A city that paves over its past and puts up nondescript commercial buildings, a city where losing the local NHL team looms as a matter of grave concern—sounds like home, eh? For Guy Maddin, the Canadian filmmaker whose idiosyncratic works have created a cinematic language all their own—a shaken snowglobe of faked archival footage, silent-movie re-creations, unhinged melodrama and feverishly eroticized memory play—it is. An impassioned and lovingly trumped-up travelogue of his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba, his new film My Winnipeg alternates mythic black-and-white restaging of childhood memories with a litany of arcane local wonders: frozen horse heads poking from a lake of ice, a sleepwalking epidemic, a historic World War II "If Day" that enacted a make-believe Nazi invasion of Canada.
The result is Maddin's most consistently entertaining and vividly realized feature, the first to sustain the manic invention of his 2000 silent-Soviet-sci-fi short "The Heart of the World" over an hour without exhausting the viewer. It's a web of embellished memory as densely imagined (and as laugh-out-loud funny) as Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, and yet it captures the ambivalence so many of us have about the places we grew up and thought we longed to escape.
Maddin is currently preparing several new projects, including an interactive feature he's writing with poet John Ashbery—a work that he says will combine snatches from the cinema's trove of lost films and unrealized pet projects. But over the roar of jet engines from a nearby runway, the filmmaker, former Film Comment contributor and die-hard hockey enthusiast fielded our questions about his latest dream project.
Did you feel any pressure to make a straight documentary?
Well, I don't like doing research. (laughs) When I was given the permission just to make it a highly personal portrait of my city, I went, "Thank God! All the research can be conducted in my own memory or in my heart." ... I didn't really have a motive other than to get my favorite stories out there and commit them to celluloid.
Ever since the motion picture camera was invented in the 19th century, that has been the best way of mythologizing a place. And by mythologizing I mean true and apocryphal events. Legends are actually more true than the truth, simply by lasting and turning into other things: They tell more about the psyche of a populace than cold hard facts. I wanted to accumulate a mountain of Winnipeg specificities that would, perhaps, just by sheer volume, somehow push through some barrier and become universal.
Is there a chance Winnipeg will honor you with some kind of monument?
I do have a mural of myself. Winnipeg is one of those towns that's paved in murals of civic figures, and almost everybody just makes fun of the mural subject. I agreed to the mural, cause I knew my mom would like it, but I told them they weren't allowed to use my face. So they just used a bunch of my movie characters—but since no one in Winnipeg has ever seen any of my movies, no one knows what the mural is for. (laughs) So I kind of outsmarted them. The muralist, in revenge, never promised that he wouldn't include my ass, so he shows me bending over a camera with my big fat ass sticking out, 22 feet tall. It's an honor.
Do you find you now remember your childhood the way you've re-created it?
It's starting to get that way. What happens when you make a movie, you usually choose a subject you're obsessed with. And then you start planning the movie, and it turns the object of your obsession into work units—things that have to be arranged, purchased, rented...costumed, shot, lit, edited...scored, keyed, color-timed...and explained to a journalist later. (laughs) By the time the whole process is over, you can't remember what the original inspiration really was. And you've actually managed to convert something you were genuinely obsessed with into something you're now genuinely sick of. (laughs) So you actually can cure yourself of something, not by going down to your roots and pulling out any sort of weedy problem that had been troubling you for so many decades, but in fact you're just burying it in the loam of ennui. (laughs) It's still therapeutic.