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June 20th, 2008

FILM REVIEW: MY WINNIPEG.

by John Coakley


Tune in next week for more exciting adventures of LedgeMan!

What if you could recreate certain parts of your childhood, especially events that you were too young to understand or appreciate at the time? Would you go back, or just leave the past behind? Guy Maddin chooses to do both in My Winnipeg. While a train slowly creeps out of the station, the titular hometown is revealed by the narrator to be the kind of place that people feel a need to flee in order to thrive, and yet they can’t stop thinking about it with an affection that makes leaving very hard to do. Which is why Maddin decided to rent his childhood home for a month to film his past. He finds promising young actors to play his siblings and former fim noir femme fatale Ann Savage to play his mother. The role of his long-deceased father is played by a body-sized lump under the living room carpet.

That lump should be a warning to anyone unfamiliar with Maddin’s style. First of all, he shoots in black and white. But it’s a gorgeous, luminous black and white that perfectly captures the quiet beauty of a late-night drive in the snow. Second, he loves the old and arcane. 1930’s seances are depicted in loving detail here, as are 1950’s hockey games. Maddin has a way of tapping into the sometimes sentimental naivete of our civic and personal memories and throwing them up on the screen for all to see. Some people think he’s just being a smartass by poking fun of that kind of hokum, but there is clearly a lot of affection behind it as well. And finally, there’s narrative. Not a lot of that here—or maybe there’s too much, if you prefer. Stories come and go and return in unexpected places, and that can be frustrating for folks expecting something more linear. Indeed, things did lag a little bit towards the end when the death of a hockey stadium was explored, but maybe that’s just my non-Canadianness getting in the way.

Or maybe not. Maddin’s beautifully hazy visual style—perfect for showing off the city that purportedly has 10 times the sleepwalkers of any other place in the world—is the glue that holds so many different tales together. Whether it’s his mother refusing to feed the kids because she just doesn’t feel like it or dead horses frozen in the river until spring, everything feels like it belongs to the same weird dream. That is, until Maddin covers the demolition of the old hockey rink and the construction of the new one and color rears its ugly head. It’s jarring, and is probably meant to be—the charming dream of the past shattered by the cookie cutter garishness of the present—but it works a little too well. And sometimes the metaphors smack you a little too hard over the head—especially the hometown/mother analogies that use repeated images of a naked crotch paired with Winnipeg’s rivers—but overall, Maddin’s black humor keeps things from getting too pedantic. For example, his revised childhood includes a mythical 1950’s TV show called LedgeMan, in which every week the protagonist is offended by something new, heads out to the ledge of the building, and threatens to jump until his kindly old mother talks him back in. It’s hilarious, oddly sweet, and perfectly in keeping with a city where people try awful hard to not let six-month winters get them down. Ultimately, it’s that kind of imaginative reinvention that makes this imperfectly beautiful film worth a look.

My Winnipeg is playing at the IFC.

Filed Under: Arts & Leisure | Events | New York

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