For more than 100 years we’ve been riding bikes and going to the movies. In this new dandy series we examine how two of the world’s most noted pastimes intersect. When and how have two wheels been caught on film? Over the next six months I’ll be examining cycling in films. It’s one part film review and one part bike nerd exploration. From coming of age nostalgia, to surreal escapism, to film noir and everything in between, here is the fourth story in the series. You can read parts 1, 2, and 3 by clicking here.
Bikes on Reels Part 4: Parkdale’s the Wild West in Monkey Warfare
Story by Cayley James
In 2006 a little movie, called Monkey Warfare, came out about bike riding anarchists in Toronto. Director Reg Harkema had made his name in the 90s as an editor working alongside noted filmmakers Bruce McDonald, Don McKellar and Guy Maddin. All of whom were instrumental in creating a very distinct voice for Gen-X Canadian cinema. Monkey Warfare, his first feature as director, is a peculiar time-capsule of a city on the brink.
At a brisk 75 minutes the film is a twee, sardonic send up to the ever fraught relationship between bikes and cars, gentrification and authenticity. With its Godard inspired jump cuts, text on screen, and affection for political rhetoric it's clearly inspired by classic French New Wave films like Masculine et Feminine and La Chinoise.
Nadia Litz, Image courtesy of New Real Films
The film follows Dan (Don McKellar) and Linda (Tracy Wright), ex-revolutionaries from Vancouver who have been laying low for fifteen years in Toronto. Why they’re laying low is kept under wraps for most of the film. Seeing as they panic at the sound of sirens and only use pay phones the gravitas of their situation is never lost on the audience. To survive they cycle around Parkdale and Queen West West picking through trash and garage sales for vintage gems to sell online at inflated prices. Their quiet underground existence is disrupted when they meet hipster weed dealer Susan (Nadia Litz).
Image courtesy of New Real Films
Dan wiles his days away nursing a crush on Susan and “liberates” unwanted bikes. Which he the fixes up in his basement and sells them to folks looking for a certain aesthetic. He calls his operation the “Bike Liberation Office". While Linda, secretive and cautious, carries the two with her eagle eye second hand finds and volunteers for a charity that exists to: “alleviate one woman’s middle class guilt.” Susan spends most of the film sponging up the revolutionary rhetoric Dan imparts to her about the Black Panthers and Baader Meinhof. Eventually she creates her own clandestine sledgehammer wielding group: “The Spoke Club,” who meet under the shadow of night to destroy gas guzzling SUVs. In reality Nadia is a far more understanding cyclist. You can read about her Heels on Wheels piece from Issue 6 here.
Image courtesy of New Real Films
In an interview with online bike magazine, Pedal Pusher in 2006 , Harkema said putting his characters on bikes was inspired by the way he got to know the city after moving there himself:
You know I've been riding bikes for the last 20 years. And for instance when my girlfriend and I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, in Vancouver you are not allowed to put garbage out on the streets but in Toronto you are. So that inspired us to ask, what would we do? What if we were revolutionaries, on bicycles riding around? How would we survive? We went on bike cruises around Toronto, and we saw all this great stuff. We put baskets on our bikes, tied stuff down and took it home.
The way Harkema shoots the city is from bike level and he works extra hard to make this caper as specific to Toronto as possible. For example I had never seen a tracking shot of parked cars alongside a streetcar track in a film before. I was surprised at how touching it was. No other film I've seen has captured the sweet splendour of cycling through this city at twilight. An activity I am a big fan of. The closest film to get it right is Take This Waltz. That was a rickshaw though so it doesn’t really count. Also that scene is extremely annoying for any local because they just go back and forth along College Street and it makes NO SENSE.
As much as Monkey Warfare wants to be a universal screed against development and gentrification (I’m sure when it is viewed by those outside of the Big Smoke it could be) its hyper local relationship with Toronto makes it a very special time capsule.
A lot changes in ten years. In 2006, when the film was released the city was at its peak of what we now refer affectionately as ‘torontopia’. We were becoming cool! David Miller was still in his first term as mayor! We were on track to becoming a world class city. City building was making its way out of the classroom and into a broader context with publications like Spacing and groups like Toronto Public Space Committee. Remember QUEEN STREET MAN? Then again Stephen Harper had just been elected in February of that year too, so things did sort of suck too.
Early on in the film Harkema pans across the skyline of Toronto’s downtown. The camera is situated on a roof somewhere down Trinity Bellwoods way and there’s nary a condo in sight; Liberty Village is a hole in the ground, City Place is a single tower, and the business district south of union only exists as a blueprint. The skyline is a clump of office buildings and the CN tower. The Toronto in Monkey Warfare doesn’t exist anymore. As I write this 401 Richmond is fighting to stay alive and there was some very troubling talk about raising permits for patios.
The creep of new builds and displacement of lower income tenants, which arguably afflicts any major city, is the world that Monkey Warfare is set against. There’s a shot late in the film of the Gladstone hotel from a distance. In the foreground there is a yet to be dealt with construction site, which has since become a subdivision. It was a reminder of the story of The Gladstone and The Drake and how they went from being Single Room Occupency hotels to chic boutique hotels and venues. Instrumental in changing the face of Queen West West.
I spoke to Christine Zeidler the President of the Gladstone about the change her hotel has been at the forefront of for the past seventeen years. "In the early 2000s gentrification was very much on the top of my mind, as much as we were a part of the revitalization we were very much aware of continuing to build the neighbourhood and make it a safer more accessible place." The Gladstone has carved out an incredible space for the Queer community in Toronto but she says that was never, "at the expense of other people." Her work as a developer and curator (her title is actually Chief Alchemist) has always concerned the stakeholders in her neighbourhood and other community and arts groups. She has been involved with Active 18 and the Yimby Festival which sought to have a more engaged discussion about city building. She laments the condos that have moved in because they repel a street presence. "There's a lot of people in them but the built form isn't very community friendly. What we're engaged in now is how do we city build with condos?"
Zeidler is the kind of community activist that isn't discussed enough when we talk about gentrification. The ones with inclusivity and foresight at the heart of their urban plans, as opposed to just the bottom line. Change is an inevitability of the urban landscape but we have to remember to keep the conversation going with all community members.
What is so refreshing about Monkey Warfare is that its the older activists who seem so set in their ways are the ones most able to see the bigger picture. While Susan, full of piss and vinegar, can only see the ruins.
“The world is going to shit” Susan warns the world weary activists. “WE THOUGHT SO TOO!” Linda and Dan yell back. They scream at her like exasperated parents that she just doesn’t get it. That you can’t just break stuff, that you need to know why you’re breaking it, and you need to know how to put it back together.
The situation we’re in right now - whether it’s the political maelstrom, climate chaos or economic precarity was very much foreseeable in 2006. But hindsight’s 20/20. What was unexpected however is how activist culture has percolated into the mainstream. Becoming dare I say it … part of the zeitgeist again. There have been thousands of words spilled over the past couple of weeks about how best to galvanise this positive, protest energy and how to bring about actual change. Whether it’s at a civic level or an international one we need to stand in solidarity and not let our anger propel us.
Monkey Warfare’s message is something we actually need more than ever.