My Winnipeg (2007)
Dir. Guy Maddin
Dialogue By: George Toles
Starring: Ann Savage, Darcy Fehr, Louis Negin, Amy Stewart, Fred Dunsmore
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I dream of home." - The Time of Your Life by William SaroyanWe all dream of home. Even if our homes are one and the same, no two dreams will ever be alike. Most notably, those whose homes might have been fraught with the madly paradoxical emotions of deep caring and the most repellently denigrating, rancourous T-Bone piledrives might recognize the patterns, but will indeed experience details in their odious nocturnal reveries that will be uniquely all their own.
For Guy Maddin, he generously removes the top of his skull, dips a brush into the viscous ooze of his magma-like grey matter and splashes the torpid incubi, which roil about his puffy cauliflower mush almost Jackson Pollock-like onto the canvas of cinema. Though all his pictures are deeply personal, none cut quite to the marrow the way My Winnipeg does - his most wondrous, haunting and heart-achingly moving work to date. This autobiographical documentary, filtered through dreams of home that live and breathe on celluloid in ways no other filmmaker has quite managed to achieve, is a triumph of form, beauty and wit that's unequivocally unique.
Like every film by Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg works within a Holy Cinematic Trinity. First of all, there are all the important insights into the gentle madness and tantalizing repression which consumes Winnipeg, and as such, all of us. These, can be enjoyed, appreciated and worshipped by everyone - regardless of race, creed, colour and/or private predilections. Secondly, one discovers the provision of mirror images for all Canadians, but especially Winnipeggers, of the corners, back alleys and closets of shame which cascade throughout our nation (well, mostly Winnipeg). Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly are the elements which provide special meaning to about ten people in the world (and yes, full disclosure, I am one of them), though brilliantly they work just as splendidly for others, albeit on surface levels which can never be cracked open to reveal the depths of shame shared by God's Chosen, those who share specific experiences with Maddin that remain close to our breasts of joyful remorse.
Let us examine the first tine of the Maddin Trident. My Winnipeg is, perhaps, the most truthful, historically accurate and penetrating history of the Gateway to the West, Little Chicago, the former hub of western expansion - that beautiful winter city snow bubble which trembles with reticence at any sign of outsiders, yet emits swirling clouds of fluffy snowflakes, eternally floating amidst the pain and despair which all of us cling to like the warm blankets that we pull over our heads to hide our sorrow, to keep it private and, by extension, holy.
We all must escape the Winnipeg of our hearts and minds. Flight is inevitable. As Sherwood Anderson wrote in his book "Winesburg, Ohio" (Winesburg actually being Anderson's thinly disguised version of Winnipeg):
"The young man's mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams… With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat [of the train compartment]. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out the car window the town of Winesburg [really Winnipeg] had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood."Such is Guy Maddin. Such is Winnipeg. Such are all who have left love behind to temper the hatred of our new environs with the fleeting memories of that which shaped our very being.
Maddin, at the beginning of My Winnipeg, has not left. "I need to get out of here," he declares in his voice-over narration, "It's time for extreme measures." Yes, indeed. Extremity is, after all, what Winnipeg is all about - a city where temperatures plummet to such numbing lows that exposed flesh will freeze in less than 30 seconds.
With the threat of frostbitten limbs turning black and requiring amputation, it's best, really, to nestle oneself in a fluffy blanket of forgetfulness - and dream, dream, dream - if only to remember in the best manner of remembrance, through the clouds and mists of our foggy minds shrouded in the comfort of Nod's Land.
Maddin, however, chooses to be proactive with his documentary. He gets the kind of idea only a Winnipegger could (or would) get. "What if I film my way out of here?" his narration asks - mostly to himself, but, as an afterthought, the audience as well.
It's time for extreme measures, indeed.
Maddin does, what nobody in the history of cinema and the genre of documentary has ever done. He captures his flight from Winnipeg, by touring through it on the city's mighty trams which slowly wend their way through the city's grids. Even better, Maddin chooses an actor to represent himself so he can more conveniently concentrate upon directing the picture.
Darcy Fehr, who played Maddin in Maddin's Cowards Bend The Knee is the only man for the job. Fehr is Maddin's cinematic doppelgänger and acquits himself in the role perfectly. Having shared many naps with Maddin myself, I can attest to the fact that Fehr's naps as Maddin are matched only by Maddin himself. In fairness,though, actor Kyle McCulloch in Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful does indeed give both of them a run for their money. For an actor to rival another actor portraying a living human being is one thing, but McCulloch's ability to nap onscreen comes very close to out-Maddining Maddin in the nap sweepstakes.
Winnipeg, of course, is the nap capital of the world and this is one of numerous examples where Maddin feeds us a delicious factoid about this sleepy, flat, midwestern Canadian city. Maddin informs us, quite accurately, that Winnipeg has "10 times the sleepwalking rate of anyplace in the world."
Somnambulism is hardwired into the DNA of all Winnipeggers. The natural tendency to sleepwalk is not restricted to such vaguely ambulatory acts as walking, but one will find that most, if not all of those who live in Winnipeg will happily operate moving vehicles under the influence of noctambulist impulses.
One fact Maddin neglects to mention, perhaps because it is not shameful enough, is that drinking and driving, whilst technically illegal in Winnipeg, is so socially acceptable that many party hosts will slosh more rotgut into one's beverage receptacle with the hearty toast, "Come on, have one more for the ditch" - referring, of course to the wide ditches of Winnipeg which fill up with snow for 10 months of the year and flood waters for the remaining 2 months, so that drunk drivers who go off the road can gently cascade, ever-so safely, into the fluffy-floaty cushions which prevent dangerous flips most associated with such activities.
It's quite perfect, really.
One waits quietly in one's vehicle, still sipping from the nectar floating in a jar of open liquor until the flashing lights of an RCMP cruiser arrives, waiting patiently on the side of the road for a tow truck to arrive until the scarlet-adorned officer of the law can then point the way for the burly trucker to skilfully winch the safely-stranded vehicle back onto the road, whereupon the smiling Dudley Do-Right offers up a knowing wink-n-wave so the drunk driver can continue on his (or her) most merry way.
But, I digress.
As Maddin's narration intones, Winnipeggers "dream while we walk and walk to where we dream." And here's the rub, the second tine of the aesthetic trident; Maddin not only secures an actor to play himself, but he rents his old West-end Winnipeg childhood home on Ellice Avenue which now sits atop an Asian tailor shoppe. He takes one bold step forward and casts actors to play his sister Janet, his living brother Ross, his long-deceased brother Cameron and then borrows his girlfriend's pug to step in for the equally-long-dead family chihuahua. A body, representing Maddin's long-dead father Chas, is shoved under a rug in the living room so he too may experience this grand experiment at discovering the past in order to move on. Now that Maddin assembles this surrogate immediate family, all parties can now live for one month as, well, as a family again, with cameras rolling upon the makeshift Maddin clan.
And here is the all important third tine of Maddin's aesthetic trident of shame.
Mother all eternal.
The sweetly immortal Herdis Maddin will be portrayed by none other than the legendary "Velma" from Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 film noir masterpiece Detour. Over 60 years later, in the middle of the first decade of the new millennium, Savage travels to Winnipeg from a rest home in California to take on her most iconic role since the Ulmer picture. She is perfection incarnate. Ann Savage proves to be as spry, powerful and sex-drenched as a century-worth of Fjallkonan Queens (super old Icelandic ladies wearing humungous head-dresses) who have been crowned during Gimli, Manitoba's Islendingadagurinn, then photographed and immortalized in a volume (available for purchase exclusively at Gimli's annual Icelandic Festival) which provides such delectable masturbation material that it effectively puts Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, Oui and She-Male Love Tunnel collectively to shame.
This third tine might be Maddin's greatest achievement. In fact, it might well be one of the greatest achievements in all cinema history. If one has been intimately acquainted with Guy's Mother, the thought of Anne Savage playing her is tantalizing enough, but once one experiences the performance, there's the added pleasure of seeing a great actress embodying the indomitable spirit of Mrs. Maddin herself. Ah, and for those not intimately acquainted with Guy's mother, all is not lost, for the third tine still affords a brilliant performance by one of the genuine goddesses of the silver screen.
One of My Winnipeg's most breathtaking set pieces is a recreation of an incident from the Maddin family past when his sister Janet (Amy Stewart) comes home late at night in a disheveled state and tries to explain to her mother that she's had a horrendous car accident on the snowy Trans-Canada highway halfway twixt Falcon Lake, the cross country skiing haven for Winnipeg WASPs and Prawda, a proud rural enclave of hearty Ukrainian immigrants ("Prawda" is translated into English as "Truth") and home to the world-famous Yogi Bear Bistro. And here is where we all, no matter which side of the trident's tine we fall on, experience Janet's tearful recounting of a genuinely harrowing experience that is then transformed into a nightmarish, accusatory interrogation launched by Mrs. Maddin as she somehow concocts an imagined shameful sexual tryst twixt Janet and a kind man who helped her out on the highway.
This veritable Holy Spirit of the trident's tine indeed offers additional pleasures to those who have heard Guy recount the tale before (usually round campfires in Gimli under the stars and rustling leaves of elm and birch trees). The anointed few are blessed in ways that someone present at Jesus Christ's Last Supper would hold in their hearts forever. For those not-acquainted with this arcane piece of Maddin family history, the intensity does not abate since they're afforded the sheer joy of an octogenarian "Velma" from Detour abusively spitting out the bile of accusatory maternal concern over her daughter's potential to have succumbed to sexual depravity. This is the stuff great dreams and even greater cinema are made of.
For everyone, it's a win-win, especially since this and, in fact, all of the domestic dialogue in My Winnipeg has been written by longtime Maddin screenwriting collaborator George Toles with the precision, expertise and downright tasty floridity originally generated by only the greatest of Old Hollywood scribes who, of course, penned the very best studio and poverty row noir and melodrama. In particular, the words Toles infests Ann Savage with are singularly pungent in their malodorously bilious venom.
When I first saw the film, the aforementioned scene infused me with the most stratospheric levels of gooseflesh I'd ever experienced in the over 30,000 films I've seen in my life. It's that great! Subsequent viewings never disappoint.
As I was born, raised and lived the first 33 years of my life in that magical old winter city of Winnipeg, I thought I knew everything, absolutely everything about it. Well, that was before seeing My Winnipeg. Maddin stuffs his film with so many magnificently tasty globules of history, all of it glistening with the sheen of truth, that I must admit to being overwhelmed with shame - DEEP SHAME over all he reveals that I did not know.
For example, Maddin reveals that in its heyday, the grand old Eaton's department store in downtown Winnipeg was so popular that 65 cents of every Winnipegger's retail dollar was spent at Eaton's. God knows, it was one of the very few places my family shopped, but thanks to Maddin's deft research, I'm now aware of the precise amount of money my Mom and Dad shelled out into the large pockets of Timothy Eaton, founder of this majestic store. I suppose I could have guessed this, but the fact remains - I DID NOT KNOW IT!!!
SHAME! REMORSE! HOPELESSNESS! MORE SHAME! ANGUISH! These are what drive Winnipeggian existence, to be sure, but they are multiplied ad infinitum when faced with IGNORANCE!
Thanks to My Winnipeg, however, this ignorance is abated - somewhat.
Of course, no documentary about Winnipeg would be complete without focusing upon the fascinating hidden grid of the city via its network of back lanes. Back lanes were always a favourite route to travel, especially during the melancholic joy of the Christmas season when one desperately needed to avoid Winnipeg Police Department spot-checks in order to drive freely whilst blind drunk (often holding/guzzling the aforementioned jars of open liquor parcelled out by party hosts).
What I personally learned about these alleys by watching Maddin's film (and in so doing, admitting further my utter ignorance oh-so-very shamefully) that during a bitter rivalry between Winnipeg's two cab companies, the city fathers needed to put an end to the deadly, gangland tussles twixt porkpie-hatted cabbies and ordered one company the ability to use the main streets and the other to use only the alleys.
This must have seemed a brilliant solution to the City Fathers, but if truth be told, cabbies were now cluttering many back lanes that were exclusively the domain of those wishing - on foot or behind the wheel - to engage in surreptitious avoidance of prying eyes.
In spite of my ignorance of the cabbie rivalry, I was always aware of just how tantalizing and shameful these alleys were: filled with noxious trash, the abhorrent refuse of the odious citizenry, the dark shadows of despair one could happily stumble through when life seemed to have little meaning, wherein one could derive solace in knowing that it couldn't get much worse than urinating and vomiting behind someone's garage, or even occasionally using a pothole or two in Winnipeg's network of sorrowful alleys to squat and release fetid faecal matter when, on not-so-rare occasion it became nigh impossible to clench one's buttocks together (an almost vice-like grip ALL Winnipeg Mothers trained us in to avoid using public washrooms as children in order to avoid being molested by pedophiles - no matter how much WE might have craved such shameful fondling).
Ah! Winnipeg back alleys!
The preeminent fairgrounds in which to plunge madly into the nadir of one's horrendous existence, utilizing hidden, weed-filled crevasses of the murky cover of night to engage in filthy, shameful trysts with one whom you'd plied with cheap liquor at some vile watering hole and dragged into the lanes of despair, emptying foul seed within whatever orifice could be discovered upon the rank, near-comatose rag-doll; desperate thrusts, sloppy booze-addled pronging, only to leave the spent, bedraggled receptacle of manly juices, lying in a heap of its own offals to sleep it off in sub-zero temperatures whilst you, the bearer of shame, hailed a cab to take you back to a spartan flat to boil up a can of Puritan Stew on a hotplate before finally closing the weary ocular lids and diving, once more, into a very special dream of home.
These things I knew.
What I didn't know, before experiencing the truth infusing My Winnipeg was that the back lanes were ever-so tantalizing because they were shameful. As Maddin states in the film's narration: "It was inside these black arteries where the real Winnipeg is found - shameful abandonment."
Shame and abandonment were always the clarion calls of Winnipeg's foul sirens of doom.
Now, while this might surprise you, there is also sadness in Maddin's film to temper the joy. Maddin points this out, quite rightly and accurately when he reveals that "Demolition is one of our city's few growth industries."
The true pain of Winnipeg is the scourge of demolition - the violent removal of the city's history to replace it with thudding mediocrity.
Take, for example, the disconsolate tale Maddin weaves of the grand, old Eaton's department store. When bankruptcy forced the closure of this retail titan, the city did what it had always done best. It demolished this grand edifice of consumerism and in its place, erected an arena - an ugly, architecturally execrable slab of inadequacy that bore the horrendous corporate name: MT Centre. Empty, indeed. Empty of vision, of history, of promise and filled only with the pathetic hopes and dreams of the most mediocre of the city's denizens.
And why, pray tell, destroy a gorgeous old department store which could have been remodelled for any number of tantalizing purposes to build a new arena when a perfectly grand arena already existed - the famed Winnipeg Arena. It is here, Maddin tells the most doleful tale of all, one which is especially sorrowful to those of us perched on the third tine of Maddin's Aesthetic Trident.
The Winnipeg Arena was pure magic and Maddin captures the old rink's glory with the veneration it deserves. We also learn the astounding fact that Maddin was born in the home team dressing room of the Winnipeg Arena and, like other hockey children of the era, myself included, had been weaned in the Hockey Wives' Lounge during games. I am, in fact, deeply honoured to personally share these glories which Maddin imparts so movingly in his film. He tells the tale of the famed Winnipeg Maroons hockey team who were such an astonishing force on the ice that they were, throughout the 1960s, Canada's National Hockey Team - battling the finest teams of Europe, but most importantly, the dreaded Russians. What formidable rivals these were who went head to head in that arena.
Here is where, for me, the third of Maddin's aesthetic tines protrudes mightily, proudly and stiffly, burrowing itself deeply within me. Guy and I shared identical childhood experiences in that glorious Winnipeg Arena. Many years before Guy and I met, our respective fathers were colleagues and friends. Guy's father Chas Maddin was the business manager of the Winnipeg Maroons. My own father, Julian Klymkiw, was its goaltender.
Maddin, on afternoon visits with his Dad to the empty Arena would experience the "pleasure of flipping down every one of the 10,000 seats, admiring them, then flipping them all back up again." I too, on similar visits, though on different days, would do the same thing, though shamefully, I'll admit to never engaging in said glorious activities to the tune of 10,000 seats. I'd be lucky to accomplish a similar feat with a mere 3000-4000 seats.
The other shared reminiscence twixt two lads who wouldn't meet until years later in early adulthood was perhaps the most awe-inspiring of all - dressing room visits where we'd be eye-level to the soapy genitals of hockey players.
How could it get better than that?
You'd think it couldn't until Maddin wisely intones the following words of truth within his voice-over narration: "Urine, breast milk, sweat - the Holy Trinity of the Winnipeg Arena's odours." YES! THE ODOURS! They are with me also, permeating my olfactory senses on a daily basis.
My Winnipeg offers up fascinating bits of the city's storied history, but as outlandish as they seem, do not forget that these tales which Maddin regales us with are PURE FACT and proof positive that there is clearly no city in the world like Winnipeg.
There is, however, one tale to tower above them all.
It is a tale which exceeds even that of how downtown Winnipeg streets were named after venerated turn-of-the-century brothel madams and prostitutes, bearing their names to this very day.
It is a tale that tops one in which the entire city of Winnipeg reenacted what it would be like to be taken over by Nazis.
It is a tale which runs roughshod over the curious nugget of Winnipeg's only locally produced television soap opera, "The Ledge" which ran for over 50 years and starred Maddin's mother as a woman who, each episode, coaxed a different subject from taking a suicidal plunge to the filthy pavement below.
It is a tale which has no problem smothering the otherwise delightful recollection of how Winnipeg generated the highest point of elevation in the city by covering a massive hill of garbage with a fresh lawn to act as a summer picnic park and a winter toboggan slide (which still causes yearly accidents in which its victims break their necks and/or spines, then suffer lifelong paralysis).
Good Lord, it even bests the famed yearly Golden Boy pageants presided over by the city's beloved Mayor Cornish (Louis Negin) who lasciviously measured the buff bodies, paying particular attention to, well, uh, all manner of, uh, measurements, to arrive at a winner.
The story I refer to is none other than that of the notoriously near-Arctic Winnipeg Winter of 1926 wherein a squirrel fried itself on an electrical wire, subsequently causing a massive fire at the Whittier Park racetrack. The poor noble horses tore out of the barns in a mad panic - whinnying in sheer terror until they galloped into the icy waters of Winnipeg's mighty Red River and froze to death. The waters were so cold that the pain-wracked torsos and heads of the horses, froze almost immediately, dotting the tundra of the river and jutting out of the ice - frozen in time. This horrific sight actually became a favourite ice-stroll for young lovers who were so smitten with desire amongst these poor, dead animals that it resulted in a massive baby boom nine months later.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is Guy Maddin's Winnipeg, but be eternally grateful to him. It is my Winnipeg, his Winnipeg, but most of all, your Winnipeg too.
And, of course, it's one of the best pictures ever made.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
My Winnipeg is available on one of the greatest Blu-Rays ever produced. This magnificent package is courtesy of the Gold Standard of home entertainment, the Criterion Collection.
So magnificent is this release, that Winnipeg will play host to one of the world's most esteemed film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, who will travel from the real Chicago ("Big Chicago" as Winnipeggers call it) to "Little Chicago" (which Winnipeg was once referred to). He will present three fun-filled days of cinema celebration. Cinema in the Age of the Internet: A Conversation with Jonathan Rosenbaum will be featured at the world-renowned Plug-in Institute of Contemporary Art on March 9. This will be followed by Jonathan Rosenbaum's Global Discoveries: An Evening Of Clips and Commentary at the Winnipeg Film Group on March 10 and lastly, the crowning glory of this trinity of cinema-Bacchanalia is Celebrating the Criterion Collection release of My Winnipeg, featuring a special public chat twixt Rosenbaum and Guy Maddin at the University of Manitoba on March 11.
And this is surely a Blu-Ray to celebrate. It's a DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION that you will definitely want to own and cherish forever. It comes complete with an HD film transfer, supervised by Maddin and his illustrious producer, D.O.P. Jody (David O. Selznick/John Alton) Shapiro, an interview twixt Maddin and critic Robert Enright, a featurette entertainingly capturing segments of My Winnipeg "Live in Toronto" at the Royal Cinema, four striking cine-essays by filmmaker Evan Johnson (Maddin's brilliant collaborator on the all-new feature film The Forbidden Room) and Maddin himself, all focusing on - what else? - arcane tidbits about Winnipeg, a fine essay by critic Wayne Koestenbaum, the trailer, a gorgeous new cover design by famed contemporary artist Marcel Dzama and, frankly, the real supplemental treat of the whole package, five - COUNT 'EM - FIVE short films (three of which featuring intros by Maddin). The shorts include Only Dream Things, The Hall Runner and Louis Riel for Dinner - all excellent, but the golden feather in this Blu-Ray's cap are two shorts so moving and powerful that not only did they have me weeping like some old grandmother, but are clearly destined for short film classic status: Spanky: To the Pier and Back and Sinclair. The shorts are so amazing that I'll just let you discover them for yourself.
Just buy this Blu-Ray. In fact, buy two. You might just wear one of them out.