Alan Zweig, as much a part of Toronto’s fabric as a terminally tardy streetcar.
At 59, Alan Zweig may seem a peculiar choice for Hot Docs’s Focus On retrospective program, an annual showcase of the work of a “mid-career” Canadian filmmaker. Though he’s worked in the film industry for over two decades, Zweig’s first feature documentary, Vinyl, premiered at Hot Docs in 2000 when he was, well, you do the math. But since then, he’s been incredibly productive, with three films popping up in the intervening 11 years (2004’s I, Curmudgeon, 2007’s Lovable and 2009’s A Hard Name) at a steadily increasing clip.
All of Zweig’s films, from Vinyl’s exploration of record collectors’ tics to A Hard Name’s look at the struggles of ex-cons, express a shrewd world-weariness that comes with age. If fine wines and scotches, like they say, get better with age, then Zweig emerged into the documentary circuit pre-aged, ripened in the proverbial cask of what he describes as “twenty-two or -three good, solid years of failure” that preceded his success with Vinyl.
A graduate of Sheridan college, a former cabdriver, and a Torontonian all his life, Zweig’s films have done more than unshackle him from his years of disappointment. They’ve enshrined him in the cinematic and cultural life of the city. He was even hailed as “the original hipster,” at the kick-off Hot Docs press conference a few months ago. (Which, if anything, proves how continually elastic the h-word is.)
Despite his achievements in Toronto, and the “hey it’s that guy!”-level of local recognition, Zweig feels conflicted about the Hot Docs retrospective of his work. “It’s always amazing to me that my films have not travelled outside of Toronto really at all,” says Zweig, sitting in a coffee shop in near Roncesvalles and Howard Park avenues. “I feel like I know who my audience is. A lot of them are people like me when I was younger. There are 100,000 of those in Seattle, too. Or Portland or San Francisco or New York or Minneapolis. It’s not a majority, but you could cobble together a couple million more people, just from the States. So people will come to Hot Docs from the States and say, ‘You’re having a retrospective on some guy I’ve never heard of?’…But on the other hand, what better place to be known then your home town?”
Though Vinyl’s examination of obsessions and loneliness has become kind of a cult hit outside of Toronto, Zweig’s other studies of solitude and compulsion have not had the same luck. “A lot of people have heard of Vinyl, but a lot of people don’t know I’ve made anything else,” he grouses. “Like I’m just that guy who made that. I made one film and they never heard from me again. And you can see it on Torrents but there’s no DVD.”
While “cult film” or “cult filmmaker” are usually labels slapped on by outsiders—nobody really sets out to make a “cult film,” except for the especially exploitative people that do—it suitably describes Alan Zweig. And we’re lucky to be the ones enjoying his local pseudo-celebrity status, because there’s something remarkably Toronto-y about Zweig’s films. Despite being shot mostly indoors, with people who could ostensibly be living anywhere, many of the subjects of Zweig’s films (and especially his so-called “Mirror Trilogy” of Vinyl, Curmudgeon, and Lovable) seem instantly familiar. (This isn’t just because the likes of Don McKellar and Geoff Pevere pop up in Vinyl.)
Some people who talk about Atom Egoyan’s work talk about how his often claustrophobic mise-en-scène and the emotional coolness of his characters reflect the chilliness of the Toronto winter, when everyone recedes more-or-less to the indoors to ride the storm out. The same sense crops up in Zweig’s films. His indexing (itself a kind of compulsion) of the neurotic, obsessive, fanatic, grumpy, and most-of-all lonely speaks to the emotional and psychic life of a city divided by invisible mental borders (downtown/uptown, or even downtown/anything north of Bloor), and one in which citizens spend long stretches of the calendar year indoors.
Alan Zweig, enthusiasm successfully curbed.
Packed with rough-hewn talking head interviews (Zweig’s camera is like the anxious cousin of Errol Morris’s high-tech, hyper-intimate Interrotron interview technology), informal and off-the-cuff lines of questioning, and exceptionally candid first-person confessionals, which feature Zweig interviewing himself in a vanity mirror, his films also serve to enliven this emotional enmity and chip away at all these psychic barriers. Watching Zweig’s films, there’s a wonderful sense that Toronto is alive with all the interesting, wonderful, and troubled people who live behind the windows of whatever townhouse, condo, or brownstone walk-up. If Egoyan’s Toronto is austere and stylized, Zweig’s is strangely lived-in, the distance of a few blocks or a few clicks along the Gardiner collapsed by a glitchy jump-cut.
Zweig is turning 60 next year, and shows no signs of slowing down. (Anyway he can’t, really—like it or lump it, he’s now a filmmaker by trade.) And if his most recent documentary feature, A Hard Name—easily his most accomplished film—is any indication, his work shows signs of growing beyond the self-analysis and camcorder naval-gazing. If the hassles of organizing shoots and lugging camera equipment across town seem daunting, even at “mid-career,” he still appears enthusiastic (however warily) about future projects. “There are some truths about 60, no matter what you want to hide,” Zweig confesses. “Maybe today’s 60 is the new 50. But it’s still 50. I’m doing this thing that’s a young man’s game and it’s because doing this gave me a career. Well, maybe a career is an exaggeration. But it gave me the retrospective.”
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.
Focus on Alan Zweig kicks of Friday, April 29 at 11:15 a.m. with a screening of A Hard Name at the Isabel Bader Theatre (93 Charles Street West) and continues throughout this year’s Hot Docs festival. For the complete programme listings check out the festival’s website; for reviews of select feature films, check out our own Hot Docs hub.