Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Stop Making Sense


From their first moments of preparation for the profession, screenwriters are ingrained with the imperative that they need to be smarter than anybody else on the project. Not more intelligent, or more knowledgeable with respect to all of the talents that must be gathered and exercised to execute their vision. But smarter in the context of knowing every beat of their screenplay backwards.

A good screenwriter makes certain that all the loose plot threads are neatly tied before the final frame. He or she knows what motivates each and every one of the characters, their back story and why they behave the way they do. No matter what twists and turns take place during the story, they all must have a basis in the internal logic of the piece.

When a script works, it purrs like a finely tuned Jaguar, effortlessly taking the reader (and eventually the viewer) on a smooth and exhilarating ride, where they never feel a single pebble on the road and are barely aware of the G-forces while gliding through the turns or accelerating along the final straight.

To this end, the writer is often assisted by others connected to the project, the development execs, a caring producer and energetic director, a cast anxious to breath life into the personalities that will enact the story, a conscientious crew ensuring that nothing intrudes on the manufactured reality.

The point of this entire, often lengthy and expensive process is to both ensure that the set never stalls or the audience never disrupts their suspension of disbelief to utter, “Hey, wait a minute, how does he know that, why is she acting so strange or that doesn’t work”.

As veteran screenwriter Frank Pierson observed in a famous lecture on adaptation, “Novelists can lie. Screenwriters have no such luxury.”

Yes, we writers are the guardians of “the word”. No film could be a success without our dedication to our craft…


…what a load of shit!

You want to make a film a success? Blow something up and make it seem important.


This weekend, I went to a warehouse sale where the DVDs were 6 for $10. It wasn’t some pirate outfit. It was a guy who buys up the shelves of mom and pop video stores that have gone broke, manufacturers overstock and the like. Sorting through massive piles of films I’ve never even heard of was a humbling experience.

There’s so much out there that people sweated over, agonized to realize and struggled to make logical and understandable and --- perfect. And amid such an abundance of unfathomable effort were also titles that had made a boat load of money. Among these were two that eventually comprised the program of my semi-regular Sunday night double feature -- “Miami Vice – The Unrated Director’s Edition” and “Transformers”.

“Transformers” first.

Sometimes, I don’t get the point of something --- ukulele music, #followfriday, the Snuggie…

And. I. Just. Will. Never. Get. Michael. Bay. Hollywood’s Summer Blockbuster security blanket.

Michael Bay movies are mostly incoherent. They’re sprawling and stupid and don’t follow even their own fractured internal logic. There’s no character development. No story. Nothing to care about. Nothing to attach to --- because it’s all just eventually going to blow up. Loudly.


Need a character to do something completely out of character, the characters in Michael Bay films just do whatever comes into his head. Plot getting too convoluted to understand, ignore it and move on. Special effect not working, just interrupt it with a close-up of a simpering star (male or female) and keep going. Flow and transition don’t matter, just keeping throwing shit at the screen until you can’t make head or tail of anything because so much has already been irrationally stuck onto so much else.

Bay’s are movies that communicate one message – stop caring. Give yourself over to the kind of rush you can have without also expecting to feel something.

But no matter the utter pointlessness, “Transformers” earned just under $1 Billion at the box office, as did “Transformers 2” which will surpass the original’s take when it’s released on DVD shortly. That’s five times what each of the movies cost to make, meaning a third, fourth and fifth instalment are a foregone conclusion.

In other words, films that break all the rules of the filmmakers art will earn many times more than most of the most successful movies in history. And an easy Billion apiece more than all the films produced in Canada this year will show as profit.

Hell, Bay’s studio will make more money from posters featuring Megan Fox’s ass than the total that Telefilm will realize for investing in Canadian movies.


What does this tell us?

Well, it pretty much proves that this whole “develop to perfection” process we’ve evolved is one grand waste of time as far as a significant portion of the ticket buying audience is concerned.

They simply don’t care that a large number of people, who work for studios, production companies, agencies and the like, are charged with the responsibility of finding good and/or marketable material that will be what the audience wants to see in six months, nine months, one year or even two years time.

These execs flood out of Yale and Harvard and the film departments of USC and UCLA with degrees in literature and commerce and course credits for semiotics and Late 20th Century Romanian film. These are really, really intelligent people, the kind of people who can hear ten words of your pitch and know it’s a rework of a never published Danish folk-tale or a subject tackled better in a masterpiece by some obscure Russian Auteur.

If they like your idea, they know how to perfectly pitch it up the ladder to the next level of executives and the level above that and the one even further above that. And once an idea is sold, they may or may not be among the vast cc: list that will then append notes, rethink plot points, spit-ball casting and do all of the other things that comprise the ascending levels of Development Hell.

Draped in the finery sold by Fred Segal and Barney’s, they book tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner in every trendy cafe from Santa Monica to Burbank, massively fuelling the local economy.

And Michael Bay renders all that they do pointless.

He knows that the secret is to stop making sense, to set aside the intellectual games and just blast whatever is in front of the camera to smithereens.

In “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writer William Goldman suspects that no studio executive ever goes home and says “Guess what, Honey, we decided to make ‘Mega Force’!”. Yet somewhere in LA, there always seems to be a guy ecstatically screaming “We hired Michael Bay!” through his Bluetooth.

And if you don’t think the studios haven’t finally realized the secret to his Midas touch, take a gander at what’s on the production slates for next summer and beyond. Back in July, Universal won a FOUR STUDIO BIDDING WAR for the rights to the Atari video game “Asteroids”. You remember Asteroids, the only thing that happened during the entire game was --- shit blew up.

Also looking for writers who couldn’t give a crap about character, plot or nuance are: “Mechwarrior”, “Shadow of the Colossus”, “World of Warcraft”, “Infamous” and “Diablo” --- games that are repetitive and predictable and don’t do much but make stuff explode. 


Seeking an antidote to the nihilistic future predicted for my profession by “Transformers”, I plugged the “Miami Vice” disk in the player. I’d seen the movie in a theatre and had liked it, adored the score and had been enthralled by Michael Mann’s always muscular imagery.

Michael Mann has produced and/or directed and/or written some of the finest films I’ve had the pleasure to experience, from “Thief” to “Manhunter” to “Last of the Mohicans” to “The Insider” to “Collateral” to his masterpiece “Heat”. They just don’t come any better and brighter than Michael Mann.

So I figured, “Hey, you’ve already seen the movie, switch on the director’s commentary and get some insight into the kind of genius that might save us from an endless parade of Michael Bays”. So I switched on the commentary. And I listened. And I was amazed --- in a kind of “You must be fucking kidding me” way.

For as the movie rolled, Michael Mann talks not about filmmaking, but about hardware. He goes on and on about the engineering genius of those who build “Go-fast” boats or one of a kind airplanes, while practically disassembling and putting back together every piece of weaponry that appears on camera.

He prattles on about how this actor is a genius and that one’s brilliant, in the process suggesting that, for the most part, fairly stock performances have a special quality because the actress is really British but you can’t tell or only speaks Mandarin so she had to learn her role phonetically or absolutely floored him with their performance in some arcane Bolivian art film.

He details the back stories he constructed for many of the characters, how their parents were Cuban doctors who fought in Angola for example, when that information has nothing to do with any scene in the film and is never reflected in anything the actor is doing either. Instead of revealing character through what they say, do or by what others say or do about them, Mann just spins off on fantasies that suggest he has a whole house full of imaginary friends.

JAMIE FOXX as Detective Ricardo Tubbs and ELIZABETH RODRIGUEZ as Gina Callabrese prepare to take down members of the Aryan Brotherhood in ?Miami Vice?, the feature film crime drama that liberates what is adult, dangerous and alluring about working deeply undercover.  ?Miami Vice? opens on July 28, 2006.

Mann describes having his actors spend weeks with undercover drug squads, even participating in drug deals and drug busts to learn what it’s really like to be undercover, how they spent endless hours in SWAT training so they hold their guns perfectly and are aware of what the rest of the actors playing cops would be doing in the tactical situation being portrayed.

You almost wanted to scream at the screen, “They’re doing the same thing you can see any actor do who’s watched an episode of the original “Miami Vice” TV show!” while also wondering if having the actors follow Drug Bust Scenario # 23 saved him the trouble of actually having to block the scene.

Things began spiraling out of control as I realized Mann was not going to explain why the first two set pieces of the film, the opening boat race and following nightclub scene had virtually nothing to do with what followed beyond revealing that Crockett and Tubbs like women and driving fast.

He ignores major inconsistencies like how does Colin Farrell suddenly have a grenade after three guys just frisked him by concentrating instead on how the set was painted. And, perhaps worst of all, despite his apparent desire for absolute verisimilitude, he ignores the central story of Crockett breaking the cardinal rule of undercover and sleeping with the enemy. In fact, in the scene where that occurs, he launches into a lengthy history of Cuban Salsa.

By the time Mann went into detail about the dangers and difficulties of shooting location footage in Paraguay, which, beyond a stock shot of the Iguazu Falls, could have been a backlot in Culver City, I was wondering if his primary talent was spewing the kind of bullshit he’d obviously used to convince some dumb studio exec to pay for such a ridiculous additional expense.

And when he began painstakingly detailing the SWAT tactic strategy of the final gun battle with actors following a classic “L” shape attack plan, and all he’d learned from the neurosurgeons who’d been technical advisors on a brain surgery scene, I finally lost it.

Somehow a shipyard shootout as old as an episode of “Naked City” was being prettied up as something of major cinematic significance while also regurgitating medical mumbo-jumbo that had nothing to do with the 30 second hospital scene he’d actually shot.


The producer part of me considered how much it must have cost to insure Colin Farrell so he could go along on a drug bust and how much had been frankly wasted trucking a crew to Paraguay and the Dominican Republic and elsewhere for footage he once created for the original TV series without leaving Dade County.

Meanwhile, my writer incarnation was growing more confused by the mounds of research Mann had obviously acquired and then clearly not bothered to use in any way that might benefit his audience.

I’m sure the man is wonderful company over dinner and fills his production with fun toys and field trips. But none of that was making the movie richer for anybody watching it.

And I started to wonder if all of those honorable traits we screenwriters hold dear and the level of craft we sacrifice our personal lives and sanity to maintain really matter.

Maybe we need to just blow stuff up and bullshit about the rest of it. God knows it seems to be what really makes a movie successful.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 86: Nick Vujicic

Wow! 86 of these Sunday things. I wonder if it’s time for a new act?

Rather than wasting all that time and energy trying to find something that isn’t already viral on the Internet, maybe it’s time to move on.

Y’see in American slang “86” means to get rid of something.

The term apparently comes from the New York State Liquor Code, Article 86 of which describes the circumstances whereby a patron can be refused service and/or “removed from the premises”.

And you can’t spend a day on any film set without hearing somebody say something like “86 the apple boxes” or “86 the talent”, meaning “Get ‘em out of here”.

There are some who believe “86” garnered its association with moving something along because it describes the dimensions of a traditionally dug grave, eight feet long and six feet deep.

Whatever the derivation, the intent is the same. 86 symbolizes that something needs to be gone.

Sometimes that’s the annoying drunk at the end of the bar or the leading lady when insert shots are taking up the rest of the day. Sometimes its your dreams and your desire to keep pursuing them. 86 some of those big plans you had and life does get a whole lot easier to live.

And a whole lot less interesting.

One night in a club, I heard a punk band introduce a song called “Life’s tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid”. And that’s, of course, true. Life’s also tough if you have dreams nobody else believes in.

Or were born like Nick Vujicic.

But Nick’s a guy who never quits. Somebody who never stops believing anything is possible. He has one mantra we should all live by…

Never give up!

And enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, September 24, 2009



I did a couple of things that were out of character for me this summer. One was conscious, the other --- not so much.

The conscious decision was taking a University course on Hannibal. Ever since I was a kid and saw the absolutely terrible movie version of Hannibal’s war with Rome, starring Victor Mature, I’ve had a fascination with the subject.

A couple of times I’ve tried to envision it as a script but couldn’t figure out how to make it matter for a modern audience. Now, I know how to do that – and I’ve got a course credit from a prestigious American University to boot.

A couple hundred more of those and we’ll be checking off that salutation box marked “Doctor”!

I’m saving most of what I learned about Hannibal for some upcoming posts on the CRTC, my own personal version of the corrupt Roman Empire. If you see a herd of elephants crossing the Laurentians this Fall and converging on Gatineau --- that’ll be me.

The not as conscious element of my summer was that I started watching Fox News.

The first couple of weeks of that were kinda out of my hands. I was just somewhere where it was the TV news people put on in the evening. But soon I became fascinated by what I saw unfolding in front of me and kept watching.

And in an odd way, Hannibal and Fox News have quite a few things in common.


Now let me start by saying, I don’t think Fox News is any more “fair and balanced” (their motto) than any other news outlet. And I don’t put much more credence to their coverage of “The News” than I do anybody else’s reportage.

An objective who, what, where, when and why may not be impossible to find in contemporary journalism, but we certainly don’t live in a world where many of the major news services aren’t regularly caught with their biases showing.

And is any of that really bias, or is it just a natural reflection of the ideologies of those in charge of the final message? Nobody is objective. Nobody is without an agenda. And most of us are mostly full of shit when we claim that we have neither.

Now, before this summer, Fox News was just some guy yelling in the background as far as I was concerned. The few times I sampled their wares, it felt like the parent network’s original ratings staple “When Animals Attack” given a shave and a thousand dollar suit. The talking heads all seemed to be channelling rabid evangelical preachers while simultaneously unable to keep their cameras off as much cleavage as possible.

It was all just so shrill and tacky.

And that was when the Republican Party they so clearly supported was completely in charge. Any half sane person had to assume this was the lunatic fringe and worry about what would happen if these people were ever taken seriously.


Following the election of Barack Obama and a general House and Senate cleaning in Washington, most political pundits were not only predicting the disappearance of the Republican Party but a dramatic shift away from the Neo-Con agenda and outfits such as Fox News.

Like Hannibal, left sitting on a North African beach with his defeated father after Rome had tossed Carthage out of Sicily, it looked like the game was over.

But then something happened.

Much as I cheered President Obama’s election and the promise it held, I got a couple of twinges early on when I heard respected journalists talk about getting an exciting tingle up their leg when they thought about the new President or that they now felt it was their job to help him succeed.

Really? Is that the media’s job? What about those old tenets of the Fourth Estate, that the primary job of the Press was to keep those in power honest?

Hannibal, like all good Generals, instinctively knew that politicians can never be fully trusted. No matter how much you may admire them or their policies. Maybe he’d read Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War”, written 300 years before his own time, which contains the warning “When bureaucrats prosper, the people are harmed.”

I have a feeling a wily old newshound (or maybe just crafty corporate General) like Rupert Murdoch also noticed that other journalists were leaving the field and suddenly saw an advantage. One that has been employed with stunning success.


I first came to Fox News this summer as the US embarked on its great Health Care debate. Having lived under the Canadian system, I know there’s really nothing to fear about Socialized medicine – beyond having to acquire a bit of a tax fetish to pay for it.

But like many, I was surprised by the force of the Fox News attack on the policy, figuring it probably threatened the glut of pharmaceutical commercials that seem to fuel the newscasts over there.

But then, I became equally stunned by something else. When Congressmen and Senators were questioned about the bill, most admitted that they hadn’t read it.

And not long after, when their own constituents asked the same questions, they still hadn’t read it.

And even after those Town Hall meetings had degenerated into each side calling the other “Nazis” and it was becoming clear the original bill was in jeopardy, politician after politician made it clear they still didn’t know what was in the bill.

Now, Americans shouldn’t think this is unusual behavior. Members of all four Canadian parties passed a tax bill last spring (C-10) which mapped out censorship of the Arts – and it turned out that none of them had read that part before voting in favor.

Our tax dollars at work – and a valuable insight into those politicians Hannibal knew better than to trust.

Like most Canadian artists in the C-10 debacle, many Americans began asking what else their politicians (from both sides of the floor) weren’t paying attention to. But most of the main stream media didn’t seem interested in investigating that story either.

Much like Hannibal noticing that Rome never thought any Army might try crossing the Alps, Fox News realized it had the story to itself. And maybe it had stumbled on something more.


Fox News’ flagship show is “The O’Reilly Factor”, and it’s always been a ratings winner. Part of the reason for that is the gruff charm of host Bill O’Reilly, who constantly refers to his viewers as “The folks”. Whether his act is sincere or contrived doesn’t matter. Because in television terms, “It works.”.

Surrounded by a rep company of correspondents and commentators ranging from a body language expert who goes over video to determine if the subject is hiding something to comedian Dennis Miller, O’Reilly engages his audience in a nightly discussion of the news of the day that simply isn’t available anywhere else.

And most of the time, that interplay belies all of those myths that the audience for Fox News is Redneck, Racist, Ill-informed and – well – not as smart as the people who get their news from other sources. Most often, the discussion makes its ideological points subtly in the midst of a conversation that wouldn’t seem out of place anywhere.

But in relentlessly questioning “What’s really in the Health Care Bill?”, O’Reilly began drawing a massive audience, tripling and quadrupling those who were getting their information from CNN or MSNBC.

Imperceptibly at first, then more openly, he also began lumping Republican and Democratic politicians together. It was clear his audience didn’t trust either side that much. They’d voted out the former and now were having second thoughts about the latter.

One night, in mapping the audience response to one of his monologues, a red line marking Republican approval and a green one the democrats, O’Reilly had realized that “the folks” didn’t want partisan babbling. They just wanted the straight answers nobody else was even trying to give them.

Via O’Reilly, the Fox News question soon expanded from Health Care to “What’s up with the bailout, cap and trade, cash-for-clunkers, Acorn and all these Czars?” Basically instilling in its audience the feeling that maybe this new President and his closest allies didn’t really know what they were doing or couldn’t be trusted. After all, after an ever-lengthening summer away from the office, they still hadn’t read that damn Health Care bill.

The electorate were fed up with the politics of politics.


It was the same way Hannibal built his army, by convincing a thousand disparate tribes that Rome couldn’t be trusted and didn’t have their best interests at heart.

Now, the Administration and the rest of the media could’ve probably nipped all of this in the bud by openly responding to the concerns the Public expressed or the many ways Fox News stretched the facts to connect their dots. But they didn’t.

Why not? Was it hubris? A belief that Summer was a slow news period and it would all eventually go away? A dismissal of Fox News and their viewers as members of that lunatic fringe?

I don’t know. But I do know that Fox didn’t wait to open a second front.

Late afternoon host, Glenn Beck, a former stand-up comic, Rock DJ and CNN correspondent who describes himself as “A Rodeo Clown”, latched onto the zeitgeist of discontent and distrust and dug in his spurs. Over three months, his own ratings tripled and he turned into a national phenomenon, watched by more people than every other competing news service combined.

What Beck does brilliantly is play the role of a guy out of his depth and struggling to understand. He evokes sympathy by appearing just as confused by what’s happening to his country as many of those who watch him. Again, whether that’s cynical or dishonest doesn’t matter. “It works.”

Beck decided to go after the people Obama embraced as his inner circle, echoing the mantra most of us heard from our moms, “If you want to know what somebody is like, look at their friends.”

So he attacked those closest to the President, in the same way that Hannibal made a point of personally dispatching the generals sent against him.

After one battle, he sent 200 hundred blood-stained gold rings back to the Roman Senate. They had been taken from the dead hands of the cream of Roman Knighthood. A message that he would decimate the ruling class rather than ever come to terms with them.

A typical Beck program often includes a segment with Beck at a blackboard trying to figure out something like this…

A guy missing his tinfoil hat? Somebody looking for fire where there isn’t even smoke? Wouldn’t it be helpful if a real journalist delved into all this?

But all summer long, none did, insisting on taking pot shots at the messenger instead.

Meanwhile, Fox News found endless new ways of hammering the Administration. Was MSNBC silent because CEO Jeffrey Imelt needed the Cap and Trade bill to pass for the sake of GE’s bottom line? Could there be any other logical explanation for Obama dolls being sold in the NBC store?

During the Cash for Clunkers program, Fox found mechanics going broke because people were trading in their old cars instead of fixing them and a dour lady from a Kidney charity that was struggling because the government was paying for junkers people would otherwise have donated to her group.

Blow after blow sent the message that the Administration agenda was hurting the little guy and looking after somebody else.

During each program, Beck pleads for people to help him save the country, to send him intel, to be whistleblowers. Maybe it’s just the modern TV version of offering Captain Midnight’s Secret Decoder Ring.

But --- “It Works”.

If only 1% of Beck’s audience is doing what he asks, that amounts to about 10,000 true believers on the lookout in every single state in the Union.

It took him weeks of going after Green Jobs Czar, Van Jones, to end that man’s political career; a campaign completely ignored in the main stream press.

The New York Times, in its first report of the scandal, on the day Jones resigned, attributed his fall to an old video where he referred to Republicans as “Assholes”. The truth is, it was a long list of videos repeatedly shown on Beck’s program, including one where Jones, speaking to an inner city audience, affirms that White environmentalists are specifically choosing to dump dangerous materials in Black neighborhoods.

Minutes after claiming Jones’ scalp, Beck was twittering his followers with a list of who he wanted information on next. In an era where every newspaper editor knows the term “citizen journalist” Beck was actually making use of them.

Within days, he had forced the reassignment of the head of the National Endowment of the Arts over a demand that Artists who wanted grants sign on to the President’s agenda first.

And then he scored a major coup, presenting incredible hidden camera video shot inside Acorn, filmed by a pair of neophytes, that caused the Census Department to bar the community organizer from leading the next Census and the Senate to cease funding the group.

Since many on the Right had worried Acorn might skew the Census to change the boundaries of Congressional Districts to favor the Left, this could translate to a stunning reversal of electoral fortunes.

And it was a bloodless coup accomplished by complete amateurs and so revealing of the silence of the main stream media that it had “Daily Show” host John Stewart staring blankly into camera and asking American journalists, “I’m a fake journalist and I’m embarrassed. Where the fuck were the rest of you guys?”

And that’s what this is all really about.

At a time when TV news is struggling to survive, where things are so screwed up that Katie Couric earns more money for reading the news than NPR has to fund all of its news programming, Fox News saw a vacuum, moved in and filled it.

And still --- nobody else seems to have the stomach to take them on. Like the Romans, they seem content to hunker within their city walls while Hannibal pillages the countryside.

After decades of plundering Rome, Hannibal was finally defeated by Scipio Africanus, a Roman General who simply copied his tactics and used them against him.

And that is the only strategy that might also save the other news channels and network news departments who are watching their ratings plummet while Fox News increases its numbers by thousands of new viewers every night.

This is a revolution in television news that has gone virtually unchallenged by the the media establishment.

If Fox News really is being disingenuous about the American President’s agenda and the complicity of the Press, then other journalists need to get to work and get to the truth.

Otherwise, these guys are going to dictate the public mood and control the political agenda for a very long time.


Again, I want to be clear, that this isn’t really about politics, your own perspectives or what you think the right direction for society might be. It’s an example of how somebody determined to succeed can quickly gain the upper hand and change the game.

It’s an illustration of the way power and influence works and how to make your agenda the one which gets adopted.

You need to be relentless. You need to find the weakness in every single decision your opponent makes and refuse to accept anything less than what you want.

After 10 years of watching Canadian television decline, while we have tugged our forelocks and spoken politely with the CRTC, it’s clear that conciliation and polite debate do not work. It’s time for us to start going after those who refuse to hear our voices, to force them on pain of their own survival to finally act in our interests.

What Hannibal knew instinctively, Machiavelli, voiced very succinctly, “Don’t stand around too long with the knife in your hands.”

You find the opening and you strike.

Now excuse me while I go find some elephants.

Monday, September 21, 2009

We Don’t Do Period

It seems we’ll be back into the never ending Canadian TV Regulation Wars in the coming weeks, with the CRTC now announcing two (“Count ‘em, two!”) sets of Fall hearings on the state of the industry. How often do these guys need to make the same decision, anyway? Is it a Best of Five series? Seven?

However, I have to say the field has become more interesting with the arrival of a new player, the Harper Government, who seems to be giving the Commission’s leash a yank in an attempt to get them to remember they’re supposed to be a consumer watchdog rather than broadcaster lap hound. Details from Grant Robertson, the busiest journalist in Canadian Show business – or maybe just the only guy at the Globe & Mail who couldn’t score any TIFF passes.


As always, the just concluded Toronto International Film Festival was less about movies than the parties. That forces even guys like me to hang up the “quiet loner” mantle and slip into something elegant. Or as elegant as necessary to hang with barely working Canadian writers, actors and filmmakers.

I usually explain my non-attendance at industry events with the “Because they don’t let me bring a shotgun!” excuse. But lately, I’m thinking the real danger of packing heat would be wrestling it from the grip of so many in a mood to cram the barrel in their own mouths.

For what seems to be happening in our country is that we’re building a creative community with nowhere to create.

It’s all well and good that several levels of government used TIFF to announce $7 Million in new funding for the Canadian Film Centre and $10 Million more to complete a permanent Festival complex. But you gotta wonder if there will be any production for those CFC kids to work on once they graduate and if the grand Festival theatres will have Canadian films in a sufficient number to raise their own screen content above the 2% level our cinematic output accounts for in the rest of the country.

Shouldn’t we have our own industry before we spend so much public money on training and exhibition?  Especially when those trained and the places where our films are exhibited will both have to depend heavily on the kindness of foreigners to survive.

But then, that’s always been one of the places where our National Psyche misfires. We crave acceptance at all cost, wanting to be internationally regarded as the wonderfully extra-special people we all know we are. And somehow artists approved by association with the Ivy League cache of their Alma Mater or inviting people to watch movies in a jewel box setting is supposed to accomplish that.

The fact that others not burdened by such a lack of self-esteem pay more attention to the content on screen isn’t a concept those so blinkered will ever be able to get their heads around.

But let’s get back to those struggling to make an industry here.


Somebody twittered the warning “It’s become ‘Lord of the Flies’ in here.” from one party I attended, perfectly capturing (as talented writers are wont to do) the rudderless chaos of so much creative energy unable to find normal release and degenerating into something else. 

You hear many excuses for the reduced markets for Canadian work. The need of some local buyers to have guaranteed financing or foreign sales before they’ll commit to development, for example, or the desire for the concept to copy a current American model or success.

One of our nets won’t consider any drama submissions that aren’t budgeted in the $2 Mil/episode range, which must mark the first time any network anywhere hasn’t been all over a producer to “make it cheaper”.

It’s also a business model that flies in the face of every recent Canadian TV success from “Corner Gas” to “Trailer Park Boys” to “Being Erica” while making the break even point for investors almost impossible to reach in the current economy. And given our private networks public pleas of poverty it makes even less sense.

However, one of the most prescient clues to what the real problem is came from a writer friend who’s trying to sell a Period piece. 

Canadian nets are notoriously loathe to shoot anything where the actors can’t be dressed off the rack. Shortly after “Mad Men” debuted, a local development exec let me know they were in the market for a period drama. I offered a couple of ideas, to which she responded, “We weren’t thinking of going back that far.”

In other words, they really wanted something from the 60’s, like “Mad Men”. If you signed with a US network first. And had foreign sales.

mad men

One of these network geniuses had listened to my friend’s pitch and worried aloud about becoming known for doing Period.

Shouldn’t the concern have been, “How can this idea make us money? How can the stories we do here resonate with a modern audience? How can this series make us the place where viewers know they can find something different?”

But network executives apparently don’t think that way. Canadian ones in particular seem to eschew the opportunity to break new ground in favor of re-tooling or simply replicating what can be found pretty much anywhere else.

Perhaps that’s a safe choice when it comes to personal job-security. But when iTunes is your company’s only option at securing future profits, you’d think you wouldn’t want a little more than your version of “So You Think You Can Dance” competing with somebody else’s copy.

When you’re stuck in a falling box, your only salvation is beginning to think outside it.

But, in the same way they don’t embrace the story potential, visual freedom and imagination sparking ability of Science Fiction, Canadian TV Execs are loathe to program much that’s set in the past, preferring to till a narrow segment of human history (the Present) as it is seen through the eyes of endless incarnations of cops, doctors, lawyers and young singles.

I started wondering why they’re so afraid of a tapestry of human experience so diverse you could program a different era and/or culture (as well as all it had/has to offer) in every available prime time slot for decades without repeating yourself. And unfortunately, I think I found the answer.


I’ve written about how stupid our audience is being made before, much of that process the result of an education system too lazy or too disinterested in our kids to even teach them how to read.

And while the Nation’s movers and shakers were craning their necks to see if Megan Fox was as hot in person as she was in “Transformers 2”, the Canadian Council on Learning published a study showing that 48% of Canadian adults operate at a literacy level below the minimum required to cope in a knowledge based economy.

To make it simple – half of us can’t comprehend a newspaper anymore, let alone begin to deal with a novel.

The CCL included a map with their study showing the national scope of the problem. Green and Yellow sections denote a lower proportion of adult illiterates, orange and red indicate illiteracy at levels up to 69%.

literacy map

As a Western Canadian with an admitted Conservative bias, I hope some of you notice the corollary between literacy and the Nation’s voting patterns.

Just Sayin’…

Anyway – we already can’t read. And now it appears not learning History is next.

The UK has a whole lot of History, so much that PBS wouldn’t have much programming without it and CBC wouldn’t have as many shows they can pretend are actually Canadian.

But there’s a movement afoot over there to stop teaching History because they now have so many kids in school who were born elsewhere that some in Education are asserting that those children feel left out, don’t relate to what’s being taught and therefore fail.

The fact that there are still a lot of indigenous kids who might like to know where they come from and that it might not harm the imports to get up to date on how their new home got this way seems to escape Educational Bureaucrats.

It makes you wonder how many culture clashes could be avoided if teachers were working at making everybody a little clearer on how the people they don’t fully understand came to be the way they are.

In my part of the World, where one School Board has already banned “To Kill A Mockingbird” in a misguided attempt to reduce racial sensitivities; it’s come to light that School Boards are encouraging teachers to augment their classes with a field trip to the nearest “Medieval Times” outlet for “A History Lesson Your Child Will Never Forget! @ $40 bucks a head.


I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Medieval Times performance. It’s an extension on the Dinner Theatre concept which grew out of the “watching something while you eat” TV Dinner Concept. In this case, it’s basically “Chuck E. Cheese” with horses.

The audience is herded into an arena and treated to mock jousting while wearing paper crowns and eating with their hands, constantly being assured what they’re experiencing is an accurate portrayal of life in a Medieval Castle.

It’s not.

It’s a Vegas style concept so dependent on school shows for its corporate survival that they’ve developed a whole “educational” package to encourage school attendance. This includes a handout on dramatic acting educating the kids on arcane theatrical terms like ACTRA and AFTRA as well as such definition gems as “Background Performer: …Extra” and “Extra: …Background Performer”.

The Medieval Menu for school matinees features:

Garlic Bread

Oven-Roasted Chicken Quarter

Sweet Corn Cobette

Herb-Roasted Potato

Freshly-Baked Chocolate Chip Cookie

Bottled Spring Water

(Gluten and Dairy free options available)


Those of you with a literacy level high enough to get you this far down the page should also be able to discern how many of those products were actually available during the Middle Ages.

Passing this off as History is right up there with what passes for History on Canada’s History Channel. You might as well show “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” in class (somehow I’m sure The History Channel already has) or simply take the kids to Vegas where they can climb the Eiffel Tower, take a Gondola through Venice and meet direct descendants of Al Capone in one very “educational” afternoon.

And while they’re there, maybe somebody can teach them how to play Poker, because it might be their only shot at earning a living after graduation.

What this laziness and lack of imagination in the education community breeds is -- well, the very same thing -- in everybody they were supposed to teach. And it’s clearly starting to affect what gets offered as television fare.

When kids can’t read and therefore have fewer options, they’ll start to see the degradation of “Bromance” or “Rock of Love” as their only chance to be somebody. They’ll believe the abusive atmosphere of “Hell’s Kitchen” is what they have to put up with in the workplace or that there’s a Millionaire “Bachelor” who’ll marry you after one night in a hot tub.

And the ratings hungry people who run television will be more than happy to oblige.

Making room for fewer dramas -- and even fewer Period pieces that might coax them to stretch their understanding of the world.

To put it simply -- Nobody is taught enough History anymore to be able to follow a Period piece without being in a constant state of confusion.

“Why doesn’t he use his cell phone? Whaddya mean they didn’t have ‘em back then?”

“Why is she taking a train if she’s in a hurry? That’ll take forever!”

“No clues! Are they nuts? Where’s the CSI guys?”

“Did that Atticus guy use the ‘N’ word? I thought we were supposed to like him!”

Having lived through the 1960’s, I’m frankly stunned by the vast number of mass media journalists who filed miles of copy prior to this season’s launch wondering at the differences between the sexes displayed in “Mad Men”. Even if these people are waaaaay younger than me, didn’t they have parents? Didn’t anybody ever tell them that things have changed a little in the last few decades? Don’t they know that iPods aren’t magic, they evolved from what preceded them?

Apparently not.

And they’re the ones who know how to read!

I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that television is a struggling medium right now and we’ll get back to more diverse programming once the “New Media” business models are perfected. But I look at how many of last night’s Emmy Awards were carted away by “Mad Men”, “Grey Gardens”, “Little Dorrit” and “House of Saddam” and I realize that producing in the Period genre might be one of those models.

Maybe the problem is bigger than teachers.

Maybe the Canadian TV mantra isn’t “We don’t do Period.” It’s --- We don’t do. Period.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 85: Capturing Television

The Emmy Awards will be handed out this evening, celebrating the best the last American TV season had to offer. Some of your favorite shows will be honored. Some of them will be robbed. And twenty years from now, the ones that mattered to you will still hold a special place in your heart.

What we watch and why we watch it is always ethereal, always changing. But what remains constant is the drive to communicate, to engage and to bring something special to the screen that abides in those who make television.

Finding a new idea or a fresh take on the oldest one there is and then feeding the voracious machine that churns out the shows millions want to make a part of their lives is a daunting task. And despite what “TMZ” and “Access Hollywood” might lead you to believe, that task is accomplished by intelligent, thoughtful and courageous men and women, who find a vision, follow it and make it real for the rest of us.

Many of these people have been gathered together by those who hand out the Emmys, The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, at a very special site still in Beta called  the “Archive of American Television” at

Stamped with the mandate of “Capturing Television, One Voice at a Time”, the Archive offers hundreds of in-depth video interviews with the legends and pioneers of television – formatted for easy searches by person, show, topic or profession.

Some of these interviews are hours in length, as several generations of the industry explore television from its first days to its current transitions to other media platforms. From writers, actors and directors on the creative side, through the crews and technicians who contributed to and executed the vision to the network presidents and programmers who built and sustained the delivery system for all that creativity, the business of making television has never been so thoroughly examined.

Here you’ll be able to see Elma Farnsworth, widow of Philo Farnsworth, television’s inventor, describe the night her husband showed her the first images ever seen on a cathode ray tube and then sent a telegram to the backers reading: “Well, the damn thing works.”

You’ll listen to James Arness detail the rehearsal process of “Gunsmoke” as the production worked to transform the TV Western from a diversion for kids into an adult drama that would be a ratings leader for 20 years, the longest primetime run in US history.

There’s Walter Cronkite talking about the one and only commercial he did for Winston cigarettes.

Jay Sandrich recalling the 119 episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” that he directed.

Larry Gelbart repeats his favorite line from “M*A*S*H”, The one where Father Mulcahy describes doctors warming their hands over open wounds.

And all of this is mixed with clips and historical footage and anecdotes to die for. It’s the kind of emersion into what it really takes to make great television that no University or Film School can ever hope to provide. All for free and totalling more hours than you’ve probably already spent in front of a television set.

Before you enjoy the glamor and glitter of the Emmys, learn what it really took to get there.

And Enjoy your Sunday.

Monday, September 14, 2009

TIFF Protest Update


Since all the working journalists in this city seem to be up to their eyes at the Toronto International Film Festival covering where George Clooney was partying, who that woman with Colin Farrell was and if you could really see Jennifer Connolly’s nipples, the actual research into slightly more important show biz news has fallen to some of us “untrustworthy” scribes on the internet.

Last week, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, writer Naomi Klein, director Ken Loach and stars like Jane Fonda and Danny Glover (among others) combined their industry profiles to condemn the celebration of films profiling Tel Aviv in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

All the details you could want are located a short distance down this page.

Since that protest launched, most of the press coverage has been about who’s on which side. Kind of a Map of the Stars’ Social Issues and grasp of International Affairs, offering, at the same time, one more opportunity to announce who might be spotted shopping Bloor Street’s so-called “Mink Mile”.

Ohmigawd, Megan Fox is wearing a Roots jacket! Does that mean she’s not “dumb as a rock” or does it prove it?”

As a result, what hasn’t been dug into is whether this is really a bunch of well-intentioned celebrities expressing their collective social conscience or an orchestrated campaign run by somebody with a different agenda.

Turns out, it’s the latter…

Late last week, the organizers of the protest issued a press release celebrating some of the new names that had been added to their list of supporters. It provided a phone number for journalists to contact for further information. It was the same press contact phone number that had been appended to John Greyson’s original “open letter” to the Festival withdrawing his film “Covered”.

If you call that number, you get a very friendly lady eager to answer all your questions except where her office is located. But if you Google the number, you discover it belongs to Palestine House, an education and community service organization for Palestinians partially funded by the Canadian government.

In the past year, the organization’s same contact phone number has appeared on press releases supporting Apartheid Week at the University of Toronto, organizing anti-Israel demonstrations in Ottawa and protesting the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ancient Hebrew texts apparently “looted” from the Palestinian people).

So we’ve got a few interesting questions local journalists could be asking, like…

Why is the government funding an organization to attack arts events the government is also funding?

Is this protest against “the Israeli propaganda” machine really just an arm of the propaganda machine of The Palestinian Authority?

Are the artists involved aware of that connection or simply “useful idiots” in this whole affair? 

Is anybody willing to get their head out of the bean dip and cleavage to practice any real journalism?

Or --- is the free bar and access past the velvet rope all that really matters this week….

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

SWAGmania at TV, Eh? – Eh?

Despite the fact that she has already single-handedly established her blog as the Go-To site for information on Canadian Television, TV, Eh? creator/manager Diane Kristine Wild keeps coming up with new ways of encouraging, coercing and practically bribing people to watch Canadian shows.

And not just watch – now she’s looking for reviews, opinions and feedback. Y’know, that stuff us guys in the business need to hear so we can make what we make even better.

So, here’s your chance to tell the world what you think of a current Canadian show.

And there’s real live television SWAG awaiting those who want to kick in either:

140 characters on Twitter

1 Blog Post


A donation to “The Actors Fund of Canada” – a charity that doesn’t just look after actors, but assists people from all parts of Canadian Show Business.

The details of Diane’s contest and the long lists of prizes are below. But I want to kick in a little to this endeavor of hers myself.

If you want to write a review and need more than Twitter allows but don’t have a blog, feel free to send it here in comment form and I’ll publish it for you. (Please be aware that some editing may occur if it looks like your opinions might get both of us sued).


If you end up winning, I’ll match the donation Diane is making to the Actor’s Fund in your name and send you a hat or T-shirt from one of the Canadian series I’ve worked on.

So get involved and write something or donate something. The most important feedback we get doesn’t come from professional critics or others in the industry. It comes from our audience. You’re why we’re here. And we need to know what you think.

Here are the details from TV, Eh?:

To celebrate the new fall season, TV, eh? has 5 prize packages to give away to 5 Canadian television fans. Winners will be chosen from a random draw of all eligible entries in each of 3 categories. Tweet, blog, or donate to the Actors’ Fund of Canada to win:

1) Twitter Contest

Are you on Twitter? Tweet your 140 character review of a current Canadian show or tell us why you’re looking forward to an upcoming Canadian show. Important: use the hashtag #tveh

DCDVDTwitter grand prize package includes:

  • Durham County Season 1 DVD set
  • Rick Mercer Report: The Book
  • CBC Vancouver News bag
  • The Movie Network t-shirt “I like to watch”
  • HBO Canada baseball cap
  • The Movie Network magnet frame
  • The Movie Network pen
  • $10 donation in your name to the Actors’ Fund of Canada, courtesy TV, eh?

Twitter 2nd prize package includes:

  • The Movie Network stainless steel water bottle “Always Riveting”
  • CBC Radio Orchestra pen
  • The Movie Network baseball cap
  • The Movie Network magnet frame

2) Blog ContestTudors

Write a review of a current Canadian show or tell us why you’re looking forward to an upcoming Canadian show and:

a) post to your blog, then send the link to TV, eh?


b) send the text of the review to TV, eh? (entries will be posted to this website)

CBCcapBlog grand prize package includes:

  • Durham County Season 1 DVD set
  • CBC baseball cap
  • The Movie Network t-shirt
  • The Tudors book: “It’s Good To Be King”
  • HBO Canada CD/DVD holder
  • The Movie Network magnet frame
  • The Movie Network pen
  • $10 donation in your name to the Actors’ Fund of Canada, courtesy TV, eh?

Blog 2nd prize package includes:

  • The Movie Network stainless steel water bottle “Always Riveting”
  • CBC Radio Orchestra pen
  • The Movie Network baseball cap
  • The Movie Network magnet frame

3) Bonus Prize: Donate to the Actors’ Fund of Canada

capJust make a donation to the Actors’ Fund of Canada and email TV, eh? with your name to be entered into the draw. Prize consists of:

  • TV, eh? baseball cap
  • Intelligence poster autographed by star Ian Tracey
  • CBC pin
  • The Movie Network frame magnet
  • The Movie Network pen

The fine print – for all categories:

  • One entry per person per day
  • Deadline: September 14, 2009
  • In doubt if a show is Canadian? Search this site for the title.
  • Privacy: TV, eh? will not share or use your email address for anything other than contacting you for your mailing address if you are a winner.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Not Among The Brightest Stars

“So where’s the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?”  

  ---- Christina Aguilera              

Movie people have a long history of championing social causes.  Some have been less than laudable.


In one of the first successful feature films ever made, D.W. Griffith framed the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes. Leni Riefenstahl used her cinematic talents to burnish and sell the National Socialist agenda of Adolph Hitler. And now Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, writer/filmmaker Naomi Klein, British director Ken Loach and Hollywood stars Jane Fonda and Danny Glover (along with about 50 other artists) have combined their industry profiles to condemn the inclusion of Israeli films in the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival.

The basic tenet of their argument is that by celebrating films set or centred on the city of Tel Aviv, the Toronto Festival is “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine”, supports an “apartheid regime” and thus becomes an unthinking foot soldier in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

Many might paint the artists taking this position as anti-Semites, self-loathing Jews or artists in favor of censorship, and those monikers may well apply to some who signed their names to a manifesto entitled “No Celebration of Occupation“ which can be found in its entirety here. But I think the truth is that wherever their motivation lies, most of them simply haven’t paused to consider what succeeding in their campaign really means.

Now, I’m about the last guy who’s ever going to untangle the problems of the Middle East. I’m not a Jew. I’m not Muslim. And to be honest, I figure boiling the Israeli-Palestinian issue down to a difference between religions is where any solution starts to get confused in the first place. As the Mayor of Dublin said during “The Troubles” in Belfast, “Ireland’s problem is there are a lot of Catholics and a lot of Protestants and not many people who understand what it means to be a real Christian”.

Arguing who was living where first or longest or why you shouldn’t have to negotiate with somebody who lobs missiles at your kids or blows up buses or ambulances or pizza parlors ends up being just about as pointless. And whichever side you choose to support, there’s a lot of what’s gone on that you might be able to justify or logically explain but you sure can’t be proud of owning.

“I find it a bid sad that there is no photo of me at the museum at Checkpoint Charlie."

--- David Hasselhoff


That said, by picking this particular target, these protesting artists have pretty much made it clear that they think it’s okay if the nations that side with them in their opposition to Israel deny other artists the same rights and privileges they expect for themselves.

John Greyson is a well-respected Canadian filmmaker, who sometimes makes movies exploring Gay themes. And while he could show those films in Israel, maybe even during the “Pride Week” that’s celebrated annually in Tel Aviv, he’d be taking his life in his hands doing the same thing in the Gaza Strip and virtually every other Middle Eastern country. In some of those places, even waving his rainbow flag could see him put in prison, raped and/or beaten to death.

You wonder if Mr. Greyson truly believes what he puts in his films or if it just gets him into a less populous funding stream or ensures his presence at every film festival afraid it may appear politically incorrect were it to exclude him. It would seem that enjoying his lifestyle and the freedom to espouse its values isn’t something he’d like to see available to Gay filmmakers in the countries who most enthusiastically support his anti-Isreal stance.

Jane Fonda’s movies and exercise tapes don’t get shown in Sudan, one of the countries which espouses the destruction of Israel. Forget tights and leg warmers, this week a female journalist there was sentenced to 40 lashes with a leather whip for wearing pants in public. An international outcry eventually had that sentence reduced to a fine. But several women who turned up to show their support for her were beaten by police for their trouble.

Jane didn’t say much about that. Nor have I heard her protest the fact that in many Arab countries men and women are not even allowed to be in theatres at the same time. Even if they’re married.

But that’s not really a surprise. For while she spoke out passionately against the Viet Nam war, Jane refused, despite several well-published opportunities to use her notoriety and perceived influence with the victorious South East Asian leaders, to say one word about the genocide that followed in Cambodia.

“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can't help but cry. I mean I'd love to be skinny like that but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”
--- Mariah Carey

A similar kind of hypocrisy or moral relativism seems to reside in Naomi Klein, author of “The Shock Doctrine”.

A friend, who recently returned from working in Saudi Arabia, described he and his fellow office workers being herded into the street one day by a number of police carrying the canes they used to regularly dispense justice to those who contravene various local laws. A bound man was brought into the street and my friend thought he was about to witness another beating. But instead, the man was beheaded.

And while Ms. Klein decries that sort of thing when it’s done by Chilean dictators, George Bush or the fuckwads who work for Blackwater. Her voice seems to go silent when the same kind of “shock treatments” go on in the countries she is helping to demonize Israel. Maybe that has something to do with ensuring that her husband, Avi Lewis, stays employed at Al Jazeera, an Arabic news organization that has often shown beheadings --- including those of terrorist hostages --- to inform and educate their audience.

song of the south

I don’t know how Danny Glover squares his participation in this protest. I heard one wag suggest he might’ve spent one too many “Lethal Weapon” sequels in the company of Mel Gibson.

But I wonder if Mr. Glover is aware that the “apartheid state” he opposes allows Arabs to vote or that there are elected Arab members in the Knesset, Arab judges in the Supreme Court and Arab professors in its universities. In fact, one of Tel Aviv’s most famous orchestras is almost equally comprised of Israelis and Palestinians. Does that sound like Apartheid to you?

Maybe he’s also unaware that American Congressman John Conyers, who founded the Congressional Black Caucus is on the Congressional record stating that applying the word apartheid to Israel belittles real racism and apartheid.

Maybe he doesn’t know that the slave trade still thrives in many Arab countries.  And while some of the victims are those who share Mr. Glover’s race and ancestry, most are now impoverished women and children. In 2004, the head of Interpol’s Iran Bureau published a report claiming that the sex-slave trade there was one of the country’s most lucrative industries.

“I've never really wanted to go to Japan. Simply because I don’t like eating fish. And I know that's very popular out there in Africa.”
— Britney Spears


Perhaps the member of this group who most disappoints me is Ken Loach. Loach is quite simply a master filmmaker. A couple of his early works, “Poor Cow” and “Up the Junction” had a major influence on my work and my understanding of the power of cinema. More recent pieces like “Fatherland”, “Carla’s Song” “Raining Stones” and “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” have universally been recognized as monumental pieces of cinema.

He’s always been a filmmaker who wore his social conscience on his sleeve. But lately, it feels as if he’s lost the plot when it comes to determining where real injustice is most at home.

While (to the best of my knowledge) he never demanded that American films made during the Bush or Reagan eras not share the bill with his own at other film festivals, he’s begun to do just that with works from Israel. Last month, he pulled his most recent film, “Looking for Eric” from the Melbourne Film Festival over the same issue he’s espousing in Toronto.

Not as politically correct as Canadian Festival executives, the Australians were more than happy to tell Mr. Loach he was quite welcome to tuck his little movie up his air-tight Limey Starfish and stay home. As Melbourne Festival director Richard Moore correctly observed, “"to allow the personal politics of one film-maker to proscribe a festival… goes against the grain of what festivals stand for", adding that "Loach's demands were beyond the pale".

"Is this chicken what I have, or is this fish? I know it’s tuna but it says Chicken, by the Sea.”

-- Jessica Simpson


By their very nature, film festivals program works that are controversial and ground-breaking. They are a forum where filmmakers censored, marginalized or misunderstood in their own countries can find an audience. They are places where ideas are exchanged, debated and shared. They are not places where the film lovers who choose what is to be screened should be pilloried by artists with their own ideological axe to grind.

Within the next few days, the Toronto Film Festival will screen Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”, a film which will send Rosedale matrons screaming from the theatre and make grown men retch in the aisles, every single one of them scarred for life. There will probably be one or two other films that will offend somebody’s sensibilities, shatter their illusions or insult their core beliefs. Sometimes good films do that. Sometimes films we don’t like do it too. 

But nobody (least of all artists who enjoy such freedom) has the right to say who can make those movies or who should see them. But that’s what happens in Iran and Saudi Arabia and Syria and other countries who have also called Israel an Apartheid or Racist state.

Like the man says, “You can’t fix, stupid!” And it’s almost as tough to combat what’s fashionable or universally agreed as a priority within an ideology. But that doesn’t make it right or acceptable or anything else but beneath contempt.

If only some of those clear-eyed and committed Canadian filmmakers behind this protest were half as concerned with not screening films that were boring…


triumph of the will

“If, from the many truths, you pick one and follow it blindly, It will become a falsehood, and you – a fanatic.”

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lazy Sunday # 83: Teddy Bear

One of the Country DJ’s I listen to recently had a contest to find the song “Guaranteed” to being a tear to your eye. Like everybody who listens to Country music, he’d heard his share of Hurtin’ songs. The genre is simply chock full of lost loves, lost dreams and lost dogs.

Every Cowboy roadhouse has a string of selections on the jukebox you hesitate to play because it might strike the wrong chord in the quiet loner sitting on the stool at the far end of the bar. Many a Wurlitzer has been trucked to the dump riddled with bullet holes to be buried not far from the fool who plugged in its last quarter and pushed B-29.


But this guy wanted to know which song consistently pushed your own buttons. The one that never made you holler “Oh, get over it!” or “Move on”. The song where you knew what was coming and you still kept listening and took it, aware you were gonna need a hanky before it was done.

The song that won had everything to do with broken hearts and broken dreams. But mostly it was about truckers.

I’m not sure when truckers first became an accepted touchstone of all that is America. But for me, that seed was sown when I first saw the movie version of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. Early on, in the famous “Diner” scene, the kindness of a couple of truckers melts the heart of a waitress who’s seen too much, reminding us that even the darkness of the Great Depression can’t snuff out basic human decency. 

Hollywood, which always knows an emotional winner when it sees one, picked up that theme and ran with it. From “They Drive By Night” through “The Wages of Fear” to “Convoy”, “White Line Fever” and even “Smokey and the Bandit”, there’s always a trucker who instinctively knows what’s right, what’s true and what’s bullshit.

In my own experience, I’ve had two nights in truck stops where a lounge full of drivers told me what shows were going to work and which would fail.

The first occurred on a snowy night in Colorado when Fox debuted hockey. Some of the guys I convinced to watch that game knew a little about hockey. None were fans. But the sight of Fox’s animated blue streak to help viewers follow the puck elicited a simple “The fuck was that?” followed by laughter, followed by my realization hockey might wait a while longer before it caught the attention of Americans.

A couple of summers ago, I traded a six pack for an hour of TV time in Wawa, Ontario to watch the debut of “Flashpoint”. Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the show, a few minutes in, a couple of the guys commented on the impressive array of weaponry and the cast’s obvious skill in handling them. That attention to detail always let’s you know an audience is also picking up the rest of what’s going on. And I have the feeling if the series’ handlers had given themselves over to a little more “gun porn”, CBS wouldn’t be debating its renewal.


Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear” debuted in 1976 at the height of the CB radio craze, one of those apparently recurring moments when trucker culture seems to fill a void within our own. It topped the charts within a month of its release, crossed over to the pop charts and stuck around forever.

And that’s odd, because “Teddy Bear” isn’t really a song. It’s just talking with an instrumental backing. The theme is hackneyed and somewhat trite. And once you’ve heard it once – well, you know the story.

In fact, in the first 90 seconds, the piece clearly telegraphs every single button it’s going to push. Like a bad script with a story editor’s red penciled “On the Nose. On the Nose. On the Nose” scrawled all over it, you know exactly what’s coming.

But that doesn’t matter.

Because then “Teddy Bear” twists. And then it twists again. And no matter how often you’ve heard it and maybe because you’re listening for when those emotional turns actually occur, all of a sudden the road ahead is getting a little harder to see and you’re reaching for the Kleenex box on the dash.

Yep. That country DJ was right. Despite all that’s hokey and stupid about it. “Teddy Bear” delivers and in the process makes you wonder if all those people who vet stories for art and relevance and importance have even the first clue about the reactions of the people that work is supposed to reach.

So, grab a tissue, shed a tear and then…

Enjoy your Sunday.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Without Stories


The two guys who clear the grocery carts off the Costco lot were in a good mood. It was payday and one of them finally had enough money to get his nipples pierced.

He was absolutely ecstatic at the prospect of parading the beach with his newly sparkling pecs on the last long weekend of the summer, exhilarating in how Cool that was gonna be.

My first thought was of how “Cool” might have a different context when he was humping those empty carts across the windblown ice of the same parking lot come February.

But as they went on about whether they should splurge for a few beers at lunch or pick up one of those way sweet Budwiser knapsack cases on the way home, my second thought was of the inspired Craig Ferguson clip on “the deification of imbecility” that had been making the rounds.

As I finished loading my car and the boys continued their banter, one of them picked up a business card from the pavement and tried to decipher it. His buddy stepped in to help. And it quickly became clear that neither one of these guys really knew how to read.


For too many reasons I’d bore you to death by describing, I learned to read before I went to school. And I firmly believe the stories I read as a kid helped me understand and figure out things my parents, friends and teachers couldn’t. Those stories also gave me experiences and insight I wouldn’t have otherwise had. And they inspired me to strive for what others around me didn’t.

And while somebody much smarter than I’ll ever be once said that “good books are those that reinforce your own prejudices”, I believe even the bad ones help you find your way through the world.

From parables that founded religions and philosophies to Sci-fi novels that inspired scientists to get us to the moon, human history has always been guided by bringing our myths and fantasies to life.

We’re a species that hungers for stories and maps our progress with them. From kids needing comfort before drifting off to the unfathomable world of sleep to a foursome playing bridge in a Seniors’ home reminding themselves of their history, we are sustained and energized by the stories we share.

But those two guys in that parking lot had had a segment of their deserved humanity withheld from them. And they’re far from alone.


A few years ago, I went to see a much anticipated new Comic book hero movie. The snack bar line wasn’t moving because the cash register wasn’t working. By that I mean, when it tallied your total and you gave the kid behind the counter your money, it wouldn’t then do the math and let him know how much you got back in change.

A half dozen kids in spiffy uniforms were all trying to help each other and equally flummoxed. Older people in the line, those who had never had the luxury of pocket calculators in math class, tried to help, as in “You owe me $2.32.” But even then, the kids couldn’t deal with the lack of certainty the failure of the till had instilled.

And then about halfway through the movie, the pace of the action slowed for what was the only scene of character important dialogue between the male and female leads. Less than thirty seconds into their conversation, a voice from the back bellowed “Either Fuck or Fight!” an admonition loudly cheered by those in attendance.

I needed two slabs of post-movie pie that night to mull over what all this meant to the craft of screenwriting and the kind of audiences writers would soon be asked to engage.


Around the same time as my movie incident, people in other industries began complaining about the lack of high school and even university graduates who had basic skills in reading, simple math and other supposed core tenets of our education system.

Their criticisms went unaddressed and we now have a growing population that haven’t had the benefit of the perspectives to be gained from encountering Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield or even Harry Potter.

A few weeks ago, a High School Board in Brampton, Ontario voted to remove “To Kill A Mockingbird” from their school libraries because it contains the “N” word --- a word their students hear more often in one hour of listening to Hip Hop than they’ll find in that book, while at the same time missing out on one of the most powerful anti-Racism messages ever written.

It’s this same lack of story understanding that caused people to pull “Huckleberry Finn” off the stands when I was in school. Luckily, that happened after I’d already read the book, which left an 11 year old white kid from Saskatchewan, one who’d never even seen a Black man, with the impression that Huck’s friend Jim was about the best friend anybody could ever have.

Not being able to encounter the “N” word and then be masterfully shown the way past it by Mark Twain and Harper Lee would have made me a different person than I am today. A lesser person.

And that same lack of understanding of the true power of storytelling and the “lack of stories” itself has a lot to do with the problems we’re now facing in the TV industry.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m not some kind of book snob who thinks you need to appreciate the Classics to succeed in life. But I am a story advocate. And I don’t care if you get your stories from comic books, movies, TV or an XBox. Because that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have stories in your life.

A crisp Chardonnay is still a crisp Chardonnay whether it’s sipped from a mason jar or fine crystal. Novels (Graphic or otherwise), eBooks from iTunes or Kindle, movies, TV and the Internet are merely the context by which the content reaches you. It’s what’s in that content, those stories, that enriches you.

And when we lose what’s gained by following a fictional character on his journey and applying it to our own lives, we breed the aimless, goal-less, coarsening and porn imitating society anybody being honest with themselves can see burgeoning around us.

And I don’t blame any of the people you see in that lifestyle for any of this. Hell, if I was stuck with an endless string of dead end jobs at minimum wage without having been taught the tools to escape that prison, I’d probably skip the nipple piercing and go right for a Prince Albert.


For an image more accurately related to the above reference, please consult Dr. Google.

I once tried to get the Writers Guild involved in supporting some kind of literacy program. But we’re a small Guild here with not many resources and the general feeling was that if we were going to teach anybody to read, it might be in our best interests to start with those who make programming decisions at the networks.

And I tend to agree with that assessment.


We’ve just come through a decade dominated by “Reality” programming, most of which is actually manufactured reality, an imitation of dramatic elements that are most often not created or programmed by people with any real dramatic skill.  And yes, some of these shows do make a lot of money for broadcasters. But those profits can be deceiving.

This summer “Big Brother 11” and “So You Think You Can Dance Canada” were about the only shows our private networks offered which earned them any kind of audience worth paying their PR flacks to brag about.

Yet, even these successes have not managed to make much difference to their collapsing business model.

Anybody with any kind of profile in the entertainment business will not only tell you how much their continuing failure has affected our own bottom lines and ability to find work. But each and every one us also has a wealth of personal encounters we can relate with gym rats, bartenders and reno contractors who all firmly believe they could be the next reality star, hit show host or Bachelor/Bachelorette winner.

It’s all part of an “I know my life would look all right if I could see it on the silver screen” syndrome that’s as false as the lengthy careers experienced by “Canadian Idol” winners. There isn’t one person at any broadcaster who honestly believes their next/latest “SYTYCD” champion or “Triple Threat” winner will even be in the business a short distance down the road.

And that cynical, devoid of talent manipulation of a mass audience that already doesn’t have a lot going for it is killing television.

I don’t think I go out on too flimsy a limb in predicting that 2009 will be the last or at best next to last, season of television resembling anything the industry and its audience have previously known.

The 2009 – 2010 TV season will have fewer hours of drama than ever before. NBC has entirely wiped the once highly valued 10 o’clock show from its schedule. In Canada, even the CBC has stopped pretending it’s the bastion of Canadian drama as it endlessly promotes a pointless exercise involving retired hockey goons and past their prime ice dancers.

What will anyone learn from “Battle of the Blades”? That some semi-famous people have a sense of humor about themselves? So….?


Nobody in Canada wants to produce Drama anymore because making it is “hard” and “time-consuming” and “expensive”. But the truth is that our networks can’t afford not to endure that (painful for everybody) “Development Hell” process. Because more and more people are going elsewhere to find the stories their lives and their very souls need and they’re not coming back.

In the ten years since our networks began depending on non-dramatic programming, their audience has declined by 35%. Last season they experienced an overall loss of 10% from the numbers they had enjoyed only one year earlier. The drop in the coveted 18-49 demographic was 17%. 

You don’t need to be a business genius or even only smart enough to work at CanWest to know that continuing to follow a cheap programming business model is hastening the day when you have to turn out the lights for good.

It wouldn’t take someone with a much higher IQ to realize that the people who have been in charge of program development at almost all of our networks have a track record that would have seen them taken out behind the barn and shot if they had four legs instead of two.

And it’s not that these people have never had the time or the money to bring their chosen projects to fruition. In Canada, development lasts an average of SIX TIMES longer than it does South of the border. Meanwhile, channels that will NEVER broadcast the finished product chip in on somebody else’s development slate in order to meet their own mandated “development spend”.

What’s standing in the way of more successful dramas coming out of this country? To my mind it’s simply that the people in charge of development are not themselves story tellers. They don’t instinctively know what works, what inspires and which tweaks will evoke which emotions.

They understand how much the audience enjoys “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” or “Arrested Devewlopment” because anybody even halfway human can experience and appreciate a finished product from any culture. Creating shows that original themselves, however, is simply far above their pay grade.

Babble about marketing trends and audience taste and the zeitgeist all you want. When a script works, it works. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And the majority of Canadian development executives can’t spot the difference at the outline stage.

So how do we solve this? How do we find people who know how to make good television in this country?

Once again, the answer is simple. We already have a bunch of them.


Just quickly perusing the membership of the Writers Guild of Canada, I can find a couple dozen writers with a hundred or more individual script credits to their names. These people know story. They know the craft backwards because they’ve had to create or fix the scripts that gave them all those credits.

These people are almost all approaching the age at which, if they wrote novels, they’d be considered for Nobel and Giller prizes, their next stories eagerly anticipated for the life experience and craft skills they have acquired along the way.

But in the film and television business they are considered mostly unemployable at 40 and not even worth talking to at 50. At a stage in their lives when they’ve pretty much heard all the excuses, seen all the games, savored every flavor of bullshit and know why what worked on “Desperate Housewives” won’t work on “Wild Roses” they are usually just turned out to pasture.

But like good Scotch, most writers actually improve with age. There isn’t one who looks back on a script he or she wrote at 20 and doesn’t long for the chance to turn it into what it could have been.

These people are story tellers. They have dedicated their lives to learning the ways you connect with an audience. And most of them already mentor the writers with less experience who populate the current network wish lists.

Having people who understand story from the inside actually on the inside means the entire development process suddenly becomes streamlined, faster, and cheaper with less emotional angst for all involved. Combine these people with showrunners who write and you suddenly have a network/studio team capable of bringing stories to our screens that will attract and inspire an audience.

Continue in the “cheap programming” direction we’re heading, continue to rely on people who can critique but not create and we not only lose an industry, we create more aimless, lost people who measure their achievements in piercings and body ink and one night become so hopeless and lost they carve somebody up for an iPod or take that one drink or hit too many.

Since the dawn of time, Story tellers have been our healers. If we’re going to save Canadian television, it’s time we let the ones we have do their job.