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Pat Buchanan, Stepin Fetchit, and the wacky world of Canadian Identity


To work at all, movies, quite literally, rely on Persistence of Vision, the characteristic by which the eye continues to see something a fraction of a second after it's gone. Movies are, technically, comprised of flickering still images that our minds, then, translate into a seamless whole. If we did not possess Persistence of Vision, we would see movies as though they were projected with a strobe light. In other words, they'd be nigh unwatchable.

Vision is essential to movie making, both the literal vision of the viewer's eyes...as well as the artistic vision of the filmmakers themselves.

A while back I wrote an essay entitled "I'm an American...eh?" in which I decried the way Canadian filmmakers (and actors) are quick to hide their Canadianness when making movies and TV shows. Probably between one third and one half of movies and TV shows made by Canadians pretend they aren't. Usually they pretend they are American. In my earlier essay I likened it to the way many black performers portrayed demeaning stereotypes in the first half of the 20th Century in Hollywood. Like modern Canadian filmmakers, early black stars like Stepin Fetchit justified their performances on the basis that the mainstream (white) society wouldn't accept anything else, that shuffling their feet and rolling their eyes was the only avenue to success for them. Canadian filmmakers argue much the same; that they have to hide their Canadianness, otherwise they can't sell their programs abroad, and can't win over an audience.

I'm revisiting this issue because of someone who signed my Guestbook, taking me to task for my earlier editorial. He argued that Canadian productions have trouble making money just via domestic sales, but can't hope for international success if they don't hide their Canadianness. It was a well written entry (check it out) -- but I remain unconvinced. So, I'm rebutting the rebuttal.

Pointing out that Canadian-Canadian shows like, say, DaVinci's Inquest or Traders don't sell as well internationally as, say, Canadian (let's-pretend-we're-American) shows like Earth: Final Conflict or Relic Hunter is like comparing apples and oranges. Firstly, let me say that I'm not a big fan of any of those shows -- sad to say. So my comments don't stem from any personal bias. But when comparing a show about stock brokers (Traders) to a sci-fi series about an alien invasion (Earth: Final Conflict)...of course the latter is going to prove an easier sell, if only because talking head dramas like Traders and DaVinci's Inquest are a dime a dozen. Any nation with even a rudimentary TV industry can make shows like that. It's the bigger, more expensive, more flamboyant shows like Relic Hunter and Earth: Final Conflict that are rarer and, therefore, easier to hawk internationally.

And that's where the vision thing comes in that I alluded to at the start of this essay. Or, rather, the absence of vision. Canadian filmmakers who have their eye on the Canadian market invariably make "small", modest products, that they then find they can't sell internationally. But Canadians who have their eye on international waters, erroneously assume they have to hide their Canadianness to succeed. Neither group has any true "vision".

Undoubtedly it's difficult. Undoubtedly doing an adamantly Canadian series about a globe hopping adventurer, or a space man, would require some effort to sell. But that's the point. Just because something requires effort doesn't mean it's impossible or shouldn't be done. If a Canadian filmmaker isn't willing to stick his neck out for something as elementary as his very identity, how can we expect him to stick his neck out for something like plot and characterization? And yet filmmaking is all about fighting for what you believe. Nowadays, the 1960s American TV series "Star Trek" is probably regarded as pretty mainstream, pretty, well, safe. Yet its production was a constant battle between the show's creator and the nervous networks (it was a battle just to have the alien Mr. Spock in the cast...a character who went on to become a cultural icon). No, it's not easy...nor should it be. That's what separates the visionaries from the hacks, and why so many Canadian series and movies -- including the ones targeted at international markets -- fail.

The point can't be stressed enough that the success -- or failure -- of a program has a lot more to do with the nature of the show (and, of course, its quality) than it does whether it admits it's Canadian, even if Canadian filmmakers have convinced themselves otherwise. Due South was a huge international success -- and it was as in-your-face about its Canadianness as you can get, with its Mountie hero decked out in his bright red serge. The series succeeded because it was a reasonably well-produced, flamboyant action-comedy.

And, yes, Due South was about a Canadian operating in the United States, but that's fine. I never said that such programs had to be one hundred percent Canadian. I merely believe that in series such as Adventure, Inc. and Mutant X, some of the regular characters should be identified as Canadian -- but not necessarily all.

It is important, culturally, for Canadians to put themselves out there, to say they exist, and, most important, not to be ashamed of who they are the way Canadian filmmakers are clearly ashamed of who they are. The very anonymity of Canada and Canadians is, frankly, making Canadians an easy target for some particularly ugly rhetoric spewing from the more right wing quarters of the United States. Ever since the tragedy of Sept. 11th, 2001, Canada has found itself a convenient whipping boy for would-be demagogues -- American politicians and reporters blaminng Canada for the terrorist attacks (how or in what way Canada is supposedly responsible is never articulated in these tirades), TV commentator Pat Buchanan referring to Canada as "Soviet Canuckistan" (a term I'd never heard before, and I don't know where Buchanan picked it up, but apparently it is used in ultra-right, White Supremacist circles), to the magazine, the National Review, advocating the bombing of Canada. It's turning into a scary world for Canadians.

Obviously, being reviled by ultra right lunatics is something most Canadians can take pride in (you can judge a man by his enemies) and equally obvious, if a couple of heroes in Mutant X were identified as Canadian, it wouldn't cause rightist nutbars like Buchanan to sing the praises of maple syrup. But it might make regular Americans less susceptible to his blathering. The very invisibility of Canada encouraged by Canadian filmmakers makes it an easy scapegoat for hate mongers and misinformationists to say whatever they like, however ludicrous -- in much the same way that a shufflin' Stepin Fetchit routine made it easier for White Supremacists to promulgate the flaky theory of black inferiority.

But perhaps the real question is: is there even any truth to the claim that "Canada" won't sell internationally? The problem, as I commented earlier, is that people compare apples and oranges. The point isn't to compare, say, the global success of Earth: Final Conflict with Da Vinci's Inquest, but to compare Earth: Final Conflict with, say, Due South. Suddenly the scales aren't tilted quite so askew, are they? There have only been a few, a very few, mass appeal, adventure, fantasy series that acknowledged their Canadianness -- Due South, Forever Knight -- and yet, surprisingly, their success has not been too far removed from all the various let's-pretend-we're-American Canadian series done over the years. In fact, they've done better than many: Forever Knight ran three seasons, compared to only one season each for The Immortal, Queen of Swords, Crow: City of Angels, etc. Makes you think, don't it?

Or let's consider the most blatant comparison around, the Hollywood movie "X-Men" and the conceptually similar Canadian-made TV series, Mutant X. In X-Men one of the heroes was Canadian, and a few scenes took place in Canada. That movie was a big hit, with a sequel in the works. Mutant X -- the Canadian co-produced TV series -- features no characters who are Canadian. So the Canadians would claim they hafta -- like a five year old earnestly explaining why he's eating worms from the garden -- they hafta pretend they aren't Canadian, or else the series wouldn't sell...even as the very movie that inspired them, that no doubt made it easier to pitch to global broadcasters ("see, it's just like the X-Men.") did feature a Canadian character. In fact, I have an entire page devoted to Hollywood movies -- some box office hits -- that make more overt Canadian references than a lot of Canadian movies and TV shows. Think about it.

So what's the real reason? Undoubtedly some Canadian producers and filmmakers have been barking the same party line for so long, they believe it themselves. In other instances, its because it requires a little thing called courage, that may be in short supply. If an American producer comes north looking for a partner to help him/her make their series, it requires a certain gumption to say: "Great, I love it, I'm in...but we have to make one of the characters Canadian or I'm out." And finally, it's because the current crop of Canadian filmmakers have inherited the cultural world bequeathed to them by the previous generation of let's-pretend-we're-American Canadian filmmakers. They can't really imagine a Canadian TV action hero, because they rarely saw one as they grew up -- it seems somehow...wrong to them.

It gets back to that vision thing. And way too many people in the Canadian entertainment industry are myopic. Like Stepin Fetchit before them, Canadian filmmakers assuage their consciences by telling themselves that they "hafta", that it would require effort to do otherwise. And like Stepin Fetchit, they may find, in the end, that history will judge them unkindly.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

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