Friday 23 September 2011

Screening the Secret City: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg

Part of the Maddin-est Blogathon in the World!

Keyframe are hosting a Blogathon dedicated to the great Guy Maddin this week. Here’s my contribution: an essay on Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007) which takes a look at the films presentation of the city,  its politics, and its attention to space. Cameos from J. Hoberman and Edward Soja, amongst others. 

Screening the Secret City: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg

When Michael Burns, the president of the Documentary Channel in Canada, first approached Guy Maddin to ask him to make a film about his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, it was with a couple of specific instructions. “Make it your Winnipeg,” Burns apparently told the director. And: “Please don’t give us the frozen hell-hole that we all know the city is.” It’s hard to imagine that Burns would have envisaged anything other than a highly personal and unconventional portrait of the city from Maddin, who is widely celebrated as one of the most distinctive auteurs in Canadian cinema. As is known, the signature visual aesthetic of Maddin’s films replicates the look and feel of early cinema - in particular, of silent film. And not only that, but Maddin’s work also seeks to replicate the degraded look that such films might have after decades of projection have left their mark on the images. This faux-retro style - at once direct and elusive – leads J. Hoberman to describe Maddin, with characteristic perceptiveness, as “the most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of avant-gardists)” (Hoberman 2004).

Of course, the overt stylization of Maddin’s work - its wholesale appropriation of the language of silent film, its surrealism and absurdist humour and its wildly melodramatic elements - may seem entirely antithetical to the documentary tradition. Maddin is, after all, a director who boldly champions film as artifice. “I like silent film because it aggressively says to its viewers: I am artificial,” he has said. “Silent film announces itself as art. It says: 'quit expecting realism from me.' If you want realism watch security camera tapes” (Maddin, in Springer and Werthschulte, 2008).

In Maddin’s hands, then, My Winnipeg was hardly destined to be a standard or conventional documentary. Appearing at the time of other, complementary, city essay-films - notably Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006), about San Sebastian, and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008), about Liverpool - the film famously combines fact and fabrication in its account of the city, merging archive footage, home videos, and staged re-enactments of Maddin’s family history, and producing a work that is as based in imagination, dream and subjective personal memory as historical fact. Developed in collaboration with Maddin’s regular writing partner George Toles, the film was shot over a ten-day period in a wide variety of formats -16 mm, Super 8, mini DV video, HD video and cell phone, as well as found footage - and also avails itself of inter-titles, cut-out animation, and most significantly a dynamic voice-over narration provided by Maddin himself. As Ryan Gilbey suggests, “the textural collage [of the film] is appropriately jumbled and hallucinatory” (Gilbey, 2008), reflecting Maddin’s construction of Winnipeg itself as a kind of multi-dimensional mosaic, as much dreamscape as historical reality.

While Maddin originally favoured the portmanteau word “docu-fantasia” to describe My Winnipeg’s genre-blur, he ultimately rejected the term, stating that “I think it is just a documentary. Documentary has elastic enough borders, especially now, everyone understands that there is no such thing as a completely honest documentary. Everything has a point of view” (Maddin, in Halfyard, 2007).

The "point-of view" of  My Winnipeg is one that emphasises, overtly, incompleteness and  impression, the personal, selective and the subjective. Maddin thus places the documentary in what he has called his "Me Trilogy," alongside Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and Brand Upon The Brain! (2006). Each of these three films features a character called "Guy Maddin" and draws in a fantastical way on aspects of the director’s personal history.

The Maddin avatar in My Winnipeg (played, as in Cowards Bend the Knee, by Darcy Fehr) is introduced to us on a train journey through Winnipeg as he attempts to escape the city that oppresses and confines him - “to film his way out” in Maddin’s phrase. This is a journey which, we gather, the protagonist has attempted (and failed) to accomplish many times before. He is, as the narration has it, “leaving for good - again.” This notion of the endlessly deferred journey out provides a structural principal as the film travels through the city, digressing through personal memory, folklore, anecdote and social history, in order to anatomise Maddin’s own shifting engagement with Winnipeg, a relationship characterised by a mixture of pride and distaste, hatred and affection. “It’s no Eden that you would see/But it’s home sweet home to me” state the lyrics to the song “Wonderful Winnipeg” by The Swinging Strings that plays over the film’s opening credits. Though heavily ironic in context, the lyrics succinctly encapsulate the ambivalence of Maddin’s attitude to Winnipeg, which is presented throughout as “no Eden” but nonetheless functions as an (ultimately inescapable) “home sweet home.”

In talking about his decision to make the film, Maddin emphasised his desire to mythologise Winnipeg, commenting on what he identifies as a peculiarly Canadian failure to mythologise the nation. “I am making it my mission to mythologize the place,” Maddin stated. “Every other country in the world gives their folk heroes a bigger than life treatment. For some reason, Canadians look through the wrong end of the telescope and make them smaller than life. I just thought that if no one was going to make a myth about Winnipeg [then] I would do it myself” (Maddin, in McBride, 2008).

Unsurprisingly, Maddin’s myth-making in My Winnipeg often tends towards the absurdist or the ludic. The city that the film presents is one of gay bison, of séances held in the parliament building, of aged hockey stars reunited for one final game, and, in the film’s most famous image, of frozen horse heads trapped in the Red River. Maddin’s sleepy, snowy Winnipeg is, in this sense, “wonderful” - full of wonders, spectacles, phenomena, intrusions of strangeness and oddity into the everyday. This is a city of “mystical synchronicities,” we are told. The statistics which the narrator provides at various points are largely and deliberately fictional, parodying the conventions of the documentary and constantly unsettling the viewer’s sense of historical reality. As Gilbey notes: “In Maddin’s wildly fabricated Winnipeg, veracity matters less than evocation” (Gilbey, 2008).  

Even so, the entrancing playfulness of Maddin’s approach should not obscure the seriousness of the film’s endeavour to engage with and deconstruct the myths and realities of Winnipeg’s past and present, and more broadly the myths and realities of the nation for which the city serves as a metonym. In particular, the film’s attention to space is central to its often subversive engagement with Winnipeg’s history and the position of its citizens therein. In Post-Metropolis, Edward Soja suggests that

[p]erhaps more than ever before we are becoming consciously aware of ourselves as intrinsically spatial beings, continually engaged in the collective activity of producing spaces and places, territories and regions, environments and habitats.... On the one hand, our actions and thoughts shape the spaces around us, but at the same time the larger collectively or socially produced spaces within which we live also shape our actions and thoughts in ways that we are only beginning to understand. (Soja, 2000)

Soja’s suggestion that human beings both shape and are shaped by the spaces in which we live with others resonates strongly with My Winnipeg. Indeed, Maddin’s film may be read as an exploration of how a city and its culture and geography form the individual, and how the individual, in turn, (per)forms and re-forms the city itself. “Our performance as spatial beings,” Soja suggests, “takes place at many different scales, from the body, or what the poet Adrienne Rich once called ‘the geography closest in,’ to a whole series of more distant geographies ranging from rooms and buildings, homes and neighbourhood, to cities and regions, states and nations, and ultimately the whole earth.”

The spaces documented and explored in My Winnipeg encompass just such a wide range, taking in the train tracks leading in and out of the city; the Arlington Street Bridge; the city’s back alleys; the Eaton’s department store and the Winnipeg Hockey Arena. They encompass the famous ‘Forks’ of the Red and Assiniboine rivers; the three-level Sherbrook pool; Garbage Hill, a dump for the city’s waste materials; and the abandoned Happyland amusement park, which the film finally reclaims as a space for the city’s dispossessed. And then, of course, there is the Maddin house itself, 800 Ellice, rendered in Maddin’s voice-over as an abstract shape: “a chunk of home: white, block, house.” It is here - indeed, on that most intimate of spaces, the family couch - that My Winnipeg reaches its elegant and surprisngly emotive end.

A concern with spatial relationships thus permeates Maddin’s movie, and what is especially striking is the way in which the film constructs city space and bodily space as synonymous. Bodily metaphors abound in Maddin’s often florid descriptions of Winnipeg’s geography. Most significantly, there are the 'Forks' where the Red and the Assiniboine rivers meet, and which are associated throughout with the "lap" of Maddin’s mother, visualised in the film as a pubic triangle that flashes across the screen dissolving into the image of the rivers ("The Forks! The lap!").  The image encapsulates the film’s merging of the private and the public, and, moreover, the city's status in Maddin's imaginary as both nurturer and oppressor.

There is also, again, the Winnipeg Hockey Arena, where Maddin claims to have been born - "right in this dressing-room." The venue is described by Maddin as “my male parent” and connected throughout with the presence of his father, manager of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey team. There are also the back lanes of the city, figured as its “black arteries,” and there is of course the position of the city itself, at “the heart of the heart” of the continent, as Maddin’s voiceover repeatedly announces.

Such bodily metaphors imbue with particular poignancy and power two interrelated narratives of civic loss and destruction which are at the centre - indeed, at the heart - of the film. These are the demolition of Eaton’s department store and the demolition of the Winnipeg Arena, both of which events are explicitly presented by Maddin as acts of violence perpetrated against the living body of the city by its officials. Maddin’s voice rises in righteous anger as he rails against the bureaucrats who sanctioned the demolition of these buildings, with all their personal and communal associations. Particularly traumatic is the loss of the Arena, described by Maddin as “the most myth- and memory-packed landmark in our city’s history.”

Public space in My Winnipeg is thus presented a contentious and contested entity, one that is threatened by local authority, whose decisions result in what Maddin terms “a horrific chain reaction of architectural tragedy.” As William Beard suggests, "the loss of Eaton’s .. could appear as a particularly unmistakeable objective correlative for the long, gradual slide downhill of a city that had not so many decades earlier been so bustling and full of promise" (Beard, 2010).  For a time, Beard suggests, "Winnipeg stood dramatically for for the vast potential of the Canadian west - English Canada’s Chicago, almost. If there is a melancholy that clings to the city itself, and not simply to Maddin’s view of it, it can perhaps be traced to this sense of faded promise" (Beard, 2010). The movie’s lamenting tone echoes Roger Kemble’s remarks in The Canadian City as he surveys the intersection at Portage & Main: “Whatever a sense of place may have been, Winnipeg has lost it,” Kemble writes. “The old streets have disappeared. The city is one big parking lot now” (Kemble, 1989). 

As the Eaton’s and Winnipeg Arena episodes attest, attention to space in My Winnipeg is explicitly connected to the film’s politics. Although Maddin has often sought to downplay any political content in his cinema, the documentary is very clearly political in its implications, adding up to a critique of the erosion of social, cultural, architectural and other traditions in an increasingly homogenised and corporate world. Exploring the aftermath of the urban project of modernity, Maddin’s film finds much to mourn and rage against. As Soja claims in Post-Metropolis, city spaces "must be recognised as products of collective human action and intention and therefore susceptible to being modified or changed. This infuses all socially constructed scales of human spatiality with built-in tensions and potential conflicts, with openness and freedom as well as enclosure and oppression,… and hence with politics, ideology, and what, borrowing from Michel Foucault, can be called the intersections of space, knowledge and power" (Soja, 2000).

Winnipeg as presented by Maddin is precisely a place of “built-in tensions and potential conflicts, openness and freedom… and enclosure and oppression.” Moreover, the concern throughout with issues of “space, knowledge and power” explains why Maddin’s film is repeatedly drawn to the idea of spaces within spaces. Winnipeg, the film tells us, is “a city of palimpsests, of skins beneath skins.” Dipping into the layers of Winnipeg, Maddin’s film discovers a “secret city on top of the official one.” The aforementioned back lanes  with their hints of illicit or non-normative sexuality are one such secret space, as are the 'Forks' Beneath the Forks where, in the film’s mythology at least, the Aboriginal First Nations speak of a subterranean river system running directly beneath the visible one, and attribute supernatural powers to this secret juncture.

More significant still is the film’s aforementioned reclaiming of the destroyed Happyland amusement park as a space for the city’s marginalised groups, including First Nations, the homeless and the city’s forgotten war veterans. These “swelling ranks of the heartsick dispossessed,” as Maddin’s narration figures them, “gather up the detritus of Happyland, every last sliver of happiness they can gather, and reconstitute it out of sight, and up on the rooftops of our city. An Aboriginal Happyland.” As Darren Wershler suggests, "this is not so much a forced marginalization as it is what Hakim Bey might call a TAZ - a Temporary Autonomous Zone where non-normative desires can be enacted and revolutions planned" (Wershler, 2010, p. 91). Winnipeg’s “forgotten people” must unite, the film suggests, to claim their own space within the city’s narrative.

In a final revisionist flourish, the narrator posits a fantasy saviour for Winnipeg named "Citizen Girl" who will “tend to those in our aerial Happyland,” as well as restoring the Winnipeg Arena and the Eaton’s store, and reversing other incidents of civic damage and loss chronicled by Maddin’s film. As such, My Winnipeg  proposes a fantasy scenario as an escape route from the realities of the city's present state.  This is not to suggest that the film’s engagement with the history of Winnipeg’s marginalised is  in any sense unproblematic. In particular, as Wershler notes, the “Marxist pin-up” Citizen Girl whom Maddin envisages saving and restoring the city is “unambiguously white, leaving salvation, once again, in the hands of the colonizers” (Wershler, 2010, p.91). The problems inherent in the notion that a Utopian space must be secured by a white guardian are neither resolved nor even addressed in Maddin's film.  What is significant, nonetheless, is the film’s recourse to imagination and fantasy to highlight the injustices of the past and present, and to construct a counter-narrative that disrupts and modifies the city’s official history. 

In this way, the city that Maddin presents connects with Edward Soja’s notion of thirdspace, “opening up the scope and complexity of the spatial imagination.” In this alternative or “third” perspective,” Soja argues, “the spatial specificity of urbanism is invested as fully lived space, a simultaneously real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual, locus of structured individual and collective identity” (Soja, 1996). Maddin’s "real-and-imagined, actual-and-virtual" Winnipeg serves as just such a "thirdspace," as the film opens up the city’s history to revision and re-imagining.

My Winnipeg offers, then, a variously poetic, playful and political meditation on the director’s hometown, one that unpicks the spurious certainties of the documentary as it engages with social and historical issues of considerable significance. “Dipping into the layers of the city,” “decoding its signs,” Maddin's movie constructs a counter-narrative to an official version of Winnipeg, presenting the city as at once familiar and fantastic, mysterious and mundane, banal and baroque. “No Eden yet home sweet home,” Maddin’s multi-dimensional Winnipeg is a city replete with secret spaces and hidden realms that co-exist with its daily façade, offering the potential for the revision of dominant ideologies. “The best we can do is selectively explore, in the most insightful way we can find, the infinite complexity of life through its intrinsic spatial, social and historical dimensions, its interrelated spatiality, sociality and historicality,” Soja suggests. Maddin’s film provides just such an exploration, one that adds up to an interrogation of the historical legacies and contemporary realities of “the peaceable kingdom.”


  1. An insightful investigation of the film's deeper thematic strata, Alex. I loved this movie instantly when I saw it in Harvard Square a few years ago; I need to return to it at some point to see how I feel about it now. Maddin's voiceover moves very swiftly, so I'm sure there are plenty of details in it that I missed on a first viewing. I still can't believe that I talked with him for a while at the Provincetown Film Festival a few years ago...and I still feel guilty that it might have made him uncomfortable!

  2. Thanks, Jason; glad you enjoyed this rather lengthy effort. Yes, the (very exciting) "sensory overload" of Maddin's movies makes them really rewarding on subsequent viewings. MY WINNIPEG stands up well.

  3. PS. Can't wait to see KEYHOLE. Starring Jason Patric!