Wallander (part 2) – cultural reflections

(Continuing from last time, when I was reflecting on the fictional Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, and how I had enjoyed various film interpretations, some starring Kenneth Branagh and others starring Krister Henriksson…)

As I’ve said: a recurring theme with me is about Canadian movies and TV shows, and how often they either aren’t set in Canada — usually set in the U.S. — or are set in Canada, but in a fairly “soft”, non-descript sort of way. Strangely, sometimes the pressure comes from outside (filmmakers claiming they couldn’t get financing or distribution if they didn’t set their movie in the States and hire a Hollywood actor to headline) yet other times, it seems to be the filmmakers themselves who argue it just wouldn’t feel “right” not to set their film in the U.S. (sometimes telling of how they had to battle mean ol’ executives who were encouraging them to do something as radical as set their Canadian movie…in Canada).

So looking at the success — and international appeal — of the Swedish-set Kurt Wallander novels and movies is kind of interesting.

Now, of course, different mediums allow for different degrees of cultural presence. Certainly the Wallander novel I read was more obviously and explicitly set in Sweden than either the British or Swedish films…not because the films were trying to hide their setting. They were clearly and obviously set in Sweden. But a novel allows for more digression, more opportunities for characters to ruminate on extraneous topics…more concrete descriptions of settings and places. Yet the fact that the British films retain their Swedish settings (as opposed to relocating the stories to an English setting) indicates that to the filmmakers, the setting was part of what made the stories what they were.

Now given my continually harping on Canadian movies being set in Canada, aren’t I a hypocrite for admiring the British Wallander films for not being set in Britain? Okay, most of you probably aren’t saying that, because you know what I’m going to say next, but for those as are, I’d say: there’s a difference.

When the BBC set the Wallander films in Sweden (or, for example, the similar Zen films — which were set in Italy, but with a mainly British cast) they did it because they thought it would make the stories more interesting, more unusual. When a Canadian filmmaker sets a film in the U.S., featuring American characters, he’s doing it because he wants to make his film less unusual, more generic essentially. As well, most British movies and TV shows are set in the U.K. and Wallander (and Zen) are the exceptions. Whereas, as I say, many Canadian movies aren’t set in Canada (or in a Canada so vague and unspecific it might as well not be Canada). And also, the British films were British — featuring mainly British actors. Whereas, in most cases, Canadian movies import stars as well.

Honestly? If some Canadian filmmaker wanted to assemble a Canadian cast, but set the story in some atypical locale, I’d think that might be kind of interesting.

What was intriguing reading the Wallander novel, The Troubled Man (whatever I thought of the actual mystery which was, to my mind, lazy and didn’t bother to answer most of the questions that were posed), was how rooted it was in its Swedish milieu. Whether that was typical of the series, or just this one novel, I’m not sure. But it has Wallander investigating a disappearance that ties back into some real events in Swedish history, as well as tying into Cold War-era politics (the novel written after the Cold War). The Swedish setting isn’t just reflected in surnames and street signs, but is threaded through the plot.

It reminds us of a world and a society that (if you’re not Swedish, or even European) you might not have thought too much about. There were Swedish events — and perspectives — on that era that arose out of its particular situation. There are references to the assassination of prime minister Olof Palme and to a submarine crisis in the 1980s.

Yet what’s equally interesting is how little about the novel is at all strange or unusual. The characters and their emotions are universal, but even the political landscape is reflective — maybe not of an American perspective, but certainly something Canadians and other middle powers can relate to. American views (reflected in stories) of the Cold War tend to be of bipartisan landscape: us and them, and everyone belonged to one side or the other. But to a lot of countries, the reality was there were three camps: the Russians, the Americans…and everyone else caught inbetween. Western nations were generally allied with America (either officially, through NATO, or unofficially, such as Sweden which was neutral but still, obviously, had its sympathies with America). But these middle powers were aware that national interests didn’t always line up, and they suspected that the definition of “trusted allies” and “collateral damage” in the American play book was awfully blurry.

All this is too say that reading The Troubled Man there’s no doubt it is set in Sweden, about Swedish things, and environment (where a half dozen foreign countries are just a short car drive away, in contrast to Canada which borders only one nation, and even then, the geography is such that distances are considerably more intimidating) even as, to a Canadian (and no doubt most countries) it is entirely familiar in terms of characters, and the social and political issues with which they are confronted. Indeed, I suspect a Canadian reading The Troubled Man will see a major twist coming in the story long before an American reader might. Which relates to my recurring point about rooting stories in their time and place — it can make stories interesting, give a different flavour to old plots…but it doesn’t have to make the stories strange or inaccessible, ’cause people are ultimately people, and maybe the more a story is rooted in its unique time and place the more we realize how much we all have in common.

As I’ve said before: I like stories that aren’t afraid to be who they are, set where the are. And it’s funny how little things can crop up.

As I say, in The Troubled Man there are references to Swedish politics and recent history…but in a way that is perfectly accessible and comprehensible to those of us who know little of either. The pop references range from European tourist sites to Humphrey Bogart movies. At one point, it is casually mentioned that Wallander is wearing clogs at home…something that a lot of us probably thought of as being a cliché of Swedish culture more than a reality.

But a remark that really made me smile was when the characters are discussing an enigmatic Cold War-era spy known as “The Phantom” whose female accomplice was dubbed “Diana” by Swedish intelligence, as a reference to The Phantom’s girlfriend. No more is elaborated upon that. I thought it was funny because that’s a reference to the seminal American newspaper strip, The Phantom, which has been published since the 1930s and has occasionally had forays into movies and other mediums (the 1996 movie with Billy Zane was uneven but, ultimately, a fun swashbuckling romp). But the thing is, despite being an American creation, and still around today, The Phantom is ultimately pretty obscure in North America (the Zane film bombed). It would seem odd to have characters refer to The Phantom in an AMERICAN novel without at least specifying he was the comic strip character…let alone nicknaming someone after his girlfriend. Indeed, most North Americans, if they heard the term “Phantom”, would presumably assume you meant “of the Opera” (and the more astute might query and say: “wasn’t his girl named Christina?”). BUT…and here’s the but….my understanding is that The Phantom continues to enjoy bigger popularity overseas than he does in America, especially in Scandinavian countries. So in that light, what at first might seem like an oddly obscure reference in an American context, makes more sense in the Wallander novel (where The Phantom might be more on a par with, say, Superman as a pop icon) and, though a reference to an American creation, actually further exposes the story’s Swedish roots.

But, you know, there’s a further aspect to contemplating the Wallander films as it relates to Canadian culture and identity. Because you could argue, a step to strengthening and emboldening Canadian identity in films and TV is, in a way, to embolden and strengthen the global culture. It sounds harsh to say — and hopefully any Americans reading this will take this in the benign spirit it’s intended — but part of the battle is not simply to strengthen the Canadian presence in films and TV…but to diminish the American presence, to loosen the, essentially, stranglehold it has on Canadian screens and airwaves. As well, Canada prides itself on being a pluralistic, multi-cultural nation.

All this is leading up to saying: why aren’t the Swedish made Wallander films starring Krister Henriksson shown on Canadian TV?

Okay, I could be wrong. There are lots of channels these days, and so maybe they are airing somewhere — but I’m just not aware of them. I even googled Wallander and Canada and didn’t get anything like a press release announcing Bravo or Mystery programming them. Now, to be fair, they are available as DVDs…but that kind assumes someone is looking for them, precluding casual viewers discovering them while channel surfing. And where this becomes interesting is that the films have been shown in the U.K. and in America (on one channel or another) — no doubt buoyed by the success of the Kenneth Branagh films. So how come in the U.K. and America people can turn on their TVs and watch subtitled Swedish mysteries…but not, apparently, in multicultural, pluralistic Canada?

Heck, even the Branagh films, though shown in Canada on the CBC, seemed to only get a late night slot in that well known choice spot of 1 AM! While they air on primetime in the U.S. on PBS. Nor has anyone in Canada (that I know of) shown the Italian-set, but British-made Zen mysteries (admittedly, the Zen films proved not as successful as Wallander and they only made three…but my understanding is they were still well regarded by those as saw them; I certainly quite liked ’em). Granted, I’m not always scouring the 1 AM time slot, so maybe I missed them. Again, though, the Zen films were shown in prime time in the States on PBS.

Now, to be fair, the CBC does show some British programs — the occasional Agatha Christie movie, and daily doses of Coronation Street. Funnily, New Zealand and Australia seem to have become momentarily chic with programmers, with Space showing The Almighty Johnsons and Showcase (at least on its website) airing Sea Patrol.

But, I dunno, shouldn’t Canadian TV try to be a little more multinational? At the very least, offering the same kind of diversity you can (apparently) get in England and the U.S.? And for a number of reasons.

There are just some good shows out there. The Swedish Wallander films (at least that I’ve seen) are exceptionally good and compelling, and should be made available for people to discover…not simply for those doggedly seeking them out. Who knows what great stuff the Italians or the Japanese (aside from anime and Godzilla I mean!) are churning out, and are known to hardcore aficionados who seek them out, but flying below everyone else’s radar? And sure, it probably won’t win big audiences, but they could be offered up as web content, to fill off hour slots, or shown on smaller cable or even PBS stations like TVO.

And I realize some of this is already being done. I seem to recall catching a German mini-series on TVO a few years ago — but it just doesn’t seem too common. And obviously, doing it once or twice isn’t the point, because any individual show will only appeal to some people.

It’s important from a social point of view — to help remind us all that there’s a world not just outside our immediate borders, but outside the North American continent. And a world we might discover we have more in common with than we think. We’re part of the Global Village.

And also, I repeat, maybe providing a chair at the broadcast table for more international fair might ultimately benefit Canadian productions. I know it sounds kind of mean, but maybe the best thing for Canadian culture is simply to remind people that American culture isn’t the only horse in the race. That if audiences are used to watching American sitcoms cheek to jowl with Swedish crime thrillers, British sci-fi, Japanese horror, etc…then suddenly Canadian shows waving Canadian flags might not seem so incongruous.

People sometimes — disparagingly — have said that Canadians define themselves as simply “not Americans”. But, y’know, maybe there’s nothing altogether wrong with that — at least as a starting point. Maybe the fact that there are things Canadians do different from Americans is as much a legitimate part of “culture” as anything, even if it’s not Canadian in origin. Maybe the fact that the British Coronation Street is shown on a major Canadian network (and not on an equivalent U.S. network) is Canadian identity. And the fact that younger Canadians mock their elders for watching it is Canadian culture.

Maybe instead of CTV and Global seeing their cultural role as being no more than the equivalent of opening up a McDonald’s franchise and acting as branch plant distributors for Hollywood productions (with occasional token Canadian shows to satisfy regulators) and a programmer’s job being no more taxing than flying down to Hollywood once a year to buy up whatever is being offered — maybe they should try slipping shows from a few other nations on the schedule. Maybe a multinational network schedule could be reflective of Canadian culture.

Anyway, while you all mull that over, maybe I’ll watch a Wallander film tonight. Branagh or Henriksson? Hmmm…decisions, decisions…

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