Guy Maddin has really been on a tear lately. With Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), and now My Winnipeg (2007), he has been making the best films of his career. My Winnipeg is a little different from the others, in that it is ostensibly a documentary. It is supposedly Maddin’s personal portrait of his home town, though it mixes actual documentary content with material that is hallucinatory and fantasmatic — both in relation to the actual history of Winnipeg, and in relation to Maddin’s own personal history.
What this means in practice is that there is less emphasis on plot than in most of Maddin’s films — My Winnipeg does not have all the overwrought twists and turns of melodrama with which Maddin’s earlier films are packed, and instead is more of a free-floating, nonlinear collage. Actual documentary footage is mixed with fake documentary footage,real and fake present-day footage, and bizarre “reenactments” (together with shadow-puppet reconstructions and some stock footage). The emotional center of the film is autobiographical (or so Maddin claims) — the central character is supposedly “Guy Maddin,” and there’s a lot of material reminiscent of the family triangle in Cowards Bend the Knee! — with the mother’s beauty parlor and the father’s work for the hockey team — and of the monstrous mother of Brand. But this is mixed with accounts of Winnipeg’s history — some of which is, more or less, true (like an account of the Winnipeg general strike of 1919), but most of which is evidently invented (such as the claim that Winnipeg is especially noteworthy for its large number of sleepwalkers).
In fact, sleepwalking provides the major organizing metaphor for My Winnipeg. The film starts with “Guy Maddin” (played by an actor, though the voiceover which provides the film’s narration is, I believe, actually Maddin’s own) asleep on the train, trying to leave town. His voiceover monologue speaks of his continual attempts to leave the city, and his utter inability to do so. Winnipeg is a dream, a fantasmagoria, from which he is unable to awaken. The city is filled, Maddin tells us, with sleepwalkers wandering through the snow, back to their childhood homes, to which they still possess keys, and where the current owners are legally obligated to let them back in. Maddin himself, and all Winnipeggers, are ceaselessly trying to return to a past that they cannot recapture, though its ghosts (or hauntological traces) are everywhere and cannot be effaced. Maddin has always used deliberately degraded black and white film footage, shot in styles that emulate silent film, in order to show us images that are explicitly in the past tense, rather than the present (of course film is actually in the past, but most films strive to give us the illusion of heightened presentness and presence. Film’s extraordinary immediacy and intensity gives it a sense of presence almost by default, and this is what Maddin is always engaged in fighting against). Here he raises this pastness to a meta-level: nearly everything that he shows us no longer exists, and his documentary images are signs of this having-perished.
CIty history and family history run parallel. The “Forks” — the triangular confluence of rivers around which the city was built — is conflated with the (similarly shaped, i.e. vaginal) lap of the mother, from whom Maddin seems unable to tear himself away. The film slips back and forth between an evocation of the past of the city as a whole, and a series of “re-enactments” of Maddin’s own childhood, in which (within the film) actors are hired to play the young Maddin and his siblings, while Mother is played — so we are told — by herself in old age (though in fact, the role of the mother is played by none other than the great Ann Savage, known to film buffs because of her amazing performance as the absolutely meanest and most evil of all femme fatales, in Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, more than sixty years ago). The mother is smothering and controlling, yet at the same time oddly comforting; she is monstrously alive and monstrously present, no matter how old (whereas the father is long dead, and is only evoked evanescently, as a sort of absence). Bits of family history get reenacted, often in multiple takes (we see Savage practicing her lines, with clapboards announcing the shots — her role is the most crucial in the film, but it is always a rehearsal for a primal scene that cannot be evoked directly, perhaps because it only exists as “past”).
The principles of femininity (embodied in the mother’s beauty parlor) and masculinity (embodied in the locker rooms of the hockey arena, where the father worked as a trainer to the hockey players) go beyond the family and provide a key for organizing the history of the city as well. Nostalgic memories of heterosexual couples in the old city gradually give way to an increasingly lurid “secret history” of furtive gay and lesbian encounters. The male and female poles of the family increasingly emerge as separate, self-referential series. In this respect, Maddin’s psychosexual musings end up being more attuned to Proustian bisexuality and fundamental homosexuality, than to the Oedipal/Freudian register with which they begin.
Haunting images, as beautiful as they are surreal and ludicrous, continually appear and disappear throughout the film. There’s a buffalo stampede, and there are the cadavers of horses who flee in terror from their barn on fire in midwinter, only to be frozen in the middle of the river (the site of their heads and manes sticking out of the ice becomes the location for informal fertility rites). There’s the municipal swimming pool, built during the Great Depression (I am told that this facility really exists), in whose locker rooms strange homosexual encounters take place, both terrifying and intriguing the young Maddin. Not to mention the male beauty contests in the old Eaton’s department store (I think this is Maddin’s own myth or fantasy) and the exhibits of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in the Hudson’s Bay department store (which really exists).
Above all, there are the two buildings torn down during redevelopment in the past decade: the old Eaton’s, and the original hockey rink (minor-league hockey is now played in a new rink built on the site of the old Eaton’s). Maddin presents the interconnected destruction of these two edifiices as a crime against history and memory, a futile attempt by Winnipeg to erase its own past. Though Maddin himself repeatedly claims in the course of the film to be trying to escape his own past, his ghosts, and his city, it becomes more and more evident, not only that he cannot escape these things, but also that he does not really want to.
My Winnipeg ends by reverting both to the General Strike, and to the plight of the poor and dispossessed. Maddin tells us (in another of his — I presume — counterfactual constructions) that by city law, homeless people are not allowed on the streets, but forced to inhabit the rooftops instead. We see them there, warming themselves as best they can, and collecting fragments of “Happyland,” a Luna Park-style amusement park of the old Winnipeg that was (supposedly) destroyed in the monstrous buffalo stampede. From this depiction, Maddin imagines the figure of “Citizen Girl,” a heroic revolutionary straight out of Soviet silent film, who will restore the city, restore the rights of the poor, and bring back the old buildings (the shots of the demolition of Eaton’s and of the hockey arena are run in reverse). Absorbed in this final fantasy, Maddin never awakens, and never makes it out of town. The past is finally restored — but (as Deleuze says about Proust) restored as the past it is, rather than as the present it once was.
My Winnipeg is Maddin’s most hauntological film, as well as his most “political.” Even if we take the film’s political argument as tongue-in-cheek (and of course it has much more to do with the aesthetics of Soviet montage, than with the politics of the Soviet filmmakers), it still provides an overwhelming sense of how the vulnerability, yearning, humiliation, and ecstasy that pervade all of Maddin’s films are as much social as they are familial. Maddin has always played off campy humor against abject affect; but in this film, these two dimensions of feeling are more indiscernible than ever before, fusing in a kind of all-embracing ghostliness.