McLuhan had a keen interest in documentary and even made a documentary himself “The Burning Would” (1970).
In 1970, our prophet of Information made a 14-minute film entitled “The Burning Would”. The film was made in an attempt to stop the building of the Spadina Expressway. No digitized version of the film exists.
What interests me most about this film is what McLuhan wrote about it. In a letter to McGill professor Hugo McPherson, McLuhan said: “I managed to contrive a new kind of sound effect for the visual images, which proved quite effective.” (1970) http://youtu.be/GDzkjL7r5zg /p>
Expanding on that last point during the late 1960s debate on the Spadina Expressway, McLuhan found parallels in the urban environment with the way in which television had destroyed movies. In a 1970s interview, he told Take One magazine [PDF]: “You put an outer ring of suburb around an old city and this automatically destroys the inner city, that’s all. And if you put a new medium around an old one it automatically destroys the old one. In the act of using the old one it destroys it. But in destroying it, it turns it into an art form.”
Indeed, McLuhan examined the Spadina Expressway issue through the lens of his media theories. “Toronto will commit suicide if it plunges the Spadina Expressway into its heart,” he was quoted as saying in one publication
. “[O]ur planners are 19th century men with a naive faith in an obsolete technology. In an age of software Metro planners treat people like hardware—they haven’t the faintest interest in the values of neighborhoods or community. Their failure to learn from the mistakes of American cities will be ours too.”
McLuhan became actively involved in the campaign against the expressway. Along with Jane Jacobs and other Torontonians of all political stripes including students, business owners, and ratepayer groups, McLuhan was a member of the Stop Spadina, Save Our City Co-ordinating Committee.
McLuhan wrote to Premier Bill Davis about the issue on April 26, 1971. The theorist started by complimenting Davis as a forward-thinking man of the 1970s who recognized that “we live in an information environment” but are under threat by those “still locked into the old hardware environment of the nineteenth century.” Then, the letter continued:
Instead of catching up by matching up with the nineteenth century of American cities, Canada has a unique opportunity to make cities for the seventies. Making, not matching, is an Ontario possibility lost to the U.S.A. by old hardware rivalry.
The Spadina Expressway is an old hardware American dream of now dead cities and blighted communities. As a man of the seventies you know we need not match the American disasters. We can make our own way. Your vision of the seventies cannot survive a cement kimono for Toronto.
McLuhan also collaborated with Jane Jacobs on a short film, A Burning Would, for the SSSOCCC in 1970. The title derived from a line in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “A burning would has come to dance inane.”
The film was McLuhan’s idea, and he intended to be “the final word on the nature of film or stop the Spadina Expressway dead in its tracks.” He enthusiastically approached Jacobs to co-write the script. In his office, they energetically discussed the issues surrounding the Spadina Expressway—flitting from idea to idea, as was McLuhan’s wont—while a secretary took down all they said. At the conversation’s conclusion, McLuhan turned to Jacobs and pronounced the script complete: “Well, that’s it. We’ve got the script.”
When she finally received the secretary’s typescript, Jacobs was aghast. “I started looking through it, and it was even more garbled and unreadable than I expected,” she recalled in an essay she contributed to Sanderson and Macdonald’s anthology. “The thing jumped around, without beginning or end. This did not bother Marshall but it did bother me. I thought we needed a thread.” Nevertheless, they pressed ahead with filming under the guidance of local filmmaker David MacKay (although other sources cite Christopher Chapman as the director). MacKay used the script as the basis for filming questions and answers with McLuhan and Jacobs.
McLuhan told Take One that, after filming, their role was rather limited. He said: “And then we make various suggestions to the makers about footage here and there and E-fects above all—the effects we want. We’ll leave the footage very largely to him once he knows the kind of E-fect we want. He’s got masses of footage, doesn’t have to do much shooting for us.”
Although she said it “bore no relationship at all to [the] original script,” Jacobs was impressed with the finished product when the 12-and-a-half-minute film premiered before a packed audience at Convocation Hall on October 15, 1970. “There was a shape to it. It had music. It did have a thread and raised a lot of important issues,” Jacobs felt; then she added, “It’s a mystery to me that something tangible, coherent and constructive could come out of that mess.”
In the Globe and Mail the following day, film critic Kaspar Dzeguze called it “a short film meant to be crammed down the maw of Spadina Expressway supporters, the message was a subjunctive—wishful and hopeful, though hardly tense—review of the reasons advanced for abandoning the expensive, self-contradictory project.” In terms of the visual content, Dzeguze reported that it was “a collage of scenes taken in the parks which the road would destroy, intercut with shots of clogged highways, homes being destroyed and the wasteland of auto wreckers’ lots where engines, roofs, tires and doors form piles of automotive offal.” The Star‘s reviewer was decidedly less impressed, calling its theme and presentation obvious.
The film would be shown all across North America, wherever there were contemporary campaigns against expressway construction. Although the film is not available online, copies are available at the York University Archives
and in the library at St. Michael’s College
In Palmer’s estimation, by the beginning of the 1970s, when McLuhan was taking part in these urban interventions, “McLuhan’s celebrity was waning.” His insights were heeded by the powers that be with increasing rarity. “The times were partly to blame,” Marchand asserts. “In the sixties the world changed suddenly and everyone wanted to know why; in the seventies change continued, but in much grimmer and duller fashion, and everyone wanted only to cope.” McLuhan continued to give seminars to dwindling numbers of students and write books that were less well-received than before. He left teaching in the fall of 1979 after suffering a severe stroke, and died the following year.
Other sources consulted: T.W. Cooper, “The Unknown McLuhan,” in Sanderson and Macdonald, eds.,
Marshall McLuhan: The Man and His Message (Fulcrum, 1989);
Globe and Mail (October 20, 1970); Marie Molinaro, Corrine McLuhan, and William Toye, eds.,
The Letters of Marshall McLuhan(Oxford University Press, 1987);
Toronto Star (October 14, 1970); Toronto Star (May 7, 2010).