I caught “My Winnipeg” (2007) at its debut screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. After the screening, the first question to director Guy Maddin was from a man who introduced himself as a former resident of Winnipeg. He was blunt: “Why did you make a movie about Winnipeg if you obviously hate it so much?” Maddin, either caught by surprise or maybe just waking from a daydream, paused for a while and replied in a very non-confrontational manner, “Well, you’re the one who left. I still live there.”
If I paraphrase more than I think I do, attribute it to the vagaries of memory which makes an appropriate segue to this strange and wonderful movie that Maddin has described as a docu-fantasia. Perhaps the cranky questioner’s real complaint was that the film had not shown his Winnipeg but rather Maddin’s Winnipeg, precisely as promised in the title. This Winnipeg bears an undeniable resemblance to other Maddin movie cities like Archangel and Gimli, frozen cities sculpted out of waking dreams. Maddin’s Winnipeg is populated by sleepwalkers with giant key chains, frozen horse-heads, invading Nazis, hair salons, the forks, the laps, the fur…
Towering over them all is mother, simultaneously loving flesh-and-blood and devouring myth. Maddin spends much of the film recreating his childhood (1963-ish, the film indicates), even renting out his old home to re-unite his family to play out some of the more baffling scenes from his youth. Actors are cast to play his siblings, but mother is played by Maddin’s real mother. Except not really. She’s actually played by Ann Savage, the actress famous among cinephiles for her ferocious femme fatale in the noir classic “Detour” (1945). But no matter, she’s the real mother Maddin too. That logic works just find in this Winnipeg. (Savage, in her mid-80s and long out of film, is absolutely fantastic here. What a face!)
Guy Maddin appears in the film as well, though he’s placed by Darcy Fehr and spends almost every scene asleep on a train, just “sleep-chugging” his way out of Winnipeg with “out” leading inexorably back in. Maddin also narrates (the real, real Maddin I mean) in a hesitant voice, repeating words (“Winnipeg. Winnipeg. Winnipeg.” kicks things off) like he’s constantly brushing away cobwebs that grow right back. Brain Webs! Sleep Webs! A remembrance of things forgotten.
That’s the essence of Maddin’s cinematic project, or at least that’s my Maddin. Each time we remember we move one step further away form reality, first remembering the event, then remembering our memory of it, then remembering that memory, warping and buffing it each time. At some point it becomes myth which can become art when filtered through the properly blinkered sensibility and boy howdy does Guy Maddin have that in spades.
Shooting in black-and-white, often high-contrast and heavy on grain, Maddin sorts through a lifetime’s (his and his city’s) detritus to stitch together a history of delusions and absences. Indeed the film is at its most poignant when evoking sights and sites no longer there: a demolished hockey arena, a former swimming complex that hosted strange adolescent rituals in its subterranean levels (“The Dance of the Hairless Boners!”), secret seances conducted in Masonic city halls. Maddin’s dead father and brother too. And don’t forget Toby, the Maddin family’s long, long, long dead chihuahua (played here by a pug named Sparky, of course. What a face!)
But what kind of Winnipeg is Maddin’s Winnipeg? On-screen Guy Maddin might be trying to escape it by train, but narrator Maddin knows he never will, not in his dreams anyway which is what counts most. This portrait of a city, another in a glorious tradition of cinematic city portraits, is simultaneously affectionate and bemused. Maddin (the narrator, the Darcy on the train, whomever) can’t quit his home town and he’s not entirely sure why and that’s part of the reason, the unsolved mystery (a redundancy of course – a mystery solved is just… a book report). There’s a magnetic force beneath the forks of the twin rivers that tugs irresistibly at Winnipeggers, keeping them in their city at the heart of the continent, wandering the streets in search of homes they no longer live in or maybe never did, their greatest exploits barely remembered but still lurking beneath and ready to erupt.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to visiting the real Winnipeg. But I’m delighted I get to visit Guy Maddin’s Winnipeg whenever I want to. It’s haunted in all the right ways, beautiful and frustrating and breathtakingly funny at times, at least if you find the idea of exhuming your father’s corpse and burying him in the living room funny. And if you don’t, what’s wrong with you?
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It’s difficult to assess the fidelity of this high-def transfer considering the idiosyncratic look of any Guy Maddin film. Many scenes are made to look weathered and fading, some sequences employ hyperactive “neurological” editing. In any case, the black-and-white is rich with a pleasing grain in some scenes. Image sharpness varies but that’s expected; several intertitles are intentionally shot in blurry focus, for example. All in all, I think the transfer (supervised by Maddin and producer/cinematographer Jody Shapiro) handles the challenges quite well.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track sounds hollow and empty when it’s supposed to, and clearly mixes Maddin’s narration and other dialogue when needed. Music and isolated sound effects dance around the periphery as they should. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. English intertitles (usually one or two words) are presented without subtitles because, well, they’re in English and they’re already on the screen.
Criterion has cobbled together an appropriately eclectic collection of extras.
First up is a collection of four “Cine-Essays” by filmmaker Evan Johnson. The disc describes them as being about various Winnipeg residents but you wouldn’t know that from the films which are titled “Puberty” (1 min.), “Colours” (2 min.), “Elms” (3 min.) and “Cold” (4 min.) The last one is mostly about cucumbers.
Next the disc includes a lengthy (52 min.) interview with Guy Maddin conducted by art critic Robert Enright. The two know each other well enough to have an easy rapport and Maddin speaks at length about the making of the film. As you can guess from the movie, the narration was largely improvised and the many repetitions and hesitations are a result of Maddin always wanting to keep going even when he had no idea what to say next. Maddin also shares some interesting stories about working with actress Ann Savage.
“My Winninpeg: Live in Toronto” (9 min.) is a documentary piece about a June 18, 2008 screening at the Royal Cinema in Toronto. Maddin reads his narration live for the audience. There’s not much more to the feature than that.
Maddin has made some of the great short films of the past few decades. Criterion has included five relatively recent shorts. “Spanky: To The Pier and Back” (2008, 4 min.) features actor Spanky the Pug walking through the snow to the pier. “Sinclair” (2010, 4 min.) was shot for the opening of the Bell Lightbox Theater in Toronto and employs a Michael Snow-style camera (a la “La Region Centrale”) to tell an impressionistic account of Brian Sinclair, a Canadian man who died while waiting more than a day in the ER. “Only Dream Things” (2012, 19 min.) was made for an installation at the Winnipeg art Gallery and uses old audio from Maddin’s family records along with some family videos and other footage. These three shorts also include brief introductions (2-3 minutes apiece) by Maddin.
The other two short films (no introductions provided) are “The Hall Runner” (2014, 3 min.), a riff on a scene from “My Winnipeg” and the animated “Louis Riel for Dinner” (2014, 3 min.) which might be my favorite of the shorts on this disc.
A Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) rounds out the extras. Alas, no episodes of “Ledgeman.”
I don’t really like Criterion’s new fold-out format for its insert booklets but in this case the fold-out enables you to get a nice-sized poster for the film on one side. The other side includes an essay by cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum.
This makes Guy Maddin’s second entry into the Criterion Collection in addition to “Brand Upon The Brain!” With two new Maddin films coming in 2015, let’s hope this is just the start of a trend. “My Winnipeg” may not be your idea of a documentary, but that’s probably the case with a lot of the best documentaries (unsurprisingly, Maddin references Werner Herzog a few times in his interview on the disc). With a neat and weird collection of extras and a solid transfer, this Criterion release comes highly recommended.