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The Franklin Conspiracy: Mysteries, Monsters and Canada's "Phantom Culture"

For lack of a better term, let's now talk about folklore.

First, a momentary digression...

A guy I know, Jeffrey Blair Latta, has a book coming out in June entitled The Franklin Conspiracy: Cover-up, Betrayal, and the Astonishing Secret Behind the Lost Arctic Expedition (he plugs it himself here). It's yet another book re-examing one of the most enduring mysteries in Canadian history: what happened to Sir John Franklin and his crew of explorers who sailed into the Canadian Arctic some 150 years ago ...and vanished, almost literally without a trace? A lot of books have been written on the subject, including by such noted luminaries as Pierre Berton. However none, I'll wager, have taken quite the same approach as The Franklin Conspiracy. If the book takes off, it has the potential, not just to be a successful book, but to be a genuine cultural touchstone that will become part of the cultural lexicon for years to come (no doubt to the chagrin of many).

I had the pleasure of reading an early draft of the book, and it's a compelling read even if you just take it as a story.

Do you like mysteries? Do you like the weird? Did you spend too many hours of your childhood watching TV shows like "In Search of..." (with Leonard Nimoy), do you even now turn on to the Discovery Channel, or the Learning Channel, whenever they have documentaries with titles like "Uncovering the Mummy's Curse" or "Secrets of the Bermuda Triangle"? Or, going the fiction route, do you watch The X-Files religiously?

If your answer is yes, stop reading this and run down to your local book store and grab a copy of The Franklin Conspiracy. Outside of Canada, it might be easier to find via on-line book stores like www.amazon.com or www.chapters.ca or www.indigo.ca --

I'll wait.

...

You back? O.K., let's continue. You see, I'm not just plugging my friend's book -- well, I am, but there's a greater good at work here.

You see, it's all about folklore.

The Franklin Conspiracy is a history book and can be read on that level, just to learn about the expedition and the subsequent search attempts and the personalities involved. However, it also examines the mystery surrounding the lost expedition from a completely novel point of view. For one thing, it postulates a conspiracy -- accusations which were made at the time by those in the know, but accusations which have largely been dismissed by contemporary historians. And if there was a conspiracy, the question is: what was being conspired about? The answer put forward in the Franklin Conspiracy will, quite probably, blow your mind.

Is the Franklin Conspiracy true? How would I know? I wasn't there -- but then neither was Jeffrey Blair Latta, Pierre Berton, or anyone else who has written so definitively about the topic. No one can know what's "true".

Is it accurate? As far as I know, yes. Jeffrey Blair Latta assures me he has not played with facts, he's merely interpreted their meaning in a singular way.

The Franklin Conspiracy can be viewed as history, but I prefer to think of it as folklore, as mythology, as a part of the dream culture that makes a people interesting.

In the 1976 remake of King Kong (a movie that those of us who know him know is very close to Blair's heart), a character remarks that the giant ape of the title, as terrifying as he may have been to the island natives, was the "magic and mystery in their lives". Without him, the character argues, the island will become a settlement of burned out drunks in six months. The theory being expressed there is that there's more to life than just what we can taste and touch, there's what we imagine. And that a people can be enriched by this phantom culture, this folklore.

In Canada, this phantom culture exists: from haunted houses, to unexplained events, from Ogopogo, to Sasquatch, to the Nahanni National Park (the sinisterly dubbed "headless valley", and supposed home to a hidden tropical valley), to, well, to the lost Franklin expedition. Does Ogopogo exist? Probably not. Does Sasquatch? Even most people who believe in him don't claim to have seen him. Is there a lost valley in or around Nahanni? Doubtful. Does it matter? Not one whit. That's the point of a phantom culture. It doesn't have to exist, it merely matters whether we can imagine it might exist.

In the United States, such folklore as the lost Roanoke colony, the vanished Anasazi Indians, the flying saucer crash at Roswell, or zombies lurching about the Louisiana Bayou permeates both the culture and the pop culture of movies, books and TV. In fact, all of the above have been used as references or story ideas in one series or another in the last year alone (Roswell even forms the background for an entire weekly TV series!) All have their roots in fact, of course. Real events, really documented. But all have been twisted toward the most colourful interpretations. The inhabitants of the 16th Century colony of Roanoke did vanish -- most likely due to starvation, inclement weather, or attack by Native Indians. Nothing mysterious in that. That hasn't stopped Roanoke, and the cryptic word found carved into a tree -- croatoan -- from being a source of weird and supernatural speculation for centuries.

In Canada there is fertile ground for storytellers to mine -- I've only scratched the surface. There are incidents from which movies could be made, and ideas that episodes of TV series can be built around. And yet, in Canada ...they very rarely are.

The lake monster that allegedly inhabits B.C.'s lake Okanagan, Ogopogo, is arguably the second most famous lake monster in the world after Scotland's Loch Ness monster. Yet to my knowledge the idea of a lake monster (not Ogopogo specifically) has only been used in one Canadian movie, Magic in the Water, and one episode of a TV series, Danger Bay. Not much is it? Supposedly another movie was proposed, but ran into financing difficulties. I recall a long ago episode of The Beachcombers that used the idea of a Sasquatch, but that's about it as far as the legendary Big Foot is concerned. And I'm not talking strictly about whether such things are used as the focus of a movie or TV show, but even a passing reference or gag would make me happy. But there's nada.

The phantom culture is a source of a nation's "magic and mystery" (as writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. phrased it in King Kong), and so to are the magic shadows we call cinema -- a source of magic and mystery. So why then do the two so rarely meet in Canada? Why are Canadian filmmakers so reluctant to embrace the weird, the macabre, the wonderful about their own country? To have fun with their own history and identity?

Of course "fun" doesn't have to be restricted to the paranormal. It's just a matter of recognizing that there were interesting moments in time, interesting people, and seeing what you can do with them as a storyteller, as an entertainer. Nor am I saying real people and events must be used -- far from it. But stories that take their inspiration from real people and events can be both fun and enriching.

Whenever a Canadian book or documentary is produced detailing some aspect of Canadian history, it's usually accompanied by a proclamation by the makers and the reviewers that Canadian history isn't as dull as we think (the assumption being that most of us are supposed to think Canadian history is dull when compared to the U.S., Britain, France and, well, just about anywhere else). Usually though, the book or documentary in question tends to be, well, pretty dull. But they're right...Canada isn't dull. I'm just not sure I can say as much for the keepers of our national psyche: our storytellers.

I'm not done with this topic, not hardly. But from here it heads off into a couple of different directions that are, therefore, best reserved for future editorials. In the mean time, check out The Franklin Conspiracy...and dream of things that might be...

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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