Goin’ Down the Road, a stone Toronto classic.
This year’s edition of TIFF marks the first time in quite a while that the opening film—Creation—isn’t a “Toronto film” in some sense. But don’t think that that’s an indicator the festival has forgotten its hometown roots.
Last week, TIFF launched Geoff Pevere’s new book, Toronto on Film, a collection of essays on various aspects of Toronto’s life as a cinematic centre.
Pevere, best known for his writing with the Star and appearances on Reel to Real, focuses on the city’s dual nature: first, in terms of what Toronto-set films like Goin’ Down the Road and Videodrome say about the city; and second, its more prominent (and profitable) role as an anonymous anywhere used to by Hollywood over the past quarter-century to represent just about any urban corner of the globe. (The latter aspect is of less interest to the other authors but that’s just fine. Stay out of Reel Toronto‘s backyard!)
The essays intertwine the history of film with that of the city itself as it grew from “Toronto the Good” into the polyglot collection of communities in which we now live.
Pevere has already shown himself to be connoisseur of Can Con with Mondo Canuck, a lighthearted, encyclopedic exploration of our domestic pop culture. Toronto on Film is a bit different. With its footnoted essays and compact, glossy pages, it’s more academic in tone, if no less informative than the former book. It’s something more likely to appeal to a film student or a local history buff than Joe Popcorn—not that that’s a bad thing.
While most of us have at least some familiarity with the works of Egoyan, Cronenberg, and McKellar, plenty of attention is also given to flicks from the 1970s—such as Ron Mann’s The Strip and Glenn Gould’s Toronto—which most of us probably haven’t seen.
The book is at its best exploring niche areas such as how Toronto comes across in documentaries and its role in queer films. In general, in case you’re wondering, the city is a pretty anonymous and inhospitable place where people come to escape bad memories or find disappointment.
Like Reel Toronto, Toronto on Film also has an excessive, possibly Freudian obsession with the priapic CN Tower and its presence and/or absence in films shot here. Pevere’s introductory essay opens with him attending a screening of Deepa Mehta’s Bollywood/Hollywood and encountering a surprised gasp when the tower appears onscreen during a dance sequence. Even films set in Toronto (think of Cronenberg’s Crash or McKellar’s Last Night), rarely make use of our most distinctive landmark, he notes. Try to picture, on the other hand, a New York rom-com that somehow fails to include the Empire State Building in the fore- or background at some point.
Admittedly, the book is a bit dry for the average reader, but it’s not lacking in ideas and information. The bibliographical list of “175 Key Toronto Films” includes films about the city, set in the city, and made by people in the city. It’s a pretty exhaustive reference, even if it sometimes seems a bit too liberal in its definition of what constitutes a “Toronto film.” Away from Her is a great movie but does it fit the bill? Similarly, the Canadian Film Centre is a crucial institution, but Cube, which it produced, doesn’t really have much to say about the city, does it?
On the other hand, the book is a heck of a place to start learning more than a little about the city you might not learn from watching Short Circuit 2. It might just send you hiking down to the local Blockbuster—after which you’ll realize they don’t carry any of this stuff and instead head for the library or contact the NFB. But you get the idea.
It leaves you feeling there are still more chapters to be written. Whatever its shortcomings, Toronto on Film adds an awful lot to the discussion and fills an important gap in the history of Toronto, and of film in Canada. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that major, set-in-Toronto flicks like Chloe and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will provide fodder for a whole new edition, and a whole new perspective on the city.