Cinema Blind Spots: My Winnipeg (2007)
We all have films we really, really want to see, but many of them never make it from our Blu-ray shelves to the television, and simply remain on a list for years. As an aspiring film historian, I have read so much about, and seen so many signature scenes from, several important films that, honestly, I sometimes forget to actually watch them from beginning to end. And in other cases, there are pop-culture hits that I have yet to make a priority. So I have decided to use this column as motivation to check off many of the titles I’ve wanted to see for so long. These are my Cinema Blind Spots.
For my third blind spot, I thought I’d find a Canadian film to tie into “Felix and Meira,” the upcoming drama by Montreal-based filmmaker Maxime Giroux — out this weekend in limited release. It was only fitting that my choice for this week be the documentary “My Winnipeg” (2007). Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why is ‘My Winnipeg’ a blind spot?” At first, it seemed like a stretch to me, too. But now having seen it, the film justifies itself, and although I feel like I appreciate it more than I enjoy it, it is certainly a film worth experiencing.
When looking for unique filmmakers, I always find the same short list of names, all of which include directors like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, but I now want to officially nominate Maddin as one of the truly unique visionaries of his generation. Maddin is an avant-garde filmmaker from — yep, you guessed it — Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He’s worked since the 1980s, preponderantly in short films, but has created a number of notable features. The only feature I’d seen prior to this screening was “The Saddest Music in the World” (2003), which I remember being exciting for a budding cinephile — a title I wholeheartedly embraced at the time. Critic Roger Ebert named it one of the 10 best films of the decade, and in his review for “My Winnipeg,” wrote, “if you love movies in the very sinews of your imagination, you should experience the work of Guy Maddin. If you have never heard of him, I am not surprised. Now you have.”
The film was met with praise by and large, saying, “Maddin mixes personal reminiscences with elaborate fantasies of Masonic rituals and collectivist brothels, to construct a vision of Winnipeg as a city of sleepwalkers” (Noel Murray, The Dissolve). Its 94% Rotten Tomatoes rating, as well as its 16 award nominations (of which it won four) from various festivals around the world, gives this film enough clout to be considered for this column.
“My Winnipeg” is a dream-like vision, haunting and fresh. Maddin documents his upbringing in Winnipeg, and many of the city’s historic events that affected him. Maddin subleased his childhood home for one month, redecorating it as it once was when he was a young boy, making sure reality matched his memories. He brought in former B-movie actress Ann Savage to play his mother, and hired local actors to assume the roles of his teenage siblings. The film is built out of reenactments, animated sequences, archival footage and images that truly bring the film to life.
The tale is told through a poetic, borderline gumshoe narration, spoken with honest pessimism and dark humor. Maddin exhibits his past in techniques that date back nearly a century, when German Expressionism and Russian Montage were considered contemporary. His admiration for silent cinema is “lawless but safe,” creating a visual representation of cloudy memories, many of which seemingly disjointed, but ultimately important to his end goal.
This film thrives on style. Could another filmmaker tell Maddin’s story in half the 80-minute running time? I’m certain it’s possible. However, would it be nearly as compelling and thought-provoking? I can’t imagine that being the case. Maddin’s thumbprint is all over “My Winnipeg,” and it’s truly a unique contribution to modern cinema. The intentional use of, what Ebert went on to list as, “iris shots, breathless titles, shock cutting, staged poses, melodramatic acting, recycled footage, [and] camera angles” invoke a sense of paranoia and intense personal struggle, and illuminate Maddin’s inner-demons. It’s truly stunning for students of film because Maddin does everything you’re told not to do, and it works!
For me, personally, I think the film gets a little lost in its self-aware style, and toes the line between beautiful art and pretentious nonsense. The film is a kaleidoscopic nightmare, drowning its viewers into the cynicism and dread Maddin often expresses toward his former city. He paints Winnipeg as an incestuous black hole that one cannot escape. The film’s tone is all over the place — sometimes warm and inviting, sometimes sinister and unnerving, and all of which are effective, but not always welcome for a moviegoer like myself.
Normally I would consider whether the film holds up today, but it was only released eight years ago. So needless to say, yes, it does. However, I’d like to emphasize the importance of its contribution during a time of CGI special effects, explosions, superheroes and car chases. This small Canadian documentary did something so unique, so outside of the proverbial box, that the film stands as a testament to contemporary filmmakers; it tells them new and interesting things can still be created. For that fact alone, if for no other reason. Maddin should be remembered.
With one of the final lines read, Maddin sums up much of the film, saying, “At some point, when you miss a place enough, the backgrounds in the photos become more important than the people in them.” This film is so personal, it focuses on these backgrounds in life. It tells us seemingly mundane information about a place known for so much more. In Maddin’s NUVO interview, written by fellow Film Yap contributor Sam Watermeier, “Maddin, who has ‘never gone to real therapy,’ says his close examination of Winnipeg helped him resolve his conflicted feelings about the city and his time there.” This is undeniably at the forefront of “My Winnipeg.” Maddin seems to have found his catharsis with the wrap up of his third film in the “Me trilogy” (the other two being “Cowards Bend the Knee,” 2003, and “Brand Upon the Brain,” 2006). The movie exposes the filmmaker in a way we rarely see.
In sum, “My Winnipeg” is a must-see for anyone who claims to love cinema. Not because it’s so influential, but because it’s not. It is one of a kind.