July 16, 2008

Wonderful Winnipeg

My Winnipeg is not a conventional film. Guy Maddin's latest, a docufantasia according to its director, charts his attempts to escape from his hometown to which he is tied by ties of memory, history and culture. But it is much more than a buldingsroman- it is rather the tale of a mystical attempt at escape. My companion watching the film described the experience as being like watching a dream- she was right- there are those faint connections, bearly perceivable- my own thought evoked by a line in the film about Winnipeg calling it an unreal city, was that it ressembled the poetry of Elliot or the prose of Joyce. The film is a stream of thought- rather than a movie with a conventional narrative- and you have no sense at any point of where you are save that you are in Winnipeg. Maddin confronts his childhood, his anger about his own town- he makes actors act the parts of his family- brilliantly using the old Anne Savage (last seen in Edgar Ulmer's fantastic Detour in the forties) to play his mother and casting some deliberately wooden actors as his siblings- one of whom died when he was 16. His father is played by a mound of earth in the living room buried under a rug- the man died in the seventies and Maddin chooses to recreate his image in this way- a tomb amidst the room, a silence in the maternal confines of the home. Lastly there is his dog- Toby- played by his girlfriend's pooch- who in a comic turn looks nothing like the original dog.

You might think we have the cast- but oh no we don't. For as we go through the film we see a variety of characters from Winnipeg's past- great hockey players, school boys, girls and nuns, mayors, Prime Ministers, whores and Indians. Some flash by so that you scarcely notice them, others like a dancing mistress at a seance stay in your mind. All add to a fascinating panorama- a description of a city in the flakes of memory, reflected in the flakes of the ever present snow. One image- the image I have chosen to put up on the blog- stays with me and that is of horses who escaped from the fire only to freeze in the water. This is a film filled with images- it is a collage- from a vagina to a set of rivers merging and the arteries of blood rushing through a human being- from the ever present falling snow, trains through the streets, workers rushing at soldiers, the first world war, a hair salon, a department stall, a male stripping contest etc etc etc there is image after image after image- it is like a carnival into which everything that Maddin associates with his memories of Winnipeg is thrust and it is there for a reason.

The dreaming is not purposeless for it conveys the essense of what Maddin himself is. Towards the end of the film we have the semi-Stalinist worker's princess who gestures everything back to life and would enable Maddin to leave his memories- but of course what Maddin demonstrates is that that would be false. How can there be a city without memories? Ok some of those memories are farcical and some are of downright evil (regret with Maddin the demolition by philistine politicians the great monuments of post war Winnipeg and share his outrage by all means): but they are all memories- they are all real associations. They are all moorings in a world of chaos. This movie is about geography- it is about the way that geography really leads us all the way back to the womb- one of the reasons that Maddin is fixated by his mother is that as his mother says at one point, I gave birth to you. Its a revelation that is worth thinking about- we are our histories. In some way, Maddin is Winnipeg and should he escape Winnipeg- he would escape Maddin. This curious dream world is the director himself and its resistance to being circumscribed in the traditional narrative of film is his resistance. In that sense this film is a final affirmation of the crucial part character has to play in movies- character cannot even be confined by the construct of plot, story or narrative.

If Maddin is Winnipeg, then furthermore that means that Winnipeg is an aspect of Maddin. This is another thing that justifies, that explains why this film is important. Winnipeg without a human being does not exist- or rather it does- but dully. Winnipeg as imagined exists and is real- it is a place that matters to human beings. Ultimately the dream of Winnipeg is more important than the reality of Winnipeg- in a curious way when Maddin gets actors to react his family life the reaction is more important than the actual action that it immitates. For the reaction is that part of the family life that Maddin has preserved, archived and that still to this day influences him- the rest of the participants are either dead or have their own version- but none have the truth. The world Maddin is telling us in this deeply humanistic work is what takes place in human minds- it is important for the associations it creates within us. Part of being human is to have those associations and the dialogue between us and the world is what makes life worth living. Ultimately Maddin presents to us his Winnipeg- in so doing he shows that that is one of the many Winnipegs that matter and all of which have an owner who calls them mine.

And they are all indeed- as the song says- wonderful.