"I kind of like poking around in my own little cesspool and every now and then making a film," Canada's Guy Maddin recently told The New York Times. And if by "cesspool" he means his mind - all those memories and fantasies, dreams and nightmares - then that's a pretty good description of what Maddin does. Like David Lynch, he's more interested in the unconscious mind than the conscious mind, and that includes what we might call cinema's unconscious mind, all those weird snippets of film that come slithering to the surface when you delve into the movie past. Maddin particularly loves the years just before and after the arrival of sound, when cinema seemed to wake up from a dream it had been having, only to drift off all over again, this time while talking to itself.
Sleep is the ruling metaphor in My Winnipeg, Maddin's latest film, which he's calling a docu-fantasia. Commissioned by Canada's Documentary Channel, it's ostensibly a profile of the city that's become as associated with Maddin as, say, Baltimore is with John Waters. But don't expect any screenings at the next meeting of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. This is very much Maddin's Winnipeg, a haunted dreamscape where family history intersects with the city's history, resulting in a film that, by Maddin's own admission, is "about one-third fact, one-third legend and one-third opinion." Figuring out which third is which would be a waste of your time, though, since for Maddin it's all "true" - true to what he remembers and doesn't remember, wishes had happened and wishes hadn't happened.
Is Winnipeg the coldest city in the world? Or does it just seem that way? Are there streets named after local prostitutes? Or is that just what people have always said? Did Maddin's mother once star in a local television show called "Ledge Man" in which she tried to talk a series of men out of leaping to their deaths? Or was living with her like a slow form of suicide? These are just some of the ideas Maddin entertains in the film, which morphs from one scene to the next with the slippery logic of a dream. The framing story, if that's what you want to call it, is of a man - Maddin, undoubtedly - who's aboard a train on a night journey through his distant past. If he can somehow stay awake, he may be able to put Winnipeg behind him, get on with his life, whatever that means. But he's feeling sleepy, very sleepy....
Maddin narrates throughout the movie, a hypnotic poem that's lulling, then jarring, then lulling again. And the black-and-white images, many of them historical footage, others staged to look like they are, have their own hypnotic power - ghosts beckoning from a largely imaginary past. Or did these things actually happen? Did a herd of horses once escape from a burning paddock, dive into an ice-cold river and freeze before reaching the other side, only their heads sticking above the surface? It's just weird enough to be true, and the film footage looks authentic. Was there an If Day in 1941, when the whole town pretended the Nazis had taken over? The film footage looks fake, but those photos look real. Maddin keeps you guessing, but he also gets you to finally quit guessing, let the movie have its way with you.
And so it doesn't matter whether Maddin's mother was as domineering as the woman played by 87-year-old Ann Savage, whom Maddin claims is his actual mother but is in fact the actress who starred in the 1947 noir classic, Detour. The movie opens with the off-screen Maddin feeding Savage lines, and he must love the way her readings are slightly off. Everything's slightly off in My Winnipeg, where the familiar has been made strange and the strange familiar. "What if I film my way out of here," Maddin says at one point, but it's hard to imagine him really wanting to do that. Winnipeg is his very own snow globe, where he gets to lay out the streets, erect the buildings, arrange the people and then shake things up. But is the town a figment of his imagination, or is he a figment of the town's? Not even he knows for sure.