A Tale of Two Entertainment Mediums – and what’s on a Canadian film play list?

Okay, I’ll confess — I’m turning into precisely the sort of person ultra-conservatives hate. The kind of person who — gasp! — really does have his radio tuned to CBC Radio an inordinate amount of the time (at least when driving). And for its variety. From its news and quirky information pieces (what writer can’t enjoy Babel?), to the folksy wit of Stuart McLean, the hilarity of The Debaters, the just plain oddness that is Wire Tap. From the modern pop rock to the era-spanning Vinyl Tap with Randy Bachman, the folk music of Deep Roots to the day time classical music (I initially found the anecdotal tales of famous composers the DJ’s sprinkled between sonatas was overly cutesy but, darn it, I’m actually kind of digging them now…particularly since I know next to nothing about classical music other than it sometimes is nice on a long drive as a counterpoint to the raucous rock, which I also like).

One program they have (on Sunday afternoons on CBC 2, I believe) is called “Inside the Music” which I think is basically just an umbrella title for various music documentaries as well as a recurring feature — My Play List. My Play List is where they get a well known singer/musician to play DJ for an hour and select songs that are important to him/her. It’s neat, because like with Bachman’s Vinyl Tap, it gives you a perspective on music you only get from another musician, and the music they select ranges from their childhood to current, and span a variety of styles, and is a good reminder to their fans that being a fan of one type of music doesn’t mean you can’t be a fan of many types. Tommy Hunter, “Canada’s Country Gentleman”, included some opera in his playlist, while Canadian rap pioneer Maestro Fresh Wes played some rap and hip hop…but also Burton Cummings!

Tres cool!

The performers providing a playlist have been Canadian. But where it becomes interesting — and illuminating — is how often the music they choose is also Canadian. And I’m pretty sure there is no mandatory Canadian criteria for the set list, since plenty of non-Canadian artists are also included. As such, it’s fascinating how much Canadian music is chosen — in some cases the artists do indeed fill up most of their playlist with Canadian acts.

Now that’s no surprise. Everyone accepts Canada has produced top notch acts, internationally and domestically, from singers who can fill stadiums around the world to indie bands that enjoy a fanatical cult following on the bar circuit. So the fact that these artists could in many cases stuff their play list with great music featuring a disproportionate number of Canadian acts is unsurprising.

What’s more surprising is that they would want to.

Think about it: My Play List is supposed to reflect music that means something to these artists, that shaped and influenced them, that first got them dancing in their knee pants and that they still listen to today. And as Canadian artists, a lot of them seem to be indicating that Canadian music was an influence. And, I’m guessing, not just because of the music, but because it was Canadian — it woke them up to the idea that it was possible, that they as a Canadian artist had something to contribute because these artists before them proved it was so.

And yes, I’m sure there’s also an aspect of patriotism, of self-consciousness — the artists are choosing some fellow Canadian artists because they want to give a nod to their fellow travellers on the tour bus circuit, they want to give a shout out to their fellow Canadians.

And I wonder, what would a “Play List” by Canadian film and TV makers look like?

If Deepa Mehta or David Cronenberg were asked to compile a list of their favourite motion pictures, or TV producers like Tassie Cameron were to draw up a list of the TV series that influenced and shaped them — what would it be?

Would there be anything Canadian on those lists?

This is something I’ve wondered and posited before, but it’s a complex, multifaceted query.

Firstly, it’s asking the simple question: do Canadian film and TV makers even like other Canadian films and TV series?

I mean, they are the ones quick to champion the biz, to insist that all it needs is more support, more enthusiasm from the great unwashed…but do even they like what’s being produced (and has been produced in the past)? If you raided Atom Egoyan’s house when he was away on the festival circuit, would you find his DVD shelf crammed with Canadian movies…or would you discover a secret cache of British rom coms and Hollywood thrillers tucked illicitly under his bed like a porn collection?

Now in itself that’s not necessarily something to criticize. Indeed, maybe it’s the opposite. After all, most people probably would say it bodes ill for the future of the industry if Stephanie Morgenstern & Mark Ellis (creators of the hit Flashpoint) insisted The Littlest Hobo was the pinnacle of Canadian TV excellence. So there’s something to be said for Canadian artists who are willing to break from the pack and say, “I’m not with those guys”. Or: “You know those movies and TV shows you think are sucky? Well, I think they’re sucky, too.”

At the same time, that’s the point — they rarely say that (certainly about movies, TV being a bit more frank). Which gets to the issue of sincerity. Filmmakers who will be quick to tell us Canadian film is the bestest thing in the world…but if they were making a play list of favourite movies, would anything Canadian make the cut? And I don’t mean would they add a token Canadian film just to be politic, but because they genuinely loved it as a viewing experience?

I mean, politics and alliances exist in Canadian film — and that’s not always a good thing. I remember a few years ago reading an article (I believe it was in Maclean’s so I’m guessing it was a legitimate source) about two famous Canadian directors — let’s call them Algy and Draco for legal reasons. They were erstwhile friends who were having a bit of a frosty spell. The reason? Algy was a bit annoyed at his friend Draco because Draco had been on a film festival jury that had awarded the top prize to a film that wasn’t Algy’s film. And part of the problem was because Algy had earlier been on a jury that had awarded Draco’s film the top prize.

But really, one would say: so what? Surely you award prizes based on merit…not as a “thank you” for a previous win. I mean, isn’t another word for that…a kickback?

Which is what I meant earlier about the issue being multi-faceted. On one hand, I’m suggesting there’s a problem if Canadian filmmakers, deep down inside, don’t really like other Canadian movies…and there’s equally a problem if they only support each other for pragmatic reasons, rather than because they genuinely like their work.

With all that said, it’s also an issue if Canadian filmmakers and artists are too quick to denounce or dismiss what went before, if showing contempt becomes its own badge of honour. The only way to feel you’ve done something of value is to blithely insist that nothing good came before you.

A while back I was reading an interview with Flashpoint star, actor Enrico Colantoni, in which while trying to emphasize how great and world class his series was (a laudable intent for an actor promoting his series) he made some disparaging remarks about an earlier Canadian cop drama, Night Heat.

Now, I’ll freely admit, it’s been a few years since I saw Night Heat, so I have no idea how well reruns would hold up (even classic American series can look very dated just a few years later). And certainly it was filmed on a slightly cheaper film stock than a lot of American series of its day. But honestly? I’m not sure I can express just what a powerful impact Night Heat had upon me as a viewer. Maybe it was because it was just at a point when I was first getting interested in, and paying attention to Canadian productions. Or maybe it was because it had a slicker, pulpier vibe than a lot of Canadian series. But when I think of cop dramas, when I think of film noir, when I think of cops in off the rack suits prowling the mean streets, I don’t think of contemporaneous American cop shows. I think of Night Heat. Plot points, story lines, iconic scenes, dialogue from that series will pop back into my head even today (any series that would have the temerity to rip off the final scene from Report to the Commissioner in an episode has to be acknowledged). And there were other Canadian series that were also fairly seminal in my evolution, from Seeing Things to Wojeck (which I caught in reruns long after its initial airing).

To me, Colantoni dismissing Night Heat would be like the stars of The Good Wife sneering at L.A. Law, or Perry Mason. Sure, they can make the claim their modern series is better, slicker, more sophisticated — just because the times and the technology has evolved. But that doesn’t mean the old stuff wasn’t also good and didn’t pave the way. (Actually, I caught some 1950s Perry Mason reruns a little while back having never seen the series before — and it was seriously, freakin’ good).

So what’s my point?

Canadian musicians can point to great Canadian music, they are willing to do so, and they are happy to do so.

Canadian film and TV makers? Can they do the same — with any sincerity or conviction? Or on the occasions where they do commend someone’s film, do they just do it so things won’t be frosty at the next industry soiree? Do they pretend they liked someone’s film…simply so the next time that filmmaker’s on a funding committee they’ll look kindly on their proposal? For that mater — do they even like their own films? I mean, they might like making their film, they might feel they are expressing something profound…but would they actually enjoy watching their own film as just an audience member with a bag of pop corn?

And if the truth is that even they don’t actually like Canadian movies…why are they surprised when the general public doesn’t?

But also, is there almost a desire not to like the stuff that went before? So that while a modern Canadian rock star will happily point to the influence a previous Canadian rock star had on him, modern Canadian film and TV producers are eager to claim that nothing of value came before them, that they, and they alone, are creativity personified?

Either extreme is a problem…and shows the difference between those in the Canadian music biz and those in the Canadian film and TV biz.

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