Based on the two nostalgia books by Douglas Coupland, Souvenir of Canada is a personal, occasionally apocryphal and low-key audio-visual journey into the sights, sounds, and amiable oddities that make up the Canuck character, delivered with that recognizable brand of discreet understatement and self-effacing absurdism.
Best-known for his debut novel, Generation X, Coupland's sometimes been regarded as American, and it's a conundrum partially due to the book's huge popularity in the U.S., and the typically odd Canadian attitude, wherein what's local isn't really good until it hits pay-dirt south of the 49th parallel.
Applicable to the generation born during the late fifties and sixties (and not thereafter, as distorted by the media), the "X" also brands a collective experience that former kids (now in their late thirties & early forties) and former parents (now grandpas & omas) will certainly share in the film: Coupland's own visitations with father, mother, and brother Tim is no different from us making those bi-weekly Sunday dinner trips, and re-entering a time warp with the predictable but comforting food, old photos, wood paneling, and amassed clutter of our not-that distant past still part of our lives (and kinda needs to be let go and taken to the curb before 7am once and for all).
The key to the film's allure is its author explaining why these things make Canadians feel good - mostly accomplished as we follow Coupland as he builds Canada House. Now, some might be thinking of that fancy-schmancy building in London, England, which functions as the country's 'Hello' (or 'Chimo') to the world, and as a small sanctuary where traveling Canucks can pause and feel a smidge of comfort from back home; but Coupland's ephemeral museum is purely local.
It does, however, establish a broad and personal scope in its display of beer cans, Kraft dinner boxes, leisure chairs, hockey sticks, Terry Fox' leg, button blankets, camping & hunting excursions, and stubbies (which deserve a comeback, dammit) in a vintage two-level bungalow the author hand-picked before the wrecker's maw eventually tears up some room for another ugly snout house.
Painted white, and later decorated with d'object d'arts, Canada House, as the filmmakers explain in the DVD's spotty but entertaining commentary track, is the film's structural backbone; it allows regular interludes between the author and his parents, and short vignettes on specific qualities that Coupland has branded as purely national.
The quirks of the land (big, cold, and mostly uninhabited), the massive litres of flowing fresh water, the dual language labels (Bits & Bites = Meli-Melo), cheap game shows (big prize = toaster), and those odd bits of national fervour (Expo '67 and the referendums) lead to vignettes deliberately evoking the NFB, CBC, and Hinterland Who's Who shorts that populated film, TV, and classroom screens.
The trick with the film's success lies in its brevity (the deleted scenes gallery has four short bits plus an extended interview that clearly didn't add more to the narrative); and Coupland's recollections, which occasionally strike a long-buried memory. A personal best, as recreated by the filmmakers to a T, is the sight & sound of a teacher wheeling a mounted Bell & Howell 16mm projector down the hall so the class could watch, well, educational vignettes.
Samples from these titles used in the doc - "How to Build an Igloo," "The Magic Mineral" (happy miners touching asbestos with their fingers) "Let's Look at Weeds," "Age of the Beaver," "Getting Your Money's Worth in Eggs" (learn how to save 6 cents), "Your Morning Milk" (bird-friendly milkman Mike) and "The Postman" - have been collected in a short segments in the DVD's extras gallery. They're fun, naive, and comparatively genial to the more familiar American ephemerals that Fantomas archived in their own multi-DVD sets.
Here, the filmmakers were blessed with oodles of old shorts, and they make note in their commentary of how much material resides in the country's film archives. (Inarguably languishing for decades, these gems deserve their own DVD anthology, although they'll likely follow the typically Canadian path in being released on disc in another country, which will have to imported.)
A Vancouver boy who's been living in his home town since 1992, Coupland's years following the publication of Generation X have included more books, gallery presentations (he's a former 'Toulousian' art student and graphic guy), some film work, and a deliberate refocusing on Canadian icons that make him feel proud, warm, and fuzzy (like an Ookpik).
Those qualities are pretty addictive as you progress through Souvenir of Canada, and the image of Coupland's Canada House being torn to shreds certainly elicits a very basic level of sadness that anyone from any nation would feel; as little things that subtly define a national character are mechanically dispatched into oblivion.
Maple's DVD presents a first-rate transfer of the NFB-CBC co-production, plus a bouncy 5.1 mix (no French dub track or subtitles, though), and A.C. Newman's tight-fitting music. (While there's no formal soundtrack, his theme is available from iTunes as a download.)
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan