Merde, as the minister sees it

Which attitude ultimately seems more healthy and likely to encourage improvement—Lindsay Blackett's, or Kirstine Stewart's?

It would not be easy for a Conservative culture minister of Alberta to get a fair shake from the media and his arts-community clientele at the best of times. And this is not, needless to say, the best of times. I’m not going to defend, per se, Lindsay Blackett’s off-the-cuff Wednesday comment at the Banff Television Festival:

I sit here as a government representative for film and television in the province of Alberta and I look at what we produce and if we’re honest with ourselves, why do I produce so much shit? Why do I fund so much crap? Why aren’t broadcasters picking up more Canadian content? It’s because Canadian content isn’t what it should be.

Blackett admits he doesn’t watch much Canadian TV, and judging from the peripheral comments he made in his own defence, it sounds as though he may be unaware that there has been a renaissance in quality and production values. Canada, for example, can now claim to have been the home of several indigenous, watchable situation comedies, which is something we couldn’t say in 1990. Mastery of such an intricate, nuanced format seems to me a rough indicator of artistic progress, in much the same way that having an aerospace industry signals a country’s overall engineering ability.

But Blackett wasn’t talking about Canadian arts generally. He was speaking as somebody who has managerial control of a particular government funding envelope. If you want to pick a fight with him, it seems to me you had better be prepared to demonstrate knowledge of two obvious things. One is the full context of his remark—for which the interested reader had to turn to Sun Media:

After using a four-letter word to describe the quality of some Canadian-made films and TV shows, Culture and Community Spirit Minister Lindsay Blackett said more has to be done to make them better.

And that starts with him.

“I’ll take responsibility here in Alberta,” he said. “We don’t help enough quality scripts get written so they can have quality pitches to go and pitch for a production.”

During a discussion on our country’s TV industry at the Banff World Television Festival, some panellists questioned the quality of Canadian films and TV shows, causing Blackett—sitting in the audience—to wonder aloud, “Why do I fund this s—?”

“It’s a couple of things,” he said. “Our broadcasters, I don’t think, give enough money collectively to Canadian productions versus U.S. productions.”

To change that, Blackett said the provincial government will present new guidelines next week “which will show we’re giving new money and incentive to tell our Alberta stories.”

“And incentive to spend more money on scriptwriting and incentive to have more money spent on mentoring the new people in the industry who come out of school but still need to have the requisite skills on the ground to actually learn their job,” he said.

The money will come from the Alberta Media Fund, said Blackett.

“We’re talking about $880,000 to start with roughly and overall the fund is just under $20 million,” he said.

(Diane Wild, a witness to the scene, offers further observations at her weblog.)

No doubt there’s a very boring argument to be had over how much Alberta is doing overall for film and television, where government support (if any) ought to go, and what form it ought to take. But the attention to scriptwriting displayed here is new, and not obviously irrational. In the past, much of the discussion surrounding the film industry in Alberta has revolved around saving technical jobs by creating a friendly tax environment for Hollywood and other foreign productions. This only promotes “Alberta culture” insofar as artifacts like Unforgiven and Open Range are “Alberta culture”, and with the technical apparatus of filmmaking suddenly subject to Moore’s Law-like downward pricing pressure, one could argue that an ounce of funding for the imaginative side of filmmaking is worth a ton of tax breaks.

The other knowledge that critics ought to be prepared to display is some familiarity with the material Blackett’s department actually funds. I figure you can’t say it’s not crap unless you’ve at least poked it with a stick. Can the indignant Paul Gross, who received $5.5 million from the Alberta taxpayer for Passchendaele, claim intimate familiarity with In a World Created by a Drunken God or Caution: May Contain Nuts or The Last Rites of Ransom Pride? If not, then why is he shooting off his mouth? It would surely be much more sensible for Gross and for like-minded critics to admit that most culture funding inevitably pays for crap—that the arts world is, in fact, a colossal pyramid of crap, inherently necessary to provide the nurturing and elevating environment from which a few items of permanent value might spring.

But that is something the culturati can never admit. Kirstine Stewart, the general manager of CBC’s English television operations, reacted in the Globe to Blackett’s comments by saying “Nobody can ever question the quality of what we do here in Canada, creatively or otherwise.” Surely this is a much more revealing and intriguing comment than Blackett’s. Does she mean that questioning the quality of Canadian television and film is literally impossible? Or just that criticism is inherently objectionable, a malum in se? And at the risk of appearing to take sides, I must ask: which attitude ultimately seems more healthy and likely to encourage improvement—Blackett’s, or Stewart’s?

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