As I’m sure regular readers of this blog know — I like to set myself up as a bit of a (mild) agitator.
And yes — even I pause at that phrase “regular readers”. But people do apparently read this blog — so you aren’t alone. Go figure.
It’s not that I want people to blindly agree with me a hundred percent — but equally, I don’t want people to just dismiss everything I say with a kneejerk response (arguing white when I say black, or black when I say white — which, frankly, I’ve encountered a few times over the years). What I do want is to get people thinking, to not just accept things as they are, but to ask why are they that way, and is that really the only way it can and should be? The “truth” lurking, no doubt, somewhere in the squishy middle between what I say…and what others assume.
And of course a recurring theme here is talking about Canadian identity in pop culture (No, really? — you say — I must’ve missed that oh-so subtle nuance).
I’ve written before about how a lot of Canadian movies and TV shows over the years try to pretend they aren’t Canadian and, on the other hand, how some Canadian productions do freely admit and embrace their inner Canuck. And I’ve also alluded to the “soft” Canadian movie and TV show — the thing that does, technically, admit it’s Canada, but in a very soft, generic, unspecific way.
And I kind of wonder — is that “soft” Canada really any better from the point of view of Canadian identity than a Canadian movie or TV show that adamantly pretends it’s set in the U.S. Is it maybe worse — more corrosive? A least that latter example pretends it’s American, period, and there’s no ambiguity. But the former…I dunno, can they be likened to a Trojan Horse infiltrating the walls of cultural identity, attacking it from inside?
I mean years ago, they started using what became known as the Anytown, North America idea — doing movies and TV shows that simply didn’t say where they were set, and any telltale clues (like currency) were kept in obscuring long shots. This was so filmmakers could claim their story was set in Canada (to appease cultural purists) even as no one watching it would ever be able to tell it wasn’t set in the U.S. It was supposed to be a compromise to preserve Canadian identity. But, in a way, it could be argued it served simply to erode Canadian identity, as it smudged over any demarcation between Canada and the U.S. I remember old Night Heat episodes where they seemed to deliberately pursue a “tit for tat” reference policy: if an episode referred to a suspect having just arrived in town from, say, Miami, then they would also refer to another character vacationing in Newfoundland. Tit for tat. But as I say, it could be argued this simply fostered the notion, not of two countries living side by side, but of one united country encompassing all those regions.
But maybe the Anytown, North America scenario did serve a purpose, helping to break Canadian filmmakers of the easy habit of always setting their stories explicitly in the United States, and paving the way for the next stage…the “soft” Canadian program.
In recent years we’ve seen some surprising changes, with a number of Canadian-made series airing in the U.S. (even on American networks!) that are, more or less, set in Canada, featuring mainly a Canadian cast. When a few years ago, most of these shows would’ve been clearly set in the U.S. starring American leads (one of the few carry overs of that old formula is the current legal drama, The Firm).
These are generally “soft” Canadian shows — yet, like with competing brands of bathroom tissue, they offer up different degrees of softness. Ironically, the battlefield medical drama Combat Hospital starred an American actress (playing a Canadian) yet was surprisingly frank about its Canadianess…with Canadian flags prominently displayed, even doing one or two plots hinging on the distinction between Canada and the United States.
The reason that’s unusual is because, as I alluded, one of the biggest taboos seems to be simply drawing attention to the notion of Canada being a separate unit from the United States. So in Flashpoint (more overtly Canadian than some of these series) the action is clearly set in Toronto, and Canadian flags are displayed on shoulders…but you’ll rarely have characters refer to the U.S. as though a separate country. To someone unsure of the North American political arrangement they might well assume Canada was simply a State within the union.
One could argue the taboo in these productions is not admitting that the story is set in Canada — it’s suggesting Canada is in some way a different culture than the United States. The irony is, of course, one might argue the opposite could be more commercial. Maybe an American audience would be more interested in a Canadian show if it actually seemed a little exotic…rather than as just another American series (of which they watch hundreds already) except with steam clouds rising from the actors’ mouths.
I’ve noticed quite a number of Canadian series recently — even those that do seem happily to admit they are Canadian — that tend to vaguely refer to the “federal” police, or the “feds” when one assumes they are referring to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada’s federal police force). It’s not that it’s technically wrong to refer to them as “feds”…I just think it’s more true to life to say “mounties” or “RCMP”.
How much this is deliberate (to make Canada as inoffensively innocuous when trying to shop your series to the U.S.), how much because the filmmakers themselves just feel self-conscious about “Canadianisms” (they hear “mounty” and they picture Dudley Do-Right in red serge), and how much because, quite literally, the filmmakers themselves don’t know any better — I don’t know.
Though I’ve certainly read occasional interviews with actors and writers who talk about having suggested ways they could make a scene more Canadian…and being slapped down by the director and the producers with a defnitive “no”.
I was thinking about this with a few things that came up recently.
CTV’s new medical drama Saving Hope is ostensibly set in Toronto, though is also airing on America’s NBC network, so I can understand not wanting to get mired in too parochially Canadian aspects that might leave an American audience scratching its head. But the action takes place at a fictional hospital called Hope Zion which the characters seem to refer to colloquially as Hope Zee. Yet “zee” is not the common pronunciation of “Z” in Canada…”zed” is. When the series was first being announced a few months back, I and, I believe, others commented on this oddity — but I half assumed it was a typo in the press releases, or would be corrected before production. But apparently not.
Now “zee” is sometimes heard in Canada…usually in connection with American things. The American band ZZ Top isn’t called “zed-zed” top by Canadian DJs, for instance (though, funnily, I tend to pronounce it that way in my head).
But it dose seem a bit odd to have a big city, Toronto hospital nicknamed Hope Zee by its Canadian staff. It’d be almost as odd as if all the characters said “blimey!” or all had British accents. And I don’t mean as a reflection of Canada’s multiculturalism (indeed, a character in Saving Hope has a New Zealand accent) — no, I mean all the characters.
(In another episode, they also did that “tit for tat” thing, by referring to San Francisco in one scene, and Manitoba in another. They also referred to Malawi…so I guess they were covering all their bases!)
What’s weird is to wonder why the series’ makers even chose the name Hope Z in the first place? If they knew they were aiming for a bi-national market place, and wanted a “soft” Canadian presence, wouldn’t you avoid such red flag words entirely? Did they, maybe, go into it with patriotic zeal, figuring by calling the setting Hope Z they would force the series’ identity into every scene that refers to the hospital…and then the executives did an end run around them by simply agreeing to the name…but insisting the actors use the American pronunciation, taking an aspect that was supposed to make the series seem more Canadian and using it to make it actually seem less?
As I say: it seems like an odd behind-the-scenes decision.
If in an American medical drama all the ostensibly American characters referred to their work place as Hope Zed…I suspect it would seem odd.
(In another episode — and, yes, I’m inserting this a day after I first posted this piece — the characters blithely refer to a patient’s temperature reaching 100, and later 105. Now as any school child knows, 100 is when water starts to boil! Not only would the patient presumably be dead — and bubbling — by that point…the medical staff couldn’t even touch him without oven mits! How could the writers of Saving Hope make such a technical error? Oh…wait! Unless they meant 100 degrees fahrenheit! But…wait…why would the staff at a Canadian hospital be measuring temperature using the old Imperial system, and not metric? Answer: they wouldn’t. But an American hospital might).
I also was watching the recent sci-fi action series, Continuum. Surprisingly, the series does admit it’s set in Vancouver. It still can be viewed as a sort of “soft” Canadian series (about time travellers from the future, the future world they come from seems to be a unified Canada/U.S. which relates to my earlier point about whether such programs, far from fostering a Canadian identity, actually seek to erode it). But honestly, though I can quibble that it isn’t that overtly Canadian…it is just an action/cop drama so “Canadianisms” may just not arise that often. It’s not that authentic to Canada — but it’s not that realistic, period (I mean: do modern big city cops really use machine guns?) As a series — well, so far the show is leaving me completely underwhelmed (though its premier ratings were impressive) reminding me very much of those old straight to syndication sci-fi/action show from the 1990s. It’s more an action/shoot-’em-up rather than thinking man’s science fiction.
Anyway…in one episode, a cop character is referring to various law enforcement agencies and refers to CSIS — the real life Canadian Security and Intelligence Service — which momentarily confuses the heroine who is, as mentioned, from the future…but in the show is pretending to be from the U.S. But what was curious was how he referred to CSIS. He referred to it by its initials, as See-Ess-Eye-Ess…except colloquially in Canada, CSIS is usually referred to as though a word — essentially an acronym — and pronounced Seesuss.
Now, obviously, since Continuum is intended partly for the American market, it’s understandable that you don’t want dialogue that’s confusing or too cryptically Canadian for an American audience. But then, that’s why they had the character explain what he meant by CSIS to the heroine. So you could’ve done the same scene, only more reflective of how Canadians actually talk. Heck, that could’ve made for a cute exchange (not that humour is, so far, a prominent part of Continuum):
COP: We’re talking with various agencies, including Seesuss.
COP: Seesuss — See-Ess-Eye-Ess: the intelligence service.
HEROINE: Uh, aren’t you missing a vowel?
Imagine if in an American series the characters constantly referred to the CIA not by its initials, but as Chia (like the pet). Or if in a British movie characters referred, not to Scotland Yard, but to “the Scottish Yard“. Viewers would find that distracting. It would be regarded as a mistake. People might even assume the movies were made by filmmakers who didn’t speak English and didn’t know much about the countries in question..
(Funnily enough, it probably makes more sense to call the CIA “chia” than it does to call CSIS “seesuss” — at least CIA has an appropriate vowel!).
Perhaps significantly (relating to my point about a Canada/America demarcation) even when explaining what CSIS was — a security service — I’m not sure the character explained that the “C” stood for “Canadian”! I’ve also noticed other “American-izations” of phrasings in Continuum, though they seen to fluctuate from episode to episode.
Now as I say: why? Is it deliberate…or simply no one knows any better? After all, often in Canadian productions even the Canadian talent…has long since moved to Hollywood. The director of some of these Continuum episodes has been Jon Cassar…a Canadian who has also directed for American TV (like 24 — where I’m guessing they didn’t refer to the CIA as Chia) and so probably even lives in Hollywood and only flies back to Canada for a few weeks here and there to shoot the occasional TV episode. So maybe his ears are long since tuned into American pronunciations and phrases and he doesn’t recognize how Canadians talk any more.
It could be as the episodes progress, as the bugs get worked out, these glitches will be caught, and these series will start to sound more authentically Canadian. In the premier episode of Continuum I believe co-star Brian Markinson pronounced Lieutenant as lootenant (the American pronuciation)…yet then a couple of episodes later he said leftenant, implying some behind-the-scenes adjustments are occuring.
And mistakes occur…even in Hollywood productions. I’m still not sure why just about every movie or TV show I’ve ever seen always refers to the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta in the singular (go ahead: google it). And don’t get me started on the goofs and inaccuracies in the average court room drama. Or you can still see productions that misuse the word “infer”.
And often — they just don’t care. I remember reading an anecdote many years ago about the movie The Last of the Mohicans. An expert on Native Indian languages was hired to coach the actors and he was ecstatic that, after years of Hollywood reducing Indians to cartoon villains on the war path, along came a Hollywood movie so respectful of the cultures it was hiring a dialogue coach. So then the first scene is shot in the language, the director calls cut, and the language coach walks over to the director and says, “um, you’ll have to shoot it again.”
I think we can all imagine the look the director gave him. “Why?”
“Because they mispronounced all the words.”
At which point the director shrugged and said: “It doesn’t matter, hardly anyone but you will notice.” And he went on with the next scene.
The language coach was, needless to say, devastated.
I wonder if that’s what happens on the sets of Continuum and Saving Hope. Does someone come up to the director after a take and say, “uh, excuse me, but they mispronounced a word and used the wrong term.”
And does the director look at them blankly from behind chic two-hundred dollar sun glasses, a long stem filtered cigarette pinched between his fingers (sorry — I guess that’s just how I picture him) and say: “So? Our audience — our real target audience — won’t notice.”
Now obviously, one can nitpick too much. Different people say different things and use different pronunciations. In an episode of the crime-drama King, a series which freely admitted it was set in Canada, a character referred to a school year as the something grade, as opposed to grade something. Now I’ve noted this because people have often suggested that’s a linguistic difference between Canada and the US — Canadians say grade something, Americans the something grade. But arguably it’s a distinction with barely a difference and I suspect, depending on the context, a lot of Canadians do say something grade. Granted, I just caught an interview with Canadian musician Colin James on the radio where he referred to grade something — and it was an off-the-cuff response to an unscripted question, so it’s not like James was trying to “sound” Canadian. He just phrased it the way it popped into his head…and it popped into his head as the stereotypical Canadian phrase.
But it wasn’t necessarily wrong for King to use the phrase something grade — and if it was, it clearly wasn’t because they were trying to obscure the story’s Canadian setting. Likewise I’ve mentioned before that CTV’s crime-fantasy The Listener has become more overtly Canadian in subsequent seasons (once it was no longer focused on winning a U.S. network slot). Yet I often find myself quibbling about terms and concepts in the series as not being true to the Canadian experience — yet it’s certainly not because the makers of The Listener are trying to hide their show’s cultural identity.
Yet maybe that’s what’s more disturbing: when even filmmakers who do want to set their stories in Canada no longer know what that means.
But who knows? — maybe I’m the one out to lunch. In a recent Listener episode they referred to the “public defender” but I’m not really sure in the Canadian judicial system there is such an office. America has, but I’m not sure Canada does. Canada has “legal aid” for those who have trouble paying lawyer bills, but I’m not sure there’s actually a category of lawyer whose title is “public defender”. But, hey, it’s not like I get into trouble with the law a lot so, y’know, maybe I’m wrong.
And as I say: different people do use different phrases and terms. Growing up in my family we tended to refer to bath robes as “kimonos” — which is Japanese in origin (though no one in my family is Japanese). As a kid I didn’t think much about it, until I gradually noticed that I had never heard the word used in any movie or TV show or book. So then I wondered why we did. But then I saw a short TV drama starring August Schellenberg and Ed McNamara — can’t remember what it was called, but it was one of these “adult son has to come to terms with his ailing, estranged dad” stories. And in one scene, Schellenberg brings his dad (played by McNamara) a “kimono”…and McNamara is confused by the term. So right there I saw confirmation that, yes, indeed, other people use the word kimono…and, equally, it wasn’t necessarily so common that McNamara’s character wouldn’t find it strange. Still later, I have come across the term in other western novels — often those from the 1960s or earlier, implying the term had become slightly en vogue in the west at one point (just as pyjamas are East Indian in origin) but maybe by the time of my youth kimono was starting to fade a bit from usage.
So my point is, I might use the term “kimono” in a story, drawing upon my own experiences, and to add a ring of idiosyncratic authenticity (precisely because it clearly isn’t that common)…yet if I did, I could equally imagine someone saying I used the “wrong” term, or arguing that that’s not how Canadians speak — when I know that it is: I have my personal childhood and August Schellenberg (at least a role he played on TV) to prove it!
And sometimes — the language changes. In an earlier post about about Canadianisms I commented that even though the cliche is that schedule is pronounced “shedule” in Canada…even I acknowledge you are just as likely to hear “skedule” said in real life.
All this is just to recognize that sometimes it’s not cut-and-dried. Indeed, as I say it could be some of these American pronunciations that creep into supposedly Canadian productions are not part of some deliberate agenda…but simply because the Canadian actors and filmmakers themselves do really speak that way. But the reason they speak that way is because many of them live in the US (and have for years) or devote much of their career to auditioning for roles that require American pronunciation. So they might genuinely see it as natural…but they aren’t actually reflecting the reality of most Canadians lives and speaking patterns.
So — what’s this in service of? What’s my point?
Often when issues like this are brought up, the other side are quick to leap on me (and people like me) with both feet — in steel shod boots, yet. It doesn’t matter, they exclaim in exasperation. You’re fixating on an irrelevancy. You’re the crazy one for claiming it’s important!
But that’s the thing — it isn’t important. That’s what makes it so signifucant.
And on that curiously pardoxical assertion, we’ll stop there and I’ll explain what I mean…in my next post…