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Ookpik fever: a Canadian looks north

Stewart Oksenhorn
"Souvenir of Canada," directed by Robin Neinstein and written by and starring Douglas Coupland, will have its U.S. premiere today at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. (Courtesy U.S. Comedy Arts Festival)
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Don’t blame Canada.It’s not Canada’s fault that it is an infant of a country in terms of relative age, or that it neighbors the cultural super-imperialist U.S.A., or that, for most of its none-too-long history, it has been under the thumb of the British crown.So don’t blame Canada for its skewed sense of national culture, and its odd national icons.”Canada didn’t exist until 1968 or ’69,” said 44-year-old Vancouver product Douglas Coupland, referring to the year when Canada finally ended its status as a “branch plant” of the British empire. When the country threw off its ties with Britain, “the government threw tons of money to create culture. Insta-culture. They paid people to write books about small-town life.”Canada was brimming with Canada-osity,” added Toronto native Robin Neinstein. The manufactured culture, however, didn’t sink into the national consciousness. “It was based on wishful thinking, rather than a rooted experience,” observed Coupland. “It didn’t pan out. But we’re still touched by it.”That sense of how Canadians are attached to this pseudo-culture is examined with subtle humor in the documentary “Souvenir of Canada.” Written by and starring Coupland, and directed by Neinstein, the film has its U.S. premiere in Aspen, in the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival’s Film Program. It has its second screening today at 3:15 p.m. at the Isis Theatre.Some of the cultural icons put under the spotlight include Chimo, a greeting pushed by the Canadian government as a substitute for “Hello”; and the Ookpik, a national mascot that Coupland likens to “an owl in sealskin.”Ookpik was intended as a good-luck creature, representing the mythology of the Arctic, “but probably designed in a boardroom in Montreal, between lunch and dinner, in 1968,” said Coupland. “The Americans had Mickey Mouse – we needed to come up with something fast.”Not all of the icons explored in “Souvenir of Canada” have that forced sense. But there is still something bizarre about what Canadians relate to, and the manner in which they relate. Terry Fox, for example, became a national hero in 1980, when he attempted his cross-Canadian “Marathon of Hope” on one good leg and one prosthetic leg. A year later, he died of cancer, and became a fine candidate for a national symbol.But in “Souvenir of Canada,” the lasting visual symbol associated with Fox is the tattered sock he wore over his prothesis; virtually every Canadian recognizes the sock. Coupland recognizes the strangeness in this: After Fox’s death, he said, “It was like a UFO landed on [the Fox family’s] house and never left, with a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ trunkful of mail,” said Coupland. At the same time, Coupland celebrates Fox, sock and all, and seeks to perpetuate the legend. “Terry,” Coupland’s 2005 book, was written with the angle of appealing to younger Canadians who might not have been so familiar with Fox. The book was published on July 1 – Canada Day.Coupland is best known as a writer; his 1991 novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture” coined a term for an entire generation. Coupland, however, is an art school graduate, and “Souvenir of Canada” grew out of an art project.”Souvenir of Canada” was originally a book, published in 2002, that featured Coupland’s photographs of Canadiana- geese, Canadian brand-food products, a table hockey game – with accompanying text. The book was focused on the photography; Coupland had based them on classical still-life compositions, especially those by 19th-century painter William Harnett. The book became a best-seller, and led not only to a 2004 sequel, but also “Canada House.” “Canada House” involved Coupland taking a Vancouver house – one of Canada’s ubiquitous, look-alike government-sponsored structures – and filling it with Canadian culture.”And that became the movie,” said Neinstein, “the sturdy spine: follow Doug building ‘Canada House,’ and then looking at those things, like Ookpik.”One purpose Coupland and Neinstein saw behind the film was to explain to the world Canadian oddities like Nanaimo Bar mix, Terry Fox’s sock and the maple leaf. On another level, “Souvenir of Canada” is a self-examination.”We thought, what if we could base a movie on ‘What makes us, us?'” said Neinstein. “It’s us trying to figure out who we are.”The book touched a nerve. It was very funny, but also illuminated this question that all Canadians wrestle with: What is this weird thing that makes us all Canadian? You could pinpoint these things that were close to the Canadian soul.”As unusual and artificial as it may be, Ookpik, Chimo and hockey have become ingrained in Canadians.”I get so homesick when I travel now,” said Coupland. “Even going through the book is a very soothing experience.” Other highlights from the USCAF Film Program: “Art School Confidential,” by director Terry Zwigoff and writer Daniel Clowes – the team behind 2001’s “Ghost World” – shows today at 10:45 a.m., and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. “Bickford Schmeckler’s Cool Ideas,” starring Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous”) as a college geek who becomes a campus hero thanks to his theory-of-everything writings, has its world premiere today at noon, and also shows Saturday at 12:30 p.m.Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” a fictionalized account of the last broadcast of the radio show, written by Garrison Keillor, shows Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:15 p.m. “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” with comedian Chappelle as host of a Brooklyn neighborhood hip-hop bash, shows today at 5 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.”Souvenir of Canada” shows today at 3:15 p.m. at the Isis Theatre. Douglas Coupland is also guest curator of the Comedy Classics segment of films. The series, which opened Wednesday with a screening of the 1958 French film, “Mon Oncle,” continues with the 1977 farce “Fun with Dick and Jane,” starring George Segal and Jane Fonda (today at 10:15 a.m. at the Isis); and 1995’s “The Brady Bunch Movie” (Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Isis). Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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