Family Viewing and I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

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3. Patricia Rozema: I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

Patricia Rozema is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed Canadian directors, who at the age of 28 became Canada’s first female filmmaker to win a significant international reputation (Johnson, “Sex and the Sacred Girl”). Her works, like the works of many other famous filmmakers, have provoked strong reactions, both positive and negative. Especially her second feature White Room (1990) was widely criticized and Rozema was even thinking about leaving the film industry completely (Johnson, “Rozema”). However, she endured the pressure and her next feature When Night Is Falling (1995) brought her success with the critics who were “thoroughly seduced by Rozema’s sophisticated and sensual vision” again (Johnson, “Sex and the Sacred Girl”).

The following subchapter of the thesis covers a brief biography of Rozema and her filmography, which will enable one to see the analyzed film Mermaids in wider context of the director’s life and her oeuvre.

3.1 Patricia Rozema, a Feminist Filmmaker?

Patricia Rozema was born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1958 to a family of Dutch Calvinists, devoted members of the Christian Reformed Church. She grew up in a very strict Calvinist enclave and thus did not have access to films at all until the age of 16 when she saw her first movie (Marx, “Patricia Rozema Biography”). She received Dutch Calvinist school education and graduated in philosophy and English from Calvin College in Michigan. During her studies she decided to become a journalist but soon changed her mind because she found journalism too restricting (Johnson, “Rozema”). She then enrolled in a five-week course of film production and made her award-winning 26 minute black and white debut Passion: A Letter in 16 mm (1985), which was included in the Canadian Festival of Festivals and won a Silver Plaque at the Chicago International Film Festival (Austin-Smith 209). She gained further experience as the third assistant director on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) as well as on a number of television shows. She then began submitting her own proposals to art councils and even though several of them were rejected, she persisted and finally managed to make her first full-length feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) which was an enormous success, both with the critics and at the box-office.

Throughout her career Rozema has written, directed, edited and produced eight features, number of films of short and medium length, including an experimental documentary about J.S. Bach Six Gestures (1997) (“Who I Am”). Her career is marked by a characteristic style and themes that are discussed in the following part of the thesis.

The Feature Films of Patricia Rozema

Rozema’s first feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing gained her an unexpected fame world-wide and augured the path she was going to take in her career. She debuted at a time marked by the emergence of a group of filmmakers who shared an innovative use of narrative film forms and who have also become well-known world-wide: Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand or Jean-Claude Lauzon. All of them came from marginalized groups within Canadian context, including Rozema, who differs from the others by being a woman and a lesbian (Alemany-Galway, “Postmodernism” 25).

The uniqueness of Rozema’s work, however, does not lie in her sexual orientation. It is the artistic expression of Rozema’s work that is “one of her noblest endeavours”—by pushing boundaries, searching for context, reinventing and employing other cultural works Rozema questions the authorship itself: the process of creativity and self-expression, traditional aesthetic standards and the value of artistic creation (del Sorbo, “The Polyphonic Nature”). Rozema established her style and thematic area that would later define her entire work soon after her debut. Her films are based on a unique sensual visual style and have a “vibrant, formal adventurousness” marked by “self-referential narration and a rich intertextuality” (del Sorbo, “The Polyphonic Nature”). Many of her works are driven by a search for transcendence (Parpart 294) and are pre-occupied with various aspects of Canadianness (Cagle 185).

Rozema’s movies are, however, most often defined and analyzed in terms of the feminist and queer theories. Even though she considers herself a feminist, she strictly refuses the label of “a feminist filmmaker” (Parpart 296). She even claims that gender is a category that does not interest her at all (Cagle 185), the opinion which she directly articulates through Polly, the main heroine of Mermaids, who during one of her dream sequences says that “gender is irrelevant in matters of the heart”.

Even though they may be considered as conforming to the standards of Hollywood filmmaking as regards the production values, her characters are hardly typical of the mainstream: they are outsiders, alienated from the world, who gain access to happiness only “through media(ted) formulas for fantasy” (Cagle 184). The alienation may stem from the tension between their inner life and public world they inhabit (Harley 460). Rozema asserts that the feeling of alienation of her characters comes from the nature of Canadianness itself and thus confirms that she is inclined to examine the national aspects of her works rather than those connected with gender:

As Canadians, we’re beside this big, chest-thumping, self-absorbed power—a culture that is aggressive, exciting, but kind of obnoxious at times. We’ve always felt a little bit like a minority on someone else’s continent. So it seems like a realistic presentation of my reality to present characters who don’t quite belong, who don’t quite fit in, who can’t pledge allegiance to the most accepted creed. (qtd. in Cagle 184)

Rozema’s filmmaking style and the type of characters she chooses create a particular kind of intimacy between the spectators and the characters within the story which is further enhanced by her effort to show untainted reality with people behaving naturally (Johnson, “Rozema”). She thinks of the filmmaking process as of a search and explains that she strives to “tell the truth about what one still doesn’t understand” (qtd. in del Sorbo, “The Polyphonic Nature”). The meaning of her movies therefore may not always be immediately evident but needs to be pieced together from individual images and scenes. The viewers are thus together with the characters involved in a very intimate and personal journey of self-discovery and re-definition of themselves within the world around them.

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