Cover

WE LIKE TO WATCH

Canada has found its cultural identity as the Media Nation, transparently filtering the world

Brian D. Johnson November 25 2002
Cover

WE LIKE TO WATCH

Canada has found its cultural identity as the Media Nation, transparently filtering the world

Brian D. Johnson November 25 2002

WE LIKE TO WATCH

Cover

Canada has found its cultural identity as the Media Nation, transparently filtering the world, writes BRIAN D. JOHNSON

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

CANADA IS A FICTION, a make-believe nation. We have the all trappings of a modern state—our parliamentary floor show, our sad little army, and now our very own poet laureate. We have a few precious sacraments: our health care, our hockey, our beer, our news. But as much as we might like our country, we don’t love it, at least not with the Biblical devotion that seems hardwired into the American psyche. A passion for Canada requires a delicate suspension of disbelief. We’re not just post-colonial, we’re a post-modern nation held together by speculative patriotism, a country forever trying to make cultural ends meet as it debates its own existence. A necessary fiction.

But one thing we know is what we’re not. We’re not American. We can’t believe Letterman keeps making racist cracks about Manhattan taxi drivers in turbans without

seeing the connection to planes flying into buildings. We’re onto that. But we’d still rather watch Letterman than Bullard. America is fun; CanCon is something to fall back on. And when every last corner of every last town in the land has fallen to a Starbucks or a Gap or a Wal-Mart, and when our rivers are diverted to irrigate lawns in the Nevada desert, we can still take some solace in this intangible thing we call Canadian culture.

Or can we? Some would argue that Canada’s sense of self, as expressed by its artists, is stronger than ever. Our novelists continue to scoop up international prizes. Our divas (Celine, Shania, Alanis, Nelly, Avril) take turns playing dominatrix with America’s pop charts. And we’ve managed to flog a TV series about a grouchy Vancouver coroner to 45 countries. But some would argue that our most successful artists have become the aes-

thetic equivalent ofhewers of wood and drawers of water—crafting generic entertainment for a globalized culture. That Canadian cinema is just the veneer of a service industry devoted to churning out American product. That our pop stars are citizens of a nationless culture called heavy rotatioa And that our authors have become world-famous by setting their novels anywhere but in Canada.

That’s Stephen Henighan’s gripe. In When Words Deny the World, Henighan unleashes a paranoid rant against what he calls “TorLit culture,” suggesting that a continental conspiracy has led to the “Hollywoodization” of Canadian literature, via Toronto branch plants of foreign-owned publishers. With wild-eyed economic determinism, Henighan goes so far as to call Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries “the flagship novel of Free Trade Fiction... It can hardly be a coincidence that this book was one of the most popular works of fiction in both Canada and the U.S., particularly among wealthy professions, during the months in which NAFTA was implemented.” Right, and how about those crop circles?

Henighan is the Oliver Stone of cultural nationalists. This failed novelist has already received too much ink, plus a Governor General’s nomination, for his bitter little

clutch of essays. But he’s worth mentioning because he represents a kind of crackpot cultural nationalism that now seems hopelessly retrograde. It’s a view that suggests our artists should be in the business of reflecting Canada to Canadians with dogged literalism—that if Michael Ondaatje writes about a charred Hungarian in a Tuscan villa (TheEnglish Patient), or Barbara Gowdy inhabits the mind of an African elephant (The White Bone), or Yann Martel sets a lifeboat adrift with a Bengal tiger (The Life of Pi), they are somehow betraying Canada. But this is a nation in transit, a country that Martel, on accepting the Booker Prize, had the nerve to call “the greatest hotel on earth.”

What if real national maturity means that Canadian content can’t be measured by tallying up local references? Perhaps there’s such a thing as a Canadian point of view, and what makes it Canadian is its lack of national ego, and the transparency with which it filters the rest of the world, America in particular. That’s why we export so many comedians and journalists. Mike Myers deals in farce, Peter Jennings in news, but both mediate the world from a bemused distance. That same playful approach to the chemistry

of communication is what made Glenn Gould, Norman McLaren, Pierre Trudeau and Marshall McLuhan so much more than simply a pianist, an animator, a politician and an academic. They were all media visionaries, transforming the art of communication. And they all flourished in the Sixties, when Canadian culture first popped into focus with Expo 67 and the creation of the flag.

McLuhan, of course, was the ultimate media guru, a prophet of globalization at the dawn of the computer age. Envisioning the “global village,” he asked this pointed question: “When everybody becomes totally involved with everybody, how is one to establish identity?” Canada has found a selfeffacing identity as the Media Nation. Sitting backstage of America, we comment from a safe but intimate distance, with no need to applaud. As for our own culture, it has found its voice, or voices, but is still struggling with image. In the spectrum of the so-called cultural industries, at one end there’s CanLit and pop music, which are both thriving. In the middle, there’s TV drama, which clings to the sagging infrastructure of the CBC, with token support from the private sector. Then at the other

extreme, there’s our cinema, the Achilles heel of Canadian culture. Despite some critical successes, our movies have yet to attract much of a popular audience.

Film is the dominant art form of our age, and (not coincidentally) the most industrial art form. While Henighan’s argument that CanLit has been neutered by Free Trade seems far-fetched, it’s obvious how economic forces have hobbled our film industry. Unlike our publishing, television and pop music, it doesn’t have its own distribution system or CanCon quotas. We’re the only country in the world that the Hollywood studios treat as part of their “domestic” distribution system. A hothouse climate of public funding has nurtured an astringent, self-conscious style of cinema—starved of romance, humour and diversity. And on screen, our penchant for observation is compounded into voyeurism. For all their brilliance, the films of Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg are an acquired taste, and a restricted diet.

It’s telling that two of the great lyric storytellers of our big screen—Quebec’s Claude Jutra (Mon Oncle Antoine) and B.C.’s Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox)—were frustrated, and defeated, by the impossibility of making movies in Canada. Both died tragically, their visions only half-fulfilled. Quebec, of course, has enjoyed a steadily thriving film industry, with its own vedettes and a captive audience. But English Canada lacks a star system. Our directors get more respect than our actors. And, these days, when the Gillers get more press than the Genies, there’s nothing more glamorous than a prize-winning author.

We can blame Hollywood for overshadowing our cinema, just as Henighan blames Toronto for the Hollywoodization of CanLit. “In cultural terms,” he writes, “the relationship between Toronto and the rest of the country has come to resemble the relationship between Americans and Canadians: they know nothing about our country, but we know everything about theirs.” But resenting Toronto (even those of us who work in the belly of the beast aren’t averse to Toronto-bashing) has become our own parochial form of anti-Americanism. U.S. artists don’t whine about their cultural industries being centred in New York and Los Angeles. Yet some Canadians still believe that cultural vision should be evenly distributed, like federal transfer payments. To become truly post-colonial, maybe we need to stop blaming Toronto, or America. Let’s blame Canada. IJl