If Sarah Polley is for it, I am for it. If Sarah Polley is against it, I am against it. Ms. Polley serves the same purpose in my existence as does U.S. President George W. Bush for the columnists of the Globe and Mail, and this is a good thing. These little rules, almost like mnemonic devices that you take to parties to remember people’s names, make life a happy, simpler thing, a daisy with all its petals.
Polley is one of the clever, attractive, creative, successful Canadians currently appearing before a Senate committee to deplore the federal government’s Bill C-10, which would withdraw tax credits, retroactively, from Canadian film and television productions it considers “offensive.” Call me smartist, lookist, inventivist and failist, but I value these Canadians. Other wise people speaking out against the new rules include actress Wendy Crewson, director David Cronenberg and Martin Gero, director of the film Young People F—ing.
On the other side, we have the feds, about whom the less said the better. OK: lumpen, small-minded, ill-read cultural wet blankets. I once wrote an essay titled Low Bridge! Everybody Down!, which was what the barge haulers on the Erie Canal used to call out to warn boatmen. Bruce Springsteen sings the line to great effect on his album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.
Unfortunately, I used the phrase to refer to the maddening idiocy of some of the editors I had encountered in my career, people who like prose to be dull, witless and standardized, who like opinions well within the mainstream and who frantically disapprove of jokes. There will be no humour in Canadian writing.
The essay is not in my 2007 essay collection Cake or Death (out in paperback this week) mainly because it wasn’t very good — too much spleen — and also because I love my editor, Michael Schellenberg, and I didn’t want to offend him. (If Michael is against it, I’m against it.)
It’s about power, not culture
I won’t say there’s a war against intelligence in Canada today — Canadians don’t do culture wars — but there is a sturdy priss-faced disapproval of anything that is outrÃ© or shocking or outside the chain-link fence of current taste. The CBC television drama Intelligence was axed, I suspect, not because it was dealing with plotlines about American sabotage of the Canadian political system, but because it was enthralling. Low bridge! Everybody down!
Bill C-10 concentrates power primarily in the hands of one person, the federal minister in charge of the funds given out by the Department of Canadian Heritage. In this, it disturbingly resembles the Conservative immigration bill that gives unprecedented arbitary powers to one person, the immigration minister, and may kill the “humanitarian” clause.
It’s an Emperor Nero approach to government that is profoundly undemocratic. For example, should one person really be able to decide whether the woman in this case might come to Canada? Zawadi Mongane isn’t much use to Canada as an economic unit, and economics, if not racism, is the foundation of the new immigration rules. But read her story. What do you think?
Should some MP, a Liberal or Tory from a distant riding, be allowed to decide whether a film like Polley’s Away From Her is offensive? It does refer to the sexuality of the elderly. I watched it on a flight to Edmonton to visit my mother, and I cried buckets when Gordon Pinsent did the noble thing, which was even more embarrassing because I was seated next to an elderly lady who was watching Seinfeld and laughing as I wept. She patted my hand. We drank Air Canada’s awful wine and philosophized.
Or take a film like American Psycho, directed by a Canadian, Mary Harron, which was revolting — a top bedsheet turns red as the viewer suddenly realizes that the woman in the bed is not being sexed but hatcheted — but marvellous on the commodification of human beings. Kingsley Amis’s novel Stanley and the Women was very nearly not published in the U.S. because of its alleged misogyny, but it was a truthful novel that I still reread with pleasure.
It has been suggested that the Liberals originally came up with the idea for Bill C-10 in order to prevent a film being made about Canada’s notorious serial killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
If you ever get a chance to see Longford, a 2006 BBC-TV film about a saintly benighted man defending the most hated woman in Britain, the child torturer Myra Hindley (Britain’s Homolka), grab it with both hands. It is a masterpiece.
If any Canadian director had the courage to make a Longford-type film here about Homolka, I don’t doubt that a federal minister, some jumped-up drone of an MP, would withdraw the tax credits and kill the film at birth.
Passion for innocence
As it is, Canada has a film industry the size and strength of a doily. Bill C-10 would leave scriptwriters to create only “bland films and television programs. Nothing provocative, nothing daring, just family-friendly programming with happy endings,” Rebecca Schecter, president of the Writers Guild of Canada, told reporters last week. Low bridge! Everybody down!
The censorship would become political. What if a filmmaker wanted to dramatize an apparatchik deciding whether Zawadi Mongane would live or die, a Canadian version of the brilliant German film The Lives of Others? For power possessed is always power used. Tax credit denied.
The government says tax money shouldn’t be spent on things that offend people. I worry about this federal passion for innocence. Adult life is offensive. That’s what makes it adult. It consists of a series of wounds that scar. What offends me to the core is the drift toward the mediocre that this bill enforces. Everybody down! That iron government bridge ahead will snap your head off like a Tic-Tac lid.
I met Gordon Pinsent at a party on Saturday, yes I did, and a flashback hit me very hard as I talked to him. As a child of perhaps 10, I had watched a CBC-TV drama starring Pinsent and the beautiful Peggy Mahon, who played a robot. My dim understanding of the plot was that Pinsent’s character had bought the robot from her inventor and was using her sexually, although I was in no way clear what sex was.
At one point, he slipped his hand inside her lapel and placed it on her breast. It was electrifying in a confusing, thrilling way. I realized that growing up would be tremendously exciting because Gordon Pinsent, who played handsome Sgt. Scott on The Forest Rangers, would put his hand down your shirt. Pinsent was courteous enough not to do this as we talked about this sexual imprinting that marked my youth. But I kept getting flashes. Omigod, you were Quentin Durgens, MP. You were the Rowdyman.
It was marvellous meeting the man who gave me my mental sexual start. But it occurs to me that if they were making that drama now, Telefilm, the federal film funding agency, would cut off Pinsent’s wandering hand at the wrist. Too offensive.
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