Interview: George Toles

George Toles is a film professor at the University of Manitoba. He has contributed to several award-winning films, and countless publications on film, theatre, and literature. 

Q1: So, you were born in Buffalo but now live in Winnipeg. How did you make that transition?

A1: I was born in Hamburg, New York. I mean, a hospital in Buffalo, but Hamburg is a small village about 20 minutes south. So, you’ve got a big urban and already decaying city, and this idyllic, right out of a 50’s television show small town. A 20-minute drive seemed like a long distance. I know I sound like someone from the pioneer days. But it was strange as a kid how far away Buffalo seemed to be. I was so defined by that small town.

I was very much attached to my home and that sense of loving familiarity, so I went to the University of Buffalo. I didn’t drive, so I commuted with friends for those four years, and as a result was kind of cut off from any university life; there was way more university life than there is now at the University of Manitoba.

Then, I went to the University of Virginia as a graduate student, and got married right before leaving Buffalo. I’ll admit, this is my first marriage out of fear of being alone. In a sense, I was trying to get a second mother, rather than an equal partner. I was there for six years, getting my PhD and doing a little bit of PhD teaching.

I applied for a number of universities in the US, and on a whim I sent an application to the University of Manitoba, having no idea at all where Winnipeg was or what it looked like geographically. I actually thought of it as a mountainous place; it was Swiss Alps and monorails. I knew it was snowy, but I didn’t know it was perfectly flat. Anyway, so, I interviewed for the job in the mist of a blisteringly frigid February, and even though I was used to Buffalo temperatures (which are pretty similar in length of Winter and cold to Winnipeg) it was so cold here it just felt like claw on my face pushing all my features down toward the center, like making a snowball out of the my face. So, I was a little mystified and terrified by everything I experienced here. But, they offered me the job, and what I did love about it was that in the English department here, film, theatre, and literature are all integrated. I was deeply committed to all three, so I could basically pursue my three loves without getting passport clearance. That is the long answer to your question.

Q2: What first attracted you to film?

A2: We had a small movie theatre in Hamburg, New York called the Palace Theatre, which had a strange little community inside of it, including this guy with grey hair and grey suit who walked around with a flashlight during the screenings, checking out people’s behavior. There was this big curtain and before the screening he would climb up these few steps left of the screen, behind this mysterious door, and pull a switch, which caused everything to become dark and quiet, that sense of mystery. That great moment when the old curtains would part and the light from the projection booth would hit the screen, and then there’s this casual community of young people with vocalization and popcorn boxes sailing through the air. Something that was both festival and exiting.

I had an extremely intense imagination to project myself into fiction, or songs, or anything. From the earliest age, that sense of being able to get all the way inside the art experience was there. It was developed through books, to be sure. Before I could actually read, I would spend hours in the morning staring at picture books and attempting to put together stories. So I think it was a pretty easy transition from that sort of absorption to the screen experience. I would live movies with such intensity and it would last often for days or weeks after. So that was the initial draw.

When I was in University, as an undergraduate, I did take a film course or two that weren’t that good. Film studies, as a discipline, were very preliminary and primitive at that time, so most of my course work and research was in literature. But when I got to the University of Virginia, I started incorporating film into classes I taught. I also organized a film series called the American Film Classics, which ran on Monday nights. There were other nights devoted to more international films, but I wanted one night to be devoted to films of the 20’s and 50’s, and see if I couldn’t build an audience for that, and see if I could use those screenings as part of the courses that I was doing. Then, also while I was there, a friend named Richard Glatzer (who eventually became a screenwriter and director, who long ago died after doing the film with Julianne Moore, Still Alice) and he and I organized a film series, and brought in Frank Capra and Robert Altman and others.

So, I had enough credentials at that time, even though all my written work was in literature, to qualify for a position that would mingle literature and film here. But there were two of us hired in the same year here, and two a year or so before that, and so the English department at that time made a commitment to film studies that was fairly substantial. And for a time, the four of us – we didn’t necessarily all get along – tried to work out a program.

Q3: You’ve collaborated many times with Guy Maddin, how did you first meet him?

A3: He was friend of mutual friends, and I think I first saw him at a screening of a D.W. Griffith movie, Birth of a Nation, at this house where movies were regularly shown. I probably misremember noticing him for the first time, but I came in fairly late and I like to think the ‘Ku Klux Klan to the rescue’ scene from Birth of a Nation coincided with it. He was extremely quiet then, profoundly shy, and he was a house painter. He had a degree from the University of Winnipeg, in economics I think, but he had worked for a while as a clerk for a bank, and was just completely unsure of what to do with himself.

In roughly this same period, he got to meet John Paizs, another filmmaker, who was making art films and planning a feature here, doing it in 16 mm, small budgets, but he had a real aesthetic signature to them. And, Guy was just impressed with John’s ability to do these things and get people to collaborate with him. He took small roles in a couple plays I’d directed (I mean really small roles, again shy) and then did a sketch comedy evening with Andy Coyne (who is now with CBC and writes for the National Post). Anyway, Guy and I did a sketch, which was a parody of Apocalypse Now, where I played the Brando role and he played Willard, but Willard in the sketch doesn’t say anything. He was simply brutally present with this voice narration (supplied by another actor) and that really was how Guy sidled into theatre, as someone with a presence but no desire to speak.

So, he took a few courses with me, including screening writing and art of film and I think one other course, where he turned in very eccentric assignments. He was clearly bright, but I didn’t see any obvious signs of filmmaking passion. Then, all the sudden he started making this little film on his own called The Dead Father, which he worked on for months and months. Occasionally, we would talk about places in the story where he was stuck and I was kind of a editor or suggestion-maker at times. And then, when the film was finished and shown to mostly cast members at a library screening (I think it was the Cornish Library) I was simply inspired by how original, usual, and how good it was. I seemed to me that he had this something that you can’t ever give someone a course in. You have to find it on your own.

Q4: What film are you most proud to have contributed to?

A4: I think I would say…it’s not an easy answer, but maybe the one has the most of me in it is Careful. It seemed to have the best of both Guy and myself, and it was such an exciting sense of building this very odd mountain world in a studio, and doing things entirely to suit ourselves with no expectation of audience reception, but with enough money to make it professional. It just seemed impossible that this could be happening. I think it came together well and was very well received. I haven’t grown weary of it yet.

Q5: What work of film analysis or critique are you most proud to have contributed to?

A5: The Paul Thomas Anderson book that’s just come out. It’s the first time I’ve done a book that’s a start to finish argument on a filmmaker that I have a very great admiration for and whose work I don’t really think has yet received a thorough probing investigation. It’s like, what’s he up to? How do his films fit together? What’s he doing? I mean, usually when you come into the analysis of a film or a filmmaker the terms of debate are more or less established, and so you place yourself in relation to the existing field. But, with Anderson fortunately, the book that sort of says ‘here’s what he’s up to’ that other people have been persuaded by or saying ‘well this is something that has to be argued with’, I mean I got in early enough that I feel people who care about Anderson may find the book useful. So, at the moment I’ll say that.

But, I’ll say that the essay in which I found my voice and felt ‘ok this is how I want to sound as a writer’, and it took a long time to compose, was the It’s A Wonderful Life essay on Frank Capra’s film. That was eventually in the collection, A House Made of Light.

Q6: With so much content moving online, do you think that will help or hurt Canadian film?

A6: Canadian film has never had…well it’s had one weird glory period where the tax shelter advantages were so great that films of all sorts were funded here in quantity (many of them terrible) but it was not simply a Telefilm defined market. But, really, Canadian cinema (except for Quebec cinema) has always been this weird little trickle. I mean, it may be more of a stream than a trickle. But, in terms of public awareness, there hasn’t been that Canadian cinema yes.

Great films are still being made of course, but I think this is a bad time in general for cinema. The Internet and many of other kinds of media activity are in a way responsible for those difficulties. I feel like the film industry right now is where the music industry was 20 years ago. It’s in a desperate free fall and simply does not know how to hold even the young audience. People stream so much of their viewing. The DVD market has collapsed. With franchising, while still making large amounts of money, there’s the simplification of content to satisfy global demand rather then making something specific to a culture. I just don’t think that those franchises, however successful they presently are, can by themselves make movie-going work in the way it used to. The big change, of course, is that movies can now be so cheaply made. Everyone can make them. You can make one with your phone.

But, going back to your question about Canada, there are countless movies that are flooding the festivals every year that no one will ever see beyond the festival circuit. Filmmakers are always shattered to realize that getting some festival acceptance, some good reviews, even a prize, means nothing for getting a distributor or marketing a film. So, how to you distribute movies in an overt, crowded market?

The fact of the matter is that independent movies in the States are mostly losing revenue. It’s very difficult to make a independent movie that makes it’s money back or profits. Even people like the Weinstein’s and Scott Rudin are getting out of independent filmmaking, and they are the people who give independent moviemaking it’s status and success in the States. So if they’re leaving the ship, who knows what the future can bring.

Q7: If you could read only books or watch only film for the rest of your life, which would you do and why?

A7: Books. By no means have I seen all the great films, but I feel like I’ve seen a high percentage of those that are crucial to me. I feel with films that I am still making discoveries, but not so often overwhelmed as I once was. With books, if I read everyday for the rest of my life, I would never complete the existing masterpieces. I am still repeatedly knocked through a loop and shown things that make me say to myself ‘well this changes everything.’ It just seems to me (I supposed the fact that there are several thousands years head start helps) it’s just a vaster thin. And I love the private interaction of it. This is not to belittle film in any way, but you said if I had to choose. It would be an easy choice, but I would miss film greatly.

Q8: What is one of the biggest challenges in film analysis?

A8: Avoid jargon. Honour the immediate experience of watching the film. Linking perception, in other words description and interpretation, to meld them properly so description isn’t an overburden but it’s still precise, and interpretation always relies on specifics rather than going too far field.

For me, the desire is always to get so far inside the thing that I’m thinking and feeling with it. Of course it’s a fantasy of defining the artists moment by moment decisions and tensions, but I like to feel like I am in there with the people who created it and thinking about what’s been done within that proximity. Don’t stand too far back and don’t make yourself this one-of-a-kind spectator. I like notion of a ‘spectoral we’. It’s true that people will respond to things in films in very different ways, but it seems to me that you can say a certain arrangement of shots are set up in such a way to evoke responses of a certain kind, even if viewers will not all fall into line and have those feelings. Film is addressed always to a ‘we’ and it’s nice to be part of that imaginary collective.

Q9: What is your favorite and least favourite part of being a professor?

A9: Least favorite: anything having to do with administration, or just the corporatization process. It’s just so antithetical to everything I stand for and I think that the humanities stand for. The best thing is everything else. I would happily teach for nothing, if not for grading, for which I would ask to be paid.

The marvelous thing about teaching, that’s been true from the beginning to now, is to stand in a group and talk to an audience about things that matter to me, and learn about those things from students who are encountering them for the first time. Being able to say, ‘we’re going to talk about Charlie Chaplin’ because that’s what I’ve decided to put on the syllabus (ok that’s my authority) but I’m keenly interested in what students find for themselves in Chaplin. It’s a captive audience, but the freedom is I don’t ever know in advance precisely how the flow of any particular discussion is going to work. I want to be very open to feel the room, the temperature of it, not to simply run with the numbers I already know, but to make it, in a way, a kind of informed improv.

Q10: Can you give two film recommendation and two book recommendations?

A10: I just finished The Time of Man, so I’ll recommend this [holds up the novel]. And, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. I love Turgenev.

As for film, James Schamus’ Indignation, the Philip Roth adaptation. I thought that was terrific. And, I haven’t seen it yet, but I have high hopes for La La Land.




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