One Roadtrip, One Canada 150

The Screening Room and Agnes tour Canada on screen and canvas

A shot from film 'Canadian Landscape'
A shot from film 'Canadian Landscape'.
Credit: 
Screengrab

5514 km is a long way to travel without leaving Kingston.

On Canada Day weekend, The Screening Room and the Agnes Etherington Centre coordinated to present a historical road trip across Canada, featuring short films from underappreciated national treasure The National Film Board and an exhibit of landscape paintings by artist Alan C. Collier.

The National Film Board, a public production company that primarily produces documentaries, animation and experimental films, was the biggest driver of the Canadian film industry for most of the 20th century. For a while, if you saw a TV at the front of the class in elementary school, chances are the NFB logo played on the screen.

These movies ride the line between tedious and genius. The Screening Room’s Canada Day selection focuses on Canada’s landscape and travel as viewers see the country from coast to coast to coast. The board’s 1971 film Canada the Land attempts to profile huge vistas and urban landscapes — all while gratuitously zooming in over an acid rock soundtrack. The film, which was mostly shot from a low-flying aircraft, is the NFB at its trippy, nature-obsessed best.

The shots encompass a huge variety of tundra, mountain ranges and skylines, edited together to present a daunting impression of the sheer scale of America’s hat.

Unfortunately, these movies show their age when they focus on the people and not the landscape. Indigenous characters in the 1953 children’s animated movie The Romance of Transportation are—surprise—not three-dimensional in any sense of the phrase.

Like a conversation with a grandparent, this movie can be an endearing trip into Canada’s past. Also like a grandparent, it can be uncomfortably racist at times. 

This isn’t to say all NFB films share these issues. Other films in the Canada Day selection like Canada the Land offer a much stronger alternative. It doesn’t pay to ignore this part of Canada’s history. We should know what we’re watching—even if we just came for the cartoons.

The film’s other throwbacks are less contentious. Buster Keaton, a ‘20s silent film star, has a late career appearance in The Railrodder. How much you like this movie heavily depends on how tolerant you are of the banjo soundtrack and faded stardom.

It can be grating.

But as Keaton railcars his way across the country, it retains enough dorky visual references to Canadian landmarks that you give it the same credit as an underperforming but lovable group member in a project: at least he’s trying.

Thankfully, an inevitable Group of Seven appearance returns to Canada’s geography with painter A.Y. Jackson’s starring role in Canadian Landscape.

If you like Bob Ross, you’ll like this. It’s fascinating to see Jackson’s artistic process and his passion for his subject matter take shape with every brush stroke. From camping trip to sketch to canvas, this is a patient movie that allows the viewer to appreciate one of Canada’s greatest.

Canadian Landscape also compliments the Agnes’ sister presentation of Alan C. Collier’s artwork. Like Jackson, Collier transports you into his canvas landscapes. Lush farmland dotted with aging barns and modest houses sit comfortably beside factory’s spewing smoke and ice flows. Collier and Jackson were travelling artists and their journey’s were their muses.

Each painting is a love letter to Canada and its landscape, evocative of old family road trips and time spent exploring the countryside.

If you missed the VIA rail July sale of unlimited travel for a few hundred bucks, there’s worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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