Close to the geographical centre of the North American continent is the seventh largest Canadian city – although the locals consider it relatively small – Winnipeg, in the province of Manitoba. Native Americans first arrived in the area 6000 years ago, Europeans in 1738 and it was incorporated as a city in 1873.
Although Guy Maddin’s new film My Winnipeg may provide their first introduction to the place to most British viewers (beyond Homer Simpson using it as his base in the episode where he becomes a prescription drug mule and A.A. Milne’s confusion over the origin of Winnie-the-Pooh), film has been used as a promotional tool for the location for almost as long as cinema has been in existence. In 1888, James Freer, a reporter from Bristol, emigrated to the city and became Canada’s first filmmaker plus a keen proponent of his new home to boot, shipping the pro-emigration film Ten years in Manitoba back to his country of birth in 1898. 120 years later, Manitoba’s most illustrious filmmaker (if that isn’t damning him with faint praise) is still using the techniques of silent cinema and has made, if not a love letter to his home, at least a salacious biography that might equally be called Fifty-two years in Manitoba and everything that intrigues me about the half-century before…
Guy Maddin has always been a curious filmmaker, in all the connotations of the word, creating films that take an oblique look at their subject matter and often seem impenetrable to the casual observer. What makes Maddin’s directorial style most recognisable is his appropriation of the language of silent movies; even though many of his films contain some synch sound and dialogue, the use of inter-titles, lower frame rates (than the modern minimum of 24 fps), monochrome / tinted cinematography and degraded film stock make them look more cognate to the cinema of a hundred years ago than to modern filmmaking. In a climate of slick CGI, $100-million-budgets and a fixation on verisimilitude, Maddin’s faux retro style makes his films stand out as some of the most intriguing, exciting and unique in today’s cinema.
Two recent films brought his work to the attention of British audiences, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary and The Saddest Music in the World, both of which had an angle that made them more approachable to audiences unaccustomed to seeing silent-style movies. Dracula is a filmed version of the Royal Winnipeg ballet; it premiered first on the BBC before transferring to cinemas (perhaps to gauge the audience) and arrived on the big screen not long after a similar production at Sadler’s Wells. The Saddest Music in the World is a musical (which the British seem to love) and has a bankable star in the form of Isabella Rossellini. In contrast, Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand upon the Brain! which Maddin made either side of The Saddest Music, only received festival screenings in this country; perhaps the subject matter – the sexuality of ice hockey players and incest in a remote lighthouse respectively – was considered too outré, especially when combined with his idiosyncratic style.
The director’s latest film arrives towards the end of a decade marked by a fascination with documentaries, whether it’s big-screen hits such as Touching the Void and Bowling for Columbine or the more recent TV success of Who do you think you are? My Winnipeg combines these two styles, as a very cinematic documentary (which is ironic as it was bankrolled by the Canadian Documentary Channel) and one that touches on issues of a person’s origin, albeit from a geographical and cultural point of view rather than a genetic perspective.
My Winnipeg is a tour de force and possibly the director’s finest film so far, combining found footage, absurd re-enactments, tragedy, comedy and the (un)usual florid sexuality of Maddin’s characters. Interestingly for a director whose work is so unique, the main storytelling device is similar to Lars von Trier’s Europa – a character has a dreamlike experience on a train surrounded by rear projection. As there are similar themes in both films – geography, upbringing, racial heritage and unreliable narrators – it may go some way towards explaining why Maddin chose to use the same technique. Both von Trier and Maddin are directors who mythologise locations, both real and fictional, revealing hidden stories and meta-narratives behind them. Von Trier and Maddin’s choice of locations has been driven by necessity and they have usually remained within spitting distance of Denmark or Winnipeg respectively, resorting to obvious stage sets to represent far-flung locations (as in von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay or Maddin’s Careful and Archangel). Maddin’s first film Tales of the Gimli Hospital saw the director travelling an hour north of Winnipeg to take advantage of that town’s desire to have a cinematic identity and promote its status as the largest Icelandic community outside of Europe – the film premiered at the first Gimli film festival. But at that point, the director’s style was not yet fully formed, and it is only after the European detours of Careful and Archangel that Maddin started to construct Winnipeggian fairy tales using the style of European silents while creating a local folklore based on myth, absurdity and twisted sexuality.
Following in Freer’s footsteps, immigration and emigration are common themes in Maddin’s work. Gimli Hospital adds a surrealist Icelandic history of bizarre rituals to the tale of third-generation Manitobans. Archangel is about a Russian settlement in the Arctic that is still fighting The Great War after it has ended (as no one bothered to tell the inhabitants). Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary brings the novel’s subtext of feral foreigners from the East to the fore, not least with the casting of Zhang Wei-Qiang in the lead and sensational inter-titles that add a note of xenophobia to Van Helsing’s mission to kill the vampire. Being at the crossroads of rivers and railroads, and labelled ‘The Gateway to the West’, Winnipeg is inevitably a city of travellers in a country of immigrants.
My Winnipeg tells two narratives: the story of the city itself through archive footage and re-enactments of local incidents / folklore, and Maddin’s own story as a local and a filmmaker who feels harried by geography, family and wanderlust. My Winnipeg also seems to be a summary of Maddin’s entire work – one section is a silent ballet recalling Dracula, another tells a lurid tale of young sexuality in a public swimming pool that is remindful of Cowards Bend the Knee and yet another enacts a German invasion of Winnipeg, which echoes Archangel and so on. As befits his style, the director has chosen incidents from the city’s past that benefit from Byzantine retelling – the horrific tale of a herd of race horses trapped in a frozen river, a local bridge that was destined for Egypt and dreams of foreign climes, the buffalo stampede that destroyed Happyland, an amusement park reclaimed by the homeless and re-erected on the city’s rooftops. Elsewhere, Maddin casts a film noir actress – Ann Savage – as his own mother and links the role with the history of both his own cinema and the medium in general by telling the story of her involvement in home movies shot in their front room. This is a tale of both parental influence and urban parenting as the director sees the city itself as nurturing him, naming the Winnipeg (Ice Hockey) Arena as his male parent and the frozen horses in the river as midwives in the baby boom of a previous generation. This is the story of how a city and its culture and geography shape a person and their private history. Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg may be a unique take on a city that is as individual as the man behind the movie camera, but this is a personal tale that will delight and intrigue audiences and I hope will prove as good an advert for the city as James Freer’s nineteenth-century tract was for Manitoba. I also hope My Winnipeg helps publicise Maddin’s astonishing work as a whole.
The Guy Maddin season at the BFI Southbank runs from July 4-23. More information on the programme on the BFI website.
Inspired by the release of My Winnipeg, Soda Pictures in conjunction with Four Docs, 3
Minute Wonder & The Branchage Film Festival will be launching a filmmaking competition ‘Your Winnipeg’. Filmmakers are invited to submit a 3-minute documentary about their hometown being as experimental and creatively adventurous as you dare! Guy Maddin will join a jury of industry professionals to select the winning entry, which will be screened on Channel 4 and feature on the UK DVD release of My Winnipeg. The winner will be rewarded with Ã‚Â£1500 and a holiday to Maddin’s Winnipeg. Three runner-up films will also be screened on Channel 4 and the winners will each receive Ã‚Â£1500. For full details and to enter please follow the link below to the competition website.