You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week editor Conor Bateman looks at Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg in the lead-up to the Smash Cut Cinema screening of the film on the 29th of August.
It was 2008. The 55th Sydney Film Festival was fast approaching and I, only fifteen, sat poring over the pages of the festival guide. The 18+ exclusion hit hard but that didn’t stop me from marking up a wishlist of films to see. What had gotten my attention first was the still image chosen for the guide – a man and a woman standing behind a horse’s head, in what looked like a field of horses’ heads sticking up from the snow. That led to me watching the trailer of the film, a wonderfully obtuse introduction which cleverly positions one narrative hook – the notion of re-enacting your childhood on film – front and center. I last saw the film in 2009, purchased on DVD for an exorbitant amount of money (probably $28), whereafter it managed to worm its way into my mind and memory.1 Revisiting it takes away that initial splendor but also forces me to look at the film through a new prism – in the last five years I have seen many more Maddin films and comparisons to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell, a more recent (and also Canadian!) hybrid-documentary feature about family and re-enactment, are now present and clear.
“This time I’ve leaving for good. Again.”
The film is concerned with more than just re-enactment and family, though, the way in which the narrative sprawls beyond those concepts is of primary interest. Maddin never really ties down any narrative aim other than the need to “film my way out” of his city and his memory; he meanders through family and city history, inventing and elaborating on fact and infusing absurdity into each vignette, and the film moves, albeit loosely, on metaphorical (and intermittently real) railway lines through space and time.2 We hear of a town plagued by sleepwalkers, a theme park overrun by buffalo, a war between taxi-cab companies, a television show about a man on a ledge that ran for 50 years, and a mock Nazi invasion – and some of those are founded in truth!3 Maddin plays on the ‘stranger than fiction’ documentary premises of Errol Morris and takes it down a path more akin to Welcome to Night Vale than critical and clinical analysis. The short stories, then, are almost alien in their execution, finding more in common with conceptual novels than cinematic discourse.
The film’s narration is poetic, both personal and abstract. Despite being played by a surrogate actor in the film, Maddin himself narrates. The dialogue was written by George Toles, a film professor at the University of Manitoba and a longtime Maddin mentor/collaborator.4 In a piece by Donald Masterton, he quotes Toles’ frustration at the prism through which critics view the work of himself and Maddin, labelling it “postmodern parasitism on earlier forms of cinema”. In his opinion, “feeling is central to the whole enterprise”, and sudden emotional poignancy is an element oft-present in their films. Toles has also shown a somewhat-refreshing approach to writing scripts, freely playing with concepts and images with less regard for the drive of plot. He has said that “I don’t feel that, as an entity, a script is ever a finished thing. A novel can be finished. A poem can be finished. But even the last, last version of a shooting script is still a draft.”5 My Winnipeg seems to embrace this notion, feeling less like a cohesive whole than an entrancing mesh of ideas, running off into one another on a whim.
Maddin’s (more recent) trademark visual style – mostly black and white and shot on a 1.33:1 aspect ratio – is on show once more, the film inviting extensive commentary on the evolution of the cinematic form as it relies on motifs from the silent era and film noir.6 Maddin cuts between 16mm, Super-16, Super-8, MiniDV and HD, using rear projection to conflate theatre and film whilst also using archival footage for the first time in one of his features.7 He also invokes a more ‘live’ aspect to the film through his own narration, which, in select festival performances (including Sydney), he read out live on stage during the screening.8
“Everything that happens in this city is a euphemism”
As a filmmaker, Maddin is positioned in an unusual space. Most of his more recent films have been commissioned works – Keyhole, his 2011 feature, was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts – and My Winnipeg is no exception, with the Documentary Channel asking him to craft a personal tribute to his home town. Maddin said of this that, despite initial resistance to the genre, “I realized I could make a documentary if it was about myself as a resident of a city in which I have mixed feelings. That way, the movie touches on something universal”.9 The way he approaches the city is through myth-making and restrained affection, he wore his lack of research proudly on his sleeve. He details demolitions and the destruction of a suburban tree as tragedies on a larger scale and manages to bring the audience with him. We, too, feel enraged as we seen the destruction of the Winnipeg Arena, the existing literal myths that we all attach to the notion of sports and idols hammered away by financial ruin.10
Despite the personal perspective and approach to the city of Winnipeg, Maddin is surprisingly restrained with detailed personal information. He mentions the death of his brother Cameron when he was young but never elaborates on the circumstances, in fact this distance becomes quite poignant when a later scene actively deals with the distance between Cameron and his mother, a powerfully sad notion of regret imbued in it.11 He states that he will ignore the depiction of his father (who in the re-enactment is represented by an exhumed body under a carpet in the living room) yet ends up unable to avoid discussion as he recounts his love of ice hockey as a child and his father’s occupation in the industry (“I was literally born in the changing room”), which, in a sense, makes disregard for structure somewhat touching.
He has B-movie actress Ann Savage (of the film noir Detour) as his mother, of which the metatextual implications – a career revival after 50 years akin to his revival of childhood memory – are playful and intellectually stimulating, adding to the invocation of film noir elements in this film. He places his ‘mother’ as the star of a long-running serial show called “LedgeMan”, in which she talks an oversensitive version of Maddin down from jumping off a building every day. The scene is played with levity on the surface but carries with it a dark undercurrent, akin to a more frivolous incarnation of a sequence from Synecdoche, New York. The character of Guy Maddin is played by Darcy Fehr, who also depicted a version of the director in Cowards Bend the Knee. This continuation of the ‘portrait of the artist’ places the dreamlike My Winnipeg within a strange temporal state – like an earlier ‘You Have to See…’ feature, Lynch’s Inland Empire, Maddin’s film actively seeks out an unknown space in dreams and the mind – though focusing on a dream state rather than Lynch’s nightmares.
“Thin layers of time, asphalt and snow”
A sequence of the film that stands apart from the rest is the dialogue-free ‘séance’ recollection, in which the film moves into ballet as the mayor’s daughter becomes entranced by the statue of a buffalo. Conceptually absurd and funny, the scene also achieves an odd resonance because Maddin seems so adept at merging film and ballet form – his earlier film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is an impressive silent film told through the performance of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.12
My Winnipeg is distinctly the work of Guy Maddin, sprawling and obsessed with a hyper-nostalgic aesthetic. Unlike many of his other films, though, here there is a clear avenue for universal reception. By making a specific work about his hometown we too are able to latch onto notions of collective memory and childhood. It may be a slightly disarming experience watching the film but it’s ultimately affecting.
Dominic Ellis: I didn’t actually read Conor’s write-up until after last night’s screening of My Winnipeg, but about 40 minutes in I made the same mental note about the similarities to Welcome to Night Vale. They’re both about mysterious, quasi-supernatural towns, but they also share a similar sense of absurdity. It’s quite telling that the thing that bears closest resemblance to Madden’s film is a podcast, because for me there was something really hypnotic about the narration. It’s charmingly poetic, and I sort of wish I was on the festival scene in 2008, because a live recitation would have been all the more so
The film, as a whole, I loved. Initially its sort of disconcerting – it feels, at first, unfocused – but it sucks you in with a balance between completely surreal moments (like the ballet sequence) and suburban struggles, such as the destruction of the town’s beloved tree. Something Conor didn’t really touch on is just how funny Winnipeg is. The town’s only television show ‘Ledge Man, which repeats its premise from week to week, was a particular highlight. These absurdities are constructs of Madden’s oft-fond nostalgia. He remembers his hometown as a place of recurrence and replication – “the forks, the forks, the forks” – but he can’t escape his own obsession. My Winnipeg places us inside Madden’s tussle with his own obsessions and inhibitions, and it’s enthralling.
Brad Mariano: I’d never seen a Maddin film before, and part of my own biases (my broader skepticism towards North American independent filmmakers) meant this, again, was one of the films I envisioned when we started this segment. I wouldn’t have seen this film for a good while, and what a shame that would have been – this really was a delight. So funny, and if a little short it definitely produces some great images and moments. Following on from Conor’s points, exactly what is true about this made it so fascinating – we know his brother did die, and that Ledge Man sadly wasn’t probably a real show (though I would have watched it) – but what of everything in the middle? The exchange that sticks with me is the mother’s reading of his sister’s deer collision as a metaphor for loss of virginity. There are so many exchanges like this where the truth/fiction line is troubling. It strays away at times from the premise and the potential it has (re-living the past, the other woman playing along) but this is a really impressive film.