Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Lucy! Ju Gots Some Splainin' To Do...!

My recent comments on the CRTC have been turning up all over the place. Gawd! Epstein publishes one errant email and all of a sudden I'm the screenwriter's Che Guevara...

But following the links referring here as a result has been interesting and educational, with a lot of traffic coming from a blog and website I wasn't familiar with. It's called an offshoot of The Great Canadian Guide to the Movies and TV which featured an interesting assessment of my character and career.

It reads as follows:

"So what's my point? I dunno. You tell me.

It's just there's a feeling that a lot of Canadian artists bemoan the lack of support and enthusiasm they receive from the public...even as they are often the worst practitioners of national pride. At Canadian filmmaker Jim Henshaw's blog, he makes some good points in an earlier blog (Sunday, April 15, 2007 "A NATION OF AMNESIACS") about Canadians having amnesia about their own history, and angrily denouncing Canadian executives who were cool to his proposal for an uber-Canadian movie. Yet the joke is, if you look through Henshaw's cv, he's spent most of the last thirty years working on movies and TV shows that pretended they were American. In other words, he's spent decades contributing to that very amnesia -- a climate that marginalizes Canada and Canadian culture -- then is surprised when he's having trouble drumming up support for his Canadian project!

(Okay, I have a certain sympathy for Henshaw -- long ago Henshaw wrote and starred in a very Canadian comedy called A Sweeter Song, and for that alone he deserves kudos. In fact, Henshaw is presumably one of those embittered cultural soldiers that have accrued over the years. A guy who got tired of banging his head against a wall, and so decided it was easier to sell out than keep fighting. So I do have sympathy -- 'course, Henshaw also wrote the episode of Friday: the Thirteenth: the Series, "My Wife as a Dog", about which the less said, the better)."

Well, accurate factually (and thanks for the compliments "Pulp and Dagger") but I think the essence of me has escaped you, much like it escapes most people who search for the meaning of what it is to be Canadian by expecting to see it constantly exhibited and championed in the work of this country's artists.

The truth is that few if any of us ever aspired to be "Captain Canada", wrap ourselves in the flag or spend our careers writing about the lonliness of Maple Sugar tappers. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

We're just writing or otherwise creating what comes from inside us, and while that's shaped (as we are) by where we live, I don't think any of us are consciously trying to speak with a Canadian accent. We're simply trying to tell our stories to anyone who wants to listen and will hopefully pay for them.

I grew up on the prairies and love this country, and while I've been over most of it, including nameless places well North of the Arctic Circle, I've never been East of Quebec City --and special as I'm sure it is, don't have any desire to go. There are other countries and cultures on my list that have a far greater priority -- for reasons that are my own. I don't think that makes me less a Canadian.

As a teenager I was with a band that opened for "The Guess Who", "Mashmakhan" and "Crowbar". But I mostly listened to Dylan, Hendrix and Zeppelin. Was I a cultural traitor even then? Is some kid today who likes Shakira more than Avril Lavigne betraying his or her culture?

And I hate the kind of attitude that suggests an artist who's left this country (usually to work with Americans) has "sold out". I don't consider Robbie Robertson, Jim Carrey, Mike Myers or James Cameron "sell-outs". They're guys who went where their hearts told them they could best realize their dreams.

Y'know, it's interesting that we seem to be okay with calling people who work on US TV shows "sell-outs" when we would never use that term to describe a Canadian actor choosing to work at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in London, or a Canadian tenor taking off to perform at La Scala in Milan. How come Leonard Cohen isn't taken to task for spending most of his life in hedonistic bliss at the Chateau Marmont, or Peter Jennings for eschewing the CBC for ABC News?

We're a funny bunch. We don't have anything remotely emullating a NY Times, an MIT, a Metropolitan Opera, a Broadway, Hollywood, Mayo Clinic or NASA and yet we piss on any Canadian who chooses to embrace them.

When I started writing, I was writing independent films. I didn't think of them as CANADIAN independent films. I thought of them as low-budget movies I had to write to get the chance to write something bigger.

When I went into television, my choices were "The Beachcombers", "Danger Bay" or "Friday the 13th". I jumped at the chance to write something I thought would be cool. It also paid about 10 times as much!

It may not have been patriotic, but let me tell you, there are a couple of Canadian ex-wives able to live in very nice Toronto neighbourhoods today because I made those decisions!!!

Yeah, nobody wants to do my Canadian history movie. But then, nobody in Canada wanted to do the dinosaur and cleavage scripts I wrote on either side of it and sold to Americans and Australians. Were they Canadian culture? Actually, yeah they were! They were written in Canada by a Canadian.

I realize Canadians don't usually lay claim to their cultural lock on giant lizards -- or cleavage for that matter. Having been all over the world, I will attest to the fact that pretty much every indigenous film industry has a couple of dinosaur films those nations think of as their own. So how come we can't too? I mean, we could -- and in the cleavage department, it's well known that Canadians take a back seat to nobody!

I did a bunch of George F. Walker's first plays when I was acting. Today, George is recognized as probably the greatest living Canadian playwright. Where were those early plays set and who were the main characters?

"Bagdad Saloon" -- in Bahgdad, starring a bunch of Arabs, Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein and Doc Holliday.

"Ramona and the White Slaves" -- Hong Kong, with a family of Austrian ex-pat opium addicts.

"Beyond Mozambique" -- uh, somewhere beyond Mozambique, featuring an Italian Doctor, a Chinese priest, and an American movie star. A Mountie makes a brief appearance.

Were the themes Canadian? Well, a few years ago, I saw "Beyond Mozambique" performed in Sydney, Australia. The audience fell about laughing in exactly the same places they had in Toronto. That play touched people who knew little if anything about what its like to be Canadian -- because it wasn't written with its meaning to Canadian culture in mind. It was written to make people laugh, no matter what passport they were carrying.

"Pulp and Dagger" takes a swipe at an episode of "F-13" that he didn't like. He could've mentioned that one of the episodes I wrote is the only horror script ever nominated for a Gemini, or that another one was nominated for a Humanitas and a third was honored by the NAACP, but that wouldn't serve his view of the tawdry nature of American "culture" when compared to what's available above the 49th.

We actually had a great time making "My Wife As A Dog" (the title a take-off on Lasse Hallström’s Oscar nominated film) -- and interestingly enough, it has remained one of the most popular episodes of the series. It's been almost 20 years since it was shot and it's still playing all over the world.

I suppose I could've written episodes of "ENG" instead, but I wouldn't have reached as wide an audience -- and I sure as hell wouldn't be cashing regular residual checks from them.

Ya see, "Pulp and Dagger" one reason that Canadian artists leave or "sell out" is because when they work for Americans, they actually get paid. When we work for Canadian producers, we usually don't.

I once wrote and produced a series that was in profit on CBS from the end of year one and has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties to Canadian writers. The same series has been re-running 8 TIMES A WEEK for THREE YEARS on a Canadian channel accruing not a single additional dime.

Maybe some of the great minds concentrated on defining Canadian culture want to figure out that one!

I also once wrote an action film for an American company that didn't do very well, because it wasn't very good. But it still runs occassionally and still generates a few extra bucks for the retirement fund. Around the same time, I wrote a Canadian TV film that played in the US and out-rated NFL Football.

We beat fucking football!!! Do you know how close to impossible that is?

Well, that film's been sold in hundreds of countries and been playing regularly for years. But the Producer was Canadian -- so no one who worked on it has seen one more dollar than they were paid in advance.

I'm about as far from an "embittered cultural soldier" as you can get "Pulp and Dagger". Because I never wanted to be (or saw myself as) a cultural soldier in the first place. All that time I was doing those hundreds of Canadian plays, I was also doing Sam Shepherd, Beckett, "The Sunshine Boys" and being an animated Bear.

I've probably written and produced as many films and TV episodes in the rest of the world as I have here. And you know what? That means more people have been exposed to what it means to be Canadian than if I'd focussed completely on writing about Mounties and hockey players and how hard it is to get your health card replaced.

Let me explain how that works.

I wrote an episode of "Top Cops" that garnered a 26 share, meaning in one night and one performance, it had an American audience approximating the entire population of Canada at the time. Included in the script was an anecdote from my life embodied in the philosophy of a New York cop.

After the episode ran, I got letters from hundreds of cops (and not just American cops) appreciating the sentiment and asking for copies of the script, because it so perfectly represented their lives and their feelings.

That's how it works, "Pulp and Dagger". Deep down, we're all the same us humans. But an American would never have put those words into the mouth of a tough, no nonsense New York cop. A Canadian did because in his culture the sentiment didn't make you any less tough or no nonsense.

And they got it.

And it meant something to them.

Stop thinking of Canadian culture is some Holy Grail or cause you need to fight for. It's who you already are and what you already create. Let some critic waste his life defining it. Just do the work and try to enjoy the weekend.

Oh yeah, and like I said, do it for Americans. At least they pay you.


Anonymous said...

Amen brotha!


"It may not have been patriotic, but let me tell you, there are a couple of Canadian ex-wives able to live in very nice Toronto neighbourhoods today because I made those decisions!!!"

haha Too funny!

Bill Cunningham said...

Jim -

I love ya brother, but you can't convert those who have already drunk the Kool-aid...

Excellent post as always; look forward to hoisting a few with ya soon!

Jill Golick said...

Fabulous post.

Riddley Walker said...

Fucking great, my animated bear pal! ;-)