Locus Solus

Pub date April 29, 2008
WriterErik Morse
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

"Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event," declares Gaston Bachelard in his 1958 phenomenology of domesticity, The Poetics of Space. In its attempts to reconcile a science of atomic futurism with visions of quotidian psychology, to link the aberrations and fetishes of modern design with the traditions of hearth and home, Bachelard’s unique poetics are largely identical to the cinematic worlds of Guy Maddin. The Canadian director’s latest film, My Winnipeg, a so-called "docu-fantasia" of his birthplace, engages headfirst in a surrealist topoanalysis (to borrow from Bachelard’s ideas) of the city in which his own poetics of childhood dwell.

Speaking by the phone from his current Winnipeg home, the affectionately christened Atelier Tovar, Maddin waxes rhapsodically of a dream life bound by interiors and interiority. "After 30 years of dreaming about people I miss, I now dream almost exclusively of architecture," he confesses. "Sometimes my old house, sometimes other people’s — neighbors’ — houses, that I never went into. I think my dream self is trying to empathize with what those houses must have meant to someone else. But they’re always missing every second [floor] board, and are incredibly drafty and filled with this incredible longing and unspeakable joy. It always comes down to the house now, there are rarely any people in these dreams. Just houses."

In My Winnipeg, Maddin has taken his lexicon of family trauma and frigid Manitoban climates and deposits it on the doorstep of his childhood home. Raised in a storefront at Winnipeg’s 800 Ellis Street — which was divided into his aunt Lil’s beauty salon, an extended family wing, and an immediate family suite — Maddin was imprinted with the sights and sounds of multidimensional living. A television echoing around catalog furniture and muffled radio sounds droning through thin walls provided the soundtrack of a bee-hived gynecocracy. To this day, the 52-year-old still luxuriates in the simple pleasures the dreamy house afforded him — specifically orange Jell-O, his answer to Proust’s madeleine, and hairdryer slumbers. "I’ve taken many a nap under a hairdryer," he laughs. "I’ve still got a couple of old ones and you have to wear a hairnet or you get sucked up into the propellers. You wake up with a dehydrated head and a pounding headache, but it’s fantastic. My sister [does it], too. We’re like Beckett characters, sitting across from each other with these roaring domes on our heads."

As the youngest of four children, Maddin admits constructing a phenomenology of dreams from his first waking moments — culled mainly from wonder and boredom. "I spent a lot of time imprinting myself on the couch, listening and watching, not particularly attentively. I think I could have averted disaster if I had just been more attentive," he recalls, zeroing in on the instant when, at seven, he learned of his brother Cameron’s untimely death. "I remember when my brother died: he had gone missing and I was sitting on the couch reassuring my parents that he would come back. And that was the last time I ever felt confident about predicting anything. There was this comfortable rug underneath me, and I remember how it just fell away when I found out he wasn’t coming back.

"And that was the final, important piece of the universe for me," he laments. "There seemed to be these trap doors everywhere in my model of the universe — this place of great comfort, and more comfort, and more comfort, and great tracts of idle time. These secreted trap doors could open at anytime in your own home. And that made the place even more exquisite."

Like Proust and Bachelard before him, Maddin’s artistic communion with spirits long gone originates in the everyday objects and machines that share space with the living and the dead. From within the protection of the house, or rather from within its cavernous isolation, he continues to dream his way backward into the perfect womb of the past.


Sat/3, 8:30 p.m., PFA