In the late 1970s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation put together a series simply called ‘Cities’ where certain celebrity figures gave very personal introspective tours of their hometown to millions of Canadian television viewers. Actor Peter Ustinov showcased Leningrad, and stage director Jonathan Miller took us around London. Most memorable of the series however was not of a city in some far-flung exotic locale, but one very close to home — Toronto. More compelling than the location choice however was the choice of celebrity — Canada’s own infamous pianist/recluse Glenn Gould.
The documentary is worth its weight in gold, as it pairs up a city, which at that very moment was undergoing tremendous change, with a reclusive figure who is trying to grapple with his own inner contradiction of his love for Toronto, and his general contempt for crowds, popular culture, and daylight.
The show takes us to all of the places that signify Toronto’s blooming modernism of the time and Glenn Gould provides punchlines — too quickly delivered in his excessively articulated enunciation — which humbly knock each project off its pedestal. Ontario Place is a hastily prepared response to rival Montreal’s Expo. The CN Tower is built so that we can gaze upon Buffalo. The modern skyscrapers are projections of each banker’s ego and their competitive nature to out-do the others. The Canadian National Exhibition is for Gould an “amazing anachronism” and he marvels at the stupidity of the air show, with pilots putting their lives at risk simply to do something that is difficult. Gould looks most uncomfortable when riding the elevators in the Eaton Centre — a new downtown shopping mall designed to rival the Galleria in Milan — and he mumbles to himself “absurd, absolutely absurd”.
There are some places however where one gets the feeling Gould is absolutely at peace. The opening and closing shots take place on the Toronto Islands, with the city’s skyline in the background — and this feels like the comfortable distance at which Gould would be happy experiencing the city. There is also a charming moment at the Toronto Zoo where Gould admits his affinity for animals over humans, and attempt to sing a rendition of a Mahler Lied. Driving through the Golden Mile in the Toronto suburb North York, Gould claims this to be his favourite part of town. Clean, antiseptic lawns and low-rise modern office buildings and bungalows represent an “improbable Brasilia quality” that suits him well.
The director also plays with charming juxtapositions. As Gould rants about nausea inducing roller-coaster rides at the Canadian Nation Exhibition, the roar of a ride behind him nearly drowns him out. A scene of the Viljo Revell designed New City Hall is shot with an evangelical choir in the foreground singing the praises of Jesus — as Gould recites an anecdote of how a Henry Moore sculpture placed in front of the building caused a popular backlash which resulted in the incumbent mayor losing in the following elections.
At the end Gould divulges a secret which reveals the true tenuous relationship between him and Toronto. It’s not that he loves the city purely out of love — but because it affords him his lifestyle as unusual is it may be. He says that over time he has constructed a metaphor of Toronto, similar to a stain-glassed window, which allows him to survive the perils of any city — and that the best part about about Toronto is that it doesn’t intrude on that metaphor. In the end he hopes that his image of Toronto as a peaceful city isn’t a mirage, because if that mirage were to ever evaporate he’d have no other alternative than to leave town.