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Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"My Winnipeg": Filmmaker's upbringing gets a wildly inventive do-over

"Who gets to vivisect his own childhood? " Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin, that's who. He did it once in his 2003 feature "Cowards Bend the...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"My Winnipeg,"with Darcy Fehr and Ann Savage. Directed by Guy Maddin, from a script by Maddin and George Toles. 80 minutes. Unrated, includes nudity. SIFF Cinema.

"Who gets to vivisect his own childhood?"

Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin, that's who.

He did it once in his 2003 feature "Cowards Bend the Knee." And now he's doing it again — as both narrator and director — in this so-called "docu-fantasia."

The conceit of "My Winnipeg": Filmmaker Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr) is itching to break free of the town where he's lived his entire life. So he resorts to "extreme measures," re-creating the scenes of his youth in order to film his way out of them.

But he's up against formidable odds. Mother (a sharp-eyed Ann Savage) isn't about to let any of her children go easily ("Never underestimate the tenacity of a Winnipeg mother"). And "snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg" itself, both the present-day city and the spectral city of the past, holds the fleeing Maddin in its spell.

The whole film is drenched in a nostalgia so intense it gives rise to the hallucinatory. Family psychodrama mixes with civic history, as Maddin recalls Winnipeg's 1919 General Strike, the demolition of beloved sports stadiums and department stores, and 1942's "If Day" in which a Nazi invasion of the city was staged in a war-bond-raising effort.

Subterranean cities lurk beneath the surface city. Back lanes open onto different realities from front streets.

Striking images abound: a midwinter "ice-and-horse jam" on Winnipeg's Red River; a gigantic Mother peering through the window of the rickety train the fleeing Maddin is taking out of town; a 3-year-old Maddin getting lost amid the giggling, plaid-skirted attentions of teenage schoolgirls.

This is also a film you want to re-hear as much as re-watch. Maddin and George Toles' script is beautiful, whether they're paying tribute to the "ice-hockey cathedral" of Winnipeg Arena ("This building was my male parent") or describing the city's sprawling rail yards "where trains couple in the fog, rumble on for a while, then noisily divorce."

Maddin ("Careful," "The Saddest Music in the World") achieves a fine mesmeric-

comic balance throughout. John Gurdebeke's editing, in keeping with the film's rapturous, obsessive voice-over, is more lyrical, more lingering in its touches than the rapid-fire frenzy of recent Maddin works, although it still administers its share of sharp, subliminal, single-frame shocks.

The collagelike mix of animation and archival and staged footage pushes intuition to the brink. (Has any other filmmaker since Fellini had such apparently easy access to his subconscious?) And the score by Seattle-based composer Jason Staczek, who also did Maddin's "Brand Upon the Brain!," pulls you into this memory journey with a ghostly, hypnotic seductiveness.

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since I saw Maddin's first feature, "Tales From the Gimli Hospital," and became convinced the director had single-handedly put Winnipeg at the cutting edge of experimental cinema. This new film once again confirms that feeling.

The world would be a better place if every city had its Maddin.

Michael Upchurch is the Seattle Times' book critic: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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