My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)

It starts with the director, Guy Maddin, guiding his leading actress Ann Savage through her lines (“did he pin you down or did you just lie back and let nature take its course?”  “Was it the boy on the track team or the man with the tire iron?”).  Rather than ease us into it, Maddin begins his film by breaking the fourth wall…or so we think.  For now at least, it’s akin to that screen test scene from Fellini’s “8 1/2”, which revealed that that movie’s filmmaker protagonist was testing actresses for…the very film we were watching at that very moment.  It broke the barrier between film and reality, and now so too does Guy Maddin…or so we think.  Later, we see this opening scene in the so-called “proper” context, as one of a number of scenes from the filmmaker’s childhood that he’s recreating with his mother and actors as part of a “social experiment.”  But even then, there’s no rhyme or reason, no narrative structure to safely nestle us in the guarantee that we’re just watching a quirky little movie.  It’s still one of many scenes in “My Winnipeg” that blurs fantasy and reality, memory and history.  “My Winnipeg” has no story structure beyond the razor-thin “plot” of the narrator trying to escape from this city he’s lived in his entire life (a premise that becomes irrelevant after about a minute and a half).  It’s not grounded in a fictional screenplay, nor is it grounded in reality.  We see fantasies presented as fact, fact presented as fantasy.  It’s the narrator’s (Maddin’s) expression of unreliable facts, his hatred, his conceded acceptance, his fantasies and what-ifs, his desires, his romantically poetic interpretations of bizarre goings-on, and his love not of Winnipeg, but His Winnipeg.

It’s not a documentary, even with the narrator’s “this happened, and then this happened” voiceover, and it’s not pure fantasy, even with the frozen horses and the expressionistic depiction of Winnipeg’s occult past.  Like I said, it’s not pure reality, and it’s not pure fantasy.  It’s just the way Maddin sees things.  Was Winnipeg’s City Hall really built as a lightning rod of the occult in the early 20th century a la the apartment building in “Ghostbusters?”  Did that horse track really burn down, trapping the horses in an eternal panic in that frozen river like the victims of Vesuvius?  Is “Ledge Man” really Winnipeg’s pride and joy soap opera, starring the narrator’s mother in the same premise for 50+ years?  Does Winnipeg really have a higher sleepwalking rate than any other city in the world?  Are streets really named after the city’s beloved whores of old?  Did the Winnipeg Arena’s implosion really only destroy the extra space added when the evil NHL came to town?

Sure, why not?  In his own bizarre way, even taken to the utmost fantastic excess, Maddin presents all these quirky events as fact, so why shouldn’t I take it as fact?  And he sells it because it’s bizarre, but he buys into it, explains to us all the zaniness of this city’s alleged history and his interpretations of it as matter-of-factly as possible.  We see typical home movie footage of the Winnipeg Arena’s implosion, which is undisputed fact, but when you add to that the haunting black-and-white images of the ruined arena, in the midst of its death throes as the wrecking ball of the present bangs, bangs, bangs, intrudes on this place of the past, and the narrator matter-of-factly observes (not implies, observes) that the implosion is really an exorcising of the beautiful arena’s NHL demons, inference becomes cold-hard fact.  It’s Maddin’s world, complete with disjointed memories, unreliable accounts of events far in the past, and his own personal fantasies and demons, so anything we’re presented with, goes.

Or don’t believe it, your call.  But even if you cry bullshit on this guy’s account of what would be far and away the most interesting city on the face of the earth if it were true, just sit back and admire the way Guy Maddin tells a story (well, not a story really, but an entire mentality – a visual poem).  When the narrator’s not giving a play-by-play of one of Winnipeg’s bizarre goings-on, his running, disjointed commentary becomes a T.S. Eliot poem (“the forks, the lap”; “white.  block.  house.”).  The droves of sleepwalkers become droves of fedora-sporting silhouettes, shuffling through the “Unknown City”  (that’s Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” not Maddin..but really, what’s the difference? 😛 ).  Fantasy combines with reality, unreliable memories combines with history, and in terms of Maddin’s technique as filmmaker, techniques of old combine seamlessly with experimental techniques of the new (the narrator even makes no bones about this possibly being the next great film genre – again breaking the fourth wall).  The black and white cinematography is perfect.  For once, a contemporary black and white film actually felt like it’s come from the silent era and the age when black and white was the norm, rather than a fake 21st century novelty.  A recreation of mayor and friends in the early 20th century and their…rituals in city hall, with no sound but elegant music and sights of the bizarre, is taken right out of the silent era, from Buñuel or Murnau.  The images throughout “My Winnipeg” are at once ordinary, fantastic, and awe-inspiring.

Or move past the silent era, in scenes of the narrator’s recreations of childhood milestones, and you get a wickedly satirical look at 40s and 50s noir / melodrama (complete with noir legend Ann Savage playing the mother).  A scene like the mother’s confrontation with her daughter after a car accident (the same scene from the beginning, now revisited) is everything you’d expect from an old-timey movie, complete with the mother’s hammy dialogue/accusations and (purposefully, just to show him who’s boss) lousy acting, despite her supposed decades of experience as the heroine of “Ledge Man.”  Everything you’d expect, and nothing.  Why is the family chihuahua suddenly played by a pug?  What’s with the woman who’s house the narrator’s borrowing for shooting, just sitting there with the makeshift family while he films, “putting a damper on things?”  Because it’s old-meets-new, and it’s all wickedly funny, and bizarre.  The traditional bluescreen technique of showing artificial images outside the windows of the train car as the narrator tries to escape becomes anything but traditional.  Title cards you’d see in a silent film become subliminal, punctuating this treatise on Winnipeg with eccentric commentary (“Dance of the Hairless Boners,” anyone?).  Amidst this contemporary silent film are moments of hairy crotches, naked whores, “the smells of female vanity and desperation”: images that wouldn’t be caught dead in the Hayes era.  Maddin’s weaving together of cinema of old and cinema of new is so seamless, so creative, so interesting, that at the same time the facts and fictions of Winnipeg are brought into a unified whole, so too are the long-dormant film techniques of the early 20th century and new-age experimentation that’s now running wild.

Wikipedia tells me that Winnipeg is the capital and largest city of Manitoba, located in the prairies of Western Canada, and is home to “historic architecture; distinctive neighbourhoods, (like Little Italy and the Exchange District); scenic waterways; a Canadian heritage river; and numerous parks, including Assiniboine Park and Kildonan Park.”  Those are the facts, but they tell me nothing.  There’s a difference between a location and a place.  Wikipedia describes a location, Guy Maddin shows us a place.  Even in the nondescript town I live in, every side street, the barber shop, the police HQ, the Dunkin Donuts, the landmark coffee shop, the railroad station, they all have stories to tell: stories that’ll change drastically as they’re passed from generation to generation, teller to teller, but will always maintain some kind of spirit.  Home videos or news reports show you an old hockey arena being demolished, but through this most subjective film, we see the independent spirit and heart of the entire city being ripped apart one wrecking ball hit, one death pang, at a time.  Back alleys, frozen horse heads, white block house, Ledge Man, the most unique public baths in the world, and that divine Winnipeg Arena with its cramped seats, putrid man-stink and public urinal trough become the stuff of myths, legend, and memory…and life.  The narrator is initially trying to escape from Winnipeg, the only city and home he’s ever known, but this isn’t Winnipeg, it’s His Winnipeg – not a city, but a state of mind, and how could anybody possibly escape from that?


1 comment so far

  1. David on

    Great review Simon, I couldn’t agree more!
    It’s definitely a film about his Winnipeg, a film full of Maddin’s feelings, but at the same time that’s what makes it so universal, because most of us have similar feelings to our hometown. At least I felt constantly reminded of my own hometown when watching it, and I hope I will be able to shoot a similar film about my hometown one day…

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