Monday, April 27, 2009

Sleeping on Winnipeg

Confession: These days I rarely blog, so you’ll either forgive my terrible pacing on these posts (aka no pacing, practically) or you won’t. But as Aretha Franklin is wont to say, “this is what it is (what it is).” I am a slow digester by nature, even eat slowly, and don’t really decide what I want to say for at least two or three days, a quality and rate that is becoming archaic as all text migrates online. A topic that we covered in our many compelling meal conversations during this week in the much-hallowed Ebertfest Green Room this week. (More on that later.)

And so long as I’m in the business of confessions, I also confess that I’ve never seen Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg without succumbing for at least a few minutes to a really lovely sleep. It’s not that this film is dull — far from it, truly — as much as it lives in the interstice of fact and fiction (the interstice being the only interesting element in that equation), between dreams and reality.

For those unfamiliar with Maddin’s films, they’re best, at least initially, described as “talking silent films”—funny, tragic bits and pieces of typography and narration and staged scenes and found archival footage. Maddin makes no bones about embracing melodrama, a genre I deem increasingly refreshing in a sea of contrived naturalism. What would exist as subtext in anyone else’s film looms in his as supertext—sometimes literally, since he is wont to flash words right before your eyes in what amounts to a not-very-subliminal cinematic traffic signal.

My Winnipeg in many ways is the ultimate Maddin movie. His films always have been mildly autobiographical, but this one actually was financed as a documentary about Winnipeg, Maddin’s native tromping grounds. As every reviewer worth his or her salt before me has already observed, whether the film is comprised of all (any?) facts is hardly germane. Not knowing comprises at least half of the fun, and if even half the facts are true, the city deserves a much brighter spot on all of our psychomythological radar. Yes, I just made up that term, but I think it deserves to exist, if only in reference to Maddin himself.

For only he would make a movie about an endless train ride circling a small North American city that could pack such a punch, that would feature so many shots of female laps, that would literally picture his mom (portrayed, naturally, by Ann Savage) in the window of that train car. It’s possible that Woody Allen might try that move, upon second thought, but listening to Maddin reveals Allen to be what we should have recognized all along: a reactionary. Interestingly, in person Maddin channels a version of the same cocktail of self-loathing and bemusement that is Allen’s trademark, but he also seems more sincere and articulate. He is, after all, Canadian.

My Winnipeg is as nonlinear as that train ride, and so I have found in my three viewings that no matter where I fall asleep, I have awakened to a scene that makes the same amount of sense, which is to say: some. This time while watching it I opened my eyes to a recreation of a fight between his mom and his sister—a congenitally familiar topic to me--and so jumped right into the film’s flow. Until I fell back again into a reverie about that subject which somehow slid me from my subconscious to unconscious. To be fair, the film lingers quite a bit on Maddin’s stand-in, as he wobbles in and out of sleep while struggling to escape his hometown, and Maddin touts his hometown’s (alleged) high rate of sleepwalking in a way that reads as an inarguable endorsement of sleep, sleep, sleep. A snakecharmer of a director, that one.

The effect of this film even more than his others, then, is to entwine his subconscious with my own, with perhaps every viewer of his film. By the time I staggered back into the sunlight, I had no choice but to make a beeline to a local thrift store, where I bought a hat that normally would have suited Savage more than me, though I do boast a certain dowager chic. This may be a new medium altogether: a film that doesn’t require its audience to be conscious in order to cast a spell upon it.

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