The MDFF trilogy, as it appears on shelves at Bay Street Video in Toronto.
Before Tower, his first feature film, debuts at The Royal this Friday, Toronto director Kazik Radwanski is hustling. Not only are he and producer Dan Montgomery wheat-pasting Tower posters around the city, they're also pushing to get their short films on local video store shelves.
Against prevailing logic regarding the decay of physical media - chalk it up to the rise of VOD services like Netflix, the portentous rolling in of The Cloud, and all that - Radwanski and Montgomery are approaching Toronto rental shops with hard copies of their MDFF Trilogy, named after the pair's production company, Medium Density Fibreboard Films. (And the discs are, quite literally, hard: packaged in wood casing carved by Radwanski and Montogmery themselves.)
Before he was a filmmaker, or a Ryerson film student, Radwanski worked at the now-defunct Revue Video on the Danforth - a hub for art house and international home video rentals that shuttered in early 2008. He always imagined seeing his films on the racks, alongside canon-forming works by directors like Howard Hawkes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
"I was a terrible student in high school, but working at Revue made me want to pursue filmmaking," Radwanski says. "After seeing everything at Blockbuster I found out about Revue. Basically I got into Stanley Kubrick when I was still renting at Blockbuster. I saw The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Then I started reading about Kubrick and read that he liked Sergei Eisenstein. So I had to go to Revue to find Eisenstein, and I just worked forward from there."
For over two decades, the Revue attracted Toronto renters eager to explore international cinema, classic films and all the stuff you wouldn't find filed away at Blockbuster. Michael Ondaatje and Deepa Metha rented there, as did Kid In The Hall-cum-filmmaker Bruce McCulloch, who was apparently notorious for never returning his tapes. Radwanski recalls a story of legendary Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni (8½, Marriage Italian-Style) darkening the Revue's doorstep ("He rented some obscure video he wanted to show to his nephew").
The Revue also kindled the cinephilia of a few other local filmmakers, including Radwanski's fellow former employee Simon Ennis, whose doc Lunarcy! recently premiered at the Bloor Cinema.
"Unlike places that still exist, like The Film Buff, who make sure they get the interesting shit as well as the Hollywood stuff, Revue never got any Hollywood stuff," says Ennis. "It was foreign films, Canadian stuff and documentaries."
Ennis shot part of a horror short in the shop's basement when was 18. "They had this dingy, fucked up basement," he recalls. "It was a dank, horrible pit of stuff. So it was perfect for a horror movie."
As well as an art film archive and an impromptu horror movie set, The Revue also served as a preparatory film school for Radwanski and Ennis (who dropped out Ryerson's program, twice). "I remember seeing, on the first day of film school, a syllabus for film history and theory," says Ennis, "and I'd seen literally everything on the list. I'd done all that work myself."
Stacey Donen, former Canadian cinema programmer at TIFF and current director of programming at The Royal (and co-founder of College Street Pictures, which is distributing Radwanski's Tower in Canada), worked at the Revue in late 80s and early 90s, after responding to an ad in (no joke) NOW Magazine.
For years, he helped the store amass a massive collection of VHS tapes. While he admits that watching films in the cinema is still his preference, he reserves a sense of pride at helping build the Revue's rental catalogues - good training for any aspiring film programmer. "We were buying all these old films," he says. "I would constantly make lists and go through catalogues. And it's nice to have it there. But I never really watched a lot of stuff there. To have it there, like a library, and making sure all the Kurosawas are together, was almost as important."
Though certain Toronto video shops - like The Film Buff, Suspect, Queen Video and Eyesore Cinema - retain something of Revue's niche-focused, curated approach to shelf-stocking, the closure of stores like the Revue (and Black Dog, and the Little Video Shop in Baldwin Village) intimate that the brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop video store's days are numbered. And while something of the nieghbourhood video shop's parlour function has migrated online (first to IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes message boards, now to Twitter), it's kind of hard to imagine the next generation of Toronto indie filmmakers having their creativity and passions stewed in the shallow pool of something like Canadian Netflix.