Who knows what Canada's Documentary Channel expected when they commissioned Guy Maddin to make a documentary about Winnipeg. The network had been asking directors across the country to create personal documentaries about their hometowns, and although I haven't seen any of the other installments in the series, I can pretty much assure you that there isn't another as strange and wonderful as My Winnipeg.
The problem with inviting Guy Maddin to make a documentary is that he's a fantasist, plain and simple. His recent films have included Brand Upon the Brain!, in which a young boy (named Guy Maddin) lives with his parents and sister in a lighthouse-orphanage where his scientist father performs bizarre experiments on the children, and The Saddest Music in the World, which involves a worldwide competition to determine which country's music is the saddest. These movies are black and white, scratchy and ancient-looking, with silent-film aesthetics (Brand Upon the Brain includes narration, but intertitles replace spoken dialog) spiked with old-Hollywood glamour and melodrama. They are captivating, otherworldly, and deeply, deeply strange in the best way possible. So when Guy Maddin makes a documentary, don't expect Ken Burns. Don't even expect Errol Morris. In fact, don't expect a documentary at all.
Maddin calls My Winnipeg a "docufantasia," an apt term for a film that is both emotionally realistic and factually absurd. Having won a one-way ticket out of Winnipeg, his lifelong home, Guy Maddin (who is played by Darcy Fehr, rather than the director himself) boards a train that merely circles the town in an endless state of fever-dream fugue. He resolves to film his way out of the city, reliving and reconstructing his childhood as a means of escape. In one of My Winnipeg's interconnected scenarios, Guy sublets his family's old apartment and moves in a cast of actors to play his mother and siblings. In another, he reminisces about the local Catholic schoolgirls, using imagery straight out of ’50s pulp. A particularly tall tale involves several horses frozen up to their necks in the winter ice.
Like all memorable dreams, My Winnipeg is more a collage of vignettes, aesthetics, and impressions than a cohesive narrative. But with Maddin's mix of imagination, thoughtfulness, and wit (discussing January, he says, "The condoms come off. These are the bareback months of Winnipeg"), a plot would just be filler, anyway. And though I probably learned more lies than facts about Winnipeg, the impression I got, of an icy, remote city that sucks you in and won't let you go, and of Maddin's own youth, complete with beauty salons and the bitter, competitive war between his mother and sister, feels both real and true. More an abstract hallucination than a photo-realist portrait, My Winnipeg would be out of place on the "documentary" shelf at the video store. But it deserves prime placement in the Guy Maddin canon, and as far as I'm concerned, that's all that matters.