Ron Mann is a fan of pancakes and resiliency. Both are the specialties of the downtown diner he’s picked for our breakfast interview.
“Look at this,” the documentary filmmaker says, bright-eyed at 8 a.m. as he reads the menu. “The Senator is the oldest restaurant in Toronto in continuous operation at the same location.” A waitress, chipper and tattooed, arrives to lay out his flapjack options. He goes with a blueberry stack. “Sausages on the side?” he’s asked. “No thanks,” says the white-haired vegan, hemp advocate and Woody Harrelson collaborator.
Funny thing about sharing a booth with Mann at the Senator. Because the 59-year-old guy just might be the oldest documentary filmmaker in Toronto in continuous operation at the same location himself. But that streak is jeopardy.
“You don’t want to know,” sighs Mann, his fork in the air. “I’ve had my office on Mercer Street since 1985, but the building’s being torn down. I don’t know where I’m going to go, to be honest.”
There’s a lot of that going around – displacement, institutions disappearing and continuities disrupted. It’s one of the reasons that Mann, who runs a production company and a distribution outfit out of his downtown office and whose filmography of often offbeat documentaries includes 1999’s Grass (about the U.S. government’s war on marijuana) and 2014’s Altman (on the iconic director), decided to make Carmine Street Guitars. It’s a ballad in celebration of a small, mainstay and miraculously surviving guitar shop in rapidly gentrifying Greenwich Village in New York.
The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It will take its North American bow at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9. Carmine Street Guitars is an easygoing week in the life of guitar maker Rick Kelly and his apprentice Cindy Hulej, who make electric instruments with relic wood sourced from old New York buildings. The film features drop-bys from such ace players as Bill Frisell, Wilco’s Nels Cline, Marc Ribot and Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton. Dallas and Travis Good from Toronto’s Sadies and Canadian lap-steel specialist Christine Bougie also appear.
“What I wanted to do with Carmine Street Guitars is to capture the place before it all slips away,” Mann says. “It’s an oasis of beauty and honesty, and when you’re there the rest of the world is shut out. It’s like going back in time.”
The idea for the doc came from Mann’s friend Jim Jarmusch, the American independent filmmaker and sometime guitarist. “It’s not the first time that Jim has recommended a project to me,” Mann says, referring to Know Your Mushrooms, his 2008 documentary that shed light on the counterculture Telluride Mushroom Festival and which introduced the word “funghiphile” to an unsuspecting public.
Carmine Street Guitars is a mature, meditative work, much in the relaxed style of Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes from 2004. Other acknowledged influences include the quirky 1995 comedy Blue in the Face and the work of the late director Jonathan Demme, a hero to Mann.
“He was a big influence on me,” Mann says. “He had the energy, enthusiasm and effervescence of a 10-year-old.”
Mann had planned to follow Altman with a doc on Demme, but the project was abandoned when the director of The Silence of the Lambs, Stop Making Sense and Philadelphia died in 2017 at the age of 73.
So, things disappear: Buildings, filmmakers and, yes, pancakes. “Still working on them?” the waitress asks Mann. He is – a few forkfuls remain.
Mann considers himself a “cultural historian,” not a filmmaker. He also proudly identifies as a cinephile – one who “grew up” at the long-gone Roxy Theatre on the Danforth, one who laments the loss of art-house venues in Toronto and one who “loves” the TIFF Bell Lightbox. “It’s a world-class institution,” he says, “and the last place in Toronto where you can see cinema.”
With that, all the pancakes are gone, as are we. After Mann settles our bill (and after he marvels at the old-fashioned cash register), we walk out of the Senator. Mann mentions that he used to work around the corner, at the flagship Sam the Record Man shop. It’s gone, too, of course, and is this beginning to sound like a broken record?
I mention that there’s a new mini-museum dedicated to the Yonge Street music scene of yore, housed within the new Shoppers Drug Mart one block away.
“Where’s that?” Mann asks. I tell him it’s where the Hard Rock Café used to be. “The Hard Rock Café is gone?” he asks.
Mann ambles away, hands in pockets, toward a Blade Runner-style Yonge-Dundas nexus that’s changed more in the past couple of decades than any intersection in the country. He looks up briefly, and then keeps on keeping on, as one does.
Carmine Street Guitars screens at TIFF Sept. 9, 7:15 p.m., Scotiabank, and Sept. 13, 3:15 p.m., Lightbox (tiff.net).