I feel like I’ve failed in my job as a critic — I arrived at last night’s screening of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg at the New Bev half an hour late, and when I finally sat down my brain, overwhelmed by a perfect storm of late-afternoon exercise and starchy food, immediately tried to go to sleep. I can’t really claim, then, to have seen My Winnipeg. But I’ve seen enough of it to say that I’m desperately unhappy that I can’t immediately watch it again.
Not quite a fiction film, certainly not a documentary, My Winnipeg operates in the strange twilight realm in between, a realm still not satisfactorily mapped for us despite forays by Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) and Orson Welles (F for Fake). Maddin’s approach is part re-enactment, part gleeful native’s travelogue, and part poetic reflection. Sometimes actors play out purported scenes from Maddin’s life — in one especially harrowing and yet tender scene, his mother brutally interrogates his sister about where she’s been all night. This is a scene we’ve seen a million times, but the oddity of the girl’s excuse (she hit a deer — and can produce blood, fur, and dents to prove it) and the relentless cruelty and crudity of the mother make the situation seem new and dangerous. (The mother is played by Ann Savage, best known to me as the screech-owl of a femme fatale in Edgar Ulmer’s hilariously chilling Detour.)
But it’s not a story about Maddin’s sister and only vaguely a story about his relationship with his mother. Instead, the city of Winnipeg becomes Maddin’s maternal bosom, a comforting place he knows intimately but which he fears he must leave in order to achieve maturity. This is clearly a fictional Guy Maddin, or at least fifty-two-year-old Maddin’s reflection on a younger man’s conflicts, and yet the conceit is that he’s trapped this in the moment — Winnipeg and his mother form a kind of nightmare from which he’s unable to wake. The repeated image of the narrator riding on a train that never leaves the city sums up his critical stasis.
And yet there are many, many bursts of joyful appreciation of Maddin’s city, like his beautiful if not particularly profound enthusiasm for the back alleys which form a secret secondary road system, not shown on any map but beloved of real Winnipeggers. (One delightful detail: a territorial dispute between two rival cab companies was settled by having one company claim the alleys and the other take the official roads.)
And Maddin’s not all wist and whimsy — he brings a keen righteous anger to chronicling the loss of Eaton’s Department Store and the Winnipeg Arena, which are replaced by a cheap, lesser building that’s too small to serve as a regulation hockey arena. He also gives us the history of Winnipeg’s great hockey teams, and he imagines an old-timers’ all-star league called The Black Tuesdays.
The Black Tuesdays are clearly fictional, but it must be said that nearly everything else in the film might be, too. Did city fathers really simulate a Nazi invasion and panic the populace in a 1942 exercise called “If Day”? Did the girls in the private Catholic school really become sexually entranced (to the point of sleepwalking) by striking laborers passing outside their walls? Did that thing with the cabs really happen? Did Eaton’s Department Store even exist? After a while, you start to doubt everything.
This is a fascinating film, bizarre and deliberately disingenuous, yet never frustrating and almost never boring. Its editing strategy, which relies on thousands of quick shots and humorous intertitles, means that Maddin had to generate perhaps ten or fifteen times as many distinct images as any ordinary fiction film. Clearly this film is a labor of love, and even in my exhausted state I was frequently thrilled by it. I can’t wait to see this again.
A little caffeine helped me be much more coherent and wakeful during The Saddest Music In The World, another Maddin feature, this one much more in a traditional fiction mold, though only in the sense that it’s clearly a scripted make-believe narrative, and not at all in the sense that you’re likely to see or have seen a movie like it. Despite the grim title, it’s certainly a comedy, albeit one that ends on a dark note. Mark McKinney of The Kids In The Hall (and, if you must, Saturday Night Live) plays Chester Kent, a Canadian-American producer of musicals during the Depression who returns to hometown Winnipeg to win a sad music competition being held by cynical beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley (the terrific Isabella Rossellini). It’s a marketing ploy — she wants to capitalize on the Depression. “If you’re sad, and you like beer,” she coos, “I’m your lady.” The whole contest turns into a bizarre family psychodrama, though — the Canadian entrant is Chester’s father, his brother enters on behalf of troubled Serbia, Lady Port-Huntley is his ex-lover with reason to hate both father and son, and his new girlfriend may or may not be the brother’s ex-wife.
If that sentence is at all confusing, rest assured that Maddin’s exposition is deft, swift and funny. The melodramatic characters and situations are given their full weight, but we never forget that they’re preposterous. Their environment maybe be operatically expressionistic (Winnipeg comes across as small and stagey, like the German town in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, while Lady Port-Huntley’s beer palace feels more like Metropolis), but the characters, even in their failures and miseries, are never less than hilarious. I’m particularly fond of the flashback to the car accident that cost Lady Port-Huntley her legs, a scene that’s gruesome without being gross and laugh-out-loud funny without sacrificing its narrative heft as the source of the characters’ bitterness.
And then there are the musical performances themselves. Since the competition is between countries, the film frequently detours into odd ethnography. Sometimes this seems clearly intended as satire of the period’s knee-jerk cultural stereotyping (the Mexicans get a mariachi band, Italy gets opera), but sometimes, as in the case of the African funeral drumming, it starts to seem more like the kind of anthropological filmmaking Maya Deren did at the end of her life — serious and disturbing and utterly compelling. (As part of the funeral ritual, mourners solemnly cut their flesh with stones while drummers beat out hypnotic rhythms.) That anthropology is as limiting and as stereotyping as pop culture shorthand may be part of the point; Maddin never makes it explicit. But in all cases, he refuses to let the music simply be, and the moment it threatens to do so, to take over and become a real experience, the contest judge’s tacky buzzer goes off, reminding us that all this is really just a ridiculous exercise that’s meant to sell beer.
Not surprisingly, then, it’s the American contestant who runs away with the show, partly by selling sadness with upbeat, ornately produced Broadway numbers, and partly by co-opting more and more of the other contestants, offering to pay them if they join his act. By the end, Chester has brought nearly the whole world into the American fold, and he merges all the little subcultures of his multi-color orchestra into one rigorously jolly and thoroughly tacky masterpiece of fake sentiment. Only his stubborn brother holds out, playing his lonely cello and adamantly clinging to his grief. Obviously, only one view of the world can win, and their final contest blows everything sky-high — but also sparks the only genuine human connection in the whole film.