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O Canada: <em>My Winnipeg</em> and Guy Maddin

Canadian director Guy Maddin wrestles with the old ball and chain—his hometown—in his newest work, 2008 Festival alum My Winnipeg.
Canadian director Guy Maddin's latest feature, My Winnipeg, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, filters the desire to get out of your hometown, the focus of so many adolescent dreams and Bruce Springsteen songs, through the filmmaker's own inimitable combination of Grand Guginol dreams, hazy memories of hockey, and whimsical black and white images.


It's bookended with scenes of the central character, “Guy Maddin” (played by frequent Maddin alter ego, actor Darcy Fehr) falling asleep as he tries to ride the last train out of his hometown, Winnipeg. As he sleeps, we hear voiceover narration—read by Maddin, not Fehr—where the character is trying to convince himself to leave the train and get out of this town. Through stream-of-consciousness editing and footage taken with a wide variety of media, we see what makes up Winnipeg: The seemingly endless winters and sub-zero temperatures; the purported highest population of sleepwalkers, and the laws the city has put on the books to protect them; the governmental corruption stemming from a male beauty contest; and the creeping gentrification that has caused the destruction of Maddin’s childhood playground, the Winnipeg Arena.


In a 2007 interview, Maddin talked about how Canada, Canadians, and Winnipeg natives define themselves: "We define ourselves through a circumlocution: we’re not American in such and such a way, that’s all.” Perhaps this lack of identity is part of the reason that Maddin's filmmaking engages with Winnipeg and Canada as a jumping off point for his imagination.


At first glance, Maddin's visuals don't necessarily evoke The Great White North: his use of film in heavy black and white contrast and dramatic lighting shows a German Expressionist influence, and on top of that striking trademark, he plays around with the experience of movie-going, as his flickering films appear to bear the scars of bad projection and worse storage, with their cloudy images, deep emulsion scratches, and soundtracks that sound as though they were recorded underwater.


And yet, these scratchy visuals become a Canadian story. Maddin is a fantasist steeped in autobiography and history, and he frequently mines his eventful upbringing for anything from a major story arc to a character’s thrown-off line of dialogue. Through his lens, his much-maligned hometown “Winterpeg” becomes a visionary city where a legless beer baroness can host a contest to find out “which country’s music truly deserves to be called the saddest in the world,” where deadbeat dads work as wax sculptures in a hockey museum, and where lighthouse-dwelling orphans are harvested for their organs and used in bizarre medical experiments.


Biography and hometown first comes to the forefront in Maddin's debut feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, about a early 20th century smallpox scare in a Winnipeg suburb. A subplot involving a friendship between one of the patients at the titular smallpox clinic and an indigenous man touches upon the tensions between the indigenous population and the new settlers, echoeing one of Maddin's primary influences on this film—the “Gimli Sagas," an oral history of some of his ancestors, the Icelandic pioneers that first settled in Gimli.  The “garage-band tone-poem” approach to filmmaking—the film's soundtrack hisses and crackles, the scenery is cloaked in shadows--and the strong, tough maternal figure who guides us through the story precipitates Winnipeg’s fact-based narrative. 


IRMaddin would continue to shoot in Winnipeg throughout the 1990s, but the city may have been his muse in secret; it would be over a decade before he would make another feature that was set in his hometown until 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World.  The initial germ of Saddest came from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, a British novelist best known for buttoned-up stories about repressed butlers and repressed robots like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. The resulting film, an explosion of Maddin-esque sensibility, is reportedly quite different from Ishiguro’s original screenplay, implying that Maddin took the central idea—namely, the competition to see which country makes the saddest music in the world—and ran with it.  Characters such as the legless beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini, in the first of her collaborations with the filmmaker) compliment the Canadian’s ribald sensibility. Saddest depicts Winnipeg both as an ice-encrusted art-deco wonderland where hockey players burst into song and as a frozen wasteland where father and son can battle for the same woman.


After the commercial and critical success of Sadness (relative commercial success, but after all, it does star Rossellini), Maddin went personal with his next work, Cowards Bend the Knee. The result of a 2004 commission from the Toronto gallery Power Plant Contemporary Art, Knee was initially presented as a series of six-minute films visible through peep-holes. This effect blended the serials of early cinema with clandestine porno loops. (The grainy film stock and tactile, grimy visuals add to the film’s feel that viewers are watching something they shouldn’t.) Once it met with great success, it eventually screened as a traditional narrative feature. Again, Maddin's wrestling with biography, as the film portrayed a significant early romantic relationship—an imagined love triangle between young “Guy Maddin” (Fehr, in his first portrayal of Maddin) and a mother and daughter who work in a beauty salon that doubles as a crepuscular abortion clinic. When he suspects he impregnated his girlfriend, Meta, "Maddin" seeks the advice of a trio of deadbeat dads who work as wax sculptures at a hockey museum in the Winnipeg Maroons’ arena—advice that leads him to a spectacularly Vertigo-like climax on the ice during a hockey game.


This, in turn, brings us to Winnipeg, which could be seen as Maddin's final word on the city. The film’s premise stems from his desire to leave his homeland, as shown from the opening and closing shots of “Maddin” riding an endless loop of a train, trying to motivate himself to get off. Why would anyone want to leave a city as great as Winnipeg? As Maddin gives his hometown a thorough backwards glance, we see some of the unique moments in its history: a fire that left several horses frozen under a layer of ice, creating a trysting spot for residents of the town in an early 20th-century winter, a séance held at City Hall by a former ballerina and her cadre of retired prostitutes, and a pinup girl in an organized labor newspaper who presides over the Winnipeg-That-Could-Have-Been. At times, Winnipeg plays like Guy Maddin’s Greatest Hits: We see the high points from his career in thematic touchstones such as his portrayal of his family, and in stylistic moments like the séance scene, which plays like an outtake from Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary


At the close of Winnipeg, "Maddin" is still riding the train around his hometown, seemingly unable to deboard.  It’s an evocative image, suggesting what a hometown and a muse can mean to you, both born from deep affection and fear. While “Maddin” may be stuck, the film seems to point the way to the director's future.  Sequences of the Winnipeg Arena’s destruction, and the “MT Center,” which replaced it, mark the first time he has made use of DV, and a few scenes employ the use of Lotte Reiniger-style shadow puppetry—two innovations for Maddin’s work. In saying goodbye to Winnipeg, he's broadening his artistic palate.


And that goodbye has its roots in real life. Maddin himself is moving on, away from his Winnipeg, blowing the joint up as he leaves: he’s moving to Toronto.  Winnipeg’s loss is Toronto’s gain.


Looking for more Maddin? Click here for his brilliant, exhilarating, award-winning short The Heart of The World. Perfect for Maddin newbies.


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