“Dead. Inert. Impotent. I might as well be garbage flapping in the wind.”
Guy Maddin, the filmic persona, returns after a nine-year absence to complain about financial woes and stake political claims about cinematic war in Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, a 31-minute short co-directed with Evan and Galen Johnson. While much has changed since 2009’s masterful My Winnipeg, the Guy Maddin character still finds himself stuck at an almost self-imposed creative dead-end. Low on cash, he pitches to the producers of Canadian war epic Hyena Road a behind-the-scenes documentary but partway through the production process changes tack, turning in an avant-garde essay film on the nature of war in cinema. That sounds a little dour but the short is anything but: a hilarious genre pastiche that embodies a—frankly inspiring—digital DIY aesthetic.
The actual story of Tim Horton‘s production is less rogue than the short would have you believe. As Maddin disclosed in an interview with Film Comment, Hyena Road producer Niv Fichmann had produced some of Maddin’s shorts, as well as The Saddest Music in the World, so the odd coupling of Maddin and Canadian ‘populist’ actor/director Paul Gross was easy to arrange; Gross’ participation in one of the final sequences of Tim Horton, involving a drone camera, sees the film tip its hand as to his awareness of the film’s intentions.1 Last year, Tim Horton had its world premiere in a foyer at the Toronto International Film Festival, simultaneously an affront to the film’s quality but apt with regards to its very narrow targeted audience—its reference points include Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, the essay film treatises on war by Harun Farocki, ’80s straight-to-video warsploitationers, the gameplay in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and, most importantly, Pere Portabella’s Cuadecuc, vampir. From Portabella’s film, Tim Horton finds its premise—an avant-garde film borne from the behind-the-scenes footage of another feature—as well as the high-contrast black and white images that mark an early section in the short.
Maddin’s collaborations with the cousins Johnson mark an interesting turning point in his career. Evan Johnson first worked for Maddin as a camera operator on My Winnipeg but their major projects together (which also include Galen as production designer or co-director)—The Forbidden Room, Seances, Tim Horton—are indicative of a digital aesthetic that, whilst reminiscent of some of Maddin’s earlier silent-inspired work, is a freewheeling low-budget spectacle. The Forbidden Room is a showreel for Adobe After Effects, a delirious medley of textures and colours that embraces the fragility of celluloid through digital editing. Seances, at least the web version of the project, goes one step further in having a computer-generated sequence of scenes pulled from their digital footage cut to resembles early sound cinema. Tim Horton puts its limitations in the forefront of the work: Guy Maddin complains in voiceover about misjudging the size of a portable green screen, which leads to an amusing layering of images within the one frame and thereafter a quite ingenious use of green and blue screen wrap-around sunglasses. Evan Johnson, who edited the film, moves through his own idiosyncratic versions of familiar photo editing filters: high contrast digital black and white, a fluorescent overlay, heavy oversaturation and a VHS filter used on drone footage.
The segmented approach taken isn’t just for the sake of eclecticism but reflects the film’s many satirical targets. The soldiers we see are nothing but actors in costume, narrative pawns, and the directors take every liberty in placing them into different genres of film to highlight the falsity of the cinema of war—it’s Full Battle Rattle on peyote.2 The fake straight-to-VHS trailer for Hyena Road and a billboard for the VHS release in a different sequence give the very process of filmmaking a machinistic feel; the fact that the largest supporting role in the film belongs to Cineplex Entertainment’s Michael Kennedy says as much.
Whilst Tim Horton protests against big-budget populist cinema it’s also surprisingly affectionate to the notion of a populist, collective culture—tied back into everything is the Maddin character’s reminiscence about ice hockey and, implicitly, the diner franchise named after Tim Horton. The short ends with footage of soldier-actors on a Jordanian tarmac, soundtracked by bizarre 1970s disco track “Scoring”, in which famed ice hockey player Guy Lafleur gives tips about ice hockey play over a generic beat. As it appears in the film, the kitsch is at once commentary and, well, kitsch again. Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton is a highly amusing celebration of ingenuity and re-purposing that, though it bares its fangs on the topic of war cinema, never ceases to be a great piece of entertainment.
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