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By Jason McBride
About five years ago, when I was an editor at Coach House Books—Canada’s most venerable literary press—I cold-called Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin and asked if I could publish a book of his writing. Over the years, he had published articles and reviews in various magazines (including this one), and his purplish prose possessed the same charisma, humour, and originality that his films did. I wanted to put this writing into a book before anyone else did. (The only previous volume by or about Maddin at that point was fellow Winnipeger Caelum Vatnsdal’s excellent Kino Delirum: The Films of Guy Maddin.) Maddin was friendly and flattered (“I’ve always dreamt of writing a book,” I recall him saying), but was concerned that he hadn’t yet written enough for a substantial volume. I suggested we supplement the journalism with a treatment or script, examples of which I had read and felt were fantastic works in their own right. He agreed, but had another idea. He’d been keeping, he told me, a diary for the past few years. Perhaps those jottings could fill out the book? I said I’d love to see them.
A mere two days later, a FedEx envelope arrived on my doorstep, containing three black Mead notebooks filled with Maddin’s hand-written musings. The sporadic entries began around the time Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) was in production and concluded with the early stirrings of The Saddest Music in the World (2003). The writing was similar to Maddin’s published work, but it was also suffused with a simmering disappointment and despair, virtually every stained page a kind of cri de coeur. Perhaps every diary dwells in the doldrums (cf. Virginia Woolf), but Maddin’s journals were even more shocking for what they revealed. That is, pretty much everything. He railed against producers and ex-wives, plotted seductions, obsessed over his weight and finances, dreamt of new projects. There were lists of movies seen, books bought, Gatsby-like plans for self-improvement. The self-portrait that emerged in the diaries, accurate or not, was of a narcissistic and self-loathing cad with an enviable vocabulary, louche delivery and an overactive imagination. For a fan, it was an intensely thrilling experience, perverse and somehow wrong. I quite literally read the notebooks under the blankets with a flashlight.
But as I gobbled up the pages, one thought continued to chug through my mind: What the fuck was he thinking? Had he written these things with an eye to publication? Doubtful, but even if so, why would he send them to a complete stranger, one whom he had spoken to only once and over the phone at that? It was a weirdly trusting gesture, both selfless and self-destructive. There was stuff in these diaries that, had it got out, could have made Maddin’s life very difficult, soured longstanding relationships, embarrassed girlfriends, maybe even sunk his career. And he wanted to publish this? I couldn’t do it. No, okay, I could do it—but the manuscript would require some fairly ruthless cutting. If Maddin wasn’t going to protect himself, then I would have to. Expurgation’s an ugly word, but so is lawsuit. Maddin remained fairly blasé to the end, saying then that there were only two people in the world he didn’t want to offend. (Their names shall remain secret.) The book came out a year later, with the title From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings.
As I edited the diaries (out went the graphic sexual scenarios, in stayed the list of distinctive cinematic voices), it occurred to me that the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. Autobiography—and false autobiography—was becoming ever more important in Maddin’s film work. Around this time, he produced Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), a Super-8 work commissioned by Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. In that Euripides-inspired work, originally exhibited via a series of peep-show style holes drilled into the gallery’s walls, a star hockey player (named Guy Maddin) is beset by a femme fatale, a crooked abortionist, a beautiful ghost and a disorienting welter of sexual bafflements. The film takes place in twin locations—a hair salon and the Winnipeg Hockey Arena—milieus swollen with significance in the Maddin mythology. The Saddest Music of the World came out that same year, and while its source material, a story by Kazuo Ishiguro, takes place in London, Maddin relocated the tale to his own hometown. This Winnipeg was a snow-choked burg, mad with melancholy, populated by sleepwalkers, and presided over by a beer baroness played by Isabella Rossellini. This past year, Maddin released Brand Upon the Brain!, a film that, while shot outside of Winnipeg, nonetheless drew profoundly and perversely upon the filmmaker’s own complicated family romance, again with a main character named “Guy Maddin.”
Doing press for these movies, in interview after interview, Maddin revealed the material of his life. Stories were spun, treasured anecdotes honed. He worked hard at his mythology, and that mythology always included Winnipeg. In an interview with Elvis Mitchell on the occasion of Saddest Music’s screening at the Walker Art Centre, he said, “I’m making it my mission to mythologize the place. 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, I decided I would do it myself.”
I myself have only been to Winnipeg twice. Once trapped at the annual folk festival (three days of acid-induced paranoia and my first taste of Ani DiFranco) and then later, visiting the set of the Saddest Music. That trip took place in early spring, and the city was a damp, dull burg, mud-spattered and morose. Winter winds roared down every boulevard, confirming my suspicion that the city produced so many talented artists because everyone was forced to spend so much time indoors. Alone, I toured the haunts that I had read about in Maddin’s diaries—without his cozy prose, these restaurants and bars and Second Cups possessed little allure. The city felt stunted, lonely. Sad, indeed.
But an entirely different Winnipeg existed inside the warehouse that served as the studio for Saddest Music. Cheery, convivial. The cast and crew was made up of people that Maddin had known for decades, and they all seemed to be carrying Super 8 cameras. His longtime collaborator George Toles stood nearby, chuckling as his dialogue was performed. Snow—real and fake—carpeted the floor and it was colder inside than out, to keep the snow solid and the actors’ breath visible. The craft services egg-salad was crusted with ice. Even though Maddin was working with his biggest budget to date, the wood and glass and papîer maché sets still had an improvised, Jack Smith feel. Everything seemed to be miniature, perspectives forced. The top of a model streetcar poked out of a snow bank. Gels on the lights cast the whole spectacle in lurid aquamarine and lavender. Rossellini never seemed to stop smiling. Maddin’s girlfriend and mother—both of whom I had read so much about, unbeknownst to them—sat on opposite sides of the set. This was Maddin’s version of Depression-era Winnipeg. His Winnipeg—the saddest city in the world, but also, apparently, the most enchanted.
A similar version of this wintry, heartbreaking metropolis is found in Maddin’s new My Winnipeg, a ficto-documentary (docudrama seems a wrong fit, as does essay film) that’s both summa and departure. It’s exactly what its title promises: an account, a portrait, of the Winnipeg of Maddin’s mind, a love letter written in bile. Commissioned by the Documentary Channel, it’s a fusion of found footage, Maddin’s signature Vigo-esque Super 8 black-and-white, bizarre re-enactments-cum-exorcisms and adorable animation by Maddin associate Andy Smetanka. It’s quite possibly Maddin’s funniest film, and definitely his most Canadian. (Oh, that such a sentence could be written about any other Canuck filmmaker!) It’s also, in its way, nearly as revealing as the journals that the filmmaker had sent me years before. The film begins on a train, with a dozing Maddin surrogate (Darcy Fehr, who previously played “Guy Maddin” in Cowards), attempting to flee a city “just four years older than my grandmother.” It’s not entirely clear why Maddin is escaping, but his motives certainly have something to do with overbearing, manipulative Mom, a woman who is, according to the director’s arch and impassioned narration, “a force as strong as all the trains in Manitoba.”
My Winnipeg trots out numerous stats, largely and deliberately fictional: one is that the city is situated at the geographic centre of North America, and that the two rivers it sits upon, the Red and the Assiniboine are—shades of William Gass—“the heart of the heart of the continent.” For Maddin, this watery confluence known as the Forks, is twinned with an image of his mother’s lap, a pubic triangle that flashes across the screen with fearsome regularity. Here is the place of Maddin’s birth and the place of the birth of his city. “Forks, lap, Forks, lap…” Maddin intones. But beneath these public Forks lurks another secret set of Forks, known only to Winnipeg aboriginals, the “Forks beneath the Forks.”
Winnipeg, it turns out, teems with such secrets: a dark, romantic, even supernatural, city lurks beneath the official one. In addition to the Forks, Maddin details back lanes that exist on no maps; a graveyard for disused storefront signage (“Hy’s Steak Loft”); streets named after brothel madams; a hidden amusement park for the city’s dispossessed Native population called, grimly, Happyland; séances that took place at the Parliament Building.
Unsurprisingly, the darkest secrets that Maddin unveils, however, concern his family. Maddin proposes that he will “film his way out of” the city, and to do so sublets his childhood home—once fronted by a beauty salon run by his mother and aunt—and hires actors to play members of his family (as they were circa 1963) for a month. (His former girlfriend’s pug stands in for his late Chihuahua, Toby.) Under Maddin’s direction, these performers re-enact childhood traumas and trivialities (an impossible-to-straighten hall runner, the time his sister hit a deer on the highway), and the creepy, menacing and hilarious effect is almost Lynchian. The Maddin family history is rife with dashed dreams, disappointment, suicide (the latter significantly elided here). But also, a perverse joy—Maddin recounts with great fondness his days at the salon, in his mind a kind of sex-charged grotto.
Of course, this is no way to dispatch ghosts. And that’s not really Maddin’s aim. What he’s really trying to figure out is how Winnipeg made him and how he, in turn, made it. The narration includes some of Maddin’s best writing, incisive and witty, almost liturgical at times, but throughout he gropes for the perfect metaphor—and that metaphor occasionally proves elusive: “A city of palimpsests, of skins, of skins beneath skins. How to decode the signs of the city?” The tone of Maddin’s narration varies considerably, alternately soothing, panicky, boastful and admonishing. His voice rises in absolute ire, however, when describing the city’s abandonment and then destruction of its fabled hockey arena, where Maddin claims to have been born (in the dressing room), where he learned “everything he ever knew about being male,” where his father coached for years. But Maddin’s imagination vanquishes even this death-blow—he envisions a fictional old-timers hockey team, made up of former Winnipeg Maroons, a team he calls The Black Tuesdays, and he films these long-lost geezers playing with the fierce fury of their youth.
But Maddin never leaves Winnipeg, can never leave. It’s an incubator, a refuge. The train he rides keeps chugging along, its lethargic passengers lost in their dreams. Like Luc Sante’s Low Life, which chronicled an underground New York City long left off the record books, Maddin’s secret history restores romance and mystery and charm to a long-moribund, often derided metropolis—and he’ll dwell in that metropolis forever. The film opens with a ditty called “Wonderful Winnipeg” with the lyrics, “It’s no Eden that you would see/But it’s home sweet home to me.” By the time the movie ends, you may just want to live there too.