Let’s start off with the title, what it contains and what it elides: My Winnipeg.
Winnipeg. This is indeed, and without a doubt, a film about Winnipeg, a large-ish town in central Canada situated at the fork of the Red and the Assiniboine rivers. This wintry Manitoban capital -- ensconced in stratified layers of snow and time, rocked to sleep by its own nostalgia, simultaneously the scheming writer and captive audience of boundless lore -- is the psychic prison Guy Maddin seeks to escape and the locus of his archaeological project. (That this “archaeological” project is just one of many -- alongside disparate “psychoanalytic” and more purely cinematic ventures -- is something that I shall return to later.) Insofar as the film tries to teach us unknown facts about an unknown place (I imagine that most viewers are, like me, ignorant of the real Winnipeg), it can claim to be a documentary -- and it is, indeed, presented by something called The Documentary Channel (a CBC outlet of sorts.) And at times the film hews too closely to its straight-documentary vision, providing us with quirky customs, eccentric faces, decrepit buildings: a whole cosmos of urban truth and myth that we have seen a thousand times before, in a thousand other places, from a thousand other creators, in a thousand tourist manuals, on the lips of a thousand other good-old-days-ers championing the moribund glory of the past. It is objectively fascinating stuff, but so soaked in sentimentality that it risks lulling you just as much as it has lulled multitudes of Winnipeggers. (And lulling is not so far from boring.) But at other times, My Winnipeg strays so far from what we could call documentary realism that it risks raising another sort of ire. None of Maddin’s Winnipeg stories are presented with even the slightest bit of historiographical clarity: no sources, no provenance, no interviews, not the slightest objective slant of verifiability or falsifiability. We are essentially being made privy to nifty nostalgia for an urban spirit-world that might never have existed. While there is undoubtedly something commendable and hyper-cinematic about this -- isn’t the dream-world always a more fertile subject than the real world? -- it becomes claustrophobic as the film progresses, rattling along episodically from one set piece to another. If this is indeed a documentary, what documents can we cling to? What information can we use as a reputable foundation for our own mental schema of Winnipeg? How can we -- or Maddin, for that matter -- ever escape from the Platonic cave of shadows and illusions? Without any third-party interviewees or voices, all we have is Maddin’s poetic stream of consciousness laced to spectral half-facts -- and that can begin to feel very solipsistic after a while. And this brings us to the next word of the title.
My. In addition to functioning as an archaeological excavation of the multiple cities contained in Winnipeg’s interstices -- parallel cities dislocated geographically, historically, socially, financially, erotically from the banal consensus reality of Wikipedia’s Winnipeg -- Maddin’s film paints itself as a psychoanalytic project in which the filmmaker seeks to “film his way out” of his hometown, escaping once and for all from “the heinous power of family and city.” That this heinous power -- the sickly grip of despair that lurks within the rigidity of childhood -- is never adequately shown is one of the film’s major problems, one of the things that sabotages its psychoanalytic aspirations and reduces it, ultimately, to the inoffensive folklorism described above. Not that Maddin doesn’t make a game effort. He hires actors to play his family members in reenactments of crucial formative moments and brings his domineering mother into the mix (played in an excellent turn -- not as one of the reenactors but as Maddin’s “real” mother, confusingly enough -- by ‘40s femme fatale Ann Savage.) Wending his way through memory on a highly-literalized “dream-train,” Maddin hardly shies from erotically-charged, even shameful remembrances, revealing the way that local history (a sexualized labor movement of tongue-in-cheek “Bolsehevik rapists” stalking a Catholic girls’ school), boyhood development (much affection is lavished on old arenas and the stately, nude athletes that showered there) and maternal influence (his mother’s naked lap is presented as a geological force comparable with the forking Red and Assiniboine) fuse to build a psychosexual tapestry all the more consumptive for being half-remembered (and half-memorable.) And yet, the dark latent strata of love and hate are never quite unearthed. I craved the bedrock of malaise that would not only show why Winnipeg seduced Maddin in the first place but also share a glimpse of what it is that now drives him to escape. This Winnipeg is his, but he never shares enough to make it ours…
What my breakdown of the title leaves out is just that thing that any Maddin-lover would most expect: style. And My Winnipeg isn’t lacking. All the Soviet-style montage, wry intertitles and silent melodrama we know so well from “The Heart of the World” and Brand Upon the Brain are brought to bear on little unassuming Winnipeg. There are sequences of unabashed visual splendor that might stand beautifully as self-contained episodes, but are only with great awkwardness shepherded into the documentary and psychoanalytic narratives that ostensibly make up the meat of the film. At one point, various Winnipeg elders gather for a sinister séance, in which a lovely ballet dancer dances out messages from the spirit world. It is a sparkling, romantic dialogue of images – a telegram from 1915 edited up with all the alacrity of a music video – and while it work tremendously as a three-minute short film, it leaves you wondering what it reveals about Guy Maddin’s Winnipeg, or any Winnipeg for that matter. At another point, a montage of the whirring beauty salon of Maddin’s mother is dynamically, discontinuously edited, with sprays, purses, gossiping mouths, dusty powders flying in every direction – a whole panoply of womanly signifiers that Maddin credits with building the feminine side of his psyche. And later, a mystical hockey arena in the process of demolition – and filled while a century’s worth of ghostly players playing one final match – presents the male side of Maddin’s upbringing. All of these scenes share the same dialectical montage style, the same back-and-forth volley of faces, fetishized objects, even intertitles. But those high-melodramatic interludes seem to exist on utterly a different plane from the somewhat banal documentary paces or the fascinating – yet weirdly unfulfilled family reenactments. Like the city of its title, My Winnipeg seems to have uncountable maps for uncountable alleys. How do these alleys cohere into a single city, or a single film? This is a question that Guy Maddin doesn’t quite know how to answer.