Friday, June 13, 2008

Snowy, Sleep-Walking Winnipeg

It is not inappropriate that the production designer and cinematographer get their due before the actors in the opening credits of director Guy Maddin’s new so-called documentary. Maddin’s films have always reflected his distinctive style, but that keen visual sense is particularly effective in his bizarre love letter to his Manitoba hometown, My Winnipeg (trailer here).

Mixing fact and mostly fiction, with his own family history (the truth of which is anyone’s guess), Maddin creates a hypnotic vision of Winnipeg that is utterly convincing during the film, despite its highly stylized flights of fancy. When watching Winnipeg, you will believe that the city’s abnormally high rate of sleepwalking led to a municipal law requiring citizens to watch over somnambulists until they wake, should they let themselves into their former residences during their nocturnal ramblings.

In order to leave Winnipeg, Guy Maddin, played by Darcy Fehr, decides to cathartically recreate scenes from his childhood in the old family home. Playing Maddin’s supposedly real-life mother is cult-actress Ann Savage, best remembered for the cult-film Detour, in a performance that can only heighten her cult-following. However, the real star of Winnipeg is the deceptively prosaic Midwestern Canadian city itself.

North of Minnesota, but safely south of the Arctic, Winnipeg is portrayed as a mysterious city of perennial winter, taking on mystical power from its location near the geographic heart of the continent and the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Maddin often uses the image of the forked rivers to compare Winnipeg to part of the female body (if you’re not getting the picture, I can’t help you). Winnipeg is full of such weird sexual images and representations, but it is not prurient, just idiosyncratic.

What is really seductive about Winnipeg is the secret history Maddin concocts, presumably, but which always seems oddly plausible somehow. We see a séance performed through interpretive dance in the provincial capitol building. We visit a Winnipeg make-out spot, “the horseheads,” formed when spooked horses were freakishly frozen solid in the river, as they stampeded away from a racetrack fire. We watch an episode of Ledge Man, Winnipeg’s only locally produced television show, naturally starring Maddin’s mother, as a woman who talks her suicidal son off the ledge every weekday afternoon.

Ironically, it is only when Maddin shows us something of Winnipeg that is obviously real, in this case the beloved old hockey stadium that was demolished and the new corporate-sponsored facility that replaced it, that the film becomes unconvincing. It jars us out of our sleep-walk through the city’s hidden back alleys with commonplace complaints about the evils of modernism and corporate development. Unlike the rest of Winnipeg, this is something we have seen before, frequently.

Production designer Rejean Labrie and DP Jody Shapiro do indeed deserve credit for transforming Winnipeg into a surreal Neverland. Aside from maybe the last ten minutes or so, Winnipeg is a very funny, thoroughly entertaining film that totally pulls the viewer into its alternate reality, regardless of the constraints of logic and common sense. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center.