McLuhan Studies : Issue 3

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Recapturing Canadian Identity

"TV sucks the brain right out of your skull!"

This sentiment, once expressed by Marshall McLuhan, helps explain the on-going crisis of Canadian identity. Television strips away much of a viewer's identity leaving him disoriented and not knowing who he is. American television strips away whatever is left of our Canadian identity.

Canada is a "border-line" case as McLuhan was fond of reminding us, with 90% of its population living within 100 miles of the American border. The American networks, therefore, easily target Canadian heritage for takeover. American TV has sucked out our brains, stripped away our identity and left us with only one truly Canadian artifact--our never-ending Constitutional debate. The "French problem."

In a brave and bold attempt to fight fire with fire and recover some small shred of our national identity, the Heritage Project has produced dozens of one-minute micro-movies depicting our country's dynamic heritage and heroes. Canada's three television networks, most independent broadcasters, and specialty cable networks run the Heritage Minutes between commercials and regular programming. The vignettes can also be seen in Cineplex-Odeon and Empire chain theatres across Canada.

The idea for the Heritage Project originated with Charles Bronfman who wondered, "if television can be used to persuade audiences to do and buy all kinds of things, why can't it be used to show Canadians what a fascinating past they have?" The sponsors, who include The CRB Foundation, Power Broadcasting, and Canada Post chose Marshall McLuhan as one of the first subjects for its crash course in Canadian history. Therein lies an irony: "Pull the plug!" was McLuhan's simple solution. The sponsors, wisely, ignored his advice and gave us instead a magic moment of TV wizardry by scriptwriter Patrick Watson and director Al Waxman. One Heritage minute electronically documents the tremendous contribution of this global communication giant.

Given the impossibility of taking McLuhan's advice literally -- for how can one pull the plug on a major medium in a democratic society? -- the most immediate response, which was also McLuhan's fallback position, was to at least warn society of the dangers of this powerful electronic Siren. McLuhan devoted a lifetime to warning society of the dangers of television and, unfortunately, his insights and understanding of the medium were taken more seriously by Madison Avenue--the mind manipulators and exploiters--than by the protectors of our youth, namely, parents and educators.

Packaging his video vignette together with curriculum material, that would warn our nation's youth of the dangers of television and teach them how to protect themselves and their Canadian identity, would make a fitting tribute to McLuhan. By creating Canadian electronic icons, Canadians might come to know and respect their own country.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail (Sept. 11, 1992, p.1.) entitled "Teen's Preference for Things American" revealed that: Michael Jordan is their favourite athlete, Dan Rather and Connie Chung their favourite news media personalities and George Bush their favourite politician.In virtually every category, teen-agers chose American over Canadian... Teen-agers have never been more informed nor more American than they are today. That is because the traditional three R's of education have been replaced by the three T's--television, technology and travel... Currently, Canadians are spending two-thirds of their viewing time on U.S. programs.

Québec enjoys a stronger sense of cultural identity than does the rest of Canada. Being a French island in a sea of North American anglophones actually acts as a more effective barrier to the invasion of American culture than our Maple Leaf flag, our national borders and our Constitution with its Charter of Rights. In fact, English Canada is in much greater peril of losing its distinctiveness than is Québec. English Canada, instead of Québec, should be declared a distinct and endangered society.

Into the breach of threatened Canadian identity steps The Heritage Minutes. The project cannot undo commercial television's 45 year assault, but it might begin to stem the tide. Marshall, I am confident, would have approved of fighting fire with fire--trying to win back a measure of our lost Canadian identity using the medium most responsible for its loss. He would also have supported the use of the one minute format--an electronic one-liner--as an effective strategy for gaining the attention of a generation whose psyche and attention span has been beaten down and destroyed by television, drug abuse, the fast life, rock music and videos.

Al Waxman's Heritage Minute combines some choice content into the electronic monument to McLuhan and also replicates McLuhan's communication style. Waxman used a number of McLuhan techniques and illustrated Marshall's creative approach by dramatizating the discovery of the notion that "the medium is the message." The one-minute format also forced Waxman to use many of McLuhan's hallmarks of brevity: dramatic one-liners, the use of shock, paradox and humour. He shows us McLuhan playing with words while teaching a seminar, and displays McLuhan's deep roots in the oral tradition of repartee. And Al Waxman did this all in 60 seconds.

Waxman describes the filmmaking process:

One minute is not enough to tell anyone's life story let alone someone like Marshall McLuhan. But the essence of a person can be captured through a keen glimpse into his character. And, in the making of this Heritage Minute, an interesting parallel of juxtapositions within the subject's life and my life became evident to me.

It is quintessentially McLuhanesque to compress two extremes, as Marshall does with his concept of the "Global Village" and "the medium is the message." And it is just as essentially cinematic to compress a lifetime into a few shots. In my case, two things were being compressed, and together: I had to compress McLuhan's life-work into a minute; and it required a life's work in filmmaking to express the minute. So, two lifetimes, the subject's and the filmmaker's, compress into one moment.

I was honoured to have met Marshall McLuhan and honoured to have worked with talented colleagues on this film. I enjoyed and was enriched researching my subject: getting to know the character, his characteristics, his genius, his ambitions, his relationships, his language, and his energy. It was equally joyful to immerse myself in the means with which to express all this.

Good fortune brought along Patrick Watson, a writer and producer, a friend of mine, but more importantly, a friend of McLuhan's. Patrick's insightful script captured McLuhan's creative energy and mischievous sense of humour. It also revealed why his legendary seminars were such an intellectual turn-on.

The superb actor, Cedric Smith, digested the research and script material, expressing it, dressed in accurate wardrobe and makeup, in a textured, three dimensional personification of Marshall. Smith was surrounded by actors of talent and commitment, whose every nuance of behaviour expressed the excitement and adventure of a McLuhan seminar.

The art direction, lighting and camera, composition and movement, helped to create at once the reality of university and seminar life, and at the same time the mystery and mythical truth of which legends are made. The editing structured an energy that was absolutely in sync with McLuhan.

This one minute spot is possibly the best work I have ever done. In addition to being an electronic monument to McLuhan, as Bob Logan has described it, it is also a reflection of my accumulated experience and training and the outstanding collaboration of many talented people without whom a work of cinematic art cannot be created. Ultimately, it also reflects the inspiration and absolute importance of having an outstanding subject--Marshall McLuhan.

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