Movies

The Odd Couple: Atom and Bruce

The Odd Couple: Atom and Bruce featured image

This year’s TIFF features new films by Atom Egoyan and Bruce McDonald, the two most acclaimed members of the Toronto New Wave. Though Egoyan’s Adoration and McDonald’s Pontypool couldn’t be more different, their twin embrace by the film festival can’t help but remind a Canadian cinema enthusiast of the filmmakers’ shared past.

Back in the mid ‘80s, the two appeared on a Canadian scene devoid of film directing stars. No doubt, Egoyan and McDonald made an odd couple—the Yin and Yang of our cinema. Egoyan, refined and artistic, an Armenian born in Cairo and raised in Victoria and McDonald, scruffy and funny, born in Kingston and raised in Rexdale, hardly seem like a heaven sent match. Yet along with such friends and colleagues as Patricia Rozema, Peter Mettler, Don McKellar and Jeremy Podeswa, they made a palpable difference in a moribund filmmaking environment.

At a time when English Canadian cinema was just recovering from the horrible blunder of the extremely commercial tax shelter years, when any film—good or bad—could and did have its financial losses written off, the arrival of new talent that desperately wanted to make good films was a godsend to Telefilm Canada and the media establishment. An official Canadian cultural elite needing to build up filmmakers with integrity promoted the New Wave.

In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Egoyan, McDonald and their friends made a huge difference, making films that garnered international acclaim: Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter and Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing won prizes at Cannes while McDonald famously got the TIFF Canadian feature award for Roadkill—and said that he’d spend some of it on a “big chunk of hash.”

That was then; this is now. Rozema had a commercial hit this summer with the American Girl feature Kit Kittredge; Mettler was the subject of a TIFF retrospective two years ago for his doc and experimental work while Podeswa directs hit TV series like Dexter and The Tudors.

Now, Egoyan and McDonald are back at TIFF with low budget features. Adoration represents an intellectual’s response to the crisis in the Middle East. Egoyan sees politics through the eyes of someone concerned with trauma, pain and guilt. Psychology always trumps actual political concerns. An admirer of his work—and this reviewer is one of them—knows that Egoyan eschews the immediate and goes for the long view of history.

In Adoration, he tells his typically complex story. A teenaged boy (Noam Jenkins) has lost his parents and is being raised by a loving but emotionally distant uncle (Scott Speedman). Either by happenstance or prompting, he recounts a tale to his high school class in which his mother, pregnant with his unborn fetus, is manipulated into taking a bomb onto a plane on its way to Israel. The story becomes a sensation on the Internet and the teacher who encouraged the story is dismissed.

But is that how the boy’s parents died? Of course not. Gradually another tale emerges, one involving intolerance and anger among middle class Ontarians. Still, questions remain: why did the boy tell the story? What prompted the teacher to manipulate him? Why did the lad’s story have so much resonance on the ‘Net?

Ok. Quick confession. I have a very brief scene in Adoration. Blink and you’ll miss it. It’s possible to say that my opinion isn’t valid. I am an admirer of Atom Egoyan’s work and believe that his film brings to bear a poetic interpretation on what is going on in the Middle East. But don’t take my word for it. Go and see Adoration.

I met Bruce McDonald around the same time I got to know Atom Egoyan—approximately 25 years ago. Happily for the film and this reviewer’s integrity, I was not cast in Pontypool but I do remember when McDonald first became enthusiastic about the Tony Burgess novel about a decade ago.

The story of Pontypool couldn’t be stranger: people become monsters because they speak the English language. Ever heard the expression “words hurt”? Well, in this case they can kill.

McDonald’s film is set in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. A down-on-his-luck morning show radio announcer (Stephen McHattie) has landed a gig in Pontypool and is dealing with a hard-as-nails but easy-on-the-eyes station manager (Lisa Houle) and a sassy producer, both of whom want him to stop drinking and deliver the news with style.

Our announcer runs into the ultimate nightmarish morning. Average citizens begin to kill and cannibalize each other. Tension mounts as the radio station receives more and more outrageous reports about the terrifying goings-on in Pontypool. Finally, the barbarians reach the gates—the doors where the radio station is housed are breached. Will the monsters attack? Will they kill the fascinating morning show staff?

Will I violate the reviewer’s code and tell you? No way!

Pontypool and Adoration are poetic takes on linguistics and the Middle East. They don’t provide answers—hey! they’re films—but we’re given a good ride in both cases.

I’d say the Toronto New Wave is back—or at least their most famous odd couple.

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