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Mapping World Film Locations: Toronto

September 9, 2014

World Film Locations Toronto cover

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of David Fleischer, a contributor to World Film Locations: Toronto.

David Fleischer, Tom Ue, Shawn Micallef, and Adam Nayman take on our cultural habits with great short nonfiction from 2014. Join the authors and journalist Geoff Pevere as they talk about why they think this short format and topical content is the new stop for nonfiction. Catch Local Pop-Nonfiction at the Nothing But The Truth Tent, from 12:00 PM – 12:45 PM.


If you ask people to name their favourite New York movie, they might say Annie Hall, Mean Streets, or any of a dozen others. Ask about LA and you might get Chinatown or LA Confidential or, again, a bunch of others. But ask about Toronto and be prepared for a long pause. While there are some exemplary films set in Toronto, most recently, The F Word, the city’s cinematic face is more often that of a character actor, equally passable as New York City in Moonstruck, Boston in Good Will Hunting or some generic or even futuristic big city with no distinct identity. Sometimes the “acting” is somewhat less convincing, as in Short Circuit 2, which proves that hanging up American flags outside Queen’s Park does not make the city look remotely like Manhattan.

So what does it say about our city that its cinematic personality is anonymous? That its identity is having no identity? The easy answer would be that we are just bland and indistinct, making Toronto an economical and aesthetically easy choice for American productions. But World Film Locations: Toronto, edited by Tom Ue, a graduate of the University of Toronto at Scarborough and currently a doctoral candidate at University College London, reveals that there is much more to it.


There are many lenses through which we can view a city, even Toronto, which is comparatively young, and the history of which is often underappreciated. It is not despite but because of its ability to disguise itself that viewing Toronto through a cinematic lens (pun intended) is a viable endeavour.

Take the Distillery District for example. It is arguably Toronto’s most unique neighbourhood, a preserved Victorian factory reimagined as an upscale 21st-century shopping destination. But once you have seen it as an auto parts plant (in Tommy Boy) or a naval yard (in The Recruit) or even a concentration camp (in X-Men), it is impossible to stand there, watching people zip between cafes and galleries on their rented Segways, and see it the same way.

The same goes for Casa Loma. On the surface, we know it as a historic rich man’s folly that never came to fruition. But it is also been the home to Professor Charles Xavier (in X-Men), Guru Pitka (in The Love Guru) and the Verger family (on TV’s Hannibal). Jean Claude Van Damme has fought Russians in its stables (when it played a steam bath in Maximum Risk) and JFK and Kruschev met in its gardens in The Kennedys. In Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, it ironically played a film set for a big American production, complete with a fake NYC skyline that ever-so-briefly reveals the CN Tower behind.

The University of Toronto has seen everyone from Tom Cruise (in Cocktail) and Edward Norton (in the Incredible Hulk) to the stars of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle in its halls and quads, but always in the guise of some other school.

Bailey's Quest-445.cr2

We so often wonder about our city’s identity and where we stand in the ranks of the “World Class.” When we do, we often overlook the things that make Toronto unique. It may seem paradoxical that part of our uniqueness comes from our inconspicuousness – when that Toronto street looks as if it belongs to Chicago or New York with the right camera angle and a USA Today box or two – but it is nonetheless true. World Film Locations: Toronto seeks to explore these and many other questions relating to the city’s identity by offering a history of its representation onscreen. The upcoming releases of Map to the Stars and Life, starring Robert Pattinson, make it a particularly timely addition to the series.  So next time you see a line of movie trailers along Adelaide Street, or a disconcerting stream of yellow New York cabs making their way up University Avenue, take some pride in your occasionally anonymous metropolis.

– David Fleischer