Today is National Canadian Film Day, and in its 3 year Reel Canada’s push to get us to love our film history seems to have even more participants than last year, with cinemas, libraries, community centres, cable stations and publications paying homage to what could slyly be branded our greatest neglected art.
A year ago NOW Magazine’s Norm Wilner hosted a screening of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) at The Royal, and followed with a Q&A with actor Stephen Lack, and I opined in print and in a podcast about where things should be, and amid the gains of indie filmmakers forging their own work without major or any aide from major government agencies, releasing their own films digitally and on physical media, a crapload still needs to be done.
I’m posting a review of Cathy’s Curse (1977) very soon, the CanCon / canuxploitation fromagerie that was restored and is set for a late April release by U.S. label Severin in a lovely special edition… but if you want a tally of classic Canadian films that have been brought back in print, have made their DVD debut in premiere special editions, or are once again available after vanishing into that bottom pit of Who Owns This? well, your’e out of luck.
Movies shot in Toronto during the 1950s and 1960s? Nope. Philip Borsos’ The Grey Fox (1985) and Bethune: The Making of a Hero (1990) on Blu-ray? Of course not.
I was actually planning on posting a review of Grey Fox with some bonus media content, but wouldn’t you know it, there’s no decent accessible copy out there, and the problem may even stem from the original poor home video transfer by Media.
Borsos’ multi-Genie nominated film is referenced in film schools for its quality, its distribution by major labels, and being an artful drama without being arty, a character piece with action, and featuring a backdrop of fine Canadian scenery and supporting actors. Students are told about This Great Film, and yet they can’t see it. If there’s no VHS copy on hand, then it’s like some lost silent film that went poof! when the nitrate finally turned combustible, and no known prints exist except for B&W 16mm dupes of partial scenes.
How absurd is it that one of the greatest films produced by Canadians can’t be seen by anyone?
Grey Fox was released on VHS, probably Betamax, and on laserdisc by Image Entertainment. In Japan, the film came out on laserdisc and VHD, the latter a 10” variant of RCA’s CED format that’s essentially a record that plays a movie. The film was in every Canadian rental shop, on many TV stations, and Michael Conway Baker’s soundtrack (with music by the Chieftans) appeared on DRG vinyl and CD.
And then it all went away.
In 2010 the TIFF Bell Lightbox screened a restored print and the first question posed to the panel is When is the film coming out on DVD? The answer given may explain things more than a bit – multiple rights holders whose tenure extends past the millennium, meaning forver, really – but the film never materialized on disc. A screening in western Canada referenced the restored print and planned DVD release, but again, that was almost 7 years ago.
At the end of my Scanners podcast, I made a proposal that I think sounds sane and should benefit everyone, as long as they’re not greedy. License the films you, the rights holder, are sitting on for digital download and purchase so your chunk of Canadian film history is allowed to breathe.
Movies and TV series are meant to be seen, not idle in a vault. They’re meant to contextualize periods of our creative development and inspire pride, amusement, even unintentional laughter, but not remain lost when we’re not talking about a 100 year old nitrate film, a rare 3-strip Technicolor production.
Grey Fox was distributed to theatres via United Artists Classics, as presented by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, and more than likely the film will make its debut via an American label with usage of the restored print that’ll be licensed out to a label currently mining studio back catalogues like KINO, Twilight Time, Olive, or maybe Criterion – but not a Canadian company.
Two years after the TBL screening, the magic vault of CanCon was opened for a fine screening of Leon Marr’s Dancing in the Dark (1986), with director and star Martha Henry present for a Q&A. When I asked Marr if there’s a chance his superb psychological study of a woman’s mental breakdown might see a home video release, the response was “None… No one cares.”
It’s got to be a little heartbreaking for a filmmaker, writer, actor, or producer to know his / her work remains lost not because there’s too much product out there on disc, or specialty channels are cluttered with more CanCon titles than they can program in a year, but because of outright apathy, which could also translate to sheer contempt.
Our contemporary classics are never in short supply – okay, sometimes we’re stuck importing the full screen American DVD because Alliance’s former widescreen special edition is now OOP and its current Canadian corporate owner doesn’t care – but there are countless films produced throughout the country during the 70s, 80s, and 90s that remain unavailable (Un zoo la nuit? Pouvour intime? H?), plus a great blank as to whatever preceded 1960.
No silent Canadian films exist on DVD. There’s no collection of vintage short subjects. No serials. No (new) collection of NFB rarities, and that amazing Norman McLaren set is long OOP. Artful and sexploitation fodder from Quebec? Nope. TV series that don’t have Littlest nor Hobo in the title are absent from digital streaming / ownership.
Live teleplays from the CBC? Nope.
We know what the first Canadian 3D short and feature film and feature length horror film are (The Mask) because two American companies participated in their restoration and wide release, but what were our first silent short, silent feature, sound film, colour film, widescreen film, most prolific director, composer, first auteur, female director, first live TV broadcast, first use of videotape, first colour broadcast, first stereo film release, biggest budgeted feature film and TV mini-series?
The answers shouldn’t be arcane or privileged to niche course in universities that recur every 5 years, but online with samples and access to full-length streaming and purchasing. I bring up the online option because fans want to own, even if it’s a crappy ¾” U-Matic fullscreen dub.
If the few corporations that control the rights of most of our films don’t care, and the dentists and podiatrists who funded tax shelter productions are long gone, with cans of their films rusting in garages beside boxes of spare teeth implants and stenciled nail clippers, respectively, we’re really in a terrible pickle, because even if the 50 year public domain rule were to apply, no one knows who owns what, and where many more rare or odd films reside; and even if the Archives of Canada holds prints of the bulk of recent film history (including the only porn film ostensibly funded by us, Sexcula), they’re not the rights holder. The quest is almost Byzantine because the history of Canadian film is so little-known, save for a few key texts by rare inquisitors who refused to give up.
If you read Peter Morris’ Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema, 1895-1939 (1992), it’s a sad, depressing saga of what existed for years – a federally reinforced inferiority complex, signing over distribution rights to American combines, and wimping out whenever cultural ministers proclaimed changes to distribution models but relented under ‘Hollywood’ pressure – but as we’ve made headroom by flipping the bird at institutions and traditional distribution networks, we should remember Canadian cinema has a history, a past, and relatively recent past which we really, really shouldn’t have to import or wax on with reverence without any empirical evidence to students.
The Grey Fox is on DVD… as a Region 2 disc in Germany. The Grey Fox is on YouTube… but it’s geo-blocked so Canadians can’t watch it. The Grey Fox is floating around on the internet as VHS and laserdisc rips… but the original video master has time compression, likely because the master was sped up a wee bit to save on videotape stock.
We can do a lot better than this. On National Canadian Film Day in 2018, there needs to be tangible, commercially available proof we do give a damn. As to corporations too big to care, with holdings too vast to catalogue and mine, and wealthy realtors and proctologists unaware they own a cult classic, well, for shame….
Coming next: Diane Keaton in The Little Drummer Girl (1984) from Warner Archives and Baby Boom (1987) from Twilight Time.
Mark R. Hasan, Editor
Category: EDITOR'S BLOG