September 30, 2009

My Winnipeg.


Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Winnipeg.

Heart of the continent. The Winnie in the Pooh. Slurpee Capital of the World (tenth time in a row in 2009). Home of the world's longest skating rink, Dickie Dee ice cream, Domo Gasoline, Canwest, Porno Pizza, Ben Moss Jewellers, McNally Robinson, Salisbury House restaurants, and New Flyer buses. Cradle of K-tel, E-Children, Harlequin Enterprises, Nygård International, The Guess Who, the Crash Test Dummies, and Motor Coach Industries.

Home to the Royal Canadian Mint, western Canada's oldest civic gallery (world's largest collection of Inuit art), Le Cercle Molière (the oldest continuously running theatre company in Canada), the first Hudson Bay Company department store, and the first A&W in Canada. Winnipeg - the capital of a frigid prairie province, held in winter's grip two thirds of the year. An isolated outpost surrounded by a landscape so prostrate, it's said you can watch a dog run away for three days.

Winnipeg: where Tommy Douglas witnessed the General Strike of 1919; where A. E. van Vogt began writing science fiction; where Marshall McLuhan switched his major from engineering to English; where Neil Young formed his first band. The place where Canada's first school patrols were established, and the 9-1-1 emergency telephone number was introduced to North America. The only city on the continent occupied by "Nazis" during the Second World War.

Birthplace of Louis Riel, William Stephenson (the real James Bond), Robert Hunter (co-founder of Greenpeace), Bob Rock, Terry Fox, and - incontrovertibly - G. Arthur Maddin. For nearly a quarter of a century, Maddin - the banker turned auteur - has endeavoured to resurrect once avant-garde techniques like iris shots, breathless titles, shock cutting, staged poses, and melodramatic acting, through hermetic, studio bound celebrations of cinema's artifice. His style seems at first regressive, but is quite cleverly postmodern and surrealist in a very Magritte manner.

Four years ago, Guy Maddin managed to weasel funding from the Discovery Channel for a feature film about his city of birth. Though only a documentary of the metropolis in Maddin's experience, My Winnipeg presented a place so enchanting, it could quite frankly strike anyone who's never actually visited it as the most exciting city in North America. So exotic was Maddin's vision, born and bred inhabitants had problems identifying that positively enthralling place with the dreary, frigid black hole most of them have unsuccessfully sought to escape all their lives.

"Back in Winnipeg's earliest years, the Canadian Pacific Railway used to sponsor an annual treasure hunt. This contest required our citizens to wander the city in a day-long combing of our streets and neighbourhoods. First prize was a one-way ticket on the next train out of town. The idea being that once someone had spent a full day looking closely at his own hometown he would never want to leave."

Now, Coach House Books has published the script - or, rather, the guiding narrative - of My Winnipeg, and as if to compound the reputation of the "gateway to the prairies", they've done so in a flimsy quarto paperback (complete with typos). Although some copies have had pockets containing the DVD pasted into them, the presentation seems to reinforce the pulpiness of Maddin's fiction. Despite claims of extensive annotation, and "a cornucopia of illuminating arcana", those interested in Maddin's process will learn little new.

The annotations mainly consist of further outrageous claims, either excised from the filmed version or simply added for heightened befuddlement, while the "illuminating arcana" shed but brief light on the contents of the darkest recesses of Maddin's mind. Lovers of ephemera, in particular (North American) cinema and hockey trivia, will have a field day - as will the select species of Winnepegophilists. Scholars of drama and the moving image will likely gain more insight attending one of Mr Maddin's lectures at the University of Manitoba.

However, the book - like the film - does indeed contain a number of quite true (or, at least, difficult to disprove), curious and interesting facts about Canada's seventh largest municipality, as well as a lovely introduction of Ann Savage - who's last film My Winnpeg was. It doesn't reveal how Maddin managed to cajole out of retirement that most fatal of cinema's femmes - capable of making even Bette Davis cower - to play his mother, nor how he convinced her to do so in a city frozen in amber (never mind ice) time and again when commerce found alternative routes across the continent.

The conversation with Michael Ondaatje and the contributions of several Maddin collaborators that supplement the volume, further adroitly blur the line between fact and fiction, leaving lifelong Winnipeggers - even those acquainted with the most obscure city lore - on an equal footing with everyone else: flabbergasted. If not bamboozled. But Maddin's intent is far from malicious; his isn't a quest for achieving trivial superiority.

Infamous for his loathing of research, Maddin has minted myth from a handful of actual circumstance and a truck-load of half-remembered rumours to not only re-awaken its sleepwalking inhabitant's interest in their surroundings, but also explain what keeps them - and Maddin in particular - in Winnipeg. Emulating what Canada's neighbours to the south have elevated to a science, Maddins fanciful cinematic ode to his hometown tries to remedy a deficiency in Canadian culture: the ability to revel in the history and contemporary culture of the places we inhabit.

In a nation made up to such great extent by the uprooted, leading a protracted nomadic existence - always en route or desirous to go somewhere else - in self-contained bubbles imposed by an almost implacable, immense physical remoteness, Maddin's mythmaking is license to rediscover our shared cultural geography, and consider it as exciting, inviting, unique, and worthy of reverence as that of other nations.

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