I may be getting a bit frustrated with Guy Maddin’s more blatantly autobiographical progression away from the exquisite fiction of films like Careful and Archangel to the autobio trilogy of Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand Upon the Brain! and the new My Winnipeg. But while the return to more mother-based melodrama and hockey references definitely wears thin, there is no denying that Maddin is pushing himself as an artist, as well as the expanses of his unique form of early-talkie pastiche with each one of these films. If Brand Upon the Brain! tackled silence and sound so memorably by using a live narrator, orchestra and foley sound effects with each screening, Maddin bites off even more with My Winnipeg—the maker of fevered stories of sublime artifice has made a documentary on his hometown!
Well, actually this is less a strict documentary than a documentary in spirit, tapping into Maddin’s past as well as that of the so-called sleepwalking city to plumb truths more poetically, emotionally, and expressionistically true than actually factual. Told from the point of view of a Maddin stand-in dreamily trying to escape the unusual pull of the snowy city, the director delves into the more unusual characteristics and events in the city’s history (sports triumphs and architectural shames, fake Nazi invasions and guy-on-guy/girl-on-girl public swimming pools) while telling a bit of his own story, casting his “mother” (played by Ann Savage!) as his own mother re-enacting scenes and moods of his childhood.
These falsities are, as expected, the film’s best moments, Maddin staging an age-old and truly bizarre confrontation with his mother after his sister ran over a deer in the middle of the night in a particular highlight. The former thinks the blood and fur on the front grill is some girlish euphemism for the poor girl’s deflowering, and she hilariously, irrationally questions the sluttishness of her daughter based on the massacre of the deer. Elsewhere, couples go romantically strolling down an ice-covered river where horses had frozen after fleeing a fire, their heads sticking up through the ice in grotesque poses that soon grew comforting and quaint to the town residents. Maddin’s humor comes through perhaps stronger in this film than any other (he narrates himself, with dialog by regular collaborator George Toles), pushing an obsessive, if not repetitive, theme of the life of a city and the life of a boy being an inescapable series of traumatic, almost unreal conflicts and co-minglings of unreturnable pasts and their dream-like traces in the present.
The presence, effect, and history of a city, it is clear, makes as much an impression on one’s growth from childhood to an adult as does the drama in one’s own family. Maddin’s film is really, without overweening egotism, an ode to the way he grew up, and the delightful peculiarities his city and his family have imparted on him. Nowhere are these peculiarities more evident than Maddin’s charming adaptation of the story of his strange city into the story of his own strange, humble self.