Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sticks and stones

The American Film Institute hogged another 3 hours of network television time last night to countdown a bunch more self-important films in a self-important industry dominated by a self-important country. Last night's obsession was 10 genre-based Top 10 lists of really, really great movies. Rah, rah America, mom, 'n apple pie. Now, once and for all, we know what the top Sci-Fi movie of all time is. How did we ever live without the knowing? No doubt like apes dancing around an obelisk. Oooooo, and who would've doubted Raging Bull as the number 1 contenda for best sports movie evah? My poor Bull Durham-y heart.

Gack, I shouldn't be so cynical about these lists. I love movies: those from America and those from beyond. I don't even mind the pseudo-drama created by countdown lists. I LIVED my teen years debating Q107's top rock albums/singles OF ALL TIME, lists that dominated the radio and my family's conversation each New Year's Day. Me-then-Mad would've wrestled you to the ground if you doubted the supremacy of Dark Side of the Moon for even a second.

No I don't hate movies and lists. What I hate is the friggin' Hollywood engine that drives film supremacy at the expense of other artistic genres. Neither my local paper nor the local TV news offers any arts reporting anymore. It's all syndicated feeds designed to sell movies and the star engine behind them. Movies aren't even reviewed; some slick sounding guy simply describes the plot in a wormy way designed to make you rip your mouth open on the hook. Then the American Film Institute comes along and, essentially, buys a three-hour movie commercial and passes it off as television programming. Grrr.

Late last week, a former teacher and mentor of mine passed away at the age of 81. By the time I landed in his Canadian Literature class in 1987, James Reaney was already as crazy as a loon. He would block the door with a chair precisely at the stroke of 2 so that any late comers would be humiliated upon entering the room. He would, out of the blue, draw maps of South-Western Ontario on the blackboard and then quiz us as to the names of all the counties. "You must know the place you stand in," he would say. He would point out the window and woe betide you if you couldn't identify the species of tree he was pointing at. Once, he gave us an unidentified sight poem to analyze and told us that the result would be worth 10% of our grade. A week later he handed back the assignments. We had all failed. "I should know," he quipped. "I wrote the poem."

It didn't matter how off he sometimes seemed in class. Rumour had it he didn't cope well around the time of year that his 12-year-old son had died. Truth was, he rarely coped well in class. That didn't mean he wasn't inspirational. We all saw the spark of genius in him and he made me, for one, want to prove to him that I had a spark as well. At times, he almost made me believe I did.

None of what I've written matters, really. Professor Reaney's class is nothing but a distant memory. What matters is that he wrote a trilogy of plays in the mid-1970s that are, in my opinion, the greatest literary works to have come out of Canada. Too bold a statement? How about if I say they are the greatest plays ever to have been written and produced in Canada. Do you know them? Sticks and Stones, The St. Nicholas Hotel, Wm Donnelly Prop., and Handcuffs. Combined, they are his retelling of the story of the Black Donnellys of Lucan Ontario. The Donnellys were a scrappy Irish Catholic family that ran a stage coach business in direct competition with a Protestant family in rual, Protestant Ontario. They seemed to get into no end of mischief which is why we may never know why a mob of townsfolk stormed their house in February 1880 and murdered 5 members of the family before burning their house.

In Reaney's hands this Ontario gothic tale is pure poetry and movement. The sets in the plays call for little more than ladders and crates. The language dances. The themes are epic pinned to a small landscape. Reaney breathes unison and crescendo into the word ensemble in a way that I've not seen matched elsewhere. This trilogy is critically acknowledged as some of the best and most influential drama to come out of this country. Have you seen any one of them produced?

Most of you will answer no to this question. Damn you, American Film Institute. You're like a big old Protestant lynch mob descending on what I consider sacred.