*The Land of the Unknown: Roberto Minervini on What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? By Jordan Cronk. “Poetry floats up in my memory like sailboats in the fog”:Alexei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car! By Daniel Witkin. With Forever Presence: Jonathan Schwartz (1973-2018). By Max Goldberg. *Soft and Hard: Claire Denis on High Life. By Adam Nayman.
Like a father who dusts off his Led Zeppelin IV LP in a pathetic attempt to relate to the Black Flag pounding behind his son’s bedroom door, CanCon mainstay Bruce McDonald’s latest pitch n’ toss at the zeitgeist, This Movie Is Broken, profoundly misapprehends the youth culture it so attempts to valourize—a particularly damning indictment considering that the present writer’s size-too-tight jeans, possession of a wardrobe comprised largely of pilled flannels and band t-shirts, and arms smattered with mostly meaningless tattoos place him squarely within the film’s desired demographic. A love letter to Toronto’s indie music scene and the hirsute hipsterati that populate it, McDonald’s concert film-cum-star-cross’d romance crudely sutures a half-assed dark-night-of-the-soul city poem (courtesy of a wisp of a script penned by Don McKellar) onto some efficient concert footage of a free show by local indie rock darlings Broken Social Scene held at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in the summer of 2009, resulting in a film of over-eager operatics and saccharine feel-goodery worthy of its headlining act.
Opening with the umpteen members of Canada’s premiere “musical collective”—including Brendan Canning, Kevin Drew, Emily Haines, Leslie Feist, Jason Collett, and about a dozen others—taking the stage for an encore performance, This Movie Is Broken at least begins pleasantly enough. Like them or not, there’s something undeniably impressive about Broken Social Scene’s inoffensive mixing of pop-song structures, jammy post-rock interludes, layered vocal harmonies, and handclap-ready choruses, which McDonald capably captures. The problems begin as soon as the concluding chords of the band’s frantic finale bleed into the morning before, as the beautiful Bruno (Greg Calderone) wakes up bleary-eyed on a rooftop patio, surrounded by a half-dozen half-empty wine bottles and snuggled up next to longtime crush Caroline (Georgina Reilly). “I woke up next to Caroline Rush,” Bruno brags in voiceover. “And do you know what that means? That means I went to bed last night with Caroline Rush!”
It’s with that bit of stultifying expository legwork that the tone for McKellar’s ham-fisted script is set, compounded shortly thereafter by a groaningly banal ticking-clock factor: seems the fair Caroline is jet-setting back to graduate school in the faraway land of France, giving our effortlessly charming protagonist 24 hours to make good on his recent conquest. Of course, Caroline’s farewell desire is to make it to that evening’s Broken Social Scene gig, and maybe even finagle a coveted spot backstage. This non-plot gives rise to a series of non-complications: the show is free, so no problem there, and backstage passes are an easy snag for someone as charismatic as Bruno.
There are fleeting moments early in the film, as Bruno and Caroline go about their day in anticipation of the approaching concert, that This Movie Is Broken exhibits a genuine sense of place, almost realizing its keenerish ambitions as some kind of definitive Toronto youth culture document. Set against the Toronto Civic Employees Union Strike (or, more commonly, “the fucking garbage strike”) of summer 2009, McDonald treats us to shots of mounds of pesticide-coated garbage bags, littered streets, and overflowing trash bins, rendering a Toronto that shares much in common with the biker’s-eye view of Reg Harkema’s Monkey Warfare (2006) as against the postcard-pretty backdrops of something like Atom Egoyan’s erotic laugher Chloe (2009).
A few hummocks of rubbish are hardly enough to salvage McDonald’s film from the heap, however. Any palpable sense of the moment is quickly evacuated as we watch Bruno and Caroline cut into brunch lines, hang out at the Drake Hotel (the ne plus ultra of the city’s west-end gentrification, which the film never bothers to call into question), and cavort with Blake (Kerr Hewitt), another fetching lad decked out in a V-neck T-shirt and goofy straw fedora freshly plucked from an Urban Outfitters catalogue. Later, as McDonald’s camera trails the hip trio muscling past throngs of faceless concertgoers (actual Torontonians, and actual Broken Social Scene fans all) and lingers on Bruno and Caroline sucking face in front of a public restroom, it’s not the whiff of recognition we smell but the stench of utter contempt. In all their pandering to Toronto’s youth populace, McDonald and McKellar present us with the hipsters even hipsters can’t stand.
That both McDonald and McKellar are off the mark is perhaps understandable, given the generational gap and their staid sensibilities. (Harkema has slyly undermined McKellar’s post-Twitch City status as icon of Canadian hip in the past few years, first casting him as an aging stoner radical in Monkey Warfare and more recently as a hard-nosed Yankee prosecutor in 2009’s Leslie, My Name Is Evil.) But it’s especially obnoxious considering that McDonald gave life to a generational ethos of sulking nihilism with 1996’s Hard Core Logo, the radiant fury of which is dismally echoed with This Movie’s recurring shots of Broken Social Scene sing-alongs and sweaty group-hugs. Given that McDonald made a violently entertaining, halfway intelligent, and most of all mature film as recently as Pontypool (2008), his feeble attempt to reassert his already specious purchase over all things cool, vibrant and young in Canadian cinema reveals him to be both a reactionary and, worse, something of a fuddy-duddy. Just wait for This Movie Is Broken’s woozy late-game lapse into slaphappy polyamory as Bruno and Blake fall into bed together, their playful fooling around discreetly cut away from before we see anything that may potentially alienate the film’s broad target audience (e.g., gay sex), allowing McDonald to have his Duplass brothers moment and sell it too.
Buoyed by the release of Broken Social Scene’s first album in five years, This Movie Is Broken will likely earn at least a modicum of attention from the local crowd, further fortifying McDonald and McKellar’s rock-solid positions atop the second tier of Canadian cineastes. A shame, given that there are a handful of existing and emerging talents—Harkema, Mike Dowse, Blaine Thurier (he of that other, and superior, Canadian indie “collective” the New Pornographers)—whose films will likely end up largely ignored by an often-myopic domestic audience which seems unable to process the names of more than three or four Canadian filmmakers at any given time. In their perplexing attempt to narrativize what would otherwise be a reasonably pleasant concert flick, McDonald and McKellar paint the youth culture they longingly kowtow to in broad strokes, cementing their own irrelevance in the process. To paraphrase a still resonant artifact of Canadian pop ephemera from The Kids in the Hall: they’re hip, they’re cool, but alas, they’re 45.