I don’t watch many music videos. I’m not sure why–it’s not like my time is so precious I can’t sit down and focus on one thing for 4 or 5 minutes–but, for whatever reasons, I don’t. I watched one recently, though, because it was made by Royal Canoe, a band I love, and because it was championed by fellow citizens of Winnipeg, this band’s home.
I don’t live in Winnipeg, but like anyone who lives within a few hours of a larger city the spectre of the nearby metropolis always looms. I spent a couple of summers there in my student days, working earnestly at underpaying jobs, and now I go there to visit good friends, to eat and drink and see shows–to do “city things,” in other words. I experience Manitoba’s capital in a fashion different from someone who actually lives there, I admit, but I feel Winnipeg and I have a kind of relationship. There’s a certain familiarity, you might say. And so this video, which begins with the title card “Winnipeg Landmarks and Tourist Attractions,” intrigued me. I thought I might recognize some of those things, so I clicked “play” and settled in.
I don’t mean to spoil it for you, but it was not what I expected, in ways that kind of knocked me out and that I’ll try to explain. I noticed its gritty, 1960s-academic-filmstrip quality right away and thought “ah, I get it. An ironic, hipster, pseudo-oldtimey take on the band’s hometown. A wink and a nod.” Well, it is those things, I guess, but it’s also a wink and a nod to that notion. It’s a little film that both loves and hates its subject, and loves that it hates it, and that wants the viewer to look at the inextricable nature of those two emotions. How they’re two sides of the same coin. Watching it created for me a strange mix of bathos and a kind of unearned nostalgia that–whatever that means–left me pretty much openly weeping. Admittedly, though, I cry pretty easily, especially when it comes to art.
The video starts off with predictable landmarks to anyone who knows the city even a little: the Legislative Building with its Golden Boy hood ornament, City Hall with its own roof-mounted clock. Then the subtle shift begins: an abandoned shopping cart in a back lane is the backdrop for the heading “Places to Shop.” Then there are shots of boarded up stores and buildings, dingy parking garages, people smoking in dim bus shelters. Potholes in streets. Snow, of course. “Take Pride, Winnipeg,” proclaims an over-flowing garbage can. All rendered in a grainy, pockmarked visual style that sputters and jerks as it advances. It’s UGLY, and the irony of a “promotional video” that portrays decidedly less than promotional images is obvious.
It’s the layers beyond that irony that interest me, though. Because there’s a certain beauty in ugliness, of course. When a 5-year-old proudly presents you with the tin can he carefully covered in spray-painted macaroni with his grubby little hands, you love it because the gesture and the effort is beautiful, even though the item itself is not. Years later you might find that rusty tin can and wonder why the hell you still have it. The macaroni has petrified, the spray paint is flaking off, it’s dusty inside. It’s even uglier than it was when it was first crafted. You want to throw it out, but you hate that you’ve even thought of doing that, so that guilt is part of why you put it back on the shelf.
Guilt is only part of it, though. Somewhere in there you feel a touch of disgust that you’re allowing yourself to even consider liking this grotesque creation. Where is your sense of aesthetics if you keep this ugly thing? Don’t you have any taste? That tin can is packed full of so much emotional baggage that it’s a wonder you can even pick it up, let alone consider relocating it to the recycle bin. But it belongs to you now, just like those ambivalent parts of your city. Winnipeg Cold Storage. The Royal Albert. The Nutty Club Building. You hate those things sometimes if you live in Winnipeg, I bet. You make disparaging remarks about how archaic they are, or how they’ve become eyesores over the years, but if someone from Away had the temerity to insult them, you’d leap to their defence. There’s a right way to hate those things, and you have to live there to “get it.”
I guess I’m intrigued by the fact that it’s possible to hold hatred and affection for something in in overlapping yet somehow equal portions in the mind, without one seeming to corrupt the other. That’s the full spectrum of love, I guess, and it’s naive to deny that there is a dark side to it. This song, “Exodus of the Year,” is, as the title suggests, about people leaving Winnipeg–about how it’s one of those places people want to get out of–and how this band has chosen to stay, instead. I’m sure sometimes, in the dead of winter, that they regret that decision, but there they are, regardless. I can relate, from my own satellite-city vantage point. Sometimes it sucks around here, but we own the suck. There’s a line in the tune’s triumphantly-scored chorus about the “advantage of withholding honesty,” but there’s no withholding going on here. This is as honest as it gets.
I’m reminded of an exchange I overheard once between a couple of friends on a camping trip. Early in the morning, as we all slumped around the ashy detritus of the previous night’s fire not yet willing to acknowledge the dawn, my friend Kyle snapped a photo of his bed-headed girlfriend. Lisa’s reaction was predictably sarcastic: “Ugh, I’m sure I look beautiful.” “It’s better than beautiful,” was Kyle’s highly enlightened response. “It’s real.”
So if you want to see the real Winnipeg, here’s the ultimate tourist video, folks. But don’t let that keep you away.
Royal Canoe: Exodus of the Year. Travelogue by M. Rankin.