May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 11, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
“It’s a weird city because the uglier the weather, the more beautiful the city. And the uglier the buildings, the more coherent the city.”
I learned a lot from My Winnipeg, including but not limited to: how to straighten out a hallway rug, how to sense the presence of subterranean rivers and negotiate their philosophical implications, and that a “gynocracy” smells like the inside of a purse. I also learned a great deal about the history of Winnipeg, pleasantly narrated by Maddin himself. The film is his explanation of why he hasn’t been able to get out of Winnipeg after all these years, and he hopes that in this ecstatic liturgical recitation we may find the source of his town’s strange magnetism. He walks us through the risqué General Strike of 1919, the destruction of the smallest park in the world, the time a bunch of horses got frozen heads-up in the lake for an entire winter, and numerous points of local lore that only barely serve as refuge from his debilitating family history. He tracks the rise of Winnipeg through the man-pageants at The Bay’s Paddlewheel (they were rigged) and the world’s only three story bathhouse, the cellar of which Maddin barely escapes like Pinocchio from Pleasure Island. Why couldn’t they just swim? Winnipeg itself is unmappable, criss-crossed by streets that co-exist as in an upstairs/downstairs drama and are only accessible by the proper taxi. In the endless snow, cars dance around each other in controlled skids, dodging the high rate of Winnipeg sleepwalkers engendered by permafrost. Dead in the center of this ghostly expanse, stadiums and buildings are being dismantled at an alarming rate. All Maddin’s efforts to leave the city on one of its many trains are thwarted by some centrifugal trickery, he is continually drawn back into the heart of Winnipeg only to see it hammered by wrecking balls, bulldozers, and the NHL.
Part of this magnetism involves an oedipal pulse at the convergence of the town’s rivers – the real ones and the subterranean ones. Maddin’s mother dominates the film until he starts talking about hockey. But what I really learned from My Winnipeg is how to relate to a city. This is something which I thought I had already learned through Delaney’s Dhalgren, but I will probably be better at it now, having been armed by Maddin’s flexible mode of narration which takes its structural cues from the very elements of Winnipeg. His city begins where myth, historical memory, and architecture converge, the playfulness of his storytelling aping conventional history like the subterranean river fork. The fact that its sentimentality is completely fictional makes it no less stirring. Instead, the immersion of Maddin’s imagery in silent film textures and old family album compositions grant his tales a sense of historicity, or at least the unimpeachable gravitas we are conditioned to ascribe to the kinds of artifacts Maddin is imitating. We find grandma’s photo albums compelling because we are linked to them even though we have no real access to them, in them are the origins of our own self-descriptions. Maddin’s imagination is hardwired into this storied way we connect to the stuff of our pasts. The stories aren’t true, but they are now part of Winnipeg’s actual history through Maddin’s imaginative love for his hometown. My Winnipeg also works so well because it is Maddin’s most personal film. His voiceover shifts in tone and emotion, footnoted by flickers of intertitles that punctuate his own gasps and sighs. Finally, this is Maddin speaking, like the Wizard from behind his bank of knobs and buttons. Hearing him like this makes more sense of the rest of his films.