Published Jul 10, 2007Albert Nerenbergs films make audiences laugh and think. After making parody TV commercials at his Toronto-based Trailervision Nerenberg unleashed Stupidity in 2003, a documentary that explores all that is, well, stupid in our society, starting with Mr. George W. Bush. Two years later, Nerenberg spawned Escape To Canada, which trumpeted Canada as the true land of the free, offering gay marriage and pot smoking without judgment or (more importantly) imprisonment. Most recently, he teamed up with Trailervision collaborator Rob Spence, who dons the guise of Mr. Toronto in the acclaimed Lets All Hate Toronto. Eye-patched Mr. Toronto travels our proud nation, from sea to shining sea, to celebrate all that is great about his city. He confronts sarcastic street buskers in Montreal and drunken Oilers fans on Edmontons White Avenue... and survives. Nerenberg and Spence recently spoke with Exclaim! at the posh Drake Hotel on posher Queen Street West to discuss all things Toronto.
How are Torontonians reacting to your film?
Albert Nerenberg: Intelligently. Theyre laughing a lot, particularly the opening.
Rob Spence: The Toronto song.
AN: "I hate the SkyDome. I hate...
RS: "... the CN Tower.
AN: Of course, Torontonians attempt to feel patriotic towards their city, but the people who have to live with the things that are really annoying about Toronto are Torontonians themselves. If somebodys going to hate the CN Tower, itll be somebody who lives right underneath it, rather than somebodys whos never been here.
But you live under the CN Tower.
AN: I like it, but I can understand why some people might hate hearing about it constantly.
RS: Usually, the way people see the CN Tower is, "Were in Toronto. Its shown seriously all the time. Were force-fed it all the time by this Toronto media that makes it look important and cool all the time.
Youre showing the film in Montreal next week.
AN: At the Just For Laughs Festival. Mr. Toronto [Rob] has made an elaborate case [on a recent Toronto radio show] that everyone in Montreal is drunk almost all the time.
RS: All they do is drink wine and listen to jazz.
AN: And they make sexy eyes at each other instead of going to work.
Isnt that true?
RS: It is. I briefly lived in Montreal, and left for fear that I would never get anything done. I felt I was becoming a useless drunk.
As opposed to Toronto?
AN: Where he is an achieving useless drunk.
RS: Not even joking. I was concerned about staying in Montreal. Albert lived there too. When we went back we ran into people who are drunk.
AN: When we were shooting there, we didnt have the most rigorous schedule, but wed get up early enough to get the light. It would be 2:30 p.m. and people would say, "Lets go drinking. Then, youd wander around at four or five a.m. after having been drunk. I dont know how you can get anything done with that lifestyle.
How did other cities like Vancouver take to you guys?
RS: Vancouver had some serious issues. Often, people from Vancouver will go, "Thats not true. We dont even care about Toronto. We dont even think about it. Obviously you are with your angry tone. I think they feel left out of the whole Eastern media/financial vortex. I think a lot of people who couldnt cut it in Toronto moved to Vancouver. Maybe theyre more into mountains and a different kind of lifestyle.
Are you saying that the people of Vancouver are second-rate?
AN: Losers [laughs]. Montrealers are drunks.
RS: Theyre pothead-kayaker-dropouts. In their minds theyve chosen a better way of life. Theyve chosen nature and real life. But often the case is they didnt have what it takes to get by here.
And what about Edmonton and Western alienation?
RS: Edmonton was actually quite friendly. It was the [2006 NHL] playoffs when we went there. Its a very friendly town.
Even though you were wearing that Leafs 99 Gretzky jersey while the Edmonton Oilers were playing in the Stanley Cup finals?
RS: I was really impressed how they didnt kick my ass.
AN: All these interviews ask us, "You wore a Leafs jersey down White Avenue during the Stanley Cup and you did not die? No. This whole hype about Edmonton being violent is totally exaggerated. Anyway, a week later theres this story about a guy just down the street from where we were, this guys nose was bitten off in a bar for no particular reason.
RS: I was busted for taking a leak on a dumpster.
While wearing your Leafs jersey?
RS: Right. We wrestled with putting the peeing-on-Edmonton scene in the film, but Edmonton didnt kill me, which was so nice after everything I did wearing the Gretzky shirt, and they handled the hockey loss with grace.
Were Haligonians friendly, too?
AN: In places like Vancouver, they didnt hate Torontonians. They hated Toronto, and what it symbolizes as the media and financial capital. In Halifax, we found a different phenomenon. In the Maritimes, you actually get the resentment for Torontonians. We asked people about it. Halifax, being a tourism town, has Torontonians visiting as tourists and making snide remarks or being arrogant. One comment was, "They behave exactly like Americans, but they dont tip well. Mostly for the country, Canadians dont hate Toronto. There isnt this vitriolic rage. They know that the people of Toronto are a bunch of shleppers just like them. But the exception would be the Maritimes.
So, we behave like a busload of English tourists in Spain?
AN: ...who are fussy with their tips.
RS: And dont drink enough. Theyre also drunks out there.
AN: It is basically a nation of drunks.
What about weed?
AN: We were getting stoned all the time.
RS: I didnt smoke a lot. We were in the bars. But one thing Canadians do to relax... we joke by making disparaging remarks about Toronto, all done with a smile. Jokes have a basis in something. "Toronto sucks, is a national expression, where Americans say, "I love New York. Theres something a little wrong with that. Maybe its Canadian insecurity, or Toronto does suck.
Is it envy?
AN: For us its an amazing subject for a film. Its actually a genuine paradox. If you ever say [Toronto] is one thing, youre going to be wrong. Envy is a big part of it. A lot of people who hate Toronto have never been here. They think theres a big party here, and huge amounts of money are being made that theyll never be a part of it. So, they might as well resent those people. It might be a positioning issue. Its like Toronto built this big, fancy mansion overlooking this little shack. So, of course theyll hate you.
Albert, youre from Montreal. How have your perceptions of this city changed since moving here?
AN: Actually, Im from London [Ontario]... I grew up knowing Toronto as a big, fantastical city. Ive lived here for almost a decade. Later I lived in Montreal. The minute you move to Montreal, you are programmed to resent Toronto. Its English Canada. Montreal sees itself as culturally advanced. You turn on your TV and news comes from Toronto, and people there shout, "Who are these hosers telling us whats going on in our country? Theres a feeling in Montreal that theres a real cultural divide running down St. Laurent Boulevard. On one side you got the French, and on the other the English. Montreal is in the middle. Artificially, weve moved the divide over to Toronto and Ottawa. In the times when the country has almost broken apart, its always happened in Montreal. So, Montreal is partially right to feel like the country has been kind of put to sleep in Ottawa and Toronto, when in fact the central dilemma is Montreal. This is in terms of the English-French divide. Were taught [that] Toronto is boring. Toronto doesnt have Montreals night life. Theres no food in Toronto. The women are not attractive. Theres a strange naivete here about everything. You just love the Leafs because theyre the Leafs. In Montreal, you love the Canadiens because they can skate; they take chances on rookies.
RS: And the Leafs have amazing marketing.
Rob, youre from Belleville
RS: I grew up there, then I went to Montreal for three years, then Vancouver for a year, back to Montreal, then I moved to Toronto. I had a good perspective on the major cities. When I first moved here I was invited to an ultimate frisbee team meeting at Yonge and Eligible [Eglinton, a neighbourhood sometimes known for its young, attractive, affluent community]. I was introduced and people say a brief hello then they immediately turn away and start talking amongst themselves. It was very difficult to make friends here. People are more comfortable with the people they know. Toronto is like a person with a cold exterior, but if you chip through it, you can meet a lot of nice people. You have to make the effort in Toronto.
AN: Toronto has become the Paradox City: Everything you say about Toronto is also not true. If you say Toronto is a cold city, then you will have incredibly friendly experiences with people. If you say Toronto is a rich city, then you will run into some very poor people. If you say Toronto is a city with nothing going on, you will see a street full of incredible happenings. Toronto has its stereotype and its opposite at the exact same moment.
And the women?
AN: There are all these subjects that have opened up as a result of the film. Theres a joke in the film where somebody says they tell this joke in Montreal every year: The women in Montreal are so beautiful and we send the ugly women to Toronto. Its caused quite a controversy. The joke is sexist, in bad taste, plus its not even true. Theres a real problem in Toronto now with hotness: there are incredibly hot, beautiful women walking around Toronto, and its a serious menace. So, when we present the film this Saturday [at Montreals Just For Laughs festival], well officially retire that joke.
Any other surprises while making the film?
AN: Toronto fashions itself to be a European-ish city. It has café culture. Thats a myth. Toronto is a car city. Traffic, congestion. We kill enormous amounts of pedestrians and cyclists. That impedes Toronto from realising its dream. Why doesnt Toronto have a pedestrian mall?
RS: A big point of your film is that you challenge the popular notion of Toronto being a culturally diverse city.
AN: ...according to the United Nations. Its a myth. It never happened. Nobody doubts the huge amounts of immigration here. But does the city really feel diverse? I go to Montreal I feel like Im in a more diverse city. There are all kinds of people when you walk down the street that you would never meet during the day in Toronto, people a million miles outside your circle. If you walk down a street in Toronto you meet people who seem like they were in your high school class, or are very close to you in your work. The second thing is, go to any major power organization in the city, like the CBC [which co-financed the film]. You walk into the CBC building and go, "Charming. There are people from all over the world. In fact, those people are at the Academy of International Design [a film school inside the Toronto CBC building]. Its actually Honkytown. Everybody is white. It has a superwhite perspective. Toronto is diverse in the way it brings immigrants from all over the world. Are those people well integrated into the city? No. In city hall? No. In the media? No. Can you turn on the TV in Toronto and go, "Wow, theres such a cool West Indian TV show? No. Its the honky perspective 24 hours a day.
RS: In Toronto, we say we have Italians, Germans and Portuguese. Theres more weight given to a country from Europe than South America or Asia. Vancouver has a wide array of Asian immigrants, but thats considered less diverse, because you can go, "Yeah, but theyre all Asian.
AN: Heres another point. Toronto lacks economic diversity. Because of its aggressive economic basis, it equalizes the cost of living across the city: expensive. There are areas of New York that are so dangerous and terrible you could live there for nothing. They have a purpose. Toronto actually doesnt have that. You go to Parkdale and the houses are half-a-million dollars. Parkdale is not particularly a nice neighbourhood. Toronto has a way of taking the dumpiest neighbourhoods and making them expensive. I think real estate markets are pegged. In Montreal, poor people can go and eat their three-dollar lasagne at the restaurant
RS: Which tastes good.
AN: ...and they have their $1.25 pint of insanely cheap beer.
RS: The reason you can get good, cheap food in Montreal is number one: they lost the war against Toronto. So, theyre in a permanent Parkdale situation. Thats the price of success. Yorkville used to be a hippie joint and its gentrified now. I understand very well the cultural heritage of Toronto: Its Orange. My parents are from Ireland and theyre both Orange. Theres this finger wagging from the Scots-Irish: youre cheap, you like to tell people how it is and what they should be doing. If people are doing well: "But heres what else you can do. Theyre a hungry, cheap, finger-wagging bunch. I channel that into my Mr. Toronto character. Basically, I thought of all the lectures Ive had from my family over the years, and did that to the rest of Canada. Vancouver is more mountains, pioneerish, loggers, potheads. Everyone needs to go somewhere to escape somewhere, and they always go west, young man.
Did Lets All Hate Torontospring from your previous film, Escape To Canada?
AN: When people say, "Why are you being so hard on Toronto? I point out Escape To Canada, which could not be more loving to Toronto. It positions Toronto as the city at the end of the rainbow. Theres a funny story that explains the difference in how Canadians and the world perceives Toronto. Our New York distributor designs the DVD covers. I was too busy to tell them what to do, so they just threw something together for Escape To Canada. They sent it to me and I went, "Holy shit. On the back they put the Toronto skyline. I asked, "Why would you put the Toronto skyline as symbol of freedom? They said, "As Americans we do see it that way. We see the Toronto skyline as gay freedom, pot freedom, do what you want. And they see the skyline as a very beautiful thing. Canadians see the skyline as giving Canada the finger.
Has there been any reaction to Lets All Hate Toronto outside Canada?
AN: That again is the Toronto paradox: Toronto is positively viewed around the world, but Canada has such a negative [view]. When we planned this film, we figured there would be no interest in this film outside Canada. When it was first announced that this film had been made, it was on the front page of CNN.com: "Al-Queda blows up site in Saudi Arabia, Bush says this, and Lets All Hate Toronto. Were like, What the fuck? Whats going on? All over the world they found it fascinating that Canadians would hate their biggest city. And comical.
Dont all countries hate their capitals, like New York and America, London and England?
RS: Ive heard this comparison and its an easy response. Its the Centre Periphery Theory. The periphery resents the centre because theres a lot of control over the periphery. Canada itself was once the periphery to London. Maybe thats part of the legacy. But if you go to France or Brussels, their reaction isnt "Paris sucks. They take more pride [in their capitals]. Canadians dont go around saying they "hate Toronto, but they make a disparaging joke. They dont take much pride.
AN: Another thing is that Toronto needs to stand up for himself more. One reason why Toronto is an easy victim is that it is perceived as chickenshit culture. It does. [In America] the boldest, craziest show comes out of New York. The wild show in Europe comes out of London. In Canada, the tamest show comes out of Toronto. Trailer Park Boys comes out of Nova Scotia, Corner Gas from Saskatchewan. Little Mosque on the Prairie comes out of the Prairies. The real daring shit in Canada comes out of the periphery, and the chickenshit stuff comes out of the centre. Its backwards. The explanation may be that Toronto has always been a banking city. Banking by its nature is a cautious culture and that has spread to the media, which it shouldnt have. If Toronto wants to be a national media capital it should act like one.
So what can we do to fix Toronto?
AN: Theres total awareness of whats wrong. Problems are identified quite quickly, but whats weird about Toronto is that it keeps happening. An example is condos blocking off the lake. People said a long time ago, "We gotta stop building condos that block off the lake. Next thing we know, "What did you do last night? "I built a condo that blocked off the lake. "Man, you gotta stop. "Yeah, its my last one. I promise I wont do it again...
Do you consider yourselves Torontonians?
AN: Making the film has made me very committed to Toronto. Whats great about Toronto is that you can integrate very quickly. I have become a Torontonian.
RS: My God!
AN: I said those words, "I AM A TORONTONIAN! You never leave Toronto. Toronto never leaves you.
RS: Like a never-ending bowel movement.