No muscle-bound man / Could take my hand from my guy
— Smokey Robinson, “My Guy,” sung by Mary Wells, covered by Petula Clark
Snow keeps falling in Guy Maddin’s sublime My Winnipeg (2007). Snow provides swaddling-cloth continuity; its seminal glue dispenses a death-wish oblivion that the drowsy protagonist reinterprets as manna. Guy, the film’s hero, played by actor Darcy Fehr, rides a train—just like another doppelgänger-haunted guy, Guy Haines, in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Winnipeg’s noir train won’t release Maddin’s Guy from the fetters of a hometown he lionizes yet also wishes to flee. Think of Joyce’s Dubliners, where (at least in “The Dead”) it always seems to be snowing; consider, too, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where we witness the birth of the modernist axiom that a guy needs to leave home to become a master artificer. This rule of thumb, derived from Icarus, Maddin proves wrong. Stay put, he argues; don’t mature. Maddin rebuts teleological schemes of cure; in Guy’s snowy Winnipeg, there can be no exit from nighttown’s arms. Like one of W. G. Sebald’s flaneur-narrators, who create complex yarns by circling obsessively around Europe’s crimes, Maddin’s avatar makes meaty art by never growing up, never leaving home, never “working through” his problems, never shedding his idealizations. Maddin’s potentates—whether hockey stars or department stores—never tumble down from their wintry Valhalla.
One way to keep worshipping household gods is to surround them with as much irony as possible. Like Jack Smith or Kenneth Anger, Maddin spreads “too-muchness” like a dangerous mayonnaise over every incident and vista. In My Winnipeg, we recognize camp’s stigmata, though we refuse to segregate these shining traits within camp’s underpriced cul-de-sac. We praise Maddin’s self-conscious theatricality, his Grand Guignol attitude toward sexuality and gender, his promiscuous interleaving of new-forged and archival footage, his mise en abyme quotation of quotation, and his fondness for the outmoded. Following Walter Benjamin’s fondness for nineteenth-century Parisian arcades—do we call a mystically Marxist process of analytic exhumation a mere fondness?—Maddin displays a cheerful attachment to silent-film techniques and to “bad” filmmaking tropes. My Winnipeg cannibalizes— with bliss as its goal—a truckload of prior films, including such seedbed works as George Kuchar’s I, an Actress. Shades of auteur Ed Wood and a host of amateurish or industrial cinematic industries, including propaganda, hygiene, and educational films, whether teaching the story of menstruation or the story of America’s conquest, obliquely fertilize My Winnipeg, as do the storied feats of diva-embodiment enacted by (for example) Ondine in Chelsea Girls or Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Indeed, the heart of the heart of Maddin’s film is a devotion to lost theatrical causes; Guy’s torn-down hockey arena is, like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart, a performance site treasurable precisely because its presence has disintegrated. Maddin’s never monochromatically nostalgic allegiance to superseded modes suggests a revolutionary reinterpretation of how death means. Old codes never die; they merely recombine, forming new joy-vehicles.
Maddin’s attitude toward the undead status of old signs (a realm the film solemnizes as “Old Signage Graveyard”) isn’t depressed; his stance is bubbly, as if André Breton in Nadja had decided to take a giddy rather than a grandstanding approach to urban uncanniness, and as if surrealism could have become (with Maddin as its ringleader) a force for magical thinking’s triumph rather than a tired series of eggbeaters and sliced eyeballs. To choose enchantment rather than wakefulness: Maddin stands at the same fork in the road (a fork that My Winnipeg imagines as ludically and alluvially vaginal) that aesthetics confronted in the 1920s under surrealism’s watch. Do we wish to fall asleep, or do we wish to wake up? Should art continue the reign of ensorcelled image-flow, or should art create alienating cuts, in the style of Brecht’s “V-effect”? There are plenty of estrangements in My Winnipeg, plenty of opportunities for us to peer behind the illusion-fostering machinery of filmmaking and see the material process in action; but these distancings, these foregroundings of cinema-as-apparatus, intensify enchantment rather than dilute it, and send us deeper into the lap of film itself, a maternal V where blur and tumescence and paranormality and perversity give suck.
Maybe Ann Savage, B-movie actress (1945’s Detour), who plays Guy’s mother in My Winnipeg, typifies the V-effects that Maddin’s pervy carnival vends. A veritable movie star, she has a legible radiance that cuts through the dream-murk while creating puddles of epistemological ambiguity: Is she really Ann Savage? Is Ann Savage really Guy Maddin’s mother? Who is Ann Savage? Why are ravage and salvage and vague and rage, a series of unseemly overtones, impossible to banish from the consciousness of a viewer trained by Maddin’s prurient taste for wordplay and image-vortex? (He feasts on language games: his own name, GUY, written backward, YUG, is the linguistic keyhole he unlocks to enter My Winnipeg ’s oneiric arcade.) This film’s sexual underworld is savagely polymorphous, devoted to category obliteration. Girls give mouth-to-mouth to girls. Hetero boys worship male hockey player glutes. Mothers “spoon” with their sons, while dead fathers lie embalmed under area rugs. The filmmaker’s indexical urine, like Liz’s signed contract for Cleopatra, underwrites the demolition that My Winnipeg chronicles. (Truth: Maddin filmed himself urinating in the trough of the hockey arena’s men’s room just moments before the building was demolished.) The jismy snow that spreads its forgetful honey over Winnipeg establishes desire as at once solidly genital and elegiacally unmoored from anatomical specifics; Maddin portrays such local trivialities as gender identity and sexual orientation as epiphenomenal floaters, or accidental sequelae to filmic seeds. In Maddin’s strong myth of what a movie can spawn, cinematic pleasure precedes and has the power to rewrite whatever occasional names we give to our bodies and their legendary emissions and incorporations: what we see in My Winnipeg— the oozy palimpsest of fact and fancy, of voice-over and silent image, of quotation and origination—ideally has the ability to set up new bodily frequencies, new fantasies, new alleyways of associational spill.
An ecological ethics underlies Maddin’s method: there’s no such thing as a “new” film, a “new” aesthetic. To make it new, you must make it old. Originality comes from pillage and salvage. Seek sustenance in garbage dumps, in archives, in family secrets, in lost footage and razed buildings. Maddin’s voice-over, at one point, describes a department store as a specimen of “heartsick architecture.” Similarly, I’d describe My Winnipeg as an argument for heartsick cinema, and for an art willing to engage in excessive, morbid mourning, like Hamlet’s, or Elektra’s—an excess of grief permitted not because we want to exchange plowshares for wet handkerchiefs but because the world is clotted with garbage and we need to make our peace with the waste. As if we were Citizen Proust visiting a wax- museum House of Atreus, we need to exorcise old catastrophes and to step into the cracks afforded by synchronicities and place-names, where we might find (as Maddin finds on Garbage Hill, or in the folds of a sweater stolen from a hunky Soviet hockey player, or in the cotton that pours from the mouths of séance participants) a way to give birth to ourselves without leaving behind the placenta of a carbon footprint.
I’m making the mistake of portraying Maddin’s film as if it were abstract and philosophical. Though it contains intricate metaphoric chains, based in wordplay, and though it summons a tradition of urban phantasmagorical documentaries (such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City ), My Winnipeg is also nakedly autobiographical, even if the intimate strands are difficult to pin down. Take, for example, LedgeMan, an apocryphal TV series—clips of which we see in the film—about a man who wants to commit suicide by jumping out of a window; this interminable show ostensibly stars Guy’s mother (Savage). The fictional Guy (call him diegetic? impossible to keep track of the plural Guys!) has hired actors to reenact scenes from his childhood—restagings intended to release him from memory’s toxic grip. (Perhaps Maddin was thinking of Lana Turner’s 1969 film The Big Cube, in which Lana’s character can recall her traumatic experience of being force-fed LSD only by reenacting that trippy brutalization onstage in a play.) Maddin’s authoritative blending of simulacral and historical footage leads us to believe that in real life his mother actually appeared for decades on LedgeMan. In fact, no such show existed. LedgeMan is simply the ledge, the tricky threshold, that allows Maddin to blur the line between the reality principle and the principle principle—or do I mean the death drive? Beneath the surface lure of LedgeMan, one lacerating fact lies buried: Maddin’s brother Cameron committed suicide in 1963. LedgeMan represents this death—its power,as trauma, to freeze time—by restaging self-slaughter as a merely televisual hypothesis forever postponed. LedgeMan runs on TV for forty years, but the man on the ledge never jumps to his death. Forty-five years separate Cameron’s actual suicide and the release of My Winnipeg; LedgeMan ’s dead seriousness undergirds the tragic architecture of Maddin’s masterwork, an arena for reparation undergone in the spirit of play.
The puckish Maddin’s screwball Interpretation of Dreams chooses farce, not melodrama, as its method. We happily note that My Winnipeg avoids the stagy realism of Long Day’s Journey into Night; we could subtitle Maddin’s unsappy work Why I Decided to Spend Forty-Five Years in Nighttown and Why All of Cinematic History Justifies My Dream-Wet Captivity in Narcolepsy’s Sing Sing. Maddin’s oscillation between seriousness and levity—and between lighthearted eroticism and nightmarish trauma—explains why the two films that haunt me every time I watch My Winnipeg are Andy Warhol’s Blow Job and Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Warhol’s fixed-camera vision of a fellated man’s ecstatic face uncannily resembles Maddin’s recurrent shots of his handsome stand-in, Darcy Fehr, falling asleep on a train, his head tossing to and fro in accordance with the train’s movements and his own unstable hold on wakefulness. Lanzmann’s imagery of railroads—a primary technology of the Holocaust—illogically underlies Maddin’s locomotive- obsessed film, in which being on a train, a symbol of being stuck within the cinematic apparatus, also refers (however unconsciously) to the role of trains in twentieth-century atrocity. (Freud, incidentally, was afraid of trains.) As I watch My Winnipeg, even as I marvel at its quicksilver interleavings of images both historical and nonce, and even as I recognize gaiety as the film’s primary tonality, I feel the tragic undertow of its documented destructions—not merely the demolition of Maddin’s beloved paternal sports arena (we see Winnipeg’s wrecking ball undertake this Götterdämmerung) but also the demolition of all certainty that there exists a verifiable world to ground our yearnings and guard our sleep. Winnipeg has more paranormal activity and more somnambulists (so Maddin’s voice-over tells us) than any other city in the world. As Joyce’s story “The Dead” ends with the narrator’s soul swooning “slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling,” falling “upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried,” so Darcy Fehr, playing Guy, swoons (and we swoon in sync with him) as the snow falls in My Winnipeg, a blizzard obliterating the very notion of “my,” of possession—my Guy, my Lethe, my white block house. These three words the film’s narrator repeatedly intones: white block house. Such spells—monosyllabic and elemental—keep an entranced viewer forever swooning in the arms of a dream city that Guy Maddin (who teaches us how transient is any act of possession) calls mine.
Wayne Koestenbaum, a poet and cultural critic, has published sixteen books, whose subjects include opera, Jackie Onassis, Andy Warhol, hotels, humiliation, and Harpo Marx. His most recent book is My 1980s & Other Essays. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.