#88 in Best of the 21st Century?, a series in which I view, for the first time, some of the most critically acclaimed films of the previous decade.
My Winnipeg filters municipal history through personal experience (or perhaps vice-versa) so forgive me if I do something similar for a moment. Besides, my initial draft of this review was swept away – demolished like the old ice rink shown above – and in starting afresh, I feel compelled to make a meta-blogging and perhaps self-promotional detour. Lately I’ve been blogging rather furiously, trying to meet the demands of a new schedule I forced upon myself; as a result I am often composing my posts at the last minute (as opposed to this past summer where a leisurely pace allowed ample time to develop entries at my own tempo). Due to the way I’ve scheduled things, I end up writing a post in my Wind in the Willows series and the latest entry in “Best of the 21st Century?” every Monday night, and this week I noticed some similarities. To wit: in “Wayfarers, All,” a late and seemingly digressive chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s classic book, the Water Rat meets a Sea Rat who regales him with tales of the Mediterranean; transfixed, the hypnotized creature – who’s never left the riverside before – prepares to follow his newfound friend on a grand adventure. He is stopped, at the last minute, but his faithful but perhaps somewhat oppressive pal, Mole, who physically restrains him and then talks him down from the dizzying height of his wanderlust. Thus “cured” of his restlessness, a depressed Rat sits at his desk and scribbles out some poetry about willow wrens.
Such an instinctively hysterical response to spontaneously-formed travel plans may strike us as odd nowadays – and perhaps did so even back in 1908, when Englishmen were hardly regarded for their international timidity. Yet Grahame – himself an intensely imaginative individual chained to a desk at the Bank of England – no doubt related to Rat’s restraint, either with bitter irony or wistful resignation. They say you can’t go home again, but to many people that might seem more like a hopeful promise than a plaintive regret. As we are introduced to him in My Winnipeg, seated on an old-fashioned engine rumbling out of town as fast as it can go (and informing us that he’s fleeing the town of his birth for good), it would appear that Guy Maddin is one of those people. Actually “introduced” is misleading – we never see Maddin onscreen (at least as far as I’m aware), and while we do witness a representative figure squeezed into a cramped train car, watching Winnipeg speed by his window, this visual is only a sort of totem, there to give us an impressionistic sense of Guy’s mental state. The real Guy is behind the camera and on the soundtrack, narrating throughout – hardly any dialogue, and certainly neither talking heads nor man-on-the-street interviews clutter up this “documentary.”
And “documentary” must be in quotes. The recent epoch was the decade of the doc, with the form so popular that filmmakers better known for fiction made what many consider to be their best work in nonfiction. Spike Lee, with When the Levees Broke, would be one example; Agnes Varda another, with The Gleaners & I. Maddin would seem to fit in with this crowd; many of his most acclaimed films – in recent years, Brand Upon the Brain!, The Saddest Music in the World – are resolutely fantasist, wearing their artifice with pride. They incorporate silent-film intertitles, charmingly fabricated sets, and a narration (sometimes meant to be presented as a live accompaniment) far more intoxicated by the possibilities of elaborate hoax and legend than any duty to truth-telling. Well, so does My Winnipeg – yet it is also stuffed with fascinating facts about the Canadian city, structured around recollections of Maddin’s childhood, and filled with vintage footage of the wacky town in action. And even if 90% of this fantasy/documentary/memoir movie is a work of fiction, what remains would still be enough to render Winnipeg’s history remarkably eccentric – though possibly no more so than any other city privileged to hold a Maddin as local historian.
It’s hard to say, or hard for me to say anyway, what Guy Maddin made up and what he didn’t – in a way one doesn’t want to know. We can be fairly certain that, for fifty years, Winnipeg’s only dramatic series has not been a show called “Ledge Man,” in which Maddin’s mother (playing the part since 1959) portrays a woman talking her son down from a ledge every week, convincing him not to kill himself, only for him to become suicidal again in time for next week’s episode. Fairly certain of its fiction, of course, but also fairly certain of its psychological truth for Maddin and his intensely Oedipal/claustrophobic/loathing relationship with his mother and his hometown, which he often conflates. (Mama Maddin is played by Ann Savage, most famous for her ultra-fatale femme fatale in Detour, although Maddin claims on the soundtrack that this is his actual mother, hired by him to restage traumatic scenes from his youth, alongside young actors employed to portray his siblings – one of whom she falls in love with.) On the other hand, I am willing to bet on the authenticity of that tree, isolated in the middle of a roundabout and declared by Ripley’s Believe it or Not “the smallest park in the world.” (Such notoriety was a red flag for the nefarious civic government – the mercilessly, and on all the evidence deservedly, ridiculed villain of the piece – and when prevented by a linked-arm chain of old ladies from cutting the tree down, they apparently hired a vandal to dynamite it.)
And what of the rest? What of the horses who raced from a burning track in the dead of night, swimming across the wintry river until they froze, their heads poking out of the ice for the remainder of the season? What of the ghostly players, the hockey legends of Winnipeg’s youth, who play rough pick-up games in the demolished rink, ignoring the wrecking ball overhead? What of the 3-floored swimming center, a pool on each floor, with the boys on bottom running around naked all day, tormenting a youthful Guy for hours on end? What of the the elder Maddin’s death coinciding with his team’s sale to the NHL, what of Guy’s sister using a hit-and-run deer accident as an excuse to make love to a stranger, what of the Indian legends about a “fork under a fork” (in the river), the homeless citizens relegated to rooftops by a merciless government, the municipal law forbidding the disposal of old signage, what of the decadent “Golden Boy” parties thrown atop a seedy nightclub in the 1930s in which an otherwise straight-laced mayor selected the juiciest pin-up guy based on physique and handwriting? One almost suspects that the least plausible of these items are among the truest, or hopes so anyway.
At times, Maddin’s style almost seems to get in the way of his subject, so fascinating are the anecdotes and the little connections. Since Maddin’s films usually thrive on their complete and utter fantasy, there’s an uneasy tension at times between his pursuit of truth and his love of the elaborate fib – this exists less in the uncertain boundary between actuality and imagination (which is quite fertile and provocative) than in the unspoken struggle between Maddin’s flamboyant but transparently “fake” mise en scene and the unruly fascination of the reality he’s dealing with here. It seems almost unnecessary to gussy everything up so wildly – yet upon reflection, more often than not, the discursive and digressive approach complements the stories being told. If the film has a major flaw it is ultimately that maybe there isn’t enough here. One Netflix reviewer claims that the film runs out of material and repeats itself but in fact I suspect there was room for much more – and the movie might be even better if Maddin had more time to explore: this feels at times like a day trip when what we really want is a long weekend excursion into the depths of Winnipeg’s somnambulist melancholy.
One of my favorite passages in the film occurs when Maddin explores the back alleys of Winnipeg – according to him, these streets (on which every local “in the know” travels) have their own taxi service, apart from the city’s primary fleet, as well as their own secret names, not listed on any street signs but ingrained deeply in their residents’ consciousnesses. He displays a map of these interweaved roadways and says it’s as if a secret city has been imposed upon the existing one, both existing in parallel dimensions between which one can travel on whim, as long as one knows the passwords. Perhaps – or perhaps it’s Maddin who has imposed the secret city upon the other one, the Winnipeg of his imagination upon the one that exists. In the end, the eccentric city of history and the projection of Maddin’s inner life make an extraordinary fit. Meanwhile, it turns out that the train we saw him on in the beginning is not necessarily a way out of town: some of the city’s lines actually run in a loop and passengers must keep constant vigilance, peering out their windows to ensure they aren’t returning from whence they came, in a hellish geographical incarnation of Groundhog Day.
In My Winnipeg, Maddin plays Rat and Mole and the Sea Rat, as well as a smattering of Toad and the Weasels too for good measure (Maddin relishes iconography from the city’s 1919 labor clashes, both dismissing and kind of digging the characterization of the workers as “Bolsheviks” as well as their run-ins with Catholic schoolgirls in the vicinity). He is both homebody and his own tempter away from home, but ultimately his conclusions differ from Grahame’s because the aborted voyage out of Winnipeg is not a return to the familiar safeties of home, but a renewed recognition of its challenges and its provocations, with all the rich fuel these provide for his creative fire. The film has a strong political streak, in the Tip O’Neil sense (“all politics is local”): the Winnipeg political establishment can’t be happy with how they’re portrayed here. (Among the civic government’s colossal blunders: refusing to build or expand a new rink, thus chasing their long-time professional team out of town; then tearing down a landmark department store and building in its place…a rink…that is barely beneath regulation size even if a professional team did come back to town; then finally tearing down the old, classic rink because the town apparently wasn’t big enough for the both of ‘em!!!) Maddin’s ultimate inclination to stay is due in part to a protective feeling toward the city – here it is not he who runs a risk by leaving, but the city that runs a risk by him leaving it. The city, which begins as his mother, performs a role reversal by film’s end, so that now Maddin is the responsible parent, afraid to leave his wounded, threatened, “special” child-city behind. Ultimately, despite the welcome casting of Savage, the family-reenactment sequences are the least interesting in the film; the real drama is not between people but between a person and a place. The relationship is not just parental but almost marital – My Winnipeg, for better or worse, till death do us part. You may now kiss the horse-head.
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