On Self-Censorship As A Canadian Preoccupation

There are always going to be thin-skinned readers, but writers who self-censor for fear of offending said readers suck more. #canada

This was going to be a missive sent over Twitter. Then I thought, what if someone replies to me, calling me out? What if someone says:

@m_cahill Care to name names, or are you AFRAID OF OFFENDING SOMEONE? #jerk

Allow me to elaborate (and do it in an environment I can totally control without distorting my message due to a 140-character limit).

Two articles in the last week were sources of outrage among certain parts of the online world, particularly on Twitter, where it’s particularly easy to express outrage*. The first was Ian Brown’s essay on men gazing at women in the Globe & Mail. It elicited a lot of criticism, from feminists who were offended by the objectification of women to people who simply construed Brown’s perspective as creepy in a Lolita sorta way.

My partner and I began talking about some of the anger we saw in our respective Internet social circles. I felt a lot of it was overblown. Predictable, actually (sadly). And yet I agreed with Ingrid, who reminded me that there is something to be said about “the gaze” which women historically have been on the other end of. In other words, it was a complex issue. All said, something I found admirable in Brown’s piece (and his writing in general**) was his forthrightness. Unlike so many writers there was no effort made to allay the concerns of the entire reading public that he wasn’t trying to offend anyone.

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Brief Reviews: Incendies

For someone like myself, who makes his living working in film, it would seem perilous to declare a “favourite” Canadian filmmaker. However, it’s a no-brainer that one of them is Denis Villeneuve. Ever since I saw his Genie award-winning Maelstrom, I knew I was watching someone who was not burdened by the shackles of mediocrity so commonly on display in the end-product of so many emerging or established Canadian filmmakers.

Incendies, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards, is devastatingly good. It tells the story of fraternal twins who, while coping with the death of their mother, are handed two envelopes by the estate lawyer. One is to give to their father, whom they presume is either dead or estranged. The other is to give to their brother, whom they’ve never known existed. Neither know what any of this means and what follows is a side-winding story that is equal parts tragic and breath-taking.

Based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad, the film spends most of its time in a Middle Eastern country that is never identified for the audience. It’s a curious technique which may frustrate some, and yet it was refreshing for a film to sidestep our cultural preconceptions or prejudicial baggage by focusing strictly on the unfolding of its complex tale and its toll on the characters, past and present. At the core of Incendies is the devastating journey of the twins’ mother, played by Lubna Azabal, told in flashbacks.

There are moments of heightened violence in this film. Moments where you say to yourself: no, no, no – please don’t show us what I think you are about to show us. And yet, to Villeneuve’s credit – something I noticed in Maelstrom – he is one of a short list of directors capable of portraying material which may be extremely unsettling in ways which are neither insensitive to the audience nor disrespectful to the spirit of the story. Yet, the weight of what is ultimately revealed in the circuitous route of the twins will certainly haunt the audience long after the film is done.


Book Review: Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand

It was with considerable surprise when, browsing the shelves of our favourite used bookstore, Balfour Books, I was handed a book by my wife. “Did you see this?” It was purporting to be about a massive psychoanalytic commune which had its roots in downtown Toronto during the 60s and 70s. I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before – the group was called Therafields. I was immediately struck by the communal angle, the era, the emphasis on psychological investigation – it was like being handed a screenplay by David Cronenberg. The fact that I am studying psychotherapy and its theoretical/historic development made it irresistible.

Subtitled The Rise And Fall of Lea Hindley-Smith’s Psychoanalysis Commune, Grant Goodbrand’s Therafields is just that. From the mid-60s till the early-80s, what was eventually coined Therafields, became one of the largest active communes in North America (significant considering both the era and that it happened with virtually no physical or cultural traces left in this city), owning as many as 35 houses within, and 400 acres of farmland just outside Toronto. At its apex it had over 900 members.

Starting out with a modest practice in the Annex, Welsh émigré Lea Hindley-Smith began by seeing people in her home. Her open embrace of students combined with an uncanny ability to get to the bottom of her clients’ problems (not to mention her real estate acumen) conspired along with the socially progressive ideals of the 60s to develop a remarkable experiment in psychotherapy: a live/work environment which operated also as an ongoing group-process for its members, all under the auspices of Hindley-Smith who became their professor, CEO, and den mother. More houses were bought so that more living spaces could be added to accommodate new members, and new groups were developed. The story of Therafields is an account of how this creative hive eventually became an unmanageable empire. It is also an invaluable reflection of the changes happening at the time, guest-starring those stranded by the revoked promises of Vatican II, the back-to-the-farm movement, and the idea that psychotherapy could be about society rather than the individual.

I am a child of the 70s. Nothing could possibly be less meaningful than that statement. However, culturally speaking, I was surrounded by the 70s. The mid-70s to mid-80s were a formative time in Canadian television. In other words, we saw a lot of ourselves. And what we saw was produced and inflected by those who came of age in the 60s and early 70s (that’s the way it always worked until recently, by the way – the older generation helped the younger generation identify with their own generation). In other words, I can imagine Therafields, while reading about it. Goodbrand has done a good job of contextualizing the era in which his book takes place. It also helps that Goodbrand was a key member of Therafields himself, and as such is gifted with a familiarity which an outside author would struggle to develop. The flip-side to that statement is that an outside author might have had a better chance of keeping the rhythm of the book’s story consistent: there is a habit of temporal back-and-forth which does not make for smooth comprehension at times.

Considering Goodbrand’s credentials, Therafields unfortunately suffers from a detached perspective. He is as qualified as anyone to write about Lea Hindley-Smith and those who were key to the group’s skyward development – like esteemed poet bpNicol, for example – yet it seems only an accumulation of actions, the plotline of a biography, which gives us clues to the hearts beating behind the cast of characters. Goodbrand’s book sometimes reads like an account rather than an experience.

And here we come to a marketing dilemma: I’m not sure who the intended audience is. I am thankfully, luckily, well-suited to read, understand, and enjoy Therafields. Yet… With its insistence on differentiating what Hindley-Smith practiced (Kleinian) from classical psychoanalysis, without necessarily providing a debriefer for the reader on what makes Kleinian psychoanalysis different from it, I cannot imagine the “average reader” walking away knowing what that all should mean. Perhaps that won’t matter if they are keen on digging into a prime slice of Toronto history – complete with addresses, one could conceivably operate a motor-tour of where Therafields took place.

It is, nonetheless, an insightful read and an invaluable chronicle of a peculiar social/cultural phenomenon. Therafields, by Grant Goodbrand (ISBN: 978-1-55022-976-9), is available (evidently) from a used bookstore near you, and also online.


Why You Should See "SUCK" (And Why It Shouldn’t Have To Be On DVD)

In 2008/9, I worked on the indie feature, SUCK. It’s a rock-and-roll vampire road-movie comedy directed by Toronto’s Rob Stefaniuk and produced by Capri Films’ Robin Crumley. For a low-budget feature (and I realize that’s not the best way to preface a compliment) SUCK is well-written, well-cast, funny, and in places very funny.

However, despite being well received at both the Toronto International and South-By-Southwest Film Festivals, it was denied any interest in a theatrical release by Canadian distributors. The longer I waited for someone to pick it up, the more I wondered what the problem was. Sure, you could argue that vampire films have saturated the market lately, but that’s seeing things from the late-summer of 2010 (SUCK was completed over a year ago). It was a no-brainer, even for a limited release: who wouldn’t like a rock vampire comedy w/ cameos by Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, and Alex Lifeson (among others)? It’s the sort of smart-but-not-overly-self-conscious effort which seems perfectly balanced for a theatrical audience.

Nothing happened. Well, actually, less-than-nothing happened: a lot of crap was released in Canadian theatres instead. Crap like the widely-released and quickly forgotten Gunless, which begged the question: if nobody is interested in seeing Westerns in theatres, what could possibly have been the selling point of a comedy-romance-Western with (as you might have guessed) no gunfighting? The answer is that it doesn’t matter: this is Canada, and film distributors prefer to release crap like Gunless and GravyTrain than anything which could hold an audience’s sustained interest. Evidently, the point of film distribution in Canada is to go through the motions.

Well, it’s too late for Canada. While SUCK secured a limited theatrical distribution in the U.S., it’s out on DVD here (the US DVD release is September 28th). This means it will only be screened here through niche film festivals. While that’s not a bad thing, it pisses me off that a funny, well-produced film (rare creature that is) should be all but abandoned after a successful festival run. This situation is certainly not helped by SUCK‘s (pardon the pun) anemic website: it makes no mention of any upcoming film screenings, DVD release dates, or even contact information. Who the hell is the site for? This is what happens when you don’t have a distributor to help with publicity. Not even the local indie journals can help: NOW Magazine completely omits any mention of it, as a film or DVD release. How’s that for hometown support? Thankfully, The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell is the only mainstream film critic to put the DVD release of SUCK on public record (in glowing terms no less…and slagging Gunless ).

I want people to see this film. Not because I worked on it, not because I want to punish producers who keep banking on dead-brained populist Paul Gross vehicles, but because this is a worthy film. It’s not Sophie’s Choice, it’s not going to change your life. But you’ll laugh. I just wish it had been allowed the opportunity of a theatrical run, which it so clearly deserved. It works better in a theatre than on DVD: with a pumped-up audience rather than in the controlled confines of your livingroom. That said, I will be pleased if, by my writing about it, one more person will see this movie than if I hadn’t.


I’ll Show You Stupid

Possibly the worst tactical mistake you can make, politically, is to make fun of an opponent’s lack of intelligence. I say this because not only is there an influx of politically active people on the world stage who fall under the category of “lacking intelligence”, but there is an absence of memory about how publicly scorning such people only empowers them (and, most importantly, voters).

It’s hard. When someone says something completely false – and stupid – the well-educated person’s knee-jerk instinct is to say “You’re an idiot”. Fair enough. But, it’s the taunting that backfires. For example, look at Sarah Palin. I think she represents a necessary evil in American politics: a self-elected Voice of The People who campaigns on the rather wispy argument that the US is run by a bunch of elitists who don’t understand “real Americans”. It’s all a bunch of crap (by elite, do you mean they have an education? don’t you want the people running your country to have an education? to have seen something beyond the borders of your own country for sake of perspective? who the hell are ‘real Americans’? does this imply ‘false Americans’?), but it serves its purpose. And what do her critics – who, to be fair, constitute most of the people on the Earth – do? They make fun of her.

She’s an idiot. A moron.

The problem is, she’s a moron who appeals to a growing number of disenfranchised people who are looking for a proud, politically and morally uncomplicated banner to wave proudly over their heads. And yes, we can argue about why this is and who the supporters are, but – not to say that history is a 1:1 reflection of the future, because it’s not – history has shown that history doesn’t give a shit about those questions. Reflection happens in the future – that is, after we politely chortle to ourselves at all the nonsense of Palin, her “Tea Party”, and her scads of uncivilized minions. That is, after they take the next election.

The elitist/commoner non-argument (it’s a ploy, really) is as old as politics itself. We’ve had something very similar (and thankfully, tamer) happen in Canada. Our current government is a coalition of reformer factions who merged in the late 90s/early 00s to take over the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party (this would be the same as if the current “Tea Party” took over the Republican Party). They removed the word Progressive from the name and lead the country as a minority government. They too campaigned (and still do, whilst in power no less) as the party of the People, as an alternative to whomever stands against their policies (aka “the elites”). It’s old hat.

Before they came into power, they – as the Alliance Party – tried very hard to unseat the ruling Liberal government (tangent: can you imagine if the US had a party called the Liberal Party?). Their leader was a man named Stockwell Day, who rode onto the scene (quite literally) on a Sea Doo. He was all charisma and commonality. But as time wore on, people found that his reformist ideas weren’t very deep and a lot of the people in his party were either yahoos or – elitists? – began distancing themselves away from him. The chrome on his veneer began to chip away and the man became a running gag; the Prime Minister of the day, Jean Chretien, joked openly that he preferred having Day in opposition (as to suggest his chances were that much better to win elections against the Alliance). Long story short, all it took was a few years, a “unite the right” movement, and a new leader who could streamline (that is, squelch) internal strife and you had a winner. That is to say, the toppling of a government.

I suppose what I’m saying is this: making fun of people like Sarah Palin because she doesn’t come across as polished, or sophisticated, or well-educated is ineffective. All you manage to do is inflame the passions of people – many of whom may have been too lethargic or apathetic to vote in the first place – so that they start creating local campaign offices. There is nothing like being intellectually offended to raise someone’s ire – anyone’s, no matter where or how they were raised. Raise the ire, that is, so as to make them active agents on behalf of those scorned by the “elites”. Agents of “change”.

George W. Bush was publicly derided by intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike in almost every conceivable medium and venue, yet he served two four-year terms as President of the US. If you want to take down the likes of Palin, take her down as you would take down Reagan or Thatcher – that is, as an opponent worthy of debate, worthy of your concern. To do less would be to knot your own noose.


Our Home and Masochistic Land

Historically, Canada has never even been close to placing first in the medal-count of the Winter Olympics. We are, after all, an exceptionally large country with an inversely proportionate population: I’d be stretching the truth if I said we had 35 million people here.

So, when I read last week that the Canadian Olympic Committee had boasted that (no this time) we were going to take first place in Vancouver a small part of me projectile-vomited across the room. It was upsetting because this ridiculous aim (summed up by the mantra Own The Podium) is something only bureaucrats can cook-up.

News to the COC: it’s not like our athletes haven’t tried their damnedest in the past. It’s not like they didn’t “get” the whole gold thing until now. They’ve never wanted to do anything but put in their best, but the problem – population aside – is typically Canadian: a miserable lack of funding, organization, and foresight. Only in Canada could we create an organization like the COC, with their shallow-sounding boardroom boasts which read more like something from a corporate motivational lecture (“What Colour Is Our Olympic Athlete’s Parachute? GOLD!”).

It adds insult to injury because there simply is no chance in hell that we are going to top the medal count, this Olympics or any to come. I’m saying it aloud: there is no…well, you get the idea. Heck, I’d be happy if we top Russia. The facts don’t lie: despite our northernness, our wintry and sporting dispositions, we simply don’t have the population to consistently support a proportionately competitive Olympic powerhouse, especially when up against the U.S. which has 10 more people to every one of ours! In retrospect, we should all be getting mad-drunk with delight! We’re currently fifth in the freaking world, in spite of our pathetic sports infrastructure, despite our catch-us-while-you-can stagnant population growth, in spite of corporatist “iceholes” (if I may quoth Colbert) in the COC putting a bragging chip on our shoulder that we didn’t need in the first place.

There should be a banner flying at the top of Whistler, just underneath the Canadian flag, with the phrase: “We’re Actually Doing Pretty Damn Good”.



Goodbye Oxymoron

To write “an interesting time in Canadian politics” would probably lead most to wonder if they had missed the beginning of a joke. That said, the oxymoron was turned on its head quite unexpectedly over the last few days.

Context: we had our federal election in October, shortly before the one in the U.S.; at the time, our minority government – lead by Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada (right-of-centre) – was challenged by the Liberal Party (centrist) and the three other federal parties: the NDP (left-of-centre), the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec separatist), and the Green Party (this party is too young within Canada to accurately say where they stand on the scale). In short, Harper won (or resumed) another minority government. At a cost of $300 million to the taxpayer at the dawn of an economic recession.

So, last Thursday (just after my moody, dark piece of a few posts ago) the Conservative finance minister announced, in a financial update to the country, three things:

  • they would not offer an stimulus package for sake of the sagging economy until the next budget (in Spring 2009)
  • they would temporarily withhold the right-to-strike for federal public servants
  • they would eliminate the public funding of political parties (ie. their opponents)

In other words, it was perhaps the stupidest, most cynical thing I’ve seen since the days of Mike Harris (Ontario’s former premier, and one of the most divisive, contemptuous politicians to grace the country). Sure, there is no immediate proof to show that the stimulus packages being made in nearly all the G8 countries will have a desired affect. However, in the midst of the nation-wide financial crisis, to basically offer nothing…combined with a thinly-veilled attempt to bankrupt the federal opposition parties. You could hear a mass “wtf” across the country. Hell, even the National Post dedicated a front-page column criticizing the move.

So what happened? Well, the Liberal Party decided to talk to the NDP. The NDP and the Liberals decided to talk to the Bloc. They have decided to form a coalition party which, if ratified by the Governor General (long story), would – without an election – give them a majority of seats in Parliament, and thus change the face of government in a (nearly) historically unprecedented move.

Canadians, politically apathetic as of late – with good reason, I must add – have been glued to their television sets and news sites since this weekend as if they were watching the Stanley Cup finals. It’s potentially an historic moment for the country.

It’s now a question of whether Harper will prorogue parliament – in other words dismiss it in order to avoid a confidence vote in Parliament – or ask the Governor General instead for a new election (and another $300 million). In other words, we could either have a new government in less than two weeks or a new election. Either way, it’s a hammer blow to a self-described “new” government filled with Machiavellian technocrats – and it was their own arrogance which has brought this on.

Amazing…and from a karmic perspective, delicious.