Goin’ Down the Road is a 1970 film about two knuckleheads—that’s director Donald Shebib’s word—from Cape Breton who head to Toronto for something better than they had at home: work, opportunity, money, sex. The movie is iconic, and I’ve known about it all my life, but I really started thinking about it when we planned our move to Toronto. Our situation isn’t much like Pete and Joey’s, but our combination of joblessness and expectation made me feel close to them.
Before I found a copy at the library, I watched clips on youtube, particularly the opening shots of Cape Breton. These early moments are beautiful and moving images of rural decay, but the only ships are wrecked, the cars are dead and the rail lines overgrown. It is impossible to escape, you think, until we find two men who do escape the inertia, after a fashion, and the momentum of their escape seems to fling them all the way across the country.
The more painful clip available online is from the end, where our Pete and Joey double-act fail to knock over a Loblaws—not for cash, but for whatever luxury food Loblaws offered in 1970. Caviar and shrimps. Potato chips and Corn Flakes. It’s sweet to watch them anticipate their delicious, stolen Christmas dinner but you know it’ll end badly, so you aren’t surprised when they’re denied this small pleasure, and once again take the stupid way out of trouble.
Even if you haven’t seen it, you can guess the film’s trajectory from these two moments. Pete and Joey arrive in a city they have only known at a distance, by reputation. It is a city they admire but to which they cannot belong. In the end they leave again with little ceremony, just as they arrived.
The Revue Cinema showed Goin’ Down the Road last week. I went to see it again, and to listen to Donald Shebib and Geoff Pevere talk about his accidental masterpiece, something that—according to Shebib—unintentionally satisfied a need he did not know existed in Canada: the need for a national narrative, even if it’s a comic and accidental narrative. While it’s part of the national road-movie family, it lacks the clear stakes of Goodbye Pork Pie or The Grapes of Wrath. It doesn’t begin or end in any clear way; it is episodic, unresolved, with a structure dictated by geography rather than narrative or character. Pete and Joey, like the movie, are products of the spaces they inhabit—they can’t seem to be anything but a couple of knuckleheads from Cape Breton, because they can’t seem to grasp the distance between “home” and “Toronto,” only feel the ache of longing and estrangement.
A few days after I saw the film again I walked downtown from our place on Danforth. I walked south, then followed Gerrard across the Don River, and traced the line between Cabbagetown and Regent Park, because those neighbourhoods show up in the movie, and I wanted to see what had become of them. I detoured through Allan Gardens because I recognized it from the movie, though it was winter then. Just like the movie, there were old men arguing on the park benches, beside their shopping carts, and other men lying on the grass beside their packs. All the benches were full. I was thirsty, and disoriented by the heat and glare of the day, but the garden was so much the same, despite the difference in season, that I stopped for a minute. For the first time I went in the glass house to look at all the imported exotics, the fragile, hothouse varieties that have been nursed through so many winters. I don’t know what I wanted from this walk, maybe some trace of that earlier Toronto, but I was there because Donald Shebib and his crew had gone that way before me.
I like that he’s helped me see a little fragment of the city’s history. I like the movie’s argument, that we are shaped by our geographies, defined by where we come from and where we go, by the places we pass through and leave again. I like that these can be spaces we share with those who went before or come after.
As I said, I thought a lot about Pete and Joey when I moved here, and I identified with their story, though I hope I’ll never have to knock over a Loblaws for soy milk. I wish I felt some kind of insight at Allan Gardens, but I didn’t, except for the moment of familiarity and identification, the moment when I imagined Pete and Joey, who came this way before me, and then disappeared into the untraceable west.