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Animals fer the Killin' in Canadian Entertainment:
…lessons to be learned from “Dan for Mayor” vs. “Desperate Housewives”


Some essays that I write I’ll be mulling over for weeks, even months, before jotting them down. And some I just knock off on the spur of the moment. And this is kind of like that. Oh, not that I haven’t thought about the issues, off and on, but I hadn’t really intended to write them up until something I saw the other night just made me go, okay, I’ve gotta write this.

See, it has to do with the whole treatment of animals -- and, by inference -- environmental themes in Canadian film and TV. See Canadians I think probably regard themselves as fairly “green”, all for the environment, and with love for all God’s creatures. Dr. David Suzuki, a globally known environmental activists, is something of a national icon. Heck, Greenpeace -- the international organization -- actually started in Canada (albeit founded I believe by some American expatriates). Canadian homes are filled with cats and dogs.

Yet there can be a curiously mean streak towards animals in Canadian film and TV -- a streak you don’t necessarily see reflected in similar American programs.

Part of it begins with journalism and non-fiction reporting. After all, a sore spot in Canada is the annual seal hunt which has made Canada increasingly a pariah in some international circles, but around which Canadians are expected to circle the wagons. This has led to a lot of journalism -- that is more propaganda than objective reporting, attempting to discredited the anti-sealers by any and all means necessary, instead of just reporting them as one side of a controversial issue. Some years ago environmental activists released a home video shot by a sealer that stirred up a hornets nest. I’m not sure what was on the video -- frankly, I don’t want to know, because even some professional sealers were apparently disgusted by what it depicted.

What was the media’s reaction (at least that I remember reading at the time)? Well, it was the three step program of counter propaganda: deny, dismiss, discredit.

So first the reaction as represented by editorialists and reporters was: Deny -- it’s a fake, concocted by those sleazy animal lovers. Then when it was confirmed as real, came: Dismiss -- it must be old footage, ‘cause that’s not how things are done now. Then when it was verified as recent, came: Discredit -- well those animal lovin’ creepos can’t be sincere, otherwise they’d have released it to us, the noble Canadian press, as opposed to the international press at an international forum!

Yeah…after that reaction, I think we can understand why the activists chose to release it to reporters who might actually report it, rather than to reporters who might try to smear and/or bury it.

Nor are things like that particularly unique.

Now, jump ahead a few years, it’s late at night, I’m “too tired to sleep” as they say, and one of those education channels is running two back-to-back documentaries on sharks. It’s been years since I watched a nature show, but I remember seeing the occasional Jacques Cousteau special as a kid, so out of nostalgia, I decide to watch. The first one is some international, non-Canadian, production, clearly inspired by the gonzo eco-reporting popularized by the Crocodile Hunter. The host is a working class bloke who, he tells us, has always wanted to SWIM WITH SHARKS! Not something most of us probably put on our to do list, but there you go. So while our plucky host swims with various sharks in the wild, we are treated to a commentary about their life cycles and habits, punctuated by his exclamations about how beautiful and magnificent these creatures are. The theme is that nature is awesome and all creatures have their place in the scheme of things.

Then came the second show -- it was a Canadian documentary, hosted by Paul Gross. I was more curious to see it because I wasn’t really sure what sharks inhabited Canadian waters so I figured it would educational. Well, it was…but in a different way. The Canadian program was less a nature doc, and more came across as a financing pitch you might screen for a banker, or those dudes on “Dragon’s Den”. It was all about the fishing opportunities provided by sharks, the market value of various shark body parts, how much testicles would go for in Asia, that sort of stuff. Little about life cycles. Nothing about the beauty of nature, or the magnificence of these creatures -- no one, let alone Gross, seemed to have any interest in swimming with them. Nature only seemed to exist in so far as it could put a dollar in man’s pockets -- beyond that? Screw it, seemed to be the motto.

One documentary took us to the oceans of the world, giving us a glimpse of creatures that, in many ways, are links to the pre-historic past. The other took us not much farther than docks spattered with blood and entrails and twitching fins.

Oh -- Canada!

Anyway, that’s all non-fiction, when what I really want to talk about is fiction.

You see, over the years I’ve noticed a strange, almost pathological antipathy towards animals in Canadian movies and TV -- at least excepting perhaps youth aimed shows like "Danger Bay" or "Heartland". To the point where I almost cringe whenever an animal is introduced into a Canadian movie or TV show because I suspect it’s going to come to a bad end. Not even an Ol’ Yeller bad end, which is meant to break our hearts and bring a tremble to our lip -- no, a rather snarky, sadistic bad end, often played for laughs, or certainly as inconsequential. And the reason it is noticeable -- is it seems rather different from how American films and TV would approach the material (y’know, Americans -- the ones with the successful film and TV industry?). American movies have almost become comical in the lengths to which they go to save an animal from a bad end, whether it be Sigourney Weaver racing through a self-destructing space ship to save the tabby, Jonesy, in Alien, or milking dramatic cliffhanger thrills from a dog leaping clear of a fireball (in I think Independence Day).

One of the few Canadian movies I can think of that demonstrated a Hollywood-style sentimentality toward an animal was the movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop, where one of the heroes tells a tale of being confronted by an angry dog and of subduing it without killing it. It was, of course, a completely unrealistic story. In real life, a police officer would just shoot the dog. But clearly the makers of Bon Cop, Bad Cop took their cue from Hollywood and decided their audience didn’t want a hero who shot dogs -- and Bon Cop, Bad Cop was, domestically, the most successful Canadian movie ever made. Not that I’m saying that scene was why the movie was successful, of course.

That isn’t to say American movies don’t kill off animals -- heck, Steven Spielberg has made a virtual career out of gleefully setting fire to and otherwise obliterating most non-bipedal players in his films. And there are certainly black humoured examples -- some, I’ll admit, which push beyond my limits of good taste. Others, though, which have me on the floor in hysterics (I mean, the classic “WKRP” episode about the Thanksgiving turkeys is hilarious…but also pretty black -- though even it gives the turkeys their revenge as they become “organized”). A factor can be the degree of absurdity -- the more unrealistic the scene (or program), the more it can be taken as just a harmless gag. Which is kind of the thinking behind a lot of black humour.

The thing is, with American shows, it’s that it can go either way, but usually tends toward not seeing entertainment in animal cruelty.

Canadian filmmakers tend to go the other way. It’s almost a rule in Canadian film.

So what inspired me to write this was two things I saw within a week of each other.

One was a recent episode of the Canadian sitcom "Dan for Mayor". And I’m glad I’m using this as an example -- ‘cause I have no axe to grind. I really like "Dan for Mayor" and heartily recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a try.

Anyway, so there’s an episode of "Dan for Mayor" involving cats -- and as soon as the word “cat” came out of someone’s mouth, I cringed. When we get to the scene where Dan has borrowed someone’s cat and, unwisely, opens its cage near a busy street, I was practically murmuring under my mouth “C’mon, guys, surprise me. C’mon, guys, surprise me.” like a mantra. But they didn’t -- surprise me that is -- and within moments, sure enough, the cat was run over by a bus. And maybe what made it more problematic was the whole cavalier way they treated it, with even the cat’s real owner not that upset.

Okay, it was a comedy -- not a “very special episode of Dan for Mayor”. So it’s not like we wanted to spend a lot of time with a grieving cat owner. As well, at least the scene was justified in the context, leading to plot complications that drove the episode (as Dan find himself unfairly benefiting from sympathy support with people unaware he didn’t even own a cat). As well, this is a series which had a human character get run over by bus in the first episode -- death by bus is clearly a recurring gag in the series (though it’s not, otherwise, generally black humoured). So maybe they felt sauce for the hairless ape was sauce for the fury feline.

But my point is, no sooner did they even mention cats, before I even knew an actual cat would play a part in the episode, I guessed where it was headed.

So then we get to the second catalyst for this essay, as I was watching an episode of “Desperate Housewives”. Not a recent episode, as I’ve just started watching the series again in late night reruns and I think I’m a few seasons out of-date. Anyway, the Teri Hatcher character is trying to make nice with new neighbours, but just keeps alienating them more and more, which is making her more and more irrationally determined to win them over. Then, their dog gets loose and, instead of simply returning it, she decides to bolster her “heroism” by holding on to it for a bit, letting them worry about it, so that when she returns it, they’ll be even more grateful. So she hides the dog in her garage…and in the foreground we see a big can of toxic paint! “Oh, ho,” thinks any Canadian filmmaker watching that episode, “this is gonna be soooo freakin’ funny!” -- as they poor lubricating gel into their right palm, preparatory to the big punch line. (Ouch -- okay, that was just nasty of me).

So the episode progresses, the neighbours worriedly search for there dog, Hatcher offers to help in the search, winning them over with her compassion and supposed selflessness. Then the garage door is accidentally opened…and -- surprise, surprise -- the dog ISN’T DEAD. Instead, he comes bounding out, paws soaked in fresh paint, leaving tell tale paw prints leading back to the incriminating garage, and bounding on his master, destroying a two thousand dollar suit with his painty paws. Hatcher’s plan is ruined, the neighbours hate her even more, and the laughs are achieved -- without needing a dead dog for a punch line.

So is there a bigger lesson to be learned here? Maybe. Maybe it’s one of compassion. Because the same streak of maliciousness that leads Canadian filmmakers to vent their private frustrations and disappointments on cinematic animals in the guise of entertainment is maybe a canary-in-a-coal-mine warning sign of a problem with their treatment of the human characters, too. That even when characters in Canadian movies and TV are supposed to be sympathetic, and like each other, it can feel a bit artificial, like the filmmakers are faking emotions that should come naturally to them.

No doubt when that healthy dog came bounding out of that garage, Canadian filmmakers sat watching that scene, jaws slack, confused, disappointed. “I don’t get it,” sez they.

And maybe, some day, when they do get it, they’ll be able to make series which bring in “Desperate Housewives”-style numbers.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

March 24, 2010

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