Friday A/V Club: That Time Jane Jacobs and Marshall McLuhan Made a Movie Together

Killing the Spadina Expressway


It's 1970, and the Toronto authorities have paused the construction of the Spadina Expressway, a project whose costs have ballooned since it began. People in the proposed road's path push to make that pause permanent, citing the property seizures, pollution, and other problems the route will bring. Figures around the city rally to their cause, espousing arguments of many kinds—some more libertarian, some more environmental, some more practical than ideological.

One of these opponents is Marshall McLuhan, the famous communications theorist. Another is Jane Jacobs, the great defender of city neighborhoods. McLuhan gets the notion of fighting the freeway with a film. I'll let the website McLuhan Galaxy pick up the story from there:

I'd like to make a movie too, Woody.
United Artists

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…."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….

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."

The movie—called The Burning Would, after a line in Finnegans Wake—is below. You can judge for yourself how tangible, coherent, and constructive it is; if nothing else, it's a perfect time-capsule artifact of the era. It doesn't seem to have hurt the cause: In 1971, the expressway was cancelled, and the homes in the road's path were saved.

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)