Film may be a relatively new art form, but enough time has passed since Eadweard Muybridge captured a running horse in 1878 for there to be well-established patterns and styles. No director today, no matter how revolutionary, can step behind the camera without a mass of influences and expectations pushing him from behind.
It’s refreshing, then, when a filmmaker breathes new life into these forms and creates something utterly new, as Guy Maddin has done in My Winnipeg. Sure, the little pieces that make up this puzzle are familiar: silent film intertitles, documentary stock footage, fifties television melodrama. But the work is more than the sum of its parts, and, what with the novelty of Maddin’s script, it’s a delightfully imaginative take on the nostalgic memoir.
The focal point of the film is, predictably, the city of Winnipeg — as Maddin calls it, “the heart of the heart” of North America. Windswept and freezing, the Manitoban city serves as both setting and protagonist in Maddin’s psychodrama, an odd collection of majestic architecture and pajama-clad sleepwalkers whose hidden parts — mazes of back alleys, legions of ghosts — refuse to let the filmmaker leave.
And so we see Maddin (played mutely by Darcy Fehr) on a train headed out of the city, making his last tour through the neighborhoods and memories before he tries, once again, to leave Winnipeg behind. The style of the film puts the medium first and the object second: The window of the train is a video screen flashing people and places, titles flash briefly on the screen (“How to escape?”), and scratchy snow falls in every scene. The effect is that of an installation at an art gallery (in fact, one of Maddin’s earlier films, Cowards Bend the Knee, began as a video installation).
But then there’s Maddin’s narration. Delivered in an intimate tone recalling David Sedaris and utterly suited to 1960s childhood reminiscence, the voice-over at once advances the plot and stops to reflect upon the images, sometimes delivering straightforward storytelling but more often descending into frantic poetry. Maddin has a tendency to repeat key words too much, as if redundancy were the best way to express anxiety (“Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg!”; “unknown, unknown, unknown”), but his script delivers up some delicious nuggets: describing his mother’s hair salon in which he grew up, he notes “the smells of female vanity and desperation” that accompanied his boyhood; later, he remarks that “everything that happens in this city is a euphemism.”
My Winnipeg may sound rather structure-less, and it is. The train ride out of the city is just a rough frame within which Maddin can look back on his youth and the only bit of plot is the “experiment” he runs to provide himself closure. Renting out his old home, he recruits his mother and a few actors to recreate and film key memories from his family life. We see the day his sister hit a deer and was caught messing around with a boy, and the day the children begged their exhausted mother for food. But this storyline, though interesting — Maddin postulates that he “could actually not just unlock the secrets of a family, but create a whole new genre of film” — is only an aside to the brief, mockumentary-style glimpses of Winnipeg that are the real heart of the work.
In one scene, Maddin looks back on “If Day” in 1942, when members of the Rotary Club posed as Nazis and terrorized the city in an effort to stir up support for the war. In another, the horse track burns down and the frightened horses flee into the frozen river, trapping themselves in the ice with their heads sticking out. Preposterous, certainly — but Maddin stops short of outright satire or self-indulgent absurdity. As Emily Dickinson put it, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of My Winnipeg is that it gets away with being so highly stylized and inward-looking without coming across as pretentious. Taking cues from David Lynch, Maddin has his cast act with overwrought sentimentality and lays down a melodramatic score; the feigned truth-telling and the nods to the fourth wall (“What if I film my way out here?”) all scream postmodernism. But except for a few regrettable lapses into pseudo-Freudian vagueness (he periodically compares his mother’s lap to the fork of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and flashes shots of her crotch), the film as a whole is wonderfully original and sincere. Maddin deserves high praise for balancing such innovation with an appropriate level of restraint. As an indication of what new things can be made with the methods of the past, My Winnipeg is a resounding success.
My Winnipeg will be showing at Cornell Cinema this Friday at 9:45 p.m., on Saturday at 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday at 7:15 p.m.