By Kevin Ritchie
Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk could be walking into a lion’s den. Thousands of journalists will attend the Toronto International Film Festival and several of them likely have a bone to pick with Frank magazine – Canada’s only member of the muckraking press and subject of the couple’s new film, The Frank Truth.“We’re not sure we’ll talk to a reporter who doesn’t have some sort of agenda,” says director Rick Caine. “Either their friends have been damaged by the magazine or they’ve been praised and they love it.”
Frank is a satirical gossip rag that reports on the personal lives of Canada’s pathetic celebrity scene. CBC report Wendy Mesley, Eyeopener entertainment editor Nicole COhen and failed newspaper mogul, Conrad “Tubby” Black have all been at the receiving end of Frank‘s acidic pen. Caine and Melnyk – the producer and a Ryerson journalism grad – spent two years documenting the chronicles of Frank editor Michael Bate and his staff. The idea for the film grew out of their experience dealing with publicists as reporters for Associated Press Television in Hollywood for the past seven years.
Revolted at the public relations machine that controls the Hollywood media and sycophant reporters who trade rave reviews for free hotel rooms, Melnyk directed Junket Whore, which got the duo booted out of Los Angeles. “As soon as you launch into criticism, [publicists] get so squirelly and you loose your access,” says Caine. “It’s not like you don’t know it’s going to happen.” Caine, a Florida native, met Melnyk at the Also Nido, the appartment building at the top of Hollywood Blvd. that appears in an opening shot of Sunset Boulevard and a hot spot for local crack smokers. Whenever they visited Melnyk’s family in Toronto, Caine would pick up Frank. He became fascinated by the magazine – the only publication that criticizes media without constraints of corporate ties (it has no advertisers) or public-relations spin.
When then-prime minister Brian Mulroney began parading his 14-year-old daughter around for television cameras, Frank staged a mock “Deflower Caroline Contest.” Enraged, Mulroney told a CBC reporter: “When you have a trash magazine that puts on the cover an incitement ro gang-rape my daughter, I wanted to take a gun and go there and do some serious damage to these people.” (The ad actually ran on page 18.) Mulroney never acted on his threat, but others have no qualms about firing off lawsuits. Legal papers arrive at Frank‘s office via fax machine on a regular basis. When Caine first contacted Bate about doing the movie in 1999, Bate mistook him for a lawyer. At the time, CTV reporter Mike Duffy was in the middle of settlement negotiations for a $60,000 lawsuit with Frank over a string of insults related to his weight. A Québec judge also settle out of court over a story that had him (falsely) in bed with a hooker.
Bate admits sometimes Frank gets the story wrong. One of the more surprising moments in the movie is when Ottawa Life editor Dan Donovan cries on camera, recalling the time when Frank wrongly labelled him a pornographer. “I thought, ‘okay, I can’t deny this guy’s feelings. He was deeply hurt by this,'” says Melnyk. “Frank shouldn’t just take [tips] off the fax. Try and get someone else to confirm a story for God’s sake. It’s just lazy.”
Frank has also been accused of hypocrisy. Bate, it is revealed in the film, is not only living in the middle-class suburban lifestyle he ridicules, but his wife runs an exclusive private school. Politicians who was to keep their name out of Frank (or buy “Frank Insurance”) will foot the tuition bill. On the whole, the film does a good job of balancing the value of Frank’s satirical eye and harm it can cause. “We weren’t trying to do a publicity blow-job on Frank,” says Melnyk. “We wanted the magazine to come alive. Whether you like it or not, it’s in your face.”
That Frank has survived for 10 years is an accomplishment. Its existence, says Caine, is also a compliment to Canada. I demonstrates society’s ability to laugh at itself. “I asked Michael one day why wouldn’t he move to Washington, D.C., and get a really large subscriber base and make some serious dough,” Caine says. “And he said without missing a beat, ‘Because I’d be shot.’ And he’s probably right.”
(PC) Dir. Rick Caine. Canada, 2001. 85 min. Sep 10,9 p.m., ROM; Sep 12, 11:15 a.m., Cumberland 3. Bate and Frank staff will do a Q&A after the ROM screening.