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Incisive books by Globe, SN writers show USA media dominance of Canada
Midnight Matinees, by Jay Scott,
Oxford University Press, Toronto, 256 pages, $9.95
Jolts: The TV Wasteland and the Canadian Oasis, by Morris Wolfe,
James Lorimer and Company, Toronto, 139 pages, $9.95

Reviewed by Barry Duncan

 

"Anything you want we got in the USA" says Butch, the heart-throb American cousin in the intriguing 1985 Canadian film My American Cousin. His comment resonates more fully when we realize that the 13-year-old heroine of the film writes in her journal the lines that set the tone of the opening: "Nothing ever happens." It is a marvellous parable for the love affair of Canadians with American media content. I couldn't help but think of Canadian students' total immersion in American popular culture.

The future free trade negotiations raise many issues. But the one of Canadian cultural sovereignty must loom large for anyone who cares about the struggle for identity in a country that, more often than not, seems resolved to erase it. Commenting on this topic in The Globe and Mail, TVOntario chairman Bernard Ostry sets the stage.

"A country might be said to possess cultural sovereignty if its people, supreme in their own territory, control the production and distribution of their own books, films, music, plastic and decorative arts; if its people have liberal access to expressions of their own culture in the languages of their choice and to the imaginative work of their own countrymen and countrywomen; and if its artists of all kinds can find support and appreciation at home."

Yet basic statistics tell the story of cultural identity quite bluntly: 80% of our nation's publishing industry is in foreign hands; 97% of the films shown are foreign; 85% of records and tapes made in Canada are based on imported master tapes. In broadcasting, 71% of all TV programs viewed by English-speaking Canadians are American.

According to political scientist JamesLaxer if a free trade deal were struck, our industries would operate in a completely U.S. environment, in an economy fully integrated with that of the United States. The Canadian way of life wouldn't have a chance to survive. Surely our arts express our own reality; if we don't protect them, we will lose our political sovereignty.

Canadians' arms-length relationship with the U.S., combined with our occasional bouts of paranoia about American imperialism, have spawned an ambivalence that has fuelled a remarkable humour industry. Wayne & Shuster, the brilliantly satirical SCTV and Canadian involvement in National Lampoon magazine are examples. In The Big Shtick, a forthcoming TV special part documentary and part comic fantasy, a U.S. network news team uncovers a conspiracy: Canadians have been using comedy as a tool to infiltrate and take over the USA superpower.

Many of us are proud of the cultural flowering of the last 20 years, although we tend to focus on our literary stars such as Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley or possibly singers such as Anne Murray or Bryan Adams: in short, people who have made it in the U.S. market.

All of these observations serve as useful contexts when discussing two important new books that provide some Canadian critical perspectives.

Jolts: The TV Wasteland and the Canadian Oasis is by Morris Wolfe who for seven years was TV critic for Saturday Night magazine. He makes an eloquent case for the uniqueness and, in most cases, for the inherent superiority of Canadian TV. His thesis about Canadian TV is that it has fewer jolts per minute (JPMs) than American; that is, jolts of verbal, physical or emotional violence to keep the viewer's attention and prevent channel switchingCompared to our American counterparts, our drama is slower-paced and more realistic; our public affairs programs are more thoughtful and balanced; our news is much less prone to sensationalism. However, Wolfe does not admit that for many viewers, these elements may not be seen as virtues. They can add up to "boredom" or to too many demands on intelligence and sensitivity.

The case of Peter Gzowski's short-lived late night talk show in 1976 is cited as the classic case of how we betray ourselves when we try to slavishly follow slick high JPM American models, in this case Johnny Carson. "Any fool could see that Gzowski wasn't Carson. But in focusing on what Gzowski wasn't, most viewers failed to see that he and his show were making an important contribution to our understanding of Canadian life." (It is interesting to note that Gzowski's current television interview show, Gzowski and Co., works best when the producers let him be himself: rumpled, casual but perceptive, and amusing in a droll kind of way.)

Naturally, the CBC generally comes out smelling of roses while the other Canadian networks, especially CTV, are excoriated for their insistence on purveying mindless American escapist fare and for their willingness to produce their own schlock. Wolfe recognizes that most people prefer-so the ratings tell us—escapist programs. He points out that CRTC deregulation can be largely blamed for the Americanization of our networks.

In his conclusion, Wolfe makes several recommendations, most of them aimed at survival for the CBC. He concludes by making the case for media literacy. "We need to educate people — particularly young people — in how to watch television ... in the long run one of the results of a dispassionate look at television in our schools will be a greater appreciation of what the CBC does and still greater demands on it to serve us better."

Switching from our home-grown television to film is not too difficult, considering that much film recently was made explicitly for television. In Midnight Matinees Jay Scott, film critic for The Globe and Mail, has selected some of his reviews and essays from 1981-85. Scott is a brilliant, allusive and acerbic film critic, always interesting, even when you disagree with him. His work needs to be celebrated in a country where film reviewers have traditionally been drawn from the sports pages or the gossip columns or where newspapers like The Toronto Star take a simplistic, lowest-common-denominator approach to the media. Through his Globe columns and periodic appearances on The Journal, he has, fortunately, gained a wide audience.

In an interview, Scott summed up his critical approach which is surprisingly visceral. "The evaluation process is one of reacting and trying to order that reaction. It's basically an emotional reaction. Then what you try to do is analyse the emotion and find out what created that."

While he likes good foreign films such as Ran (Japan), Dreamchild (Great Britain) and the work of the late German filmmaker, Rainer Fassbinder, he also enjoys many popular films such as E.T, Tootsie, Back to the Future, Witness and Prizzi's Honour.

Scott's 12-page essay, "The Burnout Factory: Canada's Hollywood," is an incisive commentary on our Canadian film saga that is simply new American cinema on Canadian soil: of Canadians making movies about and often with Americans, of Toronto's Bay Street standing in for Madison Avenue, of tax shelters that suddenly encouraged dentists and accountants to make their sleazy deals to produce clinker films that never got shown. However, he does discuss those films that did make the grade (Ticket to Heaven, The Grey Fox) and about their special style and cultural implications.

It is of fundamental significance that Canadians have raised a whole generation whose values are drawn from American films, TV police shows, and sit-coms. James Laxer in an article entitled "Free Trade: Will it affect our way of life?" asserts: "A way of life does not exist in a vacuum. It is the product both of the ideas and traditions of people and the institutional arrangements they make for themselves in their society. If we decide to adopt U.S. institutional arrangements, let us not imagine that this will not affect our way of life."

It is good that we now have some readable authors and critics who can analyse and even admonish us about the implications of our cultural choices.

Barry Duncan teaches English and media studies at the School of Experiential Learning in Etobicoke, Ontario, and is the President for the Association for Media Literacy (AMI).

 

Published in Sources, Summer 1986

 



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