Monday, December 17, 2012

Canada’s Tall Poppy Death Penalty

Imagine being a dancer who performed so beautifully a member of the audience insisted he be put to death.

Imagine being a composer whose music so moved people that the State had him executed.

Imagine being a playwright whose plays were so popular someone in government had him murdered.

The stories of Nero and dancer Pantomimus, Chilean folk singer Victor Jara and Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe are apocryphal examples of talent overwhelmed by jealousy, evil and ignorance. And they are far from unique.

Artists have always been the canaries in the human rights coal mine, endlessly silenced, imprisoned and exiled by dictators and totalitarian regimes for their ability to inspire or open minds.

It continues today with artists of all stripes from British novelist Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoonists to Chinese visual artist Al Weiwei and Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

Most of us think that sort of thing doesn’t happy in a freedom loving country like Canada. But it does.

In fact, it’s happening right now.

This week in Montreal, Canadian filmmaker Remy Couture stands trial not for committing any actual mayhem –- but for being too good at making the special effects in a film appear “convincing”.

Rémy Couture

Couture has been charged with corrupting morals through the distribution of obscene material. Specifically, he posted a short film about a rape and mutilation on his website that somebody assumed was the real thing and complained to Interpol.

Montreal police leapt into action. Yet, even when their investigation had proven without any shadow of doubt that Couture hadn’t harmed anyone and that the body parts depicted were manufactured out of latex and resin, they charged him.

Couture’s work was simply so good it wasn’t possible to tell it from the real thing on screen.

Now, in the world of filmmaking, Couture’s talents are celebrated. I’ve made dozens of films and TV shows dependent on special effects, prosthetic make-up and replicating physical damage. And when you find somebody who can turn rubber and corn syrup into believable flesh and blood, they’re worth their weight in gold.

They’re the kind of people you can build an industry around. Because that kind of talent elevates the final product, bringing both profit and honor, not to mention other filmmakers in need of talent, to the country in which it resides.

But this time, the powers that be have decided to make an example of Couture instead –- and maybe send a message to anyone contemplating doing a horror or action film in Canada.

We don’t want your kind around here!

Sadly, Couture’s case is something many of us in Canadian showbiz have seen before. Many times.

Back in the 1970’s, the Toronto Police Morality squad regularly raided bookstores for pornography or just publications with gay or feminist themes.

Two filmmakers who would go on to become among our most celebrated, Ivan Reitman and David Cronenberg, were forced to defend their first works against obscenity and morality charges.

In 1973, Toronto Free Theatre’s production of Michael Hollingsworth’s astonishingly powerful play “Clear Light” was closed and the author and cast threatened with prosecution.

A few years later, cops regularly attended performances of Theatre Passe Muraille’s “I Love You Baby Blue” using binoculars to assure themselves that nothing “explicit” was going on.

Not long after, a Yonge Street Art gallery created a furor by exhibiting the work of Montreal sculptor Mark Prent.

Prent’s work included human body parts hung like meat in a deli window and installations depicting various human deformations and examples of madness.

Among these was an execution chamber (the photo above) where the viewer could throw a switch and watch the rubber figure strapped into old sparky convulse and contort.

I remember standing for a long time at that switch, unable to throw it even though I knew the figure in the chair wasn’t actually alive.

Prent’s work was disturbing. But it forced a lot of introspection and debate as well. David Cronenberg was so impressed he included many of the artist’s creations in his film “Scanners”.

But faced with a constant requirement to defend or justify his work before any gallery would display it, Prent finally gave up on Canada and left the country.

Too many Canadian artists, feeling similarly stifled or failing to understand why work bought or celebrated abroad is ignored and even belittled at home, have done the same.

There’s no way of knowing what the full impact of Remy Couture being convicted of being talented and good at his job might be. But it will definitely cast a chill on anyone making horror, fantasy and action films in this country.

Unconvicted, his work has already been blocked online and seized from Montreal video stores. The same is true of a documentary made about the case by Quebec filmmaker Frederick Maheux.

Perhaps we don’t actually execute exceptional artists in Canada. But our moral and intellectual superiors appear to remain exceptionally good at driving them away.

And that’s not a positive thing for any of us.

If you’re so inclined, you can assist Remy Couture here. I think you will find his description of his arrest particularly unsettling.

Here’s a short clip of Remy Couture at work. If he’s convicted, the writers, directors, actors and crew on this film could be next.

Making Of - A Little Off the Top - Make up FX from BloodbathTV on Vimeo.


On December 22, 2012 Remy Couture was ACQUITTED of all charges. Full Story here.


Clint Johnson said...

There are some things in life that are inherently difficult for the state to "do something about". Psychotic killers do not go around with a convenient sign and there really aren't any quick, visible action that can be taken to stop them before they commit a horrific act.

That doesn't stop people from demanding action.

So the state takes quick, visible action that is symbolic and empty- but which gives a cathartic release to the need to do something.

Unfortunately, while those symbolic and empty actions cannot affect the real problem, we are nonetheless negatively affected by the all too real unintended consequences.

Sadly, there is never a call for the government to "Don't just do something, stand there!"

rick mcginnis said...

Canada is a militantly provincial country. There's nothing wrong with being provincial, mind you - I've said for years that if we could embrace that part of our nature instead of making defensive and unconvincing shows of being cosmopolitan, we might come closer to understanding our elusive "national identity" and perhaps, yes, take a step on the way to being a truly interesting nation.

But we make those pretenses seem even more ridiculous when we give free reign to the militantly provincial, by enforcing dated or arbitrary laws in the name of standards of public decency that no one can agree on, or by insisting on what Clint rightly calls the symbolic action that's only meant to propitiate either a vocal minority or a media protest.

These eruptions of militant provincialism are usually carried out not so much by our politicians as by officials in the vast, unelected bureaucracy, who strive to exercise their power and justify their paycheques with these symbolic acts, and who work from an agenda completely unconnected to whatever political party holds office. They are the real enemies of liberty in a complacent first world state like ours, where the real task of improving living standards seem to have been solved, leaving many thousands of well-funded civil servants with the task of overseeing what would be the luxuries of a society anywhere else in the world.

BTW - only a militantly provincial country would have an all-powerful arts bureaucracy.