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From the Vaults of Failure: A Canadian Film in Toronto

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From the Vaults of Failure: A Canadian Film in Toronto

For a generous span of time, Canada's official cultural policy for cinema was ripe for economic exploitation -- provided the film in question failed. Failure, intentional failure, became a perverse goal for investors who would claim their investments as tax write-offs, receive generous cultural grants, and walk away with untaxed income at the end of the year. It was an unfortunate side-product of a genuine attempt by the government to take the idea of Canadian nationality seriously. We've since given up on that.

Here's a CBC documentary on the era. Lots of sleazy folks in there.

What we are left with though is an overflowing archive of feature length movies that never got shown to anyone. They were made quickly, cheaply, and in abundance -- routinely, there were more Canadian feature films made during these years than in Hollywood -- but they never made the screen. We never developed a CanCon screening or distribution policy so the films disappeared quickly.

The amazing thing is that some of these movies were actually pretty good. Where can you find them? I recently became a member of an online mail-order DVD store (think zip.ca, cinemail.ca, etc) and was able to get a copy of The Silent Partner. Starring a violent Christopher Plummer and a wickedly coy and devious Elliot Gould, it's a 70s heist flick that anticipates All the Usual Suspects, Resevoir Dogs, Trainspotting, Snatch, etc. Not for its excessively stylized cinema (this is CanCon after all!) or for its goofy/quirky characters, but for a dark, twisted narrative that transcends film noir stereotypes. It's a joy to see John Candy pop up in the background as well.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the film though is Toronto. The city is featured prominently, openly, emphatically. The bank the heist revolves around is set in the Eaton's Centre. Characters live in "Cabbagetown". They drive Yonge Street, Spadina, and I believe I saw Bloor in there. The bank, it follows, is called the Bank of Toronto, functioning like a memory bank of a time in our past -- filled with characters from our past, like Plummer, Candy, Celine Lomez, and more. Being Canadian has been a stigma for audiences and artists ever since we started nudging our way towards being a country. Everybody just seems to relax and have more fun when it's America on-screen. This movie, however, breaks through the stigma with barely a shrug. Was it a scheme to make the movie fail?

Jacques Derrida in Archive Fever speaks of the archive as the means by which a society represents itself to itself. What gets deposited and saved in the archive, what is considered worthy of being saved, reflects the values of the present rather than the difference of the past. This film, like others from the so-called "Tax-shelter Era", is itself an archive -- encoded with the earnest endeavour to develop a Canadian cinema, encoded with reflections of the dominant film-making styles developed in Hollywood and Europe, encoded with gender and racial politics of the period. The fact that the film is good, and bursting with on-screen talent, is a significant fact as well, as is the film's disappearance. Canadians were not ready to see themselves, and the industry players were only too happy to afford them/us this weird indulgence.

The fact that the film is now suddenly available is also significant. It speaks to the development of technologies which have changed what it means to be a citizen now. It also allows us to revisit our past, evaluate it with fresh eyes, and, as in this case, discover some buried gems worth -- at the least -- a few of our entertainment dollars. Culture is no longer organized heirarchically, or even linearly. It remains, however, shaped by access to technology.

Here's an old New York Times review of the movie: "Marvellous... a dense, quirky, uncommonly interesting movie, with a high quotient of suspense."

Here's Take One's list of twenty Canadian movies that are not art-house movies that are worth scouting for. Order now and you'll have them for Dominion Day.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page