My Winnipeg


“Why did he have to say everything three times?” someone complained after a recent critics’ screening of My Winnipeg, the latest in Guy Maddin’s oeuvre of old-school cinema pastiche. In the film’s opening scenes, our protagonist — an actor playing the part of Guy Maddin, or at least Guy Maddin’s alter ego — fights to stay awake in the passenger car of a train as rear-projected scenes of snowy Winnipeg pass by his window. (It’s a trademark effect — the visual effects are just far enough out of whack to amplify Maddin’s imagination by underscoring the artifice of the world he creates.) He fears he will be unable to leave town. His spoken-word monologue is part Tony Leung in 2046, part Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: “It must be the sleepiness which keeps Winnipegers here,” he surmises. “If only I could stay awake — pay attention to where I’m going, where I’ve been, and get out of here. Stay awake. Stay awake. Stay awake.”

So why does he say it three times? It’s a fair question, I suppose. I find that repetition of words and phrases, especially in voiceover, emphasizes the hypnotic nature of film, itself an almost-repetition of slightly different images passing through a projection

gate 24 times a second. Repetition also evokes a quality of timelessness, which

is certainly appropriate here. Like much of Maddin’s work, My Winnipeg draws

heavily on the look and visual grammar of silent film. (One of the

blink-and-you’ll-miss-it intertitles reads simply: “So sleepy.” Another: “Eyes

open!”) It’s unusual in that it claims to be a documentary about the director’s

childhood home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In reality,

it’s an essay film, its real subject Maddin’s memories of his time in Winnipeg, and what he

makes of them as an adult. As a narrator, he has an unpracticed but determined

voiceover style that deflates pretension by drawing attention to the melodrama

inherent in the words. “The dreams are sweet back home, back home,” he

declares, describing happy visions of his childhood home. “The waking is


Before long, Maddin has hired

actors — including Ann Savage, star of the low-budget noir classic Detour — to play his mother and siblings, and has rented out the old family home to

recreate his childhood for the camera. Like those thrice-repeated phrases, My Winnipeg is a little bit poetic and a little bit mock-poetic. Fortunately, it’s often

very funny, as when Maddin describes living atop a hair salon run by his mother, in a room “cloudy, cloudy, cloudy” with hair spray: “The air vent leading upstairs

right into my bedroom, bringing me every word of conversation that roiled out

of that gynocracy,” he recalls. “The smells of female vanity and desperation —

I grew under their influences into what I am.”

It’s sometimes majestic, as when

Maddin imagines the 1919 General Strike in a style suggesting Soviet propaganda, and

it’s sometimes creepy, as when Maddin has a stern Savage accuse his sister (the

actress playing his sister) of sexual indiscretion. It’s also majestically

creepy — no more so than in Maddin’s recreation of the bizarre aftermath of a 1926 fire at Whittier Park,

which, he says, left a group of terrified racehorses to die, frozen, in the water of the Red River, where they would remain for the duration of

the winter. (“We grow used to the sadness; simply incorporate it into our


By the time it’s over, My Winnipeg

has run off on so many tangents its hard to keep track. There’s the one about

the demolished hockey arena where Maddin says he was born. There’s the business

about wagering on “man-pageants” held at the Paddle Wheel Nightclub

(house specialty: orange Jell-o) and judged by the mayor. (“What does one have to

do,” the narrator wonders aloud in a tone that mixes disgust with barely

disguised prurience, “to be named the Golden Boy?”) And there’s the mock TV

show in which a man stands, every week, on a high window ledge above the

streets of Winnipeg, contemplating suicide.

Hometowns can be like that. You

love them, you hate them. You cherish some memories, and you resent others. You

feel they bring out the worst in you, but you know they’ve made you who you

are. At one point, Maddin asserts the existence of a second, secret network of

streets and alleyways that exist, invisible, alongside the real gridwork of Winnipeg. That would be His Winnipeg, a place with real connections to the city, but which exists only

in Maddin’s head. The film he’s made about it may be the year’s stand-out

achievement in alternate realities — it’s a funny, accomplished look at how the

geography of a life influences the topography of a mind.

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