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The last few posts touched on matters which have much to do not only with societal accommodations, and political correctness, but also matters involving society’s respect for others. Thus, for those of you who DO know “what” Elvis Gratton is, you may think I’m lacking a bit of tact and judgement by writing a post on Elvis Graton directly after a series discussing multiculturalism.
You may even be thinking “There he goes…– he’s going to hold Elvis Gratton above everyone’s heads as a statement of societal intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”.
Well, actually… don’t get ahead of yourself. I want to say that I AM going to hold Elvis Gratton up as a statement regarding bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and gross prejudice. BUT, I’m sure my take on it is going to surprise you. I’m actually going to tout Elvis Gratton’s place in Québec’s culture to illustrate some of the best of what Québec is – the best of its people, the best of its society, and Québec’s deep concern for others, regardless of their backgrounds.
I need to first explain who and what “Elvis Gratton” is (considering that many Anglophone Canadians may not know about Elvis Gratton).
To start, if I were to mention “Cheech and Chong”, most people in Anglophone Canada will definitely remember this iconic Canadian-American comedy duo (at least those who have a cultural recollection of 1980s)
Québec also has two similar cultural phenomenon – which are some of the most iconic, most widely referenced and biggest Québec pop-cultural hits of the last 35 years:
- The Québec equivalent which could embody the “stage comedy” aspect of Cheech and Chong could be the stage comedic duo “Ding et Dong” (popular in the 1980s & 1990s).
- But the Québec equivalent which could embody the “movie” aspect of Cheech and Chong probably would be “Elvis Gratton” — which not only spanned the 1980s with the release of several movies, but also continued will into the 1990s, and up to 2009 in a later televised series format.
Elvis Gratton was a series of comedy movies, centred on one main character named Bob Gratton. He had an ever-present sidekick best-friend, Méo. In the movies, Bob Gratton won an Elvis impersonation competition, it went to his head, and he lived a frankly bizarre life and an even more bizarre view of the world.
Posters for two of the six movies, not to mention 40+ television episodes
What made the movies stand out was the bigoted nature of its characters, the political incorrectness of the plots, nasty cheap shots at every possible aspect of society, and some of the most crass language and behaviours I have ever seen of any movies in Québec or Canada (if you want to learn every Québec swear word under the sun, you only need to watch 10 minutes of any of the given movies). The movie was so raw and crass, in fact, that I’m even a little embarrassed to attempt to describe it. I could go so far to say that it plays on themes which are downright racist (think of the themes of South Park x 10, or Borat x 20). Needless to say, you’ll be able to find sufficient movie footage of it online to see what I mean.
Why and how could such a series of movies and television shows be such a hit (to the point that I would describe it as an iconic cultural hit)? I think you have to understand the timing of it in Québec’s own modern history, in addition to understanding the movies’ creator’s own place in society.
In a nutshell, the first movie came out shortly after the first 1980 referendum. The subsequent movies came out between the two referendums and during the first several years following the 1995 referendum.
The movie director, Pierre Falardeau (died 2009), was one of Québec’s few larger-than-life directors (it’s difficult to not think of Québec cinema without thinking of Pierre Falardeau). Falardeau was a very public supporter of sovereignty, and brought a good deal of philosophical perspective to the arena – debating it from his unique vantage point of the creator of many of Québec’s most appreciated cinematic works. The loss of the 1980 referendum would have been a tough blow for Falardeau, as would have been the loss of the 1995 referendum. It’s pure conjecture on my part, but men and women like Farlardeau often express their frustrations through their artistic works. Their works can also embody a healing process for their own anxieties.
The fact that Falardeau chose to use the Elivs Gratton movies to make fun of the most taboo, most delicate, most emotional and most intense topics in Québec before and after the referendums could possibly have been his way of not only coping with the issues, but perhaps helping society to cope with the issues themselves.
When individuals internalize their own pain and thoughts, the psychological damage can be crippling. Thus phycologists encourage people to find a way to externalize pain and painful. I wonder if Falardeau felt that Québec society as a whole was also in need of a psychological therapy session and a way to externalize its referendum anguish. Perhaps he was using the Elvis Gratton movies as a “psychologist’s sofa” to allow Québec, as a collective society, to revisit and externalize what it had been going through during the 15 – 20 years surrounding the two referendums. Perhaps he used Elvis Gratton as a catalyst for Québec to “get it all out”, on their movie and television screens, so that society could begin its own healing process. After all, the referendums tore apart aspects of society, pitting segments of society against each other. The fact that Pierre Falardeau used some of the most crass and politically incorrect plots and humour with which to make people laugh was perhaps the only way he felt he could compel society to look at these issues head on.
Regardless if my above take on Elvis Gratton is or is not correct, the movies were a monstrous success. They were so successful and so popular that lines and language from the movies have been immortalized in every-day common Québec French (I have even used some of them myself in some earlier posts). In this respect, lines and scenes from Elvis Gratton movies could be to Québec what the lines and scenes of Monty Python are to Great Britain.
Because Falardeau perhaps used the movies as his own substitute for a defacto “Truth & Reconcilliation Commission”, he took on issues as complex and sensitive as the chummy relationship between the federal Liberals and Power Corporation (a media corporation), how Québec viewed and treated visible minorities and immigrants, how sovereignists and federalists treated and viewed each other, how disabled people were viewed by society, religion’s place in society, how people seemingly followed ideologies like blind sheep without understanding what they were following, some of the least desirable aspects of marriage… and the list goes on. He created comedic sketches making fun of all these matters, in the most crude and extreme ways – using the most crass language in French vocabulary. But it made the masses pay attention, and laugh. People laughed like you would not believe. Years later, I know people who still recall Elvis Gratton scenes, and who continue laugh at them.
I’m not sure if you read my earlier post on “Sugar Sammy” (click HERE for it). If you have not read it, I recommend you read it before reading the remainder of this post (it will put the following into perspective).
In the “Sugar Sammy” post, I made the specific point of emphasizing that laughter is the best medicine – especially when people can laugh at themselves. In the Sugar Sammy post, I used the example of comedy + language politics to make the point. However, in the case of Elvis Gratton, I’m using comedy + “sovereignty vs. federalism vs. society vs. everything else” to make the same point. Laughter lets people heal, and it allows people to reconcile. Under any other circumstances, the type of politically incorrect and controversial humour we saw in Elvis Gratton would have been condemned (after all, it contains repeatedly strong undertones of racist humour and other taboo topics). But in this case, the movies were not condemned at large – probably because Falardeau did a great thing… he used his talents as a producer to portray these topics in a manner to invoke laughter for the sake of society’s healing.
I think these movies did serve their purpose, and they did allow Québec, at large, to heal and to come to terms with the turmoil and emotion which stemmed from the referendums.
One specific example I can give you was during the Bouchard-Taylor Commissions (it was a commission which explored the whole issue of reasonable accommodations in the context of multiculturalism and interculturalism). The commission suggested that Québec cease to use the expression “Québécois de souche” (“purebred Québécois”) when refering to anyone whose roots in Québec can be traced back to white settlers in the 1600s and 1700s. Rather, the Bouchard-Taylor Commission suggested using the expression “French Canadian”.
Pierre Falardeau knew that these latter terms stirred up strong emotions from opposing aspects of society, almost to the point that it pitted certain groups against other groups, based on lines drawn by the opposing use of these expressions; invoking notions of nationalism, federalism and sovereignty. He therefore incorporated a puzzling mix of this confusing “identity” vocabulary into Elvis Gratton to come up with some of the funniest scenes. Prior to these movies, society likely thought there would be no way they could ever laugh at such emotional and gut-wrenching issues. But after the movies, everyone was laughing at these matters – to the point that many of these former “society-shredding matters” simply became cursory points of discussion. That is a very powerful transition – by any definition.
The scene to which I’m referring to above can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZS7sOOpELI.
From 2007 to 2009, for a period of three years, the movies were re-interpreted into a 3 year television sitcom. The fact that Elvis Gratton made the jump from the big screen to television in no way diluted the crassness or political incorrectness of the scenes. The television series was named “Bob Gratton” (not “Elvis Gratton”). It aired on TQS (today known as Télé-Québec). Again, I’m sure you’ll be able to find video clips of Bob Gratton online.
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Elvis Gratton’s place in Québec’s culture illustrates some of the best of what Québec is – the best of its people, the best of its society, and Québec’s deep concern for others, regardless of their backgrounds.
I said this because after Québec’s society had its emotional “release” through laughter, by way of these very politically incorrect movies and television, society never really re-embarked on making fun of such issues, at least at a societal level, ever again (issues which, under any other circumstances, should never be made fun of… i.e.: it’s not OK to laugh at and make fun of people with cerebral palsy, such as the movies did with Bob Gratton’s side-kick friend Méo; nor is it ok to make fun of gay people, or Muslims, or developing countries and their people, etc. etc.). And in this spirit, after Québec’s healing-period via Elvis Gratton, Québec put this kind of humour to rest. It has never really crept back into Québec’s mainstream media again. I think this shows that society knows how and when to put things into context.
In my blog series talking about Multiculturalism and Interculturalism, I spoke of “isolated” flare-ups of culturally sensitive matters, as well as political point-scoring by “lone” political camps. But I truly cannot emphasize enough that these are just what I said: “isolated” and “lone” scenarios. They do not represent a tendency towards societal racism, intolerance, or bigotry. On the contrary, Québec is one of the most welcoming, caring and warmest societies in the Western and developed world. Québec may be soul-searching for the best way to integrate immigrants (and it may have its odd hiccups and growing pains), but frankly speaking, so too are Vancouver and Toronto, and other provinces have issues as they are dealing with these subjects. But on the whole, we (as Canada as a whole or as Albertans, Manitobans, Québecois, or Newfoundlanders, as well as individual towns and cities) do a much better job of dealing with these matters than other parts of the world. We tolerate and empathize with them more than most other countries in the world. How Québec’s society has waded its way through these matters is truly commendable and remains a model for other societies which are undergoing rapid diversification while, at the same time, they are facing questions on how to best deal with serious, complex, and intense questions of cultural and heritage preservation. All-in-all, Québec has pulled it off and continues to evolve.
We really have to be careful to differentiate lone political camps (ones who seek to capitalize on isolated instances from society at large) from society’s individuals who exercise the utmost humanity with which to build a compassionate, just and tolerant society.
Guy A. Lepage was mentioned in this blog’s first post as being the host of Tout le monde en parle.
Where does one begin (or end) when talking about Guy A. Lepage? From a pop-culture point-of-view, he has a long list of accomplishments – a force unto himself over a period of 30 years, with wide reaching appeal in Quebec culture (but from his youthful looks and energy levels, you’d never guess he was born in 1960!).
It would take a book to write about the number of cultural and popular awards he has won, or just how well-known he is with Francophones.
In pop-culture, there are past references we can all recall from when we were younger; references you can joke about any time, and have them instantly understood by your peers. These shared experiences create a feeling of belonging, commonality, and sense of “yah, I remember that — yes, we are cut from the same mould – , and yes, we get each other in a way nobody from another culture could”.
That’s why pop-culture is an important building block to nationhood in the social sense. In an English-Canadian context, an example of might be the “Chicken Lady” from Kids in the Hall. Despite how long the show has been off air, many Anglophone Canadians in their 30’s or 40’s (maybe even 50’s) would instantly understand the context if you mimicked the Chicken Lady. Even regurgitating that the “Polkaroo” call from Polkadot Door makes for instant recognition — a bonding feeling of “Yah, I get you… we’re definately hatched from the same nest!” (mention Polkaroo to someone in Prince George, Moose Jaw, Windsor, or St. John and you’ll get the same nod and smile).
Guy Lepage has appeared in so many popular programmes, on so many different media platforms, that it could be said he has been a source of many Québec pop-culture references over the past 30 years. He has become a bonding figure for Québec pop-culture and society in general through the major events in Québec during that period. That’s a powerful force in all senses of the word. Whether it’s on purpose of inadvertent, pop-culture holds sway and influence over public opinion on a range of issues. Being at the helm of numerous programmes also means one has a degree of control over the business and economic end of what the public will see when they turn on their television or radio in the evening.
He rose to stardom as one of the main actors in the regularly aired comedy group Rock et belles oreilles (simply known as RBO). It ran for nearly 15 years on TV. For comparison sake, its presentation style was similar to that of Kids in the Hall. Kids in the Hall could be considered risqué for its time, often making fun of issues like sex and homosexuality, at a time when it was daring to touch upon those subjects on TV — let alone make fun of the issues (remember the “anal probes”?). In a national sense, the programme probably played some role in pushing the envelope of public awareness and acceptability.
With that reference in mind, RBO also used humour during the same era, but to a broader and deeper degree (sexual inuendo, homosexuality, politics, sovereignty issues, Anglophones, Francophones, public figures of all streams and colours, and various ethical issues). The majority of the sketches may not have been overly controversial, but by integrating humour into sensitive topics, RBO captivated the province and drew in the masses.
Since the programme disbanded, the actors went their separate ways and continued on various paths of stardom. But none of them achieved the status of Guy Lepage today.
In the early 2000s, he became more focused on the actual production of TV programmes. He created the Québec version of the France TV programme Un gars une fille, which ran weekly on Radio-Canada from 1997 to 2003. Apart from being the producer, Guy was also the main co-actor. The show became supremely popular, centered on the funny and quirky dynamics between a husband (played by Lepage) and his wife. The success of the series cannot be underestimated. It’s one of the most internationally prize-winning TV series in Canadian history, and has been adapted and copied in 26 other countries, more so than most any other TV programme in the history of television — full stop. With that, Lepage has a larger-than-life status in Québec and francophone pop-culture (it may now be more apparent why I mentioned two posts earlier that there were Francophones seemingly “shocked and horrified” when Le Journal de Montréal poll revealed the vast majority of Anglophone Canadians had absolutely no idea who Lepage was – despite the international accolades he has attracted towards both Québec, and Canada as a whole).
Since Un gars une fille went off the air in 2003, Lepage was further propelled into the sky when he adapted the France TV interview show Tout le monde en parle to create the still-running Québec version, starting in 2004 (the topic of this blog’s first post).
Apart from these achievements, Lepage has been an actor in several movies, he’s been the host of several major TV events (Québec national award ceremonies, annual galas, live televised celebrations, etc.), a stage-actor, an actor in commercials, and the producer of other artistic endeavours (with the TV comedy Les Chick’n Swell also having been galvanized in Québécois collective memory).
One of the most surprising aspects of his career is his brilliance as in interviewer. Perhaps it is owing to his boldness stemming from his RBO days of pushing the envelope into uncharted territory, or perhaps it is his overall confidence stemming from his contact with all aspects of society – but it’s undeniable that his talents as a provocative, probing, and quick-witted interviewer are quite unique. There are elements of Québec society who may not agree with the direction he takes his interviews, which battles he picks and choses – or who he choses to single out in interviews (he does have political and social opinions), but few would deny his talent. He nonetheless deserves much respect and accolade.
With all of this behind him, it’s a wonder Guy A. Lepage has time to sleep. And with his energy levels and determination, it will be interesting to see what comes next, what it will lead to, and how it will shape Québec society’s collective views.
References to search online to view or read:
- Tout le monde en parle (TLMEP)
- Un gars une fille
- Rock et belles oreilles (RBO)
Radio-Canada sells past programmes in various formats. Please do not pirate.
“Tout le monde en parle” (Everyone is talking about it) is Québec’s most watched weekly television program (with millions of viewers per episode). The viewer numbers are so large, that it actually is not an exaggeration to say the streets of Québec and Francophone Canada are quiet on Sunday evenings because everyone is inside watching the program.
The show regularly interviews headline news makers, and often in a controversial manner. The irony is because the interviews are so audacious, Tout le monde en parle itself regularly becomes Québec’s headline news story the day after it airs. There has been nothing quite like it in Canadian or Québec history (and possibly nothing like it in the history of North American television).
It is a long-running TV interview show (since 2004), filmed in front of a live-audience, broadcast once a week (two hours every Sunday evening, from 8pm to 10pm) on Radio-Canada. It is broadcast across Canada – thus regardless where you are in the country, you will be able to watch it. It is not broadcast during the summer. It was created by household-name Guy A. Lepage (one of Quebec’s best known actors, comedians, and interviewers).
It takes the format of Guy, and his sidekick Danny Turcot, interviewing well-known personalities from cultural, media, news, or political spheres — sitting at a table opposite to the hosts. Topics are most always on current events related to those being invited. Several invitees will often appear in one show, sitting side-by-side. Often the invitees will have opposing points of views. Because of this configuration, sparks can sometimes fly, and unexpected debates can ensue, especially if the opposing views of the invitees are of an emotional nature (think politics, or ethical issues).
The program often has heavy societal, social, and political overtones — often shrouding subjects in a serious overtone. The host has entrenched political views, and his questions can become very pointed, critical and less-than-subtle (aimed at both friends and foes alike). However, regardless of the host’s own political or social views (which do come through on the show – there is no doubt about it) Guy A. Lepage plays it cool, adds a lot of humour, and it makes for a great entertainment factor.
The program also provides the audience with a rare chance to see celebrities, politicians and other newsmakers in either a relaxed setting, or under the heat (questions and criticism of the invitees can become very unbalancing — which is precisely one of the reasons the show is so popular). For this reason, it’s one of the highest rated, and best known television shows in Quebec — hence “Everyone is talking about it”.
The most famous names in society appear on the program, but even if someone is not so well known, they will be a household name after appearing on the show (in the hours running up to the show’s airing, Lepage has even been known to tell lesser known guests to get ready to become a household name and recognized everywhere as soon as the show goes to air).
Because of popularity of the interviewees, this is one of those shows which is a sure-fire fast-track to familiarize oneself with popular topics and people being currently discussed in Quebec society during at the office water-cooler, among friends, or in the news.
For Anglophone Canadians, it is also a great way to improve your level of French (you’ll find guests speak with a mix of styles of French, be it standard québécois, local accents, and sometimes joual).
– The show’s official website is http://ici.radio-canada.ca/tele/tout-le-monde-en-parle/2014-2015/
– The show’s wikipedia article has highlights of some of the better known moments:
- (English) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tout_le_monde_en_parle_(Quebec)
- (French – much better) http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tout_le_monde_en_parle_(Qu%C3%A9bec)