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What the 6ix can learn from La La Land

We need honest and nuanced representation of Toronto in films and television
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When Scott Pilgrim asked Ramona Flowers why she moved from New York to Toronto in the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ramona responded that Toronto is “one of the great cities.” Pilgrim’s inquiry is reflective of a general interpretation of Toronto as unexciting or uninteresting compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles — and this portrayal is a result of the underrepresentation of Toronto in film and popular media.

Surpassed only by Mexico City, New York, and Los Angeles, Toronto is the fourth most populous city in North America. However, Toronto remains severely underrepresented in both Canadian and American film and television.

This is partly attributable to a phenomenon called ‘Toronto doubling,’ in which films are produced and shot in Toronto in order to qualify for Ontario tax credits, yet the city is not referred to as Toronto in the production. Significant examples of this include the superhero movies Suicide Squad, X-Men, and Kick-Ass, which were filmed in Toronto but are set in New York, and the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was filmed in Toronto but set in Chicago.

U of T is not free from this trope, as many parts of the university were used to film Mean Girls and Good Will Hunting, set in Evanston, Illinois and Cambridge, Massachusetts respectively.

One of the grossest uses of this trope lies in Canadian production Orphan Black. The television series is shot entirely in Toronto — and yet remains ambiguous as to where it is actually set. The closest the series comes to revealing its setting are references to Scarborough and a mention of the intersection Queen and Broadview. The co-creator of Orphan Black, Graeme Manson, made note of the show’s ambiguous setting in The Globe and Mail, stating, “It’s meant to be Generica. It’s part of the price you pay for this kind of co-production.”

The decision to film a production in Toronto for business purposes is understandable considering the lower cost of doing so in comparison to other large North American cities. Yet, the fact that Toronto is rarely portrayed in film and media has a significant impact on the perception of Toronto and the identity of Torontonians.

Admittedly, with the success of artists such as Drake and The Weeknd, Toronto has gained increasing attention over the past few years. However, this one-sided representation of Toronto — as a home to two famous artists — is hardly accurate. It detracts from the idea that Toronto is a multidimensional city with many qualities and lifestyles, which aren’t accurately represented by Drake, the Raptors, and the Entertainment District, all common associations with the city for those who do not know it well.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of the only major films in recent memory that portrays Toronto in a different light by showcasing the lives of young adults growing up in areas like Harbord Village and The Annex, as well as the indie rock scene in the city.

In contrast, watching cities like New York and Los Angeles portrayed in films and on television has given viewers a wide array of ideas regarding what life is like in New York and Los Angeles. Often — in contrast to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World where the characters often note the city’s “mediocrity” — these  notions have been romanticized in film.

Those who are from Toronto may begrudgingly point to its pitfalls as a reason for which the city is not receiving the same level of exposure as others. Yet, there are ways in which negative aspects of a city may be developed into quirks on the big screen, providing a more positive and authentic experience for viewers overall.

Take La La Land, which romanticizes Los Angeles from the perspective of younger, middle-class individuals. The film begins by taking one of the major flaws of Los Angeles, its traffic, and creates a musical number on a crowded highway overpass. La La Land uses driving as a motif, noting that it is perhaps a less glamorous part of what defines Los Angeles as a city.

Toronto similarly has a culture of noting its transportation flaws, especially with regard to the viral meme-worthy shortcomings of the TTC.

Yet, when Toronto’s poor transit system becomes one of its only defining representations, it contributes to a pervasive perception of Toronto as an unimpressive location, despite being one of the world’s major commercial centres. This is not to mention the irony that Toronto has a much better public transportation system than Los Angeles.

Toronto should more openly embrace and romanticize the flaws and characteristics that make up its identity, not just as ‘the city of Drake,’ but rather as the multidimensional city that it is.

More productions filmed in Toronto should be set accordingly, as setting a production in Toronto would not negatively impact the plot of the film or television series, but it would also capture the many dimensions that Toronto life has to offer. Toronto needs to be represented as ‘one of the great cities’ — and Toronto needs to love itself.

Avneet Sharma is a second-year student at Trinity College studying English and Book and Media Studies. His column appears every three weeks.