Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Winnipeg Home Companion

Guy Maddin may well be the reincarnation of Sergei Eisenstein. The Canadian director’s latest film, My Winnipeg, reaffirms that he is the heir apparent to the throne of montage mastery. With the aid of seemingly erratic juxtaposition, rapid-paced editing, and photography reminiscent of silent films, Maddin transports his viewers back to the cinematic days of yore. He kicks it old school. With My Winnipeg, Maddin set out to make a travelogue of the town that bore him. It would be called an “ode” if the film didn’t seem like an extended lamentation about the state of Winnipeg and the events which transpired in the town’s (and Maddin’s) history. But of course, a filmic lamentation can be just as enjoyable to a viewer as a filmic revelry.

My Winnipeg doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense of the word. If a plot must be culled from what is shown, then the film is about a man named Guy Maddin on a train who is trying to escape Winnipeg. Guy is tired and slips into and out of consciousness as the train presses onward. The voiceover claims that all Winnipeggers are sleepwalkers, so it’s only appropriate that one of their fold attempting to escape should be battling sleep. While sleep attempts to overcome him, he thinks back to events which took place in his childhood and also to events in the history of the city. The stories cover a wide spectrum and are loosely connected in the mind of the dreamer. Boyhood memories lead to dwelling upon events such as the class riot of 1919, a taxicab feud, the construction of a superfluous hockey rink, and the destruction of the Happy Land amusement park which then became the building materials of the shanty town atop the roofs of downtown skyscrapers. Other highlights include a group of horses that somehow end up in a pond and become frozen, their heads jutting out of the snow. This particular spot then inexplicably becomes a romantic locale for the city. Frozen horse heads begat romance begat a baby boom (Winnipeg winters are, after all, the “bareback time”). But all other stories are trumped by “If Day,” when the local Rotarians stormed the town dressed as Nazis to illustrate what might happen if the citizenry didn’t buy war bonds. Associated images lead viewers to believe that Rotarian Nazis frisked nuns and then required the nuns to frisk them back.

While the film is a combination of stories from the history of Winnipeg, another aspect of it leads to questions of legitimacy on the part of Maddin. As in Brand Upon the Brain!, a main character shares the same moniker as the man at the film’s helm. Guy Maddin inserts Guy Maddin, the character, into the film skewing the real and the unreal. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his parents’ wedding, Maddin (now the director himself) subleases his boyhood home and hires actors to play the roles of his family members—except for his mother whom he says is played by herself (in actuality the matriarch is played by Ann Savage). Sporadically throughout the film, these actors re-hash alleged scenes from Maddin’s past in a rather melodramatic fashion. Also interspersed into My Winnipeg is footage of present-day Winnipeg which features Maddin, this time playing the part of documentarian. On top of this, Maddin also provides the voiceover narration for much of the film. While this may seem to be the pinnacle of narcissism, it’s allowable considering how intertwined Maddin considers himself and Winnipeg to be.

Maddin’s oedipal complex is also in full gear for this film. The town’s forked rivers are juxtaposed with the forked parts of Maddin’s mother (as the voiceover states, “Everything’s a euphemism…”). A young Guy is also shown spooning with his mother in the snow. To the uninitiated these images might be somewhat disturbing, but after Brand Upon the Brain!, this sort of maternal fixation should come as no surprise to regular viewers of Maddin’s oeuvre. Stylistically, My Winnipeg finds Maddin in comfortable territory. He continues to employ the use of rapid-fire editing and intertitles which gives his films that dated, wistful feeling. The characteristic Maddin “kookiness” is also intact. What other director would turn a séance into a ballet sequence? (Well, maybe Lynch in one of his friskier moments, but few others would even consider it.)

While My Winnipeg affords Maddin the opportunity to wax nostalgic, it allows us non-Winnipeggers the opportunity to learn the crazy history of “the heart of the heart” of Canada. With the aid of man pageants, a school of ultra-vixens, Citizen Girl (the superhero that Maddin hopes will restore Winnipeg to its former glory), maternal accusations of daughterly indecency, and homoerotic shower scenes, we stroll with Maddin through his own past and the past of his city. His home. His Winnipeg.

by Jacob Shoaf


Anonymous said...

I love this man. I need to see more of his work. Is WINNIPEG the film I read about with the once-in-a-lifetime presentation at Cannes? That would have been an experience.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment (other) Jacob. I don't recall hearing anything about "My Winnipeg" being shown at Cannes this year. I caught it at the Tribeca Film Festival where Maddin was present to narrate. The film was also preceded by Isabella Rossellini's "Green Porno" shorts series (which she personally introduced). So that was a pretty amazing experience.

Anonymous said...

I think the once-in-a-lifetime movie being refered to here is Brand Upon the Brain!, which was a throwback to expressionistic silent films with a benshu narration track performed live by the likes of Crispin Glover, Tilda Swinton, and John Ashbury. It is being released by Criterion later this year.

This, too, looks quite amazing.

Anonymous said...

Sorry guys. Right filmmaker, wrong movie.