David Davidson is a graduate student in Film Studies at the University of Toronto and also runs the blog Toronto Film Review.
When did you first fall in love with film?
I think, like for a lot of teenagers growing up in the nineties, that movies, shows, cartoons and videogames were just a staple of growing up. They were fun, something to do with friends, after school and on weekends. I have fond memories of taking the 85 bus from Westboro to the Coliseum to watch movies and play in their arcade. I remember liking Ace Ventura, Small Soldiers, American Pie and A.I. to just name a few. There’s a certain innocence and pleasure that youths take from films, which I remember this period fondly for.
But when I was first really engaged with films as an art form it was probably in undergrad at the University of Ottawa. This is when I wasn’t too sure what I would major in so I took a few cinema studies courses: Italian cinema with Franco Ricci and Canadian cinema with Garry Evans. In the evenings after watching films like The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D. and Last Tango in Paris I would go on long walks to contemplate what I’ve just experienced. It was my first glimpse into the history of cinema and how it could strongly capture different periods, places, people, experiences and emotions.
At this time I was also working at the university supervising computer labs where I had a lot of time to read, write and be on a computer. I would go through the impressive selection of film books at the Morisset library and this is when I first started reading the archives of Cahiers and Positif. There were film websites that I would regularly read like those by the critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Dave Kehr. Because I was reading and watching so much, a lot of it on the Internet, it just made sense to start a blog to publish some of my thoughts. Originally the site was called Ottawa Film Review and I started it in 2008. It was fun to write about the films that were playing at the ByTowne Cinema, the newly opened Mayfair Theatre and the Canadian Film Institute. I would go on road trips to Montreal to attend screenings at the Cinémathèque québécoise and Cinéma du Park. I would also start to read Cinema Scope around this time. So my interest in cinema was split between a passion and a more written pursuit, as a way to communicate something of that experience.
Though the Ottawa film scene wasn’t too big or illustrious, you end up finding friends that are interested in the type of things that you like. I was a regular at my favourite used DVD shop Turning Point and would rent movies from The Invisible Cinema (both a couple of blocks away from each other off Bank Street). This is the period when I discovered C.R.A.Z.Y. (the subject of one of my first lengthier blog posts) in a used DVD shop in Québec City – a nice coincidence that resonates with the many chance encounters and premonitions in Jean-Marc Vallée’s work. In this period, cinema was for me a way to better understand the world and to connect with others.
How did the Toronto Film Review come into this world? What is the mandate of the Toronto Film Review?
So as I mentioned I started the blog as a way to be a part of an online film community. This was a few years before I really knew about and joined Twitter. There was also an awkward phase for the blog when I first moved to Toronto in 2010 where it was called Ottawa-Toronto Film Review, which didn’t last too long. I moved for a job at the film festival (that year I only saw three films: Boxing Gym, Promises Written in Water, L.A. Zombie) and I didn’t know too many people. But by chance while at Ronnie’s I got to meet Kaz, Dan and Antoine from MDFF whom I would later become friends with. They were my first introduction to the emerging Canadian filmmaker scene. Both Kaz and Antoine had short films at the festival, which I would write about at the time, and through them I would go on to meet other young filmmakers. I would try to account for the rise of this new generation of emerging filmmakers in a talk ‘Toronto DIY Filmmakers’ that I gave at the graduate student film conference at the University of Toronto in 2016.
I’m not sure if my site really has a mandate: Publish things that are relevant? Support Canadian cinema? I try to write about the directors that I like… But I'm somewhat shy of broaching controversies, as I'd rather write about the things that I like and to promote screenings in the city. I would also like to imagine a correspondence between my work and how Cahiers supports young filmmakers or how 24 Images writes about their province’s own cinema… I’ve always asked friends over the years if they wanted to contribute, and while some have taken me up on it there hasn’t been too many. It would be nice if Toronto Film Review had more exposure, even though I kind-of prefer how it’s less institutional and has a more casual tone.
Of all your posts you have made, which are you the happiest about? How do you stay connected to the world of independent filmmakers here in Toronto? Have you ever harboured desires to create your own film? What are your favourite types of films? You have followed the career of Jean-Marc Vallée very closely. What is it about his work that you find so compelling?
This year, I put together a post ‘Canadian Cinema By Those Who Make It’ where I got a lot of filmmakers, from various backgrounds, to talk about their work and hopes, which I’m quite happy about. There’s also the series ‘100 Best Canadian Films’ where film experts come up with personalized film histories of Canadian cinema. I’ll hopefully put all of these lists together to create an extensive filmography of Canadian cinema, which I think would be quite impressive as I don’t think anything as thorough exists. On my site the archive of posts on Matt Johnson and Jean-Marc Vallée are quite extensive too.
I’ve always enjoyed meeting local filmmakers and hearing how they turn their ideas of cinema and life into a filmmaking practice. Since I don’t have an ambition to direct, it’s fun to hear about the special moments and challenges that can arise during film shoots. I keep in touch with local filmmakers when I see them at events and some I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with.
Some of my favourite films are those that are emotionally honest, without being naïve, and are able to create something that is complex, open to the world and singular. Directors like Steven Spielberg and Jean-Marc Vallée come to mind. I see Vallée as an auteur with a singular vision of the humanity that I like and can relate to. For example, in Wild, the story of a young woman who bereaves the death of her mother by taking a long nature hike, you can feel Vallée’s presence through its empathy and support. The same thing could be said about Dallas Buyers Club.
Does your research and coursework through your PhD program affect your writing in the blog? You are looking closely at Les Cahiers du Cinéma as a part of your research. How do you feel that film writing and criticism has changed over the years?
I’ve put up some of my academic essays on my site (because the prospect of academic publishing can be daunting) and I like how it offers an immediacy to publishing. The Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto is an intellectually stimulating and challenging department. The faculty, peers, students, guest speakers, lectures, courses, films, special events, conferences and discussions all contribute to this and I just hope my own contributions and research can meet its high expectations.
My dissertation will be a history of Cahiers from the eighties to the present. There are eight chief editors in this period, and I will study their editorial perspective by going through their various texts and to try to distil a unifying theory of cinema. I’ll also examine how they responded to the films that came out, their times, politics and culture, and what were the changes at Cahiers.
I don’t really want to hypothesize on the change that occurred to film criticism in such a vast period, which leads to the present an era of large journalism cuts and social media, but I think if there’s a constant in the film writing that I appreciate is when it can communicate a thought. From there it can go into other territory, the more original the better and especially if it challenges preconceived notions, but a form of writing that carries an idea is, as I see it, film criticism’s main vocation. I guess one of the changes today is that it has become harder to simply say something and there are many more perspectives to take into account. This is probably why I like so much the annotation of a David Foster Wallace or the hyper-textuality of a Matt Johnson.
Why is film writing and criticism important? What was the last movie that you watched and loved? What are you looking forward to? What do you find the most exciting about Canadian cinema today?
Film writing and criticism obviously varies in importance to different people. If I read certain film critics and magazines regularly it’s that I’m interested in what films to go see and what’s the discourse around them. Hopefully I can participate to this through my own activities.
Though it’s not a film, the last thing that I watched and really enjoyed was Workin’ Moms. It’s entertaining, well directed and more relevant than most of CBC’s programming this year. This is compared to Anne that had some nice ideas but was overall underdeveloped, Alias Grace rushed at seven episodes, and Frankie Drake Mysteries that was too safe and conventional (though Rebecca Liddiard is the most memorable aspect of the last two). Workin’ Moms follows a small group of mothers as they’re dealing with the many challenges of motherhood. But even though it’s a comedy, I find its attention to the complex relationship between their emotional and social lives to be quite developed and its sense of community strong too. By looking at the quotidian of their everyday lives it gets at something deeper about life and the changes going on in the city. I would put Workin’ Moms representation of Toronto up there with other investigations of the city that came out this year like Mike Hoolboom’s Incident Reports and Charles Officer’s Unarmed Verses.
Things to look forward to? I see that Telefilm just sparked a new initiative to help more graduating students make first time features. Though I’m always skeptical of such celebratory discourse, I guess this is good news… If there’s going to be any changes to our country’s cinema and its reputation it will have to come from the filmmakers first. If there’s any hope in the future of Canadian cinema there needs to be directors that actually believes in it. Hopefully they can create more hopeful, imaginative and inspiring work.