With Brand Upon the Brain, Guy Maddin stepped it up a notch, and his new film My Winnipeg proves he's hit his stride. A phantasmagorial semi-documentary, My Winnipeg delivers on its promise of a subjective look at Maddin's hometown. Maddin's sensibility is one of weird, witty wonderment, but it's also infused with an emotional honesty. This is a sincere "Dear John" letter to the great, tumultuous loves of Maddin's youth: his family (including his mother, played by '40s femme fatale Ann Savage) and his city, which he pegs as turning its back on its own idiosyncrasy in hopes of becoming a modern destination.
Maddin dreamily weaves fact and fiction in pursuit of a higher truth about his own experience of the city. In his voice-over narration, Maddin refers to his town as "the Heart of the Heart of the Continent," a place no one would ever want to leave but that Maddin at long last hopes to escape. He poetically suggests that he is the child of The Land as much as of the Mother, both having a "magnetic pull" on him. But he reasons that he can get both out of his system: "What if I film my way out of here? It's time for extreme measures." The strategy, conceived by a half-asleep Maddin (played on-screen by Darcy Fehr) seen slumped on a dream train, is the stuff of this "documentary" of Maddin's psyche. One more tour of Winnipeg's geographical nooks and historical crannies, family photos and home movies and archival photos and footage; one more consideration of the unique nature of Winnipeg; and a daring Freudian experiment—then surely he can leave.
Or perhaps, like the participants of a "Treasure Hunt" Maddin imagines in the town's history, rooting through everything that makes Winnipeg great will only convince him not to claim the top prize of a ticket out of town. Maddin's tales from Winnipeg are sometimes straightforward (the legendary local controversy over "the Wolseley elm," the 1919 General Strike), but more often Maddin plays fast and loose, imagining things as they could be or could have been. He claims, for instance, that "Winnipeg has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world...Is it the mystically paired river forks? The biomagnetic influence of our bison? The powerful Northern Lights?" He dreams up "man pageants" presided over by the uncontrollable Mayor Frank Cornish, as well as the only television drama ever produced in Winnipeg, a daily soap called "Ledge Man."
The latter, says Maddin, starred his mother, who would convince the suicidal hero to return from the ledge to live another day. But in the household of Maddin's youth, she's given to obsessive whims and emotional cruelty. These days Maddin "recreates" with actors playing his three siblings (Savage plays Maddin's mother playing herself) in a kind of sick reality-show lock-in complete with early-sixties fashions. These passages yield to explorations of other influences on the director's personality: the "gynocracy" that was the hair salon run by his mother and aunt and the mysteries of sexual formation born out of his days at the public pool (where Maddin claims to have been bullied into a "Dance of the Hairless Boners") and his childhood idolatry of hockey stars like Fred Dunsmore. (Maddin never mentions here his later life married with children.)
The director also explains why he's "ashamed to be a Winnipegger." The demolition of traditional buildings, like the Winnipeg Arena, for "empty" new replacements strikes Maddin as an insult, even "murder." It's also an invitation to revisit the death of his father, former business manager of the Canadian National Hockey team. "Even the architecture in Winnipeg is sad," Maddin muses. As he tears into inept political leadership, the unspoken question is clear: can this city be saved from itself?
Filmed in the same lovingly old-timey, predominantly black-and-white style—complete with intertitles—as Brand Upon the Brain!, My Winnipeg proves that Maddin has perfected his idiosyncratic use of montage: dreamy imagery and hypnotic, jittery verbal repetitions, with brilliant musical collage aiding the mood. A lover of silent film, he's also the closest thing to its modern practitioner, as in a sequence of a sxually charged, balletic séance. Here, Maddin also employs swatches of color animation that recall cinema's first animated feature, the silent The Adventures of Prince Achmed. If there's a more creative filmmaker working, I'd like to meet him.
Best of all, despite the film's incredible specificity as one man's take on one city, the wistful My Winnipeg achieves a powerful universality. It will be intuitively understood by anyone who's ever had a love-hate relationship with home, anyone who has obsessed over the formative years, anyone who has lived long enough to look longingly to the past and nervously to the future.