You certainly can and probably should go home again, at least according to the faux approximation of himself in the 2007 pseudo-documentary/experimental homage My Winnipeg from Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. However, donning nostalgic garb calls for drastic reinvention. A director who has built a painstaking filmography of films imitating silent and lost titles from annals of vintage cinematic eras, his name can both provoke and evoke the emotional state phonetically represented by his surname. But whether one embraces his style or not, there’s no one quite like him.
This year is off to a great start for Maddin, beginning first with his second title to grace the Criterion collection (his 2006 title Brand Upon the Brain! also holds this distinction) as well as the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival of his latest work, the operatic The Forbidden Room (which pays homage to the two-headed Roman god, Janus, looking forwards and backwards simultaneously, god of thresholds). Partially autobiographical but as equally fantastical as all of Maddin’s confections, his examination of his childhood existence and the eternally sleepy city referred to as the “heart of the heart” of a continent is an enigmatic trip through the rabbit hole of memory lane.
Opening with actress Ann Savage as Maddin’s mother, known as one of the most ferocious film noir femme fatales of cinema thanks to her vicious turn in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film Detour, we find the actress gamely being fed lines by the off screen director. Shortly, his narration reveals that he will be reenacting several important moments from his youth, with actors portraying his siblings, a mound of dirt representing his father’s body planted in the middle of the living room, while we’re told his mother is playing herself—which is, of course, not true. His own on-screen personification (Darcy Fehr) is continually shifted about on a continually moving train cutting a swath in and around Winnipeg, as if caught in the vortex of memory’s orbit, spinning around like the tornado swept Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. As we navigate through the bizarre and generally humorous memory of Maddin, we get a history lesson of the city, which we’re told has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world.
Architecture presents a skeleton key to the city’s activities as well as a navigational tool for his late childhood and adolescence, filled with wanly homoerotic tendencies and a rage at Winnipeg’s bid to open its prized pastime of hockey up to American ownership once the Winnipeg Arena was abandoned for a bigger, better infrastructure. A true mixture of fantasy, reality, and inventive recuperation, there’s no point in fact checking, for Maddin means you to swallow his little pill and swim into a magical spell filled with provocative images, from a strange Golden Boy pageant, a made up Canadian soap opera known as “Ledge Man,” used as a metaphor to explore familial issues, and a herd of frozen horses, sent reeling into the night after a stable fire, twisted cruelly into gnarled statues of the frozen river, becoming that season’s winter picnicking area.
Criterion’s high-definition digital transfer was supervised by Maddin and DoP Jody Shapiro, and its purposeful grain and playful vintage visuals gives the film, like many of Maddin’s titles, the aura of a well-preserved artifact. A handful of masterful extras accompany the director’s second entry into the Criterion collection.
Four Cine-essays w/Evan Johnson:
Maddin’s frequent collaborator Evan Johnson (who is co-director on The Forbidden Room) presents four visuals essays, ranging from one and a half to four minutes in length: Puberty, Colours, Elms, and Cold, each representing a visual exploration of a specific theme.
Maddin & Enright
Nearly an hour interview conducted by art critic Robert Enright is included, exploring the origins of the film and the difficulty between Maddin’s style of filmmaking and what actress Ann Savage was accustomed to.
My Winnipeg: Live in Toronto, 2008:
The title played at Toronto’s Royal Cinema and featured Maddin’s live commentary as the film played.
Five Maddin Shorts:
Five shorts are included from Maddin (the last directed by Drew Christie.
Spanky: To the Pier and Back (2008) – A four minute film devoted to the dog from Maddin’s childhood.
Sinclair (2010) – A four minute film created for the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Only Dream Things (2012) – A twenty minute film presented for the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
The Hall Runner (2014) – A three minute segment featuring the titular item.
Louis Riel for Dinner (2014) – A three minute animated short film directed by Drew Christie and based on an idea from a crumpled note Maddin discovered in 1964.
While it won the Best Canadian feature award after premiering at the Toronto Film Festival back in 2007, My Winnipeg was the last of Maddin’s five features during the naughts and is easily one of the most ambitious and experimental works from an already offbeat body of work. Beautiful, strange, and endlessly intriguing, there’s a nostalgic bite to the film which lasts well after its bizarre visual poetry subsides from view. Though impossible to discern some of the fact from fiction, it matters not, as we’re invited to laugh along with Maddin’s trip down memory lane. Relating the story of a mynah bird that meets an unexpected end at the hands of his mother feels like an unrehearsed gem of a moment, while the deliberately confusing use of actress Ann Savage is ever the extra textual delight.