Festival honours medium messiah: Marshall McLuhan's message lives on
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 October 2004)

Marshall McLuhan, the English professor who alerted the world to the transformative power of media, always believed his thoughts would make him rich if he could only connect with the right entrepreneur.

So he consorted with ad guys and press agents who tried to package him as a high-priced idea man for U.S. corporations. It didn't work, partly because businessmen found him incomprehensible. But perhaps this month, two dozen years after his death, McLuhan has finally found the right handler -- Bill Marshall, a 65-year-old all-purpose promoter who helped create a great institution, the Toronto International Film Festival, and ran political campaigns for a great mayor, David Crombie.

Marshall has devised a 10-day thinkfest, Probe 2004, the first annual McLuhan International Festival of the Future, which starts on Friday and runs for 10 days at 20 places across Toronto, from the Royal York Hotel to the Jewish Community Centre on Spadina. While the publicity releases are condescending (one promises to make Toronto a "city that thinks"), the festival itself holds promise.

It may not be anything McLuhan would attend (unless you promised he could do all the talking) and it may be a gigantic panel-discussion snooze. But it could be fun and maybe even stimulating to absorb the spontaneous thoughts of various heavy thinkers and take part in events such as the psychogeographical walk through Toronto streets, organized by the Toronto Psychogeography Society, urban explorers who study the effects of the city on behaviour. (It starts and ends at the Drake Hotel.)

Friday's gala dinner costs $250, multimedia show included, but just $25 gets you an M-pass and admission to as many events as you can handle. Tickets can, in theory, be bought through the Web site, www.mcluhanfestival.com, but I found that impossible to navigate, a model of inadequate design. You can call 416-944-8105.

In conversation, Bill Marshall makes the festival sound weirdly like a rehabilitation program for McLuhan's reputation. He's bought the legend that the living McLuhan was often ignored and never appreciated by the University of Toronto. As McLuhan's new best friend, he thinks the anti-McLuhan attitude has recently changed, proven this summer when part of St. Joseph Street was renamed Marshall McLuhan Way.

In truth, McLuhan was never neglected, had fans across the campus all his life, was adored by the president of his day, Claude Bissell, and was given a light teaching load so he could pursue the studies that made him famous. He had severe critics in Toronto, then as now, but from the 1950s to his death in 1980, he was never less than a local hero. Even so, the myth of McLuhan as neglected genius holds far more charm than the reality.

As well as celebrating McLuhan and developing ideas, the festival constitutes a notable moment in Bill Marshall's own biography, having originated in his brush with death six years ago. Marshall developed cirrhosis of the liver, which the medical profession in its boring way suggested came from excessive alcohol consumption. Rumours of impending death circulated among his friends.

When he was designated a candidate for a liver transplant, he avoided liquor for two years, which he claims was easy -- he says he's no alcoholic, just likes drinking. Finally a dead young Maritimer's liver turned out to be a match. Shipped to Toronto, it was inserted into Marshall, and nicely accepted. He stayed dry for another year while taking anti-rejection drugs, then began drinking again. Nowadays he describes his habit with what he says is a medical term: "Special-occasion drinking."

All this made him think about his legacy. "I realized nobody knows I started the film festival and why should they?" Still, he yearned for more attention before close of play. "I didn't want to go quietly into that dark night."

He needed another festival. And there was McLuhan, languishing in the shadows, waiting for public appreciation. With the McLuhan family's approval, Marshall set to work, soon proving once more his knack for finding caches of money in little-known government offices. He got only $20,000 from the City of Toronto but picked up $50,000 from the Central Mortgage and Housing Corp., a neat coup somehow related to CMHC's desire for new construction ideas. Most impressively, he collected half a million dollars from a long list of Ontario government agencies, some of which probably don't even know about the existence of the others.

How did he do it? "A combination of whining and grovelling and occasional bellowing and tantrums." All going well, corporate donations and the box office will fill out the million-dollar budget.

Meanwhile, Marshall has plenty of other projects, some of which will actually happen. He's writing a gossipy memoir, Film Festival Confidential, about the early days, which McArthur & Company plans to publish next fall. He and his wife are Canadian representatives of the Anguilla Tourist Board, whose Toronto address is their Hazelton Avenue office. He also has in mind yet another festival, the subject to be disclosed sometime soon.

Long ago he produced a few good films, such as Outrageous, with Craig Russell, and a few wretched ones, such as Circle of Two, with Richard Burton. He's now developing two movies, one about Toronto's Tent City shantytown and another, Messenger, on McLuhan's life. He imagines casting Kiefer Sutherland as McLuhan in youth, Donald Sutherland as McLuhan in maturity. Just a dream so far, but with Bill Marshall some of the damnedest dreams come true.

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