For the past several years, Winnipeg has been home to writer and filmmaker Clive Holden, the proprietor of Cyclops Press, and an intense observer of the urban emotional landscape. Holden’s ambitious film cycle Trains of Winnipeg—14 Film Poems premiered at Toronto’s Images Festival this past spring, and has since played Victoria’s Antimatter Festival, Winnipeg’s own Send and Receive, the venerable Flaherty Seminar, and several prestigious venues in Spain. It’s an auspicious début for a hybrid work that could have had a hard time finding venues. Holden calls Trains a “multimedia art project” that exists independently as a book of poems and a CD. One of his purposes was to create a work that would “straddle the balkanized worlds of cinema, visual art, music and literature.”
As the subtitle implies, Trains of Winnipeg comprises 14 distinct sections, most of them composed of spoken texts, music and images, interspersed with occasional short, wordless vignettes. The picture track was edited digitally and completed in 35mm, but the source material is disparate, ranging from 8mm home movies to 16mm film and digital video. Each “film poem” reflects on an aspect of Holden’s unfolding experience, drawing on his relationship with his aging parents, his early life in suburban Victoria, moving around the country, witnessing a murder, trying to come to terms with the institutionalization of his schizophrenic brother. Even when its subject matter is grim, or its tone critical, Holden’s is a warm voice, lending the film an emotional accessibility uncommon in experimental film.
Recently, a number of experimental filmmakers have created feature-length works from a number of short, independent segments—Mike Hoolboom’s recent Imitations of Life (2003) and Gustav Deutsch’s Film Ist series (ongoing) come to mind—but Holden’s cycle is unique in character and tone, and feels wholly unified by his generous, forthright poetic voice. With its emphasis on the social landscape, Trains of Winnipeg may relate more specifically to that strong Canadian tradition of films which plumb the mysterious character of particular places, among them Jack Chambers’ Hart of London (1970), Joyce Wieland’s Reason Over Passion (1968-69), Rick Hancox’s Moose Jaw (There’s a Future in Our Past) (1992) and David Rimmer’s Local Knowledge (1992).
Many of the sections work within a single visual motif, much as a poet will employ a restrictive structure or rhyme scheme. In the opening piece, “Love in the White City,” for example, the poem’s mordant litany on love’s poor chances in Winnipeg is echoed by the downcast gaze of the camera. The screen is divided into four quadrants, each tracking the shadow of filmmaker and camera as they traverse the streets and sidewalks of the “White City.” In “The Jew and the Irishman,” a huge moon floats at centre screen, superimposed on floor plans for suburban homes, while Holden recalls his father’s courageous rebuke to a party guest’s crass ethnic joke. The film’s darkest passage is “18,000 Dead in Gordon Head,” which has already been seen at many international festivals as a separate short film. Here, Holden talks about witnessing the arbitrary murder of a teenage girl by a suburban sniper, and his subsequent inability to really feel anything about this death. Perhaps, he suggests, the steady diet of simulated violence and death provided by the mass media have normalized murder, muting his—and our—capacity to respond to the real thing.
Winnipeg is the site of one of the world’s biggest train yards, acres and acres of track occupying enormous expanses towards the city’s northern and eastern edges, and creating a distinct division in the city’s social landscape. It was these train yards that suggested the project’s title. In the final reel of the film, after engaging us with his verbal eloquence, Holden confidently dispenses with words altogether, creating a lengthy, rhythmic montage of trains in motion in the yards and on the prairies. Trains of Winnipeg is a fine and unusual film, which not only deserves to be seen by an audience wider than that provided by our alternative film venues—many films deserve more viewers than they get—but has a real potential to be embraced by members of that broader audience. Trains of Winnipeg is distributed by the Winnipeg Film Group (winnipegfilmgroup.com). Extensive information and audio and video clips from the project’s various incarnations are available online at trainsofwinnipeg.com.