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My Winnipeg
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by Peter Sobczynski

"My Brad Berry Nights"
5 stars

After blessing the film world in recent years with such brilliant and bizarre works as “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary,” “The Saddest Music in the World,” “Cowards Bend the Knee,” “Brand Upon the Brain!” and his jaw-dropping short “The Heart of the World” (imagine the entire history of cinema being reduced to 7 ½ minutes), fans of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin have pretty much come to expect the unexpected from him every time he comes out with a new film. And yet, speaking as a longtime fan of his surreal and beautiful work over the years, I was nevertheless still taken aback by his latest effort, the hypnotic “My Winnipeg.” Even knowing his penchant for oddball storytelling mixed in with imagery that is at once haunting and darkly funny (such as the sight of Isabella Rossellini as an amputee beer baroness strolling around on two glass legs filled with her own product in “The Saddest Music in the World”), I simply wasn’t prepared for the sheer audaciousness of what he has done this time around. If you can imagine David Lynch and Werner Herzog somehow managing to get a hold of a time machine in order to travel back to the mid-1920’s in order to collaborate on a project together, that is kind of what this film is like and as tantalizing as that may sound, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what Maddin has pulled off this time around.

According to an interview with Maddin in the current issue of “Filmmaker” magazine, “My Winnipeg” began as a straightforward documentary that Maddin was commissioned to do by Canada’s Documentary Channel on his hometown. That said, this is not the ordinary collection of stock footage, dry narration and talking heads that one might expect from such a film. Instead, Maddin has chosen to mix fact and fiction into a form that he describes as being a “docu-fantasia” that opens with someone named Guy Maddin (who is not played by Maddin himself, though the director does narrate the entire film) on a slow-moving train moving through another snowy Winnipeg night. “I must leave it! I must leave it now! But how to escape one’s city?,” he asks. The only way, it turns out, is to offer up a cornucopia of images and memories relating to the city as a way of grappling with the past in order to confront it for good so that he can finally move on.

We learn, for example, that Winnipeg has ten times the number of sleepwalkers of any other city in the world. We learn of an incident in 1942 in which a fake Nazi invasion was staged in the city in order bring home the dangers of what was going on overseas during the war. We discover that one of the longest-running TV shows in the history of Winnipeg is something called “Ledgeman,” a soap opera that has taken a somewhat slender premise (a man goes out on a ledge and threatens to jump and is convinced to come back inside by his mother, only to do it all over again the next day) and stretched it out for over 50 years. We learn of the sad fates that befell two of the cities most beloved cultural institutions, the Winnipeg Arena (where Maddin claims to have been born in the locker room during a hockey game) and the Eaton’s department store. We hear of a plan to have the city’s homeless population sleep on the rooftops of various buildings. Most indelibly, we learn (and see the results of) an incident in which a large number of horses fled a stable fire by running into a river that froze so quickly that only they became trapped in the ice with only their heads sticking out for people to see. However, merely confronting his hometown’s past isn’t enough for “Maddin”--he also needs to confront his own personal history in order to free himself of the past. To that end, he has brought his “family” (including Ann Savage, the one-time star of the 1945 cult classic “Detour”) back together and moves them all into his old home so that they can recreate old family traumas in a sort of ultra-Canadian riff on Albert Brooks‘ “Mother.” Of course, Dad is dead but an ingenious solution is devised in order to ensure that he has a presence.

Although I am certain that many people who go to see “My Winnipeg” will immediately hop onto their computers afterwards in order to find out which elements of Maddin’s tapestry are true and which are outright fantasy, I think that to do so is akin to cutting a snare drum open in order to see what makes the noise--you’ll get an answer, of course, but doing so renders the drum useless. What Maddin is going for here, of course, are emotional truths instead of straightforward history or biography--sort of like what Fellini did with “Armacord”--and that is where he succeeds magnificently. If you have lived in the same place for your entire life, haven’t you developed a strange love-hate relationship with the place over the years, raged about how things never change while mourning the once-familiar places that have disappeared in the name of progress and collected any number of oddball anecdotes of wildly varying veracity that you enjoying dropping on outsiders? Besides, while some of the elements may push the limits of credulity (though I will note that Maddin insists in that “Filmmaker” that one of the things that I mentioned above really did happen), the strange thing is that Maddin recounts them, using oddball footage and his own deader-than-deadpan narration, in such an effective fashion that it would be almost disappointing to find out that they weren’t true. I want to believe the horse story, for example, and if a show such as “Ledgeman” truly exists, I eagerly anticipate the day that it hits DVD so that I can experience its glories for itself.

Because so many of the pleasures on display in “My Winnipeg” are the kind that are virtually impossible to convey in the course of the review--partly out of a desire to keep Maddin’s secrets and surprises safe for unsuspecting viewers and partly because I still don’t quite understand the film’s mysterious power--I would like to take a moment to briefly discuss one that I can talk about and that is the appearance of Ann Savage. While that name probably means absolutely nothing to the vast majority of people reading this, film fanatics with a particular love for film noir will recognize her as the one-time star of “Detour,” the 1945 zero-budget cult classic from Edgar Ulmer in which she played a femme fatale who led hard-luck schnook Tom Neal on the road to ruin after a chance meeting and who met one of the most bizarre deaths in movie history as a result. Alas, she never got another part as good as that one and spent the rest of her career toiling in relative obscurity until Maddin chose her, at the age of 95, to appear in his film in the key role of his mother. It sounds like nothing more than a bit of stunt casting akin to Quentin Tarantino dusting off a 70’s icon like Pam Grier or David Carradine and giving them a chance to shine again. However, it becomes more than that because she nails the role by investing it with the kind of energy and focus that belies her advanced age. Consider the sequence in which she confronts her daughter about a suspicious car accident that winds up being about a lot more than hitting an animal in the middle of the road--she tears into the scene in such a way that it works both as campy melodrama (which I presume was the original intent) and as a serious moment in its own right.

The only downside to “My Winnipeg” is that unless you live in a major city with a relatively thriving art-house scene, the chances of you actually getting to see the film at this time are somewhat slim. All I can do is suggest that you keep your eyes peeled and if it does pop up anywhere in your area, it is completely worth whatever investment of time or money that you may have to make in order to see it. If it doesn’t wind up playing at a theater near (or not so near) you, you might want to put it on your NetFlix queue as soon as possible so that when it finally hits DVD, you can experience its wild and untamed beauty for yourself. In fact, you should invite some unsuspecting friends along and spring it on them during what will no doubt be one hell of a viewing party. For extra fun, try to invite some Canadians along as well, as long as they promise not to spill the beans about what did and didn’t happen.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=16380&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/27/08 14:21:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival For more in the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  13-Jun-2008

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Directed by
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