Friday, July 24, 2009

A Double Bill - Of Time And The City / My Winnipeg

I'm sure someone has written a dual review of these two movies before now. They're such a natural pair. Both are highly personal, idiosyncratic, childhood-haunted odes to the director's city of birth. Both could've been conceived and made by no one else. Both are self-portraits as well as portraits of a city.

I saw Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg in the theater several months ago, but only got around to seeing Of Time And The City recently on DVD. Terence Davies' film about Liverpool is mostly made up of archival footage, brilliantly edited and matched to music, with Davies' narration moving freely between his own comments and reminiscences and quotes from Shelly ("Ozymandias"), Eliot (Four Quartets) and others. There is also some new footage of Liverpool, focusing on impressive older buildings that have survived the cycles of decline and redevelopment depicted in the film and newer buildings suggestive of Liverpool's resurgence.

While Davies' narration gets close to the edge of pretension at certain points, always a danger when mixing poetic content with a dramatic style of delivery, there are moments when the pairing of text and image is quite powerful. Davies also displays a sense of humor throughout his narration, with the monarchy and the Catholic church of his childhood on the receiving end of some of his sharper barbs. It is a bitter, hurt kind of humor, especially when directed at city and country's failure to give its citizens a decent living environment (his comment that instead of Utopia the citizens of Liverpool got "anus mundi" is particularly harsh, given that that term has previously been associated with Auschwitz).

Better than the narration, though, is Davies' use of music. He makes some bold, surprising choices that, when they really work with the images, are powerfully effective. In a DVD extra interview, Davies says that the first sequence he imagined for the film was footage of Liverpool's post-war modernist housing blocks set to Peggy Lee singing the Kern/Hammerstein standard "The Folks Who Live On The Hill". The song, about aging gracefully in a hilltop cottage, becomes nearly heartbreaking when paired with the images of elderly Liverpudlians shuffling into or peering out of cold, concrete high-rises, looking isolated, alienated, and out-of-place-and-time. It's hard to imagine a simpler or more effective illustration of the essentially inhumane quality of the "machines for living" solution to housing satirized by Ray Davies in "Muswell Hillbilly" ("they're putting us in identical little boxes/no character, just uniformity") and shown at it's inevitable end point in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe demolition footage.


In writing about My Winnipeg, I'd probably benefit from rewatching it on DVD as it's been a while since I saw it in the theater. As so many themes (hockey, hairdressing, strange sexuality, the harsh Canadian winter) recur in Guy Maddin's films, they can start to blend together in the memory. My Winnipeg is distinguished from earlier Maddin films more by its concept (a quasi-documentary about the city of Winnipeg) than by its content. All his films are "personal" films, as they trade heavily in his obsessions and childhood memories, but My Winnipeg is more up front about its autobiographical nature, anchored as it is by Maddin's own narration (another commonality with Davies' film) and prominently featuring the character of the filmmaker's mother (played by an actress, though I don't remember if that's ever made clear in the film).

As with Of Time and the City, the narration is often very funny, though Maddin's dry, bizarre, very Canadian sense of humor could hardly be more different from Davies' bitterly acerbic wit. I heard more out-loud laughter in the mostly empty theater where I saw My Winnipeg than I have in packed houses for full-on comedies. A few of my fellow moviegoers seemed to be very attuned to Maddin's peculiar comedic sensibility (or they might've just been high).

Maddin's method here is to present true incidents from Winnipeg's and his own history side by side with fabulous inventions, giving them equal weight and allowing the audience to guess which is which. As always with Maddin, there are strikingly surreal images - horses frozen up to their necks in a river, a buffalo-robed ice princess partaking in a secret civic ritual. His extremely lo-fi, early silent era approach makes anything he shoots look distinctive, but it's his imaginative eye for sets, costumes, and staging that really creates the alternate Maddin universe.

The section of the film dealing with the demolition of the old Winnipeg ice arena is perhaps where Maddin comes closest in theme, tone, and feeling to Davies. There is a very real sense that this building, the memories tied up in it, and the Winnipeg it represented were deeply meaningful to the filmmaker, and its loss truly hurt and angered him.

There is love and civic pride mixed with disappointment and hope for a better future in both of these films, but the directors' own histories with their cities of birth may account for some of the difference in tone. Maddin is the native son who stayed behind, finding a way to make his films and have the career he wanted in his home town. Davies escaped to the big city, London, and only returned reluctantly to make his film about Liverpool. Maddin will surely continue to mine his Winnipeg for material, but it remains to be seen whether Davies has said all he has to say about Liverpool.

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