Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Talking Toronto Film With Geoff Pevere

Critic Geoff Pevere discusses Toronto's exciting new place in Canadian -- and world -- cinema.

Whether you’re watching Elliot Gould working as a jaded bank teller in an unassuming Eaton’s Centre in The Silent Partner (1978) or Milla Jovovich rappel down the City Hall towers in Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), Hogtown has always excelled at hiding itself away.

The TIFF Group’s anthology
Toronto on Film (WLU Press), collects essays by films and filmmakers audacious enough to engage Toronto on its own terms. Edited by TIFF’s associate director of Canadian programming Steve Gravestock and editorial manager Kate Lawrie Van de Ven, the writing in Toronto on Film runs the gamut from Wydham Wise’s examination of early indie to Matthew Hays’s survey of seminal Big Smoke queer films, to Brenda Longfellow’s essay on the so-called Toronto New Wave films of the 1980s. It also boasts a handy index of “175 Key Toronto Films,” itself required reading for more devoted Canuck cinephiles.

One of collection’s keystones essays is Geoff Pevere’s “Flickering City: Toronto On Film until 2002.” A mainstay in Toronto’s film culture and long-time contributor to the
Toronto Star (where he formerly served as film critic), Pevere offers thoughtful analysis of some of Toronto’s most seminal big screen representations. Beginning with an anecdote about the shock and awe Torontonians felt at having the city’s most prominent landmark (or eyesore, depending on your cynicism) proudly plopped in front of them in Deepa Mehta’s melting-pot musical Bollywood/Hollywood, Pevere maps out the feelings of anxiety, alienation, embarrassment and celebration that have marked Toronto’s cinematic presentation of itself over the last century.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pevere over coffee. We spoke about the new book, Toronto’s on-screen outsider status, developments in the city’s film festival culture, and the future of film criticism.

John Semley: I’d like to start where you start in your essay, which is with the premiere screening of Bollywood/Hollywood at TIFF a few years back where you describe the collective gasp when the audience saw the CN Tower on display in that film. Do you think this reaction just had something to do with the newness of the image? Of not seeing Toronto doubling as New York or Chicago?

Geoff Pevere: Part of it was that. It was a movie that was not only not making any apologies for being set in Toronto or in any way attempting to disguise that it was Toronto. The experience of being in Toronto was instead an indication of the success of the characters in the movie. The city was being celebrating the CN Tower for what it was, a piece of visual iconography. It's more iconographic if you live here than it is in the movies, because unlike Bollywood/Hollywood, most movies shot here aren’t supposed to be set here, so they have to hide that. But to see  it in the context of a musical sequence was, maybe in an unconscious way, cathartic. It becomes like something out of On the Town with Frank Sinatra. And I open the essay with that, partly because it was fresh in my mind when the essay was originally written. With all due respect to the film, the effect was largely caused by the rarity of that image.

JS: Even earlier there’s that fairly silly scene in Rozema’s I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing where the heroine scales the CN Tower with suction cups. But that’s a film from the late ‘80s. And of course when you have a film playing at TIFF circa 2001 or 2002 like Bollywood/Hollywood, the event becomes much larger. 

GP: It’s funny, I remember when I saw Mermaids there was a lot of laughter during that sequence. Not just because it’s showing the CN Tower, but because it’s there as a visual joke, which was rare. But there was something about the context of the sequence in Bollywood/Hollywood...the presentation of the CN Tower provided this sort of climax.

JS: It seems too that since films like this began representing Toronto, local filmgoers, or maybe just critics, seem to have developed a weird burden of expectation towards these images. I remember at TIFF this year at the Chloe screening, there were people rolling their eyes at the film’s skewed geography. You know, because Liam Neeson’s character works in Yorkville but goes down to Cafe Diplomatico on College and Crawford to read the paper. 

GP: It would only make a difference to on-the-ground local critics. It’s less a sense of geographic integrity than the realities of filmmaking here, of shooting schedules and location availability and that kind of stuff. One of the remarkable things about Monkey Warfare was that when they turned a corner in that one, they turned a corner on to the right street. It was so specifically set in the west end, in Parkdale. It was unusual to see that. I think there’s probably, for a number of filmmakers, a quietly ashamed feeling about stuff like the CN Tower, for example. I mean the CN Tower, regardless what you think about it aesthetically, really represents a very specific moment in Toronto history.

JS: You mean the idea of Toronto as the “world-class city”?

GP: Yeah, the CN Tower is about yearning so much and so nakedly for that status. “World-class city” is a phrase everybody heard and it stayed in common usage for about 20 years. For a lot of filmmakers, I think it might be that Toronto represents something about their own aspirations that they’re a little embarrassed by. To me one of the most quintessentially Toronto movies ever is Crash. But again what’s interesting about that is that you never see the CN Tower.

JS: It’s more about these labyrinthine highway tributaries feeding into the city.

GP: The grey network, yeah. And also all these balconies looking out over the city. It’s great.

JS: A lot of the essays in this book, and a lot of the films described, seem suspicious of this reputation of “Toronto the Good” or of Toronto as the “world class city” as embodied by the CN Tower or by Nathan Phillips Square. There’s a rejection of this identity. Egoyan for example, has been known for making Toronto massively alienating and emotionally chilly and all that. And writing about his Ararat, you mention how Toronto is kind of a non-space that allows new truths to be discovered. Is part of this idea that Toronto has no real organic idea and thereby turns into a blank slate for defining or rediscovering identity?

GP: Well yeah. I think a number of things are at work that all feed into that sense  of placelessness. Part of it purely geographical. We have a city with some specific geographic characteristics, but you have to be on the ground to notice them. In fact they tend to be underground. This network of ravines that runs through the city. Toronto physically is a bowl that comes up from Lake Ontario. It doesn’t have the sort of affecting visual drama you get on the East Coast or West Coast. There’s more a sense of geographical anonymity, especially as observed by the camera lens.

I think the other thing is that the absence in Toronto, for years and years and years, of any film industry. Even when the only film industry we had in Canada was state-supported, the NFB was located in Ottawa and then Montreal. It wasn’t here. For that reason there was no big filmic tradition here. Yet at the same time Toronto has always had a huge, a disproportionately massive, movie-going population. The success of the film festival here is an indication of that..But before there was this concurrent where you didn’t have a lot of films being made here, but you have people crazy about movies who are watching representations of cities like New York and Los Angeles their entire lives and not seeing their own city represented.

JS: And again, when Toronto was represented it would be passing as some other place.

GP: It’s interesting that so often in these Toronto films there’s this recurring theme of the malleability of identity. Of identity being hijacked. In Egoyan’s films you often have people pretending to be other people; people assuming the roles of someone else. There was a film by David Wellington called I Love A Man in Uniform, and it’s about a guy who works playing a cop in a show shot in Toronto but set in the United States who assumes this psychotic, vigilante hyper-reality because he assumes he can just becomes this cop. So Toronto often seems to be the setting for a human psychic vacuum to take on these other roles.

I think it has to do with Toronto not being able to take on those sorts of mythic qualities that you can oppose. For example, if you look images of London, England at Christmastime people will say “That’s not the real London!” or if you take images of New York from On The Town versus Scorsese’s view of New York, there’s still this basic sense of mythology. And with Toronto we didn’t really have anything. So I think when films first started being set here Toronto seemed like a new urban frontier for people who has grown up here and lived here. And for very many Canadians, their media experience consists of watching images that come from someplace else.

JS: Well Toronto, and I guess Canada on the whole, has always been considered part of Hollywood’s domestic market. It almost seems like an insult, that phrase “domestic market.” And without that institutional basis you’re describing, it seems as if guys like Cronenberg and David Secter just got fed up, as if it reached a point where the attitude was “let’s just do this ourselves.”

GP: You’re right. As I’m sure you know, in the first 60 and 70 years that the medium of film existed, any attempts to set up a domestic film industry, let alone an industry here in Toronto, were...

JS: Well for years it was all Bombardier propaganda and tourist films...

GP: Exactly, and it was all based on economics. From a Hollywood marketing point-of-view the city was providing a cinematic industrial function. They were filling theatres in Toronto with Hollywood films so where’s the impetus to make our own? But when I spent some time at the Ontario archives here and the National Archives in Ottawa, it was interesting to see that in the first decade of the last century there were a lot of interesting archival images of the city. There was the Queen Street fire, horses and buggies.

JS: Basically all that footage they’d show before screenings at TIFF this year.

GP: Right, and it was interesting because they looked like city images that were being recorded in Paris, in London, in Berlin. People were just out in the streets with these new cameras. But then Toronto becomes largely designed to attract industry and tourism. It’s sold as a mythic place, but as a little England, but with more space. Then later you see some home movie footage, mostly shot in colour. And they’re fascinating, but they’re mostly shot by Toronto’s upper-class elite, because movie cameras that were more affordable didn’t come around to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

JS: You also hear a lot of people who will talk about issues of Canada, or Canadian cultural identity, as if we have no shared identity or no shared national experience. Or, if we do have one, it’s precisely this multiplicity of experiences. It seems that this Toronto On Film books, especially in offering so many takes on city—you have an essay on  urban cityscape, and essay on the Toronto New Wave films—that Toronto is almost a microcosm for this whole theory of Canadian identity. But a consistent narrative that seems to come up in Toronto films, especially in stuff like  Nobody Waved Good-Bye or Goin’ Down the Road, is this twin view of Toronto as a city to escape to and a city to escape from, often in the same film. It’s almost as if there’s this pre-established view in Canada, as seen in films like these, that Toronto is the land of opportunity, but once you get there you’re only going to be put-upon and left penniless and heading for the next boomtown.

GP: In movies like Goin’ Down the Road and Nobody Waved Good-bye you see this test of the dominant mythology. All the stuff you might have learned about New York or Los Angeles, well this is where it ends. There’s a kind of narrative which has people coming to Toronto expecting that their dreams of freedom and escape are going to be fulfilled. But in fact those dreams are broken, busted up, exploded and ground into the dirt. One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about a lot of Canadian movies is how consistently they want to respond to the dominant mythology of the movies that flood our culture. The idea of the frontier, the idea of the American Dream, of infinite success, even the idea of the melting pot, all seem to be examined and put to the test at one point or another in Canadian film. No one would ever do this, but looking at Nobody Waved Good-bye and something like The Graduate would be fascinating. There are similarities. It’s about someone raised in a stifling and miserable place...

JS: Born in the age of plastics...

GP: Exactly. And it’s early enough that he’s inspired by the bohemian coffee house scene—it’s “a hoot” I think the main character says he wants to go to—as he is by rock and roll. What’s interesting about that is that it doesn’t happen. He leaves home, he gets downtown, his girlfriend is knocked up, he gets an extremely sinister job working in a parking lot for a no less sinister figure than John Vernon, who latter would become one of Hollywood’s leading villains, so if you’re going to work at a parking garage, you don’t work at one that’s run by John Vernon. In Nobody Waved Good-bye, Peter Kastner didn’t know that. And eventually, all the dreams that he has are put to the test.

But the other interesting thing is that Kastner’s character is himself hard to like. He’s no Benjamin Braddock. He’s not someone whose sense of not fitting in is in any way endearing. Instead he’s belligerent. As much as his parents may seem like suburban conformists, they don’t seem like bad people. What you’re rooting for is for his delusions to be made clear to him. Whereas in The Graduate you root for outside culture. And later on, when you have something like Goin’ Down the Road, you have these two guys coming from great economic hardship, with little education, and they come to Toronto and it’s like heading to Emerald City.

JS: When you watch a movie like that with the economic realities of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in mind, it seems as if their failure is presumed by the narrative and by the audience. It’s hard to root for characters like that, when their failure seems laid out from the beginning.

GP: They’re films about failure. About disillusionment. About disappointment. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because those films are interesting lessons in how society can work to exclude people, how it works to maintain certain inequalities. Don Shebib’s family came from the East Coast and he grew up with familiar members arriving, trying to make their way through Toronto, having ideas of Toronto as a place where anything can happen, and it didn’t quite work out. Toronto is the place where these kind of dreams aren’t easily sustained. Later on, when you see films about people taking on different identities within Toronto, it’s another side of the same thing. It’s the idea that if you can’t make things conform to your dreams you become a kind of dream yourself. What shows up over and over and over again is Toronto as this place that refuses to settle into any fixed image. In that way, it’s quite exciting to look at a number of films shot here other the years. That there is no unifying mythology is one of the great things about Canadian films.

JS: We don’t have a John Ford or a John Wayne. But we also don’t seem like we want one.

GP: Or need one.

JS: Back to this idea of failure. Of course there’s nothing really wrong with making films that are about failure or disillusionment or alienation, but it does get a little depressing when it becomes the default mode for an entire cinema. Though I guess the corollary of that is not only that these films are being made, but that many of them are very sophisticated films. It’s a nice antidote to the fact that, on a narrative and thematic level, a lot of these films can be quite benumbing.

GP: And over the years, I’ve often been asked to consider a response to the idea that Canadian films are by definition downers or bummers. The thing is, when you look at it, and if you understand the fact that in economic terms Canadian films have always been a “foreign cinema” or an “art cinema,” even within Canada. There isn’t really a tradition of popular, stand up and cheer, audience-pleasing movies. The kind of people that get drawn to filmmaking in Canada are the types that are drawn to independent films. They don’t seem to be the Spielberg types...A lot of the films seem sceptical, almost fearful, of dominant modes of filmmaking. It has to do with the fact that for a lot of years to be a filmmaker in this city, and in this country, was to be an outsider by definition. If you look at who I feel are the two most important contemporary filmmakers in this country, Guy Maddin and David Cronenberg, their work will never compete with the Steven Spielbergs.

JS: Though isn’t Cronenberg working on some film Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington?

GP: IMDB has different listings every time you check. He’s also supposed to be doing Cosmopolis, apparently.

JS: Probably my least favourite DeLillo novel.

GP: That’s what everybody says.

JS: But still, Cronenberg was pretty significant for me personally. I mean, I remember seeing Videodrome in my teens and within minutes just knowing that it wasn’t going to be a movie in the way that I understood movies up to that point. And that it was the closest thing Cronenberg had come to commercial cinema at the time was pretty astounding.

GP: Oh yeah. It’s wild.

JS: As far as this Toronto on Film book itself, it seems to be part of TIFF’s larger initiative to further brand the festival as, finally, a world-class presence in Toronto. As someone who’s obviously very involved in local film culture, I’m wondering if you see any danger in this move to make TIFF a larger commercial festival? I mean it almost seems as if the imperative is more to get tourists to drive up from Niagara to see Whip It then it is to expose people to new films by Claire Denis or Corneliu Porumboiu.

GP: I met [festival director] Piers Handling at Carelton University. He was a graduate of Queen’s University at that point and would attend classes at Carelton because one of his former professors, Peter Harcourt, was lecturing there. And Piers has done a lot of work with the Canadian Film Institute. I mention that to stress that Piers has been a guy whose heart and mind has always been about the cinema. If I can presume to guess his vision about the way it’s going to unfold, is that the festival in its metamorphosizing incarnation is to be used in its bigness and its scale so that it always has a home for more challenging stuff. And for archival work and retrospectives. I think the old fashioned cinematheque model—with publications, with screenings, with an educational function, with the whole idea of a cultural expansion—will always be a part of what is done at TIFF.

The thing is, that will never be the sexy part of what it does. Part of the reason why I can’t watch or read any film festival coverage is because I don’t need every media outlet in the city, and around the world, telling me that George Clooney is in town. I know it’s there. I think that in the long term if the festival becomes, as it arguably already has, a reason to make Toronto a destination, then there will always be those other things to discover. Always.

JS: And I guess as it grows so do alternative discourses. I’ve done some work with Cinema Scope, which was basically cooked up by Mark Peranson ten years ago as alternative guide for festival-goers. So there’s a publication that is very much geared towards festival coverage, but isn’t concerned at all, in fact it’s almost contemptuous of, films that are all about seeing the stars walk down the red carpet.

GP: And as you know, the opportunities for alternative discourse are spreading exponentially with new media and the internet. See, for me it’s too easy to say “the festival’s sold out to Hollywood.” The day that you can’t find alternatives, then maybe it has. If to any extent George Clooney is helping to raise the profile of anything that is not George Clooney, then that’s the way it’s always been done.

JS: Speaking of coverage of festivals and that, I know that of late you’ve kind of ducked out of the criticism racket. Now you’re reviewing stuff like Nick Cave’s new novel...

GP: Did you read it?

JS: Yeah. And I’m a big Nick Cave fan. But man, he really ran Kylie Minogue through the ringer. I guess it wasn’t bad enough that he bludgeoned her head with a rock in that one music video...but anyways, I was wondering what motivated your move out of film criticism and into literary criticism.

GP: To me, what was always the least satisfying part of my job, was my primary task.

JS: Reviewing movies?

GP: Reviewing Hollywood movies. And the attendant expectations around that. Over the years it’s gotten amped up to be more about celebrity news and entertainment gossip. That was always the least interesting part. Some changes took place within the section I was writing for where those expectations became more pressing and that kind of journalism and film coverage become more predominant. In tandem with the increasing number of movies that would fly through town each week, it became less and less rewarding to review movies that I had no interest in. Sometimes loathing and disdain can be great sources of inspiration for a writer, but not utter indifference.

JS: Well it’s so much more difficult nowadays. I mean it must have been hard enough trying to compete with the Peter Traverses who reduce films to catchy quotes like “What a rollercoaster thrill ride! Eight thumbs up!” but nowadays people Tweet film reviews. Especially at something like the festival. It’s impossible to keep up. The expectation is not to offer a critically engaged analysis of a film, even a Hollywood film, but to toss off some pithy, 120-character phrase that alleges to sum it up.

GP: Well, let me tell ya, if you’ve got that thing in you—and it mercifully only hits one in god-knows how many millions of people in the world—where you need to write about film, and you like writing about film, I’d be the last person in the world to say not do to it. I understand the need to. But I’m not riding off into the sunset, waving my Stetson. What I mean by that is that I came to it at a very particular time. Right at the time when I became really interesting in movies something exceptional happened in Hollywood that has only really been fully accounted for now.

JS: You mean the whole American New Wave, New Hollywood thing of the ‘60s and ‘70s?

GP: Yeah. And at that time, I could even be a high school student, in St. Catharines of all places—

JS: St. Catharines? I’m from Port Colborne.

GP: Really? I knew there was something happening here! [laughs] But I mean at the time, I could go see Bergman movies playing at the Town Cinema on St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. And my other main obsession at the time was music and music criticism.

JS: Well at that time you had Christgau and those critics emerging.

GP: It was amazing stuff! And for a young writer, it was incredibly inspirational. In many cases it was as much about the writing about film as the films themselves, which really influenced me and turned me into whatever it was I became. Right now, it’s not like I’m turning the back on the thing because it’s all used up or the cinema’s dead. It’s not. I recognize that the kind of writing that I enjoy most, which I still have opportunities to do, is not wanted in the mainstream. What I’m very fortunate to have found is a book column in a major newspaper. It’s one of the last outposts where you can write about ideas.