Given Guy Maddin’s proclivities for lucid imagery and Lynchian music cues in constructing a “docu-fantasia,” as the director himself has referred to My Winnipeg, it’s easier to emphasize the latter portion of that neologism over the former. For, indeed, Maddin’s 2007 film belongs to a tradition of cinepoems exploring the phantasmatic qualities of a specific geographic terrain, from Sergei Eisenstein’s ¡Que Viva México!, to Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba, to Terence Davies’s subsequent Of Time and the City. Moreover, since Maddin’s oeuvre has tended to abound within the realm of the surreal, especially in striking works like Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary and The Saddest Music in the World, his strengths as a documentarian and an arbiter of sensation as related to place have been given short shrift.
Note that My Winnipeg commences with a self-reflexive gesture, as the film’s clapperboard reveals Ann Savage, soon to be introduced as playing Maddin’s mother. For now, she’s rehearsing lines with Maddin, and when she says one of them a bit too softly, Maddin chimes in, off-screen: “Say it a little angrier.” If only an explicit reminder from the director that documentaries are directed and shaped as much as narrative films, Maddin’s insistence that the realities of his interests be placed immediately in the foreground offer evidence of his keen sensibilities for constantly probing the derivation of his images.
Those antecedents seem far and wide, since the subsequent shots following a virtuoso stock-footage credits sequence are pure Eisensteinian intellectual montage, juxtaposing a man perpetually awakening on a train with close-ups of a steam engine and snow-covered city streets. Maddin’s unforgettable voiceover chimes in, thankfully offering almost nothing by way of objective information, instead seeming to manifest images and a history from its own stream of consciousness, though not detached from Maddin’s recurring emphasis on escape and entrapment. When mother appears, it’s through a train window doubling as a film screen, with title cards appearing amid the complex ebb and flow of voices, sound effects, and music. Yet none of Maddin’s emphases, despite their explicit evocations of dream and nostalgia, strays from its underlying documentary principles. Maddin’s documentary interests aren’t ethnographic, but nor are they autobiographical; rather, his insights pertain to offering a mindset, even a philosophical approach to understanding time and place.
Thus, the “my” in the film’s title transcends introspection with odd tangents even when Maddin is offering footage from his childhood. For example, his explanation of “the smells of female vanity and desperation” as inherent to the hair salon in which he grew up leads to quick shots of hairstyles and beauty products. Maddin’s unique flair for rooting the personal within a larger system of consumerist satire drives much of the assumed “my,” such that any sense of singularity consistently morphs into a “we” or “our” expression. The same applies for reenactment, like when Maddin recreates his mother’s reaction to his sister having hit a deer. The footage resembles a mix of silent-era social-problem film and after-school special, but it becomes quickly apparent that the lines spoken by Savage are those from the opening scene. Thus, the struggle for proper articulation animates this moment more than the formal precepts, mirroring Maddin’s own sense of seeking recreation for his own closure. Maddin brazenly understands that closure via cinematic visualization is symbolically and uncannily more real than insular reconciliation could ever be.
My Winnipeg is most illuminating of Maddin’s aesthetic aims in the way he seamlessly interweaves high and low cultural interests. No sequence better typifies this than his use of Wagner’s third-act prelude to Tristan and Isolde in “The Ballet Club of Winnipeg,” in which Maddin explains how streets were named after various female (and topless) patrons of the club. The sequence might be the most complex of the film, as Maddin explains the club as a place for séances, taking place at the region’s legislative building. Maddin cuts together stock footage, photos, and reenactment to almost imperceptible effect, introducing numerous “important” members of the community, such as the buffoonish looking Mayor Cornish and several brothel madames. But as these sillier aspects give way to Wagner’s music, Maddin daringly constructs a sequence as abstract and evocative as anything from Carl Dreyer’s silent films, meshing figure movement, music, and melodramatic close-ups with a precision that necessitates near shot-by-shot analysis to comprehend its polymorphous implications.
Maddin’s ability to navigate kitsch and melancholic sincerity ultimately define his docu-fantasia, but because he convincingly adds seemingly tangential sequences, like a prolonged look at the destruction of the city’s hockey arena, one would be remiss to try and reduce Maddin’s work to any of its tangible influences or intrigues. What ultimately makes My Winnipeg so compulsively fascinating and an essential film that examines the cinematic slipstream of fact and fiction, is its elusive capacity for lingering in the mind as the half-remembered dream its imagery suggests, but more fundamentally, its insistence that lived experience is potentially less real than seeing it projected on a screen.
My Winnipeg offers nearly flawless audio-visual work from the Criterion Collection, particularly in montage sequences that mix together various kinds of footage. The images are often deliberately made to look grainy or scratched, but it’s clear that such intent has been carefully considered during the transfer, such that there remains a clear perception of visual affectations Guy Maddin gives the footage throughout. Sound is equally impressive for the 2.0 mix, especially Maddin’s voiceover, which stays in balance with the score and various other sound elements throughout. Overall, it’s hard to imagine a better transfer for the film.
Not overflowing, but the assortment here tops the effort done on Criterion’s DVD for Brand Upon the Brain!, most notably in a wonderful interview between Maddin and art critic Robert Enright. Clocking in at just under an hour, the interview gives Maddin the space to explain his project’s beginnings in what was effectively a for-hire job to make a documentary about Winnipeg. The filmmaker explains how no restrictions were placed on him, which enabled him to take the film in directions unusual for such a project. In fact, his entire idea for the film came during a Q&A in Paris, and he shortly after ran to his hotel to write down as much of the information as he could remember. Enright is an adroit interviewer and continually presses Maddin on his craft and process. Otherwise, a short collection of cine-essays made in conjunction with Evan Johnson provide equally peculiar documentation of Winnipeg’s appeal, while a collection of five Maddin shorts, some made as recent as 2014, give insight into how the director’s visual interests have materialized over the seven years since this feature. Rounding out the set are the film’s trailer and a new essay by critic Wayne Koestenbaum.
Thomas Wolfe once said "you can’t go home again," but you’ll believe the contrary with this beautiful new Blu-ray of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg from the Criterion Collection.