Death and Childhood Hover Over Guy Maddin's 'My Winnipeg'

The comic mythologizing of Winnipeg becomes conflated with an urge for Maddin to mythologize himself.

My Winnipeg

Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Ann Savage, Louis Negin, Darcy Fehr, Amy Stewart
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Rated: NR
US DVD release date: 20 January 2015

The Canadian director Guy Maddin is one of the more distinctive film stylists working today. In shorts and features, he has micro-obsessively recreated a film history that never was, a mélange of German Expressionism, film noir, and soapy melodramas, overlaid with naked Freudian angst and the grimy patina that makes it seem as if we’re watching a long-lost 16mm copy found in a dusty attic. With the 2007 “docu-fantastia” (his reluctant term) My Winnipeg, an exploration of his hometown and himself, Maddin took a remarkable step forward, expanding the scope of his style and what it can accomplish. The Criterion Collection has honored the film with a special edition, and it is one of the more successful examples of their stuffed-with-extras releases elevating the original film, using interviews and additional shorts to analyze and explore the themes and personal essay explorations of My Winnipeg, creating a virtual exhibition of his work.

The organizing structure for the movie is that “Maddin” has decided that he must finally break free of the city after living in Winnipeg his whole life. He is riding a train out of town, stuck in a fitful dream state (a state which bedevils all of “snowy, sleepwalking, Winnipeg”) from which he must awaken. These dreams form a series of interconnected memory sequences taken from Winnipeg’s history and Maddin’s life, which are being created by Maddin, the director, as a sort of documentary. As in a dream, ideas, images, and events replay themselves, insisting on their central importance while shape-shifting in the director’s mind.

Maddin is not much interested in a pure exploration of historical truth. In an interview with art critic Robert Enright included on the Criterion release, he describes his aim to go after “the truth uninhibited,” using a “paranoiac’s approach” to freely traverse subject matter, drawing connections that might not exist and remembering facts that might not be correct, in the hope that they might reveal a deeper truth. It opens with Maddin directing the actress Ann Savage, who plays his mother in filmed reenactments, directing how he wants to her to say the lines as she repeatedly flubs how he wants to have them delivered. It appears that Maddin is letting the audience know that nothing is being put forward as a documentary truth. This is further comically complicated when the scene is later presented as Savage really being his mother and that she was being “difficult” with her son in these reenactments as a typical conflict in their mother-son relationship.

The memory sequences explicitly about Winnipeg and its history begin with the aura of a piece of civic boosterism from the ‘50s or ‘60s, marked by stock footage of city streets, wholesome music, and hyperbolic narration. Maddin’s narration frequently boasts of the kind of bold-faced “facts” that cities and tourist sites love to proclaim, whether true or not. “We’re the coldest city in the world.” “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not declared it the smallest park in the world.”

One of the central comic conceits of Maddin’s style has been to ironically use the language of Hollywood conventions to paint the ordinary with outsized grandiosity. Characters speak in grand declarative sentences, make big gestures, and images are shot from below in the monumental style of a propaganda film. Yet there is a deliberate amateurishness to the execution, evoking the B-movie delusion and vulnerability of directors like Ed Wood.

In the Enright, interview Maddin says that with My Winnipeg he “wanted to mythologize a city that had no mythology,” using the styles of old newsreels and Eisenstein-style Montage to create a kind of surface memory for the city. In the film the mythologizing of Winnipeg becomes conflated with an urge for Maddin to mythologize himself. The petty events and attractions with which a tourist board extols itself mirrors our own petty obsessions and dramas with which we try to enlarge and justify our existence.

Yet there is a tension here between they hyperbolic and the ordinary, to the potential for truth beneath our bluster. Maddin’s narrator says, “Winnipeggers have always been skilled at reading past the surface and into the hidden depths of their city.” A section on spiritualism in the city government turns into a fevered screed on founding fathers and Masonic Temples. The fantastical story of “If Day”, an elaborate hoax where city leaders staged an invasion of the city by Nazi forces in order to spur the buying of war bonds, turns out to be a true and potent metaphor. A section about the razing of the city’s old hockey arena for the MTS (i.e. Empty) Center spurs a rant that is both legitimately angry and childishly petulant.

At times, the tone of the movie can suddenly become quiet, as when Maddin talks about his nighttime strolls through the city streets. Here we can feel as if we are suddenly getting access to his most sensitive thoughts. One of the deepest depths Maddin alludes to is the suicide of his older brother Cameron in 1963. It is in this year that Maddin sets the historical reenactments filmed with Savage/his mother. His brother’s death is explored more deeply in an incredible short film included with the Criterion set titled “Only Dream Things”. As a young boy, Maddin moved into Cameron’s bedroom shortly after the death and the short is almost entirely constructed from film footage and audio tape that he found there.

Death and childhood hovers over much of Maddin’s work, but especially so here. Though Maddin wants to escape Winnipeg, his self-analytic attempt to awake from his “dreams” cannot free him from his past. At best it can lead to acceptance, or at least tolerance for what will always be. Earlier the movie tells an almost certainly false tale about an annual treasure hunt that used to be held in Winnipeg. Whoever, found the treasure would win a one-way train ticket out of town. However, the idea was that after looking all over the city for the treasure, the winner would have realized how great Winnipeg was and not want to leave… and, indeed, not one of the winners ever left town.

The movie gradually becomes more dream-like, and the truths of memory become more elusive as Maddin descends further into their depth. He wonders, “Who’s alive? It’s getting hard to remember. Sometimes I forget.” By the end, it seems that he is locked in a perpetual state of sleeping and dreaming, that being awake might really dreaming, and that dreaming is drifting further into a haze, towards a ghostly existence.

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