My visit to the Toronto International Film Festival two weeks ago was the first time I’d been to Canada. I started to say that it was the first time I’d traveled that far north, but Toronto is actually south of Portland, where I live. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true! Toronto is one of Canada’s southernmost cities. You might even say it’s Canada’s “Deep South,” though that is misleading, given the city’s dearth of hillbillies.
The film festival kept me pretty busy, so I didn’t get much chance to sample the local color (which they spell “colour”) or the local cuisine (which they spell “bacon”). Furthermore, Canada is a very large country, at least geographically speaking, and I was only in one neighborhood of one city in it. My experiences might not be typical of Canada, or of Ontario, or even of Toronto. It would be unfair of me to judge Canada based solely on that limited perspective. Obviously, I’m doing it anyway.
Canada seems like France and England got together and had a baby, but they couldn’t take care of it, so they sent it off to be raised by American parents, who abused it. Most of the food I encountered was American or American-ish, most signs are in English and French, and the English words are spelt the British way. You go to the city centre, you cash your cheque, you buy some jewellery, and so forth.
And speaking of cash, I had the same reaction to Canadian money that most Americans have, which is to giggle and offer to buy Park Place and Boardwalk with it. Canadian currency is multi-coloured and fanciful. It’s a rainbow of cash! Working in a bank must be like working in Willy Wonka’s candy factory. At the bottom of each bill it says, “Congratulations to Mrs. Jensen’s grade 3 class at Beaver Tail Elementary School in Saskatoon for coming up with the winning design!” On the front are pictures of elderly white people, as expected, while on the back are images of famous Canadian things (geese, hockey players, inferiority complexes, etc.).
Then there is the matter of Canadian television, which I sampled in small bites late at night in my hotel room. Everything about Canadian television looks like it was made in the 1970s. In the 1970s, Canadian television looked like it was made in the 1950s. In the 1950s, Canadian television consisted of a still image of a moose wearing a hat. It was Canada’s most popular programme, with upwards of 10 viewers a week. When the moose died, the Canadian flag flew at half-mast at all government buildings, and the hunter who shot it was charged with treason.
The first show I saw was a political-discussion programme that aired on what must be Toronto’s version of PBS. The topic of conversation was American politics, specifically the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate and jazzercise instructor. (My understanding is that Canada does not have politics of its own, so they must import politics from other countries.) The host was a very soft-spoken man who didn’t seem entirely comfortable being on TV, and he had three guests in the studio and two more joining him via satellite, or via whatever the Canadian equivalent of a satellite is. Two TVs connected by a string, perhaps. Here is my best approximation of what the conversation sounded like:
“I think this is a very interesting choice, and I’m curious to see how the American people respond to it. Karen?”
“Thank you, Dave, you make some excellent points, though my opinions are somewhat different from yours.”
“Fair enough. I believe we agree on the central topic, however.”
“Well, not entirely, no.”
“Whoa, whoa, calm down everyone!”
In other words, it was BORING. Maybe I’m just used to Keith Olbermann calling upon the angry vengeance of God to smite people, or Sean Hannity beheading his guests and bathing in their blood, but if this is what political discussion is like in Canada, NO THANQUE YOU. (Not that I like the angry yelling either. There must be a happy medium somewhere.) (Somewhere in between.) (Which is why it’s called the “medium.”) (I’m retarded.)
I was also amused by the physical appearance of some of the commentators. To put it frankly, people who look like this, with their crossed eyes and their bizarre haircuts, would not normally be permitted on American television.
The film festival itself was very enjoyable, and I saw a lot of good movies. The festival’s slogan this year, emblazoned on everything, was, “For the Love of Film,” as in, “For the love of film, can we please turn down the air-conditioning in here?” or “When is this movie ever going to end, FOR THE LOVE OF FILM?!”
One nice thing about the Toronto Film Festival is that it isn’t too snooty. All film festivals attract some pretentiousness, especially when the French are invited, but this one mostly stayed down-to-earth. One trend I did notice, though, was people referring to films not by their titles but by the last names of their directors. “Have you seen the Arriaga yet?” “No, I just came from the Dardenne!” These people need to be punched, obviously. Movies have titles for a reason. If the filmmaker wanted you to call it by his own name, he would put his own name in the title, the way Tyler Perry does. (“Tyler Perry Presents Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, by Tyler Perry.”) Besides, if you’re going to refer to movies by their directors’ last names, you’re going to have conversations like this:
“I really enjoyed the new Zombie!”
“Yes, but how does it compare to the latest McG?”
I also overheard a middle-aged woman, nicely dressed and clearly very upscale, reunite with an old acquaintance. He asked what she was up to these days, and she said, “We’re in production on my fourth book — third novel, fourth book.” In that one sentence, she managed to convey all of the following:
1. I am writing a book, but it is not my first book. Perish the thought! First-time authors are so gauche.
2. Just in case you think I only write imaginary things, you should know that I have also written a nonfiction work of some kind.
3. It’s not enough that I have written four books. The important thing is for you to know that I have written four books.
In general, I found Canadians to be as polite as you’ve heard they are, with the exception of one very aggressive panhandler. He asked my friend and me if we would give him some change, and we said no, and then he followed us and said, “You have change, I can hear it in your pockets,” to which the obvious response is, “We didn’t say we didn’t have any, just that we weren’t going to give it to you.” Finally, he said, “I’ll give you some weed,” which really changes it from panhandling to drug dealing. But at least he was willing to do something for the money, rather than just wanting a handout. I appreciate that in a bum. Unfortunately, my friend and I weren’t really in the market for any weed, so the guy was out of luck. Which is too bad, because I’ve heard good things about Canadian marijuana. I hear it makes you feel really courteous and naive, and you get the urge to listen politely to people.
People referring to films by their directors' last names was pointed out to me by my pal Eugene Novikov, who mentioned it in the context of trying to stop himself from becoming one of those people. I was with Eugene during the harrowing panhandler incident, too, and lived to tell the tale.
Let me also give a shout-out to Erik Childress, a longtime colleague and film-festival buddy who overheard a woman in line pretentiously declare that Julianne Moore was certain to win an Oscar for her work in "Savage Grace" -- even though "Savage Grace" is terrible, and even though this woman hadn't seen it and in fact didn't even realize it had already been released. She was basing her certainty on the fact that "Savage Grace" is based on a true story and stars Julianne Moore -- which, yes, would normally be a step in the right direction, Oscar-wise, but not in this case. The same woman also asked if anyone had seen "the movie from Sundance about the girl with the teeth." (Presumably she meant "Teeth.") I was sorry I missed out on her amusing rantings.
The "Canada: America's Hat" image is not my creation. I'm so used to spending a big chunk of my day on the Internet, where I've seen the image posted many times, that I forget not everyone is like that and thus might assume that, since it appeared with my column, it was my work. My apologies. I got it from Busted Tees, which sells it as a T-shirt.
SnideCast intro: "Canada Haunts Me," They Might Be Giants; outro: "Blame Canada," from the "South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut" soundtrack.