London calling

London calling

Brian D. Johnson December 4 2000
London calling

London calling

Brian D. Johnson December 4 2000

London calling

Brian D. Johnson

I am sitting in a half-empty theatre on Leicester Square, watching two homeless guys drag themselves around the frozen barrens of a Winnipeg winter trying to scam a cash refund for a stolen space heater from Eatons. Directed by Toronto’s Terrance Odette, Heater stars Gary Farmer as a stoical native and Stephen Ouimette as a Canuck Ratso Rizzo. It’s a made-for-cable movie, headed straight forTMN. But it feels more like Canada’s answer to Iranian cinema—a bleakly funny and poignant fable of an absurd quest in an inhospitable landscape. Or a wintry Waiting for Godot. And to stumble across this sliver of permafrost in the heart of London’s West End seems doubly absurd.

I’m here on a busman’s holiday, judging movies at the Regus London Film Festival as a member of the FIPRESCI jury—“FIPRESCI” being an untranslatable French acronym for an association of international critics, and “Regus” being the name of a sponsor that has spent a million pounds to shoehorn its brand into the title of a 44-yearold event. Our jury is an eclectic group: a macho Macedonian, a dapper man from Delhi, a cinéphile from the London suburbs and a 64-year-old Jewish mother from Paris—a cousin of Leonard Cohen who claims to have once turned down a marriage proposal from Pierre Trudeau.

Wherever I go in London—which now feels more like the centre of the world than Manhattan—Canadians keep popping up. Margaret Atwood has just skipped town with the Booker Prize. And one night, I find Leicester Square blocked off so that Jim Carrey can hobnob with the Queen at a royal premiere of Dr. Seuss How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Carrey playing court jester to the Queen? The mind boggles. Meanwhile, the newspapers are going crazy over Toronto author Naomi Klein, who draws 1,000 people to a lecture at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Klein’s book No Logo is being hailed as “the Das Kapital of the anti-corporate movement.” The Times of London suggests, breathlessly, that Klein may be the most influential 30-year-old on the planet. And The Observer runs a full-page interview that concludes: “She is a prophet who sees the present . . . better than anyone else.” The English seem to have a thing for attractive Canadian thinkers. Will Klein be the next Michael Ignatieff?

While walking through Soho one night at 2 a.m., I run into another young Toronto leftist, actress Sarah Polley. With her is British director Michael Winterbottom, who has just shot

a western with Polley in Alberta. She’s at the London festival to promote The Weight of Water, a cheesy melodrama filmed in Nova Scotia with a desultory Sean Penn. There’s a certain pleasure in watching fine actors like Polley and Penn emerge unscathed from a bad movie. The same goes for Molly Parker, who survives a thankless role as a victim of gang rape in Suspicious River—and whose director, Vancouver’s Lynne Stopkewich, is feted at a midnight dinner in a private club.

Compared with festivals in Toronto or Cannes, London’s is a relaxed affair. No major world premieres, no hot discoveries, no big stars. But it culls highlights of other festivals for an appreciative local audience, and is surrounded by a city that is a festival unto itself. London is flush with youth and money and culture. I step out of the National Film Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames, past posters for a jazz opera featuring Elvis Costello and Deborah Fiarry, and stroll down a riverside promenade walled with theatres and galleries—ending up at the fabulous Tate Modern, an art museum built into the brick of a monumental power plant, with Picassos around every corner. Up the river is the old Tate Britain, where families queue up on a Sunday afternoon for the new Blake exhibit, crowds jostling for face time with the painter-poet’s illuminated verse, tiny visions of angels and demons dancing on the head of a pin.

But while London’s tyger is burning bright, the country around it is coming apart at the seams. This is a land ripped by winds and drowned by floods, where the trains have been slowed to a crawl as cracks are discovered in the steel of a railway system privatized by Margaret Thatcher. No matter how hip and happening England tries to be, the past keeps casting a Gothic shadow. This, after all, is a country where I found myself eating blood pudding for breakfast while reading a story in The Times about a London postman who confessed to chopping up his wife, tossing most of her remains over the cliffs of Dover, then baking her head in the oven— “to make it look prehistoric”—before burying it.

Next to that, the Dickensian chill of Heater seems almost comforting. And as I pass the homeless who huddle under shop windows on the Strand, trying to keep their sleeping bags out of the rain, I think of those two naïfs hoisting a space heater around 35-below Winnipeg with no place to plug it in—and wonder whether, in the end, it’s worse to be frozen, or damp.