Lightbox fantastic: the Toronto film festival’s new home

A blockbuster hybrid of cinemas, galleries and public spaces

Douglas Gordon/ Courtesy of TIFF

It’s a balmy August night in the heart of downtown Toronto. Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is standing in an empty lot, gazing up at a ghostly blond in a white gown who has just appeared between a pair of curtains in an office window. “If you wait, you’ll see a billowy upskirt thing,” he says. In another window, an old man parades between the drapes in a pair of white briefs. These burlesque apparitions, and the curtains framing them, are black and white video loops, rear-projected onto the fifth-floor windows at the back of a brand-new building. Maddin’s silent-movie sideshow is more subtle than the red neon Hooters sign behind it, or the pinball-lit CN Tower to the south. But enough to make a passerby do a double take.

The building is the TIFF Bell Lightbox, an exquisite monument to cinema that serves as the new headquarters of the Toronto International Film Festival. Maddin’s test screening was just one of the hectic preparations leading up to its opening on Sept. 12. The Lightbox is the latest crown jewel in the city’s growing array of cultural landmarks, along with its new opera house and face-lifted museum and art gallery. Though inspired by cinephile meccas such as the British Film Institute, it’s unique in the world—an art-house rebuttal to the multiplex that recombines fine art, film and pop culture in a blockbuster hybrid of cinemas, galleries, learning studios and public spaces.

For a city that likes to think it’s the centre of the universe, the Lightbox is huge. Toronto has long imagined itself as our New York or Paris, a cultural capital that no longer needs to brag that it’s “world-class.” And each September those delusions of grandeur gain giddy credence as Hollywood stars descend on the city in droves for TIFF. This year’s festival (Sept. 9-19) marks its 35th anniversary with a celebrity roll call that includes Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Nicole Kidman, Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Javier Bardem, Woody Allen, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Gates and Steve Nash. But a festival is ephemeral. Stars alight from limousines, films play, champagne flows. Then the red carpet is rolled up and the circus leaves town.

This year will be different. For once, the festival won’t be folding its tent when it’s over, because the tent is now a $196-million permanent home that should make TIFF the envy of rival festivals like Cannes, Sundance, Berlin and Venice. A year-round exhibition venue, the Lightbox includes five state-of-the-art theatres with a total of 1,300 seats. They run off a single projection room, equipped with a vast digital server, and projectors for 16-, 35- and 70mm film. Each cinema is a sound-proofed concrete volume, a box within a box buffered by earthquake-resistant rubber pucks.

There are also two galleries, three learning studios, two restaurants, a lounge, TIFF offices, the Cinematheque library and a gift shop.

The Lightbox will be launched with a myriad of exhibits geared to TIFF’s Essential 100, a list of all-time favourite films. Anyone strolling the sidewalk in the middle of the night will be able to look into a blood-red storefront gallery to see Hitchcock’s Psycho projected in ultra-slow motion on dual screens, one playing it forward, the other in reverse. This visiting installation, created by Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, stretches Psycho into a 24-hour frame-by-frame marathon.

Throughout the fall, the Lightbox will stage special screenings of Essential 100 films.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, the 1928 silent classic that tops the list, will be projected with 37 musicians on stage playing a medieval score. Duelling chamber orchestras will enact the class struggle in Metropolis. The infamous The Birth of a Nation will get a radical remix as DJ Spooky joins a baroque ensemble to present his Rebirth of a Nation. And in the atrium, swirling graphics on an interactive screen will throw up images from the 100 films according to votes sent via mobile devices—complete with texted comments.

Allaying any fears that the Lightbox caters only to hard-core cinephiles, it will open its doors to the public on Sept. 12 with a block party featuring rock bands, The Wizard of Oz face-painting and free admission to the building. And it will reel in some crowd-pleasing galas, beginning with a Tim Burton exhibit in November. Because it hails from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, “it has an arty frisson,” says Noah Cowan, artistic director of the Lightbox. “But it’s also in tune with those who enjoy the populist rush of Hollywood. The communications department hates it when I do this, but I like to say we see our role like a heroin dealer—we hope the galas can hook people on the medium of cinema and then they’ll get excited about the history and culture.” To hook the kids, the Lightbox will also host workshops in choreography, optical illusion, costume, hair, makeup, directing and music scoring.

Cowan’s grand ambition is nothing less than to heal the 20th-century schism between film and art. “The film world saw the museum world as a little fusty; the art world saw film as too populist. Now everyone’s re-evaluating that. The dislocation seems absurd.” Citing everything from cinema’s influence on cubism to the penetration of the Psycho scream into our psyche, he says, “The greatest films are with us every day, not just in vocabulary and references—they exist in our id.”

If Cowan sounds like he’s on a mission, it’s one he’s been devoted to from the age of 14, when he landed his first job at TIFF. The dream of the Lightbox, in fact, goes back to the early roots of the festival, and the vision of TIFF CEO Piers Handling. He traces it back to the 1970s, when he worked at the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa with Wayne Clarkson (later a director of the festival and of Telefilm Canada).

“We would look at brochures for the British Film Institute and were desperate to have something like that here,” says Handling, who joined the Toronto festival in 1987.

During the 1990s, TIFF expanded into year-round curatorial ventures, from the Cinematheque film series to Sprockets, a series for children. “But we were frustrated by the lack of traction for those programs,” explains Handling. “We needed a home.”
It was Canadian filmmaker Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters)—a Hollywood mogul worlds removed from the art house—who was the catalyst. His family, along with the Daniels Corp., donated a $22-million piece of prime real estate. The project took shape conjoined to a 42-storey condo tower, but raising the rest of the $196-million Lightbox campaign target has been “a long slog,” admits Handling.

That the building exists seems a miracle. TIFF is the world’s pre-eminent film festival after Cannes, and a corporation that’s branded to the hilt. But the torch of cinephile passion has been passed down through a family-like succession of executives with monk-like reverence. Handling is the film nerd who morphed into the suave CEO, while still keeping the flame. Now it’s as if the festival—a pluralist intersection of popular taste, Hollywood glamour, and high-art ambition—has been crystallized in glass and concrete.

Lead architect Bruce Kuwabara’s rectilinear design is radiantly cinematic; every wall and window looks like a potential movie screen. The Lightbox may be “this ocean liner that takes up a city block,” says Kuwabara, “but TIFF wanted a building that represented the complexity of film itself, and wasn’t monolithic.” Creating open, light-filled vistas within the building became a priority. “When you come out of the cinemas,” he adds, “you should be aware of the city and the light. The building celebrates not just film, but the act of watching film.”

Angled with reflective and translucent surfaces, the ramps and staircases invite people-watching; like the festival, it’s a social network. Kuwabara says TIFF left him free to follow his vision—the architect as auteur. It was his idea to crown the roof with a cinematic conceit—an amphitheatre modelled on Capri’s Villa Malaparte in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.

Amid so much talk about the death of cinema in the face of digital technology, the Lightbox lands as an epic resurrection, animating its ghosts in a carnival of new media. Two weeks ago, while test-screening his carny sideshow of projected phantoms, Guy Maddin said, “It’s just a little come-hither haunting to make people aware there’s something going on in there.” Inside the Lightbox, he has created a Hauntings exhibit made up of 11 wispy fragments of lost masterpieces—faux-vintage scenes that he filmed from scripts that were never shot, or movies that vanished.

“It’s like ghostbusting in reverse,” he said. “We’re trying to inject a few ghosts into the building.” With those rear-window sirens floating on the fifth floor, and the Psycho shower scene unfolding out front, this high-tech haunted house may well be cinema’s dream home.