Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2019: Cranks

Kris Rothstein

Is Winnipeg weirder than the rest of Canada? Judging by its cinematic output, the answer is yes.

I am still perplexed by the films of Guy Maddin. And Daniel Barlow’s Winnipeg Babysitter brought the truly bizarre public access television of past decades to the big screen. In Cranks, Ryan McKenna introduces viewers to another strange phenomenon, the Action Line call-in talk show, a cultural phenomena in 1980s Winnipeg, and its host, Paul Warren, who has a lot of opinions and who takes a lot of abuse. Action Line seems to have attracted more than its fair share of cranks and paranoiacs. In the film we hear archival audio of a variety of calls, many of them concerned with the danger of cults, the expensive duty on alcohol, and the ineffectiveness of the police and 911 operators. McKenna also shows letters to Warren, their text displayed across the screen.

McKenna uses the audio as a backdrop and an inspiration to animate the lives of some of the callers and letter writers. What might drive people to call such a talk show or to write a letter to Warren (he kept them all)? Certainly the film posits that some people are just crazy, ill-informed, and like to listen to the sound of their own voice. But maybe some of these cranks have a deeper story; maybe they are lonely, scared, just a little odd.

The film is shot in black and white--the palette suits the subject matter. Ten or so characters inhabit the film: an older woman who believes she is pregnant, a young woman disconcerted by the lights in her home (is it a ghost?), a single mum hiding her kids to try to find love, a man consumed by his anger. Many scenes have no dialogue, and unrelated calls play in the background. This means that there isn’t a lot of room for plot or character development, but we get a sense of these lives. As many of the characters are loners, the question arises: are cranks just people who have no one to talk to, forced to converse with a radio host rather than friends or family? As the characters’ storylines progress, we get a bit more context and we start to understand what drove these people to write or call Action Line.

It is hard not to see Action Line as a precursor to online forums, where the craziest views are discussed and abuse is hurled on all sides. I had to wonder if McKenna would like us to view trolls as harmless, unhappy cranks as well. Or have things fundamentally changed? Because Cranks sets out to particularize and humanize. The film is optimistic and it asks us not to despair.

To be honest, the film was a little long (ninety-four minutes) and I pretty much got the idea after an hour or so. But that doesn’t make the concept any less fun or worthwhile and I still recommend the film.

Watch the trailer.

Monday, September 30th at 8:45 PM at The Cinematheque and Friday, October 4th at 1:15 PM at SFU Goldcorp.



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