‘My Winnipeg’ a Unique Civic Experience
Los Angeles Times
HOLLYWOOD — Guy Maddin calls his “My Winnipeg” a “docu-fantasia,” and there’s no reason not to take him at his word. This haunting phantasmagoria of a film — comic, singular, surreal — is not only something no one but the Canadian director could have made, it’s also a film no one else would have even wanted to make. Which is the heart of its appeal.
Maddin, an alternative cinema legend for one-of-a-kind films such as “The Saddest Music in the World” and “Brand Upon the Brain!,” has lived in that Canadian city, apparently known as “the heart of the heart of the continent,” for his entire life and has been more than content to do so.
Using his customary aesthetic tools, including a fondness for melodramatic silent film techniques and an ability (working with cinematographer Jody Shapiro) to make scratchy, faded black-and-white footage look unexpectedly beautiful, Maddin has made an evocative homage to a city he clearly loves. Part civic history, part fantasy, part personal psychodrama, “My Winnipeg” is unusual in that it’s often hard to tell from moment to moment which part is which.
The film’s central notion is that after all these years Maddin (played by actor Darcy Fehr) is desperately trying to escape Winnipeg’s wintry grasp. To do so, he has to take a half-real, half-imaginary dream train through his own past, revisiting the people, places and events that meant the most to him.
In addition to making excellent use of carefully selected newsreel imagery, Maddin decides to use actors to re-create moments from his childhood. He claims he persuaded his formidable mother to play herself, but what we get is a wonderful turn by legendary actress Ann Savage, the star of the B picture marvel “Detour.”
Maddin also visits buildings he favors: the old Winnipeg Arena, where his dad worked for the Maroons hockey team, and his childhood home above a beauty salon redolent, he says in the film’s ever-present voice-over, of “the smells of female vanity and desperation.” One building is so changed Maddin thinks of it as “a zombie in a cheap new suit.”
Consistent elements in “My Winnipeg” are the factoids that Maddin sprinkles throughout the film, often complete with visuals. He talks about Winnipeg having the world’s smallest park as well as the highest rate of sleepwalking of any city. He re-creates the time horses were frozen into the Red River as well as a “What If” day during World War II when Rotary Club members dressed up as Nazis.
It’s part and parcel of the unexpected charm of “My Winnipeg” that it is all but impossible to tell which of these things is real and which is the product of Maddin’s eccentric imagination. The director, however, is so adept at weaving his spell, you don’t even care. “My Winnipeg” is a film to give yourself to, with pleasure.