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Dispatches From the Capital of Sorrow

My Winnipeg (2008)

Jody Shapiro/IFC Films

The official story is that “My Winnipeg” is Guy Maddin's first documentary, commissioned by the Documentary Channel as a portrait of the director's hometown and a memoir of his childhood roots. Straight-faced press releases describe Mr. Maddin's qualms that the exacting demands of discipline and patience in the documentary form had put him off tackling one until now. Not for the first time, Mr. Maddin is having you on.

For one thing, Mr. Maddin has rarely produced anything that could be called conventional fiction. His trademark recreations of silent movie conventions and fervent spiking of the wheels of his own narratives with off-kilter surrealist kinks have long since moved him away from being any kind of mainstream storyteller. They’ve not demonstrated any lack of discipline or patience, either.

And for another thing, “My Winnipeg” isn't unprecedented even in Mr. Maddin's recent output. It's a clear cousin of “Brand Upon the Brain,” which swam in similar waters and likewise featured futile attempts by somebody named Guy Maddin to escape from his own history while weighed down with a few tons of mother-fixation. But the biggest give away is that “My Winnipeg” is a scream. “Brand Upon the Brain” presented the Maddin family as Manitoba's token oddballs, an island of lunacy in the snowy Canadian landscape. “My Winnipeg” feigns to draw a broader conclusion: The place is just nuts.

Hence we learn that Winnipeg is the sleepwalking capital of the world – or rather we learn this again, sleepwalkers having shambled through Mr. Maddin's previous movies more than once. We discover that it is the location of the world's smallest park (a single tree on a tiny traffic island), and that a group of dead horses frozen up to their necks in a river formed a popular picnic spot. We witness somebody named Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr this time) attempt to work through his familial issues by hiring actors to recreate scenes from his childhood in his old family home, complete with the current resident who refuses to leave during filming.

As Mr. Maddin's stand-in rides in a train full of fitfully slumbering fellow escapees, accompanied by a dreamy voice over from the actual real Guy Maddin, street scenes rather than railways pass by the windows in grainy back projection. The train rumbles on, clearly all set to roll for eternity without leaving the province. Rationale for all this is vaguely laid on Winnipeg's psycho-geography, its location at “the heart of the heart of the continent,” and the significant resemblance between the city's layout and the naked female lap.

It's an easy film to like, a intoxicating 80 minute canter that doesn't linger on any one conceit long enough to let you fret too much. While you're still wondering about those horses, it's back to the Maddin family sitcom in time to see his sister threaten his mother with a parakeet. But even a Maddin fan might have to admit that there’s a limit to the mileage he can get out of this line of enquiry, and this might be it. With less thematic weight than “Brand,” “My Winnipeg” is even easier to dismiss as the doodling of a gifted cinematic prankster, and the kind of potency Mr. Maddin conjured in “The Saddest Music in the World” in 2003 is starting to seem a long time ago.

According to the film, Winnipeg’s only local TV production was a daily soap opera called "Ledge Man," in which the main character threatens to jump from the ledge of his mother’s apartment in every episode. The actor standing on the ledge is indeed Mr. Fehr. I love some of the things that have crossed Mr. Maddin’s mind up there, but I think it might be time for someone to talk him down.


Opened on June 13 in New York and on July 4 in Britain.

Conceived and directed by Guy Maddin; director of photography, Jody Shapiro; edited by John Gurdebeke; production designer, Rejean Labrie; produced by Mr. Shapiro and Phyllis Laing; released by IFC Films (United States) and Soda Pictures (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

WITH: Darcy Fehr (Guy Maddin/Ledge Man), Ann Savage (Mother), Amy Stewart (Janet Maddin) and Louis Negin (Mayor Cornish).


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