Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tear Down This Wall

I'm often accused of just wanting to tear down the current system we have for creating film and television in Canada.

And many of those who share my opinions on cultural topics often encourage me to find some way of working within the structures and programs already available to Canadian artists, offering that "at least we've got this" or "what other choice do we have" or maybe "C'mon, I think they're finally starting to listen to us."

Maybe it is possible to change a system by diplomatically massaging it from the inside. That was the mantra of the failed radicals of the 60's, who dialed back their passions, cut their hair and got government jobs. But I just never saw much changed by those who followed that strategy or witnessed progress toward their intended goals which was not measured by months or years but by generations.

Institutions change incrementally, sometimes over eons. Artists need to be quicker on their feet because most of us only get a few years to make the most of whatever talents we were either born with or acquired.

So I remain one of those, "this isn't working, get rid of it and find something better fast" kind of guys. I may not know exactly how to replace an alternator or carburetor but the car ain't running and somebody must, so let's help a brother out here.


In this last week, a couple of hiccups have disrupted the Canadian cultural scene, bringing some of our institutionalized problems into public view.

One was the awarding of the Giller Prize in Literature to a novel, "The Sentimentalist" which wasn't on the shelves of the country's bookstores. The other was "The Tudors", a series with minimal Canadian artistic and craft participation, winning the Gemini as Best Canadian Drama.

I thought the cause célèbre surrounding the Giller little more than that. If people really wanted to read the winning book, it was readily available in digital or PDF form for less than half the price of the hardcopy, hand-stitched and specially bound edition the publisher insisted was all it could/would manufacture.

For me the choice was really, did you want to read the story or did you want the Faberge egg for your coffee table so people will think you've read it or you were well placed and connected enough to have laid hands on a copy.

One of the most purchased items in LA is the NY Times Review of Books. Not because so many people out there strive to be more literate, but because that broadsheet provides countless studio and network development types with story coverage without them having to actually buy and read the books.

I also wondered why the Bank that has made its name synonymous with the Giller Prize just didn't come up with a few bucks for the publisher to expand their operations.

But then Canadian banks balk at actually investing in artistic ventures. Much easier to slap the logo on an awards evening or film festival and appear culturally supportive and aware while reaping the additional benefit of giving the wife a chance to meet her Lit 101 heroes.

The Gemini awarded to "The Tudors" represents a stickier issue. 

We all know that Canadian networks are loathe to cough up the cost of a big budget television series. But by investing a small portion of the budget they can purchase a "minority" position in a foreign made production. This means they qualify the broadcast hours as Canadian content, often for a fraction of what it would cost to fill the time slot with anything else.

THE TUDORS - Season 2

If you are a Canadian character actor, a grip or a post production house, you can benefit by being employed on one of these shows.

If you're an actor capable of carrying a series or a writer wanting to tell an epic or expensive story, your options diminish, if they exist at all.

In other words, those most capable of showcasing the ability of Canadian talent to compete with the rest of the world have the least opportunity of doing so.

Would any of the current and coming crop of Minority shows, "The Tudors", "The Borgias" or "Camelot" have been purchased by CBC or CTV if they had been pitched by a Canadian writer? Please…

If you think networks whine about not having money when they're in front of the CRTC, you should be in an office with them when your series pilot script has six characters and they only want to pay for five.

You'll also be asked to set your gritty urban drama in cottage country for the additional tax breaks or your cottage country show in a part of the prairies that's never heard of lakes.

Many a Canadian creative has woken from a fevered sleep or stepped from the shower with a fully conceived update on "War and Peace" and then realized, "Not in this lifetime."

Those following a "work within the system" approach are often happy enough with the local employment levels Minority shows provide.

Others might suggest that a network can only qualify for one if they are also programming one in which they have the Majority position.

But since Minority co-pros currently outnumber ones where Canadians hold the Majority position by something like 4-1, you know that's not going to fly.

These "inside the system" folks are always so enormously fair minded. They try hard to see things from the point of view of the guy with his foot firmly planted on their necks.

I'm sure they all believe that they're simply exemplifying the polite and diplomatic fair-play nature of Canadians -- without realizing they are strengthening the hand of those who would dictate our culture and what creative dreams we can and cannot have.

Working "with" the arts institutions as they are structured in Canada is a trade of freedom for financial security. But as Benjamin Franklin once said, "Any society that will give up a little Liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

Globe & Mail television critic John Doyle recently penned a piece equating the two award related upsets with clueless elites, a government that self-identifies with hockey and a national population that drinks a particular brand of coffee.

I read it three times without getting a firm handle on what he was saying. But Mr. Doyle is probably a much smarter guy than I'll ever be and maybe you are too, so enlighten me if the penny drops.

But in reading the comment section of his column to see if somebody else could elucidate his point(s), I stumbled across someone who articulated my own "Bomb-throwing", "bridge-burning", "Career-suicide" philosophy better than I've ever been able to do.

I don't know who "E. Sorbin" is, but brother or sister, thank you for this…

"Let's face it: the "elite" Doyle is referring to are but an extension of the "champagne-swilling socialists" as exemplified recently by Layton and his wife, also Adrienne Clarkson and husband. This group is less an elite than a cultural Mafia and socialist Brahmin class subsidized forever and a day by government grants, subsidies, pensions, expense accounts a.k.a. taxpayers' money.

They thrive on a system of closed-circuit cronyism, promoting themselves and their ilk to positions of authority where they can shape policy on where funding (read: cultural awards) ultimately, go.

So sometimes taxpayers' money goes to non-event events like the Geminis, or to obscure publishers in the East Coast who do not have to worry about market competition or making profit margins.

Because, like the CBC, their very existence is already guaranteed by grants and subsidies from the government, all in the name of protecting and rewarding the many voices of Canadian culture. Problem is, sometimes it really just looks more like a culture of moochers than so-called gatekeepers of Canada's heritage. Or, perhaps, that is precisely Canada's heritage?"

Sometimes it feels that what we have in this country are a lot of gifted artists and a few people in positions of power who would prefer that art and culture remain the prerogative of a particular group or attitude -- those who live in a world where the bond of a book's paper or regenerating affection for a syphilitic despot and the monarchy he spawned take precedence over artistic expression.

That's the wall I want to tear down, blow up or burn.

Because I'm not sure how much progress we can make as long as we're herded around by people who think they know better than the artist when it comes to their own Art or who can make more money by controlling or restricting our access to both the resources necessary to create Art and the product itself.

Maybe some of you may think this is off topic (as well as off-color) but it might make the point to someone who loves the game of "football" as much as Mr. Doyle.

This is how Sky Television in Britain is marketing their new HD delivery system. This is what they feel most likely appeals to their version of the Tim Horton's swilling masses. It's an image with which Canadian artists are unfortunately all too familiar.


John McFetridge said...

You make a lot of good points, Jim. I would say yes, that "mooching" is Canada's heritage, from the railroad on, at least, but publishing doesn't really belong on the same list as the movies and TV.

For the small presses publishing is mostly a labour of love. Sure, they get some grants (probably every small press in the country combined gets in a year about what it costs to cater the production office of Rookie Blue) and pretty much everyone working at a small press has another job.

Certainly there aren't very many novelists in this country making a full-time living at it. No where near as many as TV writers.

The art-commerce mix is always going to be tough, but it's hard to fault a small press for coming out on the side of art. their chances of commerce are so slim. The "problem" was solved without the bank, they worked out a deal with another publisher.

The wall may need to be torn for the movies and TV, but in publishing you can just step over it.

joeclark said...

Did you mean New York Review of Books or New York Times Book Review?

Also, the adjective is “loath” with no E.

Anonymous said...

There are many statistically-based arguments used to support the status quo; I know because I've develop many of the classic arguments. The one number that I think would get a real discussion started is how many people are employed by the CBC, Telefilm, Heritage Canada, etc., etc. by comparison to similar international organizations. How many staff work at the BBC, for example, and what percentage of the BBC budget is consumed by the staff?