I got to see an advanced view of My Winnipeg, last year’s biopic by the inimitable Guy Maddin, among friends this evening. It was a sad joy to watch.
Alternately claustrophobic and wide open, Winnipeg, the central character of the film, does a fancy dance with Maddin, its anti-hero. The film, constructed out of black and white, old and new, and real and unreal imagery, tells the comi-tragic life of the city as seen from a particularly wary set of eyes. The cold predominates throughout, snowflakes littering every scene and people (a.k.a. “sleepwalkers”) scuttle through the streets amidst piles of snow and ice, litter, and bright lighting from above. In almost every scene, a person inhabits the landscape, which is remote, flat, relatively ugly, and luscious at the same time.
Maddin describes my now almost-three-year experience here perfectly. It’s a pleasure to get out. Escape is nearly impossible but when it happens, a kind of weary joy sets in that is inexplicable. Yet, despite the grim complexity of leaving the city, it’s always a delight to come back to Winnipeg. Maddin implies that there is a double, magical set of tributaries beneath the main rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, that cross near our home. The muddy rivers rock back and forth during spring, sometimes high and other times (like today) low, but they offer up a magic that’s hard to describe; perhaps Winnipeg’s being “Paris of the Plains” originates, in part, from the Seine-ish energy traversing the heart of the city.
And the city does have a heart or a few of them and I think Maddin showed this clearly. His city, and my adopted one, doesn’t wish to be anything other than what it is. It’s this lack of pretense, which can be found in other cities like Toronto or Los Angeles, that helps define Winnipeg for its inhabitants. Beyond friendly, Winnipeg lives as a place located, as Maddin indicates, in the center of the center. And like, Albany, where I lived many years ago, it’s close to everywhere but near nothing.
The movie, like all of Maddin’s movies, is romantically endowed and generous to those it critiques. The film goes so far as to criticize the city’s leaders and then wishes upon it a savior of sorts, a love for the world of which Winnipeg is a very small, cold part.
Oh, and the film is very funny, making light of the hard winters and the frozen landscape but also the odd, particular history of the city’s growth from places like Garbage Hill. It’s a loving tribute to a place that is easy to hate, easier to love, and humble to a fault.