10 Questions for Gerry Flahive
Gerry Flahive is the creator of a fictional character, Bert Xanadu. You remember, Bert Xanadu? Mayor of Toronto in the early 1970s? Owner of Imperial Six Cinema? And complete figment of Gerry Flahive’s imagination.
Gerry tweets in Bert’s name and some of this work is miraculously good.
@MovieMayor : Ticketed and towed today: Mrs. Eeeni Mosport’s 1961 Ford Spatula, parked inside the lobby of Massey Hall; Mr. Norman Tamblyn’s 1970 Fiat Arrivederci, idling with lewd connotations; a delivery moped from Tip Top Tailors, spewing cordouroy fumes. #TOpoli #TrafficAlert
The internet has encouraged some beautifully wrought world building. Someone armed with only a twitter account or a Youtube channel contrives a character and a world. The work of Kyle Humphrey & Graydon Sheppard (Shit Girls Say) and Bud Caddell (Bud Melman at Sterling Cooper Advertising) come to mind.
I got to know Gerry when he was at the National Film Board and I was at the Royal Ontario Museum. Canadians love to create culture as if from the big guns of a battle ship. It’s regulated, thoroughly mediated, and official. But (or so) they also have a passion for making culture that is unregulated, unmediated and unofficial. (Leora Kornfeld and Nardwaur take a bow.)
The MovieMayor is not only a great example of the second. It’s a running commentary on the first. And for my money, this makes it freeing and slightly vertiginous. Bert Xanadu is reckless, imaginative, unpredictable. He is a Canadian unconstrained by his Canadian-ness, and, heavens, he’s actually in charge of something. Bert is charmingly large and in charge, and more or less out of control…always a compelling combo. Bert is interesting, funny and a little terrifying.
I wanted to find out more about this immensely gifted creation from it’s immensely gifted creator. So I asked him the following questions. The interview quickly turned into a sprawling conversation. (Sprawling? “Prison break” is probably better. What did I expect from Gerry Flahive?)
So first the questions that I had planned to ask.
Mayor Xanada’s answers follow.
There is a video record of this interview and I will attach it to this post when technical issues have been sorted out.
1. Gerry, who is Bert Xanadu in your own words?
2. How did you come to invent him and why?
3. What’s it like to share consciousness with a guy like Bert?
4. Henry Jenkins and our own Sam Ford are doing some interesting work on how communities can use story telling to find and define themselves. How does Bert find and define Toronto, then and now?
5. Why did you put Bert at the intersection of big city politics and Hollywood? And what does it mean for the storytelling?
Y. You don’t have a ton of followers.not nearly enough to honor the greatness that is Bert Xanadu. And we like to think that the digital world is better at finding and publicizing great work than any previous cultural era. How come Bert isn’t more famous?
7. The creative, design and marketing world is now obsessed with story telling and branded content. We are about to see the publication of a book called Storynomics. What has Bert taught you about story telling?
8. Any thoughts on our current preoccupation with branded content?
9. Several of us are working on the Artisanal Economies Project, and, in a perfect world, Bert Xanadu and Bud Melman would count as artisanal efforts who generated financial rewards. They would help someone make a living. Comic book writers, graphic artists have done this. And in the process they have made themselves the “R&D lab” for popular culture. You are working on a book. What are the issues here? Is there a “business model” here that does not interfere, or give someone else the right to interfere, with your creativity? Or do we always have to have a day job?
10. What else?
(The following transcript has been lightly edited by Grant McCracken and Gerry Flahive.)
Grant: [00:02:45] Let’s. So who is Bert Xanadu, in your own words?
Gerry: [00:02:50] Well Bert Xanadu is actually a combination of a couple of people,.some from my own past and some from popular culture and my imagination.. And that was not by, it wasn’t immediately by design but he did seem to come out of my consciousness fully formed. Yeah it was not it was not painful at all actually. So maybe I’d been carrying him around for many years, but the first the first inspiration was that I worked at the Imperial Six, a multiplex cinema that opened in 1973 on a grimy stretch of Yonge St. It actually existed and it was a fantastical cinema palace that was actually very symptomatic of Toronto history. It’s now called the Ed Mirvish theater. But it was built in the 20s as a vaudeville house called the Pantages. So it was this grand 3000 seat jewel, you know one of those kind of theaters. And then in later years it became the Imperial Theater as a cinema, and the last film that played there was The Godfather premiered there and seventy two or so and then it closed for a year and it was converted to the Imperial Six. But they you know it became this sort of very garish 70s six plex which was so unbelievable when I was an usher. I was hired there as a 16 year old usher at the week before it opened. We actually the doors opened without showing movies just so people could come in and look at it. It was remarkable to people that thre could be six movie theaters in one building it seems. So now so much time has passed that it’s been converted back long since been converted back to traditional theater that looks kind of like you know a plastic version of what it was in the 20s. So the Imperial 6 was this, you know, it’s sort of like if you know if the parliament buildings in Ottawa had been the parliament buildings and then briefly a strip club and then been returned to being the parliament buildings you know some years later. like gets it’s this weird invisible thing that was in the middle of it. But the manager there was actually this guy named Phil Traynor, and I found out later that when I was 16 he was about 30 but he seemed like he came from old timey show business. He wore a tuxedo on Saturday nights. He had smoked cigars and he was terrifying. And when I was an usher there it was the early 1970s, so it was the end of the old sort of movie showmen, which which I found incredibly romantic and sort of enticing. Going to a movie people got dressed up, it was a big deal — we had huge lineups around the block. So all of that it was like the last gasp of that old time show business and I got a little glimpse of it so. So Bert Xanadu is part Phil Traynor, part Robert Moses [infamous New York public official who massively tore down and rebuilt much of the city] who was not interested in anybody else’s input in his huge ideas about restaging the city. You know he’s just driven to to do what he wants. He’s part , if you remember, Fred Mertz who was the neighbour on I Love Lucy, that sort of a rascally guy with very high waisted pants who was also aggressively bald. The actor who played him, William Frawley, was a sort of C-level gangster or kind of irascible store owner or something always on the sly or on the slow boil — always on the verge of exploding in anger. But in Bert’s mind he is Errol Flynn. Af little known fact for Bert Xanadu fans: Bert was not first called Bert Xanadu — my first name for him was Bert Wemp, because that was an actual name of a mayor in Toronto in the 1920s. And I just thought it was the perfect Toronto name: Bert Wemp. And so I tweeted as Bert Wemp for a while until I was contacted by Bert Wemp’s grandson, who was quite offended that I was using misusing his grandfather’s name so I you know I thought how can I combine the mundane parts of Anglo Canadian culture and Hollywood. So Bert Xanadu of course from Citizen Kane.
Grant: [00:08:04] Did you think, “Listen, I need a character” or did the character force himself into consciousness.
Gerry: [00:08:15] And you know it it was more of an opportunity. And it’s interesting I was thinking about some of your questions about how culture or sort of micro cultural creations. You know, whatever his thoughts about himself , Bert is not a full opera on his own. I mean he’s just this sort of minor character, I sometimes think of him as like the 28th character in the tail credits of Citizen Kane or something. So to invent that character without you know anything around it yet is kind of exhilarating in a way. I mean you can either be yourself on Twitter or you can create a character on Twitter or create a kind of “I’m going to pretend I’m Donald Trump’s wig and that’s a character and I’m just going to say funny things”. But I guess I felt from the start that you know Bert actually existed in a world that was both real because he’s in 1973 Toronto that I know very well because I was 16. You know it’s the first time I went downtown on a regular basis — the CN Tower was under construction, and the block across the street from the Imperial six was being torn down to build theEaton Centre. We ushers used to climb up secretly on the roof of the Imperial Six and watch the construction of the shopping centre. So the future city was being built as I was first you know a 16 year old of going down to work at the theater all the time. But the creation of Bert was really just an opportunity, and I think a lot of cultural stuff comes about not because somebody has some grand vision to write the next great Canadian novel or something, it’s just like “would you like to do this. OK I’ll I’ll try that.”
And I was offered a chance to continue because I’d been tweeting as myself during the Toronto Film Festival, and a local website picked it up because I just I invented festival parties that I was not actually invited to. So I just made it as if I were at these parties with celebrities some of whom were dead and some of the parties were held at you know Home Depot like completely unlikely celebrity events. And they liked it so much they said well now that the festival is over, do you want to continue doing it, and given that I had a day job as a producer at the National Film Board, I thought you know I probably shouldn’t be too mischievous as I’m working for the government so, I need I need a fake front for this. I don’t know if I spent more than five minutes thinking about doing it — I thought well I love movies and I love urban things and urban life I love the city of Toronto. So how can I merge those things together, and of course the mayor owns a movie theater. It was a goofily logical path I could go down.
Grant: [00:11:03] And that’s really brilliant. Combining those two because those are, in the Canadian scheme of things, especially in the early 70s in Toronto, kind of mutually exclusive worlds.
Gerry: [00:11:22] At that time, and one can even argue that still the case now, is that when people think of movies and Toronto, they think of the Toronto Film Festival. And of course it’s you know in a way it’s like a spaceship that lands once a year. All of Hollywood comes in, people watch American and European films, and yes there are some Canadian films there, but it’s basically a sort of global cultural spaceship that lands in Toronto and then it leaves. But the rest of the time you know that there are not a lot of Canadian movies showing in cinemas, and and Canadian show business is a kind of an oxymoron. So in the 1970s the idea that anybody would be making movies in Toronto, that just was barely happening. There were some people doing it. Bert actually is fine with that. He thinks Hollywood is the place where movies are made. He’s really good at showing movies..
Grant: [00:12:25] And that’s the hard part. To be honest.
Gerry: [00:12:27] His greatest skill is showing up really well, and Bert’s pride in that is that he has the greatest cinema. A secret idea that I’ll save for another Bert book down the road is that he wants to build the Xanadome, which is a 25,000 seat movie theater it’s part of his dream. So his showmanship connects for me, because it reveals a passive audience that is not engaged in making stories about itself. It just likes to look at stories, the audiences that come and watch all the dreadful, wonderful and weird movies there. And that’s the truth of it. I mean in the two or three years I was head usher at the Imperial Six I can think of maybe one or two Canadian movies that played there. There were six movies playing, changing every week. So out of hundreds and hundreds of movies maybe two of them were Canadian. One was a documentary about Stompin Tom Connors.
Grant: [00:13:31] So it’s that Canadians in those early in the early 70s were sort of embarrassed by Hollywood in popular culture. That wasn’t official. It didn’t have the official approval of of the Canadian scheme of things.
Gerry: [00:13:45] Yeah. And I think what I think you put your finger on something with the imperial six wasn’t. And what Bert’s attitude definitely is not is plugged into official Canadian culture, you know in fact he’s quite dismissive of people. He’s always ragging Pierre Berton about writing another boring doorstopper. He’s always mocking some artsy show at the Royal Ontario Museum. Whatever ‘official culture’ is Bert has no interest in it at all. At the Imperial Six people were seeing a Bruce Lee film or a slightly erotic dubbed European film or the Godfather Part 2 — it was this amazing. It was an amazing film education for me, but there was no question that most of these movies would never get a theatrical release now – or even get made in the first place. The other thing is that it was the era as just before home video. Soif you wanted to see a movie you had to go to a movie theater to do it.
Grant: [00:15:05] Yeah I think for a lot of Canadians in that period and even in the present day popular culture is a guilty pleasure. And the great thing about Bert is that he doesn’t even accept the terms of the argument. Right? I mean that you should treat it as a guilty pleasure when it’s just obviously and manifestly a simple pleasure.
Gerry: [00:15:22] Yeah I mean there’s no there’s no greater pleasure than plopping down and you know having some Twizzlers — you know he also has experimental foods at the snack bar, like potato and leek soup on a stick or something like that just to enhance the experience for people. So it’s completely genuine on my part. It wasn’t fucking exciting place. I mean it wasn’t just that sense of showmanship and excitement. I don’t want to say manufactured, but there is something that makes a cultural experience exciting. Why wouldn’t it be exciting lining up for an hour in the rain to see THE TOWERING INFERNO with thousands of other people. And when I worked there on a Saturday night in the busiest times, big movies were coming out. As Head Usher actually represented a wonderful moment in my life, and I’ve never had such authority since then! I had 33 ushers under my control on a Saturday night, and we were using megaphones to run the lineups.
We also had a lot of fights. The manager would just instruct us, if somebody was drunk and harassing the cashier, to just beat them up, and we’d start punching them and throw them out. The notorious Yonge Street strip was right in front of the Imperial over a few summers, so there were bikers and strip joints right there. it was the grimiest stretch in the street’s history. So it was pretty raw down there, but you’d also have couples formally like dressed up to come in to see the new Bert Reynolds movie or something. It was like the crossroads of the universe in that way, and it was thrilling and sexy.
Grant: [00:17:18] Yeah. Could we have a little bit about the process of the creativity out of which Bert comes. I don’t know if this is the right figure of speech, he’s a part of your consciousness. Yeah well you’re sharing consciousness with Bert. What is that like? Is that the right way to think about it?
Gerry: [00:17:43] A good way to think about , as I’ve written almost 8000 tweets and a couple of dozen articles and things as Bert, it’s very easy for me to hear the voice in my head. I’d say that any novelist, I would assume, tries to get to a point where the characters takes them places. It’s like “well Bert would do that, no he wouldn’t really do that”. “Well he’d sort of sound this way”. I I didn’t find it difficult to find his voice, which is very pompous, it’s over the top. His words hurt a little. You know he was born in 1911, so he came of age in the 30s, and he’s still use slang from then. It’s now out of date and his kind of grandiloquence — because he’s also the mayor — he plays like an insider and an outsider. I don’t think he ever takes off the chain of office, because it’s kind of it’s a uniform: a tuxedo and a chain of office. After almost ten years as Bert, I find I can look at anything in the city or in pop culture and just say “what would Bert say about this?”. But in his 1973.
Grant: [00:19:03] You literally say what would Bert say or is that just a stream of consciousness in consciousness?
Gerry: [00:19:09] I don’t really have to work very hard. The tweet is a perfect creative object, it’s like a haiku. It’s just a perfect form and I have I have written longer things definitely. And that’s not that much harder. You know if I find a theme like his plan to redevelop the Toronto Islands or to fix traffic in Toronto (by banning pedestrians). I get on kind of a roll. But it is it’s a kind of arcane speak. It does speak to the way Canadians had this over-respect for figures of authority. Mayors and captains of industry, and that sort of thing, and Bert definitely is that realm. I was doing research recently for an article I’m writing, and I was talking to a linguist in Toronto who specializes in standard Canadian English. And he also told me about an accent that he that I think Bert would have. I never was able to define it, but it’s an accent that this linguist called Canadian dainty. The accent it’s gone now pretty much, but it’s the way, let’s say, the Governor General would talk in the 1950s. You know it’s the voice of Canadian aristocracy who had been educated in England. And so it’s not it’s not Mid-Atlantic which is actually a different accent, like Katharine Hepburn or Gore Vidal. It’s more Mackenzie King yelling into a microphone with very, very precise pronunciation, and very formal. It somehow just evokes authority, but also a kind of cardboard dictatorship or something. I don’t know what, but that’s just Bert to me – he’d give a speech at the drop of a hat. He’d he cut the ribbon to open a fire hydrant if they’d let him.
He’s low culture and high culture.. He’s very sophisticated, and he goes back and forth to Hollywood, he’s had an-almost love affair with Marlene Dietrich. One be so sophisticated in Toronto in the 1970s. I remember seeing Northrop Frye on the streetcar with his groceries, Marshall McLuhan on the subway. We didn’t have the high mavens that New York or London would have.
Grant: [00:22:41] Yeah. Does he ever take umbrage at anything? Is he ever indignant? I sort of feel like he he doesn’t need to take issue with the world? If it doesn’t work as he thinks it ought to he just moves on.
Gerry: [00:22:56] Yeah I think. Sometimes I will present him as filled with rage. He has an ongoing battle with the projectionists union at the Imperial Six, and the union is run by communists, and they bring prostitutes and booze into the projection booth, and they want the right in their contract to project in the nude. So he’s in a rage about that sort of thing. He’s very right wing in a way that would not be considered right wing at the time. People should know their place.. But he’s also got this kind of paternalistic thing which is almost like a Ronald Reagan, a sense of he wants to be everyone’s buddy. He is just a working schmo like you guys, so he’s always going down to see the workers who spread the road salt in the winter. This is true — they have a camp down in Don Valley where they sleep during the winter because they have to be ready at a moment’s notice, so he’s always down there showing them his own 16 millimeter print of STALAG 17, or helping them stage productions of Gilbert and Sullivan to relieve their boredom, because he’s just a ‘regular guy’. But you know if they went on strike he’d cut them dead immediately. So he’s like an angry father who really loves you. Do as I say, not as I do.
Grant: [00:24:45] Some of the tweets are unmistakably poetic and [that creates] a strange kind of duality then. Bert’s not poetic. You’re the one being poetic and just a case in point here. “Ticketed and towed today. @MovieMayor : Ticketed and towed today: Mrs. Eeeni Mosport’s 1961 Ford Spatula, parked inside the lobby of Massey Hall; Mr. Norman Tamblyn’s 1970 Fiat Arrivederci, idling with lewd connotations; a delivery moped from Tip Top Tailors, spewing cordouroy fumes. #TOpoli #TrafficAlert.” I mean that’s just fabulous.
Gerry: [00:25:17] The Toronto of Bert Xanadu is always 1973. I mean he has New Year’s Eve parties every year. For them it’s 1973 again. So so it’s always 1973. But it’s a surreal place. I mean I try to mix enough of what the city was really like and the truly surreal. I found an inadvertently hilarious book in a used bookstore, an academic volume published out of York University in 1969 or 1970. Essays by different academics about the underworld of Toronto the underworld, which included “homosexuals”, prostitutes and drug dealers. And you know as late as the early 70s, parts of downtown Toronto, for example where the Toronto International Film Festival is now , it’s all gentrified now, so condos and upscale restaurants and everything that was there – the extreme poverty and collision of dirty industry and rooming houses, and cheap bars, etc. has been erased from memory.If you go to the Lower East Side of New York you’re aware first because of the massive amount of popular culture we’ve seen set in a place like that. Everything from the Bowery Boys to Taxi Driver but also because there’s still it still evokes a sense of its past,, that this must have been a pretty horrid place. But if you take somebody and you drop them at the corner of Queen and Spadina and said this was this was grimy, slaughterhouses and like chemical spills, and fights in the street beer parlors. They’d say what are you talking about? Where is that? It’s all gone. It’s all erased. And so I sometimes evoke that in Bert Xanadu’s tweets, but it sometimes seems surreal. I have a regular place in Bert’s’s world called Simcoe Street Goatworks. Which, well, I don’t go to a lot of detail, but basically thousands of goats go in there and they don’t come out alive. In my mind it’s right around the corner from City which it might have been. And so some of that seems surreal, but also I feel like that world that I’ve created has to have a 23 percent surreality. I’m not trying to I’m not trying to be faithful to something, but by being surreal I feel I am faithful, because much of what a city does is weird. It’s like layers of bureaucracy at City of the many, many, many things it regulates. For example, Bert’s in charge of deciding what the soup of the day is. You know like that might have actually been something in Soviet Bulgaria in 1937. It might have had somebody in charge of that. But because we just have this tolerance in Canada and Toronto for layers of things that got regulated and managed, you had to fill in a form to do things. So I just tweak it a little bit to make it more surreal.
And sometimes people don’t quite get it. Bert will announce sometimes with a tear that, say, Toronto’s last known vaudeville dentist in Toronto is finally closing up shop in 1973. I once I had somebody from CBC Radio call and ask me where is this place.. There were probably never ventriloquists’ dummy strip joints, it probably never existed, and now it’s gone. That kind of keeps me keeps me interested I think because, one of the questions you had was about building a storyworld, and I think the thing that I have to remember, because I’m building this kind of palace I guess one little Lego brick at a time, is that is you need to have consistent rules. You have to create rules. And whether it’s the Star Wars or Marvel Universe or it’s a series of novels by Philip Roth. There are things that can happen, and other things that can’t, so I have to I try to be disciplined about that and remember how this might function, how this place might actually function. But you know it’s kind of fun because nobody’s really paying attention to the consistency of that. And so I’ll just try to sometimes tweak it with something surreal and feel yeah that’s kind of you know the fact that the police department would have a Striped Pole unit, which nabs barbers illegally dumping hair clippings. Or that raccoons had taken over the second and fifth floors of City Hall and there were tense negotiations going on with them you know, that kind of seems like Bert’s world that could be.
Grant: [00:30:56] Yeah yeah. So that’s something worth pursuing. And we had talked in advance in the call to wonder about various topics and I think that came up and that’s the kind of you’ve engaged in the kind of worldbuilding if that’s not too grand a term for it. Well that’s the kind of the cumulative effect of some of these experiments online end up over time, building a character and making that character kind of it’s super episodic, right sitting down to the several episodes of several TV shows result in which the show installs itself in your consciousness. But you’re having to break from your world to attend to this stream of stuff whereas this Bert is actually entering our consciousness one tweet a time so this wasn’t tweets overall which in which means, well you tell me about the the overall effect, the overall story that is the result.
Gerry: [00:31:59] Well I think that it’s actually sparked something larger that I want to do with the characters I had. I’ve never lost the sense of fun. So if it never turned in anything other than this that’s fine by me. And because each tweet is fun, but if you’d taken, say, 7000 or 8000 photographs of houses in Amsterdam or something, you might say “I should probably look at these and see if there’s something emerging here or some pattern that I can’t see, or maybe there’s something larger than I can do with this now”. I reached the point where I felt I could assemble them into a book. But also maybe do more with this world as well. So for me it’s actually it’s spawned another thing I’m working on with Bert, which is which is an actual novel that’s not just built out of tweets, and I’ve outlined the whole thing. It’s called The City Fantastic. it’s comes from this world that I built. It’s Bert. He’s been mayor for too long, he’s been mayor too many times. He’s kind of at the end of his political career, he’s in his 60s. People are tired of him. And he’s just trying to hang on. He’s trying to hang on to something that he’s always known and the old tricks aren’t really working. He’s sold people fantastical schemes and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, and they’re just fed up with them.. So he attempts one last re-election campaign. And in a way it’s sort of the real world intervening. You know I have a character who is a kind of a John Sewell-type, who became mayor of Toronto briefly, but in the 70s he was like the hippie Alderman, a social activist and really challenged the old guard. So I have a character challenge Bert, it’s almost like someone who enters from the real world, and Bert’s PR spin doesn’t work anymore. So what Bert does is he in desperation is meet up with one one of his many foreign jaunts with a kind of a kind of star architect and urban planner, sort of a Le Corbusier figure, who sells Bert a plan to completely redesign downtown Toronto. As it turns out, it’s just a plan he designed for Karachi or somewhere, and he’s just dusted it off and relabelled it. Essentially it involves tearing down every building in downtown Toronto and rebuilding it as the city of the future. And this is what Bert signs up for, inadvertenly, as he hasn’t actually read it. Part of the plan is to raze all of the buildings and not replace them for about a year or two, and just pave it as a giant parking lot just for revenue purposes. Everybody would have to be moved out of the city and everything. So he’s now in this deep panic, like how does he back away from this. Toronto was really good at erasing its past and building pathetic little fractions of a future. And yet in a way it is the future that I saw in these overheated plans from Buckminster Fuller and people like that in the 70s who came to Toronto. It’s actually sort of happening now in the city with you know I think to new eyes it doesn’t quite look like Shanghai, but it’s starting to get there. Right now we’re getting 90 story buildings now in this city. But of course I have a happy ending that have already figured out you know that where Bert you know ascends to power again and everything’s right but there’s a twist at the end in a very Bert way. I feel like I’ve got the architecture of this Bert storyworld, and now I can kind of walk around in it.. Perhaps it is a weird way to develop a storyworld — just start with one character and just write thousands of tweets for nine years. A more disciplined way, I supposed, would be to initially consider the many, many facets of this storyworld. I guess people would probably think of George Lucas as someone who had it all figured out. Or look at James Cameron. It seems sort of insane.10 years after Avatar comes out he’s got four more movies coming, and he’s apparently been spending all this time developing the storyworlds even further. I remember actually writing a parody. When Avatar came out they published a book which was a guide to all of the animals and plants of that planet. He’d hired like biologists and zoologists to write this. So I wrote a parody in The Globe and Mail called The Planet of the Very Specific Things. And that’s what I think he’s probably engaged with now. You know it’ll take another ten years really to come out. it must be exhausting to have to map every corner of a storyworld and still try to have fun. I just dropped Bert into a world – a surreal/real Toronto of the 1970s — and then together we just built it along the way. And I’m sure somebody could go through my thousands of tweets and say it’s inconsistent here and consistent there but that’s ok, whatever. I feel it’s the world in a grain of sand. Toronto in the 1970s. A movie theater. That’s enough. There’s like this decades of stuff I can work with there. It’s not like I I wrote a short story set on a farm in northern Ontario and I’ve kind of run out of things to talk about. It’s a city and it’s the movies, and that’s a bottomless well.
Grant: [00:39:25] Yeah I mean that’s surely one of extraordinary things that’s happened thanks to the advent of the digital production of culture that someone like you can create an entire world with a Twitter feed. And a lot of posts but otherwise apart from the time and creativity that you invest in Bert you know your production costs are nothing. James Cameron or Lucas you know having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars just to and then to get something into a theater just to tell any part of the story takes heroic investments.And it’s not clear that what they’ve created is very much more interesting than Bert.
Gerry: [00:40:12] With something like Star Wars I you know I’m I’m not a big fan I enjoy the films and I go to see the films. But I always feel that there’s somebody off camera scolding. You you can’t do that. No no that’s not consistent with this or that. I would think that would be a very pinched way of of creating, but now it’s it’s a massive business. These movies are as big as most corporations. So you know you can’t screw around with that. One of the reasons I really love, Logan the last Wolverine film out of the Xman series. I thought that was an incredibly brave thing to do. Logan is almost like a film noir. Hugh Jackman’s character is old, weaker, and driving a limousine in Las Vegas. To do that with a mainstream Hollywood thing it was amazing, so I love that kind of bravery, but it also speaks to people’s love of that character. But it was very daring to make him you know almost like a pathetic figure. And so I admire that as opposed to people who are just like ‘here the seven thousand rules we must follow in the storyworld’.
With Bert I had no aspiration to do anything larger with it, just doing it one tweet at a time. But if I was to set out to do this again, I might do it the same way, but I would just do it a lot faster. I like the idea of building it kind of brick by brick rather than designing it.
Grant: [00:43:18] So you know in a digital culture we have so many more people participating because the barriers to entry are so much smaller. But the promise has always been on many more people participating but you know what talent still rises. We have a way of finding them and when we find them we can communicate so effortlessly using social and one kind or another. And that hasn’t happened in the case of Bert. I mean your numbers are are fine but they’re not great.
: [00:43:55] It is a little bit puzzling because, I would just think through sheer longevity by now maybe I’d have 3000 bots following me. You know that would be satisfying if some Russian bots were following me, I’d be OK with that. Maybe I should just buy some followers. But you would think there’d be this sort of slow creep of people who would just stumble across it. Brent Butt, the creator of The Corner Gas sitcom in Canada, which is probably the most successful television series ever in Canada, has a lot of followers, and he tweeted he likes Bert. He recently retweeted one of my Bert tweets, and it was seen by 12000 people, as opposed to the 200 or so who might normally see it, but I didn’t get any followers as a result of that. I think maybe if you picked up a copy of some gigantic sprawling novel like The Lord Of The Rings again but just read one sentence, you’d ask yourself ‘what do you think are you in?”. And so it may be that piece by piece Bert is not very comprehensible. I’m very conscious of trying to be funny, so I’m always trying to tell a joke. But it may be so localized and so weird that if you just stumble across it it’s not enough to bring you along. Maybe I need to be more strategic. One of the rules I follow is I never leave 1973. I try not to use hashtags. I almost never do. I try not to reflect on what’s going on in the real world. I mean, if it’s winter in Toronto today, it’s winter in 1973, that’s about as much of an echo that I’ll play with. If the Leafs are playing, I have the Leafs playing in 1973, but they’re playing some fictional team that never existed. Maybe I could do more to kind of pander to people who might stray across it, but I don’t know. Maybe just a narrow narrow taste window.
: [00:46:32] And that’s always possible but I can’t believe the windows as small as number walo as you have.
: [00:46:36] Yeah this is a very Canadian answer.
: [00:46:42] But maybe it’s an infrastructural question. I mean you think about fanfic is people engaged in acts of creativity and their voices in the wilderness and perhaps not much read were it not for things like wattpad and other interventions that say look we’re we’re making it easier for you to find the content you like and to stay in touch with the content you like and upload the stuff you want to share that. So that’s happened. It’s almost as if we’ve got various genre if you wander or forms cultural forms springing up on the web and some of them organize well and some of them organize badly and it feels like we’re all careening through a tweet stream. It’s just not organized.
: [00:47:26] Well it hasn’t.
: [00:47:28] Yeah I think you’re right.
: [00:47:30] Maybe one of the weaknesses of this approach — and it’s maybe been a blind spot for me — is that the thing that’s kind of missing from the storyworld is other people. I mean, there are characters other than Bert Xanadu, there are some recurring figures, but barely. They’re in his peripheral vision, or they’re just they’re just ciphers. Maybe there’s something there, in that that’s the way Bert sees the people of Toronto. They’re all just you faces in a crowd to him. So I may have missed the mark there. If I had a a cast of 25 recurring characters who engaged with Bert. I haven’t done that , and it is a good and healthy part of fan fiction, for example.
: [00:48:44] Or get somebody else to begin the work of.
: [00:48:47] Maybe it’s just a page on Facebook that reaches out to all the people doing this. Are you aware of many many other people doing story building of the kind.
: [00:48:56] A lot are just telling jokes. But I have to say that the quality and speed and the verbal dexterity is great — I’m in such admiration of so many people I’d never heard of before Twitter. I wrote for years and still do occasionally for The Globe and Mail. I wrote satire in my own name, it was sort of making light of some recent thing in Canadian politics or whatever. I once wrote that when Saddam Hussein’s son ran for the Iraqi Senate, he won with ninety nine point nine percent of the vote. So I wrote his acceptance speech in which he reached out to the .1 percent who didn’t vote for him, but I made it sound like it was the acceptance speech that a junior congressman would give in Ohio, except it very dark references to military limousine highways in Iraq, etc. I wrote stuff like that for 20 years before social media and now it’s you know like I mean whatever Donald Trump does, there are a thousand hilarious takes on it within 20 minutes on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, and often it’s graphic design, it’s music it’s everything. I think it’s fantastic. But in terms of actually building a storyworld you know I haven’t seen as much. And I say again, that if I were in business to do this I’d say that my approach has been practically medieval. So we need to pick up the pace Gerry. You know like we DO have vehicles with motors in them now. You don’t have to use a horse drawn cart anymore. If you set out to build a storyworld in this current environment then it’s almost like a transmedia obligation to make sure that it’s got all the scaffolding to hold up every possible part of it.
: [00:51:48] The other one I’ve done is one that you inspired me to do. When we saw each other some years ago I created @chipthrust I’ve probably tweeted 500 tweets over five years as Chip, and I kind of forget about it. He’s a slogan writer who doesn’t have any clients, so he just write slogans for products that don’t exist. He’s pretty much gone insane. But he writes slogans in the hope that someone will hire him. So that one is literally just jokes because I haven’t I haven’t done enough, and I haven’t spent enough time with him as him to really erect something. I don’t know if he’s in New York or if he is in Toronto. I don’t have a clue. So it doesn’t have very many followers. Nobody refers to it and you know that’s about that. But it’s fun to do.
: [00:52:44] So I think how do we bought and fanfic has had it’s you know a certain amount of ink has been spilled on behalf of fanfic right.
: [00:52:53] Npr has done a documentary and and in wattpad is now involved and people know about it.
: [00:53:00] The academics are involved the wonderful woman at Berkeley working on fanfic. When when does first of all we need a term for what what this is right and it seems to me as somebody who worked the National Film Board you might have a sense of how we could persuade a documentary filmmaker to seize this opportunity and I’m assuming there are lots of filmmakers are looking for new kinds of culture emerging. I mean is there some way you see some if you put on your end of the hat. Is this what’s the solution here.
: [00:53:38] Well in my work in my day job as a documentary producer I actually I was quite hostile to documentaries that simply documented things . I felt documentaries are an art form. It doesn’t mean that every documentary is artful, but a documentary in my view is held down by its severe addiction to journalism, which just wants to document and tell stories about things that are happening. They are what I call ‘about’ films because they’re just about something, andthey are not a creation in and of themselves. And so my instinct wouldn’t be to make a documentary about this kind of world. My instinct would be to, say, let’s get 25 documentary filmmakers to each play in this kind of realm. I just don’t think documentary is the answer to everything to bring something to people’s attention. You know I’ve done a lot of consulting since I left the NFB. It’s it’s not. I wouldn’t call it what I do Transmedia consulting, Because I think of transmedia as having work that feels obliged to be on multiple platforms. My approach is more like ‘what are you trying to do?’. What are you trying to say?. Who is it for?. And let’s do that thing. And if it’s making a film, if it’s doing tweets, if it’s creating an installation, or it’s creating a performance, whatever, let’s just don’t say ‘well I’m a filmmaker so I have to make films’. Well maybe it isn’t.
: [00:55:25] I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean I think there is there is such creativity on Twitter. It may just be that there’s just almost so much noise too.
: [00:55:38] Ultimately we still live in a world of gatekeepers, and no publisher has come calling looking to work with the Bert Xanadu character. No screenwriter has called and said I’d like to write a screenplay based on this character. Maybe when I finish the book that that might happen. We all know examples of things that were really on the fringes and then became part of mainstream culture, and that’s even more so now that you know an obscure band or an obscure piece of fiction or something can suddenly be catapulted. I mean I’m old enough to remember when Whoopi Goldberg was an underground comedian in New York, only talked about in the back pages of the Village Voice. It’s hard now to imagine a more mainstream humor figure than Whoopi Goldberg.
: [00:56:57] I guess the thing is where we see these overnight success stories, we really in the same economic engine that we always have been. It’s just got different gears and different people pulling them to lift something up. It’s like the influencers on YouTube feels like a new thing. But ultimately it’s making stars out of people in the environment we’re living in literally this week, finding out what we all felt in our bones is that Facebook knows everything about us and is selling it to the highest bidders right. The idea that there’s some natural evolution of an obscure little cultural creation into something larger is maybe just deeply naive.. And now we’re in the realm of branded content which is obscuring even more the distinction between commercial promotional content and independently editorially independent author-driven content.
: [00:58:24] You know just the beyond a blur. I mean it’s the point where yeah that’s fine. I. I don’t know this film was paid for by an insurance company.
: [00:58:35] Whatever you know that this article was written to promote Coca-Cola, but it doesn’t quite promote Coca-Cola, it just makes you feel better about Coca-Cola. I don’t know what it would be like if we were reading novels that were fully funded by pharmaceutical companies. I’m sure such things exist, actually.
: [00:58:58] You probably know going back to the 50s you know the CIA funded.
: [00:59:03] You know like avant garde American art in the in the Cold War that you was subversive in a way, having certain kinds of jazz in the Soviet Union would have been subversive. So maybe that’s the world we’re in. Every cultural product needs to serve a higher master.
: [00:59:26] I mean I sound like I’m deeply cynical saying that you’ve made the project work as a side gig side hustle kind of thing. And are you done for long enough that I have to suspect that you might even prefer it this way. So is there any sense of you just love doing it. You Bert yes. You know when I was in in finding good. So there’s that question then the other question is if indeed you’d like it to be something more than your your side gig.
: [01:00:00] What’s the what is the best the business model the least in terms of the most acceptable business model for you.
: [01:00:09] It is kind of it is just me and Bert, and I think the reason I enjoyed doing it so much for that long while I was working is that in my day job as a documentary producer it was deeply collaborative. No matter how much of an egomaniac you are as a producer and filmmaker you have to work with other people.
: [01:00:31] With this kind of writing and I don’t have to collaborate with anybody. I can do whatever I want, and good bad or indifferent it’s totally mine. So that was a very nice balance for me. I had developed this kind of approach, this sort of balance between input and output.
: [01:00:51] Some films I worked on were large feature documentaries, and from the time we started thinking about them till they released, it could be five years. Often it was a lot of waiting around, and checking, and getting approvals, Whereas when I write a Bert tweet I might be on the bus on the way to work. It just took me two minutes and you know a bunch of people saw it instantly, or I’d write an article for The Globe and Mail in half an hour, and it was in the national newspaper the next day.
: [01:01:18] So it’s like it’s perfect Zen-like balance between input and output. And there’s something deeply satisfying in that. In terms of I’m trying to get to a business model, doesn’t bother me.
: [01:01:36] I would see a successful business model as simply proof of people liking something. If it happens to bring in revenue that means people people like it enough to spend money on it. In the Canadian realm publishing has always seemed fragile at best, and in this country a best-selling book might sell 3000 copies.
: [01:02:03] And it’s always puzzled me that I think there still is this lingering part of what you very eloquently sort of described as a sort of establishment culture, or a large mediated, big guns of a battleship of a culture. And I see that in book publishing. Books are still revered, certainly some nonfiction books as things in this country that set an agenda.
: [01:02:33] They start a conversation, and maybe 3000 people read a book, but half a million people watched a documentary and it doesn’t get treated with the same respect , it doesn’t have the same resonance or echo. Maybe that is slowly changing with social media, but in terms of a business model I don’t know. There were discussions 10-15 years ago about micro payments, that would be how people would be able to create small work, or artist driven work, because you don’t need a big gatekeeper. And so I guess I thought we’d see more models like that you by know, for example, the ‘one thousand true fans’ model, or micropayments applied more by now and I’m not really seeing that.
: [01:03:58] I just think if I publish a Bert Xanadua book or somebody will publish it for me, it might sell seven hundred copies. I don’t imagine anything more than that. And my motivation to create more Bert stuff in other formats you know isn’t diminished by that, because I’ve never looked at it as actually ever having any potential to make any money. It’s the other work that I do that that sustains it. I figure Bert is sort of like this statue in the middle of Bloor and Yonge that people have to go check on occasionally to confirm, that he’s still there.
: [01:05:44] You know it would be useful for us to consult here would be your Cornfeld. Does that name ring a bell. She still had a rock show on CBC called Radio Sonic.
: [01:05:55] Oh yeah yeah yeah okay yeah.
: [01:05:57] And but she’s made herself a student or master of this kind of these economies that are now springing up online and working or not working we’re kind of working but not really working.
: [01:06:08] So she’s kind of the expert here.
: [01:06:11] Werman I mean I don’t you know I guess the thing with with Twitter is that you know there was I think a new York Times report recently is that the scandal.
: [01:06:19] You have to have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of followers before you can have a business plan that really is driven by endorsements.. And many of those are fraudulent. They’re just always just purchased fake followers. Even if I got there organically, if I reached 100,000 followers or something I would have no interest in Bert having to do something to feed that.
: [01:06:52] Bert often endorses fake products that always completely fail. I briefly had a one crossover tweet between Bert and Chip Thrust, I think Chip’s weird slogan for something, and Bert endorsed it, but it wasn’t exactly like the Marvel Universe crossovers, let’s put it that way. You know these two characters met in one tweet and the world did not explode.
: [01:07:20] I have to say I’m torn. I love your thoughts on on this tension.
: [01:07:24] On the one hand I despise the idea of commercializing somebody like Bert and doing anything to diminish the genius you bring to his the freedom and the and the generosity and the creativity you invest in his in his manifestations in the world. On the other hand I listen to academics who in the very pious way and from the high throne of the tenured position that pays them very handsomely thank you very much. Tell us how wonderful it is that we’re blogging or posting for free because we’re participating in a gift economy not doing everything you know.
: [01:08:02] But isn’t that the sort of the ultimate mistake that was made with the Web, that everything was given away for free until it wasn’t. Grant, you know the New York Times can put up a paywall and people are, OK I’ll pay for that, but I can’t put up a paywall in front of Bert, people will just turn away and walk away. I have to convert him into another cultural platform. The money on Twitter is not there for me. It’s not possible. Facebook, it’s not possible that that I can see. There’s no little incremental business plan that I can come up with. Unless it’s a book or it’s a movie or something.
: [01:09:18] And you know I just I don’t see that happening either because nobody would be willing to back it. So there are three or four Bert books that I would like to write, and as long as I can do them and not lose my shirt, or not have no one read them and have them appear on the remainder table the next day, I may do them just for the sheer pleasure.
: [01:09:49] I mean I think I’m just a little bit ignorant of any other success where people have kind of converted a tiny fictional character into some kind of viable business model or whatever that might be.
: [01:10:02] Yeah well let me deucedly or you’ll know the answer to that.
: [01:10:05] Oh great yeah next. Thanks.
: [01:10:08] So this has been superb. Thank you so much Paul. Thank you. Last the hour.
: [01:10:12] I feel like I’m I feel like I’m in a you know in a church confessional but I’m getting your pay me a thousand dollars for this right aren’t you. No no absolutely. That was my understanding that’s the only reason I agreed to do it. And I’ve been I’m deeply deeply honored and I love to see an extension of autonomy always in your other work and what you’re doing.
: [01:10:37] My work has taken me across some interesting paths, and I find there’s almost no corner of culture and commerce that isn’t potentially relevant to I did some of the work I’ve done for Cirque du Soleil and now for MaRS. I like to find how those things connected.
: [01:11:32] Certainly all the clients I speak to, what many of them don’t seem to have noticed is that every organization in the world is in the content creation business. So even you know CBC or the NFB or others, they have millions of people as competition —at least as competition for people’s attention.
: [01:12:47] But Bert Xanadu only has the tools available to him in 1973. So he’s handicapped a little bit. But that’s ok.
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