Prairie Landfill Surrealist
By Dave Barber
Fish Arms / Mike Maryniuk
Every so often someone emerges from the Winnipeg film community whose work is so remarkably distinctive and crazed that it is clear we are in the presence of a true artist. A magician with found footage and scratch animation and an uproarious storyteller, Mike Maryniuk is the most recent addition in a city blessed with amazing filmmakers. Remarkably prolific, suitably deranged, with filmmaking energy to burn, Maryniuk has created fourteen handmade short films between 2002 and 2008 with titles as fevered as his imagination: Slaughterbed (2004), Night of the Living Liver (2007), Fish Arms (2007), and so on.
His early mentor, former Winnipegger, now Nova Scotia College of Art and Design film professor Sol Nagler, declares that:
Mike Maryniuk is Canada’s most exceptional Cine-folk artist. You can feel the rough caress of a seasoned rural gleaner in every film project he creates. He takes these gleaning instincts to the extreme, pushing the genre of found footage filmmaking to create hyper-spastic synesthetic chocolate bars that inspire periodic fits of toe tapping in even the most seasoned cinematheque curmudgeon.
Reflecting hours of detailed work, these films are inspired from a myriad of sources: a love of Norman McLaren scratch animation, silent film acting with its hambone theatrical gestures, Jim Henson puppetry, Looney Tunes cartoons. They are handmade and stitched together with hand-processing, hole-punching, and pixilation, fusing elements of collage art, lo-fi cablevision, cartoons and found footage, all filtered through Maryniuk’s incredible sense of humor. Many of them are powered by the high-energy mutant punk bluegrass music of the Winnipeg band the D.Rangers.
Working with a cast of acting regulars including Andy Freund, Rob Vilar, Tom Keenan, and Alek Rzeszowski, many of them friends from his tree planting days, Maryniuk has been hand-fashioning these films for years, injecting each with his trademark dry Icelandic humour. They reflect his proud Manitoba roots growing up in Winnipeg and the small town of Ile–des-Chênes by incorporating rural settings such as Lockport or Arborg, Manitoba. But unlike the typical view of small town Manitoba, he subverts the landscape with killer fish and an acid-crazed picture design.
According to collaborator Alek Rzeszowski, Maryniuk “artfully explores the humour, beauty and pathos of Manitoba's rural archetype. He is the epitome of the Winnipeg filmmaker. No more capable of divorcing himself from it than a pickerel can divorce himself from the lake in which it dwells.” Although Maryniuk made some independent work prior to his involvement with 16mm, he now cites two key events that sparked his growth as a filmmaker: finding a cache of old classic comedy movie posters from the 1920s hidden beneath the rafters of a former movie theatre in North End Winnipeg, and discovering the joys of hand-processing 16mm film in a class called “The $225.00 Film Experiment,” one of Nagler’s famous hand-processing workshops at the Winnipeg Film Group, back in 2002. (Famous because so many talented Winnipeg filmmakers have emerged from these teachings.)
Maryniuk embarked on a frenzy of filmmaking beginning with three shorts: Chicken Scratch (2002), which jams up the frame with playful scratch animation and chicken-related gaggery; The Spawn of Pickerel Ron (2004), in which a man-beast-pickerel creature plots revenge at an outdoor buffet; and Bush Wact (2004), the most political of the three. Bush Wact is a high-octane slag against George W. Bush created by scratch-animating found footage of Bush and setting it to the tune of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” reworked by the D.Rangers as “Iraq Around the Clock.”
Carrot Teen / Mike Maryniuk
Maryniuk’s next two films just get stranger. In Slaughterbed (2004) a killer waterbed (complete with flashing “headlight eyes”) terrorizes the town of Arborg fueled by the cremated ashes of a convicted killer (played by fellow prankster Rzeszowski). In Carrot Teen (2005) an evil dad pokes out his son’s eyes with… carrots. Both films further established Maryniuk’s reputation as one hilariously crazed dude.
How else to explain a work like Fish Arms (2007), where a judge (sporting fish arms himself) oversees two rural stragglers arm wrestling with slimy fish heads extending out of their shirtsleeves while Maryniuk croons on the soundtrack:
In Night of the Living Liver (2007) a man (actor Rob Vilar) slumped in an armchair is so wasted and stuffed full of Cheesies and ketchup-flavored potato chips force-fed by his neighbor (played by Mike Bell) that his liver explodes, crawls out of his body and strangles the neighbor. Then the liver looks up at the camera with sentimental eyes and crawls back inside the man’s body.
Night of the Living Liver / Mike Maryniuk
In 2006 Maryniuk collaborated with the Atelier national du Manitoba (a collective founded by Matt Rankin and Walter Forsberg) on the fictionalized video collage Death By Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets – a clever found footage assemblage about the 1996 demise of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets. The film’s release led to a legal battle with the network CTV over the issue of ownership of footage originally rescued from a dumpster.
Although Maryniuk’s films are goofy as hell, they are also tightly disciplined with detailed sound and visual design. A renaissance man, Maryniuk can wrangle up whatever is necessary to get his vision on screen whether through animation, hand-processing, makeup, design, special effects, or cinematography. Perhaps being the son of a composite artist for the Winnipeg Police Department led to this strong visual sense. His music videos for the D.Rangers or bands like American Flamewhip and The Absent Sound are a marvel of the no-budget approach, using inventive camera work to great effect.
A rebel in the best sense of the word, Maryniuk’s relentless experimentation and creativity puts him at the forefront of the new generation of Winnipeg independent filmmakers. Musician and collaborator Jaxon Haldane (from the D.Rangers) compares Mike to “a bebop musician in the way he creates. He has a firm grasp of the references and the theory, but he wants to fuck with it. Like the old bop guys, he’s always improvising heavily.”
Maryniuk is also a sharp curator with a keen eye for emerging talent and a respect for the past origins of the Winnipeg Film Group, having assembled films for the Fabulous Festival of Fringe Films in 2007 (“Winnipeg: Sounds Like A Cheap Contest for a Pirate”), the Winnipeg Film Group’s Open Vault Series, and Gimme Some Truth Festival amongst other projects.
Collaborator and filmmaker Matt Rankin says what makes Maryniuk unique is “the alloy he strikes between high art and broad humor.” Rankin elaborates:
He’ll take all sorts of goofball comic gags – puns, cartoon logic, low-brow trash culture props and design, acid-trip slapstick – and integrate them into an experimental formalism... I like to use John Kneller's expression "fun formalism" to describe Mike's work, because it's very abstract, but also very entertaining. His big strength is pulling off that combo! It's not an easy thing to do! More than any Winnipeg filmmaker since John Paizs and Guy Maddin, I feel Mike successfully integrates the challenges of bargain-basement filmmaking into the artistic design of his films. He also has a totally brilliant visual mind–there will be no end to his visual and technical inventiveness.
This inventiveness culminated in the recent film Cattle Call (2008)–an eye-popping masterpiece created in collaboration with Rankin. This frenzied visual interpretation of a cattle auction plays like a sped-up Looney Tunes cartoon with stop motion animation and superb set design. It wowed critics and traveled to over thirty festivals worldwide including Gimli, Sundance, SXSW in Austin, Texas (where it won Best Experimental Short), Ann Arbor, Ottawa International Animation, and the Toronto International Film Festival. It was a subject tailor-made for Maryniuk’s skills and revealed a developing sense of artistic maturity with close attention paid to timing, stop motion, animation, visual design, experimentation, and set design.
Cattle Call / Mike Maryniuk and Matt Rankin
Tattoo Step (2008) was another artistic advance created by pasting temporary tattoos onto 35mm film frames. Every time the film plays a machine gun-like burst of sound emerges which Mike reveals is “the “pointalist portions of the Temp Tattoos tickling the ivories of the optical reader.” The result is a rapid fire stream of psychedelic tattoos that crackles off the screen.
In Maryniuk’s work, we find a rare non-pretentious, honest expression of the avant-garde, a self-taught roughness that cuts everything from the gut, instant sugar-high textures that hint rather than overtly articulate a political aesthetic. This approach is one reason for his enormous success in film festivals across the globe. His astonishing prolificacy is legendary, the murky floodwaters of his mind always overflowing with new ideas for original handmade cine-sculptures.
When not fashioning these “sugar-high textures,” Maryniuk’s day job is Production Coordinator at the Winnipeg Film Group. There he assists many an aspiring filmmaker while at times teaching the hand-processing techniques he learned from Nagler, who himself learned them from the Canadian independent filmmaker Phil Hoffman. A true leader to other independent filmmakers, Maryniuk is generous with his time and knowledge. The Winnipeg experimental artist Heidi Phillips states:
He knows which thrift stores carry old film gear although he will beat you to it if there is still room in his apartment. He brings a genuine interest to other filmmakers’ projects which makes him a pleasure to work with and can make anything look good on film even when there are no professional lights to be found.
And he’s certainly not afraid to get his hands dirty. Nagler adds that,
He has also filled his lungs with poisonous pigeon poop [and] moldy mattress guck and frozen his testicles in a recently thawed Icelandic river for my various film projects. His high-blood-pressured arteries push him to frantic cinematic extremes. No rotting Beta-tape or mildewed celluloid jumble is safe from this prairie gleaner, whose genteel chuckle masks a biting critique of what is left on what remains.
High praise indeed, but it is clear Maryniuk is just getting started. His future projects include a 3D thing about “a Magnetic Horseshoe Match gone wrong when Hypnotists and Cell Phones and Microwaves intervene,” a film about Manitoba’s international award-winning yodeling champ Stew Clayton, now 80 years old, two short documentaries about delivery milkmen and old ladies who knit for charity, and another 35mm animated film with eight panels of eye tattoos with hole punching.
Perhaps veteran actor Rob Vilar sums it up best: “Maryniuk is a ‘prairie landfill surrealist,’ in that there are levels and subversion to his work born out of the discarded (and forgotten) dream nooks of the prairies. Some spectacle, some horror, some humor, but always filtered through an engaging and tense-flowing Manitoba lens.” Although Winnipeg has produced more than its share of notable filmmakers in the last three decades, Maryniuk promises to soon establish himself among the top level of this prairie center’s original talents.
Special thanks to Matt Rankin, Rob Vilar, Jaxon Haldane, Alex Rzeszowski, Heidi Phillips, Walter Forsberg, and Sol Nagler (e-mail interviews) and to Mike Maryniuk for insight and illumination. Thanks to Bev Phillips and Howard Curle for editing assistance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Barber is the programmer for the Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque. He has a passionate belief in screening and programming the work of emerging and senior independent filmmakers both Winnipeg and Canadian. For his efforts he has won several awards including the first ever INDIVIDUAL AWARD from the Manitoba Foundation for the Arts in 2004 and the Winnipeg Arts Council's "MAKING A DIFFERENCE AWARD" in 2007.