I Want To Live!
Potboilers and our lives
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois
When I was a kid, my mother plunked me in front of our TV and made me watch a potboiler called I Want to Live! Starring Susan Hayward, it was ostensibly a true story about a woman committed to death row for mere fringe participation in a crime that went wrong. She is executed at the end in a moment I remember as being vigorously realistic. My mother tended to plunk us in front of "lesson" movies - racism is bad, justice is harsh, the Holocaust was not nice. She helped me develop a wide streak of leftism (even as she continued to be a mad-ardent Catholic - arguably the least leftist church on the planet).
The lesson I took away from I Want to Live! was that life isn't fair.
I think it's a lesson that hit me again this week when my medical life went swirling around the toilet bowl again. Now, before you turn away from what looks like a poor-me piece, I promise it is leading to a point that I hope will have more universal resonance.
We all know this story. We survive.
I have been a free-lancer since I was a healthy 19 year old. While I was healthy, I slept poorly, ate poorly, spent my money on martinis, books and travel. I was a writer/actor/director who learned from life (pleasure-seeking) and spent my minuscule fortunes accordingly. At 29 I learned a non-movie lesson: I had no backup plan. I got sick and every fucking penny I had ever earned was lost, every book I had hoarded was sold (which is why I don't collect books anymore and love digital content) and I lived on credit cards. I climbed out of debt, started saving money and was prepared for a couple of other kicks in the nuts. I survived.
We all know this story. We survive.
We live in a country which, on the one hand, provides us with medical care (thank the fucking Lord!) but which, on the other hand expects freelancers - writers, actors, directors, journalists - to subsidize our own work and, moreover, to expect to live in poverty. We do not have a realistic safety net when things go wrong (in Quebec, medical benefits are $715 a month, basic welfare $585). Despite my best efforts to be a good citizen, I blew through my substantial savings on uncovered medical supplies and it was only when I was broke that the the country decided to pay for them. During this time - and I've heard this story over and over again from others - I continued to subsidize what I do by reading, studying, writing (and tearing manuscripts up).
I have spoken with playwrights who are at the top of their professions who have never received a commission for a play - they write on spec. I know armies of actors who go to classes, study plays, go to plays (on their own dime), and consider themselves lucky if they pull down $10K from their chosen profession. They act in solo plays in Fringes, they participate in workshops for friends' works, they scramble. And, of course, I work with a platoon of dedicated and talented writers who bless this and our other websites with insight and intelligence.
And year after year I get more and more enraged that this country - our fucking fellow citizens - treats our various industries like cheap entertainment. Worse, with the arrival of the internet, as free entertainment!
I once told a nephew that if he wanted a career in the arts, he must accept that he would never be rich - never own a house and be lucky if he owned a used car. That was two decades ago. It's worse now. We have created - across the country - a new class of working poor and we seem adamant to keep it this way. Discussions about EI for freelancers come, are bandied and die. So, basically, we fall somewhere below Newf fishermen in the concerns of the nation (and that's FUCKING low). In all the talk about unemployment, there has never been discussion of reform in welfare so that one can actually live during hard times (as opposed to survive). We are slowly but surely driving a new generation of artists (two generations, actually - and that's not counting my own) to give up. Worse, they will give up because they have been vampirized - sucked away with their will to create will have gone the will to fight for creation.
Chances are good that before climate change sterilizes the soil, lack of concern for artists will sterilize our culture.
Canadians should be ashamed.
But they aren't.