McLuhan Radio Chatter

M. McLuhan


After listening to one of my recent radio appearances, the cartoonist Ben Towie generously tweeted, “Jeet Heer could talk about a ham sandwich for an hour and it’d be interesting.” I’m not sure that “Jeet Heer chats about sandwich meats” would make for a commercially successfully program or not. For those who want to listen to me discuss more substantial things might want to go to:

1. This hour long documentary about Marshall McLuhan which just aired on the ABC network in Australia. I’m one of several guests who discuss McLuhan’s Catholicism at some length. One mistake worth pointing out: I was wrongly identified by the show as an editor at The Walrus. This is a very substantial radio documentary and highly recommended if you have any interest in McLuhan at all.

2. On the Inkstuds program I and two other guests (the cartoonist Onsmith and the editor/curator Ryan Standfest) talk about the tradition of black humor (in both comics and culture at large) as well as the recent anthology Black Eye. You can listen to it here.


What’s Whit Stillman Been Up To?

A scene from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan


First Things is not, normally at least, a magazine you’d turn to for astute cultural coverage, or indeed astute coverage of anything else. The vast majority of the magazine is given over to theological mumbo-jumbo and right-wing flackery. But by some miracle last year they published a wonderful article by Mara Altman about Whit Stillman, the excellent although very unprolific film director. You can read the article here.

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People, shooting people

One of the great benefits of the Internet is the ability it gives creative people to communicate with and support each other, by sharing techniques and providing feedback on work they’ve offered up for review. One of the great benefits of the Internet for the rest of us is that it allows us to see and enjoy their work. For fans of independent film, Shooting People is a must-visit. Launched in 1998 (the same year in which Jesse Ventura got elected governor of Minnesota and Viagra was approved by the FDA, if that gives you a better sense of just how far back that was), S.P. ran on an entirely volunteer basis for its first four years. It now boasts a community of more than 37,000 U.S. and U.K. filmmakers who each pay only $40 a year for a range of services including DVD distribution, casting, and crewing — and more importantly, for the chance to meet and help others like themselves.

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Room without a view

It won. This narrow, simplistic, disappointing little film won the Oscar.

No, I’m not shocked. Nor am I disappointed with the Academy — though it has been on an admirably strong run in this century (No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire), this is also the group that elevated both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic to the pantheon. But I am annoyed that such a flawed movie has managed to achieve this amount of acclaim, and that The Hurt Locker is, even more gratingly, regarded now as an “important” film. It is not important – not in the way, at least, that great works of art (cinema included) are capable of being.

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Avatar and the Way We Live Now

James Cameron amid his mechanical marvels.

Avatar has elicited a great deal of political commentary, much of it of the extremely simpleminded “Hollywood is too liberal” variety. The novelist John Crowley and the commentators on his blog have the most sophisticated take noting: that the movie rehashes many familiar tropes from the history of European/First Nations contact, particularly the myth of Pocohantas; the it leans heavily also on New Wave science fiction, particularly Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Word For World is Forest”; that the most troubling aspect of the movie is that it regurgitates the myth of the white saviour; and that the story is deliberately simpleminded so that the audience can focus their attention on what really matters. All true enough. (As a side-side note, an interesting essay could be written about filmmaker James Cameron and New Wave science fiction, which he clearly read a lot of in the 1970s. Many of his movies, notably the first two Terminator films, owe a great deal to New Wave science fiction).

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Chatting About Culture With Coren

Portman: would you have preferred a picture of Coren?

Michael Coren is a Canadian journalist, a cultural conservative whose every sentence is inflicted with a tangy cockney undergrowl. Aside from much columnizing, he has a daily talk show. Every once and awhile, I go on the show as part of his regular “arts panel”. You can see the show I most recently appeared on  here.

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Sherlock Holmes As James Bond

Downey's macho Holmes.

Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is, of course, an irreverent, frothy remake of a venerable classic. The tricky thing is that the famous work being refashioned is not, as one might too quickly assume based on the title, the famous detective stories of Arthur Conan Doyle but rather the spy movies that grew out of Ian Fleming’s thrillers. The new Sherlock Holmes is for all intents and purposes James Bond with a new name and sent back into late Victorian England. As in the Bond movies, we have the handsome fighting trim hero, many clever gadgets, an aristocratic villain intent on global conquest (in this case the blackguard has the very Bondian name of Lord Blackwood), an elaborate and implausible plot to effect said global conquest, a burly hard-to-kill henchman (in the Bond movies the character is sometimes called Oddjob or Jaws, here he goes by the name Dredger), and an underlying hint of sado-masochism.

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Slaughter Nick for President

The people of Serbia have passionately embraced an out-of-work Canadian actor who once starred in an obscure TV show called Tropical Heat. A knock-off of Magnum P.I., Tropical Heat revolved around hero Nick Slaughter, and was broadcast in Serbia during the tumultuous final days of the Milosevic regime. The actor who played Slaughter, Rob Stewart, recently returned to Serbia to film a documentary about the show’s unlikely popularity and received a hero’s welcome:


The anticipation in Serbia had been building since March, when it was leaked to the press that Stewart would perform with a Serbian punk band at its 20th-anniversary concert. “It broke out all over the papers that Nick Slaughter was coming to Serbia,” says Stewart. “It was overwhelming.”

Stewart’s Serbian host, prominent political activist Srdja Popovic – whom Stewart had contacted through Facebook – says that after a national newspaper published a photo of him with Stewart, “within 15 minutes, I got 300 calls – everybody asking, ‘Will you introduce me to Nick Slaughter?’ and ‘I want a photo with Nick Slaughter.’ I couldn’t live my normal life.” . . . . 

What baffled the filmmakers were the emotional outpourings they found during their visit – what the Serbian newspapers dubbed Slaughtermania. “These huge guys with tears in their eyes saying, ‘You’re my hero,’” says Stewart. “It was the emotional context for these people: what they went through in the 1990s while this became their favourite show.

The whole hilarious story, complete with a guest appearance by Canada’s ambassador to Serbia, is here

Noblesse Oblige from Japan Tobacco














The Wall Street Journal has just translated from Japanese a hilarious interview with Hiroshi Kimura, ostensibly Japan Tobacco Inc.’s president and chief executive. Either we are being had by another Sascha Baron Cohen character, or the translator is a  wicked prankster. This is high comedy: 

… Mr. Kimura has a law degree from Kyoto University and joined the company in 1976 when it was still a government domestic monopoly called Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp. “I wanted to work for an international firm, and so Japan Tobacco initially wasn’t within my top 10 choices, but it helped that I liked tobacco,” said Mr. Kimura, who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.

WSJ: What did you learn from your first job?

Mr. Kimura: … When I first joined I learned from a senior the [French] phrase noblesse oblige, which I understood to mean not shirking the responsibilities of your position. In my early days I was given many challenging tasks to stretch my abilities, which gave me the foundation to develop into the manager I am today.

WSJ: Who gave you the best business advice?

Mr. Kimura: Our customers. As a cigarette company, similar to makers of food or medicine, our products are consumed by our customers and have a direct impact on their lives. To meet their high expectations, we have to be constantly aware of the market pulse and make trusted and preferred products.

Life, the state, and a pack of Kents

Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)
Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)

At the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days, the camera lingers on a goldfish in a square bowl. The fish seems to be trying to escape, not by jumping out, but by pushing directly against the glass, its tail thrusting spiritedly but without result.

It is an effective if too obvious metaphor for Romanian society under the latter days of communist strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu; the action here takes place in 1987, two years before the dictator’s fall. As the camera pulls back, we see that the bowl rests on a fold-out table in the dorm room of two female students at a regional technical college. The women are preparing for a trip of some kind. Gabita is packing a bag nervously, while Otilia ventures up and down the halls of the dorm, attempting to buy a pack of Kent cigarettes from a student-run black market dispensary two doors down, and purchasing soap for her friend to add to her baggage.

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