You helped finance the creation of a big, dumb Frankenstein
You helped finance the creation of a big, dumb Frankenstein
“IN 1967, ONLY $22 million was expended in the private sector of the economy on the production of films. Of this amount, less than $500,000 was spent on the production of feature films. In effect, Canadians spent more than 40 times as much on the production of feature films abroad as they did on films made in Canada.”
That quote is from the 1968-69 Annual Report of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and if you’re a Canadian nationalist at all, it’s a little frightening. The Canadian Radio-Television Commission is trying to jack up our domestic broadcasting to 60% of the total available. Three years ago, of the total films shown in Canada, our domestic stuff amounted to about two-anda-half percent.
This situation, of course, is the one the CFDC was given $10 million to do something about. But the distinction between the CRTC, in broadcasting, and the CFDC, in films, is a crucial one. The CRTC is a regulatory body; it has the power to yank broadcasting licenses, and has lately shown a cheerful tendency to do just that. The CFDC, on the other hand, is an angel.
The idea, roughly, is that the CFDC invests in movies in exactly the same way anybody else does. It puts up production costs, and gets its money back when the film goes into distribution and starts to pay off. There is one joker clause — in almost every case, the film’s producer must have money from a distributor in the bank to prove he’s serious before the
CFDC will entertain his application. (Last summer, the Corporation gave away a total of $100,000 to six feature films in production, and $25,000 to eight films in other categories — a burst of charity one hopes will become annual.)
When the distributor-participation clause became public, quite a few film makers started getting suspicious — there are, after all, very few distribution houses in Canada that aren’t tied to American parent bodies, and the wholly Canadian distributors that do exist are usually very hip but very poor. So about half of the decisions about which movies were going to be made in Canada would still be made in the United States. But it was better than nothing — and that was, after all, the choice.
Last month, three CFDCsupported films were shown in Toronto as part of the first wave of the new Canadian cinema. Two were short (between 65 and 75 minutes), experimental, freestyle pictures (David Cronenberg’s Stereo and Morley Markson’s Zero The Fool). The Corporation had picked up half the costs for Markson’s film, and put up $500 to make prints of Stereo available to film festivals (with an undertaking to finance Cronenberg’s next film, Cruise of the Future). They both turned out to be very good indeed — unexpected, audacious, engrossing films, quite unlike each other, but with a common wry intelligence. The third was an expensive, commercial, Hollywoodlength extravaganza (William Marshall and Gil-
bert Taylor’s Flick, again half-financed by the CFDC), and it was an enormous, reverberating disaster. Something for everybody.
David Cronenberg’s Stereo is smooth, elegant and accessible. The film is set in the long science-fiction spaces of Scarborough College in Toronto, and is a peculiarly semisatiric account of an experiment performed by the Canadian Academy For Erotic Research, which is pretty much what it sounds like. Six subjects are isolated and subjected to various manipulations to determine their telepathic cohesion; they strip, fondle, and swallow drugs in response to commands from a man with a beard and a white lab jacket.
Cronenbreg’s concern is one that is becoming almost traditional among experimental film makers, the shifty creeping of scientific inquiry into the most private areas of human life. But Stereo is also, damn it, a funny film, a structured puton, with a solid concern behind the wit. The lead, Ron Mlodzik, has a face that belongs in a Bergman tragedy, and a supple, self-aware comic sense.
Morley Markson’s Zero The Fool is a semidocumentary — “semi” because the characters are avowedly aware of the camera, and use it, as they prefer not to in,
say, Allan King’s films — about three very odd people who live in Ottawa and appear to be without grace or reality. Penelope, a young poetess, lives with Danny, an acidulous and somewhat nervy intellectual, and the two of them pursue an ambiguous relationship with Gerald, a soft-faced homosexual who wears Greta Garbo hats and is fond of improvising in a Russian contralto. When these three begin to reconstruct their situation for Markson’s camera, the connections between them begin to fray. They turn on each other (and on Markson) with the savagery of people who sense that they are ludicrous, and the film ends in an atmosphere of unabated bitchery.
Zero The Fool is a cruel and often unwatchable film, but it is real, a film of and about personal power, and it has a message, if you like: Exhibitionists are people, too.
So the CFDC did those right; or, at least, gave its money to the right people, and so made possible two more - than - competent films. But in Flick, the CFDC, and everybody else, right down to the guy who sells the popcorn, made a very bad mistake.
Flick is, I think the dumbest movie I have ever seen. The lead, Victor Frankenstein (Robin Ward)
is a promising young brain experimenter who is upset because people think his name is funny. (I don’t think his name is funny.) After he is bounced out of the University of Toronto on a drug rap (he is priggishly innocent) by the slippery old dean (Austin Willis), he wires up a colleague and sics him on all the bad guys. There is a surprise ending, too.
Marshall and Tqylor pile it on with nude scenes, a rock band, flashing lights, pot, and campus revolutionaries who can’t — I swear it — spell their signs right. The only redeeming feature of all this is Frankenstein’s girl friend, Kathleen Sawyer, who can’t act at all but has a lovely, fresh, sinewy body. When I found myself getting bored with Miss Sawyer’s breasts, I knew that Flick was doing awful, irredeemable things to me.
All this is instructive. Marshall and Taylor never pretended that they were out to produce a work of art; they were going to make an American-style grade-B potboiler, and the CFDC, for reasons that still aren’t clear, went along with it. They have produced a grade-Z potboiler instead, which is with any luck going to disappear suddenly and beyond memory’s recall, leaving the CFDC $150,000 out-of-pocket.
Cronenberg and Markson, on the other hand, have produced idiosyncratic, annoying, and extremely inventive films, which ,cost together less than a tenth of the budget of Flick, and which show some expectation of returning an honorable profit on their investment. And that should also concern the CFDC, which is based on a revolving fund, and depends on getting at least some of its money back from the producers it supports.
But the final — and, to me, most important — contrast is that Stereo and Zero The Fool reflect, if not a coherent vision of Canada, at least honest representations of what two talented young men who live here have to say. Flick is a derivative, trendy, chintzy exploitation picture that could have been made as well (or better) in Delaware.
This is, surely, as much indication as anybody needs that the CFDC should not try playing Joseph E. Levine again. The demand in this country is not for AmericanInternational voodoo-andviolence movies, but for movies that come out of some kind of honest, intelligent experience. I’m not against large-budget pictures, God knows — actors and technical assistants and cameramen and guys who run film labs have to eat — but not, please, at the price of Flick.
There is some kind of middle ground, and perhaps it can be seen in some of the pictures that used to come out of the National Film Board, or even now from the CBC, when the CBC is feeling healthy. When, in short, somebody bright has something to say.
As a charter taxpayer in the Canadian Film Development Corporation, I paid for perhaps one-tenth of a twirl of one of the lenses on Zero The Fool, and I’m rather proud of that. But I also lost more money on Flick, and I’m damned angry about that. Let the Americans do it. □
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