Even the blandest, most benighted hamlet, if it happens to be the place where you first met the world, is myth and magic. It's the map of a hidden self, for better or worse. Usually, somehow, worse. My suburb and your metropolis play the same role in our respective heads: home. Epic, terrible, wonderful home. With My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin attempts a heroic midlife flight from his mythic Manitoban birthplace. He explains the plan in his narration: By revisiting the "dreamy addresses" of his past he will "film his way out of Winnipeg." This being your standard Maddin confabulation of psychosexual confusion, his freedom hinges on renting his childhood home and hiring actors to play out "archetypal episodes" from his past. This being Canada, it involves hockey.
Maddin's Winnipeg is a lot like my (and maybe your?) Portland: The city teems with somnambulant citizens, and even the streets and bridges dream. Maddin dives into the phantasmagorical current in search of the secret stream where Winnipeg's collective depths merge with his family's. His grainy, jagged pillagings of film history are well suited to the task. All of Maddin's films (The Saddest Music In the World, Brand Upon the Brain!) work like dream machines, the past (and the self) accessible only in lost fragments of imaginary movies, fragments bound by a finite image repertoire of omniscient mothers, strapping lads, artificial limbs, hypnotized sleepers, painted ladies and dark domiciles.
In a way, My Winnipeg is Maddin's meta-dream, an autobiographical skeleton key that unlocks—solves, finally—the complex of symbols composing previous films. Confessions lift to flights of fancy, so it's difficult to distinguish Guy Maddin from "Guy Maddin," or Winnipeg from "Winnipeg." It's as if a magician were to reveal the mechanism of a trick by performing another one. Still, I want to believe in Maddin's mother's beauty salon, or his dad's hockey team, or his sister's roadside dalliances. The melancholy and fixated ambivalence (regarding family in particular, and Mother especially) of Maddin's work until now would make a new, strange, sad kind of sense.
The work of hermetic, obsessive filmmakers like Maddin—Lynch comes to mind—engenders this kind of curiosity about sources and origins. Ideas spring from a place between nowhere and somewhere, and I want to know something about the somewhere (we all share the nowhere), so there's pleasure in Maddin's coy game of self-revelation in the scenes of his childhood. B-movie legend Ann Savage plays mom as a vicious and puritanical storm of vengeful parenting, and the sick humor and incestuous urges are scary, funny and as true as any half-lie can be. Unfortunately, Maddin leaves the family at home when he embarks on his excavation of Winnipeg, and it's there that the film flounders. Although the city as it exists in Maddin's movie-mad mind is gorgeously, dolorously photographed, the detours into local legend are about as exciting as, well, my hometown, which I don't care to visit more than I have to. We all come from a place with grand stories, odd coincidences, shady characters, mischievous mayors. I'd put my Fremont, Calif., up against Maddin's Winnipeg, Manitoba, any day. His loopy mother and dead brother and hockey appreciation? He can keep those, and keep making movies about them, too. Just leave the city out of it. I've been there already.
opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.