New Blu-ray Reason Aplenty to Rediscover My Winnipeg

MY WINNIPEG (2007/15)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Buffalo Gal Productions
* * * *

This documentary created a small stir when it first came out in 2007. Earlier this year it was re-released in Blu-ray and, if your tastes run toward the offbeat and surrealistic, it’s well worth watching—even though parts of it are now outdated.

Winnipeg, Manitoba native Guy Maddin is the director/writer/narrator/central character of what he calls a “docu-fantasia.” That’s not a bad term, though “autobiographical tone-poem” might be an even better one. The film really is about Winnipeg—sort of. Maddin is from there, but his film’s central hook is the attempt to escape. To that end, Maddin imagines himself among a car full of disreputable passengers on a rail-less train hurtling down the city streets and speeding toward the outlying districts, but never quite making it into the surrounding prairie. It is filmed in black and white (at times with deliberately scratched emulsion) and most of the outside scenes are wintry—an effect he uses to add grit, and to blur the boundaries between past and present. (By washing out detail and rendering everything in the same tones, an old photograph has the same clarity and visual value as the present.)

Maddin’s Winnipeg is one weird place and he too has, in popular parlance, “issues.”  Among the strange revelations about Manitoba’s largest city: it is among the world’s coldest cities, it was once a hotbed for spiritualism, the city used to hold an annual treasure hunt whose winner got a one-way rail ticket out of town, and it has the highest measured level of sleepwalking of any known city. The latter is so pronounced that a local ordinance gives citizens the right to possess keys to former residences in case they wander there in a sleepy stupor. If that’s not weird enough for you, consider this factoid: a 1935 winter fire at a local racetrack allegedly sent horses rushing into the Red River, where the ice trapped them and preserved them. Locals strolled through upon the frozen river to visit grotesque monuments: the frozen heads of horses pushed through the ice with their faces captured in the final throes of death.

Maddin’s film is heavy on metaphors such as sleepwalking and frozen horse heads. His most powerful is that of the “Forks,” the place where the Red and Assiniboine rivers merge. At numerous junctures he juxtaposes the Forks with a woman’s torso—both a sexual and birth allusion—and uses these to explore his considerable disagreements with his stern mother (played by Ann Savage) and his deceased father. This film could occupy a Freudian for months! The thread that holds everything together is the reoccurring question, “What if…?”

Those what ifs apply to both Maddin and to Winnipeg. In a Michael Moore-like shift, Maddin also explores changes in the city: a provincial sports hall of fame that moves more often than someone in the witness protection program, the demolition of both the downtown Eaton’s Department Store and an iconic ice hockey arena, the loss of the Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise, the impending doom of The Bay…. In this guise, Winnipeg comes off as Flint-upon-the-Prairie and it underscores Maddin’s desperation to flee. 

Ever notice how people who make films about getting out often don’t? Maddin also plays on the metaphor of Winnipeg being the geographic center of North America. (Note to US residents: Take a look at how much of Canada lies to the north of Winnipeg.) Winnipeg might be weird, but it’s also defiant, a spirit represented by its 1919 general strike. In like fashion, people there must put down pretty deep roots if they hold onto door keys in case they sleepwalk into the parlor.

Maddin’s running commentary is, by turns, poetic, irreverent, wistful, and even hopeful. Since 2007, the Bay closed, but the Jets returned. Like frozen horse heads, Winnipeg’s cycles are marked by ephemeral monumentality yet signs of struggle and life.
--  Rob Weir   

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