Having left Canada’s most famous tourist attraction behind to make films about the nature of intelligence ( Intelligence, 1998) and media manipulation (Truth Merchants, 1999), he seems to have finalised the break with kitsch culture with his newest film, McLuhan’s Wake (2002). Less than a simple biography, this is a meditation on McLuhan’s ideas, and to a certain extent on the details of his life (especially his later years), rendered with a formal strategy that tries to echo his thoughts on complexity, interconnectedness and what we might now call virtuality.
The film opens with images of water, and uses the maelstrom as a metaphor for McLuhan’s intellectual life. McLuhan himself was fascinated by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’, seeing the legendary Scandinavian storm as a metaphor for information’s impact on our consciousness. “Marshall McLuhan did learn how to survive the vortex, and he wound up just like Poe’s sailor,” says the voiceover (performed both by McLuhan’s son Eric and Laurie Anderson). An excerpt from the story, “My rescuers were old mates of mine, and yet they would not admit that my experiences had been real,” follows on the soundtrack, and this lays out McMahon’s thesis. He is quite critical of the place that McLuhan came to hold in North American culture, arguing that his ideas were ignored by intellectuals too petty and limited by narrow ideas about what scholars should focus on, and misunderstood by mass media personalities too oblivious to know that they were being rigorously critiqued, not flattered, by the attention being paid to their form. One of the more melancholy moments of the film comes towards the end, when a blow-dried talk show host cheerfully chuckles about the book that they’ve just discussed, “I still don’t understand it.”
An animated sequence of a sailor in the maelstrom gives the film a kind of backbone, which it definitely needs given the diversity of material here. But McMahon has done a good job of integrating talking-head interviews, archival footage, photographs (including some very nice stuff from McLuhan’s days at the University of Toronto) and (sometimes highly manipulated) newly shot material. McLuhan’s Wake, then, is a formally ambitious piece of portraiture, rendered with respect and deep knowledge of the subject.