February 25, 2020

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Film takes odd, nostalgic turn

Character exploration on social isolation set against backdrop of Winnipeg's 1980s

Working in a genre that explores the moods and modes of urban landscapes, Ryan McKenna (The First Winter, Le coeur de Madame Sabali), a Winnipeg-born filmmaker now based in Montreal, has crafted a "city symphony" in a melancholy minor key.

Taking on the frozen streets and vintage bungalows of our town, Cranks is a bleak but humane art-house hybrid combines archival material with fictional stories — some slyly absurdist and some kitchen-sink mundane.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Cranks draws inspiration from radio callers to Peter Warren’s CJOB Action Line radio show.</p>

SUPPLIED

Cranks draws inspiration from radio callers to Peter Warren’s CJOB Action Line radio show.

McKenna recreates Winnipeg in the 1980s, following several isolated characters and their troubles. There’s a young woman (Bahia Watson) who believes her home is inhabited by a ghost, an older woman (Kelley Hirst) estranged from her adult daughter who seems to be experiencing a phantom pregnancy and a warehouse worker (Darcy Fehr) so filled with frustration and anger his wife and daughter don’t even register his off-camera explosions of rage.

What unites these strange, sad characters is the radio, specifically Peter Warren’s Action Line program on CJOB. McKenna uses extended audio excerpts of that infamous open-line talk show, which ran from 1971 to 1988 and offered all the peculiarities and perils of random callers being broadcast live.

There are very specific Winnipeg complaints — about 911 response times, tardy snow-clearing and cross-border shopping — along with general conspiracy-mongering, outright bigotry ("Oh, let’s not get into that," says Warren), and looming panic over cultural and moral degeneration.

Supplied</p><p>Director Ryan McKenna crafts a melancholy “city symphony” focused on isolated characters.</p></p>

Supplied

Director Ryan McKenna crafts a melancholy “city symphony” focused on isolated characters.

Then there are the letters written to Warren, which the radio host archived, keeping strange or potentially dangerous specimens in a file labelled "cranks." Some of these missives are relayed onscreen, in spidery cursive or blocky caps, and they’re filled with insults, denunciations, death threats and paranoid accusations of plots (spies, informants, secret dental implants).

McKenna connects these real letters with imagined stories, which might sound like a potentially exploitational weirdness-fest. And yes, things do get a little weird, but the tone remains tender and compassionate. McKenna combines oddball drama with a downer deadpan tone that most Winnipeggers (and fans of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki) will recognize as humour.

Shot in evocative black and white, the film is highly visual. Beyond the almost constant background audio of radio chat, Cranks is practically wordless, and we rarely see two characters actually talking to each other face to face.

Supplied</p><p>The film combines oddball drama with a downer deadpan tone most Winnipeggers will recognize as humour.</p></p>

Supplied

The film combines oddball drama with a downer deadpan tone most Winnipeggers will recognize as humour.

In the wintery exterior shots, we get lots of silent, empty spaces and a kind of tough visual poetry. Much of this landscape — concrete parking lots, barren trees, blizzardy streets — would probably look black and white even if it were shot in colour.

McKenna also explores a hyperlocal form of nostalgia — with references to Gondola Pizza, Old Dutch potato chips, Kern-Hill Furniture ads, and the "Something is happening in the heart of the city" jingle — without wallowing in it. The film is as much about today as the 1980s, seeing in Warren’s opinionated, adversarial, attention-grabbing media style an origin story for our current angry and polarized age.

Cranks is an ambitious but sometimes overly oblique cinematic project. To sum up in CJOB terms, here’s one small beef along with a big bouquet. Rooted in a previous documentary short (2015’s Controversies), the film sometimes feels a bit stretched out in its 93-minute feature length. But at its core, it manages to delineate a deep sense of social isolation while still conveying a quirky, comic and very human yearning for connection.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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