Featuring: Darcy Fehr, Ann Savage, Louis Negin and Amy Stewart. Directed by Guy Maddin. 80 min. Rating N/A.
About 20 years ago, when I reviewed Guy Maddin’s first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the only way I could think to describe it was: “With flashbacks within dreams within flashbacks, it’s as though the Western Canadian tourist bureau had hired Luis Buñuel in the early ’30s to make a promotional film about their industries and cultural heritage — and this is what he stuck them with.”
Who would have guessed that after seven intervening features and more than a dozen shorts, someone actually would hire Maddin to make My Winnipeg, a documentary about his hometown?
By now, anyone hiring him is likely to realize that, regardless of the specifics of the commission, anything he directs will be very much in keeping with his extremely idiosyncratic body of work. This “docu-fantasia” (as the director has called it) has substantial historical footage, and it relates many true incidents from the city’s history — though it’s hard to be sure just which are true and which are part of Maddin’s cinematic fever dream — but we’re definitely not talking about Ken Burns or even Michael Moore here.
The phrase “fever dream” is quite precisely what the movie’s framing device suggests. A rumpled, unshaven man named Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, reprising his role from the 2003 Cowards Bend the Knee) is on an outbound train, after years of unsuccessful attempts to leave the city of his birth. As the train chugs along hypnotically, he seems to be riding the edge of sleep, stuck in that uncomfortable twilight zone between dream and reality.
Even more hypnotically, Maddin — the real Maddin this time — narrates, weaving his family history, the city’s history, and God knows what else into a work as funny — and sometimes as creepy — as it is informative.
Maddin the narrator tells us that, in order to probe the past, he spent a month living in a re-creation of his childhood environment. He hired teenage actors to play his siblings and sublet the house he grew up in. (Unfortunately, the woman he sublet it from decided not to leave; she sits placidly in the middle of the room as he makes his movie.) Only his mother, he says, will actually play herself.
Except that he’s lying. Or maybe telling us this as the character “Guy Maddin making a documentary” — located on a plane somewhere between his fictionalized family and the real world — rather than as “the real Guy Maddin making a movie about the character Guy Maddin making a documentary.” In fact, his mother is played by Ann Savage, the actress who achieved immortality more than 60 years ago as the vicious Vera in Edgar G. Ulmer’s ultra-low-budget Detour. This is only the second film Savage has been in since the early ’50s, and she delivers fully. (Near the end of the movie, Maddin the narrator mixes the levels up even more by briefly referring to one of the actors by his real name, while still insisting that Savage is his mother.)
Many of the least likely incidents in the movie turn out to be (as far as I can determine) real, like the story of 11 horses fleeing a burning stable and slipping into ice water that freezes around them; for the entire winter, their frozen heads stuck out of the ice “like 11 knights on a vast white chessboard.” All winter, the area was treated as a kind of park.
At the far end of the credibility spectrum is the long-running TV show LedgeMan, in which (Maddin claims) his mother starred. Every episode was the same: The hero, driven toward suicide, would threaten to jump from a building ledge, until his usually hectoring mother would convince him to come back inside.
ut what of Maddin’s claim that Winnipeggers have the highest rate of sleepwalking in the world? That everybody carries with them the keys to every home they’ve lived in? That a local law requires a resident to allow any former occupant to spend the night?
t might sound horribly arrogant to turn a “documentary” about a city into a history of your own emotional development, but the more one studies the body of Maddin’s work, the more it makes sense. Maddin is himself a product of Winnipeg; his artistic personality seems so bound up with his environment that his “personal” Winnipeg tells us a lot about the “objective” Winnipeg — if such a thing really exists.