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Road to nowhere

The city of Toronto has many nice places to visit. But the Greyhound depot isn’t one of them. Every day, hundreds of people, young and old, arrive from the godforsaken sticks, hoping that the Big Smoke will make all their dreams come true. Or, at the very least, help them forget the nightmare of shiftless desolation they left behind. Hustlers lie in wait, ready to spirit shapely bumpkins back to their pimp cribs. The rest shamble to the phone banks, nervously dialing up some long lost relative who left years before, the number scribbled on the back of a matchbook bearing the name of a dingy hotel in Wawa, Ontario, or Come By Chance, Newfoundland.

The sad truth is that the city has just as little to offer them, but why should they stay put to rot in the hinterland? A classic dilemma, one that is at the heart of Walter Salles’ much vaunted Central Station (1998). Below the story of a jaded hag in Rio, who spirits an orphaned boy back to what’s left of his family in the interior of Brazil, is the real story — the role of transportation and communication in a chronically underdeveloped country.

The old woman, an unemployed teacher, writes letters for illiterates in the train station and then tosses them into the rubbish bin. A kid’s mother is run over in the street just outside the station and suddenly he and the acidic writer are thrown together. After she has second thoughts about selling the kid to a dodgy adoption ring, they hit the road to find his father. Yet when they arrive in the village, they discover that he’s gone to the city. Missed connections and lost time, these are the perils of those who set off looking for El Dorado.

Almost 20 years earlier, Bye Bye Brazil (1979) worked the same themes but from the opposite direction. A hippie carny and his slatternly moll escape from Rio and travel through the backlands, offering the yokels a third-rate variety show. Complicating matters is the rapid diffusion of television. Who wants live entertainment when the magic box is switched on and glowing? Thus, their voyage deep into the Amazon forest is a search for the perfect audience not yet jaded by TV. Sadly, they find that development has beaten them to the punch. By the end of the film, the troupe, Caravana Rolidei, resorts to the only means possible for survival — they become more TV than TV.

How easy it is to fetishize these films as quaint, bittersweet pieces of Latin froth. As a Canadian, however, I’m suspicious. These stories cut too close to home. Last month saw the striking of new 35mm prints of Going Down the Road (1969), perhaps the most poignant reminder of how much of the Third World is “in” a supposedly First World country. Shot on a shoestring budget in black and white with two nonactors in the leads, the film is truly independent cinema.

Two rubes from Nova Scotia head off in a ramshackle jalopy to Toronto. Once in the city, their fortunes fail to improve. They work in a bottle-sorting plant for minimum wage, taking occasional respite in a case of beer or the arms of a gum-popping dingbat. Finally, when a shoplifting caper turns sour, they admit defeat and start back to the oblivion from whence they came.

Canadian cinema owes an enormous debt to this daring little film. A Quebec knockoff, The Death of a Lumberjack (1972), tried to graft the same city-hinterland ethos to randy, “Quiet Revolution” Montreal. Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, 1989; Hard Core Logo, 1996) in all but one of his films pays varying degrees of homage. Even SCTV saw fit to do a parody, which over time has overshadowed the film itself.

Canada, like Brazil, exists in a sort of disjunctive democracy. Democratic institutions are in place, but democratic practices are frayed and uneven. Canada, like Brazil, struggles with an artificially low-valued currency, run roughshod over by currency speculators and the central banks hoping to encourage exports to the global markets, most notably the United States. The history of Canada consists of mostly quixotic attempts to build a country, a unified culture in the shadow of a rapacious monster. The Brazilians at least have Portuguese as a shield.

No less than famed pianist-cum-kook Glenn Gould, as evidenced in Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993), fought the good fight for the Great White North by producing countless radio dramas on the CBC. The Americans taught us to think East-West, when really we should be thinking North-South. Eighty percent of the Canadian population lives within 200 kilometers of the United States border. The other 20 percent are all but cut off, shipwrecked in bog and rock and ice. Cue the satellite dishes, which allow people in Moose Factory, Ontario, to watch Mel Farr advertisements and the Red Wings. Canadian culture indeed.

So, as I watched Central Station, the tears I cried transcended the moment and the map. Two countries, mirrored across the equator, one hot, one cold. Both on the same journey, both uncertain of the destination.

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