Last Night by Don McKellar
Canada’s film industry is marked by an enveloping Hollywood influence which has made it difficult for Canada to achieve its own unique identity. In this struggle to achieve independence from Hollywood’s entertainment apparatus, Canada finds itself lost among countless systems of identification stemming from primarily Hollywood. These systems of identification have confused Canada’s film industry and have resulted in numerous films such as Don McKellar’s Last Night. As a Canadian film striving for its own identification among Hollywood’s entertainment apparatus, Don McKellar’s Last Night uses a recognizable Canadian style, tone and themes, and identifies itself, in the broader sense, against Hollywood.
Don McKellar’s Last Night tells the story of how a variety of characters spending their remaining evening on Earth: the world is to end at midnight as the result of a calamity that is not explained, but which has been expected for several months (For example, “It’s not the end of the world… there’s still six hours left.” Several scenes of a glowing sun, which gets progressively larger and brighter, imply that the end of the world is the result of a celestial event, possibly a supernova. Last Night details the last six hours of the earth’s existence with humor, irony, and pathos. With the unspecified apocalypse long since announced, the film’s characters go beyond initial blinding panic and settle into an uneasy resignation about their imminent demise, which occurs at the stroke of midnight. Instead of looting and pillaging, most citizens celebrate their final day as if it were New Year’s Eve. Director Don McKellar weaves together the stories of a handful of characters with both a sardonic eye for the absurd. The film’s starkly existential situation achieves moments of great poignancy, particularly during the film’s (and the earth’s) final moments.
This film is recognizably Canadian for its intense use of direct cinema tradition and style. Last Night constructs an explanation of the events in a methodical way, as the cameras play a key role in the act of observing human interactions and behaviours. In an attempt to represent a country bereft of direct relationship with Hollywood’s media apparatus, Last Night deploys a unique system of differentiation that isolates itself from Hollywood’s influence. Don McKellar uses lengthy track shots, meditative camera angles interlaced with soft zooms and strategic crane shots. McKellar is successful in capturing the essence of human fragility—as the camera angles and shots compliment the interaction between each character. McKellar uses a soft camera stylistic feature that contributes to a lot of emphatic relational developments between viewer and protagonist. For example, McKellar draws a significant degree of empathy from the audience through slow camera angles near the ending sequence that depicted Patrick (played by Don McKellar) and Sandra (played Sandra Oh) about to commit suicide. It is with this relationship that is a unique style of Canadian cinematic performance. Central in this difference between Hollywood’s highly stylized camera shots compared to the observational inquiry lens of Don McKellar’s Last Night is critical in the analysis of Canadian cinema. In terms of style, Last Night captures the essence of the Canadian cinematic traditions.
In a broader approach, Last Night also follows a tone of realism that is distinctly Canadian. McKellar draws on the importance of humanity rather than epic displays of explosions similar to Armageddon. Unlike big budget Hollywood films such as Deep Impact or Armageddon whose spectacle coincides with the attractive displays of monetary enjoyment, Don McKellar’s Last Night uses a particular tone that focuses on human compassion. In cinema, a movie’s tone refers to its manner of presentation and the general atmosphere that a filmmaker creates through his or her attitude toward the story (Giannetti, Leach, 61). McKellar uses a countdown system which repeats near the end of the world, which creates a tone of imminent catastrophe—the final confrontation with the end of all things. Through this use of tone, McKellar establishes a unique representation regarding the ideological values of Canada’s people rather than the heroic fantasies of Hollywood’s apocalyptic films. In a description of the tone, Don McKellar states that:
The world is ending, once again. But this time, in my movie, there is no overburdened loner duking it out with the asteroid, no presidents or generals turning the tables on extra-terrestrials. Those heroes are out there, somewhere, one hopes, but I was interested in the rest of us suckers—hapless individuals who, with limited access to nuclear resources, would have to come to terms with the fast-approaching finale (IndieWire). With this undertaking, McKellar’s tone evolves beyond the spectacle of asteroids and affects our responses to the values represented in his narrative. McKellar’s narrative is distinctively Canadian because of his patterned illustration of dividing scenes strategically among his various characters. In particular, McKellar’s tone is elevated once he explains that, because the world is ending, individuals attempt to face the inevitable through prayer and meditation, engaging in prolific sexual gratifications, stealing, and violent enjoyment. Also, McKellar intensifies his emphasis on inevitable companionship (Patrick and Sandra kissing at the end of the film) through dialogue, short silences, and careful insertions of love songs. In Canadian cinema dialogue is a particular asset that Canadian cinema utilizes (Egoyan, 5). McKellar’s use of tone is distinctively Canadian in that he portrays, instead of spectacular displays of imminent catastrophe, dialogue that emphasizes a strong tone that, as a result, creates empathy and engages the audience with the characters.
Don McKellar’s Last Night achieves another distinctively Canadian ideological value of theme. Whilst [link2post id="155"]Hollywood[/link2post] is centrally focused on materialist heroic delusional fantasies, Canadian cinema focuses on the narrative presentation of themes. For instance, Armageddon was released using a $140 million budget while Last Night was produced with a $2 million budget. The overall intent of Hollywood releases like Armageddon is achieving high revenues from the success of the film rather than developing a critical outlook towards concepts which have had long-standing influence in society, such as the end of the world. McKellar’s distinctively Canadian film Last Night emphasizes a thematic approach of human companionship. The intimacy of human relationships becomes a central concern for McKellar as he attempts to answer the daunting question: “what happens to people when confronted with the end of the world?” In McKellar’s attempt to answer this question, he projects a different image of the end of the world as a moment that ends in a blinding light rather than a consuming darkness. Weiland states that “the nature (or realism) is a purveying influence in the construction and understanding of a binding Canadian cinematic aesthetic” (63) placing McKellar’s analysis to a fictional, although a realistic interpretation regarding the end of the world, unlike Armageddon. Don McKellar uses meditative camera-work to establish a theme of thought-provoking critique about the end of the world. In McKellar’s analysis, he finds that people not only run in panic and fear about the end of the world, McKellar also looks at the background issues by individually assessing unique individuals who seek to end their lives in multiple ways. McKellar takes the lead as Patrick, a troubled man who has to deal with his family (including sister Polly), sex-crazed friend Craig (Rennie), and lost lamb Sandra (Oh), who’s trying to get home in time so she and her husband can kill each other before midnight, when the world will go away (in a mysterious fate). The connection between these characters is evident in the final confrontation with the end of the world, but the way they spend their time until they encounter the end of the world is different and they each embody a theme. As a Canadian film, Last Night demonstrates Canadian themes and expresses the issue of Canada’s intent to establish thematic representations of human interaction rather than plain material fantasies.
McKellar’s Last Night focuses on the struggle for attaining autonomy in the Hollywood dominated film industry. Hollywood’s overarching influence reduces Canada’s chances of domestic and international success to a dull halt. Straw asserts that, like many “The sense that English Canadian feature films are typically more elliptical, unresolved, and restrained in narrative and stylistic terms is by now a commonplace within discussions of this cinema” (120). It is in this way that Last Night encapsulates the unresolved issue of a mysterious fate, a troubling question everyone has asked regarding the end of the world and humanity’s fate. However, Giannetti and Leach explained that, “Hollywood films continue to dominate the world’s screens” (326). Consequently, these engagements that viewers made with Hollywood have “apparently universal appeal and [have] set the norms against which other national cinemas have to define themselves” (Giannetti, Leach, 326). Don McKellar’s Last Night follows a distinctively Canadian style because it attempts to define against conventional Hollywood delusions of heroism. Furthermore, McKellar creates a cinematic presentation of identification against Hollywood productions which express “different experiences that reflect and express distinct cultural identities” (Giannetti, Leach, 326). These “distinct cultural identities” come in the form of particular styles, tones, and themes aforementioned above. These aspirations of reaching a distinct Canadian identity is “complicated by political, economic, and technological changes that have deeply affected our understanding of national identity” (Giannetti, Leach, 328). Among the network sphere of Hollywood and its influence on Canada’s national identity, McKellar’s Last Night revisits Canadian values and themes in order to heighten the appeal of the outcomes regarding the end of the world. With a small budget, McKellar faced a great deal of economic struggle maintaining the assets and distribution of $2 million strategically. However, in the final product, Last Night revealed a world of opportune moments for Canada’s national identity. Despite a successful result, Atom Egoyan notes that, “Canadian films are, to a great extent, foreign films in their own country” (1); similarly, Giannetti and Leach observe that:
When Canadians do see the products of their own national cinema, they often respond as if these were foreign films with unfamiliar conventions and cultural values. In Canadian video stores, Canadian films are often found in the ‘international’ section. (Giannetti, Leach, 330). Quite literally, Don McKellar’s Last Night was indeed found in the “International” section of a Blockbuster rental outlet. Consequently, Egoyan noted that “the real failure of Canadian film policy is that it has not been able to address the debilitating problem that is the lack of screen space for Canadian films” (6). Egoyan explains that the Canadian market does not have sufficient time slots available for promoting Canadian films. Essentially, the most poignant places where Canadian film is celebrated are Vancouver and Ontario (Giannetti, Leach, 328). Therefore, due to a lack of screen space for Canadian films, McKellar’s Last Night did not receive the impact of its intended audience because Canadian cinemas were uncertain of its successful value. However, Armageddon did show a release because of an increase in the probability of its overall success. McKellar’s Last Night attempts to identify against Hollywood’s influence by inverting the cultural values of a successful Hollywood film (i.e. instead of spectacle and explosions, McKellar uses a calm realistic approach to how ordinary people face the end of the world). As Giannetti and Leach noted, McKellar’s film attempts to assert its own national cinema by identifying against Hollywood cinema. This concept of Canadian identification is at the heart of a distinctively Canadian film.
Don McKellar’s Last Night brings to life the essence of Canada’s cultural values and identity. McKellar demonstrates unique approach that characterizes a Canadian film’s style, tone and themes. Without the use of spectacle, McKellar illustrates a dynamic environment of human companionship which is a distinctively Canadian approach. As an artifact, Last Night commemorates the identification value of a Canadian popular culture icon because McKellar attempts to define against Hollywood cinema, the intent of Canada’s national cinemas from their upbringing.
Egoyan, Atom. (2006). “Introduction to Canadian Cinema.” In Jerry White, ed. The Cinema of Canada. New York: Wallflower. 1-13.
Giannetti, Louis, Leach, Jim (2005). Third Canadian Edition: Understanding Movies. Toronto: Prentice Hall.
“Interview: ‘Last Night,’ Don McKellar’s Intimate Armageddon.” (1998). IndieWire: People. Accessed 23 March 2007<http://www.indiewire.com/people/int_McKellar_Don_991108.html>.
Last Night. (Don McKellar, 1998). Canada: Lions Gate Home Entertainment.
Missen, James. (2006). “Reason over Passion.” In Jerry White, ed. The Cinema of Canada. New York: Wallflower. 63-73.
Straw, Will. (2000). “Canadian Cinema.” In Hill, John and Gibson, Pamela Church, ed. World Cinema: Critical Approaches. New York: Oxford University Press. 139-143
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