The Western has its Stetson hats and shootouts at high noon. The slasher has its masked maniacs and gruesome teenage deaths. But there's a genre without a name that remains in its own way no less identifiable: It has gilded skylines and designer fashions, lurid hues and modernist apartments. It has synthesizers and smoke machines and high-contrast lighting. Can you picture it? To Live and Die in L.A. qualifies. So do Manhunter, Strange Days, Tequila Sunrise, American Gigolo and 8 Million Ways to Die. It has less to do with story or subject than with style and mood – the mood of an empty city street in a thunderstorm, or of an intercity Greyhound in the hours before dawn.
Brendan Ross, an upstart film programmer, knows the genre better than anyone. He's even bequeathed it a name: Neon Dreams, an unimprovable appellation. So enamoured of the style is Ross that he's founded a monthly film series, the Neon Dreams Cinema Club, at the Royal theatre in Toronto, where for the past several months he's been giving shape to an amorphous form.
This week, the series returns with its fifth screening, a special presentation of Walter Hill's singular "rock 'n' roll fable" Streets of Fire – preceded by a preshow compilation of eighties music videos. It's the most intriguing instalment yet in a program that's quickly proving the most exciting in the city.
Ross moved to Toronto three years ago after tiring of an office job in Vancouver. Here, he feels he's on track at last to be doing what he wants to be doing: programming movies. "Neon Dreams is the first series I've done," he says, "but I've always wanted to do this. I grew up on these films. I've always known that this was an era of visually brilliant movies that would work extremely well as a visceral theatrical experience." Still, it was a difficult sell – as to sell it means putting it into words. "How exactly do I describe what I want to do?" Ross says. "I don't want to advertise it as a retro eighties series. Essentially we are, but it's more specific than that. How do I describe a genre that defies description?"
Ross calls Neon Dreams "a celebration of neo-noir cinema from seventies, eighties and beyond," despite the fact that, as he quickly admits, "so far I've only shown movies from between 1983 and 1985," a niche he expects to widen as the series continues. But Ross has been cautious in choosing films to screen, so as not to give people the wrong idea about his intentions. The high style and period flourishes of a lot of these films lend themselves too readily to irony – and to ironic laughter.
"My greatest fear is that people think I'm programming some kind of so-bad-it's-good festival, which I'm not interested in at all," he explains. "I'm not celebrating bad films. They're very over the top and a little bit silly, but I genuinely love them."
It hasn't been a problem: The response to date has been enthusiastic, and, Ross says, "everybody who attends these screenings has the right idea and completely understands it."
People packed the house in April for William Friedkin's singular and under-appreciated thriller To Live and Die in L.A., the Neon Dreams debut, and they were happy to delight in it in earnest. The fans Ross earned there have kept coming out.
"This was very adventurous and very ballsy and not something a lot of people are doing," Ross says. But it seems to be something the city has wanted for a while.
Ross credits his success with the fact that the series stands out as rather strange. "When you think of movies that get played as part of a typical eighties series, it's Ghostbusters and Back to the Future. Those are wonderful movies, but what I'm showing is a little different and nobody really thinks about playing them as part of a retro series."
What's more, a film like To Live and Die in L.A. demands to be seen theatrically in a way that Ghostbusters does not. "It's such a visual and aural explosion of a film that I thought it would be perfect to show in a cinema. And people are surprised that a movie they love but kind of forgot about is playing for one night only in the cinema."
That impulse to make a movie feel like an event is the presiding inspiration of Ross's work as a programmer. "We don't really live in a time when the theatrical experience is that important for a lot of people," he says. "Everyone has a plasma television and a surround sound system. The desire to go out and see a movie in theatres isn't quite as intense as it used to be. I'm trying to bring that back by showing visually explosive films that are really fun to watch with an audience."
That may the defining feature of the neon dreams genre. The lights and synths and night skies streaked with rain: They're extravagances best reserved for a proper silver screen.