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‘Think again’ about Toronto’s digital history

From the back of a speeding limousine, the late Toronto author Scott Symons opens ‘Think Again about Toronto’ with a proclamation about how the city “must accept its destiny”.  With this, the stage is set for what feels like another piece of kooky 80’s nostalgia (think a ‘Retro Ontario’ clip paired with the soundtrack from ‘Blade Runner’), but behind the flair and panache of the opening monologue, the video, and the story behind it, raise some serious questions about the city’s self-image, history and digital archiving ability.

King and Bay, 1984

King and Bay, 1984

‘Think Again about Toronto’ is an edit produced by Craig Desson for the TVO Archives YouTube channel. The edit features Symons and ex-mayor John Sewell musing about their personal, and often hilarious experiences growing up in Toronto, as well as musings on the health of urbanism in the city. The raw footage is astounding, showcasing the city in 1984 at the dawn of its greatest era of growth: The full regalia of the CN Tower, First Canadian Place and the RBC Plaza are all within ten years new. Yet attempting to dig any deeper and uncover any substantial information on the clip’s source material proves just about fruitless. It turns out the footage is taken from ‘Toronto Four Faces’ a 1984 TVO made-for-television documentary that was assembled to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary (as ‘Toronto’). Much to the irking of digitally-savvy Toronto-lovers everywhere, the film has virtually no trace online, save for one other clip on the TVO archives site. Furthermore, the title is not available at any Toronto library.

Scott Symons; Toronto author, lover of Old City Hall, hater of Bloor Street

Scott Symons; Toronto author, lover of Old City Hall, hater of Bloor Street

Now almost 30 years old, the video paints the city as a truly global metropolis, something the city is only daring to think now. Though 1984 probably seemed like the start of great things for Toronto, the video’s narrators come off as nervous for the future, a sort of preamble to today’s civic attitudes. Sewell warns that the greatest threat to the city is the suburbs, which reject the city’s “mingling of uses” in favour of “the automobile”. He’s especially concerned by the fact that suburban politicians are in a “position of power at the city and provincial level”, an observation eerily reminiscent of today’s political landscape.

Bloor Street, 1984

Bloor Street, 1984

I interviewed Desson, who explained that because the film’s licensing agreement (with featured non-original music and time-bounded agreements) pre-dates the internet, these two clips are roughly the extent of what can be legally displayed online, even though TVO produced and aired the documentary. Furthermore, due to the multiple layers of permission involved, none of the documentary can be physically reproduced for commercial or educational purposes.

Indeterminable street scene, Toronto, 1984: Prize for correct answer? A lifetime of street cred

Indeterminable street scene, Toronto, 1984: Prize for correct answer? A lifetime of street cred

The uncut film ‘Toronto Four Faces’, which also features CityTV’s co-founder Moses Znaimer and historian William Kilbourn, exists in an information backwater, never to be seen again in its entirety. With that in mind, watching ‘Think Again…‘ can be bitter-sweet  Just knowing that a fuller, longer version exists somewhere is painful; what other valuable precognitions on the city’s “fate” exists on those tapes? The second clip from the original film even ends with Symons posing the insanely obtuse question – “What’s the defining thing about us?” –  then talking a breath as if to answer, before being cut off by the guillotine of copyright law.

As more and more of our information, culture and ultimately knowledge becomes stored on the internet, ‘Toronto Four Faces’ illuminates some disturbing issues on the way in which we store our pre-internet history, and subsequently view it from our seat in the contemporary digital age.

By Aaron R


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This entry was posted on April 4, 2013 by in Culture, Screen and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

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