The Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque presents a special series of films in conjunction with the WSO’s New Music Festival featuring Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm with a brilliant score by Winnipeg-born Mychael Danna, two important films from the New York underground filmmaking scene (Sara Driver's When Pigs Fly and Celine Dahnier's documentary Blank City), Craig Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum (featured to complement WSO’s new opera on genius inventor Nikola Tesla created by composer Phil Kline and film director Jim Jarmusch) and last, but not least: several key works which reflect Winnipeg’s past and often conflicted view of itself - Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets (from ATELIER NATIONAL DU MANITOBA - Walter Forsberg, Matthew Rankin, Mike Maryniuk), Forsberg's Fahrenheit 7-Eleven, Rankin's Negativipeg and Ryan McKenna's Survival Stories: The Greg Klymkiw Story (which is - YOU GUESSED IT - about ME! Maybe I'll have the nerve to review it).
And, I'm sure you're going to enjoy this: I'm moderating a Panel Discussion on the topic of Forgotten Winnipeg on January 28, from 6-7pm on the Piano Mobile at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg as part of a co-venture between Spur, a festivals of politics, art and ideas and the WSO's New Music Festival. Participants include Bruce Duggan, Frank Albo and Esyllt Jones.
MY FORGOTTEN WINNIPEG
By Greg Klymkiw
What then, IS a forgotten Winnipeg, anyway? For me, it's simple. It's the Winnipeg of my mind. It's the Winnipeg that once existed, but is no more except in my memories. It's the Winnipeg that existed before I was born, but lived on, like piles of refuse dotting the landscape - monuments to former glory and defeat that made me what I am today (for better or worse).
It's a Winnipeg that lives in the souls of the well-dressed couples in their august years, sitting amongst the refuse of humanity in the long-gone Harry Smith's Club Morocco - the mirror ball spinning on the empty dance floor, the silver palm tree leaves reflecting the coloured lights Stanley and Stella used to get a goin' in Tennessee's world (one not unlike that of those similarly passion-infused in the geographical centre of North America) as thick-lensed horn rims of Harry himself surveyed his mighty empire, adorned in cheap tux, smoking his LaPalina Lily and smiling with approval as Benny Lee, wizened well beyond his years of building Canada's Railway, hobbled in, hunchbacked and hunched-over as he wheeled in the chrome oxcart displaying an array of the Orient, its aroma beckoning all to grab a plate and load up on the 11:00 Chinese Smorg.
That, is Winnipeg. My Forgotten Winnipeg - forgotten, not to me, but to those who would never know.
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.
Winnipeg is a purgatory for the casualties of the city's faceless bureaucrats who do little more than 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.
It's a city of big dreams tainted by the mediocrity of those who believe new is better than old and continue to replace relics of beauty with their turds.
Winnipeg is a city of Death, not life, but in death, from out of its decrepitude, comes so much more.
So, like, Réjean, this dude you meet every morning at 6 in the line-up for slave labour at the All-Jobs Labour Supply on Main Street, corners you in a Men's room stall at the Chalet Hotel and says: "Suck my dick".
We've all been there before. Right?
Both parties are too skint to hit the V.I.P. room for some private dancing and before you can say, "Gimme summa lovin'", you're greedily gobbling the knob of this bearded, seven-footer with a plaid shirt and hoping for a nice reach-around.
We've all been there. Right?
So, okay, what if the same dude traps you in the shitter and growls, "Slaveto my dick!" - you're going to be, like, "The fuck, Réjean? You want me to WHAT?"
From the late 70s until I can't remember when, the aforementioned conversation played out in my mind whenever I drove by an old garment district building in the Market Square area of Winnipeg that featured this spray-painted graffiti prominently displayed on its grey cement wall:
|Illustrious Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz|
It was a scene, know what I mean?
And for about four years, the punk scene fuelled the crazy alternative film making scene at the Winnipeg Film Group. I can't think of a single person in their mid-40s-50s from the 'Peg who makes movies and WASN'T part of that scene. Great 'Peg punk and new wave bands - and I mean GREAT bands - belted out the coolest sounds imaginable. Bars like the Royal Albert or, my favourite, the "Chuckles" (or to malcontent veterans, the St. Charles Hotel) featured gig upon gig with local Winnipeg Punk/NewWavers.
Bands like the Popular Mechanix, Personality Crisis, Dub Rifles, Lowlife, The Stretch Marks, Discharge, The Psychiatrists, The Bristow Hoppers - the list goes on and on - and bookers (often Winnipeg band members themselves) peppered the local acts with whatever punks from Toronto, Vancouver or the USA who could get their shit together enough to play the 'Peg. Myself, I was running a long-gone West-End movie theatre that played mostly cult films, sometimes sprinkled with live acts ("Nash the Slash VS. Eraserhead" read one of the immortal handbills). The "Scene" would come see a movie or two, blast down to the garment district, catch a punk band, then head to Walter and Megan's Lithium Cafe to belt back joe with tired hookers and their hopped-up pimps.
This happened pretty much every night for what seemed - at least at the time and in my memory - forever.
It's funny now, how many film or media people frolicked about that punk scene. John Paizs directed the quaintly perverse cinematic equivalent to 'Peg Punk with his brilliant short film The Obsession of Billy Botski and, years later he used the great Popular Mechanix song "IceBox City" during a joyous dance sequence in his immortal feature length cult classic Crime Wave. Guy Maddin blew his inheritance from Aunt Lil (her beauty parlour became the studio set for Tales from the Gimli Hospital) on 78 recordings of fruity 20s/30s tenors from this amazing store in Minneapolis, but also collected the most amazing number of punk albums which he purchased from Winnipeg's immortal Pyramid Records.
Guy would gather everyone round to his place, quaintly adorned with his late Aunt Lil's doilies, and spin Richard Crooks singing Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe", then switching from 78 to 33rpm, he'd announce something a bit more "challenging" was on its way - code for: this is some good shit I got from Pyramid Records and it's going to blow you the fuck away. In delicious contrast to "Old Black Joe", the needle gently found its groove and the room swelled with the aural explosion of Feederz crooning "Jesus Entering From The Rear".
Radio producer and news guy John Copsey (he wears suits now) led a punk band that devoted themselves to worshipping the survivalist movement as preached on Winnipeg's community cable station TV show "Survival" featuring yours truly and Guy Maddin as apocalypse-welcoming rednecks. Lead singer of several great Winnipeg punk bands was none other than heartthrob Kyle McCulloch who starred in virtually every early John Paizs and Guy Maddin film and eventually became a head writer on TV's South Park. And lest we forget, Canada's highly esteemed journalist and political pundit in all media, Mr. Andrew Coyne, took to the stage with several other burgeoning writers from the University of Manitoba newspaper and in punk tradition, nary a one of them could actually play, but they gave their all as The Nimrods.
Happy times for many. Times that led to even happier times - for some.
All were ultimately inspired by Winnipeg's punk scene, but most of all, the brilliant local artists - the musicians who made you soar higher than a kite with kickass punk/new wave music were the big motivators who instilled a more anarchic, freewheeling, devil-may-care spirit in so many of us to push the limits of our own lives and artistic pursuits. The music, unlike the arts inspired by it, had NO outlets of support to take the music and musicians to the next natural level. There were a few limited tapes or EPs cut, a handful of extremely indie albums, but this genuinely brilliant period of Winnipeg music - post The Guess Who and pre The Crash Test Dummies - lives in the minds, memories and movies of all those who loved it deeply and were fuelled by seeing it LIVE - night after night after blessedly blasphemous night.
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. 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.
Where are they all now?
Where else could they be?
It is, after all, Winnipeg.
Sad! Sad! Sad!
A similar scene to the one experienced by Jim Jarmusch and others in New York during the 70s and 80s and captured in the documentary BLANK CITY as well as many other works in the "Forgotten Winnipeg" series was happening in Winnipeg wherein a very cool explosion in indie underground cinema that I and many colleagues and friends were involved with was spawned. This period, coined by film critic Geoff Pevere as Prairie Post-Modernism included the works of John Paizs, Guy Maddin, Greg Hanec and many others.
A great selection of early Guy Maddin, many of which that I produced and were written by George Toles, can be secured directly through the following links:
Another great film from Winnipeg during this period is Greg Hanec's extraordinary DOWNTIME which has the distinction of being a parallel cinematic universe to Jim Jarmusch's "STRANGER THAN PARADISE". Both films were made at the same time in two completely different cities and scenes and both Hanec and Jarmusch premiered their films at the same time at the Berlin Film Festival. One's famous, the other isn't - but now that the "lost" and "found" DOWNTIME has been remastered from original elements to DVD, it can now be purchased directly online.
|Order DOWNTIME directly from the film's new website by clicking HERE|
|Visit Frank Norman's CRIME WAVE|
fan site by clicking HERE
Alas, it's super-impossible to get a copy of Paizs' masterpiece CRIME WAVE (not to be confused with the super-awful Coen Bros/Sam Raimi film of the same name that was released the same year Paizs' film was NOT released properly by its scumbag Canadian distributor Norstar Releasing, which eventually became Alliance Films (where the boneheads sat on the film and turned down several excellent offers from small indie companies to release the film properly on DVD in super-deluxe special editions because they lazily purported to be negotiating a massive package deal on its catalogue titles with some tiny scumbag public domain company that, as far as I can tell, has neither purchased nor released the film). This truly great and highly influential film is, no doubt, languishing in some boneheaded distribution purgatory within the deep anal cavities of the new owner of Alliance Films, a humungous mega-corporation called E-One. Feel free to repeatedly bug their stinking asses and demand a proper release. In the meantime, VHS copies of CRIME WAVE can still be found with the ludicrous title THE BIG CRIME WAVE. Here's a copy available on Amazon:
BLANK CITY and other works in the "Forgotten Winnipeg" Series can be accessed here: