The Last Picture Show

Bob Rennie, the lifestyle/condo marketer, is up on the screen, larger than life in Mark Lewis’s 1995 short “Two Impossible Films.” Rennie and a roomful of other pretend students (there’s Jeff Wall!) are listening to a Marxist deconstruction of Vancouver’s explosive real-estate scene.

Restless—the chairs are hard—I glance away from the screen to see Rennie’s crown jewel, the Woodward’s District’s W-43 tower, dominating the downtown skyline. Vancouver as backdrop to Hollywood North—that’s the topsy-turvy perspective of the Gastown Drive-in.

“Two Impossible Films” follows the backroom deals that lead to a Vancouver development, and as architects on-screen red-pen blueprints, I wonder what our buildings would say if they could speak. Panning from the W-43, there’s the Dominion Building—it could definitely tell some tales—the BC Hydro building, the Scotiabank tower, the Birks clock just peeking above the rooflines, the Canaccord tower, the megalith office block that houses the Vancouver Sun. And directly behind the giant temporary screen is Harbour Centre and its Top of Vancouver revolving restaurant.

Lewis’s short wraps and we’re into the feature, David Ray’s sci-fi drama Fetching Cody. The film debuted at the Toronto fest in 2005, but only tonight, here, does it get its Vancouver premiere. Which is odd because it’s a Vancouver story through and through, as befits its inclusion in this three-night brainchild of Peeroj Thakre and Henning Knoetzele, founding directors of the Urban Republic Arts Society. “Vancouver stars as itself” is the drive-in’s theme, and it must be resonating, because the place is jammed. Ranged up the final ramp leading onto the roof of EasyPark Lot 31 on Water Street are the 40 drivers sensible enough to reserve; they’re listening to narrowcast on FM 103.3. The rest of us, 200 or more, fidget in our plastic stacking chairs ranked across the rooftop mezzanine’s parking stalls. The resourceful have brought their own seats, cushions, pillows, blankets; a couple recline on their wooden patio set with Chinese and red wine; a man and woman spoon in the centre seat they’ve unhinged from their minivan.

“We’re looking at the contemporary city and how we live as we become a denser city,” Thakre later explains from her office across the street. “Look at this parking lot. During the day it’s full—you’re happy to find a free space. But at night it’s this amazing location—virtually empty.” Not tonight, of course.

“After school, I thought I wanted to go somewhere else where there’s more stuff happening,” says Thakre, who has a master’s in architecture and an undergraduate degree in political science and economics. “But the wonderful thing about Vancouver is you can really get something started here.” Like the drive-in. “We’re setting up situations where social engagement can take place. As a designer, you can only go so far in solving the world’s problems.”

The neighbourhood could use some solving. Before the show, panhandlers, tourists, bar stars, and buskers paraded past the parkade. A fellow outside the Starbucks on Water played “Daniel” on guitar. A man in black haunted the Gastown clock, good-naturedly pausing his harmonica as it blew. “You can’t compete with that!” noted one wag from Des Moines or Duluth. The musician ambled closer. “That’s a nice shirt,” he said. “I mean it. When you’re done with it, tell me what Dumpster you put it in.”

Fetching Cody is filled with DTES eccentrics and down-at-heelers with hearts of gold. Cody herself stumbles into prostitution and addiction when she comes downtown one afternoon to score. We meet her years later as she drops into the coma her boyfriend tries to save her from by—hold your breath—travelling back in time with a recliner pulled from the trash by Harvey, a loose-screwed loner amiably played by Jim Byrnes.

While Art races on-screen past the Balmoral, through Pigeon Park, I survey the same area from our sixth-floor aerie. The streets are dark, traffic is minimal—at least on the ground. Spend a few hours outside looking up at 108 square metres of screen (“It’s not as easy to get that scaffolding up as you might think,” says Thakre) and you realize how many small aircraft populate downtown airspace. The Vancouver Sun’s lights flash on and off, cleaners’ fluorescent semaphore.

“We’ve got to get out of Dodge,” Art laments, near the film’s close. “We’ve got to get away, start over.” The assembled moviegoers, snugged up against the September chill, sipping their microbrews, munching snacks, kissing, texting, snoozing in the screen’s glow, don’t seem to share his sense of urgency.

When we leave, corkscrewing down the parkade’s ramps, past the motorists waiting their turn to exit, we pass the Gastown clock again. Mr. Harmonica has moved on, his pockets a little heavier with toonies. Was he real, or am I just remembering him from the movie?

“When I was young,” he sang (the start of Supertramp’s “Logical Song”), “it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle…and other fucking bullshit like that.”