or, Vancouver South: The Punk History of Vancouver Filmmaking
Even if you’ve never been to Vancouver, you’ve been to Vancouver. You were there with Will Smith as he protected Chicago from an artificial intelligence in I, Robot. You were there when Wade Wilson became New York City’s best worst superhero in Deadpool. You were there in Hot Rod when Andy Samburg eagerly told his Midwestern town “You need only to believe if you wish to achieve. That rhymed. Unintentional.”
None of these movies took place in Vancouver, of course. For years, the city was barely on Hollywood’s radar, considered the weird cousin up north who comes out with a few indie films a year and generally stays out of the way. But while Los Angeles had its head turned, Vancouver was quietly nurturing a thriving alternative scene for art, music, and film that would later give birth to what is now fondly referred to as Hollywood North.
Ask a Vancouverite filmmaker, though, and they’ll say that name is backwards: Nowadays, Los Angeles is Vancouver South. It wasn’t always like this. Author and Vancouverite film buff David Spaner elaborates on the origins of the Vancouver film scene in his book Dreaming in the Rain, tracing the city’s history of cinematic duplicity all the way back to 1942, when “Columbia picture Commandos Strike at Dawn brought actors’ actor Paul Muni to B.C. as Vancouver Island subbed for German-occupied Norway.” Vancouver got its first cinema equipment in 1897, two full years after New York City began showing pictures to the public. Some of the first films projected in Vancouver were newsreels of the Spanish-American war, but in an ironic twist of history, it was discovered that the newsreels were shot not in Cuba or Puerto Rico, but in New Jersey (Spaner 31).
In the good old days, Vancouver only played places that looked like Vancouver, mostly standing in for Alaska, Seattle, Nordic countries, and anywhere rainy, coastal, and cold. But as the city changed, so did the films. In the sixties, Vancouver was on the cusp of the same revolution that shook its American neighbors. “Vancouver’s hippie and punk scenes would become known throughout the international underground, while most people in the city barely knew they existed,” Spaner writes. “Even Vancouver’s physical setting contributes to the dichotomy – it’s a place where the natural world is minutes from downtown, where the skyline is a mixed marriage of skyscrapers and mountains” (17). The dualism of the city’s architecture was mirrored in its culture. On the surface, Vancouver remained the polite, isolated sister to Toronto. Below, the younger generations were beginning to find their own voice, with or without the help of their predecessors. Filmmaker Larry Kent was at the University of British Columbia during this time, as a student in their theater program who transitioned into film just as the kids who would go on to become Vancouver’s most celebrated filmmakers began to experiment outside the confines of the program. “Since Kent and his UBC friends were virtually inventing Vancouver independent film, there was no one to turn to for assistance. “‘Nobody,’ Kent says. ‘The only sort of crew we had was Dick [Bellamy] and myself. Dick had a camera and we bought some film and we went ahead.’” (Kent qtd. in Spaner 37).
Kent’s do-it-yourself spirit was perhaps the first breath of life given to the punk rock and counter-culture scene of Vancouver. His debut film, Bitter Ash, had the profanity and brief nudity typical of student productions, but the censor board banned the film from being shown downtown, or anywhere in British Columbia. Kent toured with the film anyway, screening it for anyone who would watch. “Vancouver at the time was a very, very provincial place,” Kent’s contemporary Morrie Ruvinsky recalled. “That was one of the exciting things about Vancouver: There was this invasion of the hippie revolution in a town that was really super conservative in its cultural attitudes. And it was a big clash.” (qtd. in Spaner 60). Ruvinsky had his own run in with the censors when his film The Plastic Mile was banned in 1969. At its premiere, “I went up to the projection booth and I got the film,” Ruvinsky said. “I put the five reels up on the stage and I said, ‘Well, now, here you can see The Plastic Mile.’ And everybody laughed. Then I thought, ‘Well fuck, I can do better than that.’ I picked up a reel, I got a pair of scissors, and we went up and down the aisles cutting off little pieces of the film so everybody could have their own piece of The Plastic Mile and get to see a little bit of it.” (qtd. in Spaner 61). If that isn’t the punkest thing you’ve ever heard, you can stop reading right here.
With Kent and his friends representing more and more of Vancouver’s youth onscreen (when possible), a previously obscure group began to see themselves in media, a crucial step in the development of identity for any cultural group. Like-minded twenty-somethings began congregating in areas of the city like Gastown and Kitsilano, budding pockets of creatives ready for change. “Kitsilano’s main street, Fourth Avenue, as much as an immigrant enclave in New York, had its own music, language, dress, food, and politics. Suddenly, everything was on the agenda in this revolution – street protests, feminism, marijuana, gay rights, Vietnam, ecology, student radicalism, culture” (Spaner 48). The punk rock scene in Vancouver and throughout Canada gained traction up into the eighties, until it exploded in the wake of bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash. Bands like D.O.A. and The Subhumans sprang out of Vancouver, partnering with Toronto bands to “Rock Against Radiation” in a massive concert in 1980 to protest nuclear weapons.
Two years later, the debut Vancouver International Film Festival was held, an awards ceremony that would rise to become one of the top five film festivals in North America. The film community was strengthening, and Hollywood productions began migrating north. It would take until 1995 to introduce the tax credits and financial benefits most filmmakers access today, but that didn’t stop big-name films like Videodrome, The Neverending Story, and Roxanne from taking advantage of the more dynamic atmosphere in British Columbia. With them came a new art form: disguising Vancouver.
In his acclaimed web series Every Frame a Painting, film buff Tony Zhou exposes the chameleon nature of the city. In Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, he brings up the secret of Vancouver locations being substituted for Seattle, eastern Europe, and India “all within a fifteen minute drive of each other.” The shape-shifting ability of the city is possible in part because of the diverse architecture, ranging from the aggressively futuristic to the simplistically rustic, and partially thanks to art departments and visual effects editors. Zhou points out the fastest way to fool people into thinking it’s America is to throw a USA Today vending machine on screen, because “nothing says America like USA Today.” Other methods range from shooting establishing shots on location and changing street signs to editing in the Space Needle or a statue of a North Korean dictator in post-production.
But still, Vancouver refuses to play a submissive role. In a now iconic blunder made in Rumble in the Bronx, the camera pans across a shot of Jackie Chan fending off attackers in New York City, the North Shore Mountains gleaming in the distance. (The North Shore Mountains are a small piece of the Pacific Range that covers most of western British Columbia.) Regardless, no mountains of any kind can be seen from the Bronx. “Sometimes I wonder if local film crews try to sneak the city into the shot as a form of protest,” Zhou muses, displaying clips from The X-Files, Insomnia, and Five Easy Pieces, all with trademark Vancouver scenery lurking behind the action.
Such an act of subversion wouldn’t have been unlikely on the Vancouver sets that relied on a mix of Los Angeles and local crew. Tensions were and remain high with jobs continually migrating north and inconsistent production methods making international cohesion an issue. During the filming of The 13th Warrior in 1999, Canadian crew members instated a new fashion trend of wearing shirts that said “‘I don’t give a fuck,’ and on the back continue, ‘how you do it in L.A.’” (Spaner 197). Not only was their city being covered up, their way of working was as well. The frustration that prompted Zhou’s Vancouver-themed episode of Every Frame a Painting stemmed from the use of the city as “a location, but not a setting.” By consciously hiding the city, filmmakers hide the history so ingrained within it. This act of obscuring is not specific to Vancouver, either: Masks are devised for cities around the world, some of them made of stereotypes or propaganda, and some of them made of USA Today vending machines.
The consequences of constantly outsourcing American cities to Canada aren’t nearly as numerous as the consequences of paving over Vancouver’s own narrative. American films shot in Vancouver sometimes give off whiffs of insincerity, the faint understanding that no, this isn’t New York, is it? But the suspension of disbelief is hardly ever broken, especially with films today. If it had been, it would be common knowledge that in 2013, Superman destroyed Vancouver in Man of Steel, not Metropolis, or that Vancouver was razed to the ground by Godzilla one year later in the 2014 remake of the Japanese classic. There’s an emotional disrespect a city torn to the ground without the decency to call it by its own name. Vancouverites watching Godzilla would be able to easily recognize the landmarks and see their city’s diverse history punted aside in favor of a blander, more familiar one.
The reason we go to the movies to see our own history told on screen. Sometimes it’s specifically ours: that of the student in New York learning their place in the world. Sometimes it’s a bit more general: the tale of a space rebel fighting against a galaxy-wide tyranny to save the common man. We accept these partial truths because they’re built on whole truths we recognize as familiar. Storytellers have been following this formula for thousands of years, seeking out human experiences, boiling them down to the bones, and rebuilding them into something original. The stories in films that succeed are the most honest ones, not the flashiest or most expensive. Unsurprisingly, with going to the movies remaining one the most typical American pastimes, most people can easily tell which films are lying and which aren’t. The honest ones may not be the fan favorites, or even the ones raking in awards. But people know if an actor doesn’t believe what they’re saying. They know if a scene isn’t working. They know if Vancouver isn’t really Vancouver. They may not realize they know, or be able to pinpoint the issue, but the ratings speak for themselves. Godzilla got a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Man of Steel barely reached 56%. The uncanny valley is real, and it’s on Kitsilano Street.
Try though they might, Vancouver’s cinematic roots can’t be paved over by monsters and superheroes. At last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, more than a third of the films were Canadian productions. Two of the largest prizes are reserved each year for films and filmmakers from British Columbia, and more and more attention is being drawn to the plight of Vancouver’s undermined narrative. Zhou’s video has reached nearly a million views on Youtube and over fifty thousand on Vimeo, and the local film scene has continued to thrive despite a majority of labor going to the production of international works.
But perhaps it wouldn’t truly be the Vancouver film industry without some kind of external suppression. The city’s film community was founded by those with a penchant for rebellion in a time when rebellion was necessary for creation. Even today, “just the act of making a film in Canada is inherently political because we live in a state of cultural occupation. So making a Canadian film is like an act of resistance. Making a film, making a piece of Canadian art, is political, I believe, in and of itself,” says Canadian actor and producer Tom Scholte (Spaner 91). Canada remains under British control politically and American influence creatively, meaning each Canadian film, each Vancouverian film, is made in the face of overwhelming opposition.
Although Vancouver is the third biggest film city in the world (Zhou), it remains below the radar for the average filmgoer, even for many movie buffs. Somewhere along the way, Vancouver became Hollywood’s worst kept secret, but that’s not stopping them. Vancouver’s filmmakers are determined to have their own city, their own stories, and their own history shown on screen. Whether or not Vancouver’s reflection in modern cinema will be as mutable as the city is in real life is unknown. Perhaps Vancouver’s chameleon streets can’t be captured on film at all. Film theory holds that to capture a subject on film is to kill it, and with all the lore personifying cities, this could extend beyond humans (Garrett 154). If so, Vancouver has been dancing in the face of death for years, a taunt that’s barely surprising given their local industry’s personality. But, at long last, it seems they are prepared to face their fate. Even if they’ve got to lurk in the background and make people uncomfortable until finally someone asks, “Wait, isn’t that Vancouver?”
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