“What happens, by accident, is that the way you choose to lie, because it’s coming from you, has something of the truth in it. Whatever you’re saying is something that’s intentionally coding the truth. And then somehow that coding gets worn down the more you retell it until finally you might as well just be telling the truth—under oath, and on sodium pentothal. It’s disguised somewhat but it’s as true as, say, Homer is true, the “Odyssey,” and the great literature is true. None of the surface is true, but… So in this case I started with a mostly true surface, and the more mischievous I tried to get about it… I just found myself returning to my way of thinking about the world, or my place in it, which involves laps and subterranean things. So it’s not like I was structuring the story so that things would rhyme or echo with each other, or belong in one piece, it’s just that they came from one place—me—and ended up in one sort of cohesive place—the movie My Winnipeg.”–Guy Maddin
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
FEATURING: Guy Maddin (narration), , ,
PLOT: “Guy Maddin” narrates a documentary about his hometown, Winnipeg, mixing fact with outrageous tall tales. In the course of the film he hires actors to portray his family and recreate scenes from his childhood. Maddin states his intent is to escape Winnipeg by “filming my way out;” but one of the running themes of the documentary is that no one ever leaves Winnipeg.
- My Winnipeg was commissioned by Canada’s Documentary Channel.
- The film is the third part of Maddin’s “Me Trilogy,” three partly autobiographical but fictional films all starring a character named Guy Maddin, which also includes Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006),
- During festival screenings the film was shown with live narration, usually performed by Maddin but sometimes rendered by guest narrators including and .
- Ann Savage, who specialized in femme fatale bad girl roles in the 1940s, had not acted in 16 years (her last role was a bit part in an episode of “Saved by the Bell”) when Maddin called upon the then 86-year old actress to portray his mother in My Winnipeg. Savage died one year later.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The eleven horse’s heads, distressed mouths filled with frost, flash-frozen in the Red River after they stampeded while fleeing a stable fire. The view is so romantic and astounding that (according to Maddin) young lovers used to picnic among the icy mares’ heads.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:The Documentary Channel commissioned a documentary about the city of Winnipeg from renegade director Guy Maddin, and instead of a recitation of local facts, they got an icy plunge into the frozen lake of the director’s psyche. The mockumentary form turns out to be a perfect match for Maddin’s prankster temperament. Like the subterranean rivers the First Nations say flow with mystical power underneath Winnipeg’s surface rivers—“the forks beneath the forks”—he exhumes (or invents) fantastic myths about his hometown to try to get at deeper truths about himself.
Original trailer for My Winnipeg
COMMENTS: Relentlessly subjective, Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is about 90% “My” and only 10% “Winnipeg.” A duller, grayer city than Winnipeg would be hard to imagine, but Maddin, a graying white suburban Canadian who could easily have turned out as dull as his hometown if not for his prodigious imagination, conjures magic from its humble, snowy streets. To do so, he tells what we might think of as tall tales, urban mythologies, stories of streets clogged with sleepwalkers and horses trapped in river ice. To throw us off, a few of the wilder-sounding tales have a basis in fact: the city really did stage a fake Nazi invasion of Winnipeg in 1942, as part of a scheme to raise money for war bonds. This mixture of fact and legend confuses some—and enrages many—and has also inspired a small number of hobbyists interested in sifting fact from fiction. But a more interesting question than whether such and such a fact is literally true is the question—why is this “fact” in the film?
The title alone makes clear that the movie is about Maddin; it’s not Winnipeg or even This Winnipeg of Mine but My Winnipeg, as if Winnipeg is something personal and unique to each of its citizens, and this is the author’s version. Winnipeg is only important to Maddin because it is his, because it is the place that cradled and formed him, in the same way that, no matter how average our parents might seem to their neighbors, to us they are legendary figures. Although Winnipeg is his ostensible theme, in reality Winnipeg stands for Maddin himself. And, as the film opens, “Guy Maddin” is trying to do the impossible: to leave Winnipeg, to leave himself behind, to become something else, somewhere else; to transcend. But he finds it is nearly impossible: no one ever leaves Winnipeg, no one ever escapes the magnetic pull of self and family and where they came from. “How to leave one’s city; how to wake oneself enough for the frightening task?” It’s a fool’s errand. No one else even wants to leave Winnipeg. The winners of Winnipeg’s annual treasure hunt are offered a one-way ticket out of town, we are told, but for one hundred years, no champion has ever accepted the prize. Still, Maddin persists, fighting the dreamy spell that traps his sleepwalking fellow citizens in the barren city. Perhaps, Maddin reasons, he can film himself out; he will recreate his own past, understand it, and leave.
Winnipeg grew up around the forks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, which form a lap from which the city grows. “The forks, the lap…” mumbles the sleepy narrator. Superimposed images waver back and forth between the map and a nude woman’s closed legs so that the geological “v” of the forks becomes the furry “v” of her wooly lap. “The forks, the lap, the fur…,” mumbles Maddin. We see him dozing in his train compartment with other sleeping passengers, rumbling through town on a journey to the city limits and hopefully past. Stock footage races by and, looming outside, his mother’s enormous face peers through the window.
The lap of Winnipeg, the lap of mother. In the middle of the movie, Maddin pauses his reflections on wider Winnipeg, moves further inside. He sublets his childhood house, hires actors to portray his family (in the tangled logic of the movie, his mother plays herself, although in reality she’s portrayed by Detour‘s Ann Savage). Mrs. Maddin was a beauty parlor owner but also (we are told) an actress, who played the role of the mother in the local Winnipeg TV show “Ledge Man,” in which she talks her son down off the ledge in every episode, only to see him out there the next day, once again threatening to jump. (Note that one of Maddin’s brothers actually committed suicide, so the joke here is particularly black and bitter). When his sister hits a deer with her car, mother sees the blood and the fur on the hood, and accuses the girl of illicit dalliances (“no innocent girl stays out past ten with blood on her fender!”) Moreso even than Winnipeg, it is his family heritage, the fears, memories and instincts it instilled in him, that are impossible to leave behind. “The lap, the fur…”
“Only here can I properly recreate the archetypal episodes from my family history,” says the narrator about this staged psychodrama. “Only here can I isolate the essence of what, in this dynamic, is keeping me in Winnipeg. And perhaps once this isolation through filmed reenactment is complete, I can free myself from the heinous power of family and city and escape once and for all.” It’s a confession that goes to Maddin’s artistic core. As utterly unique as he is, Maddin is also a static filmmaker, one whose aesthetic always looks backwards and advances, if at all, at a glacial pace. The same obscure Freudian elements that obsess him in all his films—the repression and denial of Archangel, the incestuous fears of Careful, the knotty eroticism of Cowards Bend the Knee—persist in the even “documentary” My Winnipeg. Maddin can’t escape his own nature as an artist. Thematically, he is working through his own obsessions, but he is unable to move past his own childhood experiences and the association of sex and guilt, unable to transcend the Self. Unable to leave Winnipeg.
Stylistically, of course, everyone knows that Maddin is famously backwards-gazing, looking to cinema’s childhood for inspirations that mirror the crudity and repression of the human psyche. As he is unable, and secretly unwilling, to escape Winnipeg, he is unable and unwilling to move past his own style. My Winnipeg is mostly in black and white, usually with distressed staticy film stock. Jumpy, fuzzy silent movie intertitles interject subliminal, hysterical commentary (“desire!!,” “queer to smell,” “bestial!,” “breast milk!,” “man-sweat,” “jiggly!”). Faces and scenes are overlit so that they glow with unnatural light, and deliberately stagebound sets are constructed to represent the train cabin and the snow-covered lane where mother snuggles with the actor who plays her dead son. One new-old technique Maddin adapts for My Winnipeg is the use of shadow-play animation done in the style of, which he uses in color to represent certain Bolshevik rape fantasies, while a grayscale version illustrates the great horse stampede.
Maddin could move forward, into the 1940s, at least, but he chooses to stay behind in cinema’s deep past, lost, unable to escape, unable to film his way out. Pray he never makes it. Manitoba’s Winnipeg may be a flat, frozen prairie city of 600,000 souls, but Guy’s Winnipeg is a dream locale to wonder at, especially when you look underneath, at the forks beneath the forks.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Viewers will suspect, then grow certain, that much of what they hear is fairy-dusted fantasy, but many of the most dubious claims have such a weird poetic loveliness you want to believe them.”–The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)
“Weird, fascinating and uproarious, ‘My Winnipeg’ takes place not in chilly Manitoba but in the dreamscape of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin’s overheated imagination.”–Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune (contemporaneous)
“Who would have thought that such a seemingly marginal city as Winnipeg would establish itself effortlessly as the world capital of Surrealist free association? Probably the only film ever to mix Freud, Proust and a love of ice hockey, My Winnipeg is a joyous, mischievous, hilarious flight of fancy.”–Jonathan Romney, The Independent (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: My Winnipeg (2007)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
My Winnipeg (2007) – The Criterion Collection – A clip (“Sleepwalking in Winnipeg”), artist sketches for the DVD release, and an essay by Wayne Koestenbaum
Old Stomping Grounds, Hallucinated – A review of the film/interview with Maddin from John Anderson of the New York Times
Guy Maddin talks My Winnipeg, self-mythologizing, psychological honesty, and even The Host – Another Maddin promotional interview, this time with Twitch
Guy Maddin Makes MY WINNIPEG Everyone’s Winnipeg – Dan Persons of Cinefastique conducts one of the best of the many Maddin interviews promoting the film
My Winnipeg – A short but insightful semi-academic analysis of the film by Mark Rainey
My Winnipeg – Paperback reprint of Maddin’s companion volume to the film, which contains the annotated text of the narration, sketches and stills, and more hard-to-believe trivia that didn’t make it into the film
Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg – Poet Darren Wershler’s book-length treatment of the film
DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection DVD (buy) is of the usual excellent quality. Maddin does not provide a commentary track on the film, but there is an almost hour-long discussion of it with critic Robert Enright. There is also a featurette chronicling one of Maddin’s live performances of My Winnipeg and the original trailer. By far, the Maddin crowd will be most delighted with the nine short films included here, four of which were made in collaboration with Evan Johnson (who co-directs Maddin’s current opus, The Forbidden Room). The other recent additions to Maddin’s massive short film reservoir are an experimental tribute to the dog Spanky (who appears in My Winnipeg), an excerpt from the wordless “Sinclair,” the 20-minute color fantasia “Only Dream Things,” a short (almost throwaway) piece about hall runners (which are also the subject of a segment in the feature), and an absurd animated film about the Manitoban hero Louis Riel.