Saturday, November 12, 2011

Canadian versions

My wife watches the TV drama Covert Affairs, Sundays on Showcase, starring Piper Perabo as (it appears) the only CIA agent who gets any actual assignments. It’s set largely in Washington and sometimes in exotic global locations, but it’s mostly shot here in Toronto, often in my downtown neighbourhood. One episode was set in Paris, and from the look of the exteriors they actually went there too, but then all of a sudden they were close to the Flatiron building. Sometimes they barely seem to try to hide the fact it’s really Toronto, although of course I’m only capable of saying that because I know the city. Filmmakers obviously don’t sign any kind of cartography integrity pledge - New Yorkers for instance have been complaining for years about how movies set in the city make a mockery of the city’s geography. It would no doubt hurt a show like Treme if you suspected its immersion in New Orleans culture were being periodically supplemented by exteriors from anonymous-looking Canadian streets. But for a mostly breezy romp like Covert Affairs, it doesn’t matter at all. The show has a kind of upbeat can-do attitude, like a spy version of The Little Engine that Could. Real places (or for that matter real anything) are just confining, don’t you think? The ability not to care is liberating!

Toronto movies

Watching Covert Affairs in Toronto evokes theatre, the use of cues and signifiers and the power of the imagination to create an illusion of physical space. Living here, you get used to it; you forget many people might be excited to see their home town mentioned just once on the local news, let along having their surroundings endlessly chewed up and reconfigured. When film production was at its peak here, it was hard to be surprised by anything (including on a personal level: one evening I was taking my dog for a walk, trying not to step on the movie cables; I happened to look through a window, and there was Sylvester Stallone). If Chicago suddenly turns out to encompass BCE Place; if future society has modeled itself in part on the Eaton Centre; well, of course. One might have wished for the city to play itself in mainstream movies more often, but on the other hand, how liberating would that have been?

That activity’s died down now, which is why Covert Affairs is so engaging. Actually, if you see the city on the screen nowadays, it probably is playing itself. Rookie Blue and Flashpoint also film in my neighbourhood periodically. I’ve never seen the latter; the former, although set in Toronto, seems too preoccupied with abs and cleavage to know where it is. I’m sure there are other shows too. On the big screen, unfortunately, setting a big movie in Toronto seems only to guarantee a flop. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was meant to be the cult hit to end them all, and it certainly had a somewhat interesting technique, energy and worldview. However, once you’d gleaned this – after the first ten minutes or so – the movie might have been crafted specifically to illustrate the concept of “diminishing returns.” I actually think Michael Cera might make a good protagonist for a film called Diminishing Returns; he sums up something about the void at the centre of contemporary culture, some notion of how the more connected you are, the more you cancel yourself out. The movie name-checked lots of specific Toronto locations (mostly in the West End) but since the movie was primarily set inside a video game, it didn’t carry much weight.

This Movie is Broken

And then you have the staggeringly lamentable case of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, an erotic psychological thriller of sorts, but with no feeling for human behaviour and interaction, revealing the latter-day Egoyan as a hack who can only think in terms of structures and poses. The film thuddingly worked in Toronto landmarks of various kinds, but since nothing in it felt remotely real, you might have imagined it was mostly shot somewhere else (like maybe in a sensory deprivation tank).

My favourite recent Toronto picture of the ones I’ve seen is a much smaller thing, Bruce McDonald’s This Movie is Broken. About half of the film consists of Broken Social Scene playing a free concert at the Harbourfront; McDonald weaves a light but engaging relationship narrative around it. The ending, with its broadening of the apparent canvas, suggests the city as a site of infinite possibilities, embodied by the band through its multiplicity and superb musicianship. McDonald certainly seems here like a Toronto romantic, but since he sets the film against the garbage crisis, he’s not goofy about it.

If there were more Toronto movies like This Movie is Broken – or at least, if I knew about them – maybe I’d go all the time. I’d like to watch more Canadian films, but they always get such lousy reviews, or they get good reviews that feel written almost under duress. The latter applied to last year’s Barney’s Version, which the Star in particular shamelessly gushed over for months. Audiences stayed away with equal enthusiasm. I watched it on cable the other week, and almost found myself wishing for Chloe (no, I’m joking, that could only ever be a joke).

Barney’s Version

You know the problem with it? There’s no “version.” There’s no flavour, no worldview. There’s just this character called Barney. Sometimes he’s abrasive; sometimes he’s impulsive; sometimes this; sometimes that. He gets married to this woman, then that one, then this one. He may have killed someone once; the movie intermittently suggests we’re meant to view this as a big structuring mystery of his life. Eventually he gets old and sick. No doubt in Mordecai Richler’s book, which I haven’t read, this all coalesced into a classic character and a memorable evocation of time and place. But the film is bland and monotonous. It looks ugly. It evokes Montreal so indifferently that it might as well have been shot in Toronto. Paul Giamatti just does his irascible “great actor” thing, showing no sign of being meaningfully directed. As I said, from what’s on the screen, there’s no reason it would have that title. There’s no sense of personal storytelling, of conflicting perceptions (except in the most literal-minded way). There’s no version.

It’s probably a good thing I haven’t read the book – I’m sure the film would seem an even greater abomination if I had. Especially if I lived in Montreal. Anyway, I was about to write that I’m sure we’ll get a great contemporary Toronto film one day, but I’m actually not sure. But we’re way ahead of most cities, if only because the next time someone says in a film “We’ll always have Paris,” he might actually be thinking of us.

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