Cityscapes

How do films play a role in preserving the places around us?

The corner of Bloor and Bathurst is gutted, its once iconic stature now reduced to a series of news pegs.

Honest Ed’s was a jewel of the Mirvish empire which once reigned as the cultural guardian of Toronto. It started as a bargain basement flipped off the back of a cashed in insurance policy. It’s eventual success and institutionalization would allow Mirvish to become a patron of the arts, dragging Toronto’s decentralized and flailing theatre community into a place of international respectability. Even if you don’t know that about Honest Ed’s, if you’re a blue-blooded Torontonian, you’ll still treasure the discount store. That sign was just too damn pretty.

Working across the street, I spent a great deal of time at Honest Ed’s before she shut down forever. I got used to it even if I looked up at its “Closing in December 2016” with the same pang of sadness the rest of Toronto did. Now standing on the corner I realized I longed for not just the spectacle of the lights spinning across the intersection but the feeling that this corner of the city was whole.

On the last corner of the intersection sits a Pizza Pizza. If I ever catch a film down the street at The Bloor Cinema – now sponsored and named after Rogers – I’d sometimes walk in, order a slice and sit right at the corner by the window across from Ed’s.

 Courtesy of Universal.

Courtesy of Universal.

“This,” I’d start if anyone was unfortunate enough to accompany me on such a snooty and geeky pilgrimage, “is the exact seat where Scott Pilgrim sat.”

Scott versus the world

 Courtesy of Universal.

Courtesy of Universal.

As a suburban kid dealing with both puberty, boredom, and big dreams of making it in the big city, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World was a godsend. It was a hilarious and dazzling take on teenage angst and aspiration. It’s a pixel-laden tribute to the source material: Bryan Lee O’Malley’s graphic novels of the same name. It stars a Brampton actor - Brampton being my home town- Michael Cera. It took place in and around Toronto, hooking its scenes on places I’d often sneak to during my days off when my parents weren't paying attention.

A million pictures of Honest Ed’s at it’s peak glory exist. After streetcars it’s probably also the most common subject of local artists. But I knew none of that would give me that same rush of finishing my shift on the corner of this place and stepping out into a bustling Annex. It’s in those quiet moments where you lock up your cafe for the night, or grab a pizza, or walk past the humming bulbs holding the hands of someone you love that you felt the soul of the place.

 Courtesy of Universal.

Courtesy of Universal.

If you load up Netflix and start streaming Wright’s now cult-classic you can catch the neighbourhood not as a focus or as sad tribute but just as is. Scott Pilgrim had plenty of things to deal with and didn’t stress or emphasis where he was dealing with them. He was merely at home when home was whole and recognisable. Seven years after the film’s release there is now a very real reason to consider a re-watch. It’s a window into a place that no longer exists. You can indulge your nostalgic angst by tuning in and relighting every light bulb of that stupid sign you miss so much, even if you are just viewing it through the window of a pizza shop through the lens of a camera.

Our world, our film and our identity

While Wright unintentionally created a valuable Toronto time capsule in 2010, there are plenty of other filmmakers who make a conscious effort to apply their craft to the preservation and the advocacy of their setting. 

In 2014, I met a filmmaker named Benjamin Rivers. He had recently completed his film SNOW which like Wright’s film was adapted from a graphic novel. In this case it was River’s very own, his deep and meaningful love letter to Queen Street West – ground zero of the war on gentrification in Toronto.

SNOW as a project focused on a young woman coming to grips with her vastly altering neighbourhood as she works at an independent bookshop in its final days before it was set to shut down forever. Reinforced throughout the work is the role our own, real world setting, is deeply rooted in our identities and how – amidst the typical talking points of culture, economy, accessibility and place - we often neglect to talk psychology. If we’re so dependent on our neighbourhoods, what does our psychology look like when they change due to factors far beyond our control?

While artists seem to have a role to play in advocating for space there are a variety of ways one can tackle it. While projects like SNOW tackle the issue head-on, projects like Scott Pilgrim Versus The World seem to add a searing cultural defence merely by respecting the cities they are shot in and bringing them in as key characters into their film.

Considering Scott Pilgrim’s cult following, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a bigger budget remake may be commissioned somewhere long down the line with a fresh cast of actors and more or less a more bland and unimportant grayscale version of Toronto. Suicide Squad driving a Batmobile down Yonge street is a move made out of desire to save production budgets and as a result, the city is merely a convenience. What if directors more fully embraced the philosophical importance of real-world place in their mise en scène? Plot setting is irrelevant but there is an argument made for film’s adding and enhancing our cultural understanding and appreciation of place - whether a film’s set on Queen Street West, The Annex, or Gotham.

A moving snapshot of the world

In the months before 9/11, City By The Sea, a cop drama helmed by James Franco and Robert De Niro was shot in and around New York City. It was one of the last times that the Twin Towers, as they originally stood, were captured on film as simply a background detail. When the film debuted in a post-9/11 world they instead took the role of a character in and of themselves.  Director Michael Caton-Jones’ decision to leave the towers standing is a significant one in the sense that his film now stands as a window into a version of New York, and a version of the world we lost.

It’s impossible to pin down why we do art. One compelling reason may be as a way to communicate with those that come after us. Filmmakers, intentional or not capture our world in its poetry and brilliance. It’s a significant act to say not only that we were here but that our ‘here’ had its own shape and its own form distinct to us. With the corrosive and ever shifting nature of the cityscapes we call home it can often be taken for granted how fleeting these places are to us. It’s a small comfort then that film can aspire to keep it all safe.