Monday, February 22, 2016
#741: My Winnipeg
Guy Maddin's films occupy a seldom-discussed corner of the Criterion universe. Brand Upon the Brain was one of the last films in the collection to get a DVD-only release, while My Winnipeg was released last year to little fanfare. Of the contemporary directors in the Collection, Maddin is arguably the least well-known (maybe the Dardennes brothers or Whit Stillman compete) and certainly the most controversial. IFC also owns the rights to The Saddest Music in the World, which may be Maddin's most accessible film (at least of the ones I've seen), but it's unclear if Criterion is simply spacing them out or if the (assumed) lack of sales from these two releases has stalled their Maddin love affair.
Criterion representatives have often discussed the need for someone in the company to champion a film in order for it to be selected for release, and Maddin's films seem like one of the great examples of this. Few directors in the modern era have such a distinctive style, and even fewer elicit such a love/hate response. This dynamic mirrors that of Criterion's king of modern cinema, Wes Anderson, albeit on a much smaller scale. Anderson's films are significantly more accessible and while they both share a love of film and a sly sense of humor, Maddin pulls his inspiration from significantly less canonical material, veering frequently into experimental and camp territory without concern for the blurred line between mainstream vintage cinema and cult underground art films.
My Winnipeg is more of the same from Maddin, but its combination of autobiographical content, historical oddities, and off-kilter surrealism that blends together in ways that make them indistinguishable from each other fits his technical style to a T. Many of Maddin's other films (including Brand Upon a Brain) could probably exist in more conventional forms, their stories shaved down to make their square shape fit into the round hole of conventional cinema. My Winnipeg could exist in no other form, its fever-dream aesthetic matches perfectly with Maddin's story. Although there are stretches here that drag on a bit, and occasional moments that are so over the top that it's hard to hang on, there are also some wonderful ideas, like the Winnipeg TV series about a man who gets on a ledge and threatens to jump every episode, or the horses frozen in the river that are depicted on the excellent cover for the release.
Like any other Maddin film, My Winnipeg will have a substantial portion of the audience running for the exit. Although I don't think Maddin is a director that can be dismissed completely if you didn't like one of his films, his style is so consuming that even a "better" Maddin movie for many people will be something they don't mind missing. Conversely, there are people on the other side of the divide who would likely go to bat for even his most obscure and affected material. While the Criterion essay for the film is in a style of prose that I find insufferable, I do think it is representative of the kind of free-wheeling, intellectual counter-culture work his films represent, something I greatly prefer in film rather than literature. I don't expect Criterion to put out movies that are going to be approved of by 100% of their buyers, though, and I do think Maddin's love of film and singular approach warrants his inclusion in the Collection. While I've only seen a handful of his many films over the last three decades, My Winnipeg may be my favorite, and a great addition to Criterion's modern and avant ranks.