Review by Mark Rainey
You can’t escape Winnipeg. That’s the opening gambit of this film. And the film begins with director Guy Maddin, played by Darcy Fehr, on a train heading out of town. Yet, the train can’t resist the pull of the city and instead endlessly circulates Winnipeg, with the sleepy passengers on board viewing unfolding scenes of civic history, urban myth and Maddin’s own childhood memories from the train windows.
The obscure 1967 track by the Swinging Strings, ‘Wonderful Winnipeg’, plays during the film. It includes the lines, ‘Hail my town, hail my home, the world keeps moving round and round’. I don’t know how many times the song appears, it may be only once, but just like the lyrics suggest, the song circulates the film and is ineluctably engrained on the brain of the viewer. Just like Winnipeg is imprinted on the brain of Guy Maddin, then.
My uncle, a one-time Winnipeg resident, once told me that ‘You can leave Winnipeg, but Winnipeg never leaves you’. It may sound cliché, as this could be said of any city, but it does hold truth. Winnipeg (or whatever city) never leaves you, just as you can leave your family, but your childhood never leaves you. They’re both inescapable – and Guy Maddin weaves these two together throughout the film. As Maddin says, he is trying to film his way out of the ‘heinous power of family and city’.
If there’s a theme I’d like to highlight here it is the theme of the ‘double’. It permeates the whole film. From the outset, there is continual reference to the ‘forks beneath the forks’. The ‘forks’ are the confluence of the mighty Assiniboine and Red Rivers which meet in the centre of the city. Maddin suggests that Aboriginal legend speaks of a ‘forks beneath the forks’ a supposed subterranean confluence beneath the rivers which hold a sort of magical, magnetic power. The confluence is then crudely and repetitively superimposed on the nude lap of his mother – reinforcing the power of city and family. Other ‘doubles’ include the back alleys used to illicitly navigate the city, the night-time sleep-walking rituals that supplement daytime life, the slightly macabre return of Manitoba’s legendary ice-hockey heroes who skate the Winnipeg Arena one last time before its demolition and the ‘doubling’ of Maddin’s own family, as actors are hired to reconstruct mundane scenes from his life. Ann Savage, the ‘Perfect Vixen’ or 1940s film noir, takes on the role of his ever-watchful and domineering mother.
It could be said that My Winnipeg is a psychogeographic film. ‘Psychogeography’ was a concept introduced by the Situationist International in the early 1950s and in his 1955 tract ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ Guy Debord defines it as the ‘study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals’. My Winnipeg is psychogeographic in precisely this sense and Guy Maddin deploys myth, legend, memory, politics and civic and personal history (everything in his toolbox) to reconfigure his emotional take on the city. Debord continues by writing, ‘We need to work toward flooding the market – even if for the moment merely the intellectual market – with a mass of desires whose realization is not beyond the capacity of man’s present means of action on the material world, but only beyond the capacity of old social organization’. In a sense, My Winnipeg is this ‘mass of desires’, with Maddin projecting various means of accounting for and even repairing his Winnipeg. Despite the weird, multiple trajectories that psychogeography has taken on, especially in the UK, the Situationists were essentially Marxists and there is a hint of this in the film, in nostalgia form, with reference to the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. It all concludes with reference to The Winnipeg Citizen, the newspaper of striking workers, through which Maddin imagines a reconstituted ‘double’ Winnipeg that repairs the mistakes of its past. But it is idealised. And just as Guy Debord wrote that the word ‘psychogeography’ was introduced by an illiterate member, thereby undermining the whole idea at its very inception, there’s a sense that My Winnipeg can’t resolve anything. Covering over the mistakes of the past, with the same from that past, just brings more of the same. Perhaps this is the point of the film, ultimately. We’re still on that circular train ride.