Fellini’s Rome, Godard's Paris, John Waters’s Baltimore — none of these home towns has possessed (or been possessed by) its filmmaker the way Guy Maddin’s does and is in My Winnipeg. Those not familiar with this director’s fusion of silent-film techniques, absurdist collage, odd archival footage, and unapologetic weirdness, those who are strangers to his delightfully nightmarish, black-and-white version of the universe, will find this, his most accessible film (it was made for Canadian TV, ostensibly as a documentary), a heady introduction. The rest of you will recognize the origins of many of his obsessions and motifs in this dream landscape of the city in which he was born and which, he claims, he has forever been trying to flee.
VIDEO: The trailer for My Winnipeg
The odds don’t look good: from the opening scene, Maddin (played on screen by Darcy Fehr) is trapped not only on a train but in a train of thought. Sleeping with other narcoleptic, bundled-up travelers in some midnight bar car of the mind, he repeats like the narrator in L’année dernière à Marienbad|Last Year at Marienbad the words “snow . . . sleepwalker . . . dream.” He cannot escape unless he stays awake — something Winnipeggers appear to have a problem doing. They have, he claims, 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any other city; city dwellers carry the keys to their previous addresses and those of past lovers so that when they wander to their “old dreamy addresses,” they can let themselves in.
It may not be true, but it sounds right. Maddin himself has only one key — to his family home, a kind of nightmare portmanteau structure that consists of a suite for his grandparents, his own family’s rooms, and a beauty salon, a “gynocracy” where he was raised amid the scents of “female vanity and desperation.” His mother (noir icon Ann Savage) looms like the matriarch in Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” segment in New York Stories. To release her hold on him, Maddin decides to re-create his childhood, restoring the old home to what it was in the ’50s, bringing in actors to play family members. They sit around the corpse of Dad buried below the area rug and watch Mom’s TV show, Ledge Man, in which every day she “sweet-talks” the title hero out of jumping to his death.
This strategy fails, so Maddin seeks answers in local lore — like what happened that winter when the racetrack went up in flames and the horses fled to the river and froze in place, their twisted heads remaining above the surface for months, providing a trysting spot for lovers and a Goya-esque image that is the most disturbing one I’ve seen on screen all year. He recognizes that the city he flees is also trying to escape itself. “Demolition is the city’s biggest growth industry,” he observes. City planners dynamite the elm tree in the smallest park in the world and raze the Winnipeg Arena, where his father once worked behind the bench of the Winnipeg Maroons.
Outsiders might wonder why this latter issue gets him so worked up. That’s hockey and Canadians, perhaps. But like all his hobby horses, it has a painful personal root. My Winnipeg is not all laughs. The death of his father and his teenage brother and a sexual initiation of sorts in a public pool offer clues to Maddin’s bizarre genius. Any student of his films might find this one a Rosetta Stone. There’s almost too much for 80 minutes, and one might ask, with a city this rich in wonders, why would you ever want to leave?