For those who have lived in Toronto long enough, watching movies becomes a sport. How many hidden Toronto landmarks can be spotted amongst the supposed streets of New York? Toronto becomes a map of movies filmed here, interwoven with personal history: Mean Girls was shot in my high school, I often drive by the house in East York from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and my favourite bookstore has made many appearances in Netflix shows. Location trivia is traded between Torontonians like pieces of gossip: did you know!?
The fact that Toronto is frequently not playing itself is bound to give the city a bit of a complex (and perhaps its residents too, if spotting Toronto film locations wasn’t so much fun). Now !Toronto, an exhibition on until Dec. 14 at the TIFF Film Reference Library, aims to change this by stripping films shot in Toronto of their context and allowing the geography to take centre stage. The exhibition, by Dave Kemp in collaboration with Alexandra Anderson, is the culmination of years of combing through movies filmed in Toronto to investigate the role of the hidden city.
!Toronto takes its inspiration from Thom Andersen’s 2003 docu-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, which tracks the use of Los Angeles as a setting in film, but !Toronto’s non-linear medium distinguishes itself from the typical documentary format, and as a result, it captivates. A random algorithm uses a geographic information system (GIS) to cycle through a large pool of data composed of 1,800 clips in total (the oldest is Bush Pilot from 1947) tagged with keywords. The screen – made up of six panels – rotates through a mosaic of films, layering thumbnails sorted by the keywords (such a “taxi” or “union station”) or at random over top a map of the city. In addition to an assortment of clips from American Psycho, Amelia, Take the Lead and Billy Madison, I also watched clips exclusively shot at the Toronto Dominion Building and the Don Jail, for example. Interspersed throughout are 26 minute-long interview clips from local film experts Bruce McDonald, Geoff Pevere, Tamara Deverell, Luc Montpellier, Atom Egoyan and more.
For a scene shot in Honest Ed’s for The Husband (2014), director McDonald notes that the building no longer exists. “I feel good because now we’ve captured a part of Toronto that’s no longer there…we embrace films not only for their entertainment but for their time capsules,” he says. The interviews introduce bigger questions, nicely framing the decontextualized film clips. What cities have permission to be themselves in film? Does the nameless city allow better projection? What makes a “Toronto” film?
Toronto, when playing itself in Chloe, is described in a magazine article as “sexy," while a New York Times review of Take This Waltz uses the word “dowdy.” The ever-changing city! The chameleonlike quality of the city, in part because of its wide variety of architectural styles, which span from Victorian to Brutalist, is proven in the array of genres included in !Toronto. Toronto becomes a backdrop for comedies, superhero films, thrillers and dramas alike.
While !Toronto does include films actually set in Toronto, like the aforementioned Take This Waltz and Chloe, most are forged reproductions of New York or other cosmopolitan cities. The streets of Toronto are only recognizable to those who know them well, an accidental TTC sign or Pizza Pizza left in – the kind of error that you would find noted in the Goofs section of IMDB. American Psycho (2000), directed by Mary Harron, was shot partly in Toronto. The film’s main character, Patrick, works in the Seagram Building in Manhattan, but on camera, Toronto’s TD Centre stands in for it. Toronto acts as the fraternal twin to New York, a sophisticated forgery. And inevitably, there’s an occasional dose of irony when viewing films in the context of their Toronto-framework: For example, a scene from Hairspray includes a musical ode to Baltimore, shot outside of Toronto’s Lansdowne Public School.
This is data visualization at its best. Pulling you in similarly to the way social media does, the randomization is addictive. The viewer is rewarded when they see films they know paired with a location they’re familiar with. Since you don’t know when the reward will take place, you keep on watching. I could easily sit and watch the cycle of film clips for hours – or at least as long as the reference library is open. !Toronto articulates the film-watching experience, and excitement, that only people who know the city are privy to.
!Toronto is bound to provide new trivia to share with fellow Toronto residents – and maybe a new appreciation of the city, too. Did you know the bar scenes in Cocktail were filmed at the Don Jail?
!Toronto runs until Dec. 14 at the TIFF Lightbox’s Film Reference Library (tiff.net/library)
Special to The Globe and Mail