Blood in the maple syrup: canon, popular genre and the Canuxploitation of Julian Roffman.
Prior to 2001, the oversights of Veronneau and Peter Morris in their efforts at compilation seem more than accidental. Roffman's thrillers at least deserved an acknowledgement of their status as precursors to the big-grossing exploitation films produced by "Hollywood North" in the late 1970's and early 1980's. In 1977, for example, out of the 8.9 million dollars earned from the top 10 English films in Canada, 5.7 million were "earned by schlock items," and over half that gross was produced by David Cronenberg's Shivers. (2) Suggesting that Roffman's own work made Cronenberg's success possible sixteen years later is contestable, however, it is not untenable to regard Roffman as somewhat of a Canadian pioneer within the genres of horror and suspense. Before The Bloody Brood and The Mask, both genres were left virtually unexplored by Canadian filmmakers. Since then, Canadian filmmakers have made several noteworthy contributions to the critically disreputable but popularly adored slasher genre, including Cannibal Girls (Ivan Reitman, 1973), Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974), and Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980)--all of which are regarded as "classics" in their own right. (3)
Not are Roffman's films (and those of his lineage) dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration by Canadian film scholars, but the critical minimization of his work is indicative of a larger tendency to discount various kinds of films that do not fit into the corpus of what constitutes a "Canadian cinema." With the exception (that proves the rule) of Cronenberg's work, Canadian suspense and horror films, both exploitative and "legitimate" are not co-opted into the framework of our national cinema. And by "our" national cinema, I am referring to the various conceptions of Canadian cinema circulated by academic film scholars. Canadian cinema as conceived by academics and Canadian cinema as conceived by the average moviegoer are two different things entirely, as any fan of Porky's (Bob Clark, 1982), Les Boys (Louis Saic 1997), or Flesh Gordon 2 (Howard Ziehm 1974) could tell you. At any rate, these films do not adhere to the criteria of an Elderian "Cinema We Need," nor Peter Harcourt's idealized realist tradition, nor the Eurocentric aesthetic values of a Northern "art cinema." Furthermore, the critical neglect of The Bloody Brood and The Mask are compounded by their production before 1964: the year popularly (and quite erroneously) regarded as the legitimate "birth" of Canadian cinema. In short, Roffman's films are anathema to the exclusionary specifications of canon builders because of their perceived lack of "quality" and "complexity," their generic status, and their untimely release.
It is not my ambition to champion the artistic merits of a neglected filmmaker's scant output; I shall leave such inflationary tactics to Roffman's fans. Nor shall I engage in close textual analysis of these works, as my primary concern is determining the films' relation to the cultural criteria of canonists rather than providing detailed formal readings for their own sake. Both The Bloody Brood and The Mask are formally interesting (especially compared with preconceived notions of a "classical" Canadian aesthetic), but again, I shall leave future appraisals to Roffman enthusiasts.
Instead, I would like to argue that reclaiming these films (and their descendents) within a Canadian corpus is necessary in preventing their disappearance into critical obscurity. Far from being "dumb movies for dumb people," The Bloody Brood and The Mask operate according to their own set of values--systems that are incommensurable to that of their more "legitimate" successors. Nonetheless, including "Canuxploitation" within the parameters of a national cinema may prove beneficial for a few reasons. Firstly, a critical revisiting of these films is necessary in order to problematise unchallenged notions of "quality"--a prerequisite for inclusion in any kind of "legitimate" canon. Moreover, a consideration of their operations may also complicate the distinctions between exploitation and non-exploitation cinema. Most importantly, their inclusion within a national corpus may prove beneficial in expanding the boundaries of what is qualified as demonstrably "Canadian."
Although I consider the tracing out of symptoms of a national identity to be a futile endeavor given our particular socio-geographical and historical context, I recognize the economic importance behind the project. However retrogressive and unavailing it is to trot out the myth of an essential nationalist discourse, the guidelines of agencies such as Telefilm and the CFDC require a film to exude a "Canadianness" in order to secure funding. (4) Economic imperatives aside, Roffman's films deserve reclamation in order to deflate assumptions that his work is "inferior" due to its aping of standard, generic American product and that it does not distinctly reflect "our own" cinema. Such implicit distaste for the perceived crassness of the pleasures associated with Hollywood genres is largely behind the dearth of generic production in Canada and its positive critical reception.
At the most elementary level, one might argue that Roffman's work is rejected because of a perceived "poor quality." Such an argument could be (and has been) employed to exclude any number of films from a canon of critical "masterpieces." Often, a film's subject matter alone is enough for critics to be dismissive. The narrative content of a Roffman film certainly does not have highbrow pretensions. In The Bloody Brood, the morally upright central protagonist, Cliff/Jack Betts takes it upon himself to investigate the suspicious death of his brother, Roy/Bill Kowalchuk. His private investigation leads him to penetrate the inner workings of a dreaded cabal: insidious beatniks hell-bent on subversion and bad poetry. Intrigued potential viewers, expect obligatory showdowns in dark alleys (with Peter Falk!) and gratuitous bongos. The narrative of The Mask also promises equally sensationalistic thrills. Eager to unlock the workings of the human mind, an overachieving psychiatrist experiments with a mysterious, ancient mask. Ignoring the advice of his doting girlfriend, the good doctor tries on the artefact. Intrigued potential viewers, expect trippy hallucinations (in 3-D!) and an inevitable stalk-'n-slash narrative trajectory.
As one might expect from these curt descriptions, the films' narratives do not have serious, "literary" ambitions, thematically speaking. They certainly do not fit into a national body of work that is preoccupied with questions of selfhood and the relation of the individual to a larger social identity. Roffman's films do not concern themselves with the ponderous introspection (one might say "self"-obsession) that characterises the tone of a good deal of Canadian feature films. The energies of the narratives seem to be extended toward the individual rather than the subject. Their workings seem to hail viewers personally, in a desire to please or entertain rather than construct an imaginary subject--the ever-elusive "average Canadian"--who is looking to Art for signs that will help "place" her own sense of selfhood within a nationalist) context. Or, to be facetious, maybe the narratives just weren't boring enough for Canadian canonists. The Bloody Brood's and The, Mask's respective tales of murderous beatniks and a cursed tribal mask can hardly be regarded as worthwhile material, when compared to the enthralling story of a couple of Nova Scotian labourers who are Goin' Down the Road (Donald Shebib, 1970) to Toronto in search of employment. My remarks are deliberately inflammatory in the light of what I take to be a larger transgression. Ignoring a film due to its lack of "quality" subject matter is not only reprehensible in a country whose output of feature films is relatively limited, but also represents a failure to recognize the subjectiveness of "quality" itself.
In determining the constituents of filmic disreputability, some of the more obvious and demonstrable conditions include: 1) technical incompetence; 2) wooden acting; 3) poor scripting or plotting; 4) low production values; 5) lack of aesthetic value or a preoccupation with the sensational; 6) base subject matter; 7) an association with a lowbrow audience; 8) the implicit or explicit championing of ultra-conservative politics. What often fails to be recognized in the citation of any of these criteria is each category's extreme subjectivity. Their subjection to continually changing critical contexts and discourses is almost universally unconsidered by critics and/or reviewers. None of the conditions are transcendent (they cannot be cited the same way throughout history) and each is rooted firmly in the temporal horizons that produce them.
Interestingly, such "shoddy" values are championed by cult followers of the films and proponents of fringe filmmaking. For Steve Richards, cult audiences enjoy films such as Roffman's for the following reasons: 1) their often quirky modes of exhibition; 2) their commitment to escapism; 3) the interesting biographies of their directors; 4) their very obscurity itself; 5) their "rare bit of social commentary"; and 6) their value as camp. (5) The last category becomes extremely important for preservation purposes. Camp is not often discussed in terms of its function as a repository for work that would otherwise fade into obscurity. Here, a campy, or highly ironic celebration of pure bathos has an important historical value that critics of camp might do well to consider.
Furthermore, exploitation and other films of "poor quality" are not without their own unique brand of politics. On the one hand, Roffman's films are rather backwards, politically speaking: like most American exploitation, their representations of women are quite retrograde, and the depiction of contemporary subculture in The Bloody Brood is hyper-conservative as well as reactionary. On the other hand, while many exploitation films are apolitical or politically retrogressive in terms of their textual functioning, they are not without politically subversive value. Their mild iconoclasm may lie in the sheer audaciousness of their content, rather than their commitment to social commentary. That is, these films transform the profane into loving spectacle: witness young Roy's last moments in The Bloody Brood as his intestines are punctured by ground glass hidden in a murderous hamburger, as well as the outrageous sex and death imagery of the 3-D sequences in The Mask. Thus, trash cinema can be linked to the oppositional practices of more "legitimate" art (such as dada or some radical manifestations of postmodernism). It can be "as apocalyptic and nihilistic, as hostile to meaning, form, pleasure and the specious good as many types of high art." (6) Although intentionality is certainly different between these two types of art (in terms of creative versus economic ambitions), the results for the viewer/observer can be quite similar.
And it is here, at the level of audience and reception, that the films' real subversiveness may be located. The viewing of such "substandard" cinema can often result in the following: 1) an unadulterated pleasure at the "low," "base," or "carnal" qualities of the films; 2) resistance to the technical slickness of filmmaking's more dominant modes; 3) a subversion of "acceptable" exhibition and viewing practices; and 4) the potential undermining of "legitimate" criticism. (7) For Timothy Corrigan, films that achieve cult status "invariably subvert and run contrary to the immobility and passivity which regulate standard viewing and reading practices." (8) While the cult status of Roffman's films is certainly not comparable to that of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sherman, 1975), Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), or even Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), the audiences who have seen and love such films do so for their own idiosyncratic reasons and despite all efforts to persuade them to the contrary. The adoption of "bad" texts for their own sake demonstrates that "neither texts nor audiences are univocal; the meanings and pleasures of the texts are rather described by audiences to suit specific and often incommensurable needs." (9) By privileging the subjective pleasure-making of the spectator, the power to discern what shall be deemed of "superior quality" is removed from the singular control of the critic and dispersed much more democratically among audiences.
Accepting this assumption also means recognizing the arbitrariness of the processes by which cultural products are assigned as "good" or "bad." One need only consider the number of films panned upon their initial release, only to be reevaluated and reclaimed by critics years later (Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), of course, being the most off-cited example). Problematising the various contingencies of value is not an attempt to elevate such products, or attribute to them a greater degree of sophistication that may or may not be present. Rather, it must be recognized that no cultural placement of evaluation of a film is innocent, objective, or definitive.
By troubling the assumptions of canonization, and other interconnected projects, one troubles the idea "that value [is] a determinate property of texts and that the critic, by virtue of certain innate acquired capacities (taste, sensibility, etc.), [is] someone specifically equipped to discriminate it." (10) All too often, Canadian film academics lose sight of the self-interrogating processes that are imperative to any successful study within the field; that our self-proclaimed status as "educated arbiters of taste" must be continually deconstructed. Critics must be ever conscious of the politics of taste, which function according to a polarizing binary. In Pierre Bordieu's words, "tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror of visceral intolerance ('sick-making') of the taste of others." (11) One must be constantly aware that "taste" implies artificial cultural hierarchies and that the denigration of "uneducated" pleasures enforces the restrictive boundaries between the powered and disenfranchised.
By deconstructing the idea of qualitative difference, one simultaneously disassembles the hierarchical structure of canonizing projects. To begin with, Roffman's films can be historically situated as precursors to the much more sensationalistic exploitation films that were to follow in the next two decades. Both The Bloody Brood and The Mask carry on from the tradition of the American "B-film," with their (relatively) low production values and micro-budgets. However, unlike the "B" system, in which "culturally respectable form and subject matter, even given good reviews, was not enough to project a film's A status if the studio stood to make greater profits through distributing other features in its choice first-run theatres," the narrative content of exploitation makes no pretence at said cultural respectability. (12) According to Leslie Halliwell, the exploitation film is widely considered to be "without discernable merit apart form the capability of being sensationalised." (13)
Even with the brief attempt at classification delineated above, there is some difficulty in determining precisely what one means by the term "exploitation." Describing it as a genre is problematic. For Paul Watson, "exploitation is defined not in terms of the film itself, but by the means in which it is sold to its potential audience. It is not so much a systematic discourse, as generic definitions necessarily imply, but rather a discourse of systemisation." (14) Here, the emphasis is on the film's intended design of consumption. In a similar vein, Ephraim Katz's definition of exploitation is interesting in that it is expansive enough to eclipse most Hollywood product as well: "films made with little or no attention to artistic merit but with an eye to profit, usually via high-pressure sales and promotion techniques emphasizing some sensational aspect of the product." (15) Thus, the mutual goal for producers of exploitation and Hollywood executives is the film's generation of maximum profits.
Besides the Hollywood blockbuster's intended address to a large, international demographic versus the hailing of exploitation's more limited specialized audience, there may be little difference between the two cinemas. Especially with respect to their approach to content, in which spectacle is emphasised above all else, the two are surprisingly similar. The films' promotion of spectacle, in conjunction with the stripping down of narrative elements to bare essentials and their endorsement of a pleasure that is affective is reminiscent of Tom Gunning's "cinema of attractions." Although originally conceived to form a link between primitive cinema and the avant-garde, Gunning's model can be appropriated to describe both the blockbuster and exploitation cinema:
[the cinema of attractions] incit[es] visual curiosity, and suppl[ies] pleasure through an exciting spectacle ... Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasising the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe ... Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward toward the character-based situations essential to classical narrative. (16)
In particular, The Mask's 3-D sequences are excellent examples of such a cinema. One witnesses a foregrounding of spectacle (live human sacrifice!), the dominance of "theatrical display" (blazing fireballs, various spooks, and fun-house-like mise-en-scene), and an "outward" motion of energy "toward an acknowledged spectator" (the voice-over narration commanding both the doctor and audience to "Put the mask on, now"). Such sequences are typical of both exploitation cinema and the blockbuster, both of which are punctuated by "descriptive pauses." These are "moments independent of plot but concerned with rendering 'the properties of things,' [especially] the properties of the human body, for voyeuristic purposes." (17) Many scenes in The Mask foreground the mortification of the flesh (Michael's mutilated face, for example). For the exploitation film, "the discursive procedure which cinematographically defines [them], is the production of the transformation of the body into flesh." (18) Naturally, similar fleshy transubstantiations are a necessary component of the more graphic of Hollywood blockbusters.
How, then to differentiate between the culturally legitimised cinema of the average Hollywood generic blockbuster, and the culturally denigrated exploitation film? Differences are especially difficult to determine considering their interconnected economic development. One might argue that exploitation's subversive value as an oppositional cinema is limited since its "significance relates not to the realms of the paracinema, but rather to the fundamental aesthetic and economic axioms by which Hollywood operates." (19) And yet, although the maximisation of profit margins appears to dictate the form of both Hollywood and exploitation product, they are not altogether dissimilar kinds of film art.
Critical refuge cannot be found in continuing to argue that difference can be perceived by an ostensible discrepancy in "quality." In compiling the few existing references to Roffman's films, one discovers that reviews of his work are not always poor. Although The Motion Picture Guide calls The Bloody Brood "a waste of good celluloid," (20) The Mask is regarded as a slight improvement, getting at least one star, rather than zero, and described as "a fairly uninspired horror film." (21) If the comments of the Guide's reviewers seem to damn with faint praise, there are more noteworthy appraisals. For example, out of the dozens of horror films produced in North America in 1961, Phil Hardy's Horror anthology inexplicably chooses to review The Mask. (22) The film is also praised by Paul Corupe as "one of the strangest and best Canuxploitation films of all time," and his review contains such adjectives as "enjoyable" and "haunting." (23) Finally, the film enjoyed a favourable review in The New York Times (of all places), in which Howard Thompson claims that the film "wears a becoming, scrubbed look," is "sharply photographed," contains acting that "is consistently good," and that its "unfamiliar roster of players" and story were "two more assets." (24) Thus, even a few good reviews must force a reappraisal of The Mask as a poor film, according to the criteria of inferiority outlined earlier.
The praise of the film's cinematography certainly does not speak to the director's alleged technical incompetence. Roffman received training as a filmmaker in the United States and assisted by the esteemed Slavko Vorkapich (who designed the 3-D sequences and was well-regarded for his editing of the celebrated montage sequence in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), the look of The Mask is extremely professional. Although there are some rough edges to the films (particularly the sloppy editing in The Bloody Brood), both films appear to be more technically accomplished efforts than other accepted "classics" of Canadian cinema. As examples, Le chat dans le sac (Gilles Groulx, 1964) and A tout prendre (Claude Jutra, 1963) come immediately to mind. While Roffman's films represent a drastically different stylistic approach to filmmaking from the above two films, they seem to blend form and content together more efficiently than Groulx and Jutra's respective efforts, which both suffer from moments of wilfully "experimental" stylistic irrelevancy.
Any criticism of the films' "wooden acting" can be partially dismissed under the rubric of subjectivity (one could again counter with the Times review). Moreover, the basis of value for determining the value of a film's performances is often mimetic: a "good" performance is a "realistic" performance. However, not only do ideals of naturalistic acting continually shift, the stylised performances in both of Roffman's films are not commensurable with realist criteria. The exaggerated mannerisms of the actors in The Bloody Brood (including a menacing, pre-Columbo Peter Falk) and The Mask are appropriate to both their period and respective genres. Furthermore, it is questionable that these performances are any better or worse than those in established Canadian "classics." And if nothing else, one can at least enjoy the performances after a historical remove, in which they can be appreciated according to the loving ironies of camp.
Lest we put too much critical stock in The New York Times' lone voice in the wilderness, allow me to make a slight qualification instead vis a vis a potential charge of "bad writing." What is usually described as poor scripting is actually a deficiency in the plotting of the film: in the case of the horror film or thriller, a shoddy writer fails to create suspense, dramatic rhythm, and narrative coherence. However, the script is not of as great import in the horror/exploitation genre; it is often deemphasised in favour of spectacle. In this regard, such underdeveloped scripts are not altogether unworthy of comparison to the typically sketchy narratives of Canadian realist classics. Moreover, such films typically rely heavily on the abilities of unprofessional actors to carry a scene--individuals whose improvisational skills are not always up to the task. With its meandering narrative trajectory, loose story structure, and amateur performances, Nobody Waved Goodbye (Don Owen, 1964) is the most obviously relevant example of such an aesthetic.
Low production values are obviously a factor in all independent filmmaking. Furthermore, an "unpolished" aesthetic born out of limited monetary resources is a condition of any national cinema without a substantial financial infrastructure that supports filmmakers or one that offers only limited economic assistance. Having the multi-million dollar budgets of Hollywood generic films as our closest point of reference does not assist the positive reception of a nickel-and-dime store Canadian equivalent. One might criticize Roffman and other exploitation directors for making films that do not lend themselves to small budgets. Extravagant special effects are costly, especially since they must appear convincing to an increasingly fickle audience. Here again, however, the ghost of the realist tradition haunts even the most fantastic of genres, imposing its incommensurable values on Roffman's work.
Turning, then, to the actual content of the films, it is necessary to deflate the valorisation of an "aesthetic value" and an avoidance of sensationalism as conditions for canonization. As has already been indicated, for the cinema of attractions, sensationalism is an actual virtue in and of itself. Furthermore, the driving force behind the production of exploitation films is the generation of profits. In viewing the films, it becomes clear that these are texts that are unapologetic about their lack of artistic pretence. It is especially hypocritical for the Canadian critic to bemoan the alleged absence of epicurean aspirations in films such as Roffman's. In order to ensure the continuation of their work, it is imperative for Canadian filmmakers that their films make money. Returning to the example of Cronenberg, whose Shivers was unanimously panned by nearly every critic in the country upon its release, one should recall John Hofsess' apologia: "In matters of culture ... it always pays to remember that it's the broad base of a pyramid that supports the peak." (25) For Cronenberg, it took the financial success of a film like Shivers to ensure the production of his later, more "arty" films that Canadian critics have embraced--Videodrome (1983), Dead Ringers (1988), and Crash (1997) being prominent examples.
Like Shivers, have The Bloody Brood and The Mask been dismissed from an academic canon because of an apparently "base" subject matter? Carnality, or luridness is certainly not a quality limited to exploitation cinema. Many so-called "art" films are just as sanguineous or scatological. Leolo (Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1992), for example, contains an abundance of bizarre unpleasantries including: accidental impregnation via semen shot onto an Italian tomato, an obsession with excretion, masturbation with a piece of raw meat and its subsequent consumption, and bestiality. And yet, the film is able to win the Genie for Best Film of its year because the violence and scatology are heavily aestheticized. Leolo is shot quite beautifully, compared to the matter-of-factness with which Roffman often presents scenes of "grossness."
A preoccupation with the Rabelaisian is often associated with a lowbrow audience, and hence, it is anathema to any self-respecting film scholar. For Bourdieu, "the most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the processors of legitimate culture is the reuniting of tastes that taste dictates shall be separated." (26) Taste, then, retains its function as a weapon in class warfare, ensuring that the social division between those who serve and those who eat remains distinct. The manufacturing of an artificially determined "refined" sensibility also becomes a matter of nationalism. Implicit in Canadian critics' rejection of Roffman's films is a desire to elevate our cinema above the "crassness" of an American savior-faire, whose cinema The Bloody Brood and The Mask seem to emulate.
Finally, all speculations as to their potential subversiveness aside, are the films politically retrogressive? Or rather, are they any more politically reprehensible than many of the films of either Hollywood or a Canadian art cinema? For example, the ultra-conservative (and often hilarious) depiction of beatnik subculture in The Bloody Brood is not far off from similar reactionary representations in a Fred Astaire musical made three years earlier, Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1956). (27) If anything, The Bloody Brood is apolitical. Its release comes a few years too late to capitalize fully on the wave of beatnik flicks that inundate the drive-ins of the United States in the mid-1950's (just as in 1961, The Mask misses the boat on the 3-D phenomenon which had, by that time, already seen its peak four years earlier). It is unlikely, then, that a Canadian film about a (primarily) American subculture that is already on its way out has anything relevant to say about the subject matter politically or ideologically. If one must force an ideological reading onto The Bloody Brood, one could potentially argue that the film is a critique of American (sub)cultural penetration into Canada--a subculture that is later celebrated so readily in the bouncy hippiedom of Denis Heroux's forgotten sexploitation film, Valerie (1968). The film enacts an extremely punitive narrative and sketches caricatures of the assorted hipsters who frequent The Digs, especially the perpetually fried Dave/Ron Taylor ("Coooool weeeeed, maaaaan!") and Paul/Kenneth Wickes, a would-be Canadian Ginsberg.
Ultimately, in referencing films such as Roffman's, one finds that "exploitation films do not meet the standards of the mainstream cinema simply because they have separate standards of their own." (28) These "separate standards" are readily acknowledged by the audiences who love the films. Furthermore, applying the standards of a Canadian art cinema (which is itself Europhilic) to Roffman's is unfair; such values are incommensurable with his work. Although one may argue that the elitist opinions of academia have little material results on film production or popular reception itself, it is an odd coincidence that Roffman made only one more film after The Mask. Despite the film's modest financial success and international distribution, Roffman disappears from feature filmmaking following his work as a writer and producer on an American B-feature, The Glove (Ross Hagen, 1978).
Just as Roffman "vanishes" from filmmaking, one observes a tendency among Canadian filmmakers to likewise render genre invisible. A brief survey of Canadian fiction films reveals that the number of non-generic features far outweighs that of generic films. (29) Allowing for the generalization that genre has primarily been an American cinematic preoccupation, generic invisibility in Canadian cinema seems to represent a disassociational tendency. The more spectacular of genres are avoided in favour of more distinctly nationalistic fare. While critics such as Bruce Elder and Peter Harcourt composed their respective manifestos during a socio-political period in which the rubric of nationalist discourse dictated the creation of a "Canadian cinema," one that could be acknowledged as a competent presence on an international scene, their prescriptions have long since expired. (30) Concretizing a Canadian canon should no longer be a political imperative, especially in light of the questionable status of unitary nationhood itself. (31) Establishing a limited corpus of films whose function it is to exude a certain "Canadianness" does not seem compatible with the hybridised and mutable nature of our national culture. (32) Indeed, Jim Leach has pointed out the importance of considering this new interest in cultural diversity recognisable in recent Canadian cinema, especially those films that "link their national contexts to the broader experience of globalisation and postmodernity." (33) And yet, if this "global" mass culture remains predominantly American in appearance, it is unsurprising that critics with interests in formulating a distinctly Canadian canon would eschew generic product that seems to emulate such "popular" (read: American) forms.
Geoff Pevere believes "our" Canadian cinema to be elitist as well as retrogressively nationalistic. The cinema idealized by Bruce Elder, for example, strives to be "separate from and unsullied by the grime and corruption of everyday discourse and popular taste." (34) Similarly, the cinematic tradition that Harcourt espouses in "1964: The Beginning of a Beginning," is just as imperious. It seems almost sacrilege to claim that the documentary-realism enjoyed by Harcourt appeals and speaks to just as marginal an audience in Canada as Elder's non-narrative, anti-realist, and self-reflexive cinema. And yet, if a very small number of people view these films, when compared to the high-grossing numbers of a Porky's or Shivers, the "Canadianness" of Harcourt or Elder's cinema seems limited, if not outright debatable. While the original intentions behind the composition of these essays may have been noble, Pevere's desire for critics to evaluate "the cinema we got," rather than devise prescriptive manifestos is valid. Such didactic lists are inherently exclusionary and films such as Roffman's that do not prescribe to their conditions become casualties, unworthy of even the most trivial historical acknowledgement. Generic films in particular certainly fit neither the qualifications of Harcourt nor Elder. They are shameful aberrations; art cinema's bastard offspring.
I would argue that the very transparency of their generic qualities lead to the dismissal of Roffman's films. (35) As representatives of their respective genres, there seems to be little to distinguish them from their contemporaries in the United States. Even some of the kinder reviews describe both films as fairly run-of-the-mill. Thus, the rationale behind their exclusion from a Canadian canon is twofold: not only do these films simply ape Hollywood product, they do not do it very well. If these films are representative of a colonized imagination, the emulation of their southern colonizers is a reprehensible project according to those who engage in canon construction. (36)
Roffman's films do not seem to adopt their generic conventions in ways that seem subversive or deconstructive. Critics' darling, Denys Arcand claims that in using genre, Canadian filmmakers should deconstruct them as a defensive measure. In his film, La Maudite galette (1971), Arcand claims that he denies generic pleasure in order to "produce an uneasiness in the spectator which will be difficult to identify to begin with because it is caused by a modification of the cinematic language itself." (37) Arcand employs unconventional forms and narrative structures to defamiliarize his audience's reception of genre. However, the necessity of constructing such defensive measures is arguable. Likewise, the general abstinence among Canadian filmmakers from making overtly generic films is troubling.
At first glance, the most obvious reason behind the dearth of generic filmmaking in Canada is the limited finances available to the films' producers. Simply put, Canadian filmmakers do not have the economic resources to engage in the more spectacular of genres. However, Jim Leach speaks of a more unsettling reason. He claims that "the sense of security [that genre provides] is precisely what is lacking, almost by definition, in the more traditional (or progressive?) Canadian cinema that explores ... the uncertainties of the Canadian experience." (38) For Leach, these experiential "uncertainties" are attributable to our perceived lack of a concrete national identity. A shorthand version of the implicit thrust behind his arguments might read as such: "Canadians don't make generic movies because they're afraid of American assimilation."
Although Canada may constitute just another domestic market for American product, Hollywood neo-imperialism does not necessarily preclude the production of Canadian generic films. Conceiving of the suspense or horror film as definitively American genres establishes a fixity in our ideas of what constitutes both genre and (by extension) nationhood itself. Accepting genres as stable also discounts the audience's ability to resist accepting standard generic product at face value. Despite our proximity to the United States, our peripheral status (as far as Hollywood is concerned) should allow us to read genre differently than those audiences for whom it is closer. While sceptics may criticize a privileging of a marginalized audience's critical faculties as an exercise in romanticism, efforts towards devising a different Canadian viewing practice may prove to be more fruitful than devising a "distinctly" Canadian cinema. Unfortunately, such a project may be inhibited by detractors who would credit the northern reception of American genres as ironic at best--a tweaking of American sensibilities. If Canada is situated as Other and takes up the genres associated with the forces perceived as being responsible for its marginalisation in a global cultural market, one wonders if audiences do anything subversive with these texts. In Roffman's case, then, the reasons why popular audiences are more happy with his films than critics become obvious.
But although the films' content do not seem seditious generically, perhaps the experience of Canadian generic films is inherently subversive. A generous critic may allow for the powers of automatic critique by geographic default. To conceive of an analogy, one may turn to the work of Paul Coates, who claims that audiences do not consume the exploitation film innocently due to the excessive nature of its content. In other words, "the dubious material is presented together with a mechanism for its disavowal: it has built-in 'credible deniability.' This split within the consciousness of the films permits them to address a divided self, a divided community." (39) The audience of the Canadian generic film represents a similar "divided community." To use Leach against himself, it is due to the "uncertainties of [our] Canadian experience," and a national identity that is extremely hybridized, that we should be sensitive to the schizophrenic nature of the films themselves. In Roffman's films, the threads of cultural suturing may become easier for the Canadian viewer to detect. Consider, for example, the anomaly of Nico in The Bloody Brood. Peter Falk' oily assertiveness, virulent charisma, and thick Brooklyn accent seem extremely out of place in a Canadian context dominated by "cowards, bullies, and clowns." (40) Might a suggestion be forwarded, then, that Canadian audiences simultaneously receive and disavow the pleasures of genre? While it seems naive to suggest that Roffman's films inherently critique, or comment on the very genres they adopt, it should be possible to conceive of an experience of Canadian genre that is different from American practices.
Alternative practices performed by Canadian audience have yet to be theorized. For now, what can be concluded is that, radically speaking, nothing is "wrong" with the films o Julian Roffman, as quality has been determined to be al extremely relative value. Just as very little differentiates "good" film from a "poor" film, exploitation and non exploitation cinema are closer kin than one might assume. Additionally, the criteria that are often used for the purposes el canonization are extremely limiting and are incommensurable with a large corpus of Canadian film, including the critically disowned tradition of exploitation. As generic examples of the thriller and horror film, Roffman's work is included within type of filmmaking typically eschewed by the majority of Canadian filmmakers.
At the same time, however, recent years have seen an increase in straightforward generic productions in Canada. Noteworthy examples include the SF thriller, Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997) and the quasi-feminist update on the "I-Was-a-Teenage-Werewolf" sub-genre, Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett, 2000). Despite their popularity on both the domestic and international markets, neither of these films are likely to achieve the kind of critical laurels heaped upon Cronenberg or Robert Lepage for their respective forays into popular genres, nor are they likely to receive timeless status as representative works of a distinctly Canadian Cinema. But while directors have generally avoided making explicitly generic films, those that represent the exception do not always or necessarily ape Hollywood product. Moreover, the Canadian experience of genre is one that can be potentially self-interrogating, fluid, and may speak to a dynamic (because unstable) national identity. By revaluating the Canadian production of popular film genres, we are only on the verge of developing a new "dreamlife," one in which the "younger brother" may finally be allowed to grow up.
I would like to dedicate this article to Andre Loiselle, who teaches an MA course on the casualties of the Canadian cinematic canon at Carleton University, and who brought Roffman's films to my attention. I would also like to thank both Andre and Katherine Grant at the University of Kent at Canterbury as well for reading early drafts of this paper.
(1) Pierre Veronneau, "A Chronology of Canadian and Quebec Cinema," in Self Portrait: Essays on the Canadian and Quebec Cinemas. Ed. Veronneau and Piers Handling (Ottawa: Canadian Film Institute, 1980), 190. The Mask is also briefly mentioned in Gene Walz's introduction to his anthology, Canada's Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films (Toronto: Rodopi, 2002).
(2) John Hofsess, "Fear and Loathing to Order," in Canadian Film Reader. Ed. Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson (Toronto: P. Martin Associates, 1977), 274.
(3) Cannibal Girls launched the career of Reitman, who produced Cronenberg's first feature and later went on to become a successful Hollywood director and producer. Black Christmas still receives irreverent seasonal television screenings internationally. Prom Night starred "Scream Queen" Jamie Lee Curtis, and was successful enough to spawn three sequels.
(4) Of course, such restrictions do not help filmmakers such as Deepa Metha, whose films about India are not eligible for financial assistance from these agencies, but that is another matter entirely.
(5) Steve Richards, "That's Cool, That's Trash! Confessions of a B-movie Fanatic" (Broken Pencil 11, Fall 1999), 18-19.
(6) Tania Modleski, "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory" in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Modleski and Kathryn Woodward (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986), 162.
(7) Compare the rhapsodizing of Cameron Bailey in his prefatory remarks to the broadcast of any Canadian film on television's "Showcase Revue" to the more honest vulgarities of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark in her remarks about The Mask at the end of the 1994 Rhino Home Video edition.
(8) Timothy Corrigan, "Film and the Culture of Cult" (Wide Angle 8/3, 1986), 96.
(9) I.Q. Hunter and Heidi Kaye, Introduction to Trash Aesthetics: Popular Culture and Its Audience. Ed. Deborah Cartmell, I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye, and Imelda Wheelan (Chicago: Pluto, 1997), 3. My italics.
(10) Barbara Hernstein Smith, "Contingencies of a Value" (Critical Inquiry 10/1, 1983), 3.
(11) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction (London: Routledge, 1986), 56.
(12) Lea Jacobs, "The B Film and the Problem of Cultural Distinction" (Screen 33/1, 1992), 13.
(13) Cited in Maitland McDonagh, Filmmaking on the Fringe: The Good, the Bad, and the Deviant Directors (Secaucus: Carol Pub, 1995), viii.
(14) Paul Watson, "There's No Accounting for Taste: Exploitation Cinema and the Limits of Film Theory" in Cartmell, 78.
(15) Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopaedia, 3rd ed (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 432.
(16) Tom Gunning, "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde" in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Ed. Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 58-59.
(17) Craig Fischer, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and the Exploitation Genre" (The Velvet Light Trap 30, Fall 1992), 20.
(18) Gareth Sansom, "Fangoric Horrality: The Subject and Ontological Horror in a Contemporary Cinematic Sub-Genre" (Social Discourse 2/1, 1989), 167.
(19) Watson, 67.
(20) Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross, The Motion Picture Guide: 1927-1983, Volume 5 (Chicago: Cinebooks, 1985), 1244.
(21) Ibid, 1895.
(22) Phil Hardy, ed. Horror (London: Aurum Press, 1993), 143.
(23) Paul Corupe, "Canuxploitation!" (Broken Pencil 11, Fall 1999), 12.
(24) Howard Thompson, "The Mask" (The New York Times, October 28, 1961), 4.
(25) Hofsess, 278.
(26) Bourdieu, 57.
(27) In this film, Astaire winces at the gangly undulations of Audrey Hepburn during her "Basal Metabolism" number in a bohemian, Parisian bistro. He also infiltrates a gathering of languid beats by wearing a beret and false goatee.
(28) Randall Clark, At a Theatre or Drive-In Near You: The History, Culture, and Politics of American Exploitation (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 177.
(29) By "generic" I am referring to Rick Altman's early model in "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre" (Cinema Journal 3, 1984), 6-18. Here, he identifies genre films as those with highly visible semantic and syntactic codes
(30) The idealized criteria of Elder and Harcourt can be found in the following two articles: Bruce Elder, "The Cinema We Need" in Documents in Canadian Film. Ed. Douglas Fetherling (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1988), 260-271; and Peter Harcourt, "1964: The Beginning of a Beginning," in Veronneau and Handling, 64-72.
(31) Stuart Hall, "The Question of Cultural Identity" in Modernity and Its Futures. Ed. Hall, David Held, and Tony McGrew (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), 297.
(32) To be fair to Harcourt, he has since opened up his initial conception of a Canadian cinema in order to embrace its (alleged) commitment to pluralism. For further details, see Peter Harcourt, "Faces Changing Colour Changing Canon: Shifting Cultural Foci Within Contemporary Canadian Cinema" (CineAction 45, 1998): 5-16.
(33) Jim Leach, "The Reel Nation: Image and Reality in Contemporary Canadian Cinema" (Canadian Journal of Film Studies 11/2, 2002), 8.
(34) Geoff Pevere, "The Rites (and Wrongs) of the Elder or The Cinema We Got: The Critics We Need," in Fetherling, 331.
(35) Ironically enough, the supernatural and mysterious have always occupied a revered place generically in the arts in Canada. See Margaret Atwood, Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).
(36) And yet, in turning once again to the example of Nobody Waved Goodbye, those critics who are ready to hail the film as a cornerstone of a Canadian aesthetic do not seem to recognize the ways in which the film is extremely derivative of the work produced by a giant of the American independent cinema--John Casevettes.
(37) Denys Arcand, "La Maudite Galette" (Cinema Quebec 2/1,1972), 11.
(38) Jim Leach, "The Body Snatchers: Genre and Canadian Cinema" in Film Genre Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 358.
(39) Paul Coates, Film at the Intersection of High and Mass Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 176.
(40) These being the three kinds of archetypal Canadian protagonists identified by Robert Fothergill in his off-cited article, "Coward, Bully, Clown: The Dream-Life of a Younger Brother" (Canadian Film Reader, Ed. Seth Feldman and Joyce Nelson, Toronto: Peter Martin Associates, 1977), 234-250.
Aaron Taylor is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He has written for The Canadian Journal of Film Studies and is a contributor to the forthcoming anthology, Rethinking Disney: Private Control and Public Dimensions.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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