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Telling “Universal“ Stories:
Lessons for Canadian filmmakers from Bill Cosby, Stephen King and REM, too.


A few years back, the US band R.E.M. had a hit with a song called “Losing My Religion” -- and almost every time it crops up on the radio, the DJ usually explains how the title comes from a southern US expression that means “being fed up“.

So why do DJs feel a need to explain that? Simply to clear up the ambiguity? Pop music is full of cryptic songs and DJs generally feel no obligation to try and explain them. No -- I think the reason “Losing My Religion” is so often accompanied by a pedagogical pronouncement is because…it’s kind of neat. The fact that the band should wrap a song around this obscure, regional colloquialism and shoot it out into the wider culture is seen as kind of cool. And the DJs feel kind of cool for knowing that, and relaying it to us, the listener. And it gives the tune an added sense of authenticity that the band should call upon their roots in crafting their song. Yet the song, about a troubled relationship, is inherently universal in its sentiments. They could’ve just called the song “I’m Fed Up” and the DJs wouldn’t feel a need to explain it. But then the song would be just a little more…generic.

Yeah, I’m headed somewhere with this.

A few weeks back I caught a few minutes of the CBC Radio series, Q, in which the featured guest was US comedian Bill Cosby. In introducing “The Cos”, host Jian Ghomeshi frequently referred to the universality of his material, something Cosby picked up on, relating anecdotes of people coming to him after a show, remarking how he made them feel not alone.

Ghomeshi and Cosby were right in their comments…even as they both missed a crucial element.

For a long time in Canada, if you argued for a more overt Canadian “identity” in Canadian fiction (something as minor as referring to a city by name)…you were generally dismissed as rabid nationalist, or some demented village idiot. Much of Canadian fiction -- particularly of the more populist bent -- was generally set in the US, about American events, the storytellers doing their best to create the illusion that they were American. They explained this by saying they were trying to be “universal”, that to set something in Canada, to make Canadian references, would make their work too parochial, too insular and inaccessible. That the only way they could address broader, universal themes was by NOT setting their story in Canada (and BY setting it in the US). That true artists sought to speak to universal themes -- and that couldn’t be done with a Canadian setting.

Now that attitude seems to be changing a wee bit -- at long last, like emerging from a cultural dark ages. More and more you’re seeing Canadian storytellers, even the populist kind, being a little more comfortable in their skins, with even series like “Flashpoint” coming along, more or less freely admitting it’s Canadian. Which is maybe why I’m writing this…because maybe, at long last, even people within the biz are willing to listen.

You see, with due respect to all those Canadian writers and filmmakers who insisted they were somehow pursuing a higher art by setting their stories in the US -- I say: hogwash. And frankly, I don’t even think they believed it.

The point of art isn’t to tell universal stories by being generic -- the point is to be personal, to be intimate in your storytelling…and find the universal in that. That’s where the true, lasting, creativity comes from. And this applies to popular, even genre fiction as much as anything arty or highbrow. Stephen King set his internationally successful horror stories in Maine because he knows and lives in Maine.

You see the thing about Bill Cosby is…he’s one of the most personal comics around, his material rooted in his own, intimate, experiences. Yet in doing that…he finds the universal truth that resonates with people of all stripes and backgrounds. Unlike a lot of comedians who tell the same jokes year after year, Cosby’s material has shifted with his evolving life -- from the humour of his early career, reflecting on his childhood, to his later material derived from fatherhood and married life. From early routines about growing up working class…to later material derived from exchanges with his personal assistants. There’s one routine where he’s talking about vacationing in Italy with his wife…and the actor Henry Silva. Silva may not be a household name, but you’d probably recognize the face (at least, if you’re familiar with movies and TV from a few years ago). So…universal? I’ve never been to Italy and I’ve definitely never been anywhere with Henry Silva, yet that’s the story Cosby told.

To take the “universal” idea as championed by some Canadian filmmakers to heart, Cosby should’ve edited his story, probably not referring to Italy, and definitely dropping the reference to Henry Silva. He should’ve said: “So I was vacationing somewhere with my wife and a friend when…”

And sure, the core aspects of the joke would’ve remained had he done that. He still could’ve gotten a few laughs from telling it. The fact that it was Henry Silva didn’t make the joke funnier. But it did make it more interesting -- just as REM‘s “Losing My Religion“ is a more interesting title than “I‘m Fed Up“. Because it makes it more authentic, because you realize Cosby wasn’t just telling a joke, he was telling a story -- a story that was real (albeit probably exaggerated for comedic effect). Just as his much earlier routine about a childhood experience listening to a radio play about a killer chicken heart was inspired by an actual episode of the radio series “Lights Out”. But as a kid, I laughed my head off even though I had never heard the original chicken heart play.

Cosby took the personal…and made it universal.

I was thinking about this too watching a few gay comics on TV recently. And even though they were playing to a predominantly straight audience, they didn’t drop their gay references. Yet, at the same time, the humour wasn’t “oh, look at me, aren’t I weird and funny for being gay?” No, they just did regular relationship jokes, except using same sex pronouns. In fact gay comedian Elvira Kurt even ended a bit by saying (to her straight audience) something along the lines of how she was probably cutting a bit too close with her material. That is, she was expecting her audience to recognize themselves in her jokes, even though she was gay and they weren’t -- she took the personal, but it was universal.

And that’s the thing. Sure you can tell universal stories by bleeding all personal or individual references out of it, you can carefully edited any colloquialisms that might seem obscure or that root the story too explicitly in Canada and churn out material that has all the flavour of pre-masticated food spat by a mother into her baby’s mouth. You can even call yourself an artist while you do it. But Bill Cosby became one of the biggest entertainers in the world by embracing his own personal experiences, by presenting those experiences to the world…and finding the world knew exactly what he was talking about after all, even if we aren‘t all buddies with Henry Silva. Likewise Stephen King became a best selling author by writing about monsters in Maine that appealed to readers who had never been to Maine.

That doesn’t mean a story can’t be too personal, too insular, too specific to the author. That’s the key to storytelling: to take the personal…and finding a way to draw the universal out of it. Heck, one could argue that the failure of David Cronenberg’s long ago film, “Crash”, was not so much that he did a movie about sexual fetishes revolving around car crashes…but that he failed to articulate the key element in it that would resonate for the majority of his audience.

But Canada is one of the few places where artists will claim -- will quite literally brag in interviews -- about the fact that they’ve removed any and all Canadian references from their work. It’s a point of pride with them.

And the fact that so much of Canadian pop culture is taken up with storytellers churning out stories set in the US and so many of those have failed commercially might indicate that in their pursuit of the palatable generic…they failed to find the resonating universal.

But try having that discussion with them, try explaining that point to them. It can be exhausting.

Heck, it can make you lose your religion.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

August 4, 2009

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