Sunday, July 27, 2008

My Winnipeg

Went with Christopher and Paulo to the San Francisco opening of a new film by Guy Maddin called My Winnipeg. It's a dreamy introspection worked around what the narrator describes as yet another attempt to flee the town in which he has lived for his entire life. He is on a train and much of what we see is projected through the window as the train rolls endlessly along. The cinematography is rough, black and white, choppy, raw, new footage mixed with old. Certainly avant garde, but compelling and demanding rather than aloof and evasive. I wrote a few quotes down as we accompanied Maddin on his flight, as we tried to flee with him.

How can one live without one's ghosts?

This is a film about memory, and its vagueness, and how it deceives and traps us. How you can only try to run away, but even in flight you are already heading back. Even at the end of the film, we do not know if he escaped, or if he really tried to escape. We know that he doubled back on himself and found a way to release himself from his self-made vow. But we do not know what happened, or indeed if anything happened.

Whatever happened only took 80 minutes to happen ... I appreciate a film that says what it has to say promptly ... but it was a long, drawn out 80 minutes. It seemed like two hours ... and I say that not with fatigue but with the entrancement of fixation. He didn't even lose me with his long riff on the travails of hockey rinks and hockey teams in town. He let go for a moment of the dreamy quality of his narration and got a little fevered ... though the dreaminess returned with the phantom hockey teams of aging stars.

The breath freezes in front of your face and falls to your feet with a tinkle.

You have to feel for a place like Winnipeg. It is truly lost in the middle of the continent. From a distance it is a haze of winter breath, vague, unknown, not on the agenda. But it is, more than any other city in the Canadian prairies, a real place with a history that mattered, with enduring cultural institutions. As the world collapses on itself, and as everything turns into suburbs and commodities and the latest thing, Winnipeg gets even vaguer, even less there. And this film accepts that vagueness. It lives entirely in the chill of the winter where, and I can attest to this, the crunch you hear as you walk is as much your breath as it is the snow under your feet.

I lived in Winnipeg from the summer of 66 to the summer of 68; I was in grades 9 and 10. I knew about this film only because Christopher told me when I told him that I have been planning a vacation that starts and ends in Winnipeg. When I lived there, I loved the winter. I rose early, even though I was in my young teens, to walk my dog Laddie in the dark and snow and freezing cold. I still dream about Winnipeg. And my dreams too are about being trapped there, even though I am not trapped there any longer.

Who gets to vivisect his own childhood?

Maddin took this film as an opportunity to revisit his childhood by reconstructing its key events. He got Ann Savage to play his mother, and he rented part of the house in which he grew up. Who gets to do that? He states in the film that Winnipeg has a law that everyone must carry a key to every house they have ever lived in ... were that the case, I would have quite a weight of keys. When we left Winnipeg in 1968, we were in a car on our way to the train ... not sure if it was a taxi or what, but my Father had left earlier and was already in Toronto. Mother asked where was the dog ... we looked around, and he wasn't there. So we had to head back to the house ... 181 Oak ... to get him, and the new tenants had already arrived and were examining this great placid beast who would not budge. We didn't need keys. Imagine, though, being able to stage that scene again, to pick the actors who play your family as it appears through the fog of years.

A little indulgent, perhaps, in the wrong hands. But in Maddin's hands, the scenes are haunting and elusive, foggy and alluring.

Everything that happens in this city is a euphemism.

Early in the journey, the film turns on sleepwalking ... Maddin asserts that Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world. Sleepwalking is a purposive vagueness, adroitly performing actions without knowing what you are doing. Zombie-like. Sleepwalking, I suppose, is the euphemism for enduring the torments of life, for growing up when we are so conscious and yet so out of control ... so totally in a situation that we do not know how large or small it is. The Maddin character is vaguely sleeping or dozing on the train ... here he is in full flight form everything he has known, but he cannot rouse himself to attention. Sleepwalking into freedom. Does he ever arrive?

Maddin is a classic unreliable narrator. Down the street and around the corner from where he lived is the Sherbrook Pool. Maddin claims that it is the only pool in the world where there are three pools built one on top of the other, that the bottom two were closed in 1966. I bolted up when he showed the pool ... because I had my bicycle stolen from in front of that building in the summer of 1967. A terrible day that pierced my innocent sense of right and wrong. I never got the bike back, but I did get trip to the police station to look at recovered bikes.

I didn't know about the three pools for the very good reason that there never were three pools; it's pretty clear he uses the stacked pools as referent for the Indian belief that there is another confluence of rivers beneath the confluence of the Red and the Assiniboine which is at the heart of Winnipeg. You never can know what to believe in this film, so it is the easier, and more fun, to give up at least as long as you are in his snare. The frozen horse heads are true ... and as I search the backrooms of my mind, I seem to recall that I knew about them. It's a great Winnipeg story ... a bunch of horses bolt from a fire in early winter, fall through the ice on the river, and are trapped, frozen to death, their heads projecting through the ice for the rest of the winter. The stuff about the gay mayors and the hot dude shows at the Golden Boy Club are at least partly true. But homeless people are not confined to rooftops in Winnipeg.

I guess all the rambling ends up with this: Guy Maddin is still confined, and so are we all. Confined not to memory but to memory's tricks, its deceits, the way in which it undermines truth and leaves us vulnerable. Confined to where we know who we are sufficiently that we can sleepwalk through the every day ... and confined sufficiently that even when we try to escape, we fool ourselves into not quite making it. Home is where memories are frozen in the ice, and yet where they sublime into an ether in whcih we are doomed to sleepwalk. That My Winnipeg for ya.

I do plan to return to Winnipeg, and I expect to use viewing this film as a goad. This is the plan: fly into Winnipeg in October, rent a Prius, drive to Ottawa, stay for five days to visit with my sister who is making one of her periodic pilgrimages from her home in Queensland, then drive back via the northern route (Hwy. 11) and spend another couple of days in Winnipeg. Lots of photos and blogging.

Nice interview with Guy Maddin here. Cleaner copy of the trailer here An intelligent reflection on the film here.

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