­ments vis­i­ble with­in them offers itself up as emblem­at­ic of social or polit­i­cal forms of inti­ma­cy and estrange­ment. In her sharp analy­sis of doc­u­men­tary film, Mar­i­on Froger sug­gests ways in which par­tic­u­lar for­mal devices char­ac­ter­is­tic of doc­u­men­tary may be deployed to con­vey the sense of a social bond (Froger). The extend­ed trav­el­ling shot that moves past a city’s inhab­i­tants, for exam­ple, may reveal, in the reac­tions of human fig­ures encoun­tered in its move­ment, a resis­tance to being filmed, but in seek­ing out the con­sent of these fig­ures the same shot may man­i­fest a con­cern for link­age “[le souci du lien]” that express­es some­thing of the film’s eth­i­cal project (Froger). Con­verse­ly, modes of scene con­struc­tion in Chica­go that reg­u­lar­ly exclude Cana­di­an actors from moments of affec­tive charge express a rela­tion­ship between pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary char­ac­ters that is expect­ed in com­plex nar­ra­tives, but that need not inevitably repro­duce a transna­tion­al divi­sion of labor. More broad­ly, we find enact­ed, with­in Cana­di­an pop­u­lar imagery, ways of being togeth­er that stand as implic­it propo­si­tions about the rel­a­tive claims of dif­fer­ent figures—human or non-human—on social spaces and the rela­tion­ships such spaces may enable.

As I have argued else­where, draw­ing on the ideas of Ira Wag­man, the Cana­di­an cul­tur­al arte­fact is almost invari­ably marked by a par­tic­u­lar ratio of import­ed to domes­tic mate­ri­als (Wag­man; Straw, 188). In nar­ra­tive forms, like the nov­el or the fea­ture film script, this inter­weav­ing of ele­ments is the object of a labour of artic­u­la­tion that works between tex­tu­al lev­els and mate­ri­als to endow this ratio of mate­ri­als with a sense of seam­less intel­li­gi­bil­i­ty. In con­trast, the image (the pho­to­graph, paint­ing, or film seg­ment) is more like­ly to give us an over­lay­ing of motifs and influ­ences which flat­tens them upon a shared mate­r­i­al base (the can­vas or pho­to-chem­i­cal sur­face, for exam­ple), such that clues as to their dif­fer­en­tial prove­nance are elu­sive. This flat­ten­ing prob­lema­tizes any easy dis­tinc­tion between lan­guage and meta­lan­guage, between those ele­ments, which come from var­i­ous kinds of cul­tur­al else­where, and a nar­ra­tive or autho­r­i­al voice that would work to reframe them with­in nation­al or oth­er frame­works of col­lec­tive understanding.

In this respect, com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al­ly main­stream Cana­di­an images pro­vide weak cas­es for the appli­ca­tion of com­pelling con­cepts devel­oped in recent work on the transna­tion­al traf­fic in images. In her work on dias­poric visu­al­i­ty, Kate McFar­lane writes of the “syn­cret­ic visu­al­i­ty” of images pro­duced under con­di­tions of post­colo­nial dis­place­ment and emigration–images marked by the “inter­cul­tur­al mix­ing of visu­al regimes” (McFar­lane 177). With­in such images, she sug­gests, we may observe the fre­quent clash or col­lu­sion of cul­tur­al­ly dis­tinct visu­al tra­di­tions and prac­tices of look­ing. This same stitch­ing togeth­er of visu­al regimes clear­ly char­ac­ter­izes innu­mer­able images pro­duced with­in the ver­nac­u­lar and artis­tic spaces of Cana­di­an dias­po­ra (see, for sev­er­al accounts, Li). At the lev­el of the wide­ly-cir­cu­lat­ing Cana­di­an image of com­mer­cial or offi­cial prove­nance, how­ev­er, the evi­dence of syn­cretism will be weak. With their styles and themes formed, most of the time, in an unend­ing cul­tur­al traf­fic with the Unit­ed States, main­stream Cana­di­an images are unlike­ly to man­i­fest a sig­nif­i­cant inter­weav­ing of dis­tinct visu­al sys­tems. The nation­al char­ac­ter of Cana­di­an images is more like­ly to reveal itself in the minor ways in which their var­i­ous icono­graph­ic ele­ments are ordered and set in rela­tion­ship to each oth­er with­in homo­ge­neous­ly leg­i­ble visu­al fields.

In his analy­sis of pho­tographs, Pierre Bour­dieu sug­gests that one of their key func­tions is that of offer­ing the image of a group’s inte­gra­tion. Bour­dieu is speak­ing here pri­mar­i­ly of the fam­i­ly pho­to­graph, and of its vari­able capac­i­ty to con­vey a sense of untrou­bled famil­ial har­mo­ny (Bour­dieu 39). Nev­er­the­less, we might extend this analy­sis to the range of phe­nom­e­na that images gath­er up with­in them­selves. Pho­tographs reg­u­lar­ly pose the ques­tion of the image’s capac­i­ty to make spa­tial prox­im­i­ty an affir­ma­tion of cohe­sion or a stag­ing of its fail­ures. If, in Philippe Bonnin’s words, the pho­to­graph serves as the con­se­cra­tion des liens (228), the bonds or link­ages that pho­to­graph­ic images pro­pose and rein­force are not inevitably those of com­fort­able affin­i­ty. Pic­tures that place the rec­og­niz­ably Cana­di­an and the obvi­ous­ly non-Cana­di­an in spa­tial prox­im­i­ty almost inevitably risk expos­ing the dis­crepant lev­els of leg­i­bil­i­ty, charis­ma, his­tor­i­cal pedi­gree, or cul­tur­al pow­er pos­sessed by the var­i­ous ele­ments these pic­tures bring together.

Prox­im­i­ty and difference

We may explore ver­sions of these dis­crep­an­cies through the brief con­sid­er­a­tion of two very dif­fer­ent kinds of images. The first (Fig­ure Three) is one of the wide­ly-cir­cu­lat­ed pho­tographs of Bri­an and Mila Mul­roney pos­ing with Ronald and Nan­cy Rea­gan on the occa­sion of the U.S. President’s vis­it to Cana­da in 1985. This was the vis­it marked by the “Sham­rock Sum­mit” in Que­bec City. (The pho­to­graph shown here is held at the Ronald Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Library, in Slim Val­ley Cal­i­for­nia, and avail­able on its web­site.) Framed in the con­ven­tion­al fash­ion of the diplo­mat­ic pho­to­graph, this pic­ture can­not help but let slip, I sug­gest, the uneven invest­ments of these Cana­di­an and Amer­i­can fig­ures in the “spe­cial” qual­i­ty of their rela­tion­ship, the cer­e­mo­ni­al sig­nif­i­cance of the occa­sion, and the com­mon Irish ances­try of Rea­gan and Mul­roney. Mulroney’s gaze, turned towards Ronald Rea­gan in an atti­tude that con­veys both devo­tion and a slight anx­i­ety, works against the image of shared and con­trolled sat­is­fac­tion that is a usu­al require­ment of this pho­to­graph­ic genre. If Mulroney’s solic­i­tous­ness and pos­si­ble unease may be qual­i­ties of his rela­tion­ship to Rea­gan (and not sim­ply for­mal fea­tures of the pho­to­graph) these nev­er­the­less func­tion in more for­mal terms to bring a sur­plus of ani­mat­ed emo­tion to a genre of pho­to­graph nor­mal­ly marked by cer­e­mo­ni­al flatness.

Fig­ure Three.  Bri­an and Mila Mul­roney with Nan­cy and Ronald Rea­gan, 1985.

While, from one per­spec­tive, this pic­ture offers a coher­ent image of Cana­di­an sub­servience to Amer­i­can pow­er, I am more inter­est­ed in the ways in which that sub­servience is made man­i­fest in the image’s insta­bil­i­ty, in its inca­pac­i­ty to hold these four peo­ple in a pose of equal­ly dis­trib­uted respect and com­fort. Like the minor forms of estrange­ment that may reveal them­selves in the fam­i­ly pho­to­graph, the slight turn of Bri­an Mulroney’s head sug­gests an inabil­i­ty to com­fort­ably inhab­it the for­mal space of the diplo­mat­ic image. It may sim­ply be that the Madame Tus­saud­ish pos­es of Ronald and Nan­cy Rea­gan are nat­u­ral­ized through the inter­vi­su­al­i­ty in which they participate–through our famil­iar­i­ty with hun­dreds of oth­er wide­ly cir­cu­lat­ed pho­tographs of the cou­ple. As a result of this famil­iar­i­ty, the Rea­gans’ stance here seems self-suf­fi­cient and detach­able, repeat­ed from innu­mer­able sim­i­lar events involv­ing oth­er polit­i­cal lead­ers and thus con­vey­ing lit­tle invest­ment in the har­mo­ny or sig­nif­i­cance of this spe­cif­ic group and occasion.

The tex­tu­al and media forms that dis­sem­i­nate images in Cana­da are dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed, for the most part, along lin­guis­tic lines. This remains the case even as lin­guis­tic lines might seem to recede as forces struc­tur­ing iden­ti­ty in Cana­da, and as lin­guis­tic com­mu­ni­ties them­selves are more obvi­ous­ly lived as shift­ing coali­tions criss-crossed by mul­ti­ple oth­er forms of diver­si­ty. Nev­er­the­less, the dom­i­nant exam­ples of cin­e­ma, tele­vi­sion, and print cul­ture in Cana­da are usu­al­ly in the French or Eng­lish lan­guages, so that even when images are not lin­guis­ti­cal­ly marked or anno­tat­ed, the cir­cu­la­to­ry matri­ces with­in which they trav­el typ­i­cal­ly fol­low the lines of lin­guis­tic divi­sion. On either side of this divi­sion, one finds very dif­fer­ent sys­tems of mutu­al ref­er­ence, of the inter­vi­su­al­i­ty referred to ear­li­er. Almost para­dox­i­cal­ly, the domain of images is one in which the dis­tinc­tive­ness of Fran­coph­o­ne and Anglo­phone cul­tur­al life is expressed most stark­ly, even if images them­selves are not “lin­guis­tic” in any obvi­ous way. These sys­tems, which bind togeth­er series of images on either side of the lin­guis­tic divide, are fur­ther dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed by the extent and char­ac­ter of their prox­im­i­ty to mod­els from else­where and, in par­tic­u­lar, to those that come from the Unit­ed States.

The Que­bec celebri­ty gos­sip mag­a­zine Echos Vedettes, shown in Fig­ure Four, is notable in at least two ways. Its most obvi­ous fea­ture, to Eng­lish Cana­di­ans, is the extent to which, with one obvi­ous excep­tion, none of the faces dis­played in pho­tographs are famil­iar (I have test­ed my Mon­tre­al-based stu­dents in sev­er­al class­es, using this image, and nev­er found an Anglo­phone able to rec­og­nize a sin­gle celebri­ty oth­er than Céline Dion). The Echos Vedettes cov­er stands as evi­dence of the well-known self-sus­tain­ing char­ac­ter of Que­bec show busi­ness. Its sec­ond and most strik­ing fea­ture, to me, is how coher­ent­ly it mod­els itself on the U.S. celebri­ty-ori­ent­ed super­mar­ket tabloid. The “apart­ness” of Que­bec enter­tain­ment cul­ture is such that it may bor­row mod­els from else­where with­out run­ning the risk that the var­i­ous ele­ments con­fig­ured with­in their local ver­sions will be weak­ened by this evi­dence of cul­tur­al prox­im­i­ty. Like the Que­be­cois tele­vi­sion vari­ety show, Echos vedettes is more “Amer­i­can” than most of the forms that make up Eng­lish-Cana­di­an pop­u­lar cul­ture, even as Eng­lish-Cana­di­an cul­ture is more fre­quent­ly criss-crossed by cul­tur­al frag­ments that come from the Unit­ed States.

Fig­ure Four.  Echos vedettes.  Jan­u­ary 2003.

Fig­ure Five.  Hel­lo! Cana­da.  July 2007.

In con­trast, the Eng­lish-Cana­di­an enter­tain­ment tabloid must con­tend with the fact that it can nei­ther mod­el itself com­plete­ly on U.S. mod­els (which would ren­der it redun­dant rel­a­tive to such eas­i­ly avail­able mod­els) nor base its dis­tinc­tive­ness on cov­er­age of Cana­di­an celebri­ty cul­ture exclu­sive­ly (since that cul­ture is wide­ly viewed as insuf­fi­cient­ly large, sen­sa­tion­al, or inter­est­ing.) Fig­ure Five shows the cov­er of a 2007 issue of Hel­lo! Cana­da, one of the few Eng­lish-Cana­di­an celebri­ty-ori­ent­ed mag­a­zines to achieve any longevi­ty in sev­er­al decades. If Echo Vedettes works cen­trif­i­cal­ly, gath­er­ing the dif­fer­ent com­po­nents of Que­be­cois pop­u­lar cul­ture with­in a coher­ent uni­verse of places, names, and sen­sa­tions, the cov­er of Hel­lo! Cana­da shown here does lit­tle more than stage the awk­ward prox­im­i­ty of ele­ments, whose ori­gins and nation­al per­ti­nence are wide­ly var­ied. Based on a British mag­a­zine (the orig­i­nal Hel­lo!), Hel­lo! Cana­da can offer, as the only plau­si­ble source of its dis­tinc­tive­ness, the fact that it is nei­ther a bla­tant copy of a U.S. tabloid, nor as nar­row­ly British in its focus as the U.K. title that serves as its mod­el. While the image shown in Fig­ure Five labours to con­vey a sense of the con­ver­gence of British, Amer­i­can, and Cana­di­an enter­tain­ment worlds, the cover’s ener­gies seem, in fact, to be cen­trifu­gal, scat­ter­ing view­er atten­tion along mul­ti­ple and dis­con­nect­ed lines of association.

The over­lay of images

Fig­ure Six.  Peter Doig.  Canoe Lake.  1997-98.

Fig­ure Six is a very dif­fer­ent kind of image: the paint­ing Canoe Lake (1997/1998), by Cana­di­an-British-Trinida­di­an painter Peter Doig. As the artist has acknowl­edged, and crit­ics have not­ed (e.g., Grande), Canoe Lake is one of a series of works by Doig that imbue the canon­i­cal Cana­di­an iconog­ra­phy of north­ern land­scapes with a sense of eerie men­ace bor­rowed from low-bud­get Amer­i­can hor­ror films of the ear­ly 1980s, like Fri­day the 13th. It was typ­i­cal of these films to fea­ture teenagers con­fronting dan­ger in remote, “nat­ur­al” loca­tions (like sum­mer camps), and the locus of men­ace these films offered was that of both an untamed nature and the resur­gence of repressed famil­ial trau­ma. In Doig’s paint­ing, the icono­graph­ic tra­di­tions of Group of Sev­en paint­ing and the U.S. ser­i­al-mur­der hor­ror film are over­laid upon each oth­er in a way that avoids the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Cana­di­an ele­ments seen in the images dis­cussed so far. In Doig’s paint­ing, there is nei­ther the effort to deceive, to dis­guise a Cana­di­an loca­tion as some­thing else, nor the uneasy, stum­bling attempt (as in the pho­to of the Mul­roneys and Rea­gans) to stage a har­mo­nious rela­tion­ship between ele­ments whose unequal sta­tus, in more broad­ly geopo­lit­i­cal terms, can­not help but betray itself.

The art­ful­ness of Doig’s image stems in part from the ways in which it pro­duces a con­stant rever­sal of our sense of the pri­ma­ry and the sec­ondary. On the one hand, the wild­ly suc­cess­ful Hol­ly­wood film is over­laid upon the glob­al­ly “minor” tra­di­tions of Cana­di­an paint­ing; on the oth­er, the canon­i­cal tra­di­tion of Cana­di­an land­scape art is made to be haunt­ed by the unset­tling con­stituent fea­tures of a debased Amer­i­can film genre. In oth­er words, the Cana­di­an and U.S. ele­ments of this paint­ing func­tion simul­ta­ne­ous­ly (or alter­nate­ly) as its major and minor fea­tures, advanc­ing and reced­ing between fore­ground and back­ground. The “prox­im­i­ty” of these dif­fer­ent ele­ments in Doig’s paint­ing does not gen­er­ate eas­i­ly deci­pher­able propo­si­tions about hier­ar­chi­cal cul­tur­al rela­tion­ships between Cana­da and the Unit­ed States. Nei­ther, how­ev­er, does the paint­ing occlude these rela­tion­ships. For the noble Cana­di­an land­scape tra­di­tion to acquire a veneer of ter­ror, it seems, it is nec­es­sary to invoke the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of cheap­ly-made U.S. hor­ror films, to par­take of that cross-bor­der traf­fick­ing in “emo­tions and affects” that Sav­igliano has iden­ti­fied. At the same time, this sense of ter­ror fur­ther dig­ni­fies the Cana­di­an land­scape paint­ing, res­cu­ing it from the mere­ly pas­toral or canon­i­cal and join­ing it to old­er means of rep­re­sent­ing a ter­ri­fy­ing and unset­tling nature—means whose art-his­tor­i­cal pedi­grees are of con­sid­er­ably greater pres­tige. It is as if, hav­ing diag­nosed the mul­ti­ple dynam­ics that mark cul­tur­al traf­fic between Cana­da and the Unit­ed States, Doig devised a work that main­tained them all in per­pet­u­al motion.

Con­clu­sion: Cul­tur­al forms and pub­lic spheres

The sense that nation­al or supra­na­tion­al enti­ties might be dis­tin­guished by the pre-emi­nence of one cul­tur­al form or anoth­er has woven its way through analy­ses of media and cul­ture for a long time. Harold Innis’ claims about a culture’s “bias” towards time or space pre­sumed the pre­dom­i­nance of spe­cif­ic cul­tur­al forms over oth­ers (Hey­er and Crow­ley xvi). This pre­dom­i­nance is sug­gest­ed, at the very least, by Mar­shall McLuhan’s notion of the sen­so­ry hier­ar­chies char­ac­ter­is­tic of par­tic­u­lar times and spaces (McLuhan 22). More recent­ly, schol­ars across a range of fields have made claims about the dom­i­nant role of post-lit­er­ary cul­tur­al forms in the con­sol­i­da­tion of new sorts of pub­lic spheres. Michael Warn­er has sug­gest­ed that, as the con­tem­po­rary pub­lic sphere (in the Unit­ed States, at least) has come to be ori­ent­ed more and more towards elec­tron­ic, audio­vi­su­al media, it has made “the bod­ies and expres­sive lives of politi­cians and citizens”—phenomena which cir­cu­late pri­mar­i­ly through visu­al representation—more impor­tant than the abstract­ed sub­jec­tiv­i­ty char­ac­ter­is­tic of a pub­lic life orga­nized around print media (Warn­er 102).

Schol­ars work­ing with­in Latin Amer­i­can cul­tur­al stud­ies have offered new accounts of nation­al or region­al pub­lic spheres that are no longer orga­nized around the cul­tur­al expres­sion of a lit­er­ary elite, around the “let­tered city” con­cep­tu­al­ized by Angel Rama in an influ­en­tial work (Rama, 1996). In dif­fer­ent ways, Ana Maria Ochoa Gau­ti­er and Ros­alind Winocur have argued for the aur­al as a dom­i­nant fea­ture of new pub­lic spheres in Brazil and Mex­i­co, respec­tive­ly. Iden­ti­fy­ing what she calls a “son­ic turn” with­in Latin Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty, Ochoa Gau­ti­er sug­gests that “under the con­tem­po­rary process­es of social glob­al­iza­tion and region­al­iza­tion cou­pled with the trans­for­ma­tions in the tech­nolo­gies of sound, the pub­lic sphere is increas­ing­ly medi­at­ed by the aur­al” (Gau­ti­er  807). In more restrict­ed terms, Winocur has traced the con­tours of a Mex­i­can sphere of civic engage­ment orga­nized around the aur­al and the vocal, through the inter­con­nec­tion of such tech­nolo­gies and cul­tur­al forms as the cell phone and the radio call-in pro­gram (Winocur, 2002, 2003).

If I resist the temp­ta­tion to char­ac­ter­ize the pub­lic cul­ture of Cana­da in terms of any dom­i­nant sense, medi­um, or cul­tur­al form, I would nev­er­the­less argue that still or mov­ing images express, in dis­tinct­ly reveal­ing ways, the vari­eties of our rela­tion­ship to the Unit­ed States and its com­mer­cial, pop­u­lar cul­ture. This is, in part, because images have become the prin­ci­pal token in the cul­tur­al traf­fic between these two coun­tries, but that is almost inci­den­tal. Rather, as I have sug­gest­ed, images stage the prox­im­i­ty of things, peo­ple, and places and, in doing so, pose the ques­tion of their equi­table coex­is­tence. Most of the time, the prox­im­i­ty of ele­ments appear­ing with­in an image is at least par­tial­ly nat­u­ral­ized, through the sorts of con­ven­tions that mark spe­cif­ic gen­res, like the fam­i­ly por­trait, the diplo­mat­ic pho­to­graph, or the cin­e­mat­ic court­room scene.

At the same time, it is part of the work of images to dis­trib­ute their var­i­ous ele­ments along the axes of fore­ground and back­ground, major and minor, the com­mu­nica­tive­ly expan­sive and the restrict­ed. It is in rela­tion to this dis­tri­b­u­tion that the for­mal analy­sis of still images and dra­mat­ic audio-visu­al excerpts may open onto a broad­er analy­sis of the transna­tion­al cul­tur­al traf­fic in affect, stature, and degrees of imag­is­tic pres­ence. When, as is so often the case, these axes serve to dif­fer­en­ti­ate visu­al ele­ments that are rec­og­niz­ably Amer­i­can and oth­ers we read as Cana­di­an, a transna­tion­al rela­tion­ship has assumed cul­tur­al solid­i­ty as icono­graph­ic convention.


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Image notes

Fig­ure One and Fig­ure Two

Colm Feo­re and Sean McCann in Chica­go (2002).

[DVD grab, Mira­max Films, 2002]

Fig­ure Three

Bri­an and Mila Mul­roney with Nan­cy and Ronald Rea­gan, 1985.

[Cour­tesy Ronald Rea­gan Library. www​.rea​gan​.utexas​.edu/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​p​h​o​t​o​g​r​a​p​h​s​/​l​a​r​g​e​/​c​2​7​7​6​2​-​8​.​jpg

Fig­ure Four

Cov­er, jour­nal Échos-Vedettes, Jan­u­ary 2003.

[TVA Pub­li­ca­tions, Que­becor Media]

Fig­ure Five

Cov­er, Hel­lo! Cana­da, July 2007.

[Hel­lo LTD]

Fig­ure Six

Peter Doig, Canoe Lake, oil on can­vas, 1997-98.

[The Saatchi Gallery, Lon­don UK]

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.