Guy Maddin’s 2008 docu-fantasia My Winnipeg was an uneasy combine of fact and fiction, autobiography and civic history—”What if I film my way out of here?” the exceptionally idiosyncratic film director asked, a bit frantically, as his camera traveled his native city’s icy streets. Conceived as a remedy to the sorry lack of mythology about Maddin’s somnambulant Canadian home, My Winnipeg invented new myths of its own: a long-running television sitcom, Ledge Man, in which a near-suicide is talked off the precipice daily; frozen horse heads sticking up from the ice in the Forks—”eleven knights on a vast white chessboard” where lovers come to gather. Maddin rented his old childhood residence for a month, and populated it with actors playing his mother and siblings. Traumatic family episodes interpolate with Winnipeg’s own checkered history and, sometimes, as in the simultaneous undoing of Maddin’s father and the various Winnipeg hockey teams for which he worked, become one and the same.
It was a Sebaldian project—one long, digressive walk across material and mental geography—and, in a nod to the film’s literary affinities, Coach House Books is now bringing out My Winnipeg in book form. The tome was conceived as a physical companion to Maddin’s film, complete with a heavily annotated script, collages, pages from the director’s journals, and an interview between Maddin and Michael Ondaatje.
Like the film, Maddin confesses, when reached on the phone in Toronto, where he now also owns an apartment, the book is “a mixture of myths I wish had been around for decades or centuries, and facts I never ought to have blurted out.” The text is dense with the latter: Maddin’s PIN codes, dream diaries, a letter from a furious ex-girlfriend. New legends include the E Gang, “an elusive group of nocturnal criminals whose sole crime . . . was stealing the letter E from every piece of signage in the city.”
“Sometimes I found that just by treating all this stuff as fairy tale,” says Maddin, somewhat mischievously, “makes it the kind of fiction which can better produce truth.” My Winnipeg, on the page, is an almost vertiginous experience: Scenes from the film are undermined or bolstered by Maddin’s whimsical notations, which sometimes expose a distortion but, far more often, merely add another one. He cites Infinite Jest‘s footnotes, Wayne Koestenbaum’s double-column novel Hotel Theory, and Fernando Pessoa as possible influences, but confesses, basically, to having no real model for the work or any assurance that his experiment is at all tolerable to an innocent reader.
“It’s just way more time than should be spent with oneself,” Maddin admits, about his experiment in overwhelming (if often misleading) self-disclosure. “And certainly with one person. It’d be different if you were reading War and Peace or something, and the three months you spent with Tolstoy felt ennobling. But I just feel like I’m going to drag someone down to the gutter and then urinate on them, you know?”
On April 19 at 8 p.m., Guy Maddin introduces Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933) and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue. April 20 at 7 p.m., Maddin reads from My Winnipeg at the Union Square Barnes & Noble.