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True or false with Guy Maddin Facts don't get in way

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My Winnipeg

A Film Companion

By Guy Maddin

Coach House, 192 pages, $28/$35 with DVD

The bad news about this book is that Guy Maddin doesn't tell us what's true and what's false about his amazing film My Winnipeg.

The good news about this book is that Guy Maddin doesn't tell us what's true and what's false about his amazing film My Winnipeg.

Those of us who know Winnipeg well still can't be too sure about some of the assertions that Maddin made in his wild, murky, dreamy, hilarious, brilliant film.

We rather suspect that taxis aren't divided by law into those that drive down streets, and those that drive down lanes; or that the homeless aren't required by law to live only on rooftops, or that Ledge Man didn't air continuously as a daily soap opera for 50 years.

But how about those horses whose frozen heads in the Red River in the '20s became a favourite lovers' walk? Or the seances held at the legislature? Or the pipe-smoking contests held in the Paddlewheel Restaurant during the '50s?

And is there really a law that forbids any Winnipegger from waking up another Winnipegger who is sleepwalking? Is Winnipeg the sleepwalking capital of the world, anyway? Did the Sherbrook Pool once have three levels of swimming pools?

No one will ever distinguish the fantasy from the reality. That is indeed the greatness of Maddin's film portrait of his Winnipeg. It proves Winnipeg to be so eccentric that the real is as fantastic as the fantasy.

If you go along with it, the film is a great movie that gets better with each viewing. And the book makes the movie even better. If you pay the extra $8 to get the DVD with the book, you will be getting an incredible deal.

It is also, however, a tremendous read on its own.

The book contains the full film script (elegantly typeset), "annotated" with rejected dialogue, reveries, facts, fantasies, and eloquence, accompanied by stills from the movie, bizarre collages, and historical (perhaps) photographs; there is also an extended interview by Toronto writer Michael Ondaatje with Maddin, and articles about Maddin's film career.

We learn more about Maddin's family. Lengthy annotations tell us about Maddin's grandmother, whose guilt for causing blindness in her son's eye spends the rest of her life pricking holes in the eyes of every person in every family photograph she could.

We learn many more "truths" about Winnipeg. There is another lengthy annotation about how we are apparently the centre for Mulchy's Syndrome, the state of feeling as if everything what we are now experiencing we have already experienced in the past.

Nothing surprises us. We are victims of emotional paralysis. (He credits CBC for nobly hiring many Mulchy's Syndrome sufferers, and even elevating them to top bureaucratic positions!)

The book is lavishly illustrated. Where else will you find a photograph of that famous hockey team "Winnipeg's West-End Women's Swastikas" of 1914 (swastikas neatly printed on the front of the sweater)?

Or of the Winnipeg minstrel suffrage movement (black-faced entertainers holding "Votes for Women" signs)?

So the fun, the genius and the sadness behind the film are simply piled on with much, much more of the same.

The book goes deeper, however, in two ways.

First, the annotations make everything much more poignant. Maddin spares us nothing in his self-portrait. We learn more about the early deaths in his family.

We understand the sadnesses he has suffered in his life, and his sense of isolation. We get a lengthy email from a spurned ex-girl friend (well, maybe it's phoney, but maybe it's not), a verbatim excerpt from which follows:

"[T]he final word has not been spoken. perhaps Death will have mercy on you and let you in sooner. and even then -- you will never find any peace in your being. and you will be condemned to terrible loneliness for the rest of your soul's existence."

Maddin's constant self-references throughout the annotations make these words seem very true. Who knows if he really exists apart from his persona? The book is amazingly deeper and more powerful than the film in exposing Maddin's own psyche.

Second, the annotations show Maddin's poetic side, which makes the book a joy to read:

"On our coldest days, we Winnipeggers are enveloped in great shrouds of car exhaust, blinded by billowing rills of chimney smoke and miniature cloudlets of breath. . . . Some people obey memories without realizing it, and the sidewalks seem to have been laid out along invisible ancient trading routes or hunting paths, still winding around long-gone trees and shrubs."

Winnipeg harbours brilliance. Maddin's book should find a safe harbour anywhere.

Lawrie Cherniack is a Winnipeg lawyer who provides conflict resolution services to employers as The Workplace Ombudsman.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 24, 2009 D6

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