If every movie is a message in a bottle, what’s most surprising isn’t the volume of bottles, but how many people fish out each message. Think of the number of Jim Jarmusch fans out there. Or how many people seem to connect with Joel and Ethan Coen. Recently, I saw my first Guy Maddin movie and felt a sense of kinship. Maddin is a Canadian lunatic (I realise that may be a tautology) who makes movies inspired by “early film melodramas, Weimar Republic German silent films, and 1920s Soviet agit-prop”. Where do I connect with that? Is it because Maddin is also funny? Should I start seeing other bottles?
The movie is called My Winnipeg. It is of a genre Guy Maddin christened: “docu-fantasia”, which means it has the subject matter of a documentary and the visual flair of… Guy Maddin. Winnipeg is a snow-bound nowhere dead in the centre of Canada, and no-one in their right mind would choose to make a documentary about it. But fortunately Guy Maddin is the brains behind Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (a recent ballet rendition of Dracula) and common sense applies to him about as much as gravity does to a Weeble. The resulting movie is what would happen if you gave your home movies to Fritz Lang to direct… in Canada.
Split fairly even between Maddin’s own childhood and the past hundred years of Winnipeg history, My Winnipeg creates a remarkably coherant picture of the city. It isn’t like you could outline a map of downtown by the end, but you do get a sense of place, and the kinks of history which have shaped Maddin’s home town. None of this would rise above the level of a dreary history on Winnipeg if it weren’t for Maddin, but it does help to have Winnipeg to guide the film-maker. It’s as if the city anchored his whimsy – much like his mother (who also features) – something real to fence-in the fantasical.
Where does the “fantasia” come in? Where to start? First there are melodramatic actors hired to impersonate Maddin’s family; then there’s the ballet recital he stages in the middle of the film; the abounding use of back-projection; the wood-cut style animated segments; use of “intertitles” (dialogue boxes from the silent-era)… Maddin’s girlfriend’s Pug dog playing the part of a dead family pet. The whole movie is meshugenah! But – I stress – in a good way. Maddin knows what he’s doing. The re-created scenes from the Maddin household are perhaps the best part, coming off like a Douglas Sirk movie with eyebrows intentionally raised. When Ann Savage (playing Maddin’s Mother with a capital M) berates her daughter for staying out late, you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh. “In Winnipeg,” Maddin informs us, “Everything is a euphemism.” So the fact Janet Maddin claims to have hit a deer with her car is instantly (mis)interpreted by her mother as a lapsed-chastity confession.
Are these scenes true? Is any of it? If any of My Winnipeg were true, would anyone watch? The answer is: “No”. No-one wants to watch a black-and-white documentary about Winnipeg. Even the kind of chin-strokers who praise Atom Egoyan movies for their bloody “meta-narratives” would struggle to whip up enthusiasm for that. And that’s where Guy Maddin comes in; to create a useful fantasia.
Movies don’t speak to people directly. We all see and hear the same thing, but only some of us can relate. My Winnipeg will seem to most way too out there to be about anything, but to me it’s a movie about home, and it’s as much about my home as Winnipeg, the same way Annie Hall tells the story of my first love. Maybe it’s intent we relate to when we relate to film-makers. If I read Maddin’s message in a bottle correctly: he’s benign. Maddin is a guy who tells a joke to tell you the truth about himself. There’s a lot of guys like that. Maybe that’s why My Winnipeg feels familiar, even if the joke is strange.