CTV vs L’Atelier national du Manitoba

Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets is a surreal and ridiculous alternative history of the Winnipeg Jets made using degraded scraps of de-accessioned Winnipeg television found in BFI bins and rubbish heaps. Combining depraved lo-fi video depictions of on-ice Jet humiliation with found footage of Quebec politics, Billy Van, Wayne Gretzky and porn, this experimental collage creates a provocative and satiric portrait of Winnipeg identity. Banned in its native Manitoba, Death by Popcorn has nonetheless become a cult hit throughout the art-house hockey circuit.

The Atelier National du Manitoba contends that the ironic epic of the Winnipeg Jets seems to mirror the mysterious trajectory of Winnipeg history itself. Both tell a story about people whose triumph was short-lived, whose defeat was monumental, whose drama was played out upon a cruel bed of ice, and who, at the end of their lives, moved to far away Phoenix Arizona.

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From the Globe and Mail July 5, 2006

Who’s killing Death By Popcorn?
Artists worry over copyright legislation as a new film is pulled from Harbourfront program

One day in March, 2005, the phone rang in the studio of a loose collective of Winnipeg historians-turned-video-artists known as L’Atelier national du Manitoba. An employee at CKY, the Winnipeg CTV affiliate, was calling to report a cornucopia of potential artistic source material: Because CKY was moving to a new location, 1980s footage of the now-vanished Winnipeg Jets hockey team (some tapes no longer easily viewed because of changed technology) was destined for the dumpster. “Better you guys should take it and do something with it, otherwise it’s just going to waste,” the employee told them.

The artists hotfooted it over to CKY, officially signed in to the building and carried off the treasures. Then they fashioned a 60-minute “video-collage-opera,” Death By Popcorn, that proposed that the Jets’ corporate owners concocted a scheme to destroy the team’s Manitoba fan base in order to move the Jets to a more lucrative U.S. location. (The film incorporated a real-life prank. In 1990, someone threw popcorn on the ice and stalled a crucial game, annoying fans.)

Death By Popcorn sold out every night it played at the Winnipeg Cinematheque last winter, which made it easily the most popular movie in the Cinematheque’s 25-year history. BlackFlash photo-arts magazine covered the project, and L’Atelier members were interviewed by CBC and CTV.

There they made a fatal mistake. “We boasted we’d made the movie from CKY’s garbage,” says Matthew Rankin, which reminded everyone that the tapes had once been station property.

Although Death By Popcorn had been scheduled for Toronto’s Harbourfront this summer, it has been withdrawn because of CTV’s objections. “The issue is, they didn’t receive written permission to use our material,” explains Ken Peron, operations manager of CTV Winnipeg.

Welcome, once more, to the muddle where creativity and copyright collide. From Peron’s point of view, he is defending his company’s material from unauthorized use. For their part, the artists say they used material that they had been assured was doomed to the dumpster, recycling it to create a perspective on their community.

Peron asked the group to return the material. “They were work reels, they weren’t fully usable, they were destroyed.”

The artists say they were also asked to destroy their film (they have so far refused).

“It’s appropriate,” Rankin sighs. “Our whole movie was about how corporate interests removed the Jets from Winnipeg. Now, corporate imperatives may remove our movie.”

Most artists would rather self-censor than risk a lawsuit or see their work destroyed. That’s why they are campaigning strenuously against Canada’s proposed copyright legislation, expected to be tabled this fall. Artists fear the new legislation could further restrict the creation and dissemination of contemporary art, especially conceptual art, film, video, sound art and collage.

On June 6, Appropriation Art, a coalition of arts professionals, issued an open letter warning against tightening copyright laws. It bore the signatures of more than 500 artists (including eight Governor-General’s award winners). Two weeks later, the Canadian Museums Association and the Canadian Art Museum Directors’ Organization also signed on. “Artists have had to destroy works for fear of infringing on copyright,” says Sarah Joyce, one of Appropriation Art’s founders. “We have a climate fraught with uncertainty . . . we think this is a crisis.”

Some experts say the concern is premature, because no one knows what’s in the new legislation. “It’s a big jump to see what the issues are,” says Glen Bloom, a copyright expert with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt in Ottawa. “Many works of art are already infringements under existing law.”

That’s exactly what Toronto composer John Oswald discovered in 1989, when the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) destroyed hundreds of copies of his first “plunderphonics” project because he hadn’t got permission from sources for his pop-music revisions.

In 2002, Winnipeg artists Diana Thorneycroft and Michael Boss pulled several pieces from Foul Play, their exhibition of images of murdered cartoon characters, after lawyers told them that, unlike U.S. law, Canadian copyright law does not recognize a parody exception. “I ended up exhibiting generic stuffed toys like Raggedy Andy, a cow and a snowman. I also tried to disguise Bert from Sesame Street, but my husband said that I just made him look like Frank Zappa,” Thorneycroft says.

Despite her fears, she later sent six of the images that she had withdrawn in Winnipeg to a U.S. group show. Illegal Art opened in 2003 at CBGB’s Gallery 313 in New York and then toured to Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. The Disney company looked into Thorneycroft’s image of a Mickey Mouse doll hanging by the neck, but no lawsuit materialized. “I see what I did as an act of civil disobedience,” Thorneycroft says.

Canadian artists find existing laws restrictive, and most assume that new legislation will only increase constraints — especially if, as expected, it leads to Canada’s ratification of 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization treaties protecting works in the digital environment. Canada took part in those WIPO talks, but unlike the U.S., never ratified. This annoys the entertainment industry, whose executives describe Canada as “a piracy haven.”

So look for tougher penalties for those who break technical protection measures such as passwords and other encryption devices. (If I clip a paper copy of an article in the public domain and mail it to you, that’s no problem; if I tell you how to get into a protected database to read it for yourself, under the anticipated law, we’ll both be guilty of infringement, even if you don’t download it, let alone quote it or use it to create collage art.)

For some time, websites have monitored the entertainment industry’s federal lobbying activities. Gordon Duggan, Joyce’s partner at Appropriation Art, comments, “We’re at a point now where they [federal politicians] are drafting the legislation and they’re consulting with the industries but not the artists.”

If those arguing for greater openness were to be consulted, they say they would seek a parody exception. And they would argue against penalties for circumventing encryption. “If the U.S. and Canadian industry lobbyists have their way, all content will be digitized, and you can’t get at it unless they want you to,” Ottawa copyright lawyer Howard Knopf says.

L’Atelier national’s Rankin explains why that situation would be so objectionable from an artist’s point of view: “Britney Spears is everywhere in my world. I didn’t invite her. But if I try to reinterpret her presence, which is what artists do with their worlds, then I’ve broken the law.”

– Val Ross

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CTV executives met with L’Atelier national du Manitoba and settled the dispute over large sandwiches at the Wagonwheel.

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A review of the film from the CBC December 6, 2005

The Plight of the ‘Peg
An art-house documentary chronicles the demise of the Winnipeg Jets

Delivering a hard bodycheck to received wisdom, the art collective l’Atelier-National du Manitoba proclaims that history is written by losers — in this case, dazed and defeated Winnipeggers, who lost their professional hockey team to a city that doesn’t even have snow.

Using found footage, Atelier members Walter Forsberg, Matthew Rankin and Mike Maryniuk crafted Death by Popcorn, an art-house documentary about the long, unhappy demise of the Winnipeg Jets, who debuted in 1972 and were sold off in 1996 to become the Phoenix Coyotes. There are no happy endings, no big heroes, no last-minute cavalry charges in this tale. Just defeat piled on defeat, and that’s the way the Atelier likes it.

“I feel there are these very American models of nationalism, which are very triumphalist in nature, and they aren’t suited to Canada, definitely not to Winnipeg,” says Rankin.

The Atelier’s attempt to hammer out a new, loser-friendly Manitoba mythology includes a mockumentary interview with the fan who claims to have thrown the fateful box of popcorn on the ice in game six of the 1990 Stanley Cup playoffs. The resulting break in play supposedly killed the Jets’ momentum and sealed their loss to the despised Edmonton Oilers. The film makes much of the longstanding Edmonton-Winnipeg rivalry. Back in the days of the World Hockey Association (WHA), Jets owner Barry Shenkarow reportedly had the chance to play a game of backgammon to win the young Wayne Gretzky. Shenkarow declined, thus adding to Winnipeg’s crushing legacy of what ifs.

According to the 28-year-old Maryniuk, this is typical Winnipeg thinking. “There’s this idea, ‘Oh, it would all have been different if we’d just gotten Gretzky. If Shenkarow had just played backgammon….’”

Death by Popcorn is a cinematic collage made up of scavenged footage that expresses the Atelier’s perverse fascination with such neglected forms as homegrown commercials, public-service announcements, station identification jingles, sports phone-in shows and the forced high jinks of local TV personalities. Using distortion and hand-processing techniques usually associated with avant-garde filmmaking, the Atelier transforms its trashy pop-culture material into something new, and often bizarrely beautiful.

The marriage of experimental film and professional sports may seem unlikely, but Forsberg, Rankin and Maryniuk use the travails of the beleaguered NHL to advance the Atelier’s ongoing investigation into Winnipeg’s hidden histories and chronic tendency to “civic self-loathing.” In a recent press release, the Atelier suggests that the “ironic epic of the Jets seems to mirror the mysterious trajectory of Winnipeg history itself. Both tell a story about people whose triumph was short-lived, whose defeat was monumental, whose drama was played out upon a cruel bed of ice, and who, at the end of their lives, moved to faraway Phoenix, Arizona.”

In this saga, which the Atelier renders both comically over-inflated and anticlimactic, recent NHL figureheads (Alan Eagleson, John Ferguson, Gary Bettman) become archetypes. The filmmakers sample a sports-dinner speech by Dale Hawerchuk so that it becomes a rapping melody of “ums” and “uhs,” thereby turning the Jets Hall of Famer into a mute hero who expresses himself best with slapshots. (This Hawerchuk hagiography also leads to a fascinating sidebar: an interview with Les Dales Hawerchuk, a band from Roberval in the Lac-Saint-Jean area, whose single Je suis Dale Hawerchuk is currently getting play in Quebec.)

The other major player is Gretzky. As a supremely accomplished athlete playing for the dynastic Edmonton Oilers in resource-rich Alberta, #99 was — in conventional terms — the prototypical winner. As such, this loser-oriented narrative casts him as a villain, using tricky editing, threatening music and selective stills to make his wholesome cereal-box visage look positively satanic. The fact that Gretzky ended up coaching the Coyotes has the Atelier boys practically fainting from sheer poetic irony.

The Atelier does love its irony. Founding members Forsberg, 24, and Rankin, 27, met at McGill University, where the former was studying film and the latter was taking history. They ended up in Rankin’s home province of Manitoba. They formed the Atelier in the frigid, irony-inducing February of 2005, “to compose ciné-poems about our civic prison of misery.” In collaboration with Winnipeg artists and filmmakers like Maryniuk and media archivist Andreas Goldfuss, the Atelier has since honed its sense of romantic melancholy with old videotapes picked up in bargain basement bins or snagged from friends. Almost all of the raw material for Death by Popcorn came from the bins outside the old CKY television studios after the Atelier received a tip-off last March about a major round of corporate “de-accessioning.” Forsberg and Rankin went dumpster-diving and ended up with literally kilometres of footage in their basement.

“We have about 4,000 tapes,” confirms Forsberg. “We have old two-inch reels we can’t even watch and we kept them anyway.”

As Winnipeg’s self-appointed alternative historians, Forsberg and Rankin first created Garbage Hill, which played to sell-out crowds at Winnipeg’s Cinematheque in August. A lo-tech manipulation of ’80s amateur advertisements, Crimestoppers re-enactments and local talk shows, the film alternated between comic moments too SCTV-ish to be believed and passages of lyrical mourning for a lost city.

The Atelier members are nostalgic in a way that only the young can be, and there is something adorably, self-consciously recherché about their whole artistic stance. They describe merely living in Winnipeg as an “avant-garde act,” and they like writing manifestos, which has been something of a lost art since the early modernists. They also have weird, Winnipeg-centric obsessions, like Doug Henning, the Winnipeg-born magician who veered off into yogic flying and a new destiny with the Natural Law party; Monty Hall, a former North Ender who became the host of Let’s Make a Deal; and Burton Cummings, the Guess Who rocker whose grinning face (along with the words “Stand Tall”) is the Atelier’s unofficial logo. (Burton makes a surprise guest appearance in Death By Popcorn, suiting up to play a charity hockey game in what are clearly awkward TV outtakes.)

So what happens when aesthetes turn their attention to athletics? Forsberg says that after screening dozens and dozens of hours of footage, he came to love watching Dale Hawerchuk score goals. Rankin’s fandom, meanwhile, seems more conceptual. “The Jets became immediately more interesting to me the second they were gone,” he admits. “I like dead hockey teams: the Nordiques, the Winnipeg Maroons.”

For him, this ghost story is “hilarious and tragic at the same time. I have a hard time distinguishing between the two.”

There’s a genuinely tragic moment in Death By Popcorn, when a TV reporter wonders: now that the city no longer has a major-league hockey franchise, why would anyone stay in Winnipeg? The approach seems killingly negative, even by local standards.

The Atelier, at least, is hanging on to its hometown. The filmmakers are even celebrating it, with a cinematic approach that falls somewhere between earnestness and irony, high comedy and high art, love and loss.

– Alison Gillmor

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L’Atelier national du Manitoba’s Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets

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~ by cineflyer on March 31, 2011.

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