Friday, July 04, 2008

Review - My Winnipeg

Did you know Winnipeg has the highest rate of sleepwalking in the world? Did you know the city only has one hill, originally built out of garbage and grassed over? And have you heard the story about the horses who became frozen in an icy lake, with only their stricken heads visible above the surface for six months? Guy Maddin's
My Winnipeg is full of such tall tales. The endlessly imaginative Canadian filmmaker has made what he calls a "docu-fantasia", a travelogue in which we explore the town of Maddin's birth through the recounting of tall tales and (possibly) apocryphal anecdotes, all of which – the director insists – are true. Of course, many viewers may scoff when he makes such claims as we watch a sham Nazi invasion take place in the town, but the veracity of what we're seeing in My Winnipeg is ultimately beside the point. This is simply another of Maddin's uniquely constructed fever dreams; a freewheeling concoction bursting at the seams with inventive ideas, which acts as both a tribute to the city of the title, and an exploration of Maddin's own complex familial history. True, false, whatever – this is his Winnipeg.

It is also one of his most accessible and consistently entertaining pictures, although some viewers who haven't visited his world before might struggle to get their bearings in the opening scenes, which seem to keep pace with the city's somnambulant population. The central character is a Manitoban man named Guy Maddin who has boarded a train with dreams of escape filling his head. He wants to cut his ties, both with this city and with his domineering mother (Ann Savage), but as the train gently rocks its way out of the station, Maddin the director threatens to overload his film with repetitive imagery and motifs. He himself provides
My Winnipeg's narration, and at times it's more of an intonation – "the forks...the lap...the fur" – designed to lull viewers into the dreamscape he has envisaged. Some members of the audience will refuse to succumb, but as Maddin moves away from this scene to feature more personal individual stories, My Winnipeg becomes a fascinating and frequently hilarious experience.

Guy Maddin's films are unique. He delves into long-forgotten movie history and snatches bits and pieces from any kind of picture that tickles his fancy – silent curiosities, expressionistic masterpieces, hard-boiled noirs – before collating everything into one great patchwork of arcane cinema. With his 20's-style aesthetic and frantic editing style, his pictures have a fantastic, distinctive look, and the intensity of his storytelling is heightened via an insatiable taste for melodrama and a great deal of sexually ambiguous imagery. He is, to be sure, an acquired taste, but it's hard not to be thrilled by the energy and enthusiasm that he displays here, as
My Winnipeg moves quickly between a series of delightful vignettes. We laugh as a herd of sexually confused bison destroys the Happyland theme park, or as the hit television series Ledgeman comes to an exciting conclusion, but Maddin switches tone so adroitly to offer us passages that are touching, even haunting, in their execution. A séance that plays out as a ballet recalls Maddin's masterpiece Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, while he utilises shadow-puppet animation to depict a fire that destroyed the racetrack, before the fleeing horses found themselves trapped in the ice. The image of their heads poking above the surface while locals skate happily around them is beautiful and unsettling.

As Maddin takes us on this phantasmagorical tour of his Winnipeg, he also allows us into the family home, to watch as he stages key events that defined his relationship with his mother. She's played by Ann Savage – who, in 1945's
Detour, gave us one of the most fatale of all screen femmes – and her chilly demeanour adds an extra frisson to these scenes, as she reluctantly takes part in Maddin's elaborate reconstructions. She is particularly effective in a wonderful scene where she interrogates her daughter after a late arrival home, hissing, "I wasn’t born yesterday, dearie. Where did it happen? In the back seat?" as the girl is reduced to tears. These familial sequences have a sense of honesty about them, and the surreal little details Maddin slips into them make them come alive; like the fastidious and perennially useless resetting of the rug, or his father's exhumed corpse lying on the living room floor, or the presence of a strange old lady who simply refuses to leave. My Winnipeg is uproariously funny at times, but as the film progresses, and Maddin reveals more about his family's life, the laughter becomes tinged with sadness.

Maddin's narration is understandably full of emotion – or at least it was at the event I attended, in which he provided his rendition live on stage – but one especially noticeable aspect of
My Winnipeg is the presence of something rather unusual in a Maddin film, a genuine sense of anger. Towards the end of the picture, Maddin suddenly becomes enraged as he details the city's destruction of buildings that hold a certain place in his heart, particularly the hockey arena in which he was born. Maddin accuses those in charge of making these decisions of committing a "blasphemy" and of betraying the city's heritage, and such invective can only come from a man who deeply cares about his hometown and can't bear to see it lose its soul. My Winnipeg may begin with thoughts of escape, but as we take a deliriously entertaining journey through this unusual town, the film ultimately ends up confirming what we already knew – Guy Maddin still loves Winnipeg, and he'll never really leave.

Read my interview with Guy Maddin here.