Monday, September 1, 2014

Filming Toronto

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)

For the last week, the restaurant next to my building, passing as a Brooklyn bistro, was a location for a film called The Perfect Man. The film reportedly stars Hillary Duff, Heather Locklear and Chris Noth, at least some of who must presumably from time to time have been part of that huge crowd milling beneath our balcony. But I didn’t see any of them, didn’t look. However, the week before, when my wife and I were walking the dog one morning down toward the Skydome, we passed Laurence Fishburne. On previous dog walks, I’ve spotted Sylvester Stallone, Christian Slater and Margot Kidder. At other times we’ve walked by Sidney Poitier and Eric Stoltz. The number of films or TV shows in which I could point out some part of our neighborhood far exceeds what I can remember.

Screen Presence

There was a time when I would have thought all this tremendously exciting, but it’s long gone. My parents visited from Wales recently and virtually every day they’d tell us how they’d seen filming going on in this place or that. We couldn’t even fake mild interest. In an age of excessive celebrity-worship, I think this is a healthy thing. And it’s all the easier to sustain because, for all the activity, it doesn’t feel as if Toronto has much of a screen presence. I’ve seen our neighborhood represent New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, and various futuristic locales, but not very often represent Toronto itself. Somehow that makes it easier to ignore the whole thing, as though it were all a perpetual mirage projected from a far-off place.

It could be a little undermining to one’s ego, living in a city whose frequent fate is to serve as a facade, like an endlessly renewing badge of second-rateness. If the city itself is so unable to assert its identity, one might ask, why should any of us, its inhabitants, be any more distinguishable? I’ve always hoped that Toronto could find its own Woody Allen, or Francois Truffaut, or at least its own Paul Mazursky – someone who would treat the city with ease and panache and make it, at least among film buffs, a place that rings with emotional music. We haven’t come very close to that, although the recent Love Sex and Eating the Bones was a good step in the right direction by Sudz Sutherland. (If any generous producers are reading this, remember that Truffaut started as a critic, and give me a call)

The latest movie in which Toronto plays itself is Jacob Tierney’s Twist, a downbeat drama about male hustlers, with a plot loosely modeled on Oliver Twist. The focus in this version is on the Artful Dodger character, played by Nick Stahl, who lives in a crappy one-step-above-slavery arrangement overseen by Fagin, who in turn reports to the unseen Bill, whose mistreated girl Nancy runs the nearby diner where the characters hang out. Oliver is an innocent new runaway, pulled into the gang by Dodge.


“This city can really f*** you up,” says Stahl early on. The line took me by surprise. I mean, no doubt it’s true, but – at the very most - it’s no more true of my personal Toronto than it might be of anywhere else. But the Toronto of Twist is a depressing place indeed; a concrete desert of bleak streets, meagre finances and squalid pleasures where the only people out there are either johns or assailants. Time and time again, the film catches the downtown core, with the CN Tower prominent, in the back of the frame, but the characters never get close to it (in one scene, Oliver visits a more upscale neighborhood, but he’s quickly rebuffed). On the most basic level, this is a city that’s denied them. But then the characters’ prospects are so perilous that their motivation seems to be purely to find an equilibrium that holds together, however shakily, and then stick to it. Stahl tells Oliver in one scene how his life isn’t that bad compared to the alternatives, and he doesn’t seem in particular to be laying it on.

That much of Twist is interesting, but the film as a whole is a somewhat monotonous viewing experience. It’s hard to think of a film that’s so consistently drained of energy or expression, and although this succeeds impressively in suggesting the hollowing effect of their airless lifestyles, the point is made fairly early on. Apart from evoking in a general way the persistence of juvenile exploitation, the parallel with Dickens doesn’t add much either. Still, the film’s city of decrepit muffin stores and diners and warehouses is a compelling landscape, precisely because it’s so utterly uncompelling. It’s both recognizable as Toronto, and as nowhere worth naming.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Talking of disaffected youth, Harry Potter seems downright surly in the opening scenes of the new film, and his mood brightens only slightly from there on. Much has been made of how director Alfonso Cuaron gave this third entry in the Potter series a richer, more emotionally coherent air, and it’s all true. Compared to previous director Chris Columbus, Cuaron has a much better eye and sense of location, and his film’s engagement with the actors exceeds anything Columbus attained.

It struck me in the second film that Potter doesn’t actually do that much – he’s substantially a slave to events, weighed down by his wrenching past and by the endless threats and dangers that seem to mark his every day. In Prisoner of Azkaban, now that he’s clearly a teenager, this all seems like a witty expression of post-pubescent angst, and I couldn’t help thinking that the way the plot repeats much of itself, via a time traveling device, seems to reinforce the sense of adolescent ennui. (As for the actual plot – it seemed odd and borderline-incoherent to me, but I’m told it’s much easier to follow if you’re in the 90% of the audience that’s read the book already).

While actors like Gary Oldman and David Thewlis, and Emma Watson as Hermione, seem to be ploughing a new and grimmer vein, others like Emma Thompson and Rupert Grint as Ron (who doesn’t seem to be maturing into much of an actor) are stuck in a more gimmicky vein, and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is little more than a cipher. I enjoyed the first movie in the series more than I ever thought possible, and liked in particular how it captured the young boy’s discovery at confronting a cavalcade of wonders. The second was more of the same, which meant it amounted to significantly less. With the actors rapidly aging, Prisoner of Azkaban represents necessary surgery. If the next few films progress at the same pace, and Harry’s mood continues to darken, the sixth or seventh installment may be closer in tone to Twist than to Sorceror’s Stone. Then we’ll be dealing with something interesting, especially if they film it in Toronto.

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