Fantastical History in My Winnipeg
Properly speaking, My Winnipeg is not a work of history. Rather, it’s a work of autobiography inflated to include an entire city. Director and writer Guy Maddin transforms the entire city into his own phantasm, interpreting it for the audience in such a surreal fashion that it manages to communicate something tangible about his hometown despite its complete lack of respect for factuality. Rather, the kinds of facts it wants to communicate are those that can’t be vetted by researchers, and most of the events described in the film are embellished or fabricated. Maddin mythologizes the city, but the stories he tell are not mythical in the usual sense of the word. Myths are generally the common property of a community, whereas the above tale about couples making love on top of gruesome frozen horse heads is probably a purely private invention. At the same time, film as a medium exposes and implants this dream into all of those who see it; no doubt there are some more credulous folk who actually believe that Winnipeg has a secrete network of unnamed streets with its own taxi service. Yet the real importance of the film is how it communicates some real truths about cities and the way they begin to function as characters in our autobiographies. Their fabric is constitutive of our very subconscious, which is an idea worth exploring.
The film’s plot is similar to that of Maddin’s earlier fantasy-autobiography Brand Upon the Brain, in that it is staged as a reminiscence of the protagonist, Guy Maddin. Trapped in a liminal state between waking and sleeping, Maddin attempts to escape the city by train but finds he is unable to do so. As he sits on the train, the audience peers into his mind and listens to the poetic and often bitter descriptions our interlocutor offers to us.
Maddin, since he is going nowhere fast by train despite his desperation to escape the cold city of his origin, tries to settle accounts with the city though reenactments of pivotal moments in his past. These are dominated by his Mother, played by Ann Savage, with whom Maddin has a typical-for-his-films Oedipal tension. She is fiercely protective of her daughter’s sexuality and curiously distant. Branching out from there, the director/narrator gives us narrative distortions of the city’s history, talking about swimming pools with bizarre rules, strange all-girl schools, and the wrecking ball of “progress” that demolished the old hockey arena and department stores downtown. Because of his disregard for critical history, Maddin’s use of actual footage of the demolitions while spitting bile at the nameless demons who would dare touch such a formative location for him acquires a strange potency. After so many half-remembered scenes and subjective half-truths, the fiery anger with which he decries these obviously real events strikes home.
Of course, there are no object lessons here for real historians who want to do history. At the same time, the film shows the emotional power of such a fantastical approach to the past. These scenes have the conviction of folklore, the flickering vitality of dreams. History intervenes in Maddin’s tale as a disruptor, the Reality on which his phantasmagorias ultimately founder. All of his digressions and escape attempts cannot bring him closure or escape because the city was and remains a material fact of his life. Even if he settles accounts with the city and adopts, as he does here, a bitter and ironic posture towards it, it weighs on his mind like a nightmare. Even his adult world is haunted by the terrors and joys of his childhood––his omnipresent mother and often-distant father still mark him. My Winnipeg is a perfect title. No one else shares these impressions. They are his alone, a singularity. That is, until we get into the theatre or start watching the Blu-ray at home. At that point, the dream becomes infectious.