Interviewed about the legacy of Canadian tax shelter films in Cinema Canada in 1985, Mordecai Richler said,
I think they squandered a grand opportunity and it’s largely the fault of producers who were shameless and greedy, people of dismal taste, who were more interested in making deals than films and who made a lot of money for themselves. And so Canadian films do not enjoy a larger reputation anywhere and it’s a pity... a lot of damage has been done.
Well, Mordecai, I couldn’t disagree more.
In this era of Bill C-10 (which may be gone, but which leaves behind its ideological sediment), and $44.8-million in cuts to arts-and-culture programs (this in spite of a Conference Board of Canada report attesting to the economic benefits of investing in Canadian culture), I think it’s more important than ever to remember and celebrate the genre exercises upon which our film industry—and the careers of some of its brightest stars—were built. My Canada includes sleazy movies.
But first, a little primer on the tax shelter years: Although the late 70s are regarded as the heyday of tax shelter films, a 60% tax write-off for investment in Canadian films was available from 1954 on. In 1975, Minister of Finance John Turner announced a new income tax regulation allowing “investors to deduct in one year, against income from all sources, 100% [!] of their investment in certified feature films.” Moreover, it was retroactive, and included any film productions begun after Nov. 18, 1974. 100% tax-shelter financing more or less continued until 1982, when it fell prey to the vicious beast known as distribution. (The preceding is a gross oversimplification, but for the complete story on what was and could have been, read Wyndham Wise’s excellent and exhaustive article, “Canadian cinema from boom to bust: the tax-shelter years”1, from which I’ve cribbed liberally.)
But by that point, the damage was done. We already had Black Christmas. Meatballs. Fast Company. Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia. The Pyx.
Russian Roulette. Strange Shadows in an Empty Room. And a host of others. Some have gone on to prestigious DVD releases or undeservedly painful remakes, but most moulder in VHS bins.
Recently (the day before Canada Day, as a matter of fact), I had the opportunity to see a trio of these hidden zirconia, and I have never felt such as swell of patriotism in my life.
The evening started with a screening of The Silent Partner, in which bank teller Elliott Gould preempts Christopher Plummer’s scheme to rob his bank. Several double crosses and corpses later, Gould comes out on top, and along the way, we’re treated to an early semi-dramatic turn by John Candy and the you-can’t-unsee-it-once-you’ve-seen-it sight of Christopher Plummer not only in a mesh t-shirt, but also in drag. Written by Curtis Hanson and produced by Garth Drabinsky, The Silent Partner is easily one of the more entertaining crime dramas of the 70s, which is saying something.
Next up was Rituals, starring Hal Holbrook as one of five doctors who go on a fishing vacation deep in the Canadian wilderness only to discover that a crazed ex-patient is tracking them with murderous intent. The plot borrows heavily from Deliverance, but if anything, Rituals looks like it was far more hellish to make – for most of its running time, the actors trudge through forests and swamps, wet and filthy, surrounded by hordes of black flies that ain’t CGI. If you can find a print where you can actually see the action (the one I saw was murky to say the least), give it watch. You won’t be disappointed.
We rounded out the evening with Death Weekend. A Canadian Straw Dogs, Death Weekend is one of Ivan Reitman’s earliest productions, and centres on the tribulations of couple who are attacked by a group of ruffians at their cottage. If you’ve seen Straw Dogs, you can figure out how it ends. It’s not as shattering as Peckinpah’s film, but it’s satisfying, and smarter than expected.
But where are the midnight Canuxploitation screenings of tomorrow going to come from when funding for anything even remotely artsy is on the chopping block? Especially when there’s no reasoning with the people holding the axe? As Tom McSorley, Executive Director of the Canadian Film Institute, recently observed, what lies behind the current government’s arts funding cuts is “ideological adamant rock… I don’t think they listen with any degree of interest to the fact that the economic impact of the arts is demonstrably positive.”
Time has been kind to the tax shelter films. The opportunity wasn’t as squandered as Mordecai Richler would have us believe. A lot of genuine entertainment, expression and—yes, I’ll say it—art squeezed out between the lines of the producers’ ledgers, and we’re all richer for it. It would be great if today’s filmmakers got the same chance. But in the current political climate, that’s a big if.
I like to think that if Mordecai Richler were being interviewed today, he might use that descriptor—“shameless and greedy people of dismal taste”—to describe a group other than the producers of those dingy celluloid dreams.
I know I would.