Thursday, January 21, 2010

My findings in My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin interviewed about his Winnipeg, its paranormal activity, peeing in condemned buildings, and the masochistic pleasures of "outing himself" in film...

Roger Ebert's blog on Guy Maddin: The Heart of the World and Other Organs (and posting of many of his short films) asks the questions:

Guy Maddin's films look like no others I have ever seen, so why do they remind me of something? Why do they feel like I've seen them before? How do they remind me of memories I don't have?

Old Rog ("film critic since time immemorial" his Twitter reads) reminded me of something I wrote for my Canadian cinema class and wanted to post. It was effort enough to get me an 'A minus' but I'm not exactly proud of it, tis not seamless work, does nevertheless share some of my love for My Winnipeg, the fantastic film conceived and directed by Guy Maddin whom, aside from not having met him, I also love and think/feel he may be Canada's greatest film export. (It's either him or David Cronenberg. And don't get me started on James Cameron today...) Since my writing of this, shall we say, article, Ebert named My Winnipeg one of the ten best films of the decade


Guy Maddin’s autobiographical My Winnipeg is, in the words of the filmmaker, “docu-fantasia” about his Canadian home, Winnipeg, which possibly seems to outsiders a city in the middle of nowhere. Aged (or “ancient” young viewers of today may say) stock footage of the Manitoba capital meets Maddin’s own imaginings as he sets out to document how his origins appear in his mind. He himself narrates the otherwise silent black and white film, with great gusto, addressing the audience as if he is giving a tour through his hometown, his memories, his mind, his dreams and nightmares of growing up at the heart of the North American continent, where the film argues a weird and wonderful world once existed. Flamboyantly and hypnotically, he resurrects a film format that has, for no legitimate reason, all but vanished from filmmaking contemporarily. As always, his direction relies not on camera movement but shocking images, deliberately panicked editing (akin to schizophrenic seizures) and deliriously amusing comments to tell his small, tall tale... They're mini yet magnificent!

Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg"!!

A former bank manager turned prolific filmmaker -- practically breathing out films when one takes into account his shorts -- Maddin, “the mad poet of Manitoba” some name him, is drawn to blurring notions of genre and My Winnipeg does not break that pattern set by his past films. In addition to silent, b&w, docu-fantasia, the movie is a coming of age drama, a surrealist comedy, musical, hilariously absurd but lightly dark (if there is such a thing, this is it), bordering on horrific at times... but never stepping over. Beneath the surface of Maddin’s theatrical rantings, lurks tinges of bittersweetness and sorrow. Gothic creeps into the highly symbolic Brecthian aspects of the film, a very personal film that is somewhat abstract and experimental. Montreal filmmaker Arthur Lipsett’s 1961 short Very Nice, Very Nice is a chaotically neurotic onslaught of images with a strong message but no straightforward narrative. My Winnipeg resembles it in so far as it is scatterbrain and non-linear in its telling, and interpretation, of Maddin’s childhood.


Maddin has explored his offbeat life before in his feature “Brand Upon the Brain!”, which meditated, through metaphors, Maddin’s psychologically strained relationship with his mother and sister. “My Winnipeg” isn’t quite as vague a remembrance of growing up with the Maddin family... and the city his family lived in. The audience knows he’s talking about Winnipeg, he says as much. Without that cue, the isolated island that stood in for it in Brand Upon the Brain! would look highly similar. Maddin’s other most successful film, The Saddest Music in the World was set in Winnipeg and featured the city, but it was not a film about Winnipeg the way that My Winnipeg explores the soul and persona of the city, at least when Maddin grew up there, from Maddin’s subjective point of view and filtered through the lens of his memories.

The mad ones-err-uh-Maddins.

The film was funded by The Documentary Channel, which is co-owned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Canada’s National Film Board. That it is documentary, to a degree, and that it was funded by the NFB, makes My Winnipeg a film in the tradition of documentary being the dominant mode of Canadian Cinema. But the film terrorizes documentary conventions and, curiously, stays truer to the experience of living in the city than a normal documentary approach might have been.

The sleepwalkers stalk the dark, Winnipeg streets.

The "objectively real", archive film footage is only used when the images are striking or necessary to demonstrate something, how Maddin’s family lived over a barber shop. Maddin seems to prefer recreating historical events on film or digital video. He re-interprets these events in his presentation of them, aiming for psychological accuracy in the visuals more than factual accuracy. Some scenes are animated for dynamic effect: a squirrel barbecued on a telephone wire. Other scenes are played up melodramatically or they become comedic parodies: Winnipegers are turned into sleepwalking zombies during the winter. And, throughout the film, there are wink-wink scenes filmed using rear-screen projections, such as the Guy character on a train that moves but never departs Winnipeg.

This is the train that never leaves... It goes round and round while you sleep...

Most of Maddin’s claims about Winnipeg in the film, though too bizarre for contemporary audiences to trust, are in fact true. Maddin has not yet encountered any objections otherwise. Research proves there was an “If Day” when actors dressed as Nazis invaded Winnipeg. The dubious story of horses becoming frozen in Winnipeg’s Red River so that only their heads stuck out is not so grounded in this planet's reality. But what about that pagan-esque "man pageant" the city's mayor held? Maddin is obviously (but not grotesquely) exaggerating when he says civilians share the sidewalks with hysterical parakeets or that he was a born in a hockey arena dressing room, both claims are purely for poetry’s sake as he explains the odd, winter-coated fashions of the era and how deeply a love for hockey is instilled in Winnipegian blood. The half-fantasizing, half-fact telling becomes more accurate than mere facts. Everything the audience sees has truth in it that can only be captured by stylizing. The images are made mythic, feeling correct to the fascinating lore surrounding them, capturing the excitement of the imagination of living in the curious dimension that is Winnipeg.

Horse heads.

Man pageants.

Nazis drawn to shooting at a homoerotic sculpture.

Simultaneously, Maddin myth-makes Winnipeg’s negative aspects. The movie glorifies Winnipeg’s historical eccentricities but laments losing them, criticizing the city for selling out most of its small city traditions and culture to massive corporations for a more mainstream fare. The city hockey arena was bought by American investors for the NHL. The new NHL Jets team never took off and eventually the team was relocated and the arena abandoned then torn out, destroying a city landmark that was a source of history and legend. (Maddin observes that "demolition is one of our city's few growth industries.") Much of My Winnipeg shows how Winnipeg has lost much of its original personality, quirk and charm, now modeling itself after the generic metropolitan landscape. The Americanization of one of Canada’s more well known and history-richest cities is perhaps something that is happening across Canada.

The town hall mystics prophecize their city's fate.

And while My Winnipeg is a sad farewell to what made Winnipeg unique, Maddin begins the film by saying that he is trying to escape the city, to leave its downsides behind once and for all. He both loves and hates Winnipeg’s snowy weather, sleepy citizens, desperate hockey craze to break the boredom and, of course, all his traumatizing household experiences.

Tis merely a movie. Real mom is long gone...

The movie self-consciously admits that actors are playing the character stand-ins for Maddin’s family. (Ann Savage, the vicious actress from film noir landmark Detour, here in her last role before her death, plays his mother.) When they aren’t bursting into bickering, the Maddins recycle a mundane routine of gathering around a radio or television set. One of the family’s favorite shows is a Winnipeg TV show called “Ledge Man” about a young man who, in each episode, goes on the ledge of his apartment window and plans to jump to his death, only to be talked down -- sometimes through harsh-yet-humbling “go ahead and jump, see if I care” reverse psychology -- by an elderly woman (who is also played by Ann Savage).

A suicidal jumper being talked down by a mother who says "go on and jump, see if I care": Winnipeg's pass-time TV show.

Maddin’s strict, overbearing mother is constantly suspecting her children are up to no good. She scolds with quips that are humorous to outside audiences but not Maddin and his brothers and sisters. (Not in the moment anyway, maybe in hindsight.) And when she is feeling lonely, under-appreciated and overworked, Mother sometimes lays in bed, refusing to cook, until her kids threaten to let their pet bird loose in the house.

Mom on strike. The cage comes out...

Meanwhile, dull, often absent, but goodhearted Father Maddin works hard by day and watches, plays or coaches hockey hard by night. When home, he sits tired, drinking. Rebellious, promiscuous(?) sister constantly sneaks off to parties. Brothers don’t have much to do or say. One brother kills himself for reasons Maddin does not explain explicitly though much of the film suggests how the peculiarities of Winnipeg and the Maddin existence could drive a person to suicide. Guy, luck him, escaped but is still haunted.

Ledge-Man and the woman who talks him down... err... back inside.

My Winnipeg may not be a portrait of Canadian life true to all Winnipegians, let all Canadians (we are a diverse species). What the portrait does show is a specific subculture (of Canada? of anywhere resembling this place?), so unmistakable and exact as to be recognizable, a life of maddeningly repetitive lives of family squabbles, drinking and sitting around a TV to escape the mundane. Outside this family unit are brain-fogging winter conditions and a city of strange customs and stranger legends. Such an interpretation of Canada makes it seem depressing and odd. It also, paradoxically, reveals Canada as an exciting place to live precisely for its oddness and quirks, a magical land if one knows where to look. There are lurid spectacles hidden in its nooks and crannies. Be careful in your searches though, lest you be traumatized, as Guy was, by the attack of Catholic girls in short skirts...

These were considered short skirts.

My Winnipeg was Guy Maddin’s largest budgeted and most notorious film to date, invited to film festivals across North America, even the “Overlooked Film Festival” of influential Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. The movie wound up on many Canadian and American critic’s 2008 list of the ‘top ten films of the year’ including TIME magazine’s. On the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, 95% of the 77 registered critics that reviewed the film gave it positive reviews. Stop the average citizen of wherever when walking out on the street and my guess is they’ve never heard of it.

A random dancer.

My guess is also that the film can speak to something... something... in every one. Though it is specifically detailed to be Maddin’s vision of his hometown, many critics have even hailed the film as “universal” in its themes and feelings about growing up and living in a city one does not hear about everyday, a city that can appear banal on first impression but is actually a secret fantasy world. Like Maddin’s somehow, despite it all, endearing family, Canada is shown to be a place that grows on its inhabitants, for better or worse it cannot be forgotten or ignored, it casts a spell on you.

Winnipeg: the heart of the world?

Maddin, in "real life", has still not left Winnipeg. (Though he does live part time in Toronto.) My Winnipeg is like the core of his brain (his soul?) on display, revealing the root of all his other revelatory visions, for he is one of the most startlingly original filmmakers of his time (as evidenced by... any of his films really). My Winnipeg, like Fellini’s 8 1/2 or (a recent example) Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, have I been so intrigued by how an artist happens. It's amazing and leaves me with mysteries: next time you go into the bank, should I think twice about what’s really going on in that bland, teller’s mind? Are more Maddins waiting to happen if the National Film Board, who funded this film, send them the money on good faith? I would hope so when the cost of Canada supporting a filmmaker like Maddin is far less than the annual payroll for one of our NHL hockey teams.

The ghosts of hockey-fathers past.



Brand Upon the Brain! Dir. Maddin, Guy. 2006. DVD. Criterion, 2008.

My Winnipeg. Maddin, Guy. 2007. DVD. IFC films, 2008.

Saddest Music in the World. Dir. Maddin, Guy. 2003. DVD. Maple Pictures, 2007.

Very Nice, Very Nice. Dir. Lipsett, Arthur. 1961. National Film Board of Canada.

Websites and Web Articles:

Corliss, Richard. “3. My Winnipeg.” Top Ten Movies. TIME Mag., 2009. Web. October 20th, 2009.

Darr, Brian. “Guy Maddin: “I Had This Haunted Childhood.”” GreenCine, August 6th, 2008. Web. October 20th, 2009.

Ebert, Roger. “My Winnipeg.” Reviews. Chicago-Sun Times, June 26, 2008. Web. October 20th, 2009.

Gillmor, Alison. “Home Truths”., September 7, 2007. Web. October 20th, 2009.

“My Winnipeg Movie Reviews, Pictures.” ROTTEN TOMATOES: Movies - New Movie Reviews and Previews! Rotten Tomatoes, n.d. Web. October 20th, 2009.

“My Winnipeg”. Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia., September 16th, 2009. Web. October 20th, 2009.

Newman, Michael. “February 19, 1942: If Day.” Manitoba History. Manitoba Historical Society, n.d. Web. October 20th, 2009.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Movies are Guy Maddin's religion too...

Long live the new faith!

An image from a Guy Maddin movie. (I'm not sure which one to be honest but will report back if and when I find out!)