The Star surrenders to My Winnipeg's dreamscape

By Geoff Pevere
Toronto Star
May 10 2009

My Winnipeg, a book that contains filmmaker Guy (The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain) Maddin's annotated script for his eponymous 2007 Documentary Channel-commissioned movie about his home town, will not get you any closer to an understanding of the city. It will, however, drop you rather precisely in the psychic locale, which is to say his Winnipeg. It's one odd place.

A vaporish melange of civic history, archival footage, bald-faced fabrication and wheedling confessional, My Winnipeg (the film) beggars the parameters of 'documentary' as it crashes into the dusty corridors of something altogether new. This is a city reconfigured as dreamscape, and as such might be one of the most honest personal tours of a place ever committed to film.

In a sense, no place really exists apart from our own experience of it. Maddin's Winnipeg is at least concrete insofar as it reveals where this most determinedly eccentric of Canadian filmmakers came by his far-flung weirdness.

So what if his Winnipeg bears only the most casual resemblance to the city where Neil Young went to high school, where one of last century's defining labour disputes took place or that the Assiniboine and Red Rivers converge at a place called The Forks? All that really matters is that the latter convergence summons to Maddin's mind the crotch of his mother, and therefore the very site that gave birth to one this country's most stubbornly idiosyncratic artists.

In case you don't know, Maddin is a 53-year-old moviemaker who works in a mode you might call high delirium. Since his feature debut 21 years ago, with a micro-budget fever dream of a movie called Tales from the Gimli Hospital, this youngest son of a hairdresser mother and hockey administrator father has carved out a formidable international cult niche for himself.

Although commercial success has so far eluded him, artistic credibility has slowly come to adhere Maddin fiercely: his work, which combines excavated silent movie tropes with what feel like the nocturnal emissions from an engorged brain, is at once impenetrably murky and dreamily immediate. It only hurts if you try to figure it out. As with dreams themselves, the path to pleasure is paved by surrender. Maddin's movies are like dope for the eyes.

If you've seen the movie My Winnipeg — and it in no way diminishes the fascination of this book to suggest that it's best appreciated if you have. You shouldn't be surprised to learn that in the book, Winnipeg doesn't come into any sharper focus for being more extensively referenced and revisited in Maddin's tributary-like digressions.

While you might be pleased to learn that 'If Day,' the event depicted in the movie in which Winnipeggers staged a mock, cautionary invasion by Nazi marauders in 1942, did in fact take place, you will not get the same sense of historical clarification for certain others of the movie's more provocative claims.

I'm still doubtful, for example, that a herd of horses were once frozen up to the neck in the Red River, at which point 'lovers gather to sit among or even on the frozen heads for picnics or to spoon beneath the moonlit dome of our city.' Verification still eludes the movie's assertion that 'Winnipeg has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world.'

Meanwhile, we'll have to take whatever corroborative succour we can from the book's candid verification that Maddin did indeed once steal the hockey jersey of Soviet hockey star Anatoli Firsov in order to enjoy 'a few erotically charged secret slapshots before tossing it into the Forks for fear the KGB would catch me wearing it.' In this matter at least, history is served.

This handsome companion volume contains not only the movie's heavily annotated script — in some cases, the floridly articulate Maddin digresses for a full page or two on incidents and notions every bit as obsessive and impertinent as those included in the film — but also dozens of family photos, Dadaist collages, long-hand script pages, colleague testimonials, cast interviews and an extensive conversation between Maddin and an especially receptive fan named Michael Ondaatje.

A representative excerpt: MO: 'Did those fragments, those technical things like photographs and footage — how much did that govern or continue to direct the story?' GM: 'I can't remember how many times I walked the dog thinking about this.'

As a supplement to the movie, My Winnipeg might well be essential, but not, I should caution you, as an instrument of artistic illumination. Like the movie, the book is most fun if you just let it lead you where it wants, which is a place no map will help you find.

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