Electroshock Therapy: Matthew Rankin on The Tesla World Light

By Jason Anderson

International devotees of Canuck pop-cultural arcana may pride themselves on knowing every single line that Drake ever uttered on Degrassi: The Next Generation, but there’s another treasure that Canadians thus far have been able to keep for themselves. These are the Heritage Minutes, a series of government-made, bilingual 60-second shorts for television and movie screens that bring history to life, provided that you like your history with earnest actors in period garb doing their utmost to wrest all due patriotism and pathos from exposition-laden dialogue and stirring scenes of national triumphs and cataclysms. (The Maple Leafs’ first Stanley Cup win and the Halifax Explosion of 1917 are the among the events that merited Minutes.)

A dependable source of stodgy Canadiana since 1991, the Heritage Minutes are so deeply embedded in the country’s collective unconscious, it’s no wonder that the national cinema would eventually yield a figure like Matthew Rankin. Over the course of his film and video work since 2006, he’s been steadfast in his quest to memorialize moments in Canadian history that are equally rich but possibly too esoteric to fit the dictates of our cultural commissioners.

That said, some of the moments Rankin chooses to explore and explode are not so obscure, at least not in his hometown of Winnipeg, where Rankin was based until his move to Montréal seven years ago. (He’d previously studied history and film at McGill and Laval University.) An exhilarating hybrid of live action and animation that—like his freshly minted Cannes Semaine de la Critique stunner The Tesla World Light—is also an astonishing demonstration of Rankin’s handmade film and in-camera effects wizardry, Mynarski Death Plummet (2014) fetes a doomed WWII bomber crew member who already made the cut as a Heritage Minute subject, but whose story of heroism here gets a far wilder treatment. Still the only film to feature the image of Montréal singer Grimes emerging from a pool of water with a headpiece full of sparklers, Tabula Rasa (2011) is a phantasmagorical recreation of the Red River flood disaster of 1950. With his partners in the film collective Atelier National de Manitoba, Rankin delved deep into the traumas suffered by his beloved Winnipeg over the decades since its peak of wealth and prestige in the early 1900s, a litany of woe that includes the loss of the Jets hockey franchise (in the hilarious 2006 found-footage epic Death by Popcorn) and the city’s often fraught relationship with famous son Burton Cummings (in 2010’s Negativipeg, whose centrepiece is an obsessively reiterated Thin Blue Line-like recreation of a late-night incident in 1985 that left the Guess Who singer in a pool of beer and broken glass in a 7-Eleven).

Winnipeg’s rich cinematic history has been one of Rankin’s obsessions, too—Barber Gull Rub (2008) is an unabashedly Guy Maddin-esque vignette about the creation of a scene in Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), one in a series of features that exposed the city’s penchant for weirdness far and wide. (John Paizs’ Crime Wave [1985] and the early documentaries of John Paskievich are further touchstones for Rankin and fellow Winnipeggers like deco dawson and Ryan McKenna, as well as his former Atelier partners Mike Maryniuk and Walter Forsberg.) Comparisons between Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000) and Rankin’s The Tesla World Light may also be inevitable due to both films’ reappropriations of silent-era innovations and their equally exhilarating effects. Yet Rankin’s new short may make for an even more intense viewing experience than the six most cherished consecutive minutes in his forebear’s career.

It’s no small irony that Rankin’s first commission by the National Film Board of Canada is one of his few works to not concern a Canadian historical subject. Instead, the subject is an underheralded episode in the life of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American engineer and physicist whose legend looms ever larger thanks to his innovations in the field of electricity and various screen portrayals that exploit his mad-scientist mystique. (David Bowie supplied a Tesla for Christopher Nolan in The Prestige [2006] and Nicholas Hault will soon do the same opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Thomas Edison.) Though he’d cast himself as an emblem of humankind’s glorious electrified future for much of his career, Tesla was at his lowest ebb in 1905 when The Tesla World Light takes place. In the midst of making one last appeal to past benefactor J.P. Morgan to back his scheme for a worldwide wireless communication system, Tesla was also coping with his deep and painful longing for the paramour that perched on the window sill of his crummy New York apartment. As Tesla later wrote, “I loved that pigeon as a man loved a woman, and that pigeon loved me.”

The depth of Tesla’s passion is just one factor supplying the charge of a film that Rankin accurately describes as “an electro shock.” A high-voltage blast of cine-delirium, The Tesla World Light confirms Rankin’s status as one of Canada’s most industrious and inventive filmmakers. And as the new film begins its festival rounds—it competes at Annecy in June—he continues to channel his energies into his first feature film, tentatively titled The Twentieth Century. Shot in March and April in a Montréal studio and set for completion in the summer of 2018, the new project concerns the none-more-Canadian subject than the early life of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, at once the country’s most formative political figure and—due to King’s literally death-defying devotion to both his mother and his dogs—its looniest. In Rankin, King may find the biographer he’s always deserved.

Cinema Scope: How did you come to make The Tesla World Light with the NFB? It’s an unusual project for them, especially coming from someone outside their fold.

Matthew Rankin: What provoked it into action was Julie Roy, the producer. She’s the executive producer of the French animation studio for the NFB, and she has this small budget for more out-there experimental people to come in and make something. She did Quiet Zone (2015) with Karl Lemieux in the same program. So Julie invited me to make something and told me she could find a little budget for it, and I came up with Tesla. There was a thematic and spiritual reason I was thinking about him as a subject, but really the film was more of a formal thing. I had done some experiments with light painting with my friend Mike Maryniuk in Cattle Call (2008). We did a little bit of the long exposure stuff doing these streaks of light. So I was thinking about what you could do with that, and thought about Tesla and all his ideas about electricity and energy. I’m totally fascinated with failed early 20th-century utopias, and the story of Tesla is so crushing. Plus it’s about electricity, so I thought light painting was the right formalism to bring it all together. Another filmmaker who was an influence in that respect was the Japanese animator Ito Takashi. He made this film called Thunder (1982), which is utterly mesmerizing. He has some light painting going on in that one. It’s a very formalist film, completely non-narrative abstraction but utterly fascinating.

Scope: The film also draws so much from the early abstract films of Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger. Why did that visual vocabulary fit for the subject?

Rankin: I like to think of Tesla as an avant-gardist. What he was thinking about was abstract and beautiful in a similar way to the early avant-garde artists. Tesla also had this condition that I’d describe as synesthesia. I’m not qualified to diagnose him, but Tesla wrote in his autobiography that whenever he would experience moments of great emotion—fear, love, shock—he would see these bright shapes of light. They would appear in front of his eyes as if the emotion was physically manifest. That’s sort of how synesthesia works, so that’s my hypothesis. I wanted to work with that idea, so I drew upon early avant-garde artistic vocabulary to kind of visualize that.

Scope: Did you also want to ensure that the experience of watching the film was as intense as possible?

Rankin: I was really inspired by these great photographs of Tesla where there are lightning bolts between his generators and receptors shooting all around him while he’s calmly reading a book. There’s an absurdity to that. In fact it’s a fiction—it’s a double exposure so it only looks like he’s surrounded by electricity. But Tesla had this kind of flair and flamboyance about his image and he used that to his advantage. I wanted to use that, too. You see images like that and they’re utterly, utterly shocking—you can’t believe what you’re seeing. So the ambition was to create something that felt like an electroshock.

Scope: The film has such force and energy that it seems ready to break into pieces. Was there ever a temptation to abandon the narrative elements completely and do it as an exercise in pure abstraction?

Rankin: I think it’s great if you can ground it or give it a narrative frame. It’s a wonderful trick of filmmakers like Ben Rivers or Denis Côté. They’ll ground the viewers in a narrative foundation so the viewer will be like, “OK, I get this, I know what’s going on.” Then they’ll take a U-turn and go somewhere else completely different and the viewer is still fine with that. I considered not having the voiceover for a while, but then I realized it was necessary. The whole bird freakout sequence is based on something Tesla actually wrote. He said he was in love with this bird and he described his romance in great detail. Then he described the bird’s death. The bird came to his window one night and he said, “A light more powerful, more blinding than any light I had ever created in my laboratory, burst out of the bird’s eye sockets.” So it’s all factually accurate!

Scope: What was your reaction reading that anecdote as you were researching? You must’ve been like, “Oh my God, here’s my movie!”

Rankin: It was like that! Of course, Tesla said this late in his life. He was living with many birds at the time and he was impoverished and unstable. We could speculate that it was Tesla’s instability speaking, but I choose to believe in it earnestly. It’s an image that has a darkness and an absurdity to it, but it’s also sad and beautiful. I went to New York and met with a pigeon fancier just to get into that world. We met at his pigeon coop on his roof in the East Village and he talked to me at great length of this feeling of acceptance he found with pigeons and the relationship he had with them. He felt that he was treated with tenderness that he did not find with his human brethren. The pigeon fancier is an archetype of eccentricity, but it’s also very beautiful. Again, it’s one of those things that walk a fine line between what is beautiful and what is tragic and absurd.

Scope: It’s also interesting that Tesla is your first relatively famous subject, yet there’s perhaps something intrinsically Canadian or even Winnipeg-like about him as this emblem of grand failure.

Rankin: Failure is a Winnipeg specialty, that’s true. I would certainly aspire to fail on a scale Tesla did. There’s a point at which failure becomes beautiful and grandiose. That’s one thing Winnipeggers are quite good at, and I say that unironically. Winnipeggers—especially Winnipeg artists—are great at amplifying the denigration of their city into something that’s truly majestic and magnificent. I felt a real fraternity with filmmakers like John Paskievich and Guy and deco, these people who have focused on Winnipeg and Winnipeg subjects. There are a lot of Quebeckers I feel very close to for the same reasons. But that’s true—this is the rare occasion where I’ve stepped out and done something on a modestly more well-known subject!

Scope: At the same, it’s this very odd episode in Tesla’s life. Why do you think you often delve into these strange little pockets of history?

Rankin: People who do art engage imaginatively with the world around them, and that can be the world of the present or the world of the future. In my case, I guess it’s in the past. It’s where I do most of my thinking, I guess. I was being groomed to be an academic historian, but at a certain point I realized I wasn’t a scientist. When you’re a historian, you have to be scientific and make this empirical analysis of the past. I wasn’t interested in that. I was really interested in engaging with it imaginatively and looking at the stuff in the past that you can’t measure. That to me is the realm of art. But it’s true that I do return to a lot of these elements or moments that are absurd. I’m on a big kick of failed utopias at the moment. I went to the Esperanto World Congress in Reykjavik a few summers ago, and since then I’ve been completely obsessed with Esperanto. I’m attracted to these moments in time or phenomena in time that walk the fine line between the earnest and the ironic, between utopia and slapstick.

There was an example at the Congress. When I was there, I went to a concert by an Esperanto rock star named Kim J. Henriksen. He’s a huge celebrity in the Esperanto world. He’ll walk into a room and immediately the Esperanto people will cower in intimidation because he’s so famous and, in return, he’s kind of arrogant with them. I met this kid from Macau, and the only language we shared was Esperanto, and we went to his concert together. Henriksen’s big hit in the Esperanto world is a song called “Sola,” which is “alone” in Esperanto. It’s all about how when you’re learning Esperanto you’re really lonesome because you have no one to talk to, but then you go to an Esperanto World Congress and you make friends and the world is saved—it’s like this international brotherhood of love and understanding. It’s this really schmaltzy ballad and the Esperanto people hold hands and form this semi-circle around him, holding light-emitting objects in the air. My friend from Macau is gesturing at me, like, “Come hold my hand, and we’ll sing this song together!” I was in the corner smoldering with an irony migraine—I just couldn’t take it! At the same time, I really treasured how these people believe in it. I have great idealistic longing but very little idealistic conviction. The phenomena I’m attracted to kind of move around that tension.

Scope: However consistent those themes have been, the forms of the films have shifted quite drastically, from the found-footage and documentary-based modes of the Atelier works to the very set-design-intensive pair of Tabula Rasa and Hydro-Lévesque (2008) to the handmade live-action/animation hybrids of Mynarski Death Plummet and The Tesla World Light. You’ve continually posed new challenges for yourself.

Rankin: Someone asked me what my spirit animal was a little while ago, and I said I was a salmon. I’m a rutting salmon and I’m going to hurl myself up those rapids, prepared to die in the ultimate creative expression! That’s kind of a joke, but I do feel like I’m relaunching the Hindenburg when I make something. It’s beyond my grasp, and I might fail, but I like it when the stakes are really high. Sometimes the zeppelin just crashes to earth, but sometimes I feel like if you take those risks and you try to make images that are hard, there’s a chance you can make something new. The worst thing for art is to become complacent. I’d rather be depressed than complacent. Depression you can transform into creativity but complacency you really can’t.

Scope: Why is there so much hand-processing in these latest shorts?

Rankin: I made a couple of films in Winnipeg where I worked a little bit on that. There’s a filmmaker I really love who now lives in Halifax named Solomon Nagler. He made three of my favourite Winnipeg films, Fugue Nefesh (2007), The Sex of Self-Hatred (2004), and perhaps/We (2003). He was really enthusiastic and excited about the materiality of film, and he taught some workshops that Mike Maryniuk and I took. We did some hand-processing in Cattle Call and Hydro-Lévesque and again it was one of those situations where you try it and it’s interesting and exciting and it leads you to other stuff. With Mynarski and Tesla, what I learned doing the earlier films became much, much more advanced. That also emerged out of my total rejection of digital. I shot Tabula Rasa on digital and I feel like it’s one of the biggest mistakes I ever made. That film would’ve been much closer to what I wanted it to be if I shot it on 8mm or 16mm. I feel that something about the grandiose, Spielbergian detail of digital is dissonant with the kind of images I like to make. So yes, Mynarski and Tesla are very, very fiercely film-based. Interestingly, we live in such a digital autocracy now that people think whatever’s on film is just digital, anyway. When I showed Mynarski at Sundance, the first question was, “What plug-in did you use to make all that detritus?” We just sort of assume that everything is computer-generated. But I really like the practice of working on film. I find it to be very introspective and contemplative.

Scope: It’s certainly a very mindful exercise until you start thinking about what all the chemicals may be doing to you, like the aniline dyes that Stan Brakhage blamed for his cancer.

Rankin: That’s true. I think I used four litres of bleach on the film for Mynarski. I killed a plant in the process of making that movie. I had this plant next to my desk and I was splashing bleach around all day and at a certain point, I looked over and the plant was dying in the creepiest way you can imagine. It had this crystalline, dead, Chernobyl-type stoop to it—it was really terrifying. Then, in Tesla, I think I burned 15,000 sparklers. In the scene with the bird, it’s all sparklers in long exposures. Those are actually really toxic, too. You do one and it’s not a big deal, but if you do thousands of them over the course of several weeks, it can’t be good for you. They probably have asbestos in them or something.

janderson@cinema-scope.com Anderson Jason