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 V.17 No.35 | August 28 - September 3, 2008 

Film Review

My Winnipeg

His Winnipeg is weird

Arthritis pain? Fight it with the great white force of elderly hockey!
Arthritis pain? Fight it with the great white force of elderly hockey!

My Winnipeg

Directed by Guy Maddin

Cast: Ann Savage, Amy Stewart, Guy Maddin

Few things summon as much shifting affection and disdain as the place where you grew up. As a result, finding a way out of or back to your hometown is a recurring theme in both art and life. Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has a specialty in traveling through time, unearthing buried secrets and recalling the terrible heartsickness to which they’re attached. All the while, he does his best mock Battleship Potemkin, manipulating the montage until it becomes a beautifully warped spirograph. In his latest work of erratic, Soviet cinema-inspired video art, Maddin finds himself emotionally stuck in his Manitoban hometown, posing the question, What if I filmed my way out of here?

My Winnipeg is third in a loose trilogy of quasi-autobiographies (preceded by Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain!). Maddin’s hometown is portrayed as an urban train yard built upon the supernaturally imbued forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. The once-happy town is shrouded in permanent winter and populated by sleepwalkers who shuffle around with keys to various houses. Shot using a cornucopia of formats—video, HD, mini-DV, Super 8, 16 mm, animation shot on video, rear-screen video reshot on film, stock footage—the collage of images presented is entirely breathtaking. Once again, Maddin proves himself a preeminent montage artist.

The storyline, if you can call it that, is equally complex and totally disjointed. Maddin creates a film where anything can happen in the plot—absolutely nothing is out of the question. The loose premise involves an experiment whereby “archetypal episodes” from his family are re-created and filmed. He rents his boyhood home, models the interior after the original and hires actors to play his siblings. Mother—vintage ’40s actress Ann Savage—plays herself. Father lies dead beneath the living room rug.

The imitation family is made to re-enact mundane events (such as straightening the unstraightenable hall runner as mother looks on) and intense scenes (like the night sister hit a deer). The family also stoically watches episodes of “Ledge Man,” a Winnipeg-produced show starring Maddin’s mother, which involves a man who gets his feelings hurt and threatens to jump from a ledge. In each episode mother coaxes him down, but next week he’s on the ledge again—an unveiled gesture of symbolism.

This family drama is spliced as Maddin spins wild yarns about the city of Winnipeg, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, life and death. Maddin reveals snowy labyrinths of back alleyways, delinquent girls, frozen horse heads, spooked furniture, a park perched on a heap of trash and a psychically charged metropolis where leaders hold underground séances and harness Masonic magic.

In the midst of conjuring civic secrets, capturing images of his faux family and generally screwing with his viewers, Maddin offers a glimmer of honesty in his yearning for Winnipeg as it used to be—before meaningful parts of its urban landscape were removed. While he describes the torn-down Winnipeg Centre as his male parent, a newly built, corporately named ice arena is “a zombie in a cheap new suit.”

Therein lies the crux of My Winnipeg: In longing for Winnipeg’s demolished buildings, physical representations of what once was, Maddin yearns for the Winnipeg of his mind. It’s pure, abstract nostalgia—and all of Maddin’s attached emotions—conjured back to life and personified in film.

The beyond-bizarre story manages to gracefully embody both intense sadness and overwhelming hilarity. It’s a pseudo-documentary and an almost-black comedy, encased in a spinning vortex of myths, memories and magic. As the curtain falls on this Winnipegian golem, Maddin explains to us, “At some point when you miss a place enough, the background of the photos become more important than the people in them.”


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