Number 40 Winter 2008
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Cities of Space, Time, Memory and the Imagination: Blockade, The Return, and My Winnipeg

By Lawrence McDonald

The three films introduced here provide perspectives on three different cities and they do so by means of multiple time frames. The first film I will consider is ostensibly a war documentary, specifically an archival documentary about life during wartime, but I will treat it primarily as a city film. The other two films are above all differing examples of the personal documentary and therefore bear a strong connection to their makers, but their relationships to particular cities are arguably of equal importance to their understanding. The city film is a persistent sub-genre within the history of documentary filmmaking, stretching from Walter Ruttmann (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, 1927) to Patrick Keiller (London, 1992), and all three films reviewed below contribute to the maintenance of its vitality.

Blockade (Russia, 2005) consists of a compilation of black and white archival footage shot during the siege of Leningrad, sometime between September 9, 1941 and January 27, 1943, and selected and edited for a 2005 release by director Sergei Loznitsa. This most protracted of conflicts between the Wehrmacht (assisted by the Finnish Army) and the Red Army lasted 900 days and claimed 600,000 lives. There is no voice-over commentary or inter-titles in Blockade and I detected only the faintest hint of non-diegetic sound (a subtle musical element) underlying the ambient street sounds accompanying the visuals. Loznitsa’s bare bones reliance on the strength of the archival source material has resulted in a film of concentrated power.

The film begins with an elevated shot of the cityscape and the sound of water gently lapping in the city’s river, before coming down to street level where the daily life of civilians coexists seamlessly with the pervasive military operations of army personnel. The passage of trams along the wide streets and the insistent musical tones of their ringing bells brings to mind that Everest (and transcendence) of the city symphony film, The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), and Loznitsa’s editing patterns pay understated homage without recourse to Vertov’s elaborate montage strategies. Given the high quality of the archival footage and the enormity of the situation depicted, Loznitsa’s adherence to a strictly objective perspective, free of manipulation, allows the viewer an immediate engagement with the substance of urban life during wartime, in the spirit of earlier Soviet factography.

However, in spite of the even toned neutrality of the footage and editing, or perhaps because of it, Blockade enters surrealist territory as soldiers escort Zeppelin shaped hot-air balloons down the street, with the distorted shapes of trees reflected on their sides; and, in another segment, the camera pans slowly across a curiously sculptural fortification ‘garden’ of criss-crossed metal bars and triangular stone blocks. While the extended sequences devoted to the aftermath of air raid bombing recall English surrealist Humphrey Jennings’s contemporaneous Fires Were Started (1943), as buildings blaze, firemen scale ladders and bodies are retrieved from the rubble.

The human subject of Blockade is not an individual but a collective one, the crowd of the modern city, always on the move, frequently displaced. And this crowd gathers to do, amongst other things, the following: collect containers of snow from the streets; taunt or spit on columns of prisoners-of-war marching down the street; watch a public hanging (the chilling final sequence); or gaze at the spectacle of flares racing across the night sky during a fusillade from both ship and land based artillery. The close shots of excited faces present at the latter suggest more a fireworks display than an exhibition of military force. A reminder that even in the most trying of circumstances, life can have its little moments of elation.

To move from the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s to Wellington in the early 20th and early 21st centuries is to move a very long way indeed. Yet the shadow of war is present in some of the archival footage and the interview soundtrack of Kathy Duddings’s The Return (New Zealand, 2007). The war in question is the First World War, which had an impact on the childhood of Dudding’s grandmother who immigrated to Wellington by ship in 1908 at the age of two, and spent the early part of her life here.

The only voices on the soundtrack of The Return are those of Dudding’s 90-year-old grandmother and the director herself. Dudding recorded an interview with her grandmother in the mid-1990s, the time of her return to the city where she had been brought up, and extracts from it are interpolated with passages from her memoir, read by the director. The image track of the film alternates between recent video footage shot by Dudding around Wellington harbour and archival film footage of Wellington related scenes from the period 1908 – 1933, supplied by The New Zealand Film Archive. Thus we are presented with two broad time periods: the immediate pre- and post-WW1 period (the focus of the interview extracts) recounted by the memory prompting of the mid-1990s return and interview, the memoir readings and the archival film; and the time of the present, which is delivered entirely by means of video images and sounds. The film establishes clearly the differences between the “grain” (in the Barthesian sense) of each of its sonic and visual components. The grandmother’s voice has a feel of echo to it, no doubt a result of its origin as a separate audio recording, which imparts an appropriate semblance of transmission from another time. In contrast, Dudding’s readings from the memoir have a more regular, now feeling about them. Likewise, the “grain” of the visual images is variegated. The black and white archival film footage has been extracted from films that were very much structured by the rhythms of conventional film editing. Whereas the high definition colour video footage comprises long static takes that have a painterly quality closer to contemporary photographic and video installation than to conventional film language.

The Wellington of The Return, as represented by the colour video sequences, is a maritime city. Dudding’s camera never strays from the edges of the harbour into the CBD. Everything happens at the water’s edge, the site where her grandmother disembarked from a passenger ship 100 years ago and, no doubt, flew over on her return here in the mid-1990s. One can almost taste the “tremulous … salt-rimmed air” of Charles Brasch’s poem “The Islands (ii)”, and, prompted by the voice over, imagine a time when:

    “The godwits vanish towards another summer.
    Everywhere in light and calm the murmuring
    Shadow of departure…”

Of course, mention of the godwits brings to mind another writer, Robyn Hyde (Iris Wilkinson), a contemporary of Brasch and a classmate of Dudding’s grandmother, selections from whose writings are read by Dudding on the soundtrack. The connection to Hyde gives the film a broader historical resonance as it locates Dudding’s grandmother within a stratum of a generation preoccupied with issues of ‘home’ and split identity.

There is a parallel between the liminality of the spaces where the video footage was shot and the times of the shooting, mostly sunrise, sunset and nighttime. This enables Dudding to exploit the special qualities of the light found at these times and the resulting images are limpid and painterly. Matched with Plan 9’s sensitive musical vignettes, they invite and reward the viewer’s contemplation. And, given that Dorothy Dudding saw Halley’s comet twice in her lifetime, her granddaughter includes a delightful animated sequence, made by Euan Frizzell and featuring her own daughter riding the comet, which recreates the earlier of the two events in the spirit and manner of George Melies. According to the press notes for the film and on the authority of a film historian, the final archival segment of the film, decomposed footage of Wellington from an elevated position, may have been shot by Melies’s brother Gaston in 1912. Interestingly, too, the patterns of decay that wriggle across these panoramic shots of Wellington have something of the rhythm of a Len Lye animation, an artist whose waterfront kinetic sculpture receives a lengthy take earlier in the film. Like Hyde, Lye was of Dorothy Dudding’s generation and left New Zealand for the UK at a similar time.

The Return creates counterpoint between a Wellington retrieved and refracted through the memory of a representative of one generation with the Wellington of today as filtered through the aesthetic choices of a contemporary artist. It is thus doubly personal and subjective, as work made within the documentary essay form tends to be. This is signaled by the film’s opening epigraph from Michel de Certeau: “If I walk down the street being reminded of certain incidents in my life, then that is the way that the street will exist not just for me, but also within the context of the entire city.” This statement, most likely extracted from The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), is quite appropriate for a film that stays close to the everyday with illuminating effect.

If Blockade sticks to an objective stance towards its source material and The Return deals in double subjectivities, My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007) takes place in an entirely different realm altogether. It is, after all, a Guy Maddin film, his first documentary, although even those familiar with his previous work may have difficulty differentiating it from his features. This could not be anyone else’s Winnipeg. Prior to viewing this film, my knowledge of Maddin’s biography was derived solely from Noam Gonick’s documentary portrait Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight (Canada, 1997) but my admittedly faded memory of that film scarcely prepared for me for this.

The structuring device from which My Winnipeg’s flights of fancy take off is a train ride that begins in the “greatest urban train yard in the world”. However, this is no ordinary train but rather a “dream train” whose key passenger is a stand-in for Maddin himself. Maddin characterises Winnipeg as a city of sleepwalkers and his double on the train is no exception. His somnolent night ride, punctuated by the recurring motif of a train whistle blasting in Vertovian close-up, unleashes all manner of baroque fantasies from both Winnipeg and the Maddin family’s past life. Most of the film’s scenes take place at night and in the snow because, according to the incantatory voice-over that snakes, like the train of the visuals, headlong through the soundtrack, it’s “always winter” in Winnipeg.

My Winnipeg alternates reenacted scenes, allegedly from Maddin’s childhood, with equally improbable episodes from the public history of Winnipeg. The former are presided over by the imperious Anne Savage playing Maddin’s mother who ran a beauty salon (“Lil’s”) in the city. She is joined by a group of crew cut and pig-tailed youths doubling as Maddin’s siblings. A dramatic high point is a scene, prefigured in vocal rehearsal at the beginning of the film, in which mother interrogates her daughter about the real meaning of a car accident involving the death of a deer. The blood and fur plastered on the bonnet of the car are exposed by the mother as metaphorical disguises for the sexual initiation she alleges took place in the back seat.

Maddin’s excursions into the city’s public history are heavily weighted towards the occult. We are introduced to such colourful figures as: Curious Lou Prefeta, a 1930s despooker of furniture and streetcars; and Gwyneth Lloyd, a medium who conceived an elaborate operatic dance drama with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, recreated or rather invented by Maddin. In addition to these occult personalities we meet: contestants in an annual “Golden Boy” contest, judged by a lascivious Mayor wearing a Santa beard; “Citizen Girl”, a politically heroic “page three girl” of the left wing newspaper The Winnipeg Citizen, who will undo the harm done to Winnipeg; and a group of former premier ice hockey players (The Falcons) who now play in retirement as the Black Tuesdays. The name taken by these players is no doubt linked to the destruction of The Winnipeg Arena, an ice hockey palace in whose ruins they play and where Maddin claims to have been born (his “male parent”, he says). He mourns the loss of this building to the wrecker’s ball and laments the fact that “demolition is one of our city’s few growth industries”.

A rich seam of thematic motifs with strongly erotic undercurrents underlies My Winnipeg and repeatedly rises to the surface of its images and soundtrack. Snow, of course, but also coastal water, ice, regular streets vs. back lanes, “the forks”, “the lap”, fur, wool, and hair (from different parts of the body). From time to time, montage sequences make connections between the landscape and the body, drawing upon this reservoir of motifs. Visually, My Winnipeg continues the spirit or ghost photographic style pursued most assiduously in Maddin’s last three black and white features, supplemented with occasional splashes of colour. In a 1998 Liberation interview with Gerard Lefort, Maddin claimed: “in Winnipeg, television reception was very snowy. It was okay in the morning, but at night the images became superimposed. It wasn’t uncommon for a taxi to arrive like a ghost in the middle of a chat show or a radio programme to interfere with the sound of the television. It was in these conditions that I saw films, not exactly in colour, rather in black and white heading towards grey.” And now, a decade later, Maddin has recreated this mode of reception and made it a perfect match for the snowy landscapes of his Winnipeg of the mind.