I'd hazard a guess that the hometowns we carry around in our heads bear little resemblance to the official Chamber of Commerce versions. Instead, they're built up from regrets and memories, frozen childhood snapshots, and fervid adolescent longings. Sometimes all it takes is sunlight on a street corner, or a smell on the wind, and we're on the express train back.
This is a fancy way of saying the Canadian Tourism Commission may have trouble recognizing Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg" as the Winnipeg that exists as a geographic fact in southern Manitoba. Maddin's Winnipeg is a rich, funky, funny stew of fears and desires, of mangled civic chronology mashed up with hothouse private emotions. This is a secret history, and it's a wonder.
But what did you expect? In films like "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003) and "Brand Upon the Brain!" (2006), Maddin located a unique point on the cinematic graph: overheated camp psychodramas told in the style of late silent/early talkie Hollywood flickers. His films can be hilarious and inexplicably moving but they're also amazing in their co-opting of old-movie language to modern art-house ends. When a black-and-white Isabella Rossellini totters onscreen in "Saddest Music" as an amputee beer magnate on suds-filled glass legs, your head just about explodes from the surrealist onslaught.
"My Winnipeg" is Maddin's most personal movie - a fearsome prospect. Yet it's of a piece with the earlier work, being a twisted city symphony that springs from the wracked brain of its hero, Darcy Fehr, a Winnipeggian "desperate to leave the city for good - again."
The opening sequences take the form of a hypnotic tone-poem, with Fehr murmuring phrases that make Freudian hay out of "The Forks," that part of Winnipeg where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet. Out of this roil comes a curious home-movie project, as the hero hires actors (and a dog) to play his family (and their dog) in an effort to solve the riddle of the city's history and his own.
As his mother, Fehr casts his own mother, and to play her, Maddin has cast the 86-year-old Ann Savage, whom B-movie devotees will remember with a shiver as the nightmarish femme fatale in the 1945 gutter-noir classic "Detour." Savage has lost none of her savagery over the decades, and she turns Mother Fehr into a pillar of maternal castration anxieties.
By far the most engaging aspect of "My Winnipeg," though, is the cracked urban timeline Maddin weaves throughout the film. Did you know that local statutes allow sleepwalkers lawful entry to their previous homes? That in 1939, the Ballet Club of Winnipeg held a seance with civic leaders and notable prostitutes? Do you know of Garbage Hill, or of the Arlington Street Bridge, originally commissioned by the Egyptian government but purchased for Winnipeg at fire-sale prices? Or of the Black Tuesdays, a team of elderly hockey players formed after the national franchise left town? How about the "Golden Boy Pageants," in which middle-class housewives award points to local beefcake?
How much of this is true? (Hint: More than you think.) How much of it needs to be? Maddin spins his self-styled "docu-fantasia" in a dizzying variety of styles: silent movie, 1940s melodrama, perky 1950s documentary, even Bunraku puppet theater. At times he simply shuts "My Winnipeg" down to hold on a single eerie image, like the trapped horses frozen in the ice of a 1926 river crossing. "My Winnipeg" represents fantasy run riot if only to keep a greater melancholy at bay. "Even the architecture is sad," says Fehr/Maddin on the soundtrack.
The underlying message, as with any artist obsessed with the past, is that modernity is a broken thing. "My Winnipeg" brings up the city's new look only to scorn it, and Maddin curses the urban renewal that has destroyed his childhood's sense of place. More than that, the new buildings leave nowhere for the angels and boogeymen of our imaginations to hide. "What's a city without its ghosts?" the filmmaker wonders, leaving the answer to us.
And yet here's his film, a splendidly unhinged diary of loss and anger and love. Maddin tears down modern Winnipeg and rebuilds the old city according to the psychic blueprint he has had all along. Thomas Wolfe was wrong, apparently. Not only can you go home again, you never really leave it behind.