Marshall McLuhan, Jane Jacobs & the Toronto Spadina Expressway: “Forget your ego.”
Check your ego at the transit door
By Michael Geller – Vancouver Courier – March 3, 2015
My interest in the forthcoming transit referendum dates back, in part, to Oct. 15, 1970 when, as a University of Toronto student, I attended the premiere screening of a The Burning Would, a documentary film made by the late Jane Jacobs and Marshall McLuhan opposing a proposed expansion of Toronto’s Spadina Expressway.
Both Jacobs and McLuhan were supposed to be at the screening but McLuhan had to cancel at the last minute. The moderator apologized for his absence and read out his speech which, as I recall, comprised three words: “Forget your ego.” McLuhan wanted us to stop thinking about expressways and automobiles as first-class transportation and public transit as second-class.
Jane Jacobs on “Making a Movie with Marshall McLuhan”
I first met Marshall McLuhan in 1969, when we had lunch together at the Faculty Club at the University of Toronto. I found him interesting and kind, but I hardly knew what to make of him as a thinker because of the way his conversation jumped about. He would say something interesting or outright brilliant which I would have liked to pursue with him and test out a little bit, but instead he would — flit — or so it seemed to me — to a different idea, and from that to still another.
But although this was bewildering and a little frustrating, I found the lunch enjoyable and knew that I’d met a really remarkable man. Then Colin Vaughan called up one day and brought McLuhan over to where I lived at the time on Spadina Road. They were concerned about a tract of land just south of Wychwood Park where they both lived, which was going to be developed into hideous highrise slabs. Colin Vaughan, who is an architect, had figured that the same number of people could be housed in a decent, human way. Marshall had become involved because he saw how horrid those slabs would be right on their border. We talked about how to fight it; of course I was on their side.
Sometime later Marshall got in touch with me again. In his wonderful energetic and optimistic way, he said:
“We need a movie about the Spadina Expressway! You and I can do the script.”
I said, “But I don’t know a thing about scriptwriting. I won’t be any use.”
“Oh, I’ve never written one either,” he said, “but we can easily do it together. Come on down to my office and we’ll get to work.”
I was dubious about this, but I was carried away by his enthusiasm. We really did need a movie about the issues involved. It was a good idea, so I went to his office in the Coach House, and McLuhan called in his secretary, introduced her, and said, “She’ll take down what we say.”
So we talked. Both of us were enthusiastic and much of our conversation consisted of “Hey, what about this?” followed by some notion, and “Hey what about this?” followed by another. After we had talked for about an hour, Marshall asked the secretary, “Have you got it all down?” Then he turned to me and said, “Well that’s it. We’ve got the script.”
“No we don’t!” I said “It’s all just ‘Hey, what about this?”
“Oh, that’s immaterial,” he replied.
He made a date for us to see the filmmaker, who was Christopher Chapman — the man who made “A Place to Stand.” When we arrived at his studio I was handed a typed copy of the script. I started looking through it, and it was even more garbled and unreadable than I expected. It was not the secretary who had garbled it — she had done an excellent job — it was just that what Marshall and I had said was so garbled. All the “Hey, what about this’s” we in there. The thing jumped around, without beginning or end. This did not bother Marshall but it did bother me. I thought we needed a thread.
Chapman also had a copy of the script in his hand, but to my mingled relief and alarm he didn’t seem exactly to read it. He flipped through it, back and forth, and said congenially that it was fine; it was something to go on. He asked us a lot of questions about the issues, Marshall went off and I remained a while longer to answer some more questions. That’s all I did.
Once in a while Marshall phoned and said everything was going fine, and in due course invited me to a viewing. I couldn’t have been more astonished that there even was a film. Marshall had obviously done lots more work on it. The name of the movie was “A Burning Would” The title was, of course, Marshall’s.
There was a shape to it. It had music. It did have a thread and raised a lot of important issues. Colin Vaughan provided an excellent narration. It was a good movie; furthermore, it was shown a lot, especially in the United States. For a long time I would get an occasional letter from this or that group in California saying that they had shown the movie. However, the final product bore no relationship at all to our original script. (Source: Commentary appended to YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P510tPTQyWg ). See also Jane Jacobs’ comments in Nevitt, B. with McLuhan, M. (1995). Who Was Marshall McLuhan? Toronto: Stoddart, pp. 101-103.
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