I took my seat in Peter Harcourt’s Canadian Cinema course at Carleton University in 1978 for three reasons. First, because I needed the credit. Second, because this Harcourt guy, new to Carleton but pretested at Queen’s and York universities, had a strange aura of academic celebrity. (One of his own books was actually on the course syllabus.) And third: because I’d watch anything that moved. Even Canadian movies.
By the end of the first month or so, Professor John Peter Harcourt, who died July 3 in Ottawa at 82 of multiple ailments, had entirely rearranged the furniture in my tiny undergrad intellectual flat as it emerged that the real subject of his course was not Canadian movies after all, but rather that peculiar state of being that was “Canadian.” As I and many others before and since learned, even our disinclination to watch Canadian movies was a symptom of a certain hopeless Canadian-ness.
In his gentle, reasonable and endearingly informal way – he almost never stood and lectured, but instead would sit on a desk at the front of the class and wave his rolled notes like an orchestra baton – Prof. Harcourt was altering perceptions by stressing their relativity: You were what you saw, and you saw what you were.
Already a broadcaster, pioneering film studies architect, passionate cultural nationalist and published author (Six European Directors, Movies and Mythologies), Prof. Harcourt made the course less about what was up on the screen – although that was always vital, important and revelatory – than what was unspooling in your head. He taught not only that Canadians, both English and French, made movies as distinctive as those produced by any other more firmly canonized national cinema, but that we watched them differently as well.
His modus operandi went something like this: Let’s talk about what we don’t like about Canadian movies, shall we? Is it their unpolished, tentative nature? Their warts-and-all legacy in rough-edged documentary? Their lack of stars and avoidance of simple resolution? Their denial, basically, of so much of what we’ve come to expect from Hollywood movies? Are we disinclined because the movies seem somehow less than what they should be? But are they? Are they less or are they different? Is the fault in the films or the way we have been conditioned to watch them?
And so we would look, closely and openly, and always with the reassuring knowledge that anything we said would be seriously heard and considered by Prof. Harcourt. It wasn’t what you said that mattered: It was that you said it. An idea unexpressed was pointless. A thought unshared was like a movie without viewers.
We would watch films such as Nobody Waved Good-bye, Lonely Boy, À tout prendre, The Back-breaking Leaf, Le chat dans le sac, Pour la suite du monde, Universe, The Only Thing You Know, Mon Oncle Antoine, Wavelength, Montreal Main, Les ordres, Goin’ Down the Road. Some of the movies were vaguely familiar, but most were new, strange visions from the entity Prof. Harcourt had already famously called “the invisible cinema.” He was the first person I heard call ours “a foreign cinema in our own country.”
I’m not sure I had ever felt quite as Canadian as I did in that class. I’m not sure if I had ever felt Canadian at all. But I am sure I haven’t shaken the feeling, or the sense that Peter Harcourt changed the way I looked at things.
As with many of his intellectual, generational cohort, Toronto-born Peter Harcourt left Canada for both work and affirmation. After studying English at Cambridge with the legendary literary critic and scholar F.R. Leavis, he joined the British Film Institute in London. It was there, while watching the National Film Board of Canada’s Candid Eye series of short documentaries that he had something of a cultural revelation. As he often recalled, he recognized something of himself in the films’ qualities of calculated restraint, respectful detachment and suspended judgement. Already deeply predisposed to the films of Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and Jean Renoir, he also knew he was watching their films from a distance. These Canadian-made documentaries, however, were seen from somewhere inside. They were projecting something about himself back.
Arriving home in that gaudy, celebratory year of 1967, Prof. Harcourt’s personal sense of newly minted Canadian-ness merged potently with the entire country’s post-Centennial surge in cultural pride. His pioneering role in film study at Queen’s and York universities positioned him at the centre of a nationalist movement in film criticism that saw the idea of Canadian cinema in terms of a dynamic resistance against the monolithic colonizing presence of Hollywood.
Anthologies of critical writing on Canadian film were published, courses on the national cinema multiplied, and screenings of Canadian movies flickered exponentially. By the time the Festival of Festivals (now called the Toronto International Film Festival) introduced its Perspective Canada program in 1984, Prof. Harcourt’s influence was at its height: He was not only an adviser to the inaugural program but a programmer as well, and he was assisted in the latter task by Piers Handling, a former student at Queen’s University whose entire career in writing, editing, publishing, programming and administration is inextricably tied to Prof. Harcourt’s influence. Mr. Handling is now the CEO of TIFF, one of the most successful cultural events in Canadian history.
The very nature of Prof. Harcourt’s objective – to promote Canadian culture as a form of cultural resistance – meant his message had currency far beyond the classroom. Given his stature as a kind of free-floating nationalist public intellectual, his influence was widely felt: He was just as likely to inspire and befriend filmmakers as he was students, documentary filmmakers, experimental artists, novelists, poets, playwrights and arts administrators. Or, in my case, aspiring movie critics. All it took to be receptive to his thinking was a reasonable conviction that being Canadian meant something and meant something different. And that in difference there was identity.
If he is not as well known as he should be, it is at least partly because ideas such as nationalism, identity, culture and authorship have all come in for such hammering and revision since the heyday of post-Expo Canadian cultural nationalism. It is trickier than ever to suggest that anything is Canadian without qualifying precisely what that means, let alone making the case that something might be good or worthwhile because it is Canadian. And there is also the diminished role of the public intellectual. Prof. Harcourt always believed that the best ideas were too good to be restricted to the academy, and he hopped the barriers regularly. Today those barriers often seem like battlements that are breached at one’s professional peril.
Ever since I first sat in his classroom 36 years ago, I have been living according to his influence. Not just in terms of spending so much time writing, thinking, teaching and broadcasting about things Canadian – five books and counting on Canadian culture – but in a certain professional vagabondage: Even at this advanced stage of the game, I am not really certain what it is I do, exactly, but I’m convinced I can’t help but do it as a Canadian. And I try never to be blind to my own presumptions: What we see is always determined by what we are. The more you know about who you are, the clearer the view.
Peter Harcourt leaves his two children, John and Jenny; his former wife, Joan (née Lucas); and his sister, Elizabeth. A founding member of the Film Studies Association of Canada, Prof. Harcourt published several books, countless articles and many monographs during his long career, and was named to the Order of Canada in 2005.
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