Thursday, March 7, 2013

Down the road twice

I’ve written here before that I wish I spent more time watching Canadian films, or more precisely perhaps, I wish I were the kind of person who wanted to spend more time watching Canadian films. I suppose I see as much of our homegrown contemporary cinema as any averagely interested viewer does (that is, very little of it) but I haven’t viewed much at all of what was made in the 70’s and earlier. I know a lot of it is widely regarded as terrible, but still, I’d like to know for myself. The reason I never get round to it I think, leaving aside the even more overwhelming histories of cinema in other countries, is that I only arrived here in 1994, and never developed that much of a sense for the Canada that preceded that. I don’t think I really even wanted to – I wanted to come in here as a new person, with as little mental baggage as possible, and maybe it suited me to regard the country in the same way, as something that only vaguely existed before I arrived.

Goin’ Down the Road

I’ve always lived in the same neighbourhood, around the St Lawrence market, and as anyone will tell you, it’s a little shocking how much has changed. Just a few years ago, you’d look in a particular direction and see just one tall(ish) building – now it’s all but crowded out by three taller ones, with more on the way. I often try to remember what was in a particular place before the Gleam Palace, or whatever might now be standing there, got built, but I usually can’t picture it; whether it was some old building, or a parking lot, or a patch of deadly quicksand, I guess to me it was all just forgettable connective material between major intersections, parks and bars. Obviously I’m pragmatic by nature, but sometimes this lack of memory feels self-defeating, too weightless, as if I’m unduly increasing my chances of waking up one day and realizing it was all just a digital simulacrum. But then I’m not sure I’d really care anyway, as long as the illusion remained satisfying. You see, I’ve always been too good at rationalizing past things and moving on, the opposite of what it takes to attain a sense of place and community.

Donald Shebib’s 1970 film Goin’ Down the Road has long been an exception to my ignorance of our cinematic heritage – I first saw it not long after arriving here I think, and then watched it again recently. It’s about two Cape Breton buddies, Joey and Pete, who drive all the way to Toronto in the hope of catching a better break. Pete, the bigger dreamer of the two, never gets anything going remotely equal to his dreams. Joey gets married and seems more inclined to settle for less, but in the end, he can’t even sustain that much.

A national right

My favourite moment in the film comes near the start, when they enter Toronto from the East, and we see the downtown core much as I’m looking at it right now from my window, except that virtually none of the high-rises (or the CN Tower) exists yet. At the time, the shot presumably embodied a sense of majestic, abundant possibility; viewed with hindsight, it’s almost quaint, a city that thought it was running but wasn’t even crawling. Of course, the same goes for much about that era – the film shows the then-new world of pop culture (Sam the Record Man!) and colour TV and suchlike, but how primitive it all seems now...

In his seminal book Mondo Canuck (which I devoured when it came out in 1996), Geoff Pevere says Shebib’s film “established the Canadian male as one of the most persistently impotent and unappealing characters in world cinema” and suggests it “promoted losing as a distinctive national right.” But at least to my eyes, the movie never seems to be reflecting on Canadian-ness, but rather on regional and economic predestination: Pete and Joey may never have had a real shot at being winners, transplanting themselves with so few resources and skills, but if they’d always been in Toronto (or if the Alberta oil boom had already started), who knows? To me it’s not so much about the national right to be a loser as the folly, for guys in their shoes, at that time, of even thinking there’s a nation.

On repeated viewing, it’s more visible how for all its impact, Goin’ Down the Road always put a premium on narrative efficiency (it was just an hour and a half long). This became all the clearer a couple of years ago, when Shebib decided to make a sequel. Paul Bradley, who played Joey, was long dead, so Down the Road Again focuses on Pete (still played by Doug McGrath), now elderly and retired in BC after making a career in the postal service, making the journey in reverse to tie up some loose ends and scatter Joey’s ashes. The film invents a whole new back story for why they left home and for what happens at the end of the first film; Pete crosses paths with Joey’s daughter, and his lost love, and the son he never knew he had, who turns out to be…oh, never mind…

Down the Road Again

 “It’s very Dickensian in how things are revealed,” said Shebib at the time, but that’s a sadly undeserved assessment – its contrivances seem largely ridiculous, especially when falling into place with such dubious ease. The film pays lip service to the weight of the past, but has little sense of real pain or regret, and the sense of place that was so fundamental to the first film is entirely absent (much of it takes place back in Nova Scotia, but it doesn’t seem any filming actually took place there). And again, for a film that traverses the country, and tries to excavate and reclaim the secrets of two lives, Shebib seems overly concerned with tidiness and concision (it runs just 84 minutes).

At the very least, you’d think seeing Down the Road Again ought to add something to one’s appreciation of the first film, but I don’t know if it really does. Would it enhance your appreciation of the memory of an esteemed old building, to visit the new condo tower erected in its place? Maybe it depends on your sensitivity to ghosts and echoes – it might only dilute the memories you’d managed to hang on to. I know cinema can’t be analogized with architecture beyond a certain point. And yet, I’ll tell you, when I watch Canadian cinema, whether good or bad, I feel a pleasant sense of gravity, as if that very act roots me a little more firmly and productively in a neighbourhood I’ve never paid enough attention to. 

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