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Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(IFC Films)


Friday, June 20, 2008

My Winnipeg
Directed by Guy Maddin
(IFC Films)

Reviewed by José Teodoro

With his thrilling new documentary portrait of his hometown — or rather, his new “docu-fantasia” — Guy Maddin proves that you can go home again. And again. And again. If you come from Winnipeg, in fact, you may have no choice in the matter. Narrated by Maddin, and heavily laden with lyrical repetition so as to better send audiences into a wintry trance, My Winnipeg proposes a prairie citizenry of somnambulists haunted by a bad case of eternal return, loomed over by snow banks, lulled by muffled train whistles, cursed with a labyrinthine conspiracy that keeps them from leaving the city limits, architecturally embedded with a geometry of symbols that allude to occult municipal histories, sporting atrocities and aboriginal mysticism. These Winnipeggers retain the keys to all their previous homes and, by law, current occupants are required to allow previous occupants to pay a visit. In this desolate city that lays in the dead center of Canada time plays tricks, and the past is ever rumbling upward to overtake the present.

Typically eccentric, frequently hilarious and mostly black and white, whipping itself into frenzies of rapid, fetishistic montage, fuelled by movie lust — not to mention regular lust — and composed of found footage and faux found-footage, My Winnipeg is the sort of documentary that proudly disregards anything resembling what Werner Herzog refers to as “the accountant’s truth,” presenting viewers with such a flurry of dubious information, sensation and ribald anecdote as to leave those attempting to summarize it breathless. Maddin mixes research with delirium, public life with private, the external with the internal. As the title implies, the Winnipeg considered here is conveyed through the prism of Maddin’s perpetually perverse perspective, a city loved, lived-in, grappled with and finally given over to the author’s towering talent for imaginative, psychically denuding bullshit. His approach is similar to that of his blatantly autobiographical — and shamelessly fantastical — Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). Like those films, My Winnipeg deserves to be seen as among the most distinctive and finest works in his 20-year career.

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of My Winnipeg is the subtle way in which Maddin alludes to his supposed entrapment being ultimately self-imposed. Maddin complains about the ways in which the city refuses to release him from its grips, to move forward rather than in sleepy, nostalgia-choked circles, yet Maddin himself is unable to let go of the past. That’s particularly evident in his seething, rapturous anger over the destruction of the Winnipeg Arena, the hockey stadium where he claims to have been born, which he refers to as his “male parent” and where he recklessly snuck in to take a final pee just before it toppled into dust.

Like the brain-damaged protagonist in Tom McCarthy’s terrific, disquieting and very funny novel Remainder (2006), Maddin is compelled to stage obsessive recreations of relatively innocuous moments from his life, hiring actors to portray him and his family members. Most notable among the cast is Ann Savage, one of the stars of Edgar G. Ulmer’s canonical poverty row noir Detour (1945), here playing Maddin’s overbearing mother, “a force as strong as all the trains in Manitoba.” It’s as though Maddin feels unable to forge a path out of Winnipeg until he reckons with each and every minute memory he retains of his now 52 years spent there. Yet the fact that My Winnipeg opens with a close-up of Savage taking exacting line-readings from her off-screen director tells us that the past isn’t so much being examined as dictated, exploited, prodded and poked, steered in directions that might offer a glimmer of something deliciously fraught with some heady new oneiric significance.

Part of the raison d’être of My Winnipeg may come from Maddin’s desperate determination to leave. Yet, like hapless Tom Neal in Detour, he seems umbilically roped into an intricate Freudian stratagem of his own design. He can wriggle and writhe but each time he thinks he’s on his way out he finds himself tangled only more tightly. For all the dangerous, alluring women found there, Winnipeg itself is Maddin’s true femme fatale — but at least it’s his Winnipeg.


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