Unsettling the Canadian Film History Classroom through Sound

JCMS Teaching Dossier Vol 5 (2) Revisiting the Film History Survey
Randolph Jordan, Ryerson University

Chronology is the death of the survey course in Canadian film history. We simply do not harbor the necessary richness of early cinema to sustain the interest of an undergraduate audience through several weeks before getting to the post-war goodies. The problem is particularly acute when taking a regional approach, as I do in my classes on the cinemas of British Columbia, a province that came late to Confederation and lagged behind Eastern Canada in its development of a strong local film culture. Yet telling the story of early Canada and its cinemas is essential to properly contextualizing and problematizing later work. My strategy for dealing with this dilemma is to approach the study of regional film history through the filter of sound studies, intersecting attention to the sound design of B.C. films with broader questions in how sound can provide access to history by cutting across disciplinary boundaries.

The intersection of acoustic ecology and critical geography is particularly useful when addressing regional films in historical context. It is a happy co-incidence that acoustic ecology started in B.C. with the World Soundscape Project (WSP) whose first case study, The Vancouver Soundscape, was published in 1973 around the same time that the city began developing a thriving film scene that would lead to its branding as Hollywood North a decade later. The WSP was truly innovative in its attempts to develop a taxonomy for describing key aspects of the sound environments in which we live and applying this to the documentation and analysis of a city in flux. Yet, as Mitchell Akiyama argues, the WSP’s prescriptions for a “better” sounding world were fueled by a romanticized attachment to the days of settler colonialism and its attendant Eurocentrism. This is a pedagogically useful tension when addressed through the discourse of critical geography.

The urban studies literature on Vancouver is particularly rich, given the city’s widespread reputation for progressive approaches to urban planning while maintaining some of the more fraught elements common to globalized gentrification. In his book Unsettling the City (2004), Nicholas Blomley reveals Vancouver as a site of continual contestation and mobility across generations and cultural groups. He calls for an “unsettled” approach to understanding the city’s dynamics that can account for the multiple overlapping patterns of use resultant from “dense vernacular histories embedded in everyday urban landscapes” (144). Drawing on this approach to address certain inadequacies in the WSP’s output I have derived the notion of “unsettled listening,” developed at some length elsewhere, as a mode of listening that reveals the simultaneously overlapping spaces and histories of any given location. Film sound scholar Rick Altman taught us to hear any given sound event as a narrative by listening for the auditory markers of its propagation through physical space, and recording media, over time (15–31). Unsettled listening invites us to hear through these physical properties of media-constructed spaces to the resonating stories revealed by the overlapping and contradictory histories and patterns of use to which these spaces are put, so often concealed by “settled” concepts of bounded property.

In the classroom, what better way to introduce the intersections between acoustic ecology, critical geography, and regional film history than by screening a sound-era meditation on urban flux with no soundtrack? David Rimmer’s Canadian Pacific I + II (1974-75) films each present a static frame looking through a window near the filmmaker’s studio overlooking Vancouver’s downtown rail yards with the busy harbor and North Shore Mountains beyond. Nothing says Vancouver like the particularity of its waterfront setting and proximity to the mountains intersected by the industry that gave birth to the city itself, incorporated in 1886 as the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The status of the perspective as “view” is emphasized by both the visible window frame and the auditory solitude as Rimmer shows us a continually shifting landscape with trains, boats, planes, and various species of life passing across the frame as he dissolves between clear sunny days through to thick fog, rain, snow, and back again. The effect offers a visual destabilization of the space, looking through the present moment to the ever-changing nature of this most definitive of Vancouver views. It also offers a space of contemplation for what these views might sound like, and what potential lies in unsettling this space by listening to it from differing perspectives.

Here I invite my students to consider the politics of silence itself in the context of urban gentrification. Rimmer’s silent approach to his view is retrospectively provocative as the twenty years following his films saw the rise of the condo as the dominant architectural fixture in downtown Vancouver, often obscuring the kinds of views Rimmer presents for all but those who pay the high price to buy into what Lance Berelowitz, in Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination, calls “the view imperative” (25). Within this ideology, seeing vast expanses onto natural settings through the windows of urban dwellings is worth paying for; but they must be contemplated from within what WSP founder R. Murray Schafer calls “the glazed soundscape,” the paradox of visual openness and auditory isolation that, as Emily Thompson demonstrates at great length, emerged as the primary goal of “the soundscape of modernity.” In historical context, Rimmer’s film can be read as prescient of this detachment from Vancouver’s distinctive setting on the part of those who live there. But beyond quiet contemplation, the film’s silence speaks loudly about contested space around the encroachment of urbanity upon the wilderness and the class divides in modern cities, offering a blank slate upon which to imagine the role that sound might play in unsettling this space to hear the roots of these issues in the past and understand their development in the future.

Intriguingly, when Richard Martin used clips from the Canadian Pacific films in his documentary Backbone (2013) on Vancouver’s experimental film scene, he sonorized the images with material from the archives of the World Soundscape Project recorded at those very same rail yards one year prior. At that time, the WSP was operating under the pretence that sound recordings could provide objective documentation of real-world spaces that could be used for quantitative analysis. Martin uses the recordings more or less as such, one answer to the question, “what would we hear from the vantage point of Rimmer’s camera?” This approach, however symmetrical with the images, does not account for the fact that all sound is “staged,” as Karin Bijsterveld terms it. Any access that documentary sound can provide to the world around its microphones must be addressed by way of the filmmaker’s historical position, technological foundation, and aesthetic strategies. Our task is to understand how this staging functions in order to hear through it to the realities of place and the layers of history built up within.

So how did the WSP stage Vancouver through sound around the time that Rimmer was shooting his films? Trains offer as good a point of entry as any, having figured prominently in the WSP’s Soundscapes of Canada series produced for CBC Radio in 1974 where they positioned them as a set of sounds that Canadians had in common. But the WSP also emphasized regional differences in how the train sounds interact with local geography, and they delve deeper still into the symbolic dimension to sound, tying the disappearance of certain sounds to the degradation of culture. Indeed, Schafer and the WSP have made a big deal out of changes to the design of signals like train whistles and fog horns over the decades, and what this means for the culture that held them dear. Yet, in defining a certain branch of Canadian culture along these lines, they necessarily exclude much else. In fact, we could easily flip the discussion to consider how the very presence of these sounds marks the degradation of so many other cultural streams present in Vancouver but not adequately acknowledged by the WSP. So now we can ask, what do other people hear when they listen to the sound of trains in Vancouver, and how have these differing perspectives been represented in films?

Rimmer’s Canadian Pacific films recall the early history of silent travelogues produced by the Canadian Pacific Railway as promotional tools to sell easterners on the idea of paying their way west. As Colin Browne demonstrates in his documentary The Image Before Us (1986), these early films did much to forge an image of B.C. in the minds of Canadians and help establish a local identity that would feed later nostalgia for the days of settlement. But these romantic images can be immediately thrown into question with a film like Karen Cho’s In the Shadow of Gold Mountain (2004), in which silent footage of early railway construction is paired with staged sonic reconstructions that call attention to the CPR’s whitewashing of the Chinese, Japanese, and First Nations labour that made the completion of the railway possible, unsettling the mythmaking around the railway that still finds its way into official government documentation.

Films like Allan King’s Skidrow (1956) and Larry Kent’s Bitter Ash (1963) explore white poverty set distinctively down by the tracks, the sounds of trains punctuating the soundscapes of financial hardship and the violence it breeds. Sylvia Spring’s Madeleine Is … (1971) tackles tensions around sexual politics within the hippie movement when newly arrived Madeleine confronts her social activist partner who sexually fetishizes the sounds of the trains outside her apartment window (with a view nearly identical to Rimmer’s in the Canadian Pacific films). Minoru: Memory of Exile (1992) explores filmmaker Michael Fukushima’s memory of Japanese internment during World War II, removed from his Vancouver home by train and set up in camps in the interior, the sound of the train whistle bouncing off the mountains emphasizing his distance from home. In Mina Shum’s Double Happiness (1994), the sound of a train whistle underscores actress Jade’s landing of a part based on her ability to play a stereotype of ethnic Chinese for her white casting agents. And Antoine Bourges’ quasi-documentary East Hastings Pharmacy (2012) presents an indigenous family in the waiting room of an inner city methadone clinic as they listen to a Looney Tunes rendering of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” just a few blocks down from the rail yards premised upon dispossessing indigenous people of their land and forcing them into ghettos like East Hastings.

As demonstrated here, when teaching regional film history I load post-WWII films with historical weight revealed by listening to their soundtracks through the intersection of acoustic ecology and critical geography, offering a way to smooth over the lack of substantial film material from the early days of Vancouver. This example is very specific, but my approach here can be useful in the context of more traditionally structured survey courses in film history as well. Images that define a particular place are ripe for reinterpretation through assessing the historical conditions of their auditory staging. Topical specificity varies according to the nature of the survey, but the intersection of sound and place has the potential to unsettle almost any film on its own, and common attention to these intersections across a historically diverse set of films can unsettle the very nature of the survey course itself. Regardless of chronological or thematic organization, common attention to the unsettling power of sound when situated in historical context is one pathway to revitalizing the historical survey course and opening it up to the layered discussions made possible by an interdisciplinary context.


Akiyama, Mitchell. “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition” Sounding Out! Soundstudiesblog.com Last modified August 20, 2015.

Altman, Rick. “The Material Heterogenerity of Recorded Sound.” In Sound Theory, Sound Practice, edited by Rick Altman, 15-31. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Berelowitz, Lance. Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010.

Bijsterveld, Karin. Soundscapes of the Urban Past: Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2013.

Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Randolph Jordan has recently joined The School of Image Arts at Ryerson University in Toronto as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Film Studies where his course roster will include Canadian cinema and sound media production. Prior to this appointment he has spent the last fifteen years teaching a wide variety of courses in cinema and media history, theory, aesthetics, and cultures at Concordia University, LaSalle College, and Champlain College in Montreal. Across these institutions he taught every level from pre-university certificate programs to introductory undergraduate courses, advanced specialization classes, and graduate seminars, and also designed and implemented courses on film sound and Vancouver film history. At all levels he makes use of his interdisciplinary training at the intersection of acoustic ecology and film studies to promote heightened engagement with the world through the media technologies we interact with on a daily basis.

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