Congratulations, You Played Yourself by Douglas Haddow
Here’s something you might not know: Vancouver is the third-most-filmed city in North America. That’s pretty darn cool. Actually, you probably knew that, given the constant sidewalk obstructions caused by loitering production assistants who appear to be on permanent smoke-breaks, save for their pedestrian-hassling duties.
And you probably know that despite the large volume of film production that transpires in this city, Vancouver rarely plays itself. It’s usually used as a stitched-together body double for a gloomy Seattle being menaced by a serial killer, a techno-dystopian San Francisco, the somehow permanently overcast part of Los Angeles, or if the producers are uniquely desperate, the somehow permanently overcast part of New York City.
This phenomenon has caused much discontent among those who like to think seriously about such things, such as local cinephile Tony Zhou, author of the wildly popular YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting. Tony believes that Vancouver should have its own cinematic identity and that we should strive to tell our own stories, and not just facilitate the stories of our American cousins. And you know what, he’s right, we should.
The joyous amusement one feels when happening upon a film shoot while walking downtown often leads to a dejected unease when you see a row of fake USA Today newsstands haphazardly positioned where a Georgia Straight box once stood. It’s sad that our city is so seemingly devoid of character that you could literally slap a couple Yankee logos on it and pass it off as generic any-town, USA. Surely, in a city as vibrant and diverse as our own, we would have ample stories to tell that would resonate both here and beyond.
But here’s the rub: Vancouver is actually constantly playing itself. This city churns out a near-constant stream of films about unique stories about the lives of Vancouverites, but they are typically instantly forgotten and end up in the dustbin of our collective consciousness. Over the course of a weekend I went to the trouble watching a handful of them to see what hints of potential I could glean from our city’s nascent cinematic identity. Here’s what I discovered:
Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002)
Mix one part Antonio Banderas, the El Mariachi Desperado Assassin, one part Lucy Liu, AKA O-Ren Ishii, AKA Master Viper, AKA Madame Blossom. Toss in a director who for some reason goes by the one-word moniker Kaos. And boo-ya! Break out the popcorn because this is about to get radical, right? Wrong. This movie blows goats. Big, surly goats with bad attitudes who insist on staring you dead in the eyes while you blow them.
The film’s plot is as convoluted as it is dumb. It involves a bunch of American assassins and secret agents inexplicably running around Vancouver trying to kill each other for obtuse reasons, each one more vague and confusing than the last. Also: nanobots. I’m not going to try to explain it in detail because I’ve gone full Rust Cohle on it and no matter how many thumb tacks you string together it never comes close to making any sense.
Less a movie and more a collection of images featuring individuals who’ve previously appeared in movies behaving in a distinctly movie-esque manner, B:EVS is an exercise in humourless action drudgery that breeds the sort of contempt in the viewer that is typically reserved for the grubby cretins who get publicly shamed for abusing animals on YouTube.
The result is a piece of cinema so bad it should be bad-good but is instead so bad-bad that it makes you want to pour salt in your eyes. It’s only redeeming quality is that it features numerous scenes where the characters kill scores of innocent Vancouverites in locations like the Main Library and the Vancouver Aquarium. So if you’ve ever been on a bad Tinder date in a public space, B:EVS will provide an opportunity for cathartic therapy where you can imagine your missed connection being gunned down with extreme prejudice by a trenchcoat-wearing Lucy Liu. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which if you are is pretty fucked up, dude. Please go see a therapist immediately.
Are We There Yet? (2005)
I’ve met militant South Central rapper turned congenial human marshmallow Ice Cube, in the flesh, twice in my life. The first time was at the Japadog cart on Burrard Street. The second time was also at the Japadog cart on Burrard Street. Both times I clumsily attempted to ingratiate myself with the Cube through the verbatim recital of some of his most cherished lyrics, such as those found in early ’90s classics like “No Vaseline” and “White Cave Bitch”. This experience has, in my mind at least, confirmed the following suspicions: firstly, that Ice Cube really loves Japadog. Secondly, a famous rapper’s security detail generally frowns upon it when you approach them mumbling “The bigger the cap, the bigger the peelin’, Who gives a fuck about a punk-ass villain?”, with your mouth stuffed full of kurobata sausage.
Most of the viewing public is under the assumption that Are We There Yet? is a straitlaced family comedy. The film is premised upon Ice Cube safely escorting his new girlfriend’s two young children from Portland to Vancouver. A simple enough plot, but given that the film was shot almost entirely in Vancouver and is set en route to Vancouver, makes for a strange watch given this confusing mix of setting and location.
For example, there are numerous scenes wherein Mr. Cube is standing in or around a highly recognizable Vancouver landmark while he desperately pleads with the lovably mischievous children that they need to get to Vancouver. We see him at YVR pleading that they “need to get to Vancouver!”. We see him at the Greyhound depot pleading “we need to get to Vancouver!” We even see him at a SkyTrain station muttering “we need to get to Vancouver!”. All around Vancouver, Ice Cube is hopelessly attempting to get to where he already is.
The effect of this cognitive dissonance allows for an alternative reading of the film: maybe Ice Cube’s character is actually suffering from some undiagnosed mental-health issue, has kidnapped a couple of innocent American tourists, and is forcing them to take part in a deranged tour of Vancouver’s transit infrastructure.
A side-note on some local trivia that may be of interest: the Japadog cart, home of the original Oroshi, is stationed outside the Sutton Place Hotel, which is known to house A-list stars when bigger productions sweep into town. Spend enough time draining high balls in the hotel lounge and you’ll eventually run into a tipsy Matt Dillon or even catch a rare glimpse of Kevin Bacon pecking away on some
light bistro fare.
Everything’s Gone Green (2006)
Written by fashion designer, artist and part-time novelist Douglas Coupland, this is the most Vancouvery film to ever be set in Vancouver. Imagine if you could fill the Gastown Steam Clock with B.C. bud and take a bong rip off it while Matthew Good whispers the Cactus Club happy hour menu into your ear as if it were poetry. That’s a fair approximation of what watching this movie feels like, only more irritating.
There’s nothing about this film that stands out as being uniquely terrible, but neither is there anything especially interesting. Much like the thoroughly passable Szechuan chicken lettuce wraps at Cactus Club, it’s just sort of there, drifting in a cultural void, waiting for someone to ingest it.
The protagonist is Ryan, a twentysomething “slacker” (was that really ever a thing?) who one day loses his girlfriend, apartment, and job in what amounts to the ultimate bad case of the Mondays. In typical Vancouverite fashion, he then decides to ditch his few remaining ethics and scam people out of money to enrich his lot in life.
If you enjoy local clichés, Everything’s Gone Green provides a rich tapestry: a beached whale, a grow-op, the film industry, empty condos, middle-class ennui, Expo 86 kitsch, yuppies, real estate schemes, a malaise-ridden white guy, Asian gangs, snowboards, Science World, and a quirky Chinese love interest. Coupland said that the film “is about when you get older and you feel certain doors closing very quickly on you. It deals with that feeling of now or never.”
I think I know that feeling, but the tone the films strikes is less similar to the existential challenges of entering adulthood and more akin to the disappointment you experience when trying find a place to eat downtown on Friday night, only to give up and go to the Cactus Club.
Beeba Boys (2015)
Unlike Are We There Yet? and B:EVS I had high hopes for Beeba Boys. I felt it was the gangster epic the Lower Mainland deserved. But much like a Russian jet filled with important foreign dignitaries, this movie starts out really strong before it immediately nosedives into the unknowable darkness of its own murky narrative ocean.
The film was written and directed by the eminently talented Deepa Mehta, who received the Order of Canada for “challenging cultural traditions and bringing stories of oppression, injustice and violence to the fore,” and is best known for her Academy Award-nominated elements trilogy; Fire, Earth, and Water. With Mehta at the helm, this Indo-Canadian crime thriller seemed to have all the right ingredients. It was going to be like The Godfather meets Scarface meets The Departed, but set in Surrey. Instead it feels like The Godfather III meets Dick Tracy meets Carlito’s Way: Rise to Power, but set in Surrey.
Given Mehta’s talent this film is inexplicably messier than a Granville strip stagette after last call. It makes one think that maybe there is some sort of ancient curse on domestic film productions that immediately makes a film’s plot incoherent once the screenwriter decides to set
it in Vancouver.
Come and Find Me (2016)
This is the most recent addition to the “Vancouver actually playing Vancouver” pantheon, and quite easily the best. An intense yet intimate romantic thriller that stars Aaron Paul and Annabelle Wallis and is directed by Zach Whedon, Come and Find Me follows the twisting love affair of David and Claire, whose idyllic relationship comes to an abrupt and mysterious end after Claire disappears without a trace. Shocked at discovering that Claire wasn’t who she said she was, David begins to follow her trail down a frantic and increasingly dangerous path that leads him from Los Angeles to Vancouver. Devastated but incapable of letting go, he’s forced to risk everything if he ever wants to see
Disclaimer: I worked on this film. But that in no way clouds my judgment regarding its quality. Go rent it immediately, Okay?
In Everything’s Gone Green, a friend says to the protagonist, Ryan, that “once you become a sleazebag, you remain a sleazebag. You don’t just go and unsleazebag yourself because all of a sudden your conscience hurts you an itsy little bit.”
I would be remiss if I didn’t note how Coupland’s sterling dialogue is applicable to the current state of Vancouver’s local cinema. If you make the effort to find and watch the films that have been set here, they can be a wee bit…unsatisfying. More often than not, they leave a rather bland taste in your mouth, and once an audience begins to associate their own city’s films with that flavour, it’s a hard to convince them to keep coming back for seconds. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
In this way, our local cinema is sort of like one of those terrible all-you-can-eat discount sushi restaurants you find on Robson that prey on innocent tourists. Yes, the sushi is bad, but does that mean we should stop eating it and supporting their predatory business model? No. If anything it means we should eat more, because you never know, it just might get better if we continue stuffing our mouths with over-mayo’d California rolls.
To this end, Archive has set up a new podcast called “Vancouver Is Always Playing Itself” where we will do the dirty work of interrogating and critiquing the stories that this city tells—stories about you, me, and everybody we know. Which, for some reason, are mostly stories about sexual dysfunction and bad dates. Check the website or iTunes, subscribe, and get to know why and how Vancouver is always playing itself.