Canadian culture entwined with vintage TV
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/02/2020 (1192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If you watched hours and hours of Canadian television in the 1970s and early 1980s, you’ll no doubt remember Hinterland Who’s Who. These formulaic, 60-second public service announcements (PSAs) about the beaver, herring gull, woodchuck and others — 32 in total — featured a solemn voice-over narrator, disconnected shots of animals and odd pauses.
Most memorable was the eerie flute music that accompanied the visuals; it’s perhaps playing in your head right now, like the pernicious earworm that it still is.
These Canadian wildlife vignettes haunt and energize Winnipeg author Andrew Burke’s memories of that era. They are the subject of the first chapter of his fascinating new book Hinterland Remixed: Media, Memory, and the Canadian 1970s.
Why would Burke look back at such seemingly trivial and ephemeral materials? Because to him the “little stuff” of television is as important as the major programs and events. And because the 1970s era, “with all (of) its extended, messy weirdness, in many ways better captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary Canadian life.”
In other words, Burke — an associate professor in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg — is not merely looking backwards. He’s not much interested in the indulgent, sentimental kinds of conservative nostalgia — merely wallowing in an uncritical celebration of the so-called golden ages of the past. He examines these seemingly “innocuous, outmoded vignettes” to see how they animate the present.
While the oil crisis, the 1972 Summit Series between Russia and Canada, disco and polyester shirts may dominate official histories of the “long ’70s” (starting in the late ’60s and moving into the mid-’80s), the affective cultural memory of that era comes, as Burke says, “through and in the poor quality of earlier forms of video or highly saturated 16mm film stock” — in other words, from analog television.
Probably the best way to rediscover the Canadian long 1970s is through the “metatelevisual tomfoolery” of SCTV, the subject of Burke’s third chapter.
This inspired series (1976 to 1984), unlike other satires and sketch comedies of the era, spoofed not only the genres and forms of familiar TV shows but also the interstitials — the PSAs, the ad breaks, the sign-offs and the teasers for upcoming programs, etc.
SCTV pretended, hilariously, that it was an entire network. So, it’s “a rich resource for those wanting to understand the feeling and experience of being a viewer” back then.
Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets, a film made in 2005 by Matt Rankin, Walter Forsberg and Mike Maryniuk from discarded CTV videotapes, is a brilliant example of found-footage filmmaking. It’s the best example of how earlier materials can be “remixed,” and the focus of Burke’s most insightful and satisfying chapter.
Punctuated by crude local ads (for Kern-Hill Furniture and Hunky Bill’s perogy maker) and Videon programming with minimal production values (see Math with Marty), Death by Popcorn makes the point that the demise of the Jets 1.0 in 1996, the city of Winnipeg, and discarded, repurposed videotapes with all their blemishes are inextricably linked.
Hinterland Remixed is an idiosyncratic anthology of essays. The two other main chapters are on Michael Snow’s three-hour experimental film La Région Centrale and several “remediations” of older films and videos by Indigenous artists. In addition, each chapter ranges over a series of related works — not just film and video, but music and art as well.
The problem with writing about televised PSAs, experimental film, Winnipeg Film Group productions and Indigenous works is that it’s difficult for many people to see these materials. So the book sometimes seems unique and peculiar only to Burke rather than something others can readily relate to.
Hinterland Remixed is quixotic, insightful and charming, a valuable book for those who can find the works he refers to.
Gene Walz is a retired professor of film studies at the University of Manitoba.
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