If you were asked to name some Canadian classic films, titles like Goin’ Down the Road, Mon oncle Antoine, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner or even Black Christmas may spring to mind. These are all wonderful films that are worthy of being dubbed classics, but they all share one aspect: they were all made after 1970. Each of those films has something different that keeps them in the popular consciousness, setting them apart from other movies and keeping them in the wildly varying discussion of what a classic film is, but where are the memorable films previous to 1970?
Trying to decide what defines a classic is a problem unto itself. Everybody has a different opinion and depending on who you ask, you’ll get answers as varied as Citizen Kane to Twilight. Whatever your personal opinion, the one thing we all agree on is that the film should be widely known. Now, just because a large majority of people haven’t heard of a film doesn’t mean it can’t be a classic, but without any knowledge of how amazing a film is, how could we possibly label it a classic?
There are a number of films prior to 1970 that could be defined as classic. I would hold up The Mask (1961) as a one such example. Directed by Julian Roffman, the film tells the story of a psychiatrist who comes into possession of a supposedly cursed mask. He’s enticed by the artefact and puts it on, only to be transported to a very strange world (shot in 3D, no less), where his aggressive impulses are released. It’s a fantastic film and TIFF has recently restored it, but when most articles about the movie are prefaced by the fact that it’s not the Jim Carrey vehicle, how could you label it a classic? Not enough people are aware of it and that’s the biggest hurdle facing Canadian films prior to the ’70s.
Not surprisingly, it was the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation in 1968 that jumpstarted a number of the films we now consider classics. Goin’ Down the Road (1970) was helped by the CFDC and is arguably the first film easily labelled a Canadian classic.
It’s important to also point out that I would consider myself to be an average film lover. “Lover” because I certainly watch more films each year than the casual moviegoer, typically hitting one a day most years. However, I don’t have an in-depth education in film. This places me in an area between casual and critical film watchers. I’ve seen, or at least have knowledge of, the films mentioned above, but once we move further into the past, I’m at a loss. A conversation with my colleagues may lead to different results, but it’s their job to consume as much media as possible. If I haven’t at least heard of the film, there’s a good chance the casual film watcher hasn’t either.
A list of the 50 Best Canadian Films Ever Made at Ballast illustrates many points in this debate over classic Canadian films prior to 1970. Of the 50 films listed, only five are before 1970. Of those, I’ve only heard of two. One of them happens to be Wavelength (1967), a film that my knowledge of comes from discussing this month’s issue of Toronto Film Scene, and Warrendale (1967), a film that simply has a title I’m sure I’ve heard in passing before. The other three —Neighbours (1952), À tout prendre (1964) and Tit Coq (1953) — are films I’d never even heard of until writing this article. Are these films classic? Possibly, but if a casual film watcher has never heard of them, never mind seeing them, how can they be added to that category? Even this list of the 50 best only features five films from before 1970, and three of them happen to be from the ’60s. It was the late’ 60s and ’70s that saw a rise in the quality of Canadian films, as well as a greater acceptance and acknowledgement of Northern cinema.
Not surprisingly, it was the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation in 1968 that jumpstarted a number of the films we now consider classics. Goin’ Down the Road (1970) was helped by the CFDC and is arguably the first film easily labelled a Canadian classic. In 1974, the capital cost allowance was created, which meant that if a film was certified Canadian by meeting certain requirements, investors didn’t have to pay any taxes until profits were seen. This led to a boom in Canadian films, many of which wound up being horror, where investments could be lower and profits were usually guaranteed. This is why we saw such a huge increase in not only film production, but the amount of films we consider classics — there was simply more to choose from and the tax credits insured a greater variety was created.
As the Canadian film industry continues to grow and our output is more widely seen throughout the world, it offers us the chance to be remembered. In another 100 years, the early days of Canadian cinema will blend together with the great films of the ’70s to become classics.
The fact that so many of the Canadian films we consider classics today didn’t emerge until the late ’60s demonstrates just how young the Canadian film industry is. This is another issue in finding Canadian classics, as enough time hasn’t elapsed to look back and critically analyse our cinema. If we agree that 1890 was the year the film industry began, that only makes the world of cinema 126 years old. If we consider the formation of the National Film Board of Canada in 1939 as the actual start of the Canadian film industry, that makes it just over 75 years old. Many of those films were also documentaries. While it’s not impossible to label a documentary a classic, it’s unusual. It wasn’t until the ’50s that Canadian films began to move away from the documentary format, meaning it’s closer to 60 years of film to reflect upon.
In comparison, there are American films from the ’20s and ’30s considered classics, giving them an almost 30-year head start. This may be the actual cause of our lack of Canadian classics. If we accept that a classic film is one that must be more widely known, the sheer volume of American film makes it difficult for a Canadian film to be heard amongst the noise. It’s a problem that exists today. American films are generally bigger, taking up space in Canadian cinemas and forcing smaller Canadian pictures to be shown in limited viewings. If we can’t find them, how can we hold them up as classics?
Time is at least on our side; it’s a mistake to label newer films classics right away, although we’re frequently guilty of doing just that. There are some you may immediately think will be, but only time can bestow that honour. As the Canadian film industry continues to grow and our output is more widely seen throughout the world, it offers us the chance to be remembered. In another 100 years, the early days of Canadian cinema will blend together with the great films of the ’70s to become classics. The further we move forward, the less defined they become, slowly merging into one large selection of Canadian classic films, instead of clearly defined decades where tax breaks and government grants brought about an increase in production. It’s also important to continue the discussion of Canadian film because that’s the best way of bringing classics from before 1970 into the public eye, granting them deserved recognition.