Nobody can really tell you what watching a Guy Maddin film is like. Or maybe nobody really tried to tell me. My first Maddin experience was Brand Upon the Brain!, and it was less than a year ago. Despite having heard about Maddin from Marina and Kurt for years, I had no idea what I was getting into. Watching a Maddin film is like jumping into another world, and not just in the way that all cinema is a window into another world. Maddin makes films like none I’ve ever seen before, somewhere on the line between narrative and avant-garde, evoking very early cinema but with a soft edge of surrealism that most primitive films only gain through the degradation of nitrate stock, and infusing that very old style with a preoccupation with memory, repression, and sexual anxiety.
Thinking back now on Brand Upon the Brain! and Careful which I watched soon after is like looking through a mirror filled with murky memories – I remember snatches of Isabella Rossellini’s narration, and matted images harkening back to Maddin’s eponymous character’s childhood. I remember muted colors and highly stylized acting. I remember butler school and a lighthouse. I remember troubling mother issues and ghosts and cats. My memories of the two are not mixed up, because though both use a throwback visual style, they’re very different from each other. But both exist in the hazy nether regions of visual memory rather than as fully-formed narratives. Perhaps that’s appropriate. My memories of Maddin films, even ones I’ve seen within the past several months, approximate Maddin’s own slipstream way of visualizing and editing his films with a dream logic all their own.
When this blogathon came up, I hadn’t planned on writing anything myself, deferring instead to my cowriters and their greater knowledge of (and love for) Maddin’s work. I still hesitate to call myself a Maddin fan. I find his films far too elusive for that on only a single viewing. Though he uses silent film elements from Expressionist black and white cinematography to frenetic Soviet-esque montage to the ubiquitous use of title cards, these films are far-removed from the silent films I love. They’re more akin to experimental films, perhaps, but with enough narrative and thematic depth that they can’t be approached in a merely abstract way. That combination is not off-putting to me, but it is unique in my experience, and I have to mold myself to understand its pleasures. That is an ongoing process.
I watched My Winnipeg last night. IMDb calls this a documentary, and I suppose it is, but it certainly doesn’t fit most standard definitions of documentary, just as his other films defy boundaries like drama, comedy, and horror. It’s a cityscape, a troubled look back at Winnipeg’s history and culture filtered through Maddin’s memories. It’s a memoir, as Maddin autobiographically discusses his early life in relation to the city. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, as he decries the changes in Winnipeg that keeps it from remaining the city he loved as a child. It’s self-therapy, as he stages a return to his boyhood home with his mother and actors playing his siblings to re-enact his most persistent and troubling memories. It’s an attempt to understand his apparent desire to leave Winnipeg and his inability to do so.
The film runs through the alleyways of the subconscious, much like the back streets of Winnipeg that Maddin claims are more widely used than the main roads. Nothing comes down the main roads in a Maddin film, not even this relatively accessible work. It’s almost stream of consciousness, with Maddin’s narration granting a backbone, but still jumping restlessly from topic to topic, from public to private, from history to re-enactment, from broad generalizations of Winnipegers to specific images of his own childhood. The imagery is given in snippets, quickly edited and constantly moving, like darting thoughts, associations that are fading into another even as they appear. Other images repeat over and over – the image of Maddin himself on the train trying to escape from Winnipeg, riding through the city with memories flooding in relentlessly at every street, the all-encompassing influence of the mother. Still others burn horrifyingly into your brain, only to be made almost more horrifying by Maddin’s black humor (thinking of the horses here).
Both My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain! deal explicitly with memory, with returning to childhood through memory to find out some truth. In Brand Upon the Brain!, the character is named Guy Maddin, but the story is mostly fantasy. In My Winnipeg, the story is at least to some degree real. Yet Maddin treats My Winnipeg almost as fantastically as Brand Upon the Brain!, making even ordinary things like getting a haircut seem otherworldly through camera and editing techniques as well as narration that gets almost poetic at times in its rhythm and repetition. Do I feel more attuned to Guy Maddin after having seen My Winnipeg? Yes. As I said, I think it’s more accessible than the other two. But I feel I still have a long way to go. I am still a Maddin newbie.