Breaking new ground

Ottawa complicit in Hollywood’s fraud

Published: Jul 12 2022, 01:01:am

Thursday, September 11, 1975

THERE REALLY IS A Canadian cinema.
    And now, at long last, there are books to prove it. Three of them, to be precise.
    Each one is different and each one, in its own way, is an important contribution because, incredible as it may seem, before this year [1975], there was no such thing as a literature of Canadian film.
    There were magazines — Motion and Cinema Canada are the two major titles — and there were scholarly pamphlets, produced for the most part by Ottawa's Canadian Film Institute. But, with the exception of Eleanor Beattie's directory-like Handbook of Canadian Film (Peter Martin Associates, 1973), there were no books.
    Now there are three.
    Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image, by Pierre Berton, examines the Canada that Canadians and the rest of the world see in American-made movies.
    Inner Views: Ten Canadian Film Makers, by John Hofsess, contains the critic’s personal impressions of a selection of our best domestic cinema artists.
    Marshall Delaney at the Movies: The Contemporary World as Seen on Film, by Robert Fulford, looks at movies themselves, among them 27 Canadian-made features.
    The different approaches reflect the individuality of the authors. Pierre Berton, certainly Canada's best-known writer, is an unashamed nationalist. In 1966, he was editor-in-chief of the Canadian Centennial Library, an ambitious project designed to make Canadiana popular. (Reviewing the series, Maclean's Magazine dubbed Berton a "centennial tycoon.")
    Berton's next major project, his two-volume history of the Great Railway (1970’s The National Dream and 1971’s The Last Spike) was not only a publishing event, but a broadcasting event as well.  After that, a book on movies seems like a trifling affair, a break in a more serious pattern.
    It's not. If Canadians have endured a century-long identity crisis it is, Berton suggests, "because we lack among other things the kind of home-grown mythology that only a Hollywood or a Tin Pan Alley can really provide."
    Pop culture is important. Tragically, this country has bought its popular arts second hand, accepting another country's distorted image of Canada with hardly a word of protest.
    Over the years, says Berton, Canadians have been "brainwashed" to accept the idea that they "are really just northern versions of Americans." The implicit message from the U.S. moviemakers is "(Canadians), you have no distinctive personality apart from ours, and no distinctive culture apart from ours. Your identity is our identity. You're quainter, of course, and less sophisticated, but apart from those quirks you're just like us."     
     Hollywood's Canada is a black comedy, an exhaustively researched saga of stupidities as hilarious as it is tragic. Written more in sorrow than in anger, it describes a process of cultural colonization in which the colonizers have been greeted with garlands of praise and almost complete cooperation.
    Berton and his researchers (wife Janet and assistant Barbara Sears) have studied 515 features made between 1907 and 1974, viewing more than 100 of them. From them, he has been able to distil a remarkably consistent picture of Hollywood's Canada, a lawless land of unending pine forests, snow, half-breed renegades, mentally defective French Canadians and libellously gun-happy Mounted Police
     With wit rather than rancour, he tells the fascinating story of Bruce Carruthers, the former RCMP corporal who, as a Hollywood technical advisor, battered his head against the stonewall attitudes of the big studios and of director Cecil B. DeMille, who regarded both the RCMP and the Canadian government as extensions of his publicity department.
    Berton's investigation exposes the Canadian Cooperation Project, a fraud devised in 1947 by Hollywood to stave off post-war controls on their Canadian profits, a fraud that was swallowed whole by Ottawa’s bureaucrats.
    His book, indexed with appendixes and footnotes, is a scholarly tome — perhaps a bit too scholarly. He is breaking new ground. He knows it, and is taking care to mark the way clearly for any who care to follow.
     What his book lacks is a sense of fire-breathing outrage, a brimstone damnation of the good grey branch-plant managers in both business and government who have so consistently sold out our national heritage.
    But that will come. Berton's name suggests that Hollywood's Canada will be a best-seller. Its choice as the Book of the Month Club's November selection guarantees it. And deservedly so. The social and political issue that is Canadian cinema is sure to become real to every reader.
    John Hofsess, who now writes about filmmakers, is himself a former filmmaker. During the early 1960s, while he was a student at Hamilton's McMaster University, he made movies with such titles as Redpath-25 (1966) and Palace of Pleasure (1967).
     Later, he was involved in an obscenity trial when his 1969 production, The Columbus of Sex, was seized by the Hamilton morality squad. He tried to sell the story to Maclean’s Magazine in Toronto. They hired him as film critic instead.
    His book, Inner Views, consists of a lengthy, contentious introduction and profiles of 10 Canadian filmmakers: Claude Jutra, Alan King, Don Shebib, Jack Darcus, Graeme Ferguson, Frank Vitale, William Fruet, Paul Almond, Denys Arcand and Pierre Berton.
    A number of the profiles (including the Berton piece) originally appeared as articles in Maclean's, which may help to explain Hofsess’s somewhat eccentric choice of "significant" Canadian filmmakers.
    What it doesn't explain is his totally irrational introductory essay, in which he states flatly that "a film industry is beyond the reach of all countries except the largest and the wealthiest." (Fact: Of the world's 23 significant film producing nations, 10 are smaller than Canada.)
    From this unsubstantiated premise, he builds a theory of minority cinema that says, in effect, Canadians should forget about mass entertainment movies and concentrate on closet art, an underground, low-budget, but oh-so-soul-satisfying form of national expression that he, presumably, will tell us about from time to time in Maclean’s.
    His argument is specious and unconvincing, His interviews (inner views), on the other hand, are useful and often perceptive introductions to Canadian directors, most of whom deserve a wider audience and greater understanding. His extensive use of direct quotation allows the filmmakers to speak for themselves, generally a wise policy when dealing with artists.
    Robert Fulford, who writes on film, is one of Canada's outstanding critics. Currently the editor of Saturday Night magazine, he writes persuasively on virtually every aspect of the arts, mass communications, pop culture and social trends.
    His book, Marshall Delaney at the  Movies, is a collection of film reviews he did for Saturday Night between 1965 and 1974. Reading them together reinforces an opinion that I've long held — Delaney/Fulford is Canada's best movie critic.     
     But then, that may well be damning with faint praise. After all, there can't be more than two dozen full-time movie critics in the whole country.
    What I mean to say is that Fulford/ Delaney stands with the best, shoulder-to-shoulder with Pauline Kael, Richard Schickel, Murf, Andrew Sarris and James Agee. (There, all my prejudices bared at last.)
    Fulford arranges his material under three headings: The Canadian Scene, The Hollywood Version and The World Out There. He writes with equal brilliance regardless of topic, offering ideas and insights that constantly engage the mind and challenge further thought.
    In explaining Delaney's style, Fulford recalls that when he went to work for newspapers, "bright young men were advised to cultivate a good clean anonymous style, shorn of personal reference or personal history . . . I mastered this technique.
    Delaney, he says, liberated him and “almost immediately assumed a personality of his own . . . His style triumphed over mine and changed it.” Fulford, the journalist and powerful intellect, analyzed. Delaney, the stylist, felt.     
     It was the perfect trade-off. The result was, and is, some of the most exciting film commentary that I've ever read. Whether the topic is serious (violence in director Sam Peckinpah films, for example), fanciful (an essay on the perfect Canadian movie) or nostalgic (a mood piece on Toronto’s Downtown Theatre — now, alas, torn down — the double feature house where I first broke into this business)  the tone is right, the prose graceful and the depth unmistakeable.
    Summing up personally, as, say, Delaney would do, I admire and respect Berton’s work, am resigned to the necessity of the Hofsess book, and loved Fulford. The era of Canadian film literature is well begun.
*    *    *
HOLLYWOOD’S CANADA: The Americanization of Our National Image, by Pierre Berton. McClelland and Stewart, 1975. 303 pages, indexed, illustrated, $13.95.

INNER VIEWS: Ten Canadian Film Makers, by John Hofsess. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1975. 171 pages, illustrated, $8.95.

MARSHALL DELANEY AT THE MOVIES: The Contemporary World as Seen on Film, by Robert Fulford. Peter Martin Associates,1974. 244 pages, indexed, $10.00.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1975. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: OK. I may have been overly optimistic in my conclusion that “the era of Canadian film literature is well begun.” In 1975, three books constituted a boomlet, and was enough to create real excitement, if not enough to make a real difference. And, to be honest, it was an excitement I welcomed. In 1979, I made my own contribution to the bookshelf with The Canadian Movie Quiz Book. Then, as now, I believed that too little emphasis was placed on Canada's contribution to the motion picture business. The 150-page paperback was my attempt to honour the too-easily-ignored accomplishments of this nation's cinema artists.
    In the years since, I’ve joked that its publisher spared every expense in the book's promotion. It did not make me rich or famous, or particularly increase my influence in the critical community. That said, I had a lot of fun writing it. Yesterday, in preparing this afterword, I wondered if there was an up-to-date list of Canadian film books on the Internet. A Google search took me to a website called Film Trap.
    Maintained by self-described “rabid film fanatic” Jason Decloux, it features his 2017 posting The Ultimate List of Canadian Film Books. Imagine my surprise on reading his introductory paragraph: “I don’t simply mean tomes about Cronenberg and Egoyan. I’m talking about stuff like the memoir by the director of Alien Thunder, the history of STUDIO D: the all-women unit of the NFB, and the Canadian Cinema Quiz Book of 1979!”
    More than 40 years on, it’s a pleasant surprise to discover that my first (and, to date, only) book is not forgotten. It appears that the era of Canadian film literature is not done yet.

See also: My 1975 interview with Pierre Berton following the publication of Hollywood's Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image.