An Interview with David Sobelman (writer, producer, director)


Interviewed by Monica Rossi


Marshall McLuhan & David Sobelman (1969 ca.)

I read the “Director’s Notes” of “McLuhan’s Wake” written by the director Kevin McMahon. He wrote: “This particular project came to me and my partners at Primitive Entertainment from TVOntario, where it was developed by writer David Sobelman”. Exactly, which is your part in the “McLuhan’s Wake” project? You are a writer but also a director, aren’t you?

I am a writer mostly, a director and a producer, when the project requires it, and also a story editor of screenplays, films, narrative non-fiction and fiction as well as poetry and academic books. I first conceived the idea and then wrote the screenplay for “McLuhan’s Wake”. I also co-produced it. Long before Kevin, the director, came on board, I had already started developing the project. It took me four years. It was very difficult at first because it was during that period when people had forgotten a bit about McLuhan. As you say in your thesis, his fame faded in the 1980s. And I was part of the drive to bring him back, to ‘retrieve’ him, so to speak, in the language of “Laws of Media”. And it was the right time to retrieve him, the Internet had been changing the media environment for several years and a glossy commercial magazine called Wired Magazine was promoting the notion that McLuhan was the ‘Patron Saint’ of the electric age, the wired age in which you and I live. So, I decided that it was time to do a definitive film about McLuhan. In the first two years I worked with another producer from Montreal but we had a falling apart. And I ended up carrying a heavy debt, money I owed for the development. That’s very normal in the business. But now I needed to find another partner to take over the debt, and that’s how I found Kevin and his brother Michael. Kevin and Michael McMahon were the two partners who serviced my ideas.

What are the origins of your interest in McLuhan? When did your interest in McLuhan come into being for the first time?

My interest in McLuhan goes back to April, 1969 when I first read  Understanding Media. About half-way into the book I knew that it was changing my life. I was on the train from Baden-Baden, Germany, to London, England, and by the time I arrived in London I had realized that this book was full of new insights and an understanding of the world around me, and that McLuhan spoke to ideas I had been trying to figure out for myself, ideas like the critically important insight that “technologies are the extension of either body, mind or psyche.” So, upon arriving in London, I decided to read the book a second time right away. […] and, so, that’s where my background in McLuhan began.  Years later, after I had read most of the background texts, I also taught a course at the University of Toronto called “The Media Philosophy of Marshall McLuhan”. Because I had by then understood that McLuhan’s thoughts, his probes and explorations represent a “philosophy-in-progress”, that is, in effect, a new “philosophy of media”. One of the reasons I think he interests people who are studying media is because he is right at the beginning of media studies…he’s one of its founding fathers. Elena Lamberti’s new bookMcLuhan’s Mosaic: Probing the Literary Origins of Media Studies, for example, has a perfect, revealing subtitle, as it unveils the source of media studies in the study of literature. I think the philosophy of literature and poetics, and the history of new ideas, are integral to media studies because they were brilliantly incorported into McLuhan’s critical work while he was starting out as an English professor.

Going back to the “McLuhan’s Wake” project, when did your involvement with this project start?

The film was made in 2002, but my conceptual and production involvement with this particular project begins in 1998 when I wrote another treatment called “A State of Light”. It was  an original idea of mine about the electric age and how the electric age is changing us by a creating a new state of mind. I could not raise the funding for it, but in “A State of Light” there are five pages about McLuhan. And those five pages were about “Laws of Media”. A commissioning editor at TVOntario (TVO) very much liked those five pages and said to me “You know what… I can’t give you money for ‘A State of Light’ but I’ll give you money to develop those five pages into a film about McLuhan”. And then, as I told you, I worked on the development for two years with another producer but then we had a falling apart and I ended up with Kevin, because he could raise the money as the director. I wasn’t totally happy in the beginning because it was important to me that the project would have a literary pedigree, that is, that it would be true to the literary origins of McLuhan, and that McLuhan’s application of literature to media would come through in the film. Well, in the end, after many rewrites and arguments with the director, it worked out all right. But sometimes people forget that you can’t understand the true purpose of grammarians unless you understand where the trivium, grammar, logic and rhetoric came from.  And of course they came from the Greek culture and the sophisticated notion of education that is called paedeia.

Marshall McLuhan was fascinated by James Joyce. The title of the documentary plays with Joyce’s work Finnegan’s Wake. With regard to McLuhan’s interest in Joyce, McMahon wrote “Joyce’s Wake is the original catalogue of technology’s effects on the Western world. What Joyce (and McLuhan) believed was being awoken by electrical technology was the dark tribal spirit of humanity as represented by Finn, an old Celtic figure”. What is the relationship between the title of the documentary and Joyce’sFinnegan’s Wake? What does Finn represent?

First of all, we start with Finn. The song of Finn is an old Irish song […]. And it is about the tribal culture of Ireland. So Finn represents the archetype, an archetype of a tribal culture – that’s important. Finnegan’s Wake is a pun: ‘Finn wakes again’. Finn becomes awake again… Finnegan’s Wake. The important thing here is, if you go to the film and look at the black and white clip where McLuhan actually says this himself… somebody asks him: “what his work is about?” And McLuhan answers, “well… it is all about “Finn again awakes, Finnegan’s Wake”. To McLuhan, and to many who think that it is right, literacy, the phenomena of the alphabet, created the literate-human being and that literate human being could no longer be tribal because one of the effects of print and of literacy is that it creates a singular, particular, individual who thinks for him or herself, that is, by the laws of media, through literacy, the solitary reader and writer becomes an individuated person. In Understanding Media, McLuhan tells wonderful stories about the differences between tribal man and typographic man. Typographic man has certain qualities, like linear thinking and sequentiality; tribal man prefers the non-linear and finds linear logic hard to follow. McLuhan realized that James Joyce, in Finnegan’s Wake, was in effect playing with this idea of the return of the tribal man. Finnegan’s Wake reads like a kind of dream book about a collective-unconscious phenomena. And it is an extremely sophisticated play of words and their potential, their portmanteau potential, of describing our being-in-the-world, because, besides the literal, our being is also constantly dependent on puns and other kinds of portmanteau expressions…

Read the rest here:


McLuhan’s Wake.

Kevin McMahon (Director). Michael McMahon and Kristina McLaughlin (Primitive Producers).
Gerry Flahive (NFB Producer). David Sobelman (Writer and Co-producer).
Montreal, PQ: Primitive Entertainment in co-production with the National Film Board of Canada in association with TVONTARIO, 2003.

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