Fish Arms & Flying Squirrels: The Films of Mike Maryniuk

“Fish Arms & Flying Squirrels: The Films of Mike Maryniuk” Fish Arms & Flying Squirrels: Mike Maryniuk Solo Screening Screening Essay, Toronto Animated Image Society (Toronto: 2015).

Fish Arms & Flying Squirrels: The Films of Mike Maryniuk
Presented by Toronto Animated Image Society at PIX Film Gallery on  February 28, 2015.

A magician with found footage and scratch animation and an uproarious storyteller, how can you possibly describe Mike Maryniuk’s films and do them justice? First, throw your expectations out the door because most of them are filtered thru some kind of weird FUN-O-METER. A secret lens that he attaches to the camera which ensures each film is imbued with 100 % mirth and irreverence. Reflecting hours of detailed work, all of his films are inspired by a myriad of sources: a love of Norman McLaren scratch animation, Jim Henson puppetry, and Looney tunes cartoons. They are handmade and stitched together fusing elements of collage art, low-fi cablevision and pixilation. No film expresses his skills better than Cattle Call, his masterpiece made with fellow collaborator Matthew Rankin. This eye popping stop-motion documentary about cattle auctioneer Tim Dowler wowed critics and played at over 30 festivals worldwide including Sundance, TIFF, SXSW and the Ottawa International Animation Festival. (Adapted from a text by Dave Barber’s “Mike Maryniuk: Prairie Landfill Surrealist” (201) in INCITE! Journal of Experimental Media.

Blotto 649  (2013, 3 min)
Evacuate Manitoba  (2012, 4 min)
The Yodeling Farmer (2011, 6 min)
Mahaha the Tickler  (2007, 3 min) on 16mm
Fish Arms (2007, 3 min) on 8mm!
Melatonin  (2010, 3 min) on 8mm!
Stay Positive (2014, 1 min)
Cattle Call (w/ Matthew Rankin, 2008, 3 min)
Bomber Blitz (2008, 1 min)
Toot your own horn [The lyrics music video] (2013, 4 min)
Spawn of Pickerel Ron (2003, 6min) on 16mm!

Fish Arms & Flying Squirrels

Mike Maryniuk is a cine-folk film artist from Winnipeg, Manitoba who creates fast-paced animated films with bizarre and often quite humorous narratives, employing a wide spectrum of experimental techniques. With an artistic methodology inspired by Norman McLaren, Maryniuk develops and expands upon a diverse collection of filmic innovations, embraces knowledge sharing and collaboration, promotes low budget and hand-made film approaches, and believes in entertaining an audience. In addition, despite the diversity of approaches used, Maryniuk’s work always maintains a strong aesthetic unity, with each frame embodying his tireless work ethic and reflecting hours upon hours of hard labour. 

Maryniuk’s influence on the last few generations of Winnipeg filmmakers cannot be overstated. As long time Production Coordinator at the Winnipeg Film Group, Maryniuk assisted many aspiring filmmakers, providing technical assistance, guidance, advice, support, and often his own time and labour. In addition, Maryniuk often taught DIY 16mm workshops with other filmmakers, in particular the hand-processing techniques he learned from Sol Nagler (who in turn learned them from Phil Hoffman.) Maryniuk’s philosophy of making experimental films accessible to a general audience is part of the ethos of Winnipeg filmmakers and often distinguishes them from other contemporary experimental film movements. For instance, as a past member of the now defunct L’Atelier National du Manitoba (with Matthew Rankin and Walter Forsberg), Maryniuk collaborated on the epic collage film Death by Popcorn: The Tragedy of the Winnipeg Jets (2006)a film that blends the aesthetics of public access television with regional kitsch to deal with the collective despair of Winnipeg’s losing its NHL team. Death by Popcorn was extremely successful in Winnipeg both critically and at the box office, playing to sold-out audiences every time it screened in the city.  

Maryniuk’s 2007 film Mahaha the Tickler is a fast-paced 16mm film that blends silent-era live action, claymation and scratch animation. The music is from Fantomas’ Suspended Animation, Carl Stalling-esque Looney Tunes-style orchestration that uses coordinated musical cues, punctuated with both instrumental and recorded sound effects. In the film, cops who spend their time harassing the innocent with nuggies (an annoying bullying technique used to demonstrate social dominance) and playing corrupt games of Hungry Hungry Hippos are soon haunted by Mahaha the Tickler. In Inuit legend, Mahaha is maniacal demon who haunts the arctic by tickling his victims to death, but who can easily be fooled. In many of the stories involving Mahaha, he is tricked into drinking from a water hole into which he is pushed and then swept away by the currents. Nevertheless, these prankster cops will ultimately suffer for their ignorance of this Inuit legend.

Three of the films in this program, namely, Fish Arms (2007), Melatonin (2010) and Blotto 649 (2013), were made for WNDX’s One Take Super 8,1 a yearly event where Winnipeg filmmakers engage in the spirit of friendly competition by making Super 8 films that premiere to an audience without the filmmakers seeing their work beforehand. Undoubtedly, Fish Arms was the best of fest at the 2007 OTS8, spawning a tradition where audience members pretend to have fins while applauding at OTS8 events. Following the legacy of Barnes & Barnes, creators of the 1980 cult masterpiece Fish Heads, the film has an infectiously strange soundtrack featuring a digital Tony Danza and documents an arm wrestling competition. Melatonin is one of the more personal films that Maryniuk has made. Although the film can be read as a series of vignettes displaying a vast array of complex techniques that demonstrate the magic of cinema, the film is also in part an ode to the odyssey of his late brother. Finally, Blotto 649 is an experiment that uses 6490 paintings produced on a Spin ‘N Swirl Splatter Set, visually organized in terms of similarity in order to simulate the illusion of circular movement through animation. The technique is highly innovative and incredibly risky given that it was made as an OTS8 film. 

Maryniuk’s most impressive works to date are arguably Cattle Call (2008, co-directed with Matthew Rankin) and The Yodelling Farmer (2011, co-directed with John Scoles). Cattle Call and The Yodelling Farmer are both films that document overlooked and endangered elements of rural culture. Although both of the films can be seen as ethnographic in nature, the films also embrace experimental methodologies and techniques by creating fictitious worlds in order to better understand their subjects. In The Yodelling Farmer, Maryniuk introduces us to eleven-time World Championship yodeller Stew Clayton, a farmer living near Manitou, Manitoba who has written over 200 songs. Through his songs, Clayton explains his experiences as a rural farmer, describes turkey (gobbler) calling and demonstrates his award-winning yodel. To further demonstrate the technological alienation of rural Manitoba, Maryniuk creates a wooden folk art universe, complete with wooden computer to send the viewer on a trip down the information super railroad. 

Cattle Call is an explosive film whose structure mimics the way in which auctioneers hypnotize bidders by creating an atmosphere of urgency. As described by another filmmaker obsessed with auctioneers, Werner Herzog, in the auctioneer we find “the last poetry possible, the poetry of capitalism.”2 To Herzog, auctioneering is “almost like a ritual incantation, frightening but quite beautiful at the same time.”3 Heavily inspired by Norman McLaren’s Oscar-winning anti-war film Neighbours (1952), Maryniuk’s film shows auctioneers, represented by a cow, driving the bidders into a frenzy causing them to fight. In the end, the cow gets its revenge. Although the politics of Cattle Call are not overly complex, like Neighbours, the film is extremely successful due to the filmmakers’ sophisticated understanding of filmic language, which draws upon a multitude of techniques including pixilation, stop-motion animation, paper animation, light animation, and direct animation, namely, letraset and hole-punching directly on 16mm film. 

Maryniuk has devoted himself to artistic study of the history, culture and ephemera of Winnipeg and Manitoba. With Bomber Blitz (2008) and Evacuate Manitoba (2012) he further demonstrates his ability to transform found footage gleaned from years of thrift store hunting into bizarre narratives. In Bomber Blitz, Winnipeg Blue Bomber footage is mixed with images of war, using homonyms in order to deconstruct common football phrases. In Evacuate Manitoba, Maryniuk demonstrates that even during end times, Manitobans will always find time to do the chicken dance.

Written for the retrospective “Fish Arms & Flying Squirrels” at Toronto Animated Image Society, February 28, 2015.

  1. The One Take Super 8 is an event organized by Alex Rogalski and takes place all over Canada. Since it began in 2000, over 750 Super 8 films have been produced. []
  2. DVD audio commentary for Anchor Bay release of Stroszek (1977). Werner Herzog often featured auctioneers in his films; his documentary How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1976) is about the World Livestock Auctioneer Championship held in New Holland, Pennsylvania. []
  3. Paul Cronin, ed. Herzog on Herzog (New York: Faber and Faber, 2002), 140-141. []