Watching Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg is like experiencing a restless night's sleep; lingering on the edge of consciousness, barraged by an endless loop of imagery that almost makes sense, all the while hoping to slip into a comforting dreamscape, yet only able to manage the occasional dive into the shadowy depths of memory and metaphor. The Canadian filmmaker packs so much history — personal, political, architectural and archetypal — into this 80-minute paean to his snowy, somnambulant hometown that he actually does create a new genre, something his onscreen surrogate (Darcy Fehr) openly aspires to do.
Constructed like a personal documentary, My Winnipeg is actually an ornate fantasia shot in hypnotic black-and-white with occasional bursts of color. Maddin (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, The Saddest Music in the World) is at once a surrealist and a humorist, a sly dissector of film history who uses the conventions of silent cinema to create a thoroughly modern mash-up, replete with flashing words that function like subliminal text messaging.
Vintage footage of the Manitoba capital recalls a city as clean and crisp as the biting winter air, but the audacious Maddin (who narrates the film with a calmly manic insistence) asserts that forces flowing below the rivers and plains are powerful enough to turn a record number of Winnipeggers into sleepwalkers who traverse the frosty streets, old keys in hand, to revisit their former domiciles. And (by law, he claims) current residents of those abodes are impelled to shelter the afflicted until they return to their senses.
Maddin segues effortlessly from his interpretations of the touchstones of Winnipeg history, including the massive 1919 General Strike (employing cheeky re-creations and shadow puppetry), to a Maya Derenesque silent ballet sequence involving bison, Masonic rituals and psychic possession. Veering into eroticism and hockey obsession (fused in a visceral response to a purloined Soviet jersey), My Winnipeg is actually strangest when Maddin uses actors to re-create his childhood circa 1963, in the apartment above the gynocracy of the hairspray-infused beauty shop run by his mother and aunt.
This trippy confluence of artifice and remembrance — where actors playing actors play his family members — manages to be equally touching and disturbing, creating an intimate truthiness that blurs the distinctions of fact and fiction.
Few filmmakers can tap into the logic of the unconscious quite like Maddin, and My Winnipeg could easily haunt its audience's dreams. Happyland, here we come.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, July 11, and Saturday, July 12, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 13. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].