Memento Mori

In one-of-a-kind Guy Maddin’s paean to Manitoba’s cold and sleepy capital city, the Canadian surrealist analyses his relationship with his home town, its history, the people and his own family for My Winnipeg, an archly comic, monochrome pseudo-documentary.

Over the course of his nine features and umpteen short films, Maddin has honed his unique method – influenced by silent films, industrial shorts, golden age melodramas and camp science fiction serials – to create a flavoursome, visually breathtaking body of work unlike any other. It is also one which you will either love or hate on sight. In My Winnipeg, commissioned by the local government, Maddin pens a fluid biography of the snowbound city, using old stock footage, puppetry, video and painstaking recreations, one of which opens the film. We then cut to a long poetic sequence on a moving train as Maddin, (played by Darcy Fehr) tries one more time to leave Winnipeg for good. Maddin narrates his story in a sonorous baritone, blending old legends and questionable history with an acid critique of the town’s efforts to modernise itself and fantasies about his youth and his family.

As Maddin tells it, Winnipeg is a place of dreams, its citizens sleepwalking through the streets at night dreaming of the ancient natives and lost underground rivers. They dream of lost back streets, forgotten department stores, old sporting glories and strange historical happenings; like when horses fled a stable fire and were trapped in a freezing river to, overnight, become a macabre sculpture garden for local picnickers. Maddin recreates it all, from the waving skaters astride the staring, icy horse heads to an infamous Masonic séance that channelled the god of the bison through a psychic ballerina. The director himself plays a role in these intricate restorations, describing how he made a facsimile of his childhood home and cast actors to play his siblings. His mother, he tells us, was herself an actress, starring in a local soap opera called Ledge Man where, every day for 50 years, she talked a suicidal man down from the side of a building with sweet words and gentle encouragements.

We are told Mrs Maddin is playing herself, but in fact, the role is taken by Ann Savage, a leading lady in 1940’s noirs, most notably the surreal classic Detour. I didn’t recognise her - she is 87 now - but seeing her name in the credits, I was tempted to find out what else Maddin had invented. Are the city streets in fact named after famous brothel keepers? Is there a by-law that allows Winnipeggers to keep the keys to their old homes? Was his convent school really named “The Academy of the Super Vixens”? Did a corrupt mayor once fix the result of the annual Golden Boy male beauty pageant? No, of course not, but it doesn’t matter. In Maddin’s singular imagination this is how it happened and he spins from those fragments a fascinating, funny tale of place and time, loss and remembrance.


Medbh said...

John, it was mostly all made up. The hockey segment was partially true, except that the old guys didn't get to play a last game before they tore the arena down.

Anonymous said...

Liked this a lot. The deadpan humour, the melodrama, the narration, the deep affection, the creativity...

A visual poem... A paean to the mystical lore that is buried deep in all cities.

One of those films that hardly anyone will ever see, yet so many people should.