Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Toronto

My Winnipeg is a beautiful movie. While the storytelling is occasionally awkward, the subject matter is profound and the story universal. This 'docu-fantasia' follows Guy Maddin's obsession with escape from small-town Winnipeg - and ultimately why he can't. As such, it had the possibility to descend into nostalgic pap, but it doesn't, and that's what makes it so wonderful. It's a journey into the meaning of place through myth. A surreal love letter to my Winnipeg, warts and all.

A myth is a sacred narrative, a blending of the real and unreal to inform thoughts and values. In effect, a common metaphor. What Maddin understands is that fact is irrelevant as long as it helps us understand how history makes us who we are and more importantly what we can aspire to. He spins myth as poetry - and in the process realizes that this mythic pull of home makes Winnipeg the only home he can ever have.

Winnipeg is legendary for its self-deprecating spirit. At the middle of the middle of the North American continent, the immense distances and frozen landscapes make for a hardened frontier mentality that breeds a curious mix of disdain and fierce pride of what it is.

Contrast this with Toronto.

Toronto is a city which is no longer comfortable with itself. It has destroyed any semblance of myth in a drive to erase and rebuild anew socially and culturally. It has no foundation to build from, no understanding of what it was to determine what it is and perhaps what it could be. There is no overriding public interest. The results of this annihilation has even manifested itself physically.

Architecture in Toronto has achieved hipness in the civic mindset as of late. In a city disdainful of reference points, this social and cultural rootlessness has manifested itself in the 'icon'. Each new project seeks to capture this resignation and arbitrarily recreate the City in its image. Couching themselves in the laudable goal of intensification, developers are exploiting this disdain with interventions without any notion of context. This town has determined that there is no fabric to build upon, only a blank slate on which to project a brave new world. Rather than explore a uniquely Toronto-style, the fundamentals of the international style are alive and well in Toronto; the break with the past is complete. Tellingly, even the limited historical preservation is based solely on architectural merit.

Without myth and common metaphors, all that is left is cynicism. As Toronto guts itself of its former past, the locals are getting restless. While previous generations saw a break with tradition through an optimistic lens, a city without a rooted soul in this age is a City adrift. Passing cynicism is undermining the civic spirit and by extension civic engagement. Few people profess a love affair with Toronto - and the script in support does seems more like blatant boosterism than genuine adoration.

The Toronto of 1908 is fundamentally different than the Toronto of 2008. Methodist Rome has morphed into Multicultural City and that is a good thing. What is worrisome is the amnesia of the past. Cities are intricately layered and in that lies their beauty. Generations and generations of lives, work, hopes and dreams (real or imagined) provide a foundation from what to aspire to. While neither cool nor hip, that's who we are. Treating it as outdated and inconsequential is the real civic tragedy.

Something Guy Maddin completely understands.