I write this from Toronto, having come to explore, record interviews in, write about, and generally try to understand this big, busy, famously diverse, and sometimes formless-seeming metropolis Canadians appreciate and resent in equal measure. Despite the difficulty of defining or even describing it, the city has nurtured impressive minds. If not Canadian yourself, you might struggle to come up with a list of notable Torontonians, but surely names like Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg, Frank Gehry, Joni Mitchell, and Marshall McLuhan ring bells. Despite having passed in 1982, pianist-composer Glenn Gould may still rank as the city’s best-known cultural ambassador. “I’m not really cut out for city living, and given my druthers I’d probably avoid all cities and live in the country,” he said in 1979. “Toronto, however, belongs on a very short list of cities which I’ve visited and which seem to offer to me, at any rate, peace of mind — cities which, for want of a better definition, do not oppose their cityness upon you.”
He says it at the very beginning of Glenn Gould’s Toronto, which spends the rest of its 50 minutes exploring not just the city itself but Gould’s ideas of its nature. The documentary, which originally aired as an episode of the CBC series Cities, follows him from the CN Tower which looms over Toronto to the waterfront (on what he calls “the least great of the Great Lakes”) to the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition (a sizable event with a “spirit out of a small-town fall fair”) to the then-new city hall. Along the way, his monologue touches on the peace and quiet Toronto offers him, the reflexive distaste it can inspire in others, the “cultural mosaic” to which it plays host (sometimes insistently), the way it survived the 1960s without enduring the disastrous hollowing-out American cities did, and the friendly rivalry it enjoys with Montreal. Gould’s clear, analytical manner of speech delivers a stream of pointed observations, dry jokes, and childhood memories, revealing his nuanced lifelong relationship with the city: not the simple one of a booster, nor the even simpler one of a detractor. But then, Gould never had anything simple about him — nor, as I’ve come to find out this past week, does Toronto.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.