When Canada's adventurous Documentary Channel asked Guy Maddin, Winnipeg's favorite filmmaking son, to make a movie about his hometown, they must have known what they were in for. With a filmography filled with phantasmagorias like TALES OF THE GIMLI HOSPITAL, CAREFUL, COWARDS BEND THE KNEE and BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!, Maddin has become known -- and loved -- for his odd, technically anachronistic and deeply Freudian fever dreams of Mother, Manitoba, forbidden desires and ice hockey. So it should come as no surprise that what Maddin eventually produced is a film about his Winnipeg, a psychological terrain that's no more -- nor less -- "real" than William Carlos William's Paterson or Marcel Proust's Combray.
Maddin's Winnipeg is a place where railroad tracks and icy rivers run over forked underground waterways of mystical power, and whose inhabitants are natural-born sleepwalkers. According to Maddin, who narrates, the somnambulism rate in Winnipeg is 10 times higher than any other place in the world -- just one of many interesting and highly questionable facts this "documentary" has to offer. Wandering through the city's grid of snowy backways with the keys to old haunts clutched in their hands, Maddin's sleepwalking neighbors show up on the doorsteps of places they once called home, and the current owners, Maddin claims, are required by civic law to provide at least one night's lodging for these restless past residents. But now after 50 years of living and dreaming in Winnipeg, Maddin must now wake himself and leave once and for all. The city is no longer the beloved and bizarre world of his youth, especially since the demolition of the hallowed Winnipeg Arena where Maddin's father once worked and his childhood hockey heroes chased a puck across the ice. Getting out, however, won't be so easy: Maddin is entangled in a sticky web of memories and associations, many of them spun by his powerful mother whose magnetism keeps her son rooted to the spot. To extricate himself, Maddin undertakes a bold experiment. He has sublet the house in which he spent his childhood -- a curiously constructed building that also housed his Aunt Lil's beauty salon -- from its current owner, restored the original decor and hired a group of actors to portray his siblings. His now-deceased father will be represented by a lump under the carpet while his real-life mother will appear as herself. Maddin's plan is to replay and closely observe archetypal moments from the crucial year of 1963 and, through the data he collects in a notebook, unlock the secrets of past that binds him. In addition to this recreated family romance, Maddin also treats the viewer to a farewell tour of his town and its strange history, from the construction of Happyland amusement park and the general strike that threatened the virtue of the young women of St. Mary's Academy for Girls, to the Great Elm Scandal of 1957, the gay bison stampede and the shameful "man pageants" that were held in a long-gone department store cafe and judged by the corrupt lip-smacking mayor himself.
A good tip-off that Maddin may not be telling the "truth" comes with the realization that "Mother" is in fact being played by an actress: film-noir siren Ann Savage, whose unforgettable turn as a vicious femme fatale in Edgar Ulmer's DETOUR lends the sweet, white-haired Mrs. Maddin an underlying edge of menace. So is any of it true? Does it really matter? One comes away not with an understanding of Winnipeg as a geographical location but a state of mind, a place where sleepwalkers wander and dream and never leave home because in their hearts, they never really want to. It's where artists come from, and every great city deserves its own Guy Maddin. leave a comment --Ken Fox