Special Ed (2013) ****
Dir. John Paskievich
Starring: Ed Ackerman
Packing Up The Wagon: The Last Days Of Wagon Wheel Lunch (2013) ***1/2
Dir. Mike Maryniuk, John Scoles
Two terrific new movies explore the ongoing destruction of a once great city. One's a feature, the other a short. Both will be on view at Hot Docs 2013 the Canadian International Documentary Festival now celebrating its 20th year in Toronto. Special Ed by John Paskievich (my full review can be read in POV Magazine) and Packing Up The Wagon: The Last Days Of Wagon Wheel Lunch by Mike Maryniuk and John Scoles are today's focus in my first Daily Klymkiw Hot Pick at Hot Docs.
THROUGH POETIC AND REALIST
THROUGH POETIC AND REALIST
Written By Greg Klymkiw
All cities have ghosts. Winnipeg has more than most. My old Winter City is rife with spiritual activity - manifested by inordinate pools of ectoplasm - viscous globs expunged from living sources to release the phantom apparitions that emit screams of agony, horror and deep sorrow.
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens imagined that the otherworldly cries of despair came – not from the spirits of the innocent – but from those who passed from our world into ghostly purgatory and “sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power to do so forever.”
Alas, there are no such ghostly lamentations from the long-dead rich in Winnipeg. The pain-infused shrieks come from the innocent, the working class, the outcasts who never fit the mould or to paraphrase Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Winnipeg's phantasmal wailings came instead from the "people who do most of the living, working and dying in this town."
Since the retirement of Winnipeg’s visionary Mayor Stephen Juba in the late 70s, bland civic politicians and hand-picked petty bureaucrats dug their grubby fingers into the pockets of purportedly visionary captains of business – an amalgam of the lowest order of old money WASPS and tasteless, self-satisfied denizens of the city’s execrable nouveau riche – bound and determined to reduce the city to a slag-heap in the spurious name of "progress" (a word co-opted to mask their true desire, personal gain).
Even worse, the boneheadedly well-meaning Core Area Initiative of the 1980s decimated the city’s core instead of revitalizing it. Within this civic-provincial-federal programme, the stupidest thing Winnipeg power-brokers did was tear down three square blocks on the North side of Portage Avenue in the heart of downtown and replace it with – I kid you not – a MALL.
Winnipeg loves malls, but they didn't need one downtown. There were plenty in the suburbs - where parking was expansive and shopping carts could easily transport oodles of goods to Ford Meteor station wagons. Besides, Winnipeggers are obsessed with free (or at least dirt-cheap) parking. If they're going to drive downtown (virtually nobody in Winnipeg uses public transit unless they are children or losers) and - God Forbid - PAY for parking, it needs to be for an experience they can't get at suburban malls.
And, ladies and gentlemen, it took three levels of government - count 'em, THREE - to decimate what made the core area and downtown Winnipeg unique.
What WE (Winnipeggers in body and like myself, in spirit) lost were head shops, pinball parlours, record stores, greasy spoons, massage parlours, grind houses, porn cinemas, news agents, coin and stamp shops, comic book stores, nightclubs, strip clubs, punk clubs and manor hotels to the north and Eaton’s, Woolworths, Hudson Bay, Clifford’s and a fine variety of specialty shops to the South.
Cool Sleaze on one side of the street and upscale shopping on the other side of the street. And guess what? There were people on the streets of downtown Winnipeg - at every waking hour. People had a reason to come downtown. No, they had a multitude of reasons.
We were sassified!
In the immortal words of Clarence Carter, the town was positively Strokin’ – it was strokin’ to the north, strokin’ to the south, strokin’ to the east and strokin’ to the west.
Ain’t nothin’ strokin’ no mo'.
After a decade of bureaucratic mismanagement, endless boondoggles and decisions made politically (which, of course really meant lining pockets of politicians and their cronies), Winnipeg’s core became a wasteland. Heritage buildings were closed. Businesses were boarded up. The streets after 5pm on weekdays and pretty much at anytime on weekends became empty.
Instead of people on the streets, all that remained were tumbleweeds.
The second stupidest thing Winnipeg's power brokers did was to destroy the historic Eaton's department store in downtown Winnipeg, then destroy the historic Winnipeg Arena (nicknamed "The Barn") in the West End, THEN build a NEW arena where the Eaton's rubble lay. (Many were happy that Winnipeg, of all places, elected Glen Murray as Mayor - an openly gay politician who inspired iconic Winnipeg filmmaker Noam Gonick to declare Winnipeg as the "Fudge Packing Capitol of Canada.") Alas, it was Murray who supported and pushed for this, the second stupidest thing in the city's recent history.
In sadness and disgust, I left over 20-years-ago. Each trip back became increasingly depressing - seeing one cool thing after another disappearing, seeing the downtown core decay with frightening rapidity. On one such visit I drove along Main Street, my car dipping down into the one and only subway below train tracks and coming up the ramp to the glorious corner of Main and Higgins to witness a wrecking ball smashing into the gorgeous old Brunswick Hotel. I was further agog to see so many of the (admittedly sleazy) hotels along the strip gone and replaced with empty lots and/or ugly new buildings.
This was especially sad. There was a genuine community here - mostly single men; retired and/or widowed bachelors, young working class fellas and malcontent veterans of several wars going back to WWI. There were houses and neighbourhoods of people who used to live downtown. Most were gone - many converted to slums and/or crack houses.
O Winnipeg! Sad, sad, sad.
* * * * *
On any given day, the average Winnipegger ingests an infinitesimal number of asbestos particles. A single glass of fine Winnipeg drinking water has millions upon millions of the little buggers floating around in it. This 80-year-old environmental legacy accounts for much of the insanity inherent in the denizens of this mid-western Canadian city. In particular, I think, it genuinely has everything to do with the cinema produced on the prairies.
Imagine, if you will, a scene during Special Ed in which a congenial wide-eyed madman, having just drilled a natural well in his very own downtown core area Winnipeg backyard, takes an inaugural sip of the water, his face betraying no mere ecstasy, but a beatitude rivalling that of St. Francis of Assisi upon first seeing a seraph upon a cross prior to inflicting the stigmata upon him.
No asbestos here, thank you very much.
The well-drilling-water-guzzler is, by the way, one of Canada’s national treasures, but in recent years, he’s been treated by the Status Quo as someone to bully and snuff out. He's Ed Ackerman: animator, visionary and artist extraordinaire. He also happens to be the subject of John Paskievich's great new film, Special Ed, which makes its world premiere at the Hot Docs 2013 Film Festival.
Paskievich is a natural treasure himself - a patron saint of North End and Core Area Winnipeg via his stunning, indelible photographs of that magical winter city and in particular, those special individuals who do most of the living and dying in that town, the legendary place named after the Cree word meaning "Muddy Water". As a filmmaker, Paskievich has devoted himself to plumbing the depths of cultural traditions within a wide variety of ethnic groups and in particular, those who live on or within the fringes of what's considered mainstream society.
From Old Ukrainians struggling to pass their legacy on to their children (Ted Baryluk's Grocery) to indigenous Native peoples travelling to Czechoslovakia to witness a clutch of Eastern Europeans attempting to adopt traditional Native lifestyles (If Only I Were An Indian) to the ultra-strict members of an Orthodox sect in Northern Alberta (Old Believers) to brilliant, obsessive Inuit carvers (Sedna: The Making of a Myth) and, among many other masterpieces of documentary cinema, Paskievich even turned his camera towards himself with the award-winning Unspeakable to explore his own speech disorder.
Special Ed might be his most special film yet. Initially conceived as an artist's portrait of another artist, Paskievich ended up following the gifted animator for three years and charting Ackerman's hopes and dreams - the most insanely brilliant being his attempts at renovating 100-year-old core area properties as legacies for his children and to also set-up an animation school and studio.
Paskievich's resolve to stick with Ackerman over this period no doubt generated a mountain of footage (that he shot himself). The exquisite, detailed study of Ackerman which also serves as a deeply profound narrative is a testament to its subject, Paskievich, his visionary producer Merit Jensen Carr of Merit Motion Picturesw and his editor (Peabody Award winning director Jeff McKay).
Sadly, what we are witness to in Special Ed is how Ackerman tried to do something visionary and almost single-handedly in the aforementioned climate of greed and provincialism that's gripped and pretty much come close to destroying the City of Winnipeg.
And this is what Paskievich so brilliantly and movingly captures above all - heartbreak.
Heartbreak is also at the core of Mike Maryniuk and John Scoles's Packing Up The Wagon: The Last Days Of Wagon Wheel Lunch, a touching and poetic look at the decimation of a Winnipeg institution by the same aforementioned loser politicians and captains of industry.
Wagon Wheel Lunch was a midday home away from home to thousands of Winnipeggers over its 50-year history. Lovingly prepared homemade food in an unpretentious locale nestled were to be found on Hargrave, one of the few downtown Winnipeg streets on the north side of Portage Avenue NOT to be destroyed to build a useless mall.
Its local devotees were legion and visitors from all over the world sampled its exquisite wares - most notably, the most astonishing Club House sandwich in the world - bar none. Four to five inches thick, this was a sandwich fit for a king. Its secret ingredient was REAL turkey - fresh, daily prepared roast turkey - piping hot and straight out of an oven. Nothing could rival this masterpiece of culinary art.
Its long-time owner and staff looked upon their clientele as family - preparing sumptuous feasts for all - with smiles on their faces and genuine love. The clientele loved the owners and staff with equal familial ardour and those who worked at the Wagon Wheel were so passionate about the legacy of the original owner that a waitress who toiled there for 26 years eventually took over the restaurant after its founder made his final sojourn to that big greasy spoon in the sky.
The film simply and beautifully presents a history of the restaurant, allows staff and customers to weigh in on what made it special and finally details the sad days of its closing. All of this is presented with the time-honoured tradition of prairie post-modernism so deeply rooted in the unique filmmaking tradition pioneered by the legendary Winnipeg auteur John Paizs and adopted by Guy Maddin (whose own sad Winnipeg love story is the acclaimed My Winnipeg).
This tradition of blending arcane and beautiful elements of a cinema from days gone by and applied directly to a documentary tradition adds those extra special touches that will not leave a dry eye in the house.
Yes, the city of Winnipeg is bursting at the seams with ghosts. Maryniuk and Scoles understand this all too well. The living and the dead become one in this gem. Ghosts infuse Packing Up The Wagon: The Last Days Of Wagon Wheel Lunch figuratively and literally.
Like Paskievich's Special Ed we witness love, passion and a unique vision snuffed out by narrow-mindedness.
And what will take the place of the Wagon Wheel Lunch?
A parking lot.
A parking lot in a city that, in its own way (and almost laughably) is one big fucking parking lot.
For me, as someone who was born and raised in a city of so much promise and lived there for 33 years (the life span of Jesus Christ, no less), what is especially heartbreaking about both films is witnessing nobody - absolutely nobody with any REAL power - coming to the rescue of either Ed Ackerman or the Wagon Wheel.
Promises are made to save the Wagon Wheel yet none come to fruition, while in one of the opening scenes in Special Ed we see Ackerman clearing his stuff out of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) Winnipeg headquarters after they’ve unceremoniously given him the boot and after his Herculean-cum-Sisyphian efforts we see him alone - barred from his property while bureaucrats smother his dreams.
My blood boils when I think that the NFB should have just given the guy a fucking office and let him do his thing until he was done. That said, it’s no surprise they didn’t. God knows the NFB has a lot of blood on its hands – Arthur Lipsett, Ryan Larkin and, to a certain extent, John Spotton.
The magma in my brain roils and explodes when I think that the City of Winnipeg itself could have come up with a simple solution to save the Wagon Wheel Lunch.
They didn't, of course. Winnipeg's power brokers have a history of repeatedly blowing it by displaying their poor taste, self interests and greed while ignoring the potential of assisting visionaries to fulfil their dreams and to hold on to the heritage and history of a once great city.
Ed Ackerman and the Wagon Wheel Lunch are the most recent in a long line of casualties within Winnipeg - a purgatory where faceless bureaucrats do the bidding of the soulless power brokers to screw over genuine individuals and institutions that contribute far more to the life of the city than those who look for excuses to destroy it.