The missed opportunity that was Festival Street, and why Torontonians should embrace TIFF without all the grumbling.
After TIFF’s opening weekend the stress and buzz and star-spotting recede a bit. Which is nice. Now it’s on to the serious business of seeing movies (or, I guess, covering press conferences). By Monday, everyone’s catching up on stuff they haven’t seen and, for the most part, they’re totally bored of waving at friends, coworkers, and colleagues they pass on the street. The initial excitement that comes with the annual fête du cinéma has settled into boredom, or, worse, curdled into obnoxiousness. (If I had to guess how many times in the past five days alone I’ve heard a movie star asked some variation of, “How did you find this project?”, I’d guess close to one billion times.)
This year, the shift from “TIFF!” to “eh, TIFF…” was dramatically signalled by the tear-down of “Festival Street,” which saw King Street West closed to traffic between University Avenue and Peter Street for the festival’s opening days. For people who don’t care about TIFF—and believe it or not, there are plenty, and they all respond “This is what passes for news???” when you post a TIFF story on Facebook—there was some whinging about this closure. In last Friday’s Toronto Star local urbanist and noted brunch-hater Shawn Micallef wrote that a big events like TIFF (or Pride, or Caribana) raise the question of to whom, exactly, Toronto belongs. “Other cities, like London or New York, very much belong to the world,” he writes, “with UN motorcades, millions of tourists, and the antics of international playboys barrelling around in Mercedes limos. The residents in those cities have to go along for the ride, but in Toronto, we know it’s temporary. There’s always some grumbling. (It wouldn’t be Toronto without the grumbling.)”
Micallef’s essentially right. Inconveniences like this are the cost of living in a big city. We should be embracing everyone who’s flocking to TIFF, whether they’re here to stargaze or dine out on the finest offerings in contemporary world cinema. If it bungs up your commute by 10 minutes, well, suck it up. (And if the streetcar is the issue, I’d suggest simply walking the blocks from Peter to University. Lord knows it’s hot enough outside to merit a nice stroll.)
For me, the issue is less about the King West shutdown itself than the Festival Street initiative, which felt like a missed opportunity. But, face it: the thing is based around the corner of King and John streets, one of the more glossy and antiseptic intersections in Toronto. It’s hard, if not impossible, to make it seem at all cool. So instead of something fun and worth going to (like, say, Dundas West Fest), the whole initiative basically felt like a sprawling, extended Kit Kat Bar patio. More to the point: the areas in question are so crowded by explicit TIFF action (like red carpet roll-ups at the Lightbox, Princess of Wales, and Roy Thomson Hall), that the street feels claustrophobically stuffy. (That said, I imagine part of the “initiative” was designed to cut down on the potential for accidents involving pedestrians and looky-loos ambling into traffic in an attempt to catch a glimpse of Jason Bateman or whomever.)
Elsewhere, something like the Pepsi Pop-Up—an enormous, bisected inflatable Pepsi bottle on Richmond Street West, where you can kick back and drink a disgusting Pepsi and listen to some bands who are owned by Pepsi—feels like a bad joke, while resembling a bad Jeff Koonz installation. Has anyone not heard of Pepsi? Do we need Pepsi awareness at a festival that’s supposed to be, at the risk of sounding like some nose-upturned snoot who sips his Pepsi from a champagne flute, about art? This is the stuff that makes TIFF seem wholly embarrassing.
Walking by an enormous Pepsi bottle staffed by a perky promo-rep trying to push Pepsi on you makes it feel like Toronto belongs not to us, not to the world, but to any sugar-water company with a quarter jangling in its pocket.