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Souvenir of Canada (2006)

by on 2012/09/23

“This is a different way to look at Canada. These are souvenirs you won’t find in any gift shop. To me, they’re clues as to who we are. I want to discover, what are those things that make us us?”

* * *

Whether you know it or not, you’re probably familiar with Douglas Coupland. While I like his movie Everything’s Gone Green, I still confuse him with William Gibson. But, no, he’s not the guy who coined the term “cyberspace”. Instead he’s the one who popularized “Generation X”.

He spent the years between 1988 and 1992 traveling the world, before ultimately returning home to Vancouver. Apparently he’s used his time since then campaigning for a kind of acceptance. As of this production’s date, he seems not to have found it yet.

In an effort to build a bridge between himself and our native land, he conceives of Canada House, a gutted suburban structure, painted white all inside, and stocked with ephemera, specifically Canadian mementos. It was basically a short-lived sculptural installation piece, including a bathtub full of shells, a tartan-patterned couch, a series of lamps made out of buoys, a discarded handful of biscuits, and so on.

Throughout the creation of his brief museum, Coupland expounds on topics he deems essential to understanding our country: beer, distance, French, hockey, hunting, neighbours, Terry Fox (Into the Wind), Toronto, water, and the wilderness. These subjects are illustrated with animation, home movies, industrial film clips, interviews, photos, and re-creations.

It wasn’t until quite a bit later on when I pinned down my reservations. Nearing the end, our host discusses his aforementioned lack of acceptance. Even setting his works in Canada, and addressing national issues, his critics still found his writing un-Canadian. I realized I was having a similar reaction. His notion of  “Canadiana” never rang true for me personally.

To his credit, he appears to understand such discrepancies. He telegraphs as much in an early scene about marketing Ryder beer. He combines several elements he considers inherently Canadian, but finds his fellows feel no pride in the resulting campaign proposal.

Is Souvenir of Canada’s approach too similarly calculated? Is there more to nationalism than paying lip service to selected cliches? How did Molson’s “I Am Canadian” rant succeed where Coupland did not? Is it the way the elements are combined? Or the (apparent) passion with which the message is delivered?

The most telling moments for me were his own reactions to Canada House. Initially he compares it to the Brady Bunch’s home. After he’s done the whitewashing, he mimics the HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey) by way of Demon Seed’s automatic house. He ends with a different comparison, this time to a vacant Chernobyl. I’ll venture that none of these notions evoke Canadiana to anyone else.

And if I’m to be fully honest, I’ll admit that Coupland gradually “lost” me. Intercutting the documentary were significant biographical threads, and discomfiting confessions about a life I didn’t exactly relate to. Appropriately enough, his family seemed not to relate to him either. Although he clearly loves them, his mother and father both shift uneasily, which their son addresses — hardly endearingly — by pointing their awkwardness out. When discussing hockey violence, his brother is visibly put off by his musings about beheading videos. I couldn’t decide if I just didn’t like him, or was appalled to recognize a similar side of myself.

He raises some interesting subjects, no doubt, at least for us navel-gazers, but I often disagreed with his observations and conclusions. Maybe we’re not as alike as I might have believed. The truth is I didn’t find him compelling as either subject or presenter and, even when the film’s not about him, it’s selected, filtered, and interpreted through his sensibilities.

So while I enjoyed sharing in some of his national touchstones, I felt alienated by Coupland’s personality. Eccentricity as a perspective is absolutely valid, but it didn’t make the viewing of Souvenir of Canada any more enticing.

Who knows? Your mileage may vary. Or perhaps we should say your kilometrage.

* * *

Rated G

70 minutes

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