Nat Taylor invented the multiplex cinema and was one of the founders of the private film-industry lobby in Canada, so feel free to despise him. But since the guy just died this past February 29 at a helpless age 98, why not remember him for his virtues – primary among them his role in bringing the world The Mask (1961), Canada’s first enduring contribution to schlock — and 3-D — cinema.
Produced by Taylor and directed by Julian Roffman, The Mask is the kind of film that gets sniffed at as “American-style,” and indeed it is the first Canadian film ever to be sold to a major American distributor (and can actually be found on video in an Elvira edition, complete with 3-D glasses, if your local video store is with-it enough).
The condemnation of “American-style” filmmaking resonates through the ages in Canadian cinema, with “not British enough” the most common subtext. And in this case it’s unavoidable: The Mask is indeed a bold assault on Canadian culture of the era, Taylored for the American market. To which I say hooray.
The Tayloring would appear to involve three terrorized women and the 3-D gimmick itself. The 3-D sequences are placed in the hands of The Great Slavko Vorkapitch, and feature a lot of masked women, cowls appearing and disappearing, snakes coming out of melting eyeballs, spiders, et al. And yes, America-haters, the aesthetic does indeed resemble Roger Corman in full tomb mode…if Corman were an Eastern European neurotic with girl trouble, and on a slightly heavier dose.
Ah drugs. Some take the plot — in which a cocksure psychiatrist is mailed “an Indian ritual mask” by a suicidal patient, puts it on, and hallucinates a lot — as some kind of a drug parable, a theory supported by such evidence as a mask-wearer saying “I’m…I’m like an addict!” And give the film credit for being half a decade ahead of its time: this film is custom-made for stoners to go ‘oh wow’ at, with the leering skull-things throwing 3-D flames at you and such like. If you’re into that sort of thing.
Of course, the literal moral of the movie is to leave that shit alone, it’s no good for you, it makes you a “savage,” and so on. But Jesus you can’t count on the text for anything anymore! Because what we are actually being served here is a movie that takes great pleasure in wreaking havoc, and doing so in the very confusing context of professional Canadian filmmaking in 1961.
First of all, the 3-D carnival of The Great Slavko Vorkapitch is parceled into three manageable, longish chunks, leaving the rest of the film in such glaring 2-D that it looks like a special effect too. In fact what it really looks like is 60s Canadian television, with its cardboard sets and studio lighting. Add the charming and folksy Dr. Barnes, a classic authority figure type whose descent into Mask-induced Golden Arm antics must have shaken things up at the ministry.
Even better is watching Dr. Barnes rave and mince for the benefit of his stolid and virtuous companions, because they are screamingly precise icons of Canadian cultural cliché and you never see these types under duress. The trusted companion guy who won’t let him trip out on the mask unless he can watch is beyond CBC, with his Dave Thomas jowls, his Steve Allen glasses and tartan shirt — he’s even gnawing on a PIPE for God’s sake. Imagine the pleasure of watching this guy get mauled by a mask junkie. Twice.
His girlfriend, with the rosy cheeks, the checker pattern dress and the mannered classy diction is even more familiar and hateful: she is pure Stratford. She could have been played by Megan Follows.
The writers have her mouth a couple ‘sexy’ lines — “I’m going to have to teach you a few things later on,” phew — but by the end she’s standing rod-straight and belting out words of wisdom and strength — “Will it lift you up and carry you along until you’re ready to plunge down deeper, deeper, deeper until you die?” On paper it reads like vintage pulp, but she actually Bards it up, and the entertainment value is all in that culture clash.
It’s interesting how wrong the women in the movie are for an ‘American’ production — even Dr. Barnes’ babe secretary speaks with a refined British accent. Her sequences are a case study in confused character motivation, but they culminate in another cultural frisson, where a convertible strangle session is interrupted by the good Doctor inadvertently leaning on the horn! Obviously someone in the next office had ‘censored’ the notion of the hero actually hurting anyone, and this was the filmmakers’ way of ‘bleeping’ it out. Right?
In its deader dialoguey moments, The Mask seems to prefigure the clunky creepiness of early Cronenberg, although Cronenberg never had The Great Slavko Vorkapitch or a nerdy narrator bellowing “PUT THE MASK ON NOW!” at the audience. To my knowledge, the schlock-infested Tax Shelter era never produced a film to match The Mask‘s sense of innocence or discovery, even if some of them may be ‘better.’ The overall sense of triumph over adversity here is its own reward, even if it’s the triumph of the private sector over the state. Hey, sometimes the state sucks too, right.
Another way the film impinges on the Canadian aesthetic are in its flashes of actual visual grace — the grabby camera moves and shock cuts that are unheard of in vintage Canadiana. There’s even a car chase for Christ’s sake — culminating at Queen’s Park of course. Partly to thank may be a cinematographer named Herb Alpert. And partly it may be the filmmakers’ own impatient rejection of the staid culture of our national cinema — a rejection which you can find exciting for your own reasons.
Jonathan Culp is author of the Stupid Journey zine, guitarist in The Biters,
video road show perpetrator and hapless curator of www.satanmacnuggit.com. He
is slowly editing his first feature, Grilled Cheese Sandwich. It’s a comedy.
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