Written by Douglas Williams (under pseudonym Bill Douglas)
Published in NOW Magazine, November 9th, 2000 (slightly abridged)
“Clutching my groceries, I deftly circumvent the spittle.”
I am carrying a bag of groceries along Danforth Avenue on a Saturday afternoon. Ahead, some angry-looking, under-employed, under-educated, decidedly non-entrepreneurial youths spill out of a pool hall and eye me with contempt. With a sneer, one spits on the side walk at mid-point between me and him. Do I perceive the gesture as a laudable act of personal hygiene, or a provocation?
This poor guy has no idea who I am. I‘ve instigated violent acts that would make this shave-head inhale his nose-ring in astonishment: terrorized families with guns and bombs, blown heads off, demanded the injection of lethal doses, literally vaporized others, had a woman stabbed forty times, thrown men through brick walls, beat them with iron bars, encouraged racial violence, engineered a bloody shark attack on a young girl, and, after causing a man to be hit by a speeding car, told my driver to back over the victim’s body a couple of times to make sure he was dead.
You don’t believe me? I have videotapes to prove it. Full colour, with lots of gory detail. But I’m not a gangster nor a mercenary. I am a television drama director.
Oh, I’ve done my share of nicey-nicey stuff – you know – puppet shows and children’s music programs. An occasional documentary. Two light-hearted comedies. But the real thing is the violence. It’s my specialty.
I’m a punk masquerading as an artiste. I am the nerd who never got enough fresh air, the asthmatic who never learned to play football, the wimp who had a life-time of anger and humiliation bottled up inside, the dweeb who spent too much time alone – reading, listening to music, watching TV. I was the only kid in town who would go to a movie twice, maybe more. Now, grown up, my idols are Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Hailed as the greatest directors in America, they have elevated cinematic thug-worship to
￼the status of fascist high art.
Back in film school, in the ‘Sixties, I wore silver shades and black leather. I wasn’t a hippie mystic – my Revelation was the Zapruder footage. We saw our heroes – the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Dr. King – murdered in public, one by one. Television showed the West (including sixty thousand Canadian volunteers) slaughtering the Vietnamese in prime time. At the movies, Sam Peckinpah was Quentin Tarentino with poetry – The Wild Bunch artfully reflected the founding roots of American violence. Of course, I was against the war in Vietnam – a pacifist. But in my special role as burgeoning artist, I dreamed of committing celluloid violence. I’d be a macho guy by association. Like Peckinpah, I would mirror the mayhem – the wars between nations, races, religions, sexes, classes – and throw it back in their faces.
My first real directing job was on a now-forgotten spy drama series for the venerable CBC. Life in that stuffy and parochial institution encouraged – nay, demanded – rebellion from all but the brain-dead: my “subversive” ambition was to make every action sequence as savagely brutal as possible. The “drama” that justified these scenes was just dull mortar. Confident that I was showing “things as they are”, I shot what still stand as the most violent scenes ever produced by the CBC. It was exhilarating. Naturally, in my private life, as befits a sensitive, middle-class, quasi-intellectual, I continued to espouse pacifism.
Then I read Renata Adler on media violence. She said something to the effect that no matter how violent your “anti-war” movie is, no matter how repellently realistic the bloodshed, something in the depiction of horror always whispers a seductive “Yes”… and that the best way to make anti-war films is to show decent people treating each other with dignity and kindness.
Adler had clarified something very important for me. As a result, all I’ve had to do is drop my pacifist pretensions.
I’m comfortable, now, with the fact that I’ve spent my directing career dancing cynically along the continuum that stretches between treacly, liberal sentiment and ultra-violence. I feel, at last, genuine kinship with my current boss – a Canadian producer who has churned out many hundreds of hours of film and television. In response to questions about the abysmal quality of his shows, the power of the medium over which he has considerable discretionary control, and the social effects of the kind of programming he produces, he replies, with a conspiratorial wink, “I don’t smell ‘em – I just sell ‘em!”
A conspiratorial wink… Thus, I don’t confront the Danforth lout. Clutching my groceries, I deftly circumvent the spittle. My boss and I had this guy beat before he crawled out of his mother. Our job’s an ancient and collaborative one, and the money’s good! The carnage will continue on screens big and small: we’ll depict a brutal world where the jungle and its laws lurk outside every door – where only the Queen, the World Bank, corporations, and their police will feel safe. It’s our job: To keep you poor bastards either drowning in soap, cowering in terror, or fighting each other instead of your real enemies. We supply the bad news, and commercials tell you how good it could be.