Cancon I: A Ticket to the Heavenly Mother Lode
Cancon [can-conn], in its broadest scope, stands for Canadian Content, as well as government rules that define how much Canadian content a radio station, cable TV station, and other media outlets must broadcast, carry, publish, etc. to ensure native talent isn’t being smothered by foreign product.
In its best form, the rules helped foster a positive regard for Canadian music, which had been given short-shrift by radio stations in favour of top 30 material from the U.S. and abroad.
The stations’ reasoning: ‘Why play some schmo from Yorkville who sings in a coffee shop instead of The Beatles?’
The Gov: ‘Well, because the schmo or schmoette might actually be good, and giving said schmo/ette a venue to reach the masses might also get people interested in some of the stuff that’s coming out of their own back yards.’
Cancon regulations mandated stations must play at least 36% Canadian music – which gave a third more air space to local talent. The down side? Bureaucratic rules that at one time declared Bryan Adams’ music ‘not Canadian enough’ because his co-writer in 1992 wasn’t a Canucklehead.
That’s called the Pinhead Syndrome / Syndrome duh cerveau mince et ouchie, where rules with good intentions backfire into a state of ridiculousness that leaves no one happy.
In Canadian film, the situation was much more different due to a long history of film exhibition being controlled (still is) by foreign companies, or at least companies whose parent entities are foreign.
For the sake of time (mine), space (of which there’s actually plenty here), and the fact I’ll revisit the topic in later blogs, I’ll skirt over a few things, but preamble here about what will be an ongoing series on Canadian films you may never have heard of, or if you’re part of a certain generation, remember as sucking quite mightily… and perhaps were wrong in assuming local = crap.
Here’s a simple FAQ for novices:
Q: I know we make films. Why is this a big deal for writers like you?
A: We do make films, and we could and should make more, but it’s a very complicated situation that’s quite different from the U.S.
Our distribution network was effectively handed over to foreign companies way back in the twenties and thirties, and even if there are national distributors and exhibitors (which there are), the preference is on films that will earn profits, of which a Hollywood blockbuster will always trump a local film funded by a mouthful of private, government, and corporate entities.
If you read the final section of the End Credits to a Hollywood film, you’ll see MGM, Fox, Warner Bros., Sony.
At the end credits of a Canadian film, you don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the logos and formal acknowledgements to the funding agencies, sponsors, promissory notes, and broadcast guarantors posted before the fadeout that precedes you dashing down the aisle to the loo for some needed bladdertorial relief.
Here’s a favourite situation:
The late Phillip Borsos was a fine filmmaker, a bit of a wunderkind who made a series of highly regarded short films before making a splash with The Grey Fox (1982). The TIFF Bell Lightbox [TBL] recently had an anniversary screening which itself was a good publicity opportunity to remind people of good films you can’t see easily due to the complicated financing that was in vogue during the seventies and eighties.
Not only is the film nowhere to be found on home video – it’s never appeared on DVD – but neither is Borsos’ other film, The Bethune: Making of a Hero (1990),one of the first major co-productions between the west and China.
Also one of the most expensive films ever made by us.
So… Where is it?
I have a taped copy from a pay TV airing on Betamax. It did receive VHS releases, but it’s never been available on DVD, never seems to air on TV, never airs in its longer form on the CBC, and the documentary that chronicled its troubled production has disappeared into oblivion.
Here’s another one: Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993) recently screened at the TBL as part of the Cinematheque’s salute to Cancon and the upcoming Juno Awards (not Genie, not Gemini. Juno = music.)
Want to see it? Too bad, because this critically acclaimed film seems to be the victim of International Funding Syndrome where – I’m assuming – it can’t be released on home video again until every participant signs off in agreement.
I counted 10 firms and agencies from 5 counties, according to this basic tally.
Some of these films do appear on TV, but home video remains elusive, even though the Gould film appeared on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD once. At least with these relatively recent films, their owners and distributors are traceable, but it gets much more complicated when we jump back another 20 years to the seventies and early eighties.
In Ontario, for example, we had a bit of a film boom in an era known as the tax shelter years. An investor could write off a significant chunk of money if it went into a film that starred Canadian citizens, and / or was written, directed, produced and scored by Canadians.
Savvy producers realized some major Hollywood actors had either retained their Canuckle passports, or enjoyed dual citizenship, which is why some films tended to favour aging stars like Glenn Ford (Happy Birthday to Me), Robert Vaughn (Starship Invasions), or Leslie Nielsen (Prom Night).
As described in the commentary track for David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979), these films also tended to be shot close to winter because investors weren’t sure how much money they’d have for a proposed production until accountants had done draft tax returns, so a number of films were reportedly shot within very tight schedules to ensure the investment would qualify for the ending tax year.
Another factor that’s probably a marriage of cheeky urban myth / reality is the mélange of private investors who have to sign off on any home video deal, if not who actually owns a movie made decades ago that’s been out of circulation for at least 10-15 years or more.
The joke was most tax shelter films were funded by dentists, but there’s probably some truth in there. I’m not a dentist (the concept of putting fingers in strange mouths is off-putting, which is why I studied film instead), so I can’t confirm how many orthodontists may have contributed to Snow-bound Bunnies in Banff, Beaver Tales of Yore, Margaret’s Maple Adventure, or the two solitudes cultural ice-breaker, Fleur de Lis: The Deflowering of Saint Julie de Mont-Petit, based on the infamous case of a Quebec City prostitute who travelled to the island of Inukkavaluut off Baffin Island, and ‘serviced’ local cobalt miners because of a Holy Vision of Jean-Marc Neuilly-Neuilly Poussee-Blanche-Douche, the Patron Saint of Bubble Bath Oil.
More seriously, the tax shelter films have become (for some) Holy Grails of lost films, because we either remember them from TV, discovered them on VHS and Beta, or heard of them as great undiscovered works of cinemaduh fromage.
Like Bells aka Murder by Phone (1982), directed by Michael (Around the World in 80 Days) Anderson, and Phobia (1980), directed by John (The Maltese Falcon) Huston – works of cinema I like to call Mortgage Movies, because their production probably paid for the mortgages of new homes these directors purchased in Pasadena.
I’ve been engaged to write a chapter to a horror anthology on Canadian horror films, and I’m ‘professionally obliged’ to research tax shelter movies, so the fruits of my research will likely bleed now and then into reviews of Cancon films you’ve never heard of but should – either because they’re good, outstanding & neglected cultural treasures, or crap.
So the hunt is on, and so is this series, which I’m calling Cancon (original, isn’t it?).
The first isn’t true Cancon in terms of its producer, director, writer, composer and lead star (stop it – I’m getting to the point), but Charlton Heston’s Mother Lode [M] (1982) co-stars Nick Mancuso and the province of British Columbia, was shot by the late, great Richard Leiterman, and is available on DVD in a lovely widescreen transfer from Warner Home Video.
The other film coincidentally co-stars Mancuso and was also shot by Leiterman, and is indicative of a solid movie made by us which disappeared from distribution, but is now available as an import via Echo Bridge.
Ticket to Heaven [M] premiered at TIFF in 1981, and won four major Genie awards (not Juno. Not Gemini.) including Best Film, Actor (Mancuso), and Supporting Actor (Saul Rubinek), and it’s a terrifying drama based on the true story of a man rescued from the Moonies cult in the seventies.
Both Mother Lode and Ticket to Heaven were also part of the first films to appear on Canadian pay TV (First Choice, and Super Channel being the main ones in Ontario), and their trailers were constantly running before the picture was scrambled except for paying subscribers.
The Ticket trailer frankly scared the crap out of me, because it looked like a horrible tale akin to The Wicker Man (1974). Mancuso plays a man whose mind and body were ultimately usurped by a dangerous cult, and the film actually lives up to the trailer’s potential because the filmmakers’ point was to catalogue the often surreal measures pushed onto newcomers at the isolated camp where indoctrination and brainwashing began. It’s worth buying the DVD because the first third of Ticket is filmed and edited in a chilling documentary style.
It’s a pity it’s only available as a budget DVD rather than a special edition on Blu-ray, but that’s part of the ignominious existence of the good Canadian films that floated above derivative fodder during the film boom of the seventies and eighties.
At least the Mother Load DVD was done right. There’s no commentary track, but writer / producer Fraser Heston provides a good overview of the film’s production in a lengthy featurette. Clearly the younger Heston, as well as the DVD’s producer, cared enough for the film to bother, which puts the disorganized state north of the 49th parallel to shame.
One of the most important sources for vintage Canadian films is a pair of U.S. labels – Scorpion Releasing, and Code Red (which folded last fall, but product is still available). In most cases, their releases are treated as special editions, and it begs the question: Is it a case where no one cares up here, or are the distribution agreements stateside cleaner and leaner, with less dentists to track down?
I really want to know, and hopefully through further reviews of Cancon classiques and fromage, we’ll find out.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor