Good afternoon, and welcome to a functional committee: the Senate committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce, to be precise, which is about to hear from a real live Canadian cultural icon: David Cronenberg, director of Naked Lunch, Crash, and all sorts of other movies that leave one feeling dazzled, but in an uncomfortable way. He’s not actually here yet—when I was walking into the building, though, I passed a phalanx of cameras, so I suspect he may have been temporarily waylaid by the press. It’s so rare that we have a genuine celebrity in our midst; we get all starry-eyed and start having delusions of paparazzidom.
He’s here! “Good afternoon, Mr. Cronenberg,” says the chair. He’s probably been practicing that all week. After the usual smile for the cameras routine—and my, what a lot of cameras there are—the chair taps the gavel, and the meeting is officially underway. The chair, David Angus, welcomes senators, witnesses, the audience—on the web, on CPAC, everywhere—and introduces the whole Senate gang to Cronenberg, who smiles in a bemused, yet pleasant way. This must be the strangest experience for him—and I realize the inherent irony of saying that about a man who pretty much sets the standard as far as strange.
Cronenberg has an opening statement, but wait, breaking news: one of the Liberals, Yoine Goldstein, has an urgent point of order! Apparently, the government—or, at least, the Conservatives on the committee—tried to arrange it so the meeting wouldn’t be televised—in effect, he suggests, to censor a hearing on censorship. He thinks the people of Canada deserve to know just who came up with this dastardly scheme; he demands that the chair step aside for the duration of the meeting.
Oh, come on, is the gist of the response by Senator David Tkachuk—not having TV is not censorship; there are reporters (that’s us!) and the public is welcome to attend. A rousing debate over the nature of censorship breaks out; the chair is in a fit of pique, senators are starting to heckle each other from across the table, and throughout it all, Cronenberg is twinkling. Yes, twinkling. I’m sorry if that destroys his reputation as an agent of creepy darkness, but there it is.
The chair is explaining—pretty convincingly, I have to say—that he had nothing to do with the almost-not-televised nature of today’s hearing; he calls it a “gross misrepresentation” of the facts, and really seems quite offended.
Oh, it gets worse. The chair acknowledges that there are a number of outstanding issues as far as committee relations, but begs his colleagues to put off dealing with them ’til later—say, when an award-winning director who could have been at Cannes rather than here isn’t waiting patiently to testify.
I can’t believe they’re going to spend half the meeting bickering over procedure. Senator—is that Eyton or Moore? The press table is very unfortunately situated, as far as reading nameplates; I really am guessing most of the time. I could stand up and crane my neck around, but that might alarm the senators, or worse yet, David Cronenberg.
Okay, peace broke out, unexpectedly. Angus reboots the meeting, and quips, “Welcome to the Senate,” to the witness—and general guffaws (for these are, of course, senators) from the rest of the committee.
With that, Cronenberg takes over the floor. He doesn’t understand, fundamentally, why these changes are necessary; there has never been a criminal film, a pornographic film, an illegal film made with government money, as far as he knows, so why change the rules now?
Those in the film industry have to be “tough,” he says. They have to have their feet on the ground, and the people upset by this are telling the committee something that is real, something that matters.
Interestingly, he gives the benefit of the doubt to the government in its initial attempt to draft the rules; he suggests that it was an unintended consequence, and that the framers simply didn’t realize what the consequences could be.
Cronenberg notes that he has, in fact, been censored before—by the Ontario Film Board, which at the time could put you in jail for putting back the bits that were expunged from your movie by the censors. Not just you, even, but the projectionist as well. His first film that was censored was The Brood—a science-fiction film, a horror film—and he then becomes the first witness in Parliamentary history to voice the words “sort of … bite the placenta” in describing exactly what was taken out of his film. When he asked why the board censored that bit—which wasn’t sexual, overly violent, racist, classist, you name it—the censor, a man named Belcher, told him, simply, because it was “repulsive.” Not that “repulsive” is codified in the law, he notes—it was simply the judgment, the personal taste, of one man.
Will Minister Verner watch every movie, every television show, to determine whether it meets the guidelines, he wonders. Will there be a travelling roadshow (or not-show, really) that will crisscross the country, deciding whether to suppress or support any given production?
The tax refund, he notes, was designed to be based on labour costs; it was meant to be “really quite neutral”—like a rebate for lumber, but only if the government knows what you plan to do with it, so no refund if you plan to use it to make a baseball bat to kill someone.
He notes that the Royal Bank has already told the committee that the change may make it more wary about extending loans to producers; it is simply a matter of risk, and the film business is risky enough as it is.
He has notes, y’all! He’s checking them, and muttering to himself: “Oh yes … hmmm … Yes.” He notes that Verner has said that Eastern Promises, his latest film, is “mainstream”—a description he takes with equal parts amusement and scepticism—so it wouldn’t be affected, but what about Crash? More to the point, what about the fact that Crash was critically acclaimed, and won a special award at Cannes—none of which would have happened before the decision on providing the rebate would have been made. In other words, it’s easy to say that a film wouldn’t be affected by the change after it was released to critical acclaim, but what about before all that acclaim starts pouring in? (And what about movies that aren’t actually that good, but still deserve to be made? That was me, not Cronenberg, for the record.)
Cronenberg has definitely done his homework on Verner—he’s going through a list of her more… inexplicable quotes on C-10. Apparently, American movies with “big budgets” can’t be pornography, according to the minister. Basically, he thinks the provision should be removed, period—not amended, just disappeared.
Question time! First up, David Tkachuk—a Conservative—who politely disagrees with his comparison of artists to frogs (highly susceptible to otherwise subtle changes in the ecosystem), and wonders whether Cronenberg agrees that it’s odd that no one in the industry noticed before it appeared on the front page of a newspaper. (Go, Globe and Mail!)
“So what,” Cronenberg replies, equally politely. He doesn’t see why it matters—the not noticing it part. “It’s here now.” He points out that the provision did just “slip by” and admits that he didn’t know about it, but if—as the minister has said—it means that films will be rejected (albeit only a “handful,” according to Verner), then that makes this new, and important.
“It’s been buried up until now—it was a skeleton in the closet,” says Cronenberg, who is adorably incapable of not dropping the odd morbid metaphor. “Someone opened the door, and now the skeleton is there.”
Senator Eyton puts it in context: the regime was there, and legally in place, but only two films were considered “contrary to public policy” at the time. Francis Fox is fed up: the facts, he suggests, contradict Tkachuk’s oh-what-are-we-all-getting-so-fussed-about argument. A testy Tkachuk defends his minister, and continues to monopolize the rapidly dwindling question time; Cronenberg takes issue with the senator’s reference to “wise” use of taxpayer money; pornography, he points out, reasonably, makes lots of money, which could make it a wise use thereof. The fact remains that the Royal Bank has told the committee that it won’t fund Canadian film, and that’s the issue.
A senator I’ve never heard of—Biron—wants to talk economics; how would this bill affect the film business as a business? Eventually, Cronenberg suggests, self-censorship would take hold. The Royal Bank, for instance, might decide only to fund children’s cartoons, but anything beyond that, “you would not find funds for in this country.” You don’t have to be an extreme filmmaker to find yourself being censored, he notes. Things that you would never think would be censored are considered offensive.
It was the Canada Council, he tells the committee, that kept him in Canada. If not for that support, he would be an American director today, not a Canadian director—and it would have been “disastrous” for him, creatively.
Okay, I have to give the biggest shoutout ever to the person who just passed me a sheet of notepaper with a map of the Senate table neatly drawn on it. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Apparently, Shivers—one of his earlier films—was so controversial that the fact that it got government funding actually came up in the House of Commons; it became the first film funded by the Canadian Film Development Fund to make all that money back. “These are not easy films,” he says. “These are controversial films.” He and Atom Egoyan put Canada in the forefront, but any one of either of this films could be denied funding by a very specific person. Senator Tommy Banks is nodding wildly in agreement.
Mac Harb points out that regulations usually come after a law becomes law, which means Tkachuk may have inadvertently misled the witness earlier when he suggested there were already rules in place. He wonders if this could eventually go to court on constitutional grounds—freedom of expression—which gives Cronenberg the opportunity to explain why this is a form of censorship: if there is no other source of funding but public funding, and that is cut off, the result is censorship.
The US, he notes—more specifically, Hollywood, of course—is a “monster” as far as the film world; no other country has anywhere near the money needed to make an Iron Man.
Francis Fox, who has been fuming at the other end of the table since his last outburst, notes that he doesn’t care whether the law had its origins with a Liberal or a Conservative government, and—okay, a senator’s cell phone just went off, and it sounds like his teenage daughter hijacked his ringtone. That was distracting. Anyway, back to Cronenberg, who—I’m glad to say—is spending longer here than scheduled.
Francis Fox can’t get past the use of the phrase “public policy” as a criteria for rejection; to him, that raises the spectre of a film that contravenes ministerial statement, or a departmental white paper. He asks whether the clause could be rescued by defining “contrary to public policy” as explicitly contravening the criminal code. That would be a bit better, Cronenberg says, but really, why bring in a new law at all? What’s the pressing need?
Senator Massicotte also seems to want to come up with a compromise of some sort. Going back to The Brood, he says, one of the scenes cut out by his censor was of the mutilation of an external organ that he invented. How would he be able to predict that would be deemed contrary to public policy?
There is always “discretion” involved in these decisions, points out Messicotte. Why not let Ottawa develop a policy that has at least a little bit more certainty, in terms of what would or wouldn’t be acceptable? Cronenberg is unwowed by that idea.
I should note that people keep skulking into the room from outside to stargaze at the witness. I think the staffers have a rotation rule so that anyone who wants to catch a bit of Cronenberg in action can fill a seat for a bit.
Alas, the witness has to flee in just ten minutes – he has a plane to catch, apparently – and there are seven more names on the list. “I’ll talk fast,” promises Cronenberg, who really seems like a very nice man.
Trevor Eyton is up again; he asks whether, if the minister could meet with stakeholders during the twelve months before the rule comes into effect – could he support that? No, he can’t say that he would, Cronenberg admits. There’s no way of knowing what the guidelines would be; anything but the Criminal Code is simply too slippery. Slippery like a bitten placenta of an alien surrogate. It’s just not that easy to determine — it’s not lumber. Not to mention the fact that it wasn’t an issue for forty years.
The one year delay, he says, might have been meant to be reassuring for the industry, but would do exactly the opposite; it would be a sword of Damocles over the head of every Canadian film maker.
Pierrette Ringuette-Maltais also wonders whether there’s any way to fix the bill, or at least make it more explicit – no pun intended – as far as not investing in porn, but again, Cronenberg doesn’t see how that would work. What would the harm be of just taking out the clause, he wonders.
We’re into the lightning round: Senator Goldstein wonders if there is anyone in the film industry that supports the clause – anyone, anywhere? No. This is “totalitarian,” says Cronenberg. It’s what you’d expect in Beijing.
Finally, Tommy Banks, who will – I think – wrap this up; he thinks it’s time to come up with a policy that deals purely with labour – resources – and not content; the tax credits wouldn’t apply to news programs, sports, etc., but everything else would be eligible. Does he – Cronenberg – still rely on the tax credit? Yes, the director says, he does — not for some recent productions, like the History of Violence, but Spider, for instance. That was a difficult movie to make, and required the funding of Telefund, and the tax credit. Probably eighty percent of the films he’s made couldn’t have been done without without it.
Okay, now we’re at the final question: it is Mira Spivak, who is just delighted to be here; she even has a preamble! She calls this a bill in search of a problem to solve, goes on a mini-tear about other controversial – to her – investments, like the oilsands or CANDU reactors, and predicts that there would still be “near pornography’ if it passed. Basically, she wants to know if this would be “dangerous” to Canadian culture. Yes, it would, he replies.
And that appears to be that:there is much shaking of hands and clapping of backs, although I’m too shy to do either. Damn shyness.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.