America, start depicting Canada right

“Due South”: a Canadian show catering to American stereotypes

I was watching an episode of “Shameless”, a Showtime show that itself is based on a UK drama/comedy about a drunkard father Frank Gallagher (played by William H. Macy) and his family forced to fend for themselves. In the second episode of the first season Frank, while passed out, gets deliberately dropped off in Toronto after pissing off his eldest daughter’s boyfriend. Frank wakes up in a clean park and sees something that isn’t right: two female joggers wearing Canada flags on their sweaters, Canadian flags on flagstaffs, and then the two female joggers complaining to an obvious red-suited Canadian Mountie riding on a horse.

This isn’t the first time I’ve watched an American stereotype of Canada in a television show–the continual references to “eh?”, the diatribes against our “socialist” health care system, how every Canadian loves, and is good at, hockey, how Quebec and Montreal are both regarded as strangely exotic and yet sexualized within the context of prostitutes, strippers and porn–and it’s always been mildly annoying. The fact of the matter is, if a significant percentage of American television shows are actually filmed in Canada, isn’t it time we forced these productions to depict Canada correctly?

American television and movie production companies and networks have been successfully lobbied by African-American and Latino-American cultural interest groups to reduce or stop depicting all gangsters and criminals as black or latino (think about it: lately in mainstream movies marketed towards kids and adults, have you ever seen criminals as anything other than white?) because they believe perpetuating these stereotypes is harmful. Then why should the depiction of Canada and Canadians be any different?

For example, in the “Shameless” episode, the big obvious stereotype is that Mounties still wear their stereotypical red serge uniforms, as if we are still stuck in the late 1800’s. As well, Mounties are part of the federal police force or RCMP and do not have jurisdiction in our major Canadian cities. Or that we continually say “eh?” Or that we love hockey (I don’t, sorry). Or that we are continually “nice”.

The annoying thing is when we have academics who defend American stereotypes of other nations. Check out this article for instance, which is a paper a Canadian academic student wrote on the how Canada is depicted on “How I Met Your Mother” through their Canadian character. While the author admits that the writers for “How I Met Your Mother” initially told Cobie Smulders, who plays the Canadian on the show, that they would make her character Canadian in order to play with and break down Canadian stereotypes, indeed the exact opposite occurred, where the main writer for the show admitted it was the basis for tasteless jokes. While the author of this paper goes on to argue that even if the tasteless jokes about being Canadian abound in the show, at the same time some presentation of Canadian-ness is a good thing rather than being totally absent; and furthermore, these jokes are ok because underlying them is a love for Cobie Smulders Canadian character Robin. The overall argument is that however difference is depicted, the overall goal of the depiction is to explore difference rather than perpetuate negative stereotypes.

I would argue that that this argument is naive and white-washes what these writers of these American shows are actually doing. Sure, Americans make fun of themselves as much as other parts of the world, i.e. the hick from the South with the heavy drawl, the snobby North-easterner, the Minnesotan dialect and naivety. But let’s call this type of humor for what it is: mockery, the lowest common denominator of humor. When difference between people is used as the basis of humor, it indicates an insecurity and an attempt to reassert power in the dynamic by reducing the Other to something controllable, contextualized, and ultimately “safe”. But at the same time good writers know that what they write, especially when it is shot and seen by millions of people around the nation and the world, has an impact on the perception of a particular set of people. And in fact, it is a slippery slope to outright racism, where the only mark of demarcation between mockery and prejudice is the extent to which people hold onto their stereotype to define the other person, or know innately that the Other person is a more complicated being and, to a great degree, cannot be defined.

So what’s the point? Balance. If you’re a writer and you’re going to mock someone, make sure you mock yourself at the same time. If you’re a writer and want to use stereotypes to make cheap jokes, make sure at some point you deflate or destroy those stereotypes as well. While there are some Canadian writers for these shows who would argue that when they make jokes, they’re doing it in some kind of post-modern, winking way, like “these Americans are stupid anyways so we’ll just write what they expect and we’ll laugh on the inside”, it still admits that they are catering to American stereotypes and in fact, on some level are gutless enough to make their writing safe to appease their American bosses. So that argument doesn’t fly with me.

For example, I still remember an Archie comic book segment where Archie’s jalopy breaks down in the country and a hick country girl helps him fix his car. Archie jokes with Jughead that he’s going to show this hick country girl a good time by taking her out on a date, and dazzle her with the few bucks he’s got. In a complete turnaround, the girl dresses up in expensive clothes, showcases her farm as a complicated piece of social machinery, drives an expensive sports car, and actually gives Archie money on the date. Archie is left aghast at his former ignorance. So when I cite an Archie comic, of all places, where stereotypes become inversed, it merely showcases that writing smart isn’t limited to art house films. Writing smart is a choice. While I think the writers of “How I Met My Mother” are reveling in their exploration of Robin’s “Canadian-ness”, I do think they could be doing it in a smarter way. The author of the academic paper seems to highlight examples of when the writers do exactly this, but frankly the examples are still maudlin and the basis of the humor is still mockery, even if the “human-ness” of Robin is purported to underline the humor and thus somehow justify its mockery.

What we should do on the Canadian side is withhold our tax credits to these American productions if they continue to portray these insipid Canadian stereotypes. And the least these American production companies can do is at least depict Canadian police officers in their correct uniform when they have a Canadian location written in the story. The least you can be is accurate.




Why Superman sucks

To be a writer and adapt Superman into movie form? Best job in the world, right?

No effing way. Adapting Superman to a movie would be horrendous.

I’m not going to write about the classic Superman movies of the late 70’s-early 80’s; nor am I going to write about the 2008 reboot of Superman; nor am I going to write about the new version of Superman coming out soon. Because inherently, in my gut, all these versions of Superman really suck. The only version of Superman that kind of got it in the ballpark was ironically a tv series called Smallville, and even that started to suck as soon as Clark Kent became more and more certain of his “destiny” of becoming Superman.

The basic problem is this: Superman is really an alien who is a better version of ourselves, who takes it upon himself to be the moral, virtuous ideal that we cannot be. But in order to be the moral and virtuous ideal, he has all the power in the universe over us. In effect (and I will elaborate on this later) the existence of Superman negates our existence. Superman is the purest expression of our hatred of ourselves.

But first, dramatically speaking, just on a purely technical level, writing something interesting about Superman is hard. Why? Because there is no tension in Superman. Interest comes from tension, and tension from conflict. If Superman is Superman because he is smarter, stronger, morally upright, and incorruptible–basically an immortal god–really, what is so interesting about him then? Where is the conflict? Essentially, there is none, because for Superman to have true conflict, he would have to be weak. Like, really weak. Like, a human being-weak.

A writer has to be damn-near brilliant to write a really good Superman story. I’m sure there are numerous stories written in the Superman mythology that explore these moral tensions. The majority of them, I’m equally sure, are maudlin and boring. The only way to make Superman really interesting is to expose the sore and push the envelope: Superman becomes corrupt. And how to make the incorruptible corrupt? By making the incorruptible itself the source of corruption.

The most interesting Superman stories I’ve read are when Superman becomes a super-villain because of his moral righteousness. The classic Batman graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” features a jingoist Superman in a Reaganesque-cum-dictatorship America who serves as the President’s puppet in a war against Russia; this sets up an inevitable final conflict with Batman, the epitome of rebel. Frank Miller, the writer, at that inevitable final conflict between Superman and Batman, softened and complicated Superman’s formerly one-dimensional jingoism by having Superman explain that if he didn’t become the President’s puppet, the President would have killed off all the heros such as Batman and Green Arrow. But really, when you think about it, if Superman is now willing to wage war on behalf of America, he could deal with the moral complication of removing from office a disgusting lech who is able to manipulate Superman’s inner arrogance that lies underneath his moral superiority. But this duality is the very definition of hypocrisy. Miller’s genius was in using Superman’s moralistic rationalizations against him.

The other graphic novel depiction of Superman that got it right was again a darker version of Superman–or more “red”. “Red Son” depicts Superman if Superman fell to Earth and landed in Russia instead of America. He becomes corrupted into the Soviet ideology and becomes the savior of Earth–by becoming essentially its “benevolent” dictator-god. Again the subtle and clever move on part of the writer was to use Superman’s supposedly god-like morality and question it, to show how it can be corrupted. The graphic novel was brilliant in other ways as well, such as using the conflict between the brilliant Lex Luthor and the superpower of Superman as a means to explore themes of capitalism vs. communism, mind vs. body, freedom vs. safety, and ultimately evolution, time, and the endless circle of birth and death.

But these are brilliant writers who are working with really bad clay. Superman itself as a comic book character is, when you think about it, really horrendous. A god-like deity who catches bad guys but, with his god-like power, never actually changes the Earth? The tension is as apparent as a pulsating boil. And you realize that the tension of Superman isn’t in himself: it’s between him and us mere mortals. Because inherently, a character like Superman can only evoke reactions on the extreme ends of the spectrum: worship and idolatry (because he is so powerful he may as well be a god), or hatred and revulsion (because of a) his power, and b) the inherent message of Superman is that we as human beings will *never* be like Superman; we will never evolve, we will never be better than what we are, for it takes an alien to watch us and protect us from each other).

The final subtle sub-theme of Superman is the very exploration of what God means to us: that we need something non-human and alien to protect us from ourselves; that we are children that will never grow up, will never mature, will never learn from our mistakes, and will, indeed, inevitably destroy ourselves. The very existence of Superman showcases to ourselves the failure of history to indeed *not* repeat itself. Superman is the expression of our mistrust of ourselves, our self-hatred; the epitome of our insecurity. He is everything that we want to be–immortal, indestructible–with the added ability to temper the possible negative uses of that power by himself–resulting in super-morality. Who watches the ultimate Watchman? He himself does. He is Plato’s philosopher-king. He is Plato’s Perfect version of humanity–which is ironic, considering again, he isn’t even human.

But the interesting thing is, because any ability to dramatize such a character would inevitably result in Apocalypse, there can really be no tampering with Superman in a moral sense without some mighty one-off exploration of such a doomsday-scenario: Superman becomes the world dictator; Superman starts going insane and using human heads for soccer games. Cue graphic novel that’s a one-off. Oh, that writer is really great in depicting Superman in that one-off, imaginary, alternate-world scenario. Back to normal, safe comic book storylines where he admonishes a child who forgot to bring back his overdue library book!

My overall point is this: the contentious and ambitious statement that any comic book theme–indeed, the purpose of “comic books” in the first place–deals in the conflict between morality and power. Of course, lots of stories–indeed, probably all of them–deal with a remarkably similar theme. So what makes comic book heroes different? It is the underlying desire on part of the writer/artist to render a character who wants to fundamentally change the world, and discovering the impossibility of doing so. Hence the devolution of comic-book stories into so much fight-of-the-week. And Superman, just as he is super in all things human, is super as well in this comic-book instance: the perfect comic-book epitome of a character who has all the power in the world, and the inability to actually use it.

It makes you wonder if that is an attitude we have towards God. One can argue that Jesus is essentially the first comic-book hero. If Jesus is an alien, it would sure explain a lot.

How to teach your actor to cry

Working with actors is always the biggest challenge for me as a filmmaker — that and locations, and money, and the lost thousands of hours of time, and making sure everyone is working together, and bitchy creative types plus sullen and lazy volunteer crew — but working with actors is probably the most important thing. A film that’s beautifully well-shot, with a fantastic script, but shitty actors will be a shitty movie, as opposed to a film that’s horribly shot, with a horrible script, and fantastic actors–which will be still a shitty film, but a less shittier one.

These are some observations I’ve made about actors in my experience so far.

Mistake 1: Actors are fragile birds who need to be nurtured.

One erroneous approach to working with actors is somehow thinking that they’re like horses, and they need to be horse-whispered somehow; like their egos are fragile and if you say the wrong thing, they will crack and spend the next ten years of their life in an asylum laced in a straight-jacket. This view of actors is based on a sound principle but extrapolated to a ridiculous extreme. The sound principle is, don’t treat anyone working with you like crap. Don’t yell, don’t scream, don’t get frustrated because your actor isn’t giving you what you need. These problems are related to the next things I will refer to, which is a lack of preparation; but the point is, don’t buy into the stereotype that actors need to be treated with velvet gloves. Be honest. Don’t be brutal or cruel or sad or mitigative; just be honest. If they’re professionals, or at least have aspirations to be, they expect critique and feedback about the job they’re doing. That’s how they become better. And they don’t need to be manipulated; like in order to cry, they don’t need to be emotionally battered with memories of their dead dog Mr. Miggles that somehow got strangled up on the clothesline while jumping off the outhouse shed while chasing the cat Mrs. Miggles. Aside from the shudder of xeno-racial marriage, what actors need are the tools to get to the place they need to be in, and that’s not manipulation, that’s guidance.

Mistake 2: Not preparing or rehearsing

I’d say this one is a biggie. Going into a shoot not rehearsing is a recipe for mediocrity. And it’s the simplest thing to do, and also the one that pays off the biggest rewards, on top of it being the cheapest thing as well. It’s superb value and if you shoot your script with a 20 year old camcorder and a tape recorder microphone, you can at least be assured you are going to get some good acting and something that will be mesmerizing. People are a lot more forgiving about technical bullshit than you’d think. Actually, people don’t really care about that shit at all. That’s why a good storyteller with nothing but a grizzled voice and expressive eyes and a kickass story can mesmerize people as opposed to a 200 million dollar piece of sewer flotsam like G.I. Joe.

If you don’t rehearse or prepare, you will also be frustrated with your actor’s performance; but it’s not the actor’s fault. It’s yours.  So don’t be a soggy mare: prepare.

Mistake 3: Every actor is a unique snowflake and they need to be treated differently

No, they don’t. This kind of wrong approach is similar to the “horse-whisperer” approach to directing actors, and it’s built again on the wrong premise that in order to get people to do what you want, they need to be manipulated. If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you prick me, do I not get irate and attempt to throttle you with the nearest object to me at that precise moment, which is a spatula? If you prick me, do I not immediately demand my juice and cookie because the most rational reason why you’d be pricking me is because I’m donating blood and I’m starting to get faint?

The point is, attempting to somehow psychologically analyze an actor in order to understand why precisely they’re being a dumbass about a scene is a waste of time and effort and is similarily dumbass-worthy. People aren’t fundamentally different and that’s why 99% of humanity can watch a show and at the very least know what the frak is going on. Whether they actually enjoy it or not is when we get into the unique snowflake theme of life. But in regards to basic acting ability, everyone is the same and they speak and understand the same language of acting.

Mistake 4: Acting is all about psychological analysis or objective interpretation

This was a hangup I had for a long time and I didn’t quite understand why some actors I worked with just didn’t get a scene when I’d give them directions using exercises like articulating goals, needs and wants. Some actors, even after going through all the acting exercises I could throw at them, would still be pretty fucking stupid and just not get it. Why didn’t they get it? I would constantly wonder. Well, because they simply sucked, and there wouldn’t be anything I could do to change them. Well, I shouldn’t simply say “they sucked.” Which goes into my next point.

Mistake 5: Everyone can act if given enough time and direction to prepare

No, they can’t. This is something that took me the longest to realize, because frankly I believe in meritocracy and that with enough elbow grease, you can stick your arm into any orifice, however small. Acting is about the combination of attitude, vulnerability, and imaginative smarts. A good acting attitude dictates that an actor will do anything to prepare for a role, thus demonstrating an ability to absorb the details and nuances that are so important to a good performance. However, if an actor isn’t willing to open his or her “heart” to an audience, to let the audience “in” — that is, be willing to forgo his ego for the sake of the character — then an infinite amount of preparation and research won’t matter. Indeed, preparation for the beginning actor is probably mostly about letting go of the fear of being judged. Actors who are giving a stilted or “blocked” performance are thinking too much in their head, and that thinking has everything to do with the fear of how they are being perceived. A good actor just goes with the flow and thinks with their heart-brain. Yes, it’s an actual organ.

But even having a “heart-brain” isn’t enough. I’ve seen lots of actors willing to do everything and anything–get naked, run around with a dildo on their head, etc.–to get over their fear, plus doing the necessary research. But is that enough to portray a character realistically? No. The final part is actually becoming the character, and that means letting go of the ego of thinking you’re a kickass actor who can portray anyone and anything. This is part of having a good actor attitude as well. When I see someone who performs with verve and heart, I see someone who is talented, but their performance is overwhelmed by the stench of their fucking ego. The arrogance bleeds through and you can tell they delight in the ability to shock their viewer; and indeed, that’s what motivates these particular actors to act in the first place. It isn’t to entertain their audience that they act; acting is a method of controlling them. While control is certainly a factor in entertaining an audience, a good actor is someone who is able to give of themselves fully. An S&M sex worker may fully delight her client, but great sex basically comes down to giving of your heart to a loved one who reciprocates fully and honestly in response.

Mistake 6: An actor always listens to a director

Nope, they don’t. Some actors believe they’re great actors and will not listen to anything you have to say, especially if it smacks of a critique. These actors are not in the game to act. One of the difficulties at first when casting that I had was learning to filter the wannabes from the real deals. It’s hard but not impossible to do, and it will result in better productions all around. The drama deserves to be on the screen, not on the set.

Granted, maybe you want to work with an actor who is giving you attitude because you actually believe they’re awesome and perfect for your film. So you think, well I’ll put up with it for a while and maybe it’ll go away. Or, I’ll have a nice little chat and they’ll do a 180 in attitude. Nope. If an actor is giving you attitude, they’re basically scared of being judged and this is one of the defense mechanisms they have to protect their ego. At the end of the day, though, you have to ask yourself if this kind of actor and his or her attitude is working for the good of the film, or himself. And the obvious answer is they’re only thinking of themselves. So tell them to move along and maybe one day they’ll realize how bratty they’re being.

That being said, sometimes an actor has attitude because they worked with a shitty director who yelled at them, threw temper tantrums, walked around in their tighty-whiteys whilst combing their leg hair with a toothbrush. I can safely say this scenario, however far-fetched, could have its true moments. However, a good actor will recognize a good director. And by “good”, I mean everyone on set–right from the crew to the actors to the director and producer–puts the good of the story and the film as their first priority. Why should you accept anything less? Don’t. Drop, rinse and audition until you find the right talent for your work. Because who wants to half-ass the things that will make or break your film?

Mistake 7: With enough preparation and rehearsals, actors will deliver come shooting day

Wow, did I have fun with this one. I’ve had actors who were awesome during rehearsals. Come shooting day: choked. So the question I had to ask myself was: why? The most obvious answer was: as much as the actors seemed prepared, they weren’t. The actors I had for this particular shoot didn’t even know their lines. But that’s not their fault: it was mine.

The most basic aspect of preparation for actors is to know their lines. If actors don’t know their lines, they–and you–are screwed. We are all screwed because any good performance comes from a place of being automatic in the places that need to be automatic, and responsive in the places that need to be responsive. For example, think about an actor being told to move from one part of the room to another. An actor who was being too objective would start analysing and focusing on his actual movement when in real life, who the fuck does that? Anyone who does that in real life is immediately scented out as being inauthentic, dishonest, fake. Anything we do in real life that is automatic should be done as automatic by the actor. Anything that is responsive–that is, having a conversation for instance–should be responsive. If you ask an actor if he would like an apple, he should reply that sure, he loves apples, give him a barrel-full, or that no, he doesn’t like apples and he doesn’t like apple-givers, and whips out a spatula and starts beating you with it. Just like in real life. The only difference is the actor is channeling these responses through consideration of what his character would or would not do. And that just requires imagination and flights of fancy.

Overall point: a good director doesn’t teach his actor to cry

That’s right. A good director isn’t a teacher, period. A good director is a mirror first, and a tweaker second. A good actor knows when he or she isn’t doing a good performance, just like when you make your pitch to the banker to get a loan, you know after the fact to a certain correct degree of probability if you are going to get it or not, if you “sold” it. The thing with good actors is they need someone to let them know to what degree their performance is to be corrected, or in what direction they are to be guided. Too much, too little. This way, that way. While I’ve heard the most horrible mantra a beginning director can say is “more blah”, the sad fact is, if you don’t give some kind of quantitative direction, an actor won’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. Think of it as a volume knob. A volume knob is pointless if the radio isn’t even on. “More blah” is a horrible directing tool on its own, but in combination with other directing tools, it is a necessity.

A shitty actor, or a beginning one, will not absorb any teaching you have to give them, because they don’t have the process in place to even make sense of your directions. They are thinking too much about their ego. The only thing you as a director can do at this point is to guide them to a place where they understand that acting is an exercise and exploration in freedom, not an opportunity to be judged. As soon as they get to that place, they can allow their more intuitive instincts to take over when it comes to a role. Because those instincts are always there. We act every day. The only difference is we understand and accept in every day life that we are being judged, and make our behavior in response to it habitual and instinctual. When it comes to acting, however, we are again pointed out explicitly that that judgment, that watching, is there. So when you’re working with a new or shitty actor, you are basically letting them know it’s ok to accept the judgment of the viewer and suppress it again in order to go about the necessary task of living. In that sense, acting is living, and living is acting.