Friday, May 09, 2008

IFFB 2008: My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin is not a weirdo.

If you've seen his movies, that might be a bit of a surprise, but it's true. I expected him to be something like David Lynch, or what I imagine David Lynch must be like. But, no, he's an affable, funny, self-deprecating guy who took a bunch of questions after My Winnipeg, with a ready smile and joke. The Chlotrudis folks were excited to meet him, and he seemed sincere about wanting to come back to Boston more often. I suspect he'll be next year's Chlotrudis Awards honoree.

My Winnipeg

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 April 2008 at Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (Independent Film Festival of Boston)

Guy Maddin has long had a love-hate relationship with his home town of Winnipeg; most of his previous films have been set there and portrayed it as a place nearly as dreary as it is bizarre. My Winnipeg isn't very different from his purely fictional films in that respect. The affection comes across more clearly here than in those films, even as it is delivered with a kick.

Maddin describes My Winnipeg as "docu-fantasia", which is as good a term as any. He inserts himself into the film with a couple of peculiar devices - in one, he is on a train out of town hoping to escape before the hypnotic snow causes him to sleepwalk back home; in another, he is renting his childhood home and hiring actors to play his siblings so that he and his mother can re-enact crucial moments from his childhood in a scientific experiment to determine the cause of his neuroses (Darcy Fehr plays Maddin, noir actress Ann Savage plays his mother). He posits that not only do rail lines and rivers converge in in Winnipeg - "the forks", he repeats, like a dozy mantra - but so do the ley lines along which mystic energy flows. This is Maddin's world, after all, and therefore peculiar.

It's so peculiar that the audience has to wonder how far the tall tales Maddin tells have evolved from reality. Does Winnipeg really have an uncommonly high population of sleepwalkers, and if so, do the city laws requiring their accommodation actually exist? Was a team of horses flash-frozen in the river after a fire, their protruding heads forming a grotesque yet arousing backdrop for the locals' evening promenades? Did "What If?" Day, with its simulated Nazi invasion, actually panic the city? One could look such things up, but does it really matter? These legends may say more about the city and Maddin's relation with it than mere facts might, and the stories themselves are uniformly hilarious. There's a great collection of anecdotes here, and they absolutely make Winnipeg a memorable city.

Other sections of the movie focus on how the city has changed over the years, and there's something kind of universal about those segments. He talks about how the diminishing importance of river and rail transport have reduced Winnipeg's importance as a shipping hub. There's a section on the city's uniquely constructed public swimming pool. Local department stores close and are replaced with chains. But for all that, the real passion comes out when it comes time to discuss how the city's hockey fans have been treated. We hear how the Winnipeg Arena was a major part of Maddin's youth, and there's a certain satisfaction when the 2006 implosion only destroys the additions to the original structure. There's no such love for the MTS Centre that replaced it, which isn't even large enough to host an NHL team should the Jets be replaced.

Anger fairly drips from Maddin's voice when he talks about the Jets leaving the city, a change from the whimsical or resigned tones he uses through much of the rest of the feature. It's a bit odd to hear Maddin's voice so directly; for as much as many of his films contain autobiographical material, he would distance himself by having an actor portray him, placing the stories in a fantastic context, and a visual style that suggests the first third of the twentieth century. That's all still there; My Winnipeg's black and white photography mostly looks like a long-lost movie, frequently grainy but sometimes sharp. The action itself is often silent, with just Jason Staczek's music and Madidn's narration, with the exception being the recreated scenes from Maddin's youth, where we get to enjoy femme fatale Ann Savage's first major role in fifty years.

To a certain extent, this verbiage is kind of unnecessary; this film is mainly going to appeal to those with an interest in Winnipeg and Guy Maddin's fans. If you're in the first group, remember that the title does promise that it's Maddin's Winnipeg and expect strangeness (although this may be Maddin's most mainstream film). For those in the second, well, enjoy. This is Maddin at his funniest and most playful.

Also on EFC.

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