A Conversation With Winnipeg Film Maker Matthew Rankin
[Our thanks go out to Kier-La Janisse for conducting and passing along the following interview with Winnipeg-based film maker Matthew Rankin. For those who don't know her, Kier-La is everywhere controlling everything, basically. Bow to her will.]
Matthew Rankin has been described as "The Billy the Kid of Winnipeg filmmakers". A founding member of the artist collective L'Atelier national du Manitoba - whose output includes short and feature-length films, videos, poster campaigns, curated programs and essays that aim to re-appraise and celebrate the most maligned aspects of Winnipeg's cultural history - Rankin has made films about the demise of the beloved hockey team, the Winnipeg Jets (Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets, 2005, a collaboration with Walter Forsberg and Mike Maryniuk); the strange history of Winnipeg TV commercials (Kubasa in a Glass: Fetishised Winnipeg TV Commercials 1978-1993, 2005); an ironic ode to decrepit Winnipeg apartment buildings (I Dream of Driftwood, 2007); and a surrealist masterpiece that pits Quebec nationalism against Manitoban self-loathing (Hydro-Levesque, 2008), among others. His most recent short is a collaboration with fellow Winnipeg filmmaker/scratch animator Mike Maryniuk called Cattle Call, a frenetic stop-motion ode to the art of cattle auctioneering which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, and went on to win awards at both Sundance and SXSW.
Now, I find Winnipeg to be a horrible, useless place. Rent is no cheaper than anywhere else, and it really is a frozen wasteland corroded by litter and alcoholism. It is full of violence and ugliness. So when I meet an artist who is so shamelessly bound to this place (but doesn't seem to depend on its accolades), I can't help but wonder: what is it about Winnipeg that's so special? Rankin sheds some light on his films, his preoccupations, and the city that made him what he is.
KLJ: What is your relationship with Winnipeg?
MR: I am tethered to it for life. I was born in Winnipeg. I grew up in Winnipeg. Like most Winnipeg adolescents I held my city in total contempt. I saw it as an unacceptable excuse for a city and I wanted to leave. So I spent many years abroad, primarily in Québec and the Middle East, and during this time Winnipeg slowly became very exotic to me. I realized that it was in fact a good thing that Winnipeg wasn't a city like Paris or Rome or New York, whose meanings have long-since been established and immortalized by the great artists of the world. Winnipeg was a new frontier for artistic discovery. And therein I discovered my love for it and my belonging to it. It's what I understand the most and it inspires me. So in 2005 I moved back.
KLJ: It seems that your films are deeply rooted in some kind of 'Winnipeg mythology'. Can you explain?
MR: I am really interested in what I would call the "subconscious pop culture" of Winnipeg. This is the repertoire of image systems, icons and material culture that give Winnipeg its meaning. My sense is that most Winnipeggers do not identify this as a pop culture - in fact, they frequently don't see any worth in it - but to me it's all very narcotic - everything from Uncle Bob's slack-jaw ventriloquist routine to the ornate, geriatric frosting on Jeanne's cakes. All of this kind of stuff has a mythic quality to me. It has formed the basis of my own personal mythology and I try to explore it in my films.
KLJ: Who do you consider to be the great heroes of Winnipeg and why?
MR: I really like Burton Cummings. I like the Guess Who a lot, but I'm really more of a fan of his solo career (particularly the pre-Plus Signs stuff), which I don't think has yet received its rightful recognition. But most of all I like Burton Cummings as an iconic image of Winnipeg identity. I like the fact that he's called bullshit on Winnipeg a few times. That makes me like him more. Every single Winnipegger has, at one point or another, cursed Winnipeg. That's part of our ironic relationship with the city; it's part of how we love it. And it's no different for Burton. I like that. If he were as careful and as polite as Randy Bachman I don't think I would like Burton Cummings quite as much. There still seems to be some enduring provincialist whining over the renaming of the Walker Theatre after Burton. I just wish that Winnipeggers would clue into the fact that The Burton Cummings Centre for Performing Arts is, in fact, the coolest thing going.
KLJ: What is Winnipeg's greatest failure?
MR: Its institutionalized attempts at being normal. Every single effort to brand Winnipeg or to propagandize its dignity and limitless potential have all been categorical failures. Spirited Energy, Love Me Love My Winnipeg, Winnipeg: One Great City!, Winnipeg: 100 Reasons to Love It, Bears on Broadway, Portage Place etc etc etc etc etc. Every last one of them has died a ridiculous death in popular scorn and derision. And this makes me very proud of Winnipeg. It is an ironic city. And this failure to be normal is, to me, a triumph (which is itself ironic). Northrop Frye said that every season has its dramatic charge: spring is romance, summer is comedy, fall is tragedy and winter is irony. Perhaps it is because Winnipeg is so heavily defined by its notorious winter that this irony would become such a critical feature of our existential being.
But Winnipeg's elites are committing constant acts of war upon irony and sometimes they win. Anything that manages to neuter the city's originality by making it more processed and standardized and conventional is, to me, beyond failure. It's tragic.
KLJ: Your film Barber Gull Rub is a deliberate pastiche of a Guy Maddin film (which are pastiche in and of themselves), and your film Hydro-Levesque is thematically very close to Maddin's My Winnipeg; despite some dreamlike aesthetic similarities, what do you think are the primary differences between your work and Maddin's?
MR: Of course, I love Guy Maddin films. He is definitely a big inspiration to me. In Hydro-Lévesque I was more broadly trying to reference what I like to call the "self-destructing image" of Winnipeg. This is a primarily formalist trope I associate with Winnipeg filmmaking and it would not only Maddin, but John Paizs, Noam Gonick, Sol Nagler, Deco Dawson and, of course, my friend Mike Maryniuk. All of these filmmakers obsess, in their way, over what is essentially a degraded, abstracted or otherwise fetishized image of Winnipeg. And inevitably, because of the incestuous nature of filmmaking in Winnipeg, all this work orbits around the Maddin-nucleus, perhaps because Maddin is the most identifiable. But in Hydro-Lévesque, I refer directly to elements I associate with the work of each of these filmmakers. This was my way of formally identifying and visually defining Winnipeg in the film, by using image degradation as a metaphor.
But beyond Maddin's contribution to Winnipeg image-making, and perhaps his interest in female heroines, I wouldn't say I really share any of his preoccupations. I am not particularly interested in my family or Freud or melodrama. I think that my most direct cinematic influences come from abnormalities of early Canadian television than they do from Josef von Sternberg or Abel Gance. I'm interested in video. I'm interested in pop culture. I really revere the vocabulary of Iranian filmmakers. And of course Québec nationalism is a big influence on me as well. Hydro-Lévesque owes its most important cinematic debts to Negativeland, Pierre Bourgault, old black and white episodes of Dr. Who and 70s-era Winnipeg TV commercials. Cattle Call was heavily inspired by Norman McLaren, Ed Ackerman and The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, of which Mike and I are both huge fans.
KLJ: Do you think Hydro-Levesque was hurt by coming out around the same time as My Winnipeg? Why hasn't it enjoyed the same success as Cattle Call?
MR: I really have no idea. I wrote the script for Hydro-Lévesque about two years before Guy started shooting My Winnipeg, but Guy finished his film a year before I managed to finish mine. So its possible that people had had their fill of Winnipeg by the time Hydro-Lévesque rolled around. In all honestly, however, I think that even if I had finished Hydro-Lévesque before Guy, it wouldn't have fared any better. It's a difficult film; it's insular and abstract and bristling with sub-atomic particles. Cattle Call, on the other hand, is quick bit of formalist fun and its central idea works really well in the short film format. I always knew that any audience would be able to get into Cattle Call. It's very easy to programme. But with Hydro-Lévesque I knew it might only ever be shown in Québec. I've been really pleased with the film's reception in Winnipeg and it's gone over extremely well in Québec. It won the Special Jury Citation at the Festival des Trois Amériques, which is a sacred festival to me.
But I admit I'm a little disappointed that the film has been almost totally rejected by Anglophone Canada. Nobody really gave me the benefit of the doubt on this one. I guess too much of the film's meaning is contained in elements that are unavailable to most people. If you can't get into the emotional resilience of Québec nationalism, it might appear that I'm being a little hard on Winnipeg at the end of the film. My production designer Ricardo Alms even said to me: "Guy Maddin gave Winnipeg a little kick, you gave it a curb-stomping." But really it is a message of love.
What I need to do one day is make a film that becomes really well-known so that somebody might be inclined to take a second look at Hydro-Lévesque. Difficult as it is, I think it's the best thing I've made. But I've learned a big lesson about how much I can get away with.
KLJ: Hydro-Levesque is really a masterpiece, but again, most people outside of Canada just won't get it. Can you talk about the political context of the film, and how that ties in with its emotional centre?
MR: I doubt that even most Canadians will get it!
The idea for this film was dreamed up during my days as a history student in Québec City. It started with the observation that both Winnipeg and Québec have something of a fetishized relationship with their own misfortune. I became really obsessed with the idea that collective energy could have an emotional charge.
In the 1960s and 70s, Québec nationalism had a very heavy self-destructive streak to it. But, in large part because of René Lévesque, that electricity was re-channelled into a positive transmitter and today, in its best, most positive form, Québec nationalism is truly heroic and universal in its resilience. And I wanted that energy to be the force of good in my film. Winnipeg today is much like Québec was in the 1950s, except we are far more apathetic. Often we believe we are improving our city and affirming our collective worth as we commit the most profane acts of self-destruction. We demolish our icons, we vandalize our downtown with beautification projects, we curse the difficulty of our existence and long to be normal. To me, all of this is nihilism. So this was going to be the negative charge in my film. But in the end, I wanted Winnipeg to find its Lévesque. That's why, at the end, it is the electricity of Québec sovereignty that saves Winnipeg's life, like a transplanted heart.
So the idea was to make something of a collage and re-imagine the emotional symbolism of Québec sovereignty within the context of Winnipeg. I wanted these two misunderstood corners of the earth to superimpose upon each other.
KLJ: What is it French Canadians have that you feel English Canadians lack?
MR: First of all, it's not an ethnic thing at all. It's a cultural thing. But as a filmmaker, what I like about Québec is its sincerity. In the 1960s, Québec was bristling with cinematic talent. Filmmakers like Gilles Carl, Claude Jutra and Pierre Perreault all had the opportunity to go work in the USA. They could have made a lot of money and they could have reached a vastly bigger audience if they had done so. But they were honest enough to realize that the stories they needed to tell were Québec stories. And so they accepted that maybe they would never be millionaires and maybe only Québeckers would ever understand and appreciate their work. And they were smart enough to realize that that was good enough. Québec cinema, like all of modern Québec culture, was built upon this same honest look in the mirror. This is what has made Québec one of the great cinematic civilizations of the world.
But we have never been like this in Anglo-Canada. We have never really believed our stories were worth committing to in any kind of profound, honest sense. Our Can-Con regulations have cultivated nothing but mediocrity and self-congratulation. We attempt, again and again, to dream up some kind of blockbuster that is neutral enough to penetrate the gigantic markets of the USA, but our every attempt is a failure. If we were a little more honest, we might get somewhere. The reason that Porky's remains the most successful Canadian film of all time is that it was completely honest about what it was. It wasn't trying to be anything other than a low-budget teen sex comedy. Porky's seems to have understood what Québec writer Hubert Aquin was talking about when he said: "Il faut embrasser pleinement, et douleureusement la difficulté de notre existence," which means "We must embrace, fully and painfully, the difficulty of our existence." This was my tuning fork as I made Hydro-Lévesque and, to me, it is Québec's lesson to the rest of Canada.
KLJ: I remember you once describing a film you wanted to make as "feeling like the sound of the scratchy vinyl in the Lee Hazlewood song My Autumn's Done Come." And that wasn't the first time you referred to music as a creative inspiration.
MR: I often wish our relationship with films could be more like our relationship with music. We demand certain things of films that we don't demand of music. We expect that films will have a message, that they will make sense, that they will have character arcs and so forth. But we allow music to be abstract. With music, even in its most commercial variety, our engagement is an onieric, emotional one. It is abstract and primal. I hope that, as cinema evolves, our relationship with it will deepen. Cinema has great power for abstraction and we've only just scratched the surface. This was my personal inspiration for Cattle Call. Auctioneering is innately musical and Mike and I wanted the audience to engage with it on its most abstract level.
Interview by Kier-La Janisse. Top photo by Melissa Forsberg.