In the Canadian Oscar winning animated short Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004), the narrator laments “I live in Toronto, a city in Canada, where I see too many shades of grey for my own good health.” The narrator means that quite literally. He is referring to Toronto’s predominately grey skyline. William Phillips’s little seen, little loved Canadian film Treed Murray (2001) is set in Toronto. Though the film’s setting is never stated outright, the shots of the CN Tower leave little doubt as to where the film is set. In fact, if Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is often invoked as the novel that best evokes the city of Toronto, Treed Murray is its film equivalent. It can even be read as a synthesis of the ideas of urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who famously made Toronto her home.
Murray, the advertising executive protagonist of Treed Murray, finds himself in one of Toronto’s green patches that are designed by urban planners to throw Toronto’s notoriously oppressive greys into sweet relief. The film opens with quick shots of emblematic urban symbols like bustling subways and towering skyscrapers before transitioning to Murray’s solitary walk along a park path where the young Carter accosts him. The move from the urban environment into the more pastoral setting of the park proves to be a dangerous one for Murray as he becomes the arboristic captive of a small gang, though the group’s leader, Shark, scoffs at the term “gang,” preferring to refer to his motley brood as “a group of self directed urban park rangers.” In the green expanse of the park, the shades of grey remain but they are moral and ethical as opposed to the greys of Toronto’s oft-ridiculed brutalist architecture.
Chased up a tree, Murray and Shark engage in a debate and express diametrically opposed visions of urban life. The relationship between people and their cities has always been ambivalent. The geographer Richard Lawton writes in his book The Rise and Fall of Great Cities,
“Cities are as old as civilization: indeed they are civilization… Yet, the revulsion which many feel for the city has never been far from the surface, even among city dwellers. It erupts periodically in massive demonstrations of urban unrest, and is implicit in the continual tension of urban existence.” For Lawton, “‘the anomie’ and ‘alienation’ found in the city… has its counterpart in the pastoral idyll which draws city dwellers to the countryside.” (1)
Treed Murray represents the difficulties that arise when the tensions of urban life are dealt with by attempting to satiate the urban desire to escape the city by imposing the pastoral on the urban. The conflict in “Treed Murray” is not necessarily urban/rural, since both Murray and the gang are city dwellers but the park serves as a significant liminal space.
By setting the action of the film in the single location of the park, Treed Murray aligns itself with Raymond Williams’s construction of the dichotomy between the country and the city. The space of the park is uniquely positioned for interrogating the most prevalent problems of modern urban life. Williams argues, “the contrast of the country and city is one of the major forms in which we become conscious of a central part of our experience and of the crises of our society.” (2) Williams debunks the notion of rural life as simple, natural, and unadulterated. This is, according to Williams, “a myth functioning as a memory” that naturalizes the class conflict, enmity, and animosity that is inherent to the urban/rural relationship. There is the sense throughout the film that Murray’s domain is the dominant discourse of the city while Shark has dominion over the park where official urbanity seldom intrudes. Shark makes this distinction perfectly clear, telling Murray, “Let’s get one thing straight. Here, I am in charge.” Throughout the night, however, there is a rapprochement between Murray and the gang as the lines of demarcation that separate them become blurred. Murray’s numerous vices implicate him in perpetuating the very class divisions that this film is about. The blurring of their moral lives through dialogue leads to a complicated mutual understanding. At the very end, as Murray, Shark, and another gang member, Kelly, exchange glances of recognition of each other’s humanity over the wounded Carter, a reluctant but sincere community is formed.
Ultimately, the politics of Treed Murray are not too difficult to discern. The film represents the necessity of creating a community of strangers in an urban environment in order to ensure personal safety and demonstrates the inherent danger of imposing traditionally pastoral elements on the city. Perhaps, however, this is too pragmatic a conclusion. Beyond these pragmatic realities, Treed Murray represents the inevitable interrelations between members of society no matter the class and the importance of imagining a community to deal with these disparate members. Jean-Luc Nancy notes,
“The gravest and most painful testimony of the modern world, the one that possibly involves all other testimonies to which this epoch must answer… is the testimony of the dissolution, the dislocation, or the conflagration of community.” (3)
This dissolution leaves Murray vulnerable to harassment by the gang because he is alone and his ordeal is prolonged because he is alone with the gang as well. Anyone who has lived in a big city can attest that it is not a busy street that is most terrifying but deserted areas like parks or alleys. Despite assumptions to the contrary, parks can be one of the most dangerous parts of a city precisely because they operate outside the purview of community and, to borrow the tag line from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978), no one is around to hear you scream. This danger stems from the fact that, in the park, the mechanisms of unspoken community are unable to intervene on one’s behalf.
When Murray is first chased up the tree, before he has resigned himself to a night of tree dwelling, he repeatedly yells for help. When these calls fall on deaf ears, Shark asks him, “Do you even hear the city?” implying that the rules of urban life, strength in numbers, do not apply in the park. When a police officer does appear, he is a comical figure of incompetence. When he is not adjusting his ill-fitting shorts, he is being duped by the gang who chants Murray’s name in order to drown out Murray’s calls for aid. Befuddled, the officer can only mutter, “Go Murray!” Well, Murray cannot go anywhere, he is vulnerable in the park because he is alone and the ineffectuality of the police to help him reveals the importance of the collective to maintain security. Similarly, the fortunes of the gang, who also form a community, begin to unravel only when they are separated from each other. This privileging of the collective over the individual, which is a seldom discussed but important aspect of urban life, reveals Treed Murray to be an interesting companion piece to the urban philosophy of Jane Jacobs.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs discusses how safety is really maintained in large cities. The inability of the police officer to recognize the danger facing Murray is significant because it dramatizes the categorical impossibility of the few to police the many. The Toronto Police Service currently has 5400 sworn members whose duty it is to police a population of over 5 million people. Therefore, how does protection and security actually function in a metropolis? Jacobs goes a long way to answering that question. The basic fact of urban life is that “to any one person, strangers are far more common in big cities than acquaintances.” (4) How a city handles all of these people who mean nothing to one another is the key to its success. Jacobs notes that peace in cities is
“not kept primarily by the police… It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.” (5)
In other words, urban safety depends a great deal on a complicated system of voluntary surveillance. Jacobs favours a kind of neighbourhood watch on steroids. Urban life depends a great deal on reciprocity within a community, or, as the homeless man Murray rebuffs says twice, “It all flows back.”
In large and sparse urban areas, like parks, the safety that is afforded by density bottoms out because no one is there to surveille or be surveilled. Although parks are explicitly supposed to be spaces for the public, their function is different in practice. Jacobs argues that parks are not the primary public spaces of a city but rather that “streets and sidewalks… are its vital organs.” (6) Perhaps paradoxically, “A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe.” (7) In this regard, strangers, in big cities, operate as a kind of positive version of Foucault’s interpretation of Bentham’s Panopticon, described in Discipline and Punish, by enforcing social norms and maintaining safety. For Foucault, Panopticism is not necessarily a positive thing because it limits freedom. He writes that, “The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put to it, produces homogeneous effects of power.” (8) For Foucault, “visibility is a trap.” (9) Jacobs doesn’t see it that way and Treed Murray, in its subversion of the traditional pastoral mode, as evidences by its tagline “A day in the park, a night in hell” tends to support Jacob’s point of view. Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which predates Discipline and Punish by about fourteen years, undermines the Foucauldian notion that the homogenizing effect of surveillance is necessarily a bad thing. For Jacobs, cities depend upon surveillance to make an asset out of the multitude of strangers forced to co-habitate.
At the outset of the encounter, Murray and the gang could not be further apart on every important level. When Dwayne is able to pry open Murray’s briefcase, the differences between Murray and the rest of the gang become less clear-cut. At first, the gang mocks Murray’s cynical and spiritually bereft ad campaigns, which urge people 20 years his junior to “Be cool, be now, aim high,” a tag line so vacuous that Shark can only reply “And you call me manipulative?” The gang is in the target demographic for that particular advertisement and their dismissive reaction to it disabuses Murray of the notion that he “knows people.” It is significant that Murray is an ad man, though, because advertising is one of the few professions that is creative while still allowing you make a lot of money. The film would be less effective if Murray were a Bay St. hedge fund manager. Ad men are known for their power of persuasion. In the film, the dualistic nature of advertising means that Murray can be both a stand in for the artist and the establishment.
The pilfering of his briefcase reveals Murray to be all too human. Among drafts of his shallow ad campaigns are pamphlets entitled ‘Coming to Terms With Family.’ Dysfunction. His marital difficulties and a history of infidelities are revealed when Kelly answers his cell phone and pretends to be his mistress. Most surprising of all is the crack rock hidden in his aspirin container for “a little personal use.” The irony is not lost on Shark, “I bet you’re the only one carrying any shit but we’re the punks, right. Fuckin’ hypocrite, man.”
The gang is unable to extricate Murray from the tree because he has the strategic advantage of the high ground. Whether or not he has the moral high ground is another matter. The pastoral dialogic nature of the debate between Murray and the gang shows that Murray’s world and the world of the gang overlap in several interesting ways. Murray likely bought his drugs from an affiliate of Shark or the Raven, who seem to have a large stake in Toronto’s drug economy. The Raven gang terrifies Shark because he took an unauthorized cut of some dope he was supposed to sell. In a direct way, Murray participates in the same drug economy as a customer. Kelly, a drug addict and former prostitute is able to identify Murray as a John right away. Again, Murray is just as implicated in perpetuating the sex trade, as he is the drug trade.
Murray’s connection to KC is also significant. Murray is able to see KC for what he really is, a wannabe from the suburbs slumming it in the city, “I know you better than you know yourself. I can see right into you because I made you. I dressed you… You’re a perfect demographic fit. You know, mid-teen, male, upper-middle income, bored, hip hop listening, underage drinking, pathologically masturbating little consumer.” As in the cases of Shark and Kelly, Murray does not just participate in their worlds but is the active agent that perpetuates their existence. So, in a sense, Murray is already part of a community that includes the gang; however, it is not a sincere community because it operates at the level of commodity. Commodity does not equal community and the only reciprocal relationship happens at the level of transaction. It is through his relationship with the transformative figure of Carter that Murray is finally able to recognize how he is implicated in the lives of the gang and asserts a sense of real community by film’s end.
After a skirmish in the tree, Murray holds KC’s knife to Carter’s neck, threatening to cut his throat if he isn’t let down. Shark calls his bluff and reveals the extent to which the gang represents a true community. Shark asks, “Are we overvaluing Carter? He’s got no home, he’s got no family because, well, nobody cares. Give yourself a thrill, Murray.” Shark’s bluff works and Murray releases Carter. That victory, however, is pyrrhic. Up until this point, the gang could feel superior to Murray because they had each other. By selfishly clinging to his pride, instead of saving Carter, Shark reveals to the gang that their makeshift community is just as exploitive as the one outside their pastoral enclave in the big city.
After the Raven gang disperses the gang, they are physically separated and begin to turn on each other and abuse one another: Shark confesses to having taken a cut of Raven dope money, KC tempts Kelly with Murray’s drugs in exchange for sexual favours, Kelly calls Dwayne a leech, Sharks leadership is criticized as “all talk… no action” etc. The normally laconic Dwayne delivers the most scathing assessment of Murray, “You know people? You don’t know shit. If we were people, then you’d have to care.” As Carter goes to get his grandfather’s gun, however, there are indications that Murray and the gang sense they have been through something together and Murray does show signs of caring. Murray allows his trench coat to be draped over the shivering Kelly. When Carter eventually returns, gun in hand, Shark cedes his control of the gang over to democracy. Shark finally lives the egalitarian values that he has preached at Murray throughout the film and acknowledges that the delicate nature of community depends on reciprocity. The vote, however, ultimately signs Murray’s death sentence.
Shark insists that it be Carter who pulls the trigger but he is unable to do it, still angry at Shark for playing chicken with his life. In the chaos of the situation, Carter ends up being the one who is shot. Murray is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to help the badly injured Carter who has helped to keep him captive the entire night. Ultimately, Murray is moved to action and literally descends to the level of the gang to help stop Carter’s bleeding.
It is in the film’s final scenes that the characters begin to assert the sense of community that they have been unknowingly working towards for the entire film. Shark hovers over Murray ominously with a knife only to give it to Murray to cut off Carter’s shirt. The threat Shark poses is gone. When Murray is able to pinch Carter’s artery and stop the bleeding, he says, as though experiencing an epiphany, “I have it.” As Dwayne runs back to civilization to get help, Murray suggests that Shark and Kelly leave in order to avoid the police. They both refuse. The class conflict between Murray and the gang gives way to that most pastoral of feelings, recognition of each other’s common humanity. Murray can’t help but see himself in the members of the gang. Indeed, he has created them and perpetuates the system that oppresses them. This is the inevitable thing about talking, the humanity of one’s interlocutor becomes impossible to ignore. Carter is unable to shoot Murray, Shark does not kill Murray though he has the chance, and Murray refuses to let Carter bleed out.
In a city, strangers depend on each other for basic safety and for a transcendent sense of community. “Treed Murray” dramatizes the connections of urban life and represents the danger of eschewing the responsibility of community. Or, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, “The community that becomes a single thing (body, mind, fatherland, Leader…) …necessarily loses the in of being-in-common. Or, it loses the with or the together that defines it. It yields its being-together to a being of togetherness. The truth of community, on the contrary, resides in the retreat of such a being.” (10) The film’s final shots leave the claustrophobia of the park to show the city’s skyscrapers in the background. Given the events of Treed Murray, it is hard not to view this final image as a gesture to the transcendent potential of the collective and the security that communal, reciprocal urban life can provide.
- Richard Lawton, The Rise and Fall of Great Cities (London: Belhaven Press, 1989), 1.
- Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London: Chatto and Windus, 1973), 289.
- Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1991), 1.
- Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, ed. The Blackwell City Reader (Malden: Blackwell, 2002), 351.
- Ibid. 352.
- Ibid. 350.
- Ibid. 354.
- Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1979), 202.
- Ibid. 200.
- Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, xxxix.