Dir. Guy Maddin
Premiered at Toronto September 7, 2007
In 1978, the producers of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter came up with a radical solution to the problem of how to sell a great movie to an audience that wasn’t ready for it: by fulfilling the minimum requirements to be considered for an Academy Award, and then lobbying the voters who decide said award, they could get people into theaters off the hype.
Two years earlier, the City of Toronto, in an attempt to shore up its cultural relevance, came up with a strange idea: to hold a film festival of movies that had been popular at other film festivals. It was not an immediate success, but as it took place in late summer, making the last major festival of the year, it became a useful benchmark for when to begin releasing films with the intention of attracting awards consideration, which eventually evolved into using the festival as a platform to say “this is an awards movie.” Welcome to TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival.
At Cannes, prestige is cultivated. At TIFF, it’s mass-produced, injected into movies so they can win Oscars the same way steroids were injected into Barry Bonds to win baseball games. In the 21st century, Venice and Telluride have successfully followed in TIFF’s footsteps, and a few others have tried and failed, but whichever festivals these movies premiere at, if they’re serious about getting the gold, they all end up in Toronto.
Such a film is unlikely to ever come from Guy Maddin. One of the few great Canadian filmmakers to remain in his native country, Maddin’s fixations with memory, decay, and the Silent Era have a tendency to alienate even the most devoted cineastes. But if there was ever a year to make an exception, to reach the heart the casual viewer without sacrificing his signature style, it was 2007, with My Winnipeg.
My Winnipeg will be well understood by anyone who shares an auspicious love for the place they came from. Maddin imagines himself on a train that he hopes will take him out of his native city, the unloved stepchild among Canadian metropolises. Along the way, he narrates reminiscences about his hometown and upbringing.
Whether he’s revisiting his own past Annie Hall-style, exploring Winnipeg’s bizarre history, or bemoaning its schizophrenic approach to architectural preservation, every digression is an appropriately expressionistic blend of comedy and the macabre, comporting with the ghostly affect of his beloved silents: a short-lived gallery of frozen horse heads on the Red River, an act of performance art by which a fake Nazi invasion is staged to sell war bonds, an extended rant on the state of hockey. Maddin cannot leave Winnipeg, because however much it manages to disappoint him, at least he is able to keep recognizing it as his. In an age when loving one’s hometown and what it represents is so often held up as a symbol of ignorance in artistic circles, Maddin’s love is unconditional and unapologetic.
Too often, art is seen as the achievement of something that is beyond most of us. The greatness of My Winnipeg is that it is something we are all capable of; to reach back and speak in our own voices about the places that created us. And we should.
How Did It Do?
My Winnipeg won Best Canadian Film at TIFF. After nearly a year, it was finally released to theaters in August 2008, wherein it grossed just $285,469, but that doesn’t matter; it was nominated for no major awards, but that doesn’t matter: the film was heralded by critics such as Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the tenth best film of the entire 2000s. In 2015, TIFF returned to My Winnipeg to proclaim it the ninth-best Canadian film of all time. And if not for the praise of online user Douay-Rheims Challoner, formerly of the AVClub, I would never have known to see it.
Next Time: Rendition