The Celestial Streetcar
Melinda Barlow/University of Colorado at Boulder
A moonless night, pricked with stars. I am at the old train station in downtown Boulder, the one built in 1890, sitting in a streetcar from the next century, a sleek red rocket with the familiar sea foam ceiling and maroon and cream exterior. A pair of binoculars hangs around my neck. There are no other passengers, and no driver.
With a lurch, the vehicle lifts off, moving forward while somehow traveling backward in time, linked to a vast web of cables and tracks that stretches impossibly from earth to sky. Making a left near the Flatirons, the car rises and falls like a roller coaster across the eastern plains that yield imperceptibly to western Kansas, buoyed by the winds that whirl above Lawrence, rattled by the rush of the Missouri River, veering north toward Springfield, Decatur and the corn and soy bean fields of central Illinois. I am elated: through the binoculars I glimpse my grandmother’s farm outside Jacksonville, the house with its wrap-around porch and green-roofed corn crib looking just as they did in snapshots from the 1960s.
Sailing on past the suburbs of Chicago—Downers Grove, Naperville, Oak Brook—the streetcar descends perilously close to the lake, blue-black and brackish, as if homing for water. I love hovering over the waves, riding an unexpected gust due east through the hills and valleys of the Lower Peninsula, and, more than anything, swerving around the Giant Tire by the highway just south of Detroit, the one that used to be a Ferris Wheel at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Pure exhilaration. My parents must have passed it when they emigrated in 1965; we drove by it every year on long family road trips to Texas.
My internal compass knows what comes next: everything turns green, and there is more and more water. As Lake Erie leads to Lake Ontario, and the parks and bogs near London cede to the ravines and canopy of Tkaranto, the place “where there are trees are standing in the water,” the car leaps and dips, glides and soars, shakes, screeches, brakes and switches, sparking as it touches down and careens into the CNE. The midway is awhirl with light. Nearby, the lake lies quaking in the dark.
I have landed in Toronto twenty-five years before the boom. In the glinting tracks ahead and “neon glamour” at my back, I feel the allure of that not-too-distant future.1
I wake with a start, suddenly derailed.
I’m not there.
Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane, 1951), a National Film Board of Canada short narrated by radio broadcaster Elwood Glover and produced by Sydney Newman (twelve years before he created Dr. Who),2 charts the rise of the “Queen City” renowned for its Sunday Blue Laws and as the birthplace of Standard Time, now an urban center “growing like mad, bursting at the seams,” its dreams of “expanding industrial might” putting it at risk of being “strangled by its own prosperity.”3 Struggling with traffic and congestion due to post-war suburban expansion, the film documents the building of Canada’s first subway, which opened in 1954, promotes the city’s glamorous nightlife in a montage of hotspots and watering holes known for their spectacular neon signage (The El Mocambo and The Horseshoe Tavern among them), and reminds us, through a remark made by a visitor to mansion-turned-museum Casa Loma, that Toronto is a city of one million people (still) “living in a forest.”
But the film’s most telling riff, a textbook illustration of NFB founder John Grierson’s vision of documentary as the “creative treatment of actuality,” is its depiction of Canadian-American relations through the fictional meeting of Albert McConachie, from equally fictional Pine Tree Rapids, and Chester Vanderwick, a businessman from Ohio. In a conversation replete with the requisite long o’s and broad a’s defining each country’s accents, Mr. McConachie insists that Toronto is too big for him, and that he “wouldn’t live here if they gave [him] the place!” Mr. Vanderwick, however, bestows America’s highest compliment, describing TO as “smart and up to date, just like a good American city. Makes me feel like I’m back in Cleveland!” Framed by “Mr. Nice Guy” Glover’s perfectly pitched boosterist voice over, which lends humor and enthusiasm to the entire exchange, “Toronto the Good” in 1951 is primed to become the “City of the Future” emblematized 14 years later by the modernist City Hall designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, with its curved twin towers of differing heights enclosing a space-ship like council chamber.4
Toronto Boom Town’s idealized future takes an apocalyptic turn in Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998), a film showing the city on the verge of obliteration, littered and looted, its streets strewn with peculiar totems made from animal masks impaled on parking meters. Sandra (Sandra Oh) walks through this urban wasteland in search of a ride, sounding like a latter-day Dorothy Gale when she tells everyone she meets, including widower Patrick Wheeler (McKellar), “I have to get home.”
She wants to get there, however, to fulfill a mutual suicide pact with her husband Duncan (David Cronenberg), before the film’s unexplained catastrophe occurs at midnight. In one attempt to do so, she boards a driverless streetcar (a Canadian Light Rail Vehicle from the late 1970s, not the Art Deco Pullman car that haunts my dreams), whose two passengers, a despairing mother and her impatient daughter, seem to be waiting for something to happen. Rioting crowds eventually overturn the abandoned vehicle, and Sandra spends the final moments of the night exchanging personal intimacies with Patrick, whose way of describing his wife’s death rings with significance beyond the confines of the narrative: “After she died, they said the world would end.” The loss of a loved one, or even a beloved place, often feels like that. For a while, there is nothing left; the familiar terms of the universe are no more.
If I could, I would give Sandra another future, or at least add to the present that is (was) her last night, by giving her a ride—another ride, or perhaps a few—one down Bay Street to the waterfront on a working CLRV. Getting off at Queens Quay, she would board a time-traveling ferry to Centre Island (a “Technicolor” ride, thanks to the strength of magenta dyes), arriving during the Canadian Centennial (1967), a few years before her birth. There, bathed in the glow of a late summer sunset, after walking by the shore while children play nearby, she might stroll to the Centreville amusement park, and take a spin on The Scrambler, like Margot (Michelle Williams) does in Take this Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011), years down the line. Whirling in the dark, her blues diffused by the lurid blend of lights, filled with a sense of abandon, thrilled at being in motion, and uniquely attuned to the passing of time, Sandra might find solace, I like to imagine, in being shaken up and turned around, before returning to a final evening of human communion which culminates, in the film’s last shot, in an unanticipated kiss.
In Take This Waltz, Margot also seeks temporary solace in a thrill ride, when she boards The Scrambler with a possible paramour as a way of shaking up her own life. Five years into a marriage that on the surface seems just fine, Margot is restless at the core, in search of something else. A woman who freely admits that she dislikes dislocation (the “rushing, not knowing,” of air travel, of being “in between things”), she nonetheless courts a new experience by responding to Daniel’s (Luke Kirby) attentions, thus placing herself in an emotionally liminal zone. “Life has a gap in it, in the big picture,” her former sister-in-law tells her much later in the film, after Margot has left her husband. Getting on The Scrambler, part of a long day with a man to whom she is irresistibly drawn, is one way of trying to fill in that gap. The ride is a diversion but also a place of transformation: first elated, then deflated, Margot’s expressions bring to light an internal struggle—her dark night of the soul.
All of the characters in The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013) experience dark (days and) nights of the soul when their acting teacher gives them an exercise that unexpectedly derails them. After watching a short film he made with his son Sam (Jacob Switzer) some ten years earlier, Leo (Aaron Poole) decides to adapt its method for a group of young performers, including himself. In the original film, called The Bunny Project, Sam, in full rabbit costume, offers hugs to passersby, and muses on life, death, and the nature of dreams.5 “Do you dream?,” he is asked by an off-screen voice, presumably his father’s. “I’ve had a dream that seems really real,” Sam answers—an experience, we soon learn, his father knows very well. Leo poses the same question, with slight variations, to his fellow actors, asking of one, “Have you ever died in your dreams?,” and of another, “What is the last thing you remember dreaming?” To the latter, he gets an answer that might be part of what unhinges him: Saul, with whom he has recently shared an unexpected moment of intimacy, answers, “It was about you.”
How and why this happens, and how the entire “chorus of misfits,” as Leo eventually describes himself and his six students, breaks apart, comes together, forges new bonds and deepens their connections, precisely because of the exercise he devises for them, creates a film which is an intricate study of projection, anonymity, authenticity, and identity, and the human capacity for intimacy, against all odds. The exercise? Don a full animal costume, mask and all, and go out into the world, interact, and see what happens—with others, and in you. Self-obliteration, Leo insists, is a “different kind of risk taking.” “Those animal heads wipe out the actor’s expression completely,” one student protests. “You could put anyone in those heads and it wouldn’t make a difference at all.” To some extent this is true. But what happens to each actor internally is distinct, and for each, adopting a guise ultimately yields something genuine. The exercise proves to be an unforeseen vehicle of transformation.
Toronto is the place where these transformations occur, in locations ranging from the elevated to the mundane, each beautifully shot by cinematographer Cabot McNenly: its glistening streets and glowing alleys, its parks and ravines, its laundromats, living rooms, diners (Vesta Lunch: “Reputable since 1955!”), churches, theaters, bars, clubs and, of course, down by the lake.
In one especially memorable sequence, Pippa (Jessica Greco) and Alice (Hannah Cheesman), The Donkey and The Rabbit, respectively, walk by the Cameron House, a 1920s hotel turned music venue in the 1980s, their bouquet of red balloons thrown into relief by the vibrant red of the club’s door, which is echoed by the orange glow of a passing cab, its turquoise trunk a perfect complement to the teal background of the striking mural on the club’s wall, which frames a window filled with an inviting arc of blue lights. As if beckoned, they enter, and dance in costume, while a balloon or two drifts to the ceiling. Later, on the street, a man gropes at Pippa after she offers him a balloon, and then he laughs at her distress. She breaks down.
Given how significant balloons are for her (“they are magic to me”), their inclusion here reads as a telling evocation of The Red Balloon (1956), Albert Morrisette’s fantasy film about a young boy in Ménilmontant who finds a sentient red balloon that follows him everywhere. Jealous children ultimately destroy his silent friend, but fantasy wins the day: all the balloons in Paris take Pascal on a cluster balloon ride over the rooftops of the city. As one critic put it in 1957, the film is “a poignant symbolization of dreams and the cruelty of those who puncture them.”6 The same might be said of The Animal Project. 7
Other characters in the film wander the streets alone, exhibiting varying degrees of comfort with their costumes. While Mira The Mouse (Sarena Parmar), wearing only her mask, walks through a dark alley, its slick sidewalk glinting with gold, Jason The Cat (Johnathan Sousa), in full attire, meanders down to the lake at sunrise, raises his arms to the waxing moon (a stretch of despair or an appeal for strength?), then sits on the dock, waves lapping at his back, pondering a momentous decision. When the light shifts, he leaps up, runs all the way to The Mouse’s house, takes off his mask, and declares that he is going to kiss her. He does.
Lingering by the “Lake of Shining Waters” facilitates his transformation. Gazing out at that infinite expanse of blue, as balanced and restorative as a minimalist painting,8 Jason faces his own emptiness, and feels “the blue of longing.” Blue, writes Rebecca Solnit, is “the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not.”9 To get there, Jason jogs the distance, taking the lake’s quiet enlightenment with him.
Whenever you leave, wherever you go, you take that blue glow with you, its radiance at your back. On the next ride, on the road, out of town, on the tracks, in a streetcar, in the air, looking back, glancing ahead—longing, Solnit reminds us, is a sensation to be cherished on its own terms. Something is always far away, and something always needs letting go.
A moon, a red balloon, a faint blue gleam in a vast black sky. A wish drifting heavenward. A streetcar creaking homeward. This is my dream.
For my mother, who helped the Toronto Transit Commission make the streetcars accessible for everyone. 10 And for Ingrid, whose films brought me home.
1. Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane, 1951).
2. The Canadian National Exhibition, 1922. City of Toronto Archives.
3. Official opening of Toronto City Hall, 1965. City of Toronto Archives.
4. Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998).
5. Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998).
6. The City of Toronto Archives.
7. The City of Toronto Archives.
8. The Scrambler at Centre Island in Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011).
9. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
10. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
11. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
12. Lake Ontario: “The Lake of Shining Waters” in the Wyandot (Huron) language. The City of Toronto Archives.
13. Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, 2011).
14. The Canadian National Exhibition, 1954. The City of Toronto Archives.
15. The Animal Project (Ingrid Veninger, 2013).
Please feel free to comment.
- The phrase “neon glamour” is used in Toronto Boom Town (Leslie McFarlane 1951) to describe Toronto after dark. [↩]
- For more context on the Torontonian roots of this iconic British television series, see Adam Bunch, The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, November 11, 2013. The Toronto Dreams Project, created by Bunch, is a fascinating intervention into Canadian history. Taking a cue from Banksy, Bunch creates fictional dreams, inspired by the lives of famous figures in Toronto history, writes them on the back of post cards featuring related collages on the front, and leaves them at various sites related to those figures all over the city. [↩]
- Given the current real estate boom in Toronto, it is not surprising that recent reviewers of this NFB short drew the parallel between the Toronto of 1951, and the Toronto of 2014. Another article attesting to the city’s new boom appeared this year in the Huffington Post. And Don McKellar’s recent TV series starring Kim Cattrall for HBO Canada, Sensitive Skin, which premiered on July 20, 2014, features many references to Toronto’s new “cyber lofts,” and in its vision of the city, everyone is always waiting for a streetcar that never seems to arrive! [↩]
- The futuristic look of Toronto City Hall in Nathan Phillips Square has long made it associated with different kinds of science fiction. See The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. [↩]
- Ingrid Veninger appears in The Bunny Project twirling a baton in the background behind her son, actor Jacob Switzer, in this film within a film, thus lending The Animal Project not only an interesting degree of reflexivity, but an autobiographical dimension as well. [↩]
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, March 12, 1957. [↩]
- Another interesting point of comparison with The Red Balloon: Albert Morrisette’s son Pascal played the central character in his father’s film, just as Ingrid Veninger’s son Jacob Switzer plays the character of Sam in The Animal Project. Veninger’s daughter Hallie Switzer stars in Veninger’s films Modra (2010) and i am a good person/i am a bad person (2011). Veninger has also acted in many of the films she has directed, including: Only (2008) and i am a good person/i am a bad person. [↩]
- I am thinking here of works by Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin. See Rothko’s paintings Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue) (1966), and Untitled (Green on Blue) (1968). See Martin’s painting Falling Blue (1963). [↩]
- Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Penguin Books, 2005) 29. [↩]
- On August 31st, 2014, on the Spadina line, Toronto rolled out the first low-to-the-ground, accessible Flexity Outlook streetcars. [↩]