Part 4 - The Bridge Between Two Nights: Ambivalence in Canadian Cinematic Identity, and the Silence of the North

The Pulp on Maple Leafs: The CFDC, American Tax-Shelter Films, Southern Comfort and Canuxploitation

"If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia."

-Margaret Atwood (1939-present), Canadian author

Throughout my friendship with actress Karen Black, I have had a few conversations with her about Hungarian-born Canadian director George Kaczender, with whom she has worked twice and speaks quite highly. The original question I posed to her was not about Kaczender as a director, but rather what prompted her to work more than once with a given director, other than out of financial necessity or convenience's sake. We also have had similar and multiple conversation about her numerous collaborations with Czech director Ivan Passer. Strangely enough, I caught more than a few of Kaczender's now obscure work when I was just a movie-crazy teenage kid, including In Praise of Older Women (1978), Agency (1980), Chanel Solitaire (1981) and Your Ticket is No Longer Valid (1982). All of these films, with the possible exception of the highly unusual latter, seemed more American than anything else, even though it never occurred to me to question and explicitly consider their national origin at the time of my initial viewings. In my later research and in my consideration of Canadian cinema history, however, these films seem rather logically placed in the timeline, considering the point at which they were produced.

Looking at the cast lists of these four Kaczender films alone, one starts to get the picture. Collectively, these four films feature the likes of Robert Mitchum, Lee Majors, Richard Harris, Susan Strasberg, Tom Berenger, Karen Black, Valerie Perrine, Helen Shaver, Timothy Dalton and Rutger Hauer. Needless to say, these are all performers who were no strangers to the American film industry and spent most of their careers spinning the wheels of its machine, with no other discernible Canuck connection. Each of these four Kaczender films can be conveniently relegated to popular genre slots. Chanel Solitaire, for instance, is a pristinely costumed, sexy, vacuously stylish epic biopic of Coco Chanel. Agency is a nifty, but ultimately flaccid and campy little conspiracy thriller about a nefarious advertising agency and an insidious plot involving subliminal messages. Martin Knelman, in his 1977 book, describes the dilemma that was just then emerging at the time he was writing:

"The Canadian Film Development Corporation is not an agency like the Canadian Council, with the objectives of supporting artists and subsidizing culture. No, the CFDC is an investment outfit, operating like a bank to stimulate production. Of course the CFDC does not invest exclusively in trash, but its rules for investment tend to favour precisely those people who least need backing. In order to qualify for CFDC money, you have to have other investors and a distributor. In other words, you have to be obviously commercial. In practical terms, this often means that producers line up investors and distribution through Hollywood studios. Almost inevitably, it turns out that while these films might be technically Canadian, they feature American stars, are geared to the American commercial market and are often controlled American businessmen."

There are moments in films like Agency and Your Ticket is No Longer Valid that speak more to a Canadian sensibility. Ironically, Agency almost unwittingly becomes an allegory for the Americanization dilemma, insofar as taking into account how the clearly American advertising corporation CEO Robert Mitchum edges his way into a company (in what could loosely be described as a hostile takeover) and exercises an all-powerful influence over his Canadian staff to produce ads with subliminal messages to enable him to position himself for realizing political ambitions. The implications should be obvious here: an American business model's influence on a fledgling industry and its desperately eager impressarios north of the border. If the other Kaczender films had not been admitted as evidence, I might assert that the director was perhaps working in a subliminal sense himself in relation to this possible message.

Film scholar Jim Leach accounts how part of the fear with a picture like Jutra's Kamouraska, as originally voiced by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, was that large and "more American" productions would contribute to a "climate of inflation" and that, by trying to appeal more to international audiences, there would result an overall loss of control of film production and the imposition of a conventionality of film language that suppressed not only a tradition rich in direct cinema but the distinctive personal voice of the Canadian auteur. Lefebvre, being of Québéc, was also concerned with the exploitation of Québéc folklore. The concern should not have rested in a decidedly arthouse saga like Kamouraska, however. That would be like crediting the ambitious, epic-length French "arthouse" masterpiece Les enfants du paradis (1945) for the wretched discredit of French cinema by sheer virtue of its scope.

Filmmaker John Trent's goals were similar to that of Kaczender. Trent was similarly nurtured by the Canadian Film Development Corporation for dutifully following what was becoming their standard operating procedure: import foreign talent to amplify marketing value outside of Canada and streamline stories into more genre-oriented products, thus the films become camouflaged and less distinguished as Canadian product. Ultimately, when it boils down to representation and national cinema, the films with the imported names would edge out the others and receive press by sheer virtue of the names themselves, thus obscuring works with true Canadian earmarks. This is all after a perhaps gravely naive hope that Canada could mostly maintain a personal cinema as a simultaneously popular mode of output. Trent films such as the Straw Dogs-clone Sunday in the Country (1973), the pale slapstick farce It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (1975), the sex romp Middle Age Crazy (1980) feature Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Newley, Isaac Hayes, Yvonne De Carlo, Stefanie Powers, Bruce Dern and Ann-Margret. I call the CFDC's "wannabe American films" of Canadian cinema the "southern comfort flicks". Alvin Rakoff, the director of such mega-budget Canadian films as disaster flick City on Fire, starring Shelley Winters and Henry Fonda, is yet another perpetrator of this southern comfort model.

In considering films like Jutra's early 80's pictures Surfacing and By Design, which are certainly films that aspired towards a status beyond that of a business deal, one notices an encroaching "southern influence" even in works by the great Canadian artists who had generally avoided the perceived excesses of such things as star-power in the past. Granted, the talent Jutra ultimately hired for both these films (e.g. Joseph Bottoms, Kathleen Beller, Patty Duke Astin) were not exactly hot American property at the time, and rather low on the totem-pole compared to the Mitchum or Lee Majors that Kaczender and Trent seemed successful in casting. However, for two films that called for specifically Canadian talent (particularly Surfacing), producers and financiers did the films no favors by demanding an overall American presence. Margaret Atwood's novel Surfacing is still considered a great Canadian novel, about a Canadian woman in search of her father in Canada's northern wilderness. Even respected directors like Paul Almond took to directing films like Final Assignment (1980), an embarrassingly bad and very American action vehicle I had the displeasure of seeing half of on VHS at one point, starring Genevieve Bujold (Almond's muse in one of her worst roles).

However, it must be said that none of Kaczender's or Trent's "southern comfort" Canadian enterprises scored any surefire success and most of them disappeared in both the Canada and United States film markets with little or no fanfare. Frankly, they just were just too mediocre to withstand even the slightest audience scrutiny, let alone scrutiny from the critical establishment. There were, however, a couple "southern comfort films" of value and I am not trying to lump them all into the trash bin. Harvey Hart's The Pyx (1973), shot in Montreal and starring Karen Black and Christopher Plummer, is a wonderfully taut and quite excellent detective thriller with horror elements. "Shot entirely in Montreal" proudly emblazons The Pyx's opening credits sequence, and the film's Catholic symbiology informs the perennial Christian influence in Quebec. Hart also does a capable if slightly perfunctory job of directing MGM's Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971). Besides Canadian imitation, though, actual American films were coming to shoot up north of the border because, during the 1970's, Canada's newly legislated tax policies allotted for tax credits for U.S. films shot in Canada. Examples include the Canadian-lensed, American-funded Meatballs (1979, directed by the Canadian emigre Ivan Reitman) and Prom Night (1980), and the Florida-lensed, Canadian-crewed Porky's (1981, still the largest grossing Canadian film to date, factoring in inflation) and the San Francisco-lensed, Canadian-crewed Ticket to Heaven (1981). Both of these films live on in some way, mostly as enduring cult items. Jim Leach notes that, unlike radio and television, which both have strict Canadian content regulations, there is no protection for Canadian content in film. The distribution networks for Canadian movie theatres are largely controlled by the American studio system.

What the "southern comfort" and "Canuxploitation" films did was to establish a paradigm which took a good many years to finally die off, and it is arguable that it ever even did really die off, as CFDC soon was re-christened Telefilm Canada and still exists today. Its presence, while still perceptible, has waned somewhat from its late 70's heyday when CFDC was foregrounded and seemed almost omnipotent. Perhaps the film with the strongest sense of Canadian identity to emerge in the above-described period is 1982's The Grey Fox starring Richard Farnsworth, an enchanting "post-Western" film about an over-the-hill stagecoach-robbing desperado who is released from thirty years in prison in 1901. The film was ultimately picked up by Francis Ford Coppola and distributed by United Artists Classics in the U.S.

In 1894, Australian critic and social commentator A.A. Phillips coined the term "cultural cringe" to define a condition characterized by an inferiority complex causing people to dismiss their own culture as inferior to the cultures of others. If southern comfort and the tax-shelter period did anything other than produce mostly substandard product, it was to illicit the perilous condition of filmic Americanization into the consciousness of the Canadian national cinema, as I have defined it to exist in the 60's and early 70's.