Since its release in 2007, a good deal of the conversation surrounding Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg has been how exactly to define the film. Is it, as Maddin himself has dubbed the picture, a “docu-fantasia,” or is that not even accurate? During an interview between Maddin and critic Robert Enright, as part of the newly released Criterion Blu-ray, the two evoke a number of references in hopes of situating the film: Werner Herzog, melodrama, Chris Marker, city symphonies of the silent era, Fellini’s I Vitelloni. Yes, it is like these, but also not quite. An essay by Wayne Koestenbaum, also included with the disc, likewise alludes to everything from Hitchcock and James Joyce to Andy Warhol’s Blow Job and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. So what does it say about a film that can draw such parallels, however obscure, to this wide array of preexisting works? It says that My Winnipeg, even with these correlations, is something wholly unique.
At the beginning of the movie, The Swinging Strings sing, “It’s no Eden that you would seek, but it’s home sweet home to me.” More than words to the song “Wonderful Winnipeg,” it is home sweet home to Maddin, who has lived there his entire life. Yet in the film, he, or at least the actor playing him (Darcy Fehr), is trying desperately to escape. Maddin, who “conceived” the film as well as having directed it, attempts to sift through his memories, recorded history, and what can only be considered dubious stories of days gone by, all in order to arrive at what distinguishes this city, and why it possesses such an indomitable hold on him. Through a series of staged reenactments from his life and from the city’s past, juxtaposed with anecdotes and trivia of varying degrees of believability, Maddin creates a hilarious, haunting, and kaleidoscopic survey of roughly 100 years of Winnipeg, and how he relates to it all.
In the course of a far too brief 80 minutes, Maddin discusses the geographical anomalies of Winnipeg, as well as the unusual, yet integral, moments that have shaped his city: worker strikes and elderly ladies locking arms to save a tree; horses frozen in a river, their heads jutting through the ice like twisted animal pillars; alleyways, waterways, and railways; hockey, of course hockey; and perverse “Golden Boy” contests. More intimately, and with the help of actors standing in for his family (Ann Savage, of Detour fame, playing his mother), Maddin also recalls familial drama and childhood anxieties. Everything is told as an exaggerated reminiscence, like in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, to draw another cinematic comparison. And everything is shown in a jittery, dizzying montage that characterizes Maddin’s filmmaking style: rapid editing, fast/slow motion, blurred focus, superimposition, a fluid camera, stock footage, you name it. Through the relentlessly convulsive incorporation of spasmodic imagery and text, Maddin ties together any number of the film’s various segments to create a mythological medley of connectivity and causation.
The memories and these accounts, however, should not be taken at face value. What Maddin covers in the film—the tales of Winnipeg and his life—is just bizarre enough to be fabricated and just ridiculous enough to be true. “Everything that happens in this city is a euphemism,” he states in his narration, and everything about the film is as if in a deceiving dream-state, which is fitting, given the emphasis on sleep. Maddin notes that the city apparently has 10 times the sleepwalking rate of any other city, that trains are “sleep chugging,” that Winnipeg is, he says, “always sleepy.” The tone of the film, and its accompanying surreal manner, conveys this sensation, like a drowsy David Lynch, on acid.
In a self-conscious declaration of intent, Maddin notes that with My Winnipeg, he hoped to develop a “whole new genre of film.” Originally commissioned by the Discovery Channel in Winnipeg, and thankfully given little instruction, Maddin does just that. If he was supposed to do a straightforward documentary, the result is anything but, at least by any conventional definition. But if the goal was to give a personal, eccentric, and inspired account of the city of his birth and residence, to that aim, he more than succeeds.