How can one live without his ghosts? What’s a city without its ghosts? Unknown.
— My Winnipeg
Snow and ice fill the frame in My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s ookily brilliant evocation of his childhood. His stand-in-self (played again by Darcy Fehr, as in Cowards Bend the Knee) slumbers through most of the film, rocking in a train compartment, riding through Winnipeg, conjured repetitively as fantasy, archival footage, hallucination, and snow — flurries and storms, piled into filthy mounds on streets, packed for sledding, swirling in air, and slippery on sidewalks.
Winnipeg, Maddin ruminates, lives on in his memory as a vague, perverse Happyland, peopled by sleepwalkers, hockey players, and members of his family, comprised of river forks and arteries, winding alleyways and boatways, Eaton’s Department Store, and the Arlington Street bridge, a “vast span of enfrosted steel girders.” His memories punctuated with barely glimpsed intertitles (“Magnetic!”, “Arteries!”, “Home!”), Maddin returns repeatedly — not to say obsessively — to the intersections of dream and experience familiar from his other films. In the superbly smudgy images, snow and sleepiness are of a piece: “We sleep as we walk, walk as we dream,” Maddin narrates, “Winnipeg has 10 times the sleepwalking rate as any city in the world, and because we dream of where we walk and as we walk to where we dream, we are always lost, befuddled.” While this suggests a good reason to want to leave, the continual return, as a means to recovery or rejection, is also seductive, thrilling, inevitable. Drawn to and running from “the woolly lap,” his voice almost sings, as the camera shows the expected pop-Freudian shot, mother’s thighs and crotch, giving way to an old-timey map, Winnipeg located in “the center of the continent, in the heart of the heart of the continent.”
The film is an increasingly delirious concoction, a bit of local and familial history, laced through with myths and exultations, fabrications that might as well be true. (On “If Day” in 1942, “5,000 Nazis invade Winnipeg and declare martial law,” Maddin narrates, the day eventually declared a “huge success” when citizens learn the scary specter has been a “drill” and so buy loads of war bonds.) Determined to retrieve and leave Winnipeg behind, the filmmaker sets off on a project, renting his childhood home from the current owner for a month, then restaging events with actors as his siblings, his mother (Ann Savage), siblings played by local actors (one dead at 16, another a track star, a “member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame”), and Toby, “our long, long, long dead Chihuahua” (played in his recreation by his girlfriend’s pug).
The house appears as it is “now” (camera panning over the street and a “White. Block. House.”), as well as in ancient-looking photos of its storefront beauty salon (run by his mother and Aunt Lil). “I’ve often wondered what effect growing up in a hair salon had on me,” Maddin muses over a snapshot of his sailor-suited child-self. Photos of generic seeming clients, with pomaded hair and under dryers give way to his bedroom, where he overheard “every word of conversation that roiled out of that gynocracy.”
Staging his mother predictably (and again) as an embodiment of fear and longing, the film begins, in fact, with the artifice. Mother is rehearsing lines for a scene with her only daughter, repeating lines after her off-screen director/son: “I know all about fur and all about blood,” he says, then she says. “Did he pin you down or did you just lie back and let nature take its course?” he says and she repeats. “Was it a boy on the track team or a man with a tire iron?” After this reading, his voice instructs, “A little angrier.”
Confessing that Mother was reluctant to revisit the past without his father (who died some 30 years ago), they come to a “compromise,” pretending to “have him exhumed and reburied in the living room beneath a mound of earth, concealed by the area rug.” It’s an antic, weird image, the rug bulging, furniture rearranged to accommodate the fantasy. His reconstructed family reenacts Maddin’s childhood, long hours on couches, watching television. A favorite afternoon soap, in which his mother has starred every day since 1956, is Ledgeman, in which Maddin (Fehr) stands outside a window and threatens to jump. Every day, his mother cajoles him into coming back inside (“When you were a child model for Hudson Bay, I was so proud I could hardly breathe!”)
“The waking is bitter, bitter, bitter,” he says, pulling himself and his film in and out of the past he’s making up. “Bitterness sweet as the cold of our winters.” The film charts a series of awakenings, none quite final, most wrapped up in sex and fear. As three-year-old riding a little green dump truck, Maddin accidentally enters “forbidden territory for a boy,” the grounds of St. Mary’s Academy for Girls, where he is hugged and cuddled by the girls until discovered by “a big nun.” As he begins having dreams of “delinquent girls” (“Nothing stokes my mother’s engines more”), young Guy is beset by other episodes, his sister’s deflowering, workers’ demonstrations, “golden boys” on parade for the mayor’s delectation, and the hellish fire that destroys a horse racing track. In his memory, the horses are let loose onto the snowy landscape, where they’re frozen solid, each locked “in place by its panicked bulging neck, by its frenzied head” he and his fellow citizens, Maddin narrates, absorb this “great public spectacle” of sadness. “We just incorporate it into our days.”
Sadness, loss, bitterness: it’s the way of Winnipeg, the way of the world for which Winnipeg stands in. Resolved to wake, to leave, to recycle, Maddin persists in his film, revisits past films and other pasts. In order to persist, he must contend, of course, with Mother. Frustrated by his mother’s reluctance to throw herself into the role (of herself), he pauses. How could she not be invested, he wonders, in “this exciting experiment of mine, which could actually not only unlock the secrets of a family, but create a whole new genre of film?”
This, for all the snow, sleep, and motherness, is exactly what’s at stake in My Winnipeg. Maddin’s term for this new genre, “docutasia,” only hints at its simultaneous weirdness and utter familiarity. The story of Winnipeg is his story and your story, not universal so much as eye-opening, a way inside the White. Block. House. that overdetermines experience, that demands conformity and shapes memory. Even if you’ve never lived in that house, you understand its meaning.