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Saturday, January 28, 2017

21st Century Essentials: My Winnipeg (2008)

Director: Guy Maddin
Country: Canada

Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg isn't quite a documentary, nor is it entirely a fiction. Commissioned by the Documentary Channel, it's something like a magic realist memoir, an evocation of time and place filtered through nostalgia and fantasy and personal mythology. In certain respects, it's a film that's not even about Winnipeg at all, or even Guy Maddin despite the deeply personal way he approaches the city that he has called home for his entire life. Rather, it's about the sense of loss that comes from growing up, seeing the things that were so familiar to you during childhood change and modernize in your adulthood, and it's about the restlessness to leave one's place of origin, to break out and into something new. My Winnipeg is more about a feeling than it is about history, and so it's a story about anyone's hometown, really, which is probably why this absurdist and surreal love letter/Dear John letter to a city is so moving.

My Winnipeg unfolds in anecdotal fashion, with Maddin relating stories about his family and childhood interspersed with stories both real and imagined about the city of Winnipeg. Winnipeg is home to the greatest number of sleepwalkers in the world, we're told, and everyone in the city carries around the keys to every place they've ever lived in so that they can safely sleepwalk back into the homes of their past. It's a city that once fully embraced Spiritualism, and in which a group of elderly women once halted plans to destroy the world's smallest park (consisting of just one tree which, alas, was dynamited by vandals after being given its reprieve), it's a place where a fire at the track resulted in dozens of horses fleeing to the lake, where they froze and remained trapped until the spring thaw while people spent the winter ice skating and picnicking around them, a place that staged a fake Nazi invasion during WWII in order to sell war bonds, and where scandal once erupted over the annual, erotically charged, pageants where Mayor Cornish would choose the year's "Golden Boy."

How much of this is true? It doesn't matter. My Winnipeg is a film beyond literal truth and the more strange its stories are, the more personal and legitimate it seems. Like the Forks (the junction between the Red and Assiniboine Rivers) whose magnetism is said to keep Winnipegers in the city, Maddin's legends always lead him back to his family, to a childhood spent in and around the beauty salon run by his mother and aunt and the Winnipeg arena where his father worked (and where he claims to have been born in a dressing room as the Winnipeg Maroons played the Trail Smoke Eaters). In his attempt to reach out and touch his past, Maddin rents the home he grew up in so that he can stage recreations of scenes from his childhood, hitting two snags early when his mother (played by the actress Ann Savage who, unlike the other actors in the film, is never acknowledged to be an actor) insists that his long-dead father should be part of the film and the compromise they reach is to lay out his corpse in the living room, beneath a rug, and when the woman who currently owns the house suddenly decides that she doesn't want to leave during filming, resulting in a recreated scene involving his mother, the actors hired to portray him and his siblings (bearing, he says, an uncanny resemblance to the "vintage originals"), and the "strange lady who won't leave her house."

My Winnipeg is a funny movie but sad, too, told from the perspective of someone who at once longs for the past that can never be recreated, but who also wants to escape into something new and different, and yet also wishes to have those things which hold special memories for him preserved forever as he remembers them. This is particularly true of the Winnipeg Arena, where his father worked as General Manager for the Winnipeg Maroons and died shortly after the team was relocated because, Maddin says, he had nothing left to do, and which he feels intensely attached to. Over footage of the arena being torn down, the voiceover elatedly recounts that the wrecking ball could only tear away the additions to the arena, while the old bones of the original structure remained standing and Maddin imagines the ghosts of old hockey heroes banding together as a team called the "Black Tuesdays" and saving it. The less said about the new arena, the MTS Centre which Maddin refers to as an "architectural lie" and whose blinking "S" makes the sign read, every other second, as the MT (the "empty") Centre, the better as far as Maddin is concerned, lamenting that the arena's shortcomings would doom Winnipeg to never having an NHL franchise again (how Maddin feels about the arena now, the second-coming of the Winnipeg Jets having started playing there in 2011, is unknown).

If you've ever seen a Guy Maddin film, you know the aesthetic he's playing with her, a design that brings to mind films from the silent era and early sound era, with editing which emphasizes the meaning of the juxtaposition of images rather than masking that juxtaposition beneath the narrative. My Winnipeg is a film assembled from home video, archival footage, still photos, recreations, and animation, which combine to give the film an aura of dreamy unreality that is nevertheless firmly rooted in the real. When Maddin describes his family gathering around the TV to watch Winnipeg's longest running soap opera "Ledge Man," about a man sensitive to slights who climbs out on a ledge every day and threatens to jump, only to be talked down by his mother, it functions as a euphemism ("everything in Winnipeg is a euphemism," Maddin tells us) for his relationship with his own mother, to whom he is so magnetically pulled that he imagines her as part of the Forks. Winnipeg is the heart of the heart of Canada, and Mother is the heart of the heart of Maddin's story, the figure who possesses all of the keys to the past, the constant in the midst of continual change as the city slowly sweeps away the past, demolishing landmarks and erecting soulless buildings in their place.

Of all of his films, My Winnipeg is probably Maddin's most accessible because despite (or perhaps as a result of) being something intensely personal to the filmmaker and which incorporates elements that are part of his intimate family history, it manages to touch on a feeling that's universal. It's a film that is melancholy and defiant, with Maddin raging against the things that the city has lost that he considers among its defining characteristics and expressing his desire to finally flee, but also very much leaving one with the impression that he will challenge you to name a greater city. His affection for it, begrudging though it might be, is part of what makes My Winnipeg such a great film and a viewing experience which few can equal.

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