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Toronto in Moving Pictures: Notes on Scott Pilgrim and No Heart Feelings

by Carl Wilson

Usually Toronto appears in movies dressed up as another specific city (frequently you will see New York patrol-squad cars parked on our street corners) or as generic Anytown, with specific geographic markers minimized, generally in American movies. (Torontoist’s Reel Toronto series has a good time pulling back the camouflage.) But sometimes it plays itself, in movies made by Torontonians such as Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg and, increasingly, even a few non-Torontonians.

I’m an easy touch for localism, my own or others’, fetishizing site-specific references in songs, in art, on TV shows. I’d be unlikely to watch the striving-for-sparkling CBC show Being Erica if it weren’t set in Toronto; I’ll always be grateful for Kids in the Hall. This applies less to films. Perhaps setting is so vital to a film that the stakes are too high. It’s as if movies don’t do justice to Toronto and Toronto can’t do justice to movies. Perhaps the city’s not the right scale for feature film?

Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) may never be surpassed as a Toronto film: It documents Toronto when it was in the throes of post-adolescence, changing from provincial centre to metropolis, from sheltered Toronto the Good to a punchier, punk-rock city of dirty diversity. But it does not do so only with its background scenery – it’s actually about that process, choosing CITY-TV (“CIVIC-TV” in the film) and its soft-core porn (“Baby Blue movies” in real life) as the fulcrum of the change; the station’s Moses Znaimer (as more WASPishly incarnated by James Woods) as its instigator and eventual victim; the transformation’s psychic content as seeming to come from Asia but actually from America; its general theoretical content as coming from Marshall McLuhan; and Debbie Harry as making it all sexier.

This is all pretty accurate. Also, sometimes Toronto does make you feel like your guts are collapsing.

My next-favourite (at least excluding total art films) is probably Monkey Warfare (2006), which might be flawed and fidgety, but seduces me anyway. Its story, which centres on biking, pot, age-inappropriate relationships and soured idealism, could easily have taken place in Vancouver, where director Reg Harkema comes from. He had recently moved here, but I think the film mainly needed to take place in Toronto because it relies on the performances of Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (RIP), a couple playing a couple (I’d say couples are unusually important in Toronto), in their and my own gentrifying (in both film and real life) neighbourhood of Parkdale.

There’s metafiction and self-satire (local film-and-theatre “power couple” plays “loser couple”) in these doublings. But it is also a matter of camera angle – the eye-level view, slightly tilted down, that preoccupies the camera seems true to this city’s visual field. We have more and more tall buildings but we have not physiologically adapted to the idea that they are there. Toronto also seems an apt setting for any film about inertia, especially compulsively lively inertia.

This year, there’s been an unusually large number of openly, even proudly Toronto-based films. I haven’t seen Bruce McDonald’s This Move is Broken or Sook Yin Lee’s Year of the Carnivore or Atom Egoyan’s Chloe (or upcoming TIFF movies like Trigger, in which Wright also stars). But the last two movies I’ve seen are Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, a movie based on a manga set in Toronto by a local artist, but produced by Hollywood and made by British director Edgar Wright, and No Heart Feelings, a film made by a group of Torontonians and set here.

It needn’t matter that much that Scott Pilgrim is set in Toronto, as what dominates the production are the colourful comic-book and video-game effects that pop up on the screen. But the wryness of the movie depends on all the fantastical elements balancing off with the more drab, routine existence of its 20-something characters, who have bands that suck and live in little dark apartments where they make garlic bread for dinner. Wright was smart enough to realize Toronto could out-mundane just about any American city, at least any city that could simultaneously support a nightclub. The movie loves the city enough to make fun of it. It has the audacity to open with the words, “once upon a time in Toronto.”

The number of inside-Toronto-jokes may even have ankled it at the box-office – are Americans supposed to get why it’s funny that Ramona, the female romantic lead, is American (because, like her funky dyed hair, it’s part of what puts her out of Scott’s league)? The story takes place in winter, when any Canadian city is more itself (and less fun) than in the summer. Ramona has moved to Toronto looking for something mellower than her life in New York, but her (evil) ex-boyfriend told her it was “one of the great cities.” That boyfriend eventually follows to open a nightclub here, which is called Chaos, and reminds me strongly of another nightclub opened by a scenester New Yorker in Toronto, the late and unlamented Circa, which would equally have wished to describe itself as a “cathedral of cutting-edge taste.” A band is asked what they’re going to do for fun while in town, and the bass player says, “Fun? In Toronto?” This is funny because he’s a vegan from Montreal. When they’re going to rubberneck at a film shoot at Casa Loma, somebody says, “They shoot movies in Toronto?”

But ultimately Lee’s Palace, the defunct club Rockit, Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza and all the other landmarks are backdrops. The effect is not to have the movie set out an essay on Toronto – hell, Scott and Ramona blithely skip town out a magic door at the end – but to have Toronto altered just a little, forever after, by being used as a landscape for fantastic adventures. Next time I look down the Baldwin Steps, I can imagine a dumb skateboarding superhero being duped into doing a grinder down them to his doom. Next time I see a lousy band at Lee’s, I can envision someone headbutting the bassist so hard he explodes into a shower of toonies.

This is what the “telling our stories” trope of cultural nationalism gets wrong. Yeah, there is a hunger to have our lives, the places we live in, ratified in a sense by art: To have stories told that take place here sends the simple message that you can tell stories here. If you never hear stories about your place then you assume stories only come from elsewhere. But once that permission is clear you don’t have any obligation to “represent.” You have a mandate to transform.

This was the problem with a movie I really wanted to like better, No Heart Feelings, directed by Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison and Ryan J. Noth, which I saw at the Royal Theatre on College Street (it’s now playing at the Carlton). I’ve been leaving out of my survey a few set-in-Toronto works that friends have made lately, in part because I figure in them; I nearly have that issue with this movie: While none of the people who made it are my friends, they could easily be stunt doubles to my friends. Some friendly acquaintances show up in the backgrounds. I go the places the characters go and do a little too much of what they do.

So now I know what it’d be like to be an Upper West Sider watching a Woody Allen movie. I do not entirely recommend the sensation.

The film itself is a light cotton ball of partly improvised, mumblecore-style interactions, minor angst and sexy hangs that rolls pleasantly through the brainpan and leaves few threads behind. A couple of the actors (Rebecca Kohler, Steve Murray) are memorable, and several jokes. (At one point the characters, gathered at a cottage, are kidding around over dinner and someone says, “Didn’t you think that by now you’d be having serious intellectual dinner conversations? Are we even capable of talking about, like, politics?” “Perfectly capable,” another says, “but not interested.” Pause. Third character: “I once farted 12 times in a row.” Everybody laughs. “Was anyone else there?” “Yeah,” he says – “Jean Chretien.”)

Nothing much else happens at the cottage that we can’t predict. When characters in a movie about a city leave the city, it’s normally an opportunity for a transgressive turn, but this is a movie again about lively inertia, about people who are having trouble changing – nominally from youth to adulthood, but really from frivolity to substance. The movie doesn’t seem to have much to say about this problem (one guy makes art) except that one should try not to fall for the wrong people (which to be fair is about all Woody Allen movies often have to say).

This is in part because it is too preoccupied being a “love letter to Toronto,” specifically “our” Toronto of Kensington Market, College Street, bicycling, coffee shops, art openings, etc. After the initial wave of familiarity, the warmth becomes claustrophobic.

I do like little comedy-of-manners details the movie picks up on, in the particular ways Toronto life is shaped by bumping in to people on the street, or the dynamics of its yard sales and house parties. (Scott Pilgrim addresses the latter too). If it were as funny as prime Woody Allen, or the characters as engaging, it might get away with it more completely. Instead I start missing the escapist function of films – and realizing that for me any movie not set in Toronto is automatically more escapist than one that is, and more generally any emotional register is more escapist than everyday banter, and that a story that simply returns reality to you unaltered is not exactly a story, although it is a skill.

Next time I am at Ideal Coffee, I’ll remember the conversation in this movie about how it’s a place that can make you feel not cool enough to drink coffee, but that won’t alter the place much more than an iota. Where’s that shower of golden coins?

The question of privilege is hard to avoid – of what kind of cultural position might make dissatisfaction and self-satisfaction so hard to tell apart. But there are lots of middle-class movies in that zone. Maybe if I’d been Argentinian and seen it in Buenos Aires, or even Canadian and seen it in Kingston (it played festivals in both places), this wouldn’t bug me as much. But five years ago when a bunch of us were talking cheekily about “Torontopia,” the notion was something like this passage from Ivan Chtcheglov:

And you, forgotten, your memories ravaged by all the consternations of two hemispheres, stranded in the Red Cellars of Pali-Kao, without music and without geography, no longer setting out for the hacienda where the roots think of the child and where the wine is finished off with fables from an old almanac. Now that’s finished. You’ll never see the hacienda. It doesn’t exist.

The hacienda must be built.

All cities are geological; you cannot take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends. We move within a closed landscape whose landmarks constantly draw us toward the past. Certain shifting angles, certain receding perspectives, allow us to glimpse original conceptions of space, but this vision remains fragmentary. It must be sought in the magical locales of fairy tales and surrealist writings: castles, endless walls, little forgotten bars, mammoth caverns, casino mirrors.

The hacienda was there to be built, the materials there to be found. Scott Pilgrim seemed to me to know that the casino mirrors can then become glittering lakes, or at least waterslides. It’s like Videodrome that way, although a much more cotton-candy version. No Heart Feelings casts its eye across the building materials, then sits down on them and has another beer. Come on, folks. Break’s over.


Filed under carl wilson, movies