Arts & Culture

Winnipeg, Mon Amour

Guy Maddin’s hometown homage

Guy Maddin is a liar, and he knows it. His colleagues and collaborators know it. But his film My Winnipeg is supposed to be all true: every second, every frame vetted by attorneys, stamped by inspectors, supervised by invigilators. It has to be true; it’s a documentary.

In My Winnipeg, those familiar with Maddin’s oeuvre will experience a film that is different and counterintuitive. Hermetic and studio bound, his films celebrate the artifice of cinema. Through seven features — including Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and The Saddest Music in the World — countless shorts, an International Emmy–winning television production (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary,), and numerous art shows, he has been consistent in his mannered absurdism. Time tunnels connecting past and present, his movies employ one of the oldest techniques of the medium — a blurring smear of Vaseline around the circumference of the lens that creates a dream state onscreen — to explore life’s unceasing melodrama.

His style is instantly recognizable. There is no mistaking My Winnipeg as anything but the work of G. Arthur Maddin, especially at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (tiff) on the evening of September 7. There on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre, the master himself stood in front of his film and delivered its narration live.

But the first words spoken in the film are not by him but by Mother: “I wasn’t born yesterday, dearie. I know all about fur and all about blood.” In close-up, the face of an old woman — aquiline features, silver hair pulled back, white skin glowing on the director’s trademark silver screen — is looking off-camera as Maddin’s voice prompts her lines from off-screen, like a reverse echo: first quiet, then loud.

“I wasn’t born yesterday, dearie. I know all about fur and all about blood. Where did it happen? In the back seat?” Off-camera, Maddin’s voice supplies the respondent’s dialogue. “Where did what happen? ” Onstage, Maddin stood vigilant, ready to deliver his narration.

“The real party,” says his mother. Maddin gives her a line reading: stronger. “The real party,” she repeats in a quavering, resentful voice. “The real party. Did he pin you down, or did you just lie back and let nature take its course? Was it a boy on the track team or the man with the tire iron?” Then Maddin begins his narration proper:

Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg.
Snowy, sleepwalking
Winnipeg.
My home for my entire life.
My entire life.
I must leave it.
I must leave it.
I must leave it now.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, that gritty, idiosyncratic former prairie boom town, Maddin is the most errant in a town of errant sons. Burton Cummings, Randy Bachman, even Marcel Dzama: they left; Maddin stayed. Held on for dear life. There was nowhere else to go, especially if you make movies the way Maddin makes them. To shoot in black and white — as he has done with all but two of his films — is to instantly decimate your potential audience, and income. With one exception, he shot all his films in Winnipeg using the same studio he painted black more than twenty-five years ago. To this list of career-limiting choices we can now add the making of a documentary about Winnipeg.

The idea for My Winnipeg did not, however, come from Maddin himself. Michael Burns, then commissioning editor at the Documentary Channel, had backed Maddin’s short film My Dad Is 100 Years Old, a homage to Italian film director Roberto Rossellini written and performed by his daughter, Isabella. Burns asked Maddin if he had ever considered making a documentary proper.

Maddin envisioned a production along the lines of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, a 1927 film that captured a day in the life of that distant pre-war city. Ruttmann’s film is noteworthy as much for its images of the long-lost Berlin of the Weimar era (the decadent and sybaritic Berlin of Brecht and Isherwood) as for its kinetic blending of image and film to capture the shifting rhythms of urban life from daybreak until night. A silent film not just about the people of the city — happy, sad, suicidal — but the city itself: trains, presses, shop dresses, machinery, the vast clockwork of a metropolis in all its grandeur.

Maddin imagined a voice-over narration lifted from the pages of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the controversial turn-of-the-twentieth-century Italian writer and author of The Triumph of Death, whom Maddin describes as a “rebel, hero, megalomaniac, and soi-disant visionary, all charismatic stuff for me.” D’Annunzio’s words would be intoned by a reincarnation of the stentorian Lorne Greene.

But, says Maddin, in one of several interviews since the screening, “I always had far too much fear of and respect for documentaries to consider doing one.” Fear more than respect. Maddin hates research. Moreover, he detests the received wisdom that in documentary production the real work begins in the edit suite, after all the material is shot. “Documentary seemed to require so much discipline and problem solving and an infinite number of choices. A narrative has a script, and you have to get from A to B. In a documentary, the order in which it’s presented, the entire film, can all be changed.” The prospect, he said, “was nut-shrivelling. I filed the idea in whatever folder you have for ‘overheard compliments.’”

But then Maddin went broke. He called Burns and asked if the Documentary Channel was still interested. Burns asked him what he wanted to make a film about. “He was a bit puzzled that I had no idea,” says Maddin. “I asked him to assign me something.”

Burns, who had been to Winnipeg twice in his life, and then only briefly — first on a vintage train en route to a Terrence Malick production, and again during a visit to the set of My Dad Is 100 Years Old — suggested a film about the trains of Winnipeg. Or even a film about Winnipeg itself. Maddin agreed to the commission. But he had his doubts.

In a 2005 email outlining his original concept sent to Michael Burns, Maddin wrote:

To me, Winnipeg is a supernatural city of enchanted palimpsests, stories and memories piled on top of one another. Some of these narratives have been completely covered up by time before new histories were written over top of them; other stories bleed through and persist in being legible at all times. The narratives mix and mingle with all eras and confuse us Winnipeggers, we who can never quite remember what year it is at any given time.

“I love myths,” says Maddin, “whatever essence has come from the boiling-down process of history. Americans think of themselves as the sum of a number of myths, Washington chopping down the tree, Abe freeing the slaves, things that are vaguely and shallowly understood. Like the idea that classic movies begin and end with Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life.”

My Winnipeg is a love letter to an unloved city. The film seethes with frustration; it twists like a victim on the rack beneath the drip of provincialism and conventionality. “History is an intimidating continuum, a cataract of data. And those myths, abridged or simplified, of historical fact or outright fable, that’s how they help tote up an identity. Winnipeg needed its own version of that.”

Although Maddin conceived the film as a quickie, the process was anything but. His producer, Jody Shapiro, who shepherded The Saddest Music in the World and My Dad Is 100 Years Old, made multiple trips to Winnipeg, laying on the lash as Maddin struggled to find his subject. His Winnipeg. As well, Maddin was distracted by another film, Brand upon the Brain!, which had to be completed within a certain period to guarantee its financing. When he submitted his first draft of My Winnipeg, it was thrown back at him — a bracing moment he appreciates in hindsight. “Not enough documentary,” he says. The rejection threw him back on his artistic heels.

Maddin is the first to concede that other people’s Winnipegs made My Winnipeg. In preparing an early draft, he dragooned friends from his teenage years to tour the city, to revisit childhood playgrounds, bygone haunts, and places their parents and grandparents had visited, and perhaps warned them against. This idea was dropped, but the friends kept up their musings, rummaging through their mental attics for rumours and mysteries that were all the more outlandish because they turned out to be true. “It’s the intersection of our temperament and the actual Winnipeg that makes it, in a small-gestured way, the special place it is,” says Maddin. “There are no small gestures required for Paris, New York, or Rome. With Winnipeg, it’s small, and no one has noticed before.”

Witnessed from the point of view of a train car, the film weaves a journey — journeys upon journeys — through the past and across the topography of the city. The fatigued Winnipegger stares out the window at tableaux historic and postmodern. It’s an escape attempt disguised as a stroll down memory lane under the ever-watchful Mother, her giant eyes peering into the train window, “her lap, a magnetic pole, a direction from which I can’t turn for long.” Maddin’s narration is the tour guide: his city, his psyche.

During the trip, Maddin pauses to watch reimaginings from his early life. Back to the beginning, back to his childhood home, back to the Forks, his mother’s lap, the fur. He recreates his life in 1963, in the apartment above his Aunt Lil’s beauty salon, with actors playing his brothers and sister and a small pug playing the role of Toby, “our long, long, long-dead chihuahua.” Says the narrator, “Only here can I isolate the essence of what in this dynamic is keeping me in Winnipeg, and perhaps once this isolation through filmed re-enactment is complete I can free myself from the heinous power of family and city and escape once and for all.”

His sister returns home one evening, distraught. She has struck and killed a deer on the highway. But the mother knows otherwise: “I wasn’t born yesterday, dearie. Where did it happen? In the back seat?” What ensues is a Freudian nightmare as the mother, a baldly manipulative sorceress, transforms a car accident into a sex scandal. “No innocent girl stays out past ten with blood on her fender.” Such a line could only be found in a Maddin film.

Maddin’s genius lies in his balance. He performs a complicated tightrope act, treading the line between homage and mockery, nostalgia and kitsch, drama and camp. And he keeps the audience off balance while we watch, waiting for him to fall and for us to fall with him. My Winnipeg may be his greatest balancing act of all, particularly when the narration is delivered live from the stage.

He speaks of his burning need to shout out in defence of his little city. “The big ones get mythologized. Usually smaller places get remembered for disaster — Galveston. But cities die for other reasons. Michael Moore did it with Flint. I wanted to present it tonally, not politically . . . I wanted to show people what it’s like to live here in a mythic way.” Yet the stories are remarkably true, if not entirely accurate. Maddin also perilously treads the line between fact and fiction.

The Arlington Street Bridge spans the city’s rail yards. Manufactured at the Vulcan Iron Works of London, according to the film, it was originally intended for Egypt, there to span the Nile. But someone got the specifications wrong, and it was sold at a discount to bargain-crazy Winnipeg. “The bridge has not adjusted well to its always strapped foster home,” says the narrator. “And it often turns in its sleep when it is possibly dreaming of its lush and joyous originally intended home and pops a girder out of place . . . The sounds that groan up from the yard at night sound like the agonies of some colossal arthritis.”

Most of it is true, but not all of it is provable, let alone probable. The bridge was in fact built by the Cleveland Bridge Works. It was commissioned for Egypt, but there was nothing wrong with the specs; rather, no one took delivery. But it was indeed purchased at auction by the City of Winnipeg for considerably less than it would have cost new.

Similarly, some of the truth is omitted. When Maddin screened an excerpt of the film for tiff programmers, he did nothing to correct their admiration for the performance of Maddin’s own mother as his mother. My Winnipeg, My Mother: why not? In fact, the actress playing his mother is 1940s B-movie hottie Ann Savage, who made dozens of films but owes her cult status to the 1945 noir Detour. This, too, is vintage Maddin. He casts an octogenarian B-movie femme fatale to play his own mother in that documentary staple, the dramatization. But Maddin’s scheming is manifold. Savage’s presence is at once self-referential and self-annihilating, drawing us into the director’s life while pushing us away.

A week after the Toronto premiere, on the morning of September 15, in a wing chair in the lower level of the Fairmont Royal York hotel, Maddin sat in a black suit with a few pieces of luggage at his feet. He had just arrived from Kansas City, an American corollary of Winnipeg.

“I guess you won,” I said. Upstairs, in a few hours, tiff would announce the prizewinners of its thirty-second festival. There was no other reason for him to be in Toronto, let alone the hotel. I was there only because I had seen an early film and had nothing else to do but await the announcements.

Maddin might as well have been sleepwalking. He had been awake since 3 a.m., and the flight — he was giving a seminar at the university — had been marred by a screaming baby. In a nearby café, coffee was served to counteract the effects of sleep deprivation. Shapiro walked in, as did other well-wishers, other filmmakers. His daughter arrived in the full bloom of late-term pregnancy. He was to be a grandfather.

The group grew in numbers and excitement as we made our way up in the elevator. Roger Frappier, the Montreal-based producer of such films as Denys Arcand’s Le Déclin de L’Empire Américain and Jean-François Pouliot’s La Grande Séduction, who headed the Canadian jury, was standing nearby. I asked him about the decision. He would only speak for himself: “I asked myself which is the film I would most like to see in ten years.”

After the prize, tiff’s Piers Handling came up to Maddin. The two have a curious relationship. Handling is still trying to live down his decision nearly twenty years ago to pass on Maddin’s first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Hardly an effusive person, Handling slapped Maddin on the shoulder and shook his hand. He said Todd McCarthy, the chief film critic for Variety, had closed his Toronto wrap piece with an astonishing observation: “I’ve been coming to the Toronto film festival for more than twenty years, and I can safely say that this is the first time I’ve been able to make the following statement: the two best new films I saw here this year were by Canadian directors. The men responsible for this unusual state of affairs were David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin.” There was a moment of silence. Then somebody took a photograph. Later that night, Maddin was back in Kansas, back on the American prairie. Anonymous again, but with $30,000 in his pocket.

As for Winnipeg, after years of head scratching and dissociation, it has finally if not wholeheartedly embraced Maddin. Now, like old mad Emperor Norton, the derelict who “ruled” nineteenth-century San Francisco, Guy Maddin attends the symphony for free. Like Degas, he gets to watch the ballet from the wings.

After the Winter Garden performance, Maddin remained onstage to take questions from the audience. Someone asked him if he intended to take the live-narration show on the road. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “After I read every line, I said to myself: ‘I’ll never have to say that again.’”

Denis Seguin is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker who has written for the Globe and Mail, Slate and the Guardian.