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
"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
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 usescapist 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
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
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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