Friday, March 13, 2009

“SHAMELESSLY ENTERTAINING”

In order to recommend a film I'm sure most of you probably haven't seen, I need to tell you about a film I'm certain you've never seen.

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The first time I ever visited a movie set was during the making of “The Canadians”. I was around ten at the time and one night my dad brought home an old friend for dinner. His name was Scott Peters, a Regina radio personality who’d gone to Hollywood years earlier to make his fortune as an actor. Scott hadn’t become famous, but he’d worked steadily. His credits included bit parts on “Invasion of the Saucer Men”, “Suicide Battalion” and “Hot Rod Gang”. But he’d also guested on “Gunsmoke” and “Wyatt Earp” which made him a huge star to my Western obsessed brother and I.

Scott was on location in Southern Saskatchewan shooting a feature entitled “The Canadians”, a Western starring Robert Ryan, John Dehner and Opera diva Teresa Stratas. It told the story of a brave Canadian Mountie (Ryan) who has to keep peace with the Sioux Nation who have crossed into Canada to escape the American army after massacring General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. He promises Chief Sitting Bull that his people are welcome to stay in Canada as long as they don’t cause any trouble.

And you thought the Americans disliking our Border and Immigration policies was a recent thing…

Anyway, Sitting Bull agrees until an evil American Rancher (Dehner) crosses the border with some of his henchmen (Peters, Jack Creeley, etc) to retrieve horses he claims the Indians have stolen from him, killing several in a raid and also “rescuing” a white woman (Stratas) who has been living with the Sioux. Dehner and his crew make a run for the border with their stolen horses and Opera star, with a Sioux War Party in hot pursuit. Ryan, backed by only a small handful of Mounties must somehow capture the baddies to prevent a Sioux uprising.

If there’s a 1950’s Western movie cliché the film’s writer/director, Burt Kennedy, left out of his script, let me know.

After dinner, Scott invited us to visit the set the following Saturday and we drove deep into the Cyprus Hills to the remote prairie location. My brother and I brought along our six-shooters just in case.

On the day we attended, the company was shooting a number of riding sequences and “walk-and-talks” on horseback filmed from the back of a pick-up truck driving alongside the actors. Robert Ryan and British Character actor Torin Thatcher (“Great Expectations”) were decked out in NWMP scarlet and fur caps along with ingenue Burt Metcalf. Metcalf, one of the leads in the recently released “Gidget”, had a nearby gaggle of admiring farm kids who’d borrowed their parents’ big-finned Chrysler convertible to visit and look all-Hollywood at the same time.

Scott introduced us to everybody and found us places near the cameras to watch as Kennedy burned through half a dozen pages of script during the sunny cloudless afternoon. I had no idea how a film set worked, but was acutely aware of how all these people seemed to know what they were doing and got along without a lot of yelling for “Quiet”, keeping people out of other people’s eye-lines, or breaking to discuss visual styles and motivation.

I remember my mom and dad sitting on the hood of our car having coffee from a Thermos with Ryan and my mother helping the make-up lady remove something that had blown in Teresa Stratas’ eye. John Dehner took my brother and I aside with his own six-shooter to teach us a funny quick draw routine I can still do to this day. Meanwhile, Metcalf and Thatcher graciously signed 8x10 glossies for the teens in the Chrysler.

We stayed until nightfall to watch a campfire scene and then my brother and I were trooped around to shake hands and thank everybody before we left. I watched the crew wrapping cable under a single work light burning in the prairie night as we drove away, not imagining for a moment that I would spend much of my future life on film sets, nor even wanting to. It had been a fun day with some really nice people and that was that.

The movie came out a year or so later and wasn’t a hit but turned up at drive-ins and on TV with some regularity. I couple of years ago, I found a copy on eBay, stunned at how forgettable it was, but still enjoying its simple “not trying to be anything more than entertaining” approach.

Everybody involved went on to better things. Kennedy wrote and directed some fine Westerns like “Support Your Local Sheriff!”, “Dirty Dingus Magee”, John Wayne’s “The Train Robbers” and Clint Eastwood’s epic “White Hunter, Black Heart”. Robert Ryan made an even greater name for himself in “The Professionals”, “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Wild Bunch”, dying in 1973 just prior to the release of his stunning, award winning performance in “The Iceman Cometh”.

For trivia buffs, after his death, his apartment in New York’s The Dakota was sold to John Lennon.

Dehner and Thatcher never stopped working, their talents as actors and familiar faces keeping them continually in demand. Teresa Stratas went on to sing at the Met, La Scala and opera houses around the world. Most of her movie work was in filmed operas, although she returned to Canada for one final film role in Stefan Scaini’s beautiful “Under the Piano” before retiring.

Scott Peters? Well, he went back to Hollywood to find work in “Panic in Year Zero”, “The Girl Hunters” and “They Saved Hitler’s Brain”.

Okay, so I told you that story so I could tell you this one…

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Last week I picked up a DVD copy of Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia”. Meant to catch it in a theatre but didn’t get the chance. Most of the local reviews were middlin’ although it’s been a huge hit Down Under, pulling more than $44 Million at the local Box office, putting it just ahead of “Babe” and Just behind “Crocodile Dundee” as the country’s All-time Box Office Champion.

Like “The Canadians”, “Australia” isn’t a great movie. But, my God, is it ever fun to watch! I had been intrigued by a print ad I’d seen on its release, wherein the critic for TIME Magazine was quoted as finding it “Shamelessly Entertaining” or “Damnably Entertaining” as the review reads online. And I remember thinking, ‘When did entertaining someone become shameful?’.

Still the moniker is aptly earned. “Australia” stars two home-grown and internationally certifiable movie stars in Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. The story, a Harlequin Romance novel of a plot, is an Australian Western that also includes Aboriginal Magic realism and World War II. Everything in it is larger than life, from the characters and sets and epic sequences to almost every line of dialogue. And it’s shot in that incredibly enthusiastic and inimitably sprawling, Baz Luhrmann, “No, he’s not really trying to get away with this” style.

What’s most visible on the screen in “Australia” is a sheer love of what’s transpiring at any given moment. I don’t know if that’s love of country or love of movie-making or the simple joy of being alive in a certain place and time. But it is an infectious, thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours.

Please, please, please go and rent or buy “Australia” at your earliest opportunity. It will restore your faith in Mankind, film-making and just how much fun you can have watching flickering lights on a screen. If “Australia” ever turns up in an Imax theatre, I’ll be the guy who has taken up permanent residence in the front row.

It’s shamelessly entertaining on every imaginable level and I’m fairly confident you will never see another film like it.

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And I told you both those stories to ask you this – can you conceive of anyone making a film called “Canada” that told our country’s story with the same love and epic sweep?

Unfortunately, I don’t. And it’s not just the financing and political complications. Do you leave out the Battle of the Plains of Abraham because it might be too dangerous to restage? Do you not bring in our own Aboriginal peoples because somebody needs you to remind the audience of their overdue redresses? Can you even shoot it in one part of the country without putting some other province’s nose out of joint?

I was talking about this and the general state of the Canadian film and television business over dinner with a writer friend last night. She agreed that a film called “Canada” was a remote possibility at best and had a fairly acute explanation for most of our current film and TV ills and even why we don’t make much that people find remotely entertaining.

“The people in our business are snobs.”

I think she’s right.

Can you imagine a Canadian film earning $44 Million in its own country, even though our population is about double that of Australia? How many films do we make that don’t feel “required” on some level to be dour, address social issues or otherwise be “important”? How much of what we do is made by people whose work is on a level that will never see it get much wider release than film festivals? How many of our artists are “pre-vetted” as another writer friend puts it, and therefore “pre-approved" merely by the film school they went to?

And how come entertainments we do realize like “Pontypool” can only find a limited release on just about the worst weekend to release a sci-fi film so it has to compete with the most anticipated sci-fi film in memory?

About 20 years after I visited the set of “The Canadians”, I wrote a film about the NWMP that was more or less a shoot ‘em up. I’d just done my first feature, which had been partly financed by the then fledgling CRTC, who seemed to like me,  and had starred in a couple of other films they’d supported so I took it over there first. The guy in charge read it and liked it a lot.

But there was a problem.

“It’s a Western,” he said, “Americans make Westerns”.

I pointed out that everybody in it was a Mountie or a member of an Indian tribe. He was adamant.

“We can’t make the same kind of films the Americans do.”

I pointed out that the Italians had just made some of the most profitable Westerns of all time. Mexico and Spain made hundreds of them. Even South Africa had found international success with “The Hellions”, another Western.

Didn’t matter. It wasn’t what we did. Anymore. I guess.

What I didn’t have the brains to realize was what we weren’t making were films that (like most American films) actually entertained people; or that the long Canadian slide away from filming anything that might be even remotely entertaining had begun. It wouldn’t matter that making a film like “The Canadians” would keep Robert Ryan and Burt Kennedy working in the business until their talents could be better realized in “The Professionals” or “Dirty Dingus Magee”. It wouldn’t matter that audiences in Red Deer, Sherbrooke or St. John’s might go see a Western before spending a couple of hours enduring the Armenian genocide or raising their consciousness about homeless refugee Lesbians.

Nope. Our films had to be about something “important” and made by people who were either “reliably serious” or academically “pre-vetted”.

And I told you all of those stories to tell you this one, which I’m certain I’ve told you before.

I once had a conversation with Australian director Fred Schepisi ("The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith", "Roxanne", "The Russia House") and asked how he thought we could build an industry like Australia had. He looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Mate, we used you for the model" and then added, "What happened to you guys?"

I finally figured it out, Fred. We started to think we were important. We became snobs.

24 comments:

Chuck said...

This was a highly interesting read. Thank you.

Nicholas said...

Very true, Film can't be entertaining anymore, it has to be life changing or so profound that nobody gets it anymore.

I'm pretty new in the business, but ive met a few snobs, and the ones who aren't, can't get the funding to make anything.

deborah Nathan said...

Thanks Jim. I hope we will always remember that film and TV are supposed to be entertaining. Am rushing out to rent Australia ASAP - but can't watch it tonight - BSG begins its final episodes. Now, that's entertainment.

Gradual Upgrade - Travis Grant and Davin Tong said...

100% agree with you!

Dwight Williams said...

Instead of "Yes, we can" it's to continue to be "Don't you dare"?

Stuff that.

Trevor B. Cunningham said...

Bang on. And when it comes to old home stomping grounds there is 'Saskatchewan' the movie starring Alan Ladd...mountains and all.

jimhenshaw said...

I LOVED "Saskatchewan"! A movie starring a guy a foot too short to even be a Mountie and wondering where the hell those Mountains were doing in the flattest place on the planet.

Brandon Laraby said...

You know, you're right.

I'm reminded of M. Arpin's now infamous comment about how he'd 'rather read a book'. Non-Fiction at that, I'm sure.

It's so painfully hard to have the kind of love I have for this business when the people who are it's gatekeepers just want to go off and do something 'important'.

We need Canadian Escapist fare - we need shows and films that make the writers and directors and actors and key grips and lighting guys smile every time they show up on set. That make people, every step of the way, excited to be a part of it.

Why don't we have this? What's stopping us?

I mean, no wonder I've met so many heartbroken people in this industry - so many pained, bitter, talented people. Their love is not only spurned, it's shit on and smushed into the rug.

This. This is something we can change. I'm not entirely sure how just yet... but I'm open to getting my hands dirty.

And hey, if worst comes to worst, man, can I swing a bag of doorknobs. ;)

DMc said...

How to change it:

It's generational.

Don't let your generation of snobs take root, Brandon. Ridicule them. Ignore them. Don't buy into journalists telling you they're the great thing.

Support that which is entertaining. Be generous to that which is deserving. Use the resources of people like Jim who can remember when the Canadian system wasn't about making "important" fare that always winds up being so much less than important.

Don't let the next generation of snobs to take root!

wcdixon said...

Hahaha..'people like Jim' (Beavis wipes his brow in relief knowing damn well he could've been included in that sentence). But yer still right, Denis...stop the generational thing from taking root.

Still, very entertaining post Jim....what is WRONG with you?

DMc said...

Uh, yeah, you know demographers now think there's sufficient change within a five year range that the traditional "20 year" yardstick of "generational" is moot, right?

More like, um...five?

Backing away from the keyboard....

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

Begging to differ... as is my nature, I would say that the current crop of television shows in Canada are trying to be "entertainment" first and foremost. Whether they are or not is another debate.

Much has been said on other blogs and other boards about the "dumbing down" of Canadian TV, specifically on the CBC and while those posters are often rude and "full of themselves" their point is not without merit.

If we look at the current crop of shows on the three Canadian networks I would say they tilt toward being entertaining as opposed to important. On CBC we have "an elite squad" of "cops" patrolling the Border and engaging in funplay/gunplay on a weekly basis. On CTV we have "an elite squad" of TAC squad cops doing the same and on Global we have an "elite squad" of Coast Guard rescue workers involved in high seas hi-jinx.

All three of these shows are clearly designed to be entertaining and none of them dwell too much on the complex and often mundane realities of their jobs -- which is, as it should be.

I would also say that both "Being Erica" and "Wild Roses" are attempting to, first and foremost, entertain their viewers. City's "Murdoch Mysteries" is also gunning to entertain as is "Heartland" -- there is very little in any of these shows that is "snobbish" or "highbrow".

The sad truth is that, with the exception of Flashpoint, most of the shows mentioned suffer middling numbers. There could be a long debate as to why that is, but i don't think an underlying philosophy to chose to be "highbrow" is the cause of it.

Cunningham said...

Everyone wants to dine on cuisine. They want to say, "The chef came over to our table at the restaurant."

Nobody admits they like a good cheeseburger... and yet, somehow, some way there's over 17 billion served.

How can that be?

They're fooling themselves is how. Thinking that they somehow have to be "better" or "more noble."

Poppycock. (to use their snobbish lingo)

Damnit, I LIKE cheeseburgers. I like jeans, and t-shirts, riding a motorcycle... and I really like sitting back, relaxing, eating some greasy popcorn and being entertained for 2 hrs.

I highly recommend NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD - the story of the other Australian film industry ("Other" meaning the one that made the most money).

jimhenshaw said...

Didn't say "highbrow", Dolly, said "snob".

And I think we've both been around long enough to know that you don't have to be partial to opera, the ballet or polo to be one of those.

A snob is defined as -- "One who tends to patronize, rebuff, or ignore people regarded as social inferiors and imitate, admire, or seek association with people regarded as social superiors".

Meanwhile, "Cultural snobs" are: "Those who feel smugly superior with regard to his or her tastes or interests."

Perhaps the reason that many of those series you mention aren't doing well is that some of that patronizing attitude is visibly seeping through.

As I've often said, I don't care what the nets program, as long as it has either an audience or its followers can't get anything like it anywhere else.

Sadly, most of what we're producing now fails on both counts. And yet the clique who keeps making them and reproducing more of their own ilk by only associating with the like minded still remains in charge.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

sorry jim didn't mean to offend. But what I have noticed is the distinct tilt toward populist or entertainment in the last two years. I think the dirty secret that no one talks about is the almost complete failure when it comes to execution. I'd write more but the iphone is taxing

jimhenshaw said...

No offense taken, Dolly.

And I agree with your assessment.

It would be interesting to dissect the execution process to see where the failure gene is located.

DMc said...

I don't get it. Why does it have to be a "failure gene?"

Why can't it just be the fact that you don't change on a dime like that?

Network execs, writers, the people THEY GIVE SHOWS TO, all have to internalize the change. We have to have multiple shows that model the better way of doing things. You don't turn around a supertanker on a dime.

The shows that misfire now are still a damn sight better, and more entertaining than the ones they replaced a few years ago -- for the most part.

8 out of 10 shows in the USA still fail, where they're all about the entertainment, have network execs that lose jobs if they don't choose right, and are not trying to "prove anything culturally" besides.

It's hard.

What is NOT a good idea would be to declare failure -- AGAIN, prematurely, and head for the exits.

You know, we can't even get people to agree that Corner Gas is actually a success. We can't get people to ADMIT that Trailer Park Boys has an actual fan base.

Rehabilitation comes slowly, whether it's a broken bone or the broken will of a broken industry.

And yes, the craft must be better. So let's go out and fucking do THAT, then. The complainers will always be able to blast ink. But none of them do a goddamn thing beyond complaining, so what does it fucking matter?

deborah Nathan said...

At the risk of incurring wrath and outrage:

1. There are a plethora of new writers manning Canadian drama series;

2. Network executives play musical chairs among the Canadian channels and never pay the piper when their decisions result in poor TV and/or low ratings; whereas writers are fired/changed at the drop of a hat.

3. To return to Jim's original point: pre-vetted writers - those coming out of film school/CFC but have no experience on the ground. It's a problem in series. But decision makers like the snobbishness, elite clique of this. The nets pour money into the CFC and want a return. Telefilm operates the same way. It's about festival entries, not entertaining movies.

4. Bleeding of creatives to more lucrative markets. An exodus that began ten years ago and will continue because most people like to make money.

5. Agree it doesn't help to complain. So, just carry on.

Brandon Laraby said...

As someone who's fighting to get into the CFC - and spent a lot of time hanging out with CFC peeps this last year - I was completely unaware of the 'snobbishness' people have brought up in conjunction with them.

For the most part, every young writer I met there was nervous as fuck and doing their best not to screw up what they perceived to be the chance of a lifetime. Truly, these guys were neck deep in the pressure cooker. That said, almost every single one of them made time for me when I asked them questions or wanted to chat.

I think the 'snobbishness' or 'elitist-ish-ness' of it all is something that's entirely up to the individual to either accept or reject - that it's automatically lowered onto the heads of those working to push themselves to be better writers seems disingenuous at best.

My personal goal is to get into the CFC not so that I can hold it over people's heads or become some part of a clique. I want to hone my craft at the one place that almost every writer I've talked to outright agrees is the best place to get a running start.

I have no interest in being a snob.

Jennifer Smith said...

Uh... Passchendaele?

Ok, so it's a little self-important. And it didn't make $44 million. But it's also good ol' fashioned movie - war, love, sweeping vistas, more war - and it was also meh'd by critics and loved by the public.

I work in a video store, and my boss didn't buy very many copies of Passchendaele because, he said, "People don't like Canadian movies". As it turned out, we should have bought a lot more. They flew out the door. We'd run out by 5:00 or earlier every weekend, and sometimes on weekdays. People would stand by the drop box waiting for one to come back. We're STILL running out some Saturdays, and it was released well over a month ago.

Australia is doing pretty well too, but it's not nearly as hot. And yet we have twice as many copies. Make of that what you will.

BTW, my dad was an extra in 'Saskatchewan'. He was working as a lifeguard at the Banff Springs Hotel at the time, and he got to be one of the hundred or so Mounties riding into the woods (out of the woods?). He has a picture of himself standing next to Alan Ladd, and another of Shelley Winters in costume having a smoke break.

'River of No Return' was also filming there around the same time, and he has a shot of Marilyn by the pool. On crutches. With an ankle cast. Top that.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

And good on you, Brandon. And your comments are most likely spot on. I remember sitting in bars fifteen years ago with large groups of writers (at that time -- the new generation) plotting our overthrow of the industry all starry eyed and confident that there was no way the powers that be could not recognize our talent.

We were all too aware that television had to be entertaining; that it had to have the "LA Law" -- ohmyGod did she just fall down a fucking elevator shaft -- moments to succeed. Some of us were pretty good at what we did, a couple were exceptional and the rest could fill 55 pages.

As the years went by, some bolted to the States, others left the business and others kept fighting. It was always tricky because we wanted to do smart TV while the networks wanted us to aspire to Cagney and Lacey (which we were, of course, too good for).

None of us were dumb enough not to know that working in TV was like working for AM Radio (age alert here) but I do think we wanted our "pop songs" to be a little more XTC than Boney M. but we all knew it was about entertainment.

Jim talks about a "failure gene" which DMC rejects and I kind of stand in the middle of both camps.

Having been blessed to have made my living doing this since the mid eighties I have seen more of my share of failure and success when it comes to making Canadian TV -- there have been plenty of wonderful shows that died because no one watched them and plenty of average shows that have lasted for years because they got decent audiences or filled a "cultural gap" in that they provided something to viewers that they would only get on Canadian TV. North of Sixty was a good example of that (I never liked it) but it did solid numbers, provided a unique Canadian vision and was, I suppose, in some way "important".

And while I respect DMC's opinions and admire his passion, I'd say that the desire to make something like that disappeared the day Slawko walked out of CBC and it sure wasn't a part of the broadcaster mandate at CTV or Global during my career.

But, while I don't think there is as much of a snobbish desire to be important (from the network exec's POV) as DMC does, in the absence of any kind of ratings success, the only thing that gives these people "props" is a good review. And sometimes these reviews are most easily obtained if you can sprinkle your show with sufficient gravitus.

I do think the "failure" on Canadian TV boils down to a failure of execution and this failure is a result of three things -- lack of talent, lack of skill and lack of resources (money). Before the great contraction (the merging of Alliance and Atlantis and the rule change in 98/99) there were a bunch of Canadian one hour dramas -- Traders, Powerplay, the City, Cold Squad, DaVinci among them. Along with these shows there were more -- various 'industrials' being made primarily for the export market etc.

And I would take the rather unpopular position that there was not enough talent to staff them. I'd say we could have handled maybe five shows -- nine domestic one hour dramas and innumerable Highlanders. It was like NHL expansion -- not enough good players to go around so people got put into the big leagues too quickly. I'd probably written twenty to twenty five scripts before anything near "executive" got attacked to my credit -- suddenly it became the norm that some person with two or three scripts would be an "executive story editor or producer" (and in the worst cases would start acting like the title should be taken seriously).

This lack of talent meant that the people writing and running these shows were put into positions before they acquired the skill sets to do the job. And I think that really hurt us. I'd watch shows with people outside the business who would at some point as -- why am I watching this shit?

And I sure wish I could have answered that.

The third part of the "failure" equation was, and remains, money. Back then there wasn't enough money to make the show. Americans shot 35 -- we shot 16. Americans had more days to shoot an episode -- they'd do six pages a day, we'd do twelve. And to make matters worse, regional and provincial incentives necessary to finance a show meant that we couldn't even draw on a national talent pool 1/10 the size of the US (Canada)-- we had to draw largely from the Province we were shooting in.

All of this shows on screen.

So I don't know if the problem can be assigned to being "one of philosophy" -- ie, entertainment v important -- I'd argue that it was/is a problem of resources.

Don't get me wrong. I love working here. I love that there are network people who do want a little more than Cagney and Lacey and that I do get to sneak a bit of Andy Partridge weirdness into my pop song. What I do find now, is that with the slavish desire to make everything an American network co-pro, this is disappearing. If that continues you will never see another ZOS again -- unless the writer goes to HBO with it -- and I think that would be a great shame.

But it is not a fight between young and old. Don't ever think that.

Frank "Dolly" Dillon said...

oh and I get what DMC was saying about "generation" and how change must come among various peer groups and I agree with that. A knob is a knob, no matter what age.

Brandon Laraby said...

Hey Frank,

Wow, thank you for such a flat-out wicked response!

I remember growing up and hearing the complaints about Canadian TV - how the acting sucked and it all looked like crap. None of that really bothered me as a kid - I loved watching the Edison Twins and You Can't Do That On Television.

We've come a long way since those days - and really, I don't think of it as Young vs. Old at all - if anything, it's the opposite. Ultimately I'd hope that it'd be about working together, filling in the gaps and learning from one another. The culmination of experience and perspective (on both sides of the coin) that just makes for a better story and, really, a better product in the end.

But yeah, as far as I see it we're all on the same side - just want to tell good stories and entertain (maybe, move) people. If we keep that in mind, well, there's a whole lot of common ground that would appear to open up.

The White Wolf said...

As an outsider (trying to break in) looking in, I'd say the funding system -- like welfare -- inspires those looking for their handout, to do the bare minimum to qualify.

That and, unfortunately, the only 'voices' to be successful in this country have either the above mentioned dour sense of storytelling or (gross) the comedy styling of Corner Gas.

I read GUNLESS, the new Paul Gross starring film. Great, funny script. But I bet it was shot like fat, Corner Gas grilled cheese sandwich. And the 'new' generation of Canadian Filmmakers ain't into that cutesy fake cheddar, baby.

Have a great 2010! I'll be sticking around.

Matt.