Culture | Director John Curtin comments on the decline of civility

The Daily had a chat with Montrealer John Curtin, a journalist with 17 documentaries to his name, about his latest work, To Hell With Manners.

The McGill Daily:,/b> What sparked the idea to make this documentary?

John Curtin: It’s funny, everyone asks me that. Unfortunately, I don’t have a very interesting answer. I think that people think that one day someone said “Fuck you” or gave me the finger and I just decided to make a film. It wasn’t that spectacular. It was just sort of an observation. I thought of this topic like ten years ago, and even suggested it to a broadcaster [then], and they weren’t interested. And I thought, “Well, maybe this is an interesting topic,” since I’ve read dozens if not hundreds of articles about it, and it seems to have bubbled to the fore. I guess the next question is why [rudeness has increased]. I think one important factor is certainly all the gadgets that distract us from the people that are right in front of us. Unfortunately, electronics draw your attention, and it’s hard to ignore a ringing phone or a screen that’s lighting up and flashing, so you tend to [pay attention to] your technology and forget about the person in front of you.

MD: How did you manage to get William Shatner to narrate?

JC: (Laughs) Lots of money! That’s the only reason. I won’t tell you how much, because it’s way over my budget. I had some contingency funds and dumped it all – and some more – into Shatner’s fee, which is unbelievably high. He did say, since I’m from Montreal, that I get a 50 per cent discount, but when you’re discounting from that high…. Really it was extremely expensive.

It’s a funny little story. I arrived at this studio in L.A. and someone told me that 20 minutes beforehand [Shatner] had run out of there and shouted, “People are so fucking rude!” so he was all worked up. But he was actually very good [in the film], and this gave me an idea: maybe he could introduce himself this way. He actually thought it was very funny. At some points, he burst out laughing reading the script – he enjoyed it very much. I think I would enjoy anything if I got the fees he gets.

MD: How do you think films such as Pulp Fiction, very prominent in today’s pop culture, have affected the rise of rudeness?

JC: Oh my god! You know what, I had a section that I put in there – CTV wasn’t convinced – but I did insist. I think that it’s a valid comment to say that our culture is one that seems to say bad is good. In fact, doesn’t the expression “It’s real bad,” now mean “It’s good,” and I can’t remember the expression….

MD: Badass?

JC: Yeah yeah, badass, that really means cool or admirable or something. I do believe that the prevalent cultural icons, whether it’s Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, are just misbehaving to get attention.

MD: One woman in your documentary, April Branum, displayed the amazing feat of being pregnant without noticing. How comfortable was she, and were you, while filming this story?

JC: Well I told her this was a story about incivility, and she felt that people were very unkind to her. I think she comes across as very sympathetic and she is, in fact, a very kind person. It was a good example of how people just trash anyone. I guess it was kind of brave of her, I personally probably wouldn’t have gone on television to talk about it if I had been humiliated, but, you know what, it came across quite well, and I’ll send her a DVD. I’m sure she’ll be very happy with that: one of the more dignified stories is about her, and I think it makes a point.

MD: Do you think it’s true that, in our society, nice guys finish last?

JC: Well, certainly the experts will tell you that’s not true; nice guys, and gals, will eventually prevail. Sure, being treacherous might have some short-term gain, but treating other people well is certainly a more likely way of getting not just to your goals but getting other people to help you get there. I don’t think there’s a clear distinction between civility and moral


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