If filmmaker Guy Maddin were ever to say that his dreams are like silent films, then we should believe him, and not just for the expertise of his Film Comment column. The movieness of Maddin’s work show that the history of the medium is something of a personal obsession, which he channels into a blend of gothic and melodrama. In an oeuvre full of such originality, his recent feature “Brand Upon the Brain!” stands out as a synthesis of childhood pain, silent film conventions, and the surreal. Effortlessly toying with silent film, which takes measured patience for most viewers, Maddin’s “Brain” arrests with passion for the style it tributes, and a controlled kinetic gusto. When the film wraps with its title flashed on the screen, we know the film has well earned such a claim.
While he has flirted with the form in his short film “BBB,” a feature documentary coming from Maddin would be like expecting a thriller from Frederick Wiseman. But with “My Winnipeg,” now in limited release and available On Demand, Maddin has flouted expectations – sort of. His new film zeros in on his Canadian hometown for a very personalized personal account. While commissioned to make a film about the city, Maddin follows suit just enough to please those who assigned the project, while he crafts a feverish vision of his childhood and associations to his hometown. Often the city proper is just a means for Maddin to plunge into his own memory.
A musing on the city suits this personal investigation well, since Maddin fuses a mythical landscape of rails, arteries, and the joining of two rivers with the psychological. As the filmmaker himself describes the city on the voiceover, it appears as if he calls to Winnipeg as his muse, and that he’s letting out repressed emotion that’s grown fervent with time.
In the film’s opening, Maddin presents himself as an onscreen character trying to escape the city, which has outright Freudian associations for him. What he describes as a comforting “lap” is in fact a naked vagina, as Maddin pulls away from the womb-like territory, as secure as it was possessive. This leads into a series of vignettes – not unlike Maddin’s chapter structure in “Brain” – that allows the filmmaker to portray the city even if committed to his own demons.
Successfully operating within a one-of-a-kind film universe, Maddin brings us to his actual childhood home, a beauty shop, for an exercise in metafiction. Continuing to narrate this mostly silent film – as many on-stage announcers did for the earliest films – Maddin details his method of assigning characters to the roles of his family members. Mother’s presence is so real for him that the woman playing her, golden age starlet Ann Savage (“Detour,” 1945), becomes the real thing, while the dead dad is a buried bump under the rug. Family life was hardly happy under this mother, barely the caring type, whose sex obsession leads to bizarre accusations to her daughter. The constructed family makes for stiled acting, which seems to be just what Maddin wants to deliver: his voiced-over descriptions reveal much more, anyway.
Other vignettes feature a destroyed hockey rink and a shadow-puppet anecdote about horses that fled a burning racetrack and ended up as macabre heads in a frozen lake. No stranger to themes of the perverse, Maddin also brings us into a multi-layered pool complex, one floor of which was “Girls on Girls” – those bizarre, melodramatic title cards! – and another where the director relates an eerie homoerotic account. Maddin the narrator never abandons us, since this visual filmmaker has just as much verbal inspiration here. He has so much inspiration that, of all our filmmakers, he must possess the greatest need to create. The faux-doc/tone-poem hybrid “My Winnipeg” is a worthy product.