July 24, 2009

why My Winnipeg is not satisfying

This is an open discussion with DG. He mentioned that he was disappointed with My Winnipeg.

I think what I dislike most about My Winnipeg is its narration. There's a strong Maddin poetry to it that, though it works for Maddin, does not work for me. I think the strength of his images and subject is weakened by his poetry. My favorite part, for instance, is the seance-dance recreation, a solid bit of visual delirium without narration. The narration is certainly important in establishing the many strange facts the film presents, but there are many times when I wish Maddin restrained himself and let the images make their own insane arguments.

Another weak point -- and this belongs with the narration, I think -- is Maddin's persistent treatment of his childhood. Though he looks to his past with the same mad method as his previous films (which is what makes them wonderful), here the treatment is in opposition to the odd stories he is unearthing about his city. However wound up his childhood is with his broader subject, they don't compliment each other as well as they ought to. Maddin's typical perversity (especially the Oedipal and homoerotic) adds a lot to the stories, yet distracts from them. I think Maddin could have integrated the two better; although because he has more experience with the personal and perverse, it would make sense that those aspects overwhelm the docu-fantasy.

Above all, what is a disappointing is to see that Maddin's technique does not quite express its full potential. He is nearly alone out here, using personal hyperbole to fantasize fact; few filmmakers are as bold as he, and I worry that no one else will attempt something like this. Maddin's style might have made this an unbelievably satisfying experience for me. But it isn't that satisfying. That's the ultimate disappointment.

DG has a similar interest in exploring his city as Maddin does. DG: What do you find disappointing about My Winnipeg and what would you like to see done differently?


DG said...

I think the tension between (what I take to be) the personal - the city-within-the-city section being the most memorable example, also the hockey stadium - and the artistic (for lack of a better word - the usual Maddin perversity), with the historical on top of that, is where the lack of satisfaction comes from. It's kind of a mess. Maddin, at points, comes close to a sort of Marker-esque poetry, being obsessed with the banalities of his city and his childhood, so it's jarring to then see his trademark style and old themes return after those poetic moments. The thing just doesn't cohere, I think, which is too bad because it really could. I feel like in some way it should have been a departure for Maddin, almost the way Limits of Control is for Jarmusch. Jarmusch largely abandons his trademark deadpan humour for straight-up, very sincere, formalism; he experiments with the camera a lot more than he ever has before, uses music and pre-existing art in very meaningful ways that never really came up before; in short he's matured as an artist, and while those elements are missed and he's maybe not perfectly in his zone with this new style, the film satisfies because its experiments do largely succeed and because it does genuinely push the boundaries. I don't think My Winnipeg does that, even though it is set up to do so. As much as I love Maddin's crazy surreal post-modern expressionist style and absurd Freudian themes, this film should have been a maturation. He's done that for 20 years - let's see something new. And he gives us some new stuff that is absolutely wonderful. The section about the alleyways, the streets just behind the other streets in Winnipeg that all the locals know, is for me an epiphany on the level of the best sections of Sans Soleil. But directly thereafter, the film reverts to stuff that Maddin has done before - hilariously and poetically musing on absurdly neurotic characters.

Mango, I don't know if we come to the same conclusion on this point. I think my vision for what the film should/could be is different from what you see. You love his technique, and you want to see more of it (I think?). I think it's time for him to move on from that old style, which he has perfected, especially if the subject matter is going to be so intensely personal.

Ian said...

Great response. I don't think we are aligned, but I do think you express some of the same disappointments that I do (too familiar a Maddin).

What I love (when I talk about technique) about Maddin is his camera, his editing, and his use of sound effects. I think his subject matter frequently borders the banal, which he elevates to reckless heights -- even when it's really personal, as in his recent films. What I want to see is his (as you call it) post-modern expressionism applied to subjects usually accorded respect and seriousness, and this is why I find My Winnipeg disappointing. I wish he had taken out all of the personal territory he has covered before and just let himself run off on all senseless tangents about his city.

I think this is probably an important difference from what you wanted. I'm imagining your vision is more along the Marker-essay line, which (allow me to say it) is of a more serious tone. I'm not sure Maddin has that in him. What would you say to the film if the more personal sections/reenactments were removed and only the musings on the city remained? Are there enough of those musings to make a satisfying film? Or are you also at conflict with other elements, such as the camera?

DG said...

I'm not exactly at odds with anything he does stylistically, but I do feel like it has become a little bit predictable. I think it's unfortunate for him to pigeonhole himself as only pursuing that one aesthetic when, judging from certain moments in his films as well as his range of interests and rich understanding of culture and experience he's capable of something maybe a little bit more profound? But I also can see where you're coming from - a film consisting solely of crazy tangents about Winnipeg would be very entertaining. So you're saying, remove the poetic ruminations on his experience of growing up - the hockey rink, the alleyways - as well as the re-enactments, and leave in and accentuate the things like the socialist protest, the seance, stuff like that? Maybe he should have made two movies - one with only the awkwardly sincere exploration of his childhood, one with only the absurd tall-tales about his city's history? It could have given him an interesting opportunity to experiment with aesthetics too - the former lends itself to Marker-esque "belle lettres" (which (unlike you, I suppose) I think he is capable of, albeit with his own distinctive humour and personal sensibility), while the latter could be a more typical, but heightened, exercise in his usual style. The failure of the film is that it is both without fully being either; the tall-tales are brought back to earth by the reflections on actual experience, which in turn jar with the re-enactments. So it's a bit of a mess. But actually, in talking about it, I find I like it more and more. Is that odd? It doesn't exactly "work", but everything is interesting and clearly coming out of a singular sensibility. It will be interesting to see what he does next - I hope he continues in this direction. Whatever it is.

Ian said...

Don't take me to mean, when I say Maddin is not capable of the type of essay Marker does, that I don't think Maddin is intelligent enough or skilled enough to do it; I just don't think he has the restraint. It is not in his personality to bring himself to Marker's level of amused introspection. Also, why would the alleyways and hockey rink be separate from my Winnipeg tangents? I'm not sure the alleyways have anything to do with Maddin's personal past, and the hockey rink is an important icon of the city, with many weird stories. I mean the more literally personal stuff -- the rug that never straightens, the man with the tire iron, etc.; also his personal touches to the city tangents, as in his talking about his encounter with the girl's academy or his stealing the jersey of one of his favorite hockey players.

Any idea what Maddin will do next? I am surprised it has been this long; it seems he is riding at his height and ought to have plenty of opportunity to make whatever he wants.

DG said...

Pretty sure he's been focusing on shorts since My Winnipeg. No idea what he plans to do next. Whatever it is, I'll be there...