Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 09 January 2008
Source Documentary Channel 35mm Print
Categories The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival
If I’ve absorbed anything from watching Guy Maddin’s movies, it’s that factual accuracy is overrated. Maddin’s latest concoction is an amalgamation of dubious fact and outright fiction, in which the Canadian filmmaker continues to probe our vexing attachment to our memories with his signature cinematic style. Curiously commissioned by the Documentary Channel to essentially create a flattering portrait of Winnipeg (as opposed to the compulsion to depict the isolated city as an arctic dungeon), Maddin also uses My Winnipeg as a pretext to further document and distort the details of his own family history. Impeccably infused with the director’s gorgeously grainy black & white film stock, distressingly domineering maternal figures, humorously disturbing sexual dysfunction, and the purposely affected dialogue courtesy of Maddin’s long-time collaborator George Toles, My Winnipeg serves as both a farewell letter to the city that has held Maddin’s psyche captive for nearly 50 years as well as a cinematic crescendo to the increasingly autobiographical elements of his films. The end result is what Maddin describes as a “docu-fantasia,” which might resist accuracy, but still ensures a deeply personal perspective of his hometown.
Maddin’s movies always resist simple synopses and My Winnipeg might be one of Maddin’s more erratic creations. The film alternates between recounting local history and restoring childhood memory, but Maddin’s primary aim is to instil an enchanted ambiance upon his hometown by building a myriad of mirthful myths connected to the city. Nevertheless, as peculiar as his fabrications may be, Maddin’s tenor remains honest to his personal position towards this town, somehow simultaneously mixing warm affection with dismal frustration while candidly revealing his personal vision of “Wonderful Winnipeg.”
My Winnipeg begins aboard a train travelling through the darkness of night before stumbling upon Darcy Fehr, one on Maddin’s customary cinematic surrogates, once again playing “Guy Maddin.” Accompanying us on this journey through Winnipeg is Maddin’s familiar voice, which provides a lyrical narration to the proceedings. Maddin chants the city’s name and admits that he has spent his entire life within the “snowy, sleepwalking” city. Maddin urgently informs us that he’s desperate to escape from the city’s cold clutch, bluntly reiterating that he “must leave” before pondering exactly how to abscond. As the train chugs along the tracks that encircle the city, we are notified that the nocturnal chariot is the only means to shake the city’s embrace, but it requires the passengers to stay awake until outside the city limits or else it confines its listless cargo in an endless loop around the Manitoban metropolis. Determined to depart this dreary industrial town, Guy vainly attempts to resist succumbing to the slumber, finally drifting off into Maddin’s distinctively drowsy, dreamy delirium.
Further blurring fact and fallacy, Maddin bashfully boasts that Winnipeg possess ten times the number of sleepwalkers than any other city in the world, showing us dozens of citizens ambling across snow-covered streets while asleep, occasionally reposing within Winnipeg’s many snowdrifts, thereby dooming themselves into eternal slumber. The phenomenon prompts officials to ratify civic laws to protect snoozing pedestrians, permitting them to retain the house-keys for the homes of their former sweethearts since they are enslaved by the memory of their long lost lovers. As it allows his characters to relinquish conscious control over their physical responses and instead surrender to their subconscious desires, Maddin has always found sleepwalking to be an alluring concept. Within My Winnipeg, these involuntary reactions provide another appropriately exaggerated illustration of the habitual movement that burdens the city’s residents during the chilly winter months, when their minds are distracted by strategies for survival.
Maddin’s cinematic conception of Winnipeg is a habitat that induces hibernation and subdues its citizens due to the perpetual shroud of winter weather. Even if the filmmakers stretch the truth to absurd lengths by outlandishly declaring Winnipeg to be the world’s coldest metropolis, it’s a perversely accurate reflection of the city’s reality. While Winnipeg is far too small and barren to be deemed suffocating or constricting, Maddin’s description of the city as eternally frozen effectively evokes the inertia that constantly cripples its denizens. Maddin creates a superb allegory for the city’s icy clasp, recounting a bizarre 1926 tragedy when the local racetrack was somehow set ablaze. Panicked by the perilous circumstances, a number of horses escape the hellish inferno by jumping into the safety provided by a nearby river, only to become encased within wintry waters. Hence, Maddin leaves us with a haunting image of horses’ heads gasping for freedom, but forever frozen in Winnipeg waters. Within Maddin’s psyche, the frigid weather numbs the mind, rendering Winnipeggers unable to bust through the municipal boundaries. Subsequently, these urban dwellers are destined to forever dream of the potential life outside Winnipeg’s subliminal grip.
Another flimsy fact that the narration submits is that Winnipeg is the geographic center of the North America, providing Maddin with another magnificent metaphor that claims the confluence of rivers at the center of the city – christened as “The Forks” – to be the heart of the continent. The concept allows Maddin to introduce his fascination with the human body into his examination of the city. The narration audaciously alleges that a secret series of supernatural rivers lies hidden beneath the Forks, capable of imposing a menacing magnetic clasp upon the masses in order to always haul any runaways back home whenever they attempt to bolt from Winnipeg’s body. Hence, Maddin envisions the constant compulsion to return to Winnipeg as akin to blood being reluctantly rerouted towards the heart.
Maddin’s examination of Winnipeg’s anatomy exposes scandalous stories and sordid political machinations buried beneath the city’s bland exterior. Fascinated by “the skins beneath the skin” – a phrase describing the shadowy supernatural city that lurks beneath Winnipeg frosty surface – Maddin inspects the hidden geography concealed by the city’s streets, exhuming an entire series of back alleys unidentified by any map, then swiftly labelling them as “black arteries,” which Maddin believes to have enshrouded an underworld of illicit activity. However, My Winnipeg also celebrates the mystical moments in Winnipeg’s history, including a gorgeous séance that takes place at the Provincial Legislature, comprised of beautiful ballet and striking visuals, which provide an ideal blend of scandal and the supernatural for Maddin’s purposes.
Exploring anatomy usually prompts Maddin to explore sexual anxiety, and the frenzied rumination within My Winnipeg persistently intertwines admissions of sexual depravity within both significant civic events and entrancing personal memories. Thus, Maddin details the lack of prophylactic use during January, discloses the shameful secret of how so many downtown avenues are named after an assortment of brothel-dwelling beauties, and lavishes extensive attention upon the outrageous Golden Boy pageants, presided over by the city’s most respectable politicians and tinged with homosexual tension. Afterwards, Guy shamelessly incorporates his pubescent desires and sexual insecurities, including justifications of his refusal to swim at the city’s multi-story pool and an inclusion of a hallucinatory segment involving depraved catholic school girls, humorously entitled Academy of the Ultra-Vixens.
However, Maddin’s fixation with human anatomy produces far more unsettling associations between his city and his psyche. As the Forks are often perceived as the birthplace of Winnipeg and because Guy was also sired within the city, Maddin’s subconscious cannot avert the obvious connection. Soon enough, Maddin’s mind becomes consumed by the thought of the Forks being analogous to his mother’s lap, as the film frantically overlaps and entangles etchings of the triangular union of waterways formed by the Forks with images of a feminine pubic triangle, while Maddin’s voice repetitively intones “Forks, lap, Forks, lap…” The images of his mother’s lap are flaunted with such feverish frequency that it quickly becomes apparent that Winnipeg isn’t merely a hometown for Maddin, but a motherland, with a horrifically hilarious emphasis placed upon a manipulative matriarch who acts as Maddin’s personal magnetic pole.
My Winnipeg quickly deviates from wacky mythopoeia and enthusiastically descends into a weird childhood memory, as Maddin reminisces about his upbringing and recounts his ecstatic immersion into the intoxicating gynocracy of his mother’s beauty salon. Beleaguered by the dizzying feminine atmosphere, Maddin admits his euphoria at being stranded amidst this endless exhibition of vanity and desperation, even if it all threatens to “queer” him. By lingering upon these early childhood experiences, Maddin not only builds a foundation for his coarse relationship with his mother, but essentially fashions a fitting parallel between the elderly faces bustling about the parlour and the archaic architecture within Winnipeg, both clinging to the possibility of restoration.
Predictably, the most enthralling episode within the Maddin’s “documentary” occurs during the film’s most synthetic sequence. Much like many of his fellow Winnipeggers, Maddin becomes obsessed with reclaiming his recollections, suddenly deciding to replicate reality by combining his family history with his baroque cinematic style, thus cobbling together an absurdly absorbing series of scenes. Determined to “film his way out” of Winnipeg and demonstrate the heinous influence of his family, Maddin revisits his muddled memories by having actors re-enact a number of his childhood traumas, thereby ousting his personal demons by treating crucial family events as if they were merely movie fodder.
Accomplishing this month-long cinematic exorcism requires Maddin to move his mother back into their old home and surround her with a cast of child actors hired to substitute for Guy and his siblings. Stranded in this 1963 setting, Maddin directs his cast and crew to recreate a variety of scenarios, both melodramatic and mundane. One particularly riotous memory that Maddin relishes resurrecting is of his tyrannical mother’s interrogation his mischievous sister regarding the suspicious circumstance of an automobile accident. The comical confrontation trembles with sexual repression and adolescent anxiety as Maddin’s mother chastizes her daughter’s wanton ways. Part of the amusement of the scene is watching Detour femme fatale Ann Savage, who Maddin has recruited to portray his overprotective mother, deliver the Toles’s spicy dialogue. Guy refrains from disclosing Savage’s identity, instead steadfastly maintaining the myth that she is actually his mother, thus further integrating elements of authenticity and fabrication into his history and discretely confessing that even he cannot substantiate the accuracy of his memories. Instead, Maddin embellishes his personal history and never divulges his entertaining exaggerations while reproducing the past. Thus, the film sways between poignant mentions of his brother’s death, allowing us to witness a tender embrace between Maddin’s mother and the son she lost long ago, and hilarious parodies of formulaic television shows, as the phony family gathers in the living room to watch a program called Ledgeman ,which actually features Maddin’s mom. The show is hysterical specifically because of the suicidal premise that ludicrously recurs within every episode, which may be a materialization of the invariable depression that the city provokes amongst its citizens.
If Maddin’s feminine traits and bemusing relationship to his mother are associated to Aunt Lil’s Beauty Parlour, then Maddin’s masculinity and his cordial connection with his father are defined by the now demolished Winnipeg Arena. Guy claims to have been born within the dressing rooms of the glorified hockey rink and – like so many other Canadian boys – he apparently spent countless hours watching his dad coach the hockey teams that rushed across the arena’s ice. Maddin’s narration becomes noticeably aggravated over the notion of losing nearly 50 years of history when the arena was imploded in 2004. Already reeling from the sudden emasculating loss of the city’s NHL hockey team (an event Maddin describes as “rape”), the heartless destruction of the Winnipeg athletic institution deeply wounds Maddin, since he discovered “everything he ever knew about being male” inside the edifice. Maddin conveys just how jarring the experience of losing the arena was for many Winnipeggers by suddenly allowing colour footage of the dilapidated arena to stridently invade his black & white canvas. The grief over losing the setting of so many cherished childhood memories to the grotesque greed of corporate interests motivates Maddin to envision an imaginary hockey team baptized as the Black Tuesdays, comprised of members of a hallowed hometown team from the 1920s, who engage in an eternal contest on the icy surface inside the Winnipeg Arena. Despite their age, these old-timers furiously race around the frozen rink in a valiant attempt to recapture their youth, with Maddin excitedly paying tribute to these ghosts by adding their hockey highlights to his wistful cinematic capriccio.
While Maddin mourns the callous demolition of the Winnipeg Arena, he becomes absolutely irate at the structure built to replace his sacred masculine cathedral. After witnessing the Winnipeg Jets depart to the deserts of Arizona, the city abandoned the Winnipeg Arena in favour of a more stylish facility erected in downtown and Maddin is livid at the logic of the decision. As illustrated by the gaudy color images he continues to stitch into his film, Maddin views the modern monstrosity, named the MTS Centre, to be a hollow marketing opportunity precisely because the structure lacks an association to any of his personal memories. Yet, Maddin’s swift and stubborn dismissal of the new arena also displays the filmmaker to be immobilized by his memories, unwilling to adapt to a modern world that he refuses to relate towards.
Aggravated by the city’s decision to build the MTS Centre, Maddin includes footage of a feeble attempt by a few hundred artists and old-folks to prevent wrecking balls from levelling Eaton’s, the city’s darling but dated department store that is being demolished to make way the new arena. The protest inspires Maddin to chronicle Winnipeg’s venerable history of social dissent. Using his dizzyingly ornate style and an exquisite animated sequence by comrade Andy Smetanka, Maddin whisks us through various rallies, covering everything from a community attempting to save an enduring tree to an entire work-force engaged in the General Strike of 1919. While reminiscing over these proletariat protests, Maddin purposely and appropriately pays homage to various Soviet filmmakers, consciously echoing the style of Sergei Eisenstein to suggest the magnitude of these events. Yet Maddin somehow manages to combine sexuality and socialism within his many fantasies, providing us with admissions of homoerotic attractions to KGB-sponsored Russian hockey players, before finally providing an amusing tangent that outlines the adventures of Citizen Girl, a socialist heroine who supervises Winnipeg’s sadness.
It’s almost indescribable how accurately Maddin’s manic movie-making methods capture the prevalent mood of Winnipeg and collective mentality of her citizens, even during the film’s most absurd moments. Considering his claim that Winnipeg is “stupefied by nostalgia,” Maddin’s anachronistic application of forgotten film techniques is the perfect visual compliment to a city he asserts is frozen in 1913, when an unanticipated recession crushed Winnipeg’s economic boom. Of course, Maddin’s artistic approach is also perfectly suitable style for a filmmaker forever fraught by personal memory. Since his films exude an authentic quality that elevates them above mere imitation, it’s always difficult to adequately describe Maddin’s rousing brand of movie-making. Nevertheless, critics usually mention the filmmakers that inspire Maddin while attempting to define his eccentric style, thus debating whether he is a perverse reincarnation of Vigo or an indirect descendant of von Sternberg. In My Winnipeg, Maddin deliberately evokes comparison to Soviet polemicist, Dziga Vertov, while he hectically scampers around the streets of a city that desperately clings to history and resists change. However, since his typically brilliant, kinetic, feverish visuals would counteract the sensation of stasis that he wishes to convey, Maddin also relies heavily upon the hypnotic rhythm established by the repeated phrases he includes within his narration. It’s this constant repetition of words that suggests the soporific routine that confines Winnipeg’s populace within a metropolis that remains isolated from advancement, oblivious to the passing of time, and content to reminisce over past splendour.
As a film enthusiast marooned in Winnipeg, I’ve watched my more creative friends escape to other Canadian cities to pursue their careers. Once, after having returned from a semester away in Los Angeles, I admitted to a friend who was fortunate enough to emancipate himself from Winnipeg’s grasp that I felt I had returned to a self-imposed prison sentence. Thus, it’s simultaneously encouraging and distressing to hear that, after finishing teaching a semester of film studies this past fall, Guy Maddin plans to move to Toronto to be closer to his daughter. Given the disconnection with the city that provides him inspiration, part of me wonders whether Maddin’s films will feel the same without Winnipeg enclosing him within its borders, especially since his collaboration with Toles will certainly become difficult.
However, as My Winnipeg demonstrates, the mystical power that Winnipeg holds over its populace isn’t entirely dependant upon physical proximity. Even while he exhumes Winnipeg’s sensational and sleazy history, with his narration alternating between proud praise, gentle jest, and pointed reprimand, it’s obvious that Winnipeg will never allow Maddin’s subconscious to truly leave the city limits. Clearly, Maddin understands and takes comfort in the notion that Winnipeg will always act as a nurturing womb and a sombre sanctuary no matter where he chooses to live. Though he occasionally sounds critical during My Winnipeg, Maddin’s mission throughout most of his movies has been to craft an extraordinarily enduring mythology for his much maligned metropolis, capable of replacing reality and restoring the romantic allure of Winnipeg by altering the mutual memory and collective subconscious of her citizens. Thus, there is comfort in knowing that Maddin will never completely shake Winnipeg from his mind, since he remains a filmmaker infatuated with his own memories. If only every middling, misunderstood metropolis had a delightfully deranged champion like Guy Maddin, gifted enough to create enthralling, arousing, and downright entertaining celebrations of their city, I doubt anyone would ever consider leaving their lethargic hometowns.
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