The tragic hilarity of hate mail

Ryan McKenna’s ‘Cranks’ returns to Cinematheque

Image provided by press kit

If you missed the Manitoba debut of Cranks in October, you luckily have a second chance to see the film at Cinematheque. The film is best pitched by adapting the opening lines from Canadian television show Letterkenny — there is a town of over 750,000 people in southern Manitoba called Winnipeg. These are their problems.

Peter Warren’s radio show Action Line ran on CJOB from 1971 to 1998. Warren kept the hate mail he received from his call-in talk show in a folder titled “cranks.”

This is where Ryan McKenna’s film comes into play.

Winnipeg-born filmmaker McKenna took Warren’s “cranky” hate letters and imagined what the lives of these angry people were like. Shot in black-and-white, Cranks is an elegant testament to the intricate complications of life and why people could be angry enough with their own lives to write into Warren’s show.

McKenna’s movie is visually pleasing.

In a Wes Anderson-esque aesthetic, McKenna’s shots are all straight-on. This leaves the viewer unaware of the entire story, just as Warren didn’t entirely know what lives these “cranks” led — leaving the characters’ whole stories up to the imagination of the audience.

The movie is slow, but this lends itself to a representation of reality. Just as life isn’t a series of montages, the audience experiences each mundane moment in the film just as we experience them in real life.

More importantly, McKenna brilliantly captures the audio — particularly radio — of our lives. Warren’s show drones on throughout the film as the mundane lives of the characters happen. Everything from a woman soaking her feet, to a man at work, to a dog alone in a running car with Warren’s show, slightly muffled, blasting through the car windows exhibits the soundtrack of people’s daily lives.

It gives a sense of contemplation to how radio — complete with its intimate conversations on air — penetrates and exists in our lives as a steady background reel.

In fact, there is little dialogue between characters throughout the entire film.

The audio mainly consists of snippets of Warren’s radio show.

Though some of the angry letters appear on screen — particularly when the film is connecting a character to a written letter — these are moments that can lead to annoyance. Depending on the font of the written or typed letters and how light the background shot behind the script is, the letters vary in legibility — blending into the background and fleeing off screen before being read.

However, Cranks’ strongest attribute is how it deals in bathos — the hilarity of a situation amidst a tragedy in the plot.

While the imagined stories of the letter writers lean more toward the tragic, there is an excess of welcomed humour, either from the angry letters themselves or from Warren’s delivery as he angrily disagrees with a guest, dryly answering the next call with “Action line.”

The treat — if you can call it that — of the movie is how much we as a culture have not changed 22 years on from Warren’s show.

The hate mail Warren received tells him to “go see a horse doctor that will knock some horse sense into [his] empty skull.”

It also rails against socialism as a system that “makes people lazy” and asks “what is this world coming to?”

McKenna’s film makes the case that Twitter didn’t invent trolls, they simply shifted platforms.



Cranks is playing at Cinematheque from Jan. 15 to 22.