3 August 2010
Say you want to create a documentary about your hometown. Unless you come from someplace really cool and/or self-evidently important — say, New York or Paris — your mixed feelings about it in general probably combine inextricably with a sense that it’s really sort of laughably provincial to anyone else. Guy Maddin must have faced this problem when he was commissioned by Canada’s Documentary Channel to create a film that documented his personal history with Winnipeg. But because Maddin is a mad scientist of a filmmaker, he approached this as an opportunity to put the city on the couch — and himself as well — by interspersing archival footage, evocative current-day shots, and the psychological history of his own family and particularly his relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage), a fearsome woman and “a force as strong as all the trains in Manitoba.” “My Winnipeg” (2007) is the documentary version of LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology — that is, it’s so misleading and redolent of pure fantasy that one begins to question the very nature of its genre, whether museum or documentary. You’ll think about it for days.
Maddin’s Winnipeg is perpetually snow-covered and dark, often shot with a single camera in the windshield of a car, filming straight ahead as the car plows through lonely streets after a fresh snow. He shoots its ordinary storefronts, its dreary Cold War-era homes, its empty buildings. When he’s telling what seems to be the truth, Maddin’s voiceover is stream of consciousness brilliant and poetic. Early on, for example, he describes his family’s home connected to his mother’s beauty salon next door. Using dozens of great bits of footage from home movies, he tells us, “I’ve often wondered what effect growing up in a hair salon had on me”:
I loved the noises, the shop always a-whirl with gossip, laughter, buzzing, snipping, the clatter of trays dropped on the floor, door chimes, the phone always ringing, shrieks, shrieks over the roar of the dryers, the air always acrid with lotions, fuzzy with sprays, cloudy, cloudy, cloudy with hair sprays, helmets, helmets, cutting of hair, the torturing of hair, helmets, the drying of hair, helmets, sweepings of hair, the hair chute for the sweepings leading down into the basement, the air vent leading upstairs, right into my bedroom, bringing me every word of conversation that roiled out of that gynocracy.
You see? It’s crazy and wonderful and rings true whether or not it’s actually true. This is a man who is very familiar with psychoanalysis (and that should be no surprise, given his earlier films’ debts to the aesthetics of German silent film and the topics of repression and emotion).
His knack for creating the look of archival footage, however, means that when he lies to us with pictures we don’t know where truth ends and pure fantasy begins. A massive fire at the racetrack in the 1920s led all the horses stampeding out of the barn to die, frozen, in the river; he tells us that Manitobans held their winter carnival there, taking pictures of themselves next to the agonized horses’ faces. He discusses the city’s short-lived amusement park for First Nations people (delightfully called Happy Land) in the same voice he uses to explain that a ghostly hockey team of former stars of the Winnipeg Maroons, now calling themselves the Black Tuesdays, still skate the ice at one of the ancient rinks.
Best of all is his treatment of the First Nations’ myth that the city’s massive forking river is mirrored by another river deep underground, “a Forks beneath the Forks” traveled by ghosts and ancestors. He intersperses images of the Forks with a close-up, triangular shot of his mother’s naked crotch, intoning, “Forks, lap, Forks, lap…” as he forces us to think about the twinning of such mythical notions of shadow worlds and sexual neurosis. “A city of palimpsests, of skins, of skins beneath skins. How to decode the signs of the city?”
These scenes combine with delightfully random “re-creations” (exorcisms?) of moments in his family’s past. They might be mundane, like the daily attempt to straighten a rug in a hallway with his mother barking orders at them, or traumatic, like the time his sister’s car hit a deer late one night and his mother had an overwrought reaction that was both irrational and spot-on. All the while we learn not to trust much about his “documentary,” but it leads you to think about how your own relationship with your home town is fraught with half-truths and vaguely remembered moments, crazy, embarrassing and embarrassed. Like all his films, “My Winnipeg” can be self-indulgent (and unnecessarily hard on his mother, if you ask me), but that won’t matter so much the next day; you’ll only think about what film can do when its director is set loose to follow his nose. And for those of you suffering through long miserably hot days (STILL in Lubbock, dammit), the bitter scenes of snow, ice, and sleep will cool down your core temperature, and possibly invade your dreams.