A Ramble on Escaping Concrete Domes in Brewster McCloud (1970)

Brewster McCloud, directed by Robert Altman, released 1970

In short, Brewster McCloud is about the titular boy’s attempt to fly like a bird. He squats in the fallout shelter of the Astrodome, studies birds with his partner in crime, Louise, and inevitably falls down onto the astroturf and perishes. And though I haven’t mentioned his huge number of serial stranglings, you can already sense that Altman’s Brewster is a little kooky.

Brewster might be the main character in the traditional sense, since it’s his journey we follow, but birds as a group are much more important than any of the people we find in this Houston-based oddity. In fact, the voiceover narration talking about birds (pronounced to us by a gradually bird-ifying René Auberjonois) makes me wonder whether we’re watching a movie about people at all. All the characters are frequently compared to birds, and our larger social structures, particularly love rituals and social hierarchy, are given bird analogues as well. The movie is profoundly strange and goofy, as are the people in it, from the turtleneck-hoarding supercop to Shelley Duvall’s race car driver/tour guide character. A flock of strange birds indeed, as my grandfather would put it.

What can we take from this little summary of bird figures in this film? I’d wager that it’s pretty simple: the human desire to simply be able to fly away and find freedom in the air is infectious and far from the only ways in which their many species exert a pull of desire on us. The Astrodome itself starts to look like a colossal concrete nest by the end of the movie, and my main intuition about the movie is that it’s about the ways in which our attempts to achieve freedom through invention and the overburdening of earth are destined to collapse. There is the Astrodome itself, a novelty when the film came out and now sitting empty and largely unused. We have airplanes, a source of freedom only for the very few who can own their own and skip the horrendous security lines. All the trappings of industrial modernism offer tempting luxuries that exact tremendous consequences. It’s a classic mad scientist story, down to the ghoulish murders. (Manages to be a very funny movie at the same time, though, which is typical of these Altman curiosities I love so well)

Unrelenting construction and technological expansion creates dreams of escaping it. The great irony, I think, is not just that Brewster makes the very foolish decision to try to fly to freedom from inside the Astrodome, but that he tried to turn himself into a bird with heavy metal wings, taking a huge toll on himself. If we are going to find some kind of meaningful freedom in our lives, we can certainly dream of flying like birds, but contrary to Louise’s words, our freedom lies somewhere closer to the ground. It would be best, indeed, if we could simply observe the free birds of the sky and live our dreams out as much as we could, content in our own selves.

Making Memes in the Time of Coronavirus: A Note on Process

Wonderful post from my partner that goes through the story of a meme production

Critical Hit!!

Introduction:

A week or so ago, an idea hit me: why not re-write the lyrics of Peter Gabriel’s “I Have The Touch” to make them be about social distancing? Peter Gabriel’s early solo work is littered with songs of paranoia, isolation, panic, and fear. One could easily play with this material to reflect the current conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. So I set out to do so.

I turned a song about the desire for contact and repurposed it to reflect the lack of contact occurring during social distancing. This blog post charts all the work it took to make this happen, from the initial idea, to producing a fully realized piece of media. We’ll begin with a chronological look at my workflow, and finish with some reflections on what I learned throughout the process.

Timeline:

Friday, March 21st: The idea first springs to mind. Instead of “Shake those hands”…

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Blue Tulips 1: A Short Story

Hello! I’m trying out something I haven’t done on this blog for a long time: a short, multi-part story. This one will be four parts all about this length or shorter.

Strange. No breeze blew across the narrow, pebbled shoreline of the laundry room, and the shallow water reflected Blue’s face better than the most sterling mirror. Mists of rain fell from the ceiling, straight down as she removed her slippers and stepped onto the flooded tile. Warm water rippled around her bare feet, which felt near to slipping on the still-cool tile beneath. She set the laundry basket afloat on the surface, keeping it near by tucking it between her legs. Thankfully, the dryer hadn’t flooded this time. Spring weather was so unpredictable in the house that it was difficult to plan chores around its fickle comings and goings. With her many long house dresses securely floated back to the beach in the hallway, she turned toward the round window, taking in the raw daylight rushing in. She spread her palm out on the window. The shadow her hand cast in the room wobbled in the rippling pool. She let her hand fall to her side, and waded out of the room.

She shut the door as the mists began to stir into storm-rains.

A field of tulips sprouts in the field seen through the window. After settling for a long winter, the horizon unsettled itself, transformed by the tall green wave pushing its way up from underground.

Blue, the Steward of Tulip House

Every day of her sixteen years tending Tulip House, Blue had kept a journal. By now the journal took up its own, waist-tall bookcase in the centre of the meadowlibrary. Perhaps, though, it was more of a book-chest than a bookcase, as it had to be sealed during wet and snowy seasons. In extreme cases, Blue even had to bury it under a yard of earth in the winter, letting her journal hibernate through the polar freeze before it could emerge, like a bear or a flower, from its hole, and stuffed with yet more notebooks upon notebooks.

Their history of Tulip House bent and looped in on itself, rushing in spiraling cycles, coiling up into terse winter entries chronicling days of lying in bed, fevered dreams, pooling in sloppy ink-pools of delirium or hastily-recorded joy. It was a history from, for, and of Blue, the steward of Tulip House. She was not a natural child of the house, and she could remember her life before she woke up inside it after a night of reveling and hard drinking. Her only recollection was that she had stumbled into a grove of pines that grew almost parallel to the ground, as if bent over by a gigantic explosion or leaning to look more closely at the ground. In a thunderous moment the house had been born from the Earth with its tender already sleeping in her rainbow bed of thornless roses and snapdragons.

***

Once the day’s chores were done, Blue checked the laundry room again. There were still some loads of delicates she wanted to clean so she could step into spring on the right foot. Last year, there had been a surprise coldsnap and the laundry room had first flash-flooded from the snowmelt and then frozen solid, leaving her to strategically re-wear her clothes until mid-May, when the laundry room finally melted enough to pry the door open.

At the moment, the door was still shut to keep the water from overflowing into the adjacent hallway, and a queer swimming moonlight peered out from the crack in the door at the bottom. Perhaps the floods had gone down. But even with the fierce sunlight of a vigorous spring shining on it all day, that seemed unlikelky. Blue pulled the too-long sleeve of her nightgown down to reveal her hand and felt underneath the door with gentle fingers. She pulled her fingers up to her eyes and saw they were wet, dripping tiny serene puddles onto the floor. No luck.

Ten years ago, she had tried to fix the flooding by simply letting the laundry room deluge out. It covered most of the hallway in soapy water, since the detergent had gotten churned up in it, and by the next week the entire hallway was choked with juvenile pine trees that Blue could not bring herself to uproot for many months. She did not need that kind of anxiety. Best to leave things as they are.

Suddenly, however, there was a worldshaking thud against the door, and Blue jumped back so hard she hit her elbows against the opposite hallway wall behind her. She sucked air through her teeth and let herself slide down the wall to the ground so she was sitting up against it. Her nightgown rode up as she did so.

Another massive thud. The door began to creak. Was this some kind of apocalyptic capital-F Flood thundering down from the heavens? She watched as the door began to bend, stressing and stretching on its hinges. Tension grew second by second. Blue breathed in heavily, scrambling out of the way of the door. It was going. Going. Bursting. Time stretched. Stilled.

And in a moment the tension, the knot of time, and the door all gave. Blue felt the water fill the hallway so quickly she had no time to escape into the main back corridor or the furnace room. She could not breathe, opening her eyes under the water to see solid blocks of darkness rushing towards her, helpless as she was against the current.

In the next part, Blue is no longer alone…

Full Text of Drown in Time: The Essay

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This is the raw text from which selections were taken for my Drown in Time zine project, recently published earlier on this very blog. Best of luck in all endeavours!

When I was young, rainforests were not our friends. High seas, low lakes, these were not my friends. Living on the shores of Lake Michigan, air misted with rust, meant falling in love with sand, clay, limestone, and feral dogs. Not many people make video games about lakes. Games ramble around lakes, but rush to plunge into the sea.

Bloodborne and Ecco the Dolphin, my two most important partners in making this record, are about seas. They are about dread, loss, prying all those feelings apart. Naming those feelings is tough, because they lurk in cobwebs that can’t be grasped unless they are broken. If I had to give them names and form I would say:

“I was born too late to live in a standing world”
“I can feel my friends dying when I’m awake”

Oceans are our friends, or we will not live. Regardless, Ecco and Bloodborne are games kept apart by decades, fashions, even dimensions of illusionary geometry. But when I watch Ecco drown over and over again, lungs bursting deep underwater, spent from chasing cosmic beings who kidnapped his entire pod, the fevered Fishing Hamlet and its milk-eye moon spill into me. I’m not trying to convince anyone of this link, but in making this record of thoughts and feelings, in brightening the murkiest corners of my fear and grief, I found that thinking these two games together creates an insight to soothe harsh mourning and allow us to pass through and beyond the guilt that so often colours our feelings about the world and our friends of all forms with which we share it.

Opening my eyes. The tiny fishing hamlet welcomes a guest. A castaway from far-off Earths, born and bred for water, breathing in the sour fish-rank air wafting out from the shore. And here she is, oh! Even in darkly stillness she bears herself as queen of seas, a silk white whale washed up on the rank beach. ECCO’s body tightens; it’s a familiar, sickly feeling rotting his fins, poisoning his heart.

Sweet Queen, he thinks, unhallowed in her prime, left to putrefy in timeless, cursed, unyielding quiet. Around her alone the angry brine stench fallen across all of ECCO’s senses abated.

KOS: Weird and queer are you, dear breathing fish. That you know the words of the stars, the utterings of the hidden sky. Ears as yours are rare as time here, though…I am sad you must see this world of rags while living. Bow and tell me, KOS: how did you learn the speech of seas and skies?

ECCO bowed immediately. She was nothing like the other sky-beings he knew, and had made the sea her home, even if she had not been born here. Her corpse did not stir an inch, but the voice piercing as moonlight waxed through the sea, filling it with being.

ECCO: I have also met beings of the sky, Queen. She hated the water, or…she needed to devour it to live. But she whispered, in her way, before I sent her into nothingness.

KOS: The sea is bottomless with forgiveness. And with revenge. I can sense your pain––It is mine too, breathing fish. Both of us have seen our worlds unmade in moments. I sense that the stricken one who devoured your frithful life was a distant relation of mine. Not, fear not, that there is any love thickening blood in our kin-lines.

ECCO’s sound-eyes saw much. KOS, the bereaved mother of orphans, made him see. He could not stop seeing the work of blood in this place, its quicksilver cruelty, maddening insults to the moon betokened by severed heads and a milk moonface.

ECCO: I…will tell you a story to ease your heart, dear Queen of the Bloodless.

KOS: Please, dear one

ECCO began with Earthlight. Never had he heard of marauding landfolk or the mass harvesting of fish from the seas. But he told what he did know––the whales, the queerfolk of the water, the magical spheres, the world where the seas had found each other through great arms of water in the sky, bringing the world into a kinship of water. And of the burning breathlessness of drowning, endless suffering brought on by the other queen in the sky.

KOS: Please, loved son, you are so full of words for one so young. Still, I want to hear more about the great arms of the seas coming together, and the flying breathing-fish.

ECCO: In both of our worlds, time is not a steady current but curse and weird power creates pools and eddies that wind and stall for rock-ages before they are unstuck or set straight. Time is queer, and I met one of my thousandth descendants, who flew like a gull and could communicate with his mind alone.

KOS: You are…truly blessed to have a line of blood running so long, and to know that it’s so.

ECCO: Though I was in much danger in this unknown future, I think I agree, my Queen.

With all ECCO’s power he remembered the exaltant highways rising in giant arches pulsing in the blue. From atop these vast watery highways ECCO recalled the sight of the Earth bending under him, its blossoming surface empty of pain or darkness. Everything shone. Though he faced near-death at the hands of strange creatures, dashing just out of the reach of the great Medusa looming to greet him, he carried this future in his memory as a treasure held in safekeeping, a check against lurking and murking despair.

KOS: I am slain in spirit by this tale. In your world with no landfolk the Earth turned towards light. I am tempted to say that without these beasts our world might have stretched out to some future near the one you tell of. But…I remember the happy days when those in my care found the truth of water, and land and sea became one kin-without-blood…

KOS: A Queer Sea, arms bending to link the seas of blood, milk, and water inside all creatures. We all need a sea to live, whether outside us or inside.

ECCO’s heart was broken.

***

KOS: It is my turn, my son, to speak to you. It will be so, and you will carry these stories back to Earth with you. I once received a visit from a certain other queen. She did not speak, but her friend and lover read to me a letter I will never forget. It remains the only human language I ever sought to commit to memory––save the customary laws of my children. It seethed through my dreaming times.

It reads:

Seeking Your glorious mercy, we have sought Your sea to hear the words of a Queen lesser than You, a sovereign of blood accustomed “Vile” to our murderers. Take to heart the insults of the faithless Church, and wear them, Your Highness, as a brand––this we said to Ourselves, the lonely and last Regnant Queen of Cainhurst, Deathless. So Vileblood are We. Heed, Your Highness of the Sea vast and begrudging, the word of the mountain, I plead.

Our people are murdered. We fear Your children now lie dead and accursed, or will soon. It seems only Blood, and only Blood deemed worthy, will bring together the people of next dawn in this world. I plead that You deign to grieve my selfsame tears, Lady of Waters, as Our children fade from sight Alike. Together, if you will bear my pretense, we feel the Moons becoming faint, the promise even of daylight unspoiled becoming like a dream, something we the deathless must cruelly endure like timeless winter.

History has been written by the despoilers and cutthroats, my Queen. Our blood, Our queer and vile selves brook no equals or superiors save Yourself in sea or heaven. It is too late to do aught. It is too late to grieve and find peace. But to grieve and break, to wreak one thousand times over Our horror onto the heads of the murderers––this undertaking I urge You to join.

Give not an inch of Your illustrious self. Kill before being killed, oh Queen. Break their bones and give the orphans of this world a sign radiating the majesty of Our Selves, plunging the bloodletters and bloodfuckers of the world into a black obscurity so dense not a stroke of a letter will survive of them. But We, if I may humbly say so, will laugh as they bring their own roof down on top of them.

It is for cruelty, signed, in sorrow,
Cainhurst

***

ECCO suddenly sickened. Cleaving closer and closer to the shore and KOS’s limp corpse, hard anger swelled to fill his lungs and neck. He felt himself sink under its weight. He didn’t even feel the anger firsthand–-it was cold and hard, agelessly stout. In stark relief against this anger he recalled:

HOW GOOD IT IS TO BE BACK IN THE COOL WATERS OF THE EARTH

This curse was not his to understand. As near as KOS was, in truth she was as alien as any being, though she poured herself out to him, wordlessly. ECCO pulled himself away from her, finding himself back among the stars.

Goodbye to the queer sea, hello again. In the cool waters ECCO knew as his home, he heard the chatter of his friends and family. His pod. Bliss, effortless and light.

But sadness and grief and hate live in every ocean, inside or out. And every sea, every heart is unfathomable and bloodless.

I’m 26 and as I get older and older it seems everything worth feeling, having, or doing is wrong or late. Wisdom flies only when the world has lain down to sleep, grief, the teacher of all, crafts her stories in the past tense. My blood, too, is Vile and unfit. I am weak and foolish, a frail bit of dust. But it is only in such bitter and hateful motes that the Love of Creation abides strongly.

We are queer, bloodless, useless EXCEPT TO OURSELVES, which is praiseworthy above all “right” things!!!!!!

In seeing the Great Lake I know that the unfathomable sins of civilization will not stand so tall forever.

 

I am like a pelican of the wilderness; I am become as an owl of the waste places.

I watch, and am become like a sparrow that is alone upon the housetop.

Mine enemies taunt me all the day; they that are mad against me do curse by me.

For I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled my drink with weeping,

Because of Thine indignation and Thy wrath; for Thou hast taken me up, and cast me away

My days are like a lengthening shadow; and I am withered like grass.

But Thou, O LORD, sittest enthroned for ever; and Thy name is unto all generations.

Psalm 102

Zine Release: Drown in Time––Ecco the Dolphin Meets Bloodborne

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Drown in Time v2

^^download here

Drown in Time is a means of working through a few obsessions that bled into each other. Ecco the Dolphin, Bloodborne, ecology, pollution, the feeling that the world has already ended and nothing I do can or will ever matter. Time as water, choking as it sloshes here and there.

But more honestly, this zine comes from a strange fever that overtakes me once in awhile, the need to just put art together to speak for me about thoughts and nightmares that are hard to talk about.

And no, it’s not really interactive––that just came off the top of my head as a good subtitle.

Zine Release: Depression and Desire (With Bonus Old Zine)

Depression Zine Witch of Endor Piece

Link: Depression and Desire

This zine is concerned with exactly what it sounds like. It contains several pieces of digital art and three main parts. First, there is a sympathetic reading of the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor from the perspective of someone with anxiety and depression. Second, I included a piece on the problems of living with depression in a land and in a space that is also afflicted, especially focusing on environmental damage and the stress that it can cause. Finally, there is a two-page microfiction about angel-capturing monks and their ability to change the world around them.

 

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1d9t_eb5-tPAURRszuboYVwkRPlHaHEvy

I am horrified of ruins

Bonus Link: Plunge: An Agender Life

Mostly a series of discussions of issues related to (lack of) gender, visibility, and other issues to do with my own queerness. Also includes a great number of art pieces and a few essays.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=1fwJuLrLATf14EXxHQp06IfnvFfKxcyLc

I hope that you enjoy them and get a lot out of them.

Insomnia

I have to teach my weekly tutorial in five hours. I can’t sleep. Tutorials are routine, I’m not worried about them, but still I’m here, heart pounding and thoughts racing at 5:30 am. Granted, I did consume a prodigious amount of caffeine in an effort to alleviate stress and listlessness a few hours ago so I could finish up prepping my tutorial plans. Still, I feel cheated of sleep.

Beyond just putting words onscreen, I don’t have much of a goal in writing this other than one fear: I know that insomnia is a potent trigger for self-harm and other impulsive and harmful behaviours. Never, ever, do I feel more alone, more worthless, more isolated than when I’m deprived of sleep and dreading the next day’s coming responsibilities. My brain won’t let me sleep! How could I ever finish any assignments?

Tomorrow, in all likelihood, I’ll wake up too early, do a sleepy but competent job and attend my office hours with vigilance. Then I’ll once again fail to get to sleep until the sun rises, be too tired to do anything the next day, and so on. It’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over. Once in awhile I’ll have a week or two where laundry and cleaning get done, dishes are washed, clothes put away, efforts made to further long-term projects. But most of the time, to be honest, my brain doesn’t let me do those things.

I can’t even sleep. How am I supposed to achieve anything when the sun comes up and I’m on the hook for more lost hours, forced to go to caffeine sources again and again, the stress compounding and, throughout, a creeping sense of sickening worthlessness creeping in?

I just hope that next week will be better, and there’s no planning for that. There are ways of coping, ways of adjusting slightly, ways of attempting to improve my situation. And I keep all those in mind. But there’s nothing I can do right now––the sleep is already lost, and I’m once again facing down a sickening sunrise wondering if there’s anything, anything! I could do to make it better.

Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

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And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

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Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.