When I was brought home from the hospital, they just put me down on the floor and left me alone. But I think I was somehow put down facing the wrong direction and I think I’ve always been sort of backward glancing.
– Guy Maddin, 2008
It’s hard to believe how extraordinary Guy Maddin’s home is.
The city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, he tells us in his 2007 documentary, My Winnipeg, is the centermost city—the heart of the heart—of North America. It’s said to have the most psychic possibility of any city in the world. It’s the world’s coldest city, and has the highest rate of sleepwalking.
The part about sleepwalking is the most unbelievable. Winnipeg, we learn, has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other place on Earth. As a result, there’s a civic law allowing citizens to carry with them keys to their past homes, and at night, the streets fill with unconscious bodies shuffling back towards the places they once knew best. Another law requires that current occupants welcome these sleepwalkers and host them until they’ve regained the sense it takes to leave.
Yes, it’s all truly hard to believe, and that’s how Guy Maddin wanted it. When he received a commission from Canada’s Documentary Channel to tell the story of his home city, the executives asked him to “enchant” them. And so he chose not to recount the history of his birthplace, but to mythologize it—in a 2008 interview with the magazine Big Red & Shiny, he called his latest film equal parts fact, opinion, and legend, declaring, “Mythic truth is more important [than] facts anyway.”
The nature of truth is a pet issue of Maddin’s, and one he explored repeatedly and vigorously in a trilogy of autobiographical films that culminated in My Winnipeg. If something feels true, this most unusual of artists taught us across the first decade of the 21st century, then in a sense, it is true. It’s useless to ask whether or not it technically happened, because the feeling happened. The feeling is the truth.
Still, of course viewers unfamiliar with Maddin’s dizzyingly giddy pastiches would be inclined to gauge the historical anecdotes in My Winnipeg on a scale from true (there’s no reason to doubt a group of elderly women once banded together to protect a historic tree) to untrue (it seems highly dubious that there’s a law against destroying old signage, which must instead be dropped off in Winnipeg’s “old-signage graveyard”). But Maddin does his best to make classifying his claims impossible by overloading the audience with a hyperactive avalanche of input. At all times, the viewer is expected to process Maddin’s voiceover narration, imagery that’s often ironically juxtaposed to that narration, and quick bursts of jittery on-screen text that seem to escape from the film’s own excitable subconscious (Clash!!!! as we learn the story of a 1919 worker’s strike. Not to be denied! Fear!!) From archival footage to reenactments to shadow puppetry, Maddin accosts us with formal experimentation until the skeptical part of our brain has no choice but to shut down and accept everything.
When discussing whether his documentary tells the truth, Maddin likes to cite Werner Herzog’s claim (set forth in his 1999 “Minnesota Declaration”) that “there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” The first word in the title My Winnipeg carries much more weight than the second.
Yet, for as much as he mythologizes his city, My Winnipeg is apparently Guy Maddin’s attempt to escape, “after a lifetime of trying, and many botched attempts.” This project is a last-ditch effort to film his way out of the chains binding him to the past. In a framing device, we watch a character named Guy Maddin dozing on a train bound for the edge of town. As snow swirls through the darkness, he lets the motion rock him into a haze of nostalgia, until we get the foreboding sense that if he falls asleep, the train might wind up making a turn and carrying him home once more.
Beneath the confluence of Winnipeg’s two rivers, we learn in one more unbelievable detail, there runs a deeper, more powerful pair of currents. There are hidden forces below us, urgent and invisible, pulling us along even as we tell ourselves we’re in control.
Brand Upon the Brain! opens with a character named Guy Maddin, dozing in a rowboat, drifting across the ocean towards home.
Released in 2006, one year before My Winnipeg, this antic tribute to silent films and Grand Guignol horror is at least 97 percent true, according to its director, and possibly as much as 100 percent.
Once again, that’s difficult to believe. This version of Guy is a house painter, who’s been summoned back to his childhood home—a lighthouse on a deserted island, where his parents ran an orphanage—to apply a fresh coat of paint. In flashback, we learn the story of young Guy and his sister, Sis, who live with their domineering Mother, and under the vague threat of their mad scientist Father, glimpsed from behind in his underground laboratory as he slaves over some dark chemistry. With the help of famed teen detective Wendy Hale, Guy and Sis discover that their parents harvest “nectar” from the orphans, which Mother imbibes nightly to grow younger, even as her rage repeatedly turns her back into an embittered old woman. One night, Sis murders Father, but Mother resurrects him, leading to a quasi-religious uprising in the orphans, who run wild on the island as Mother, now feral with rage, hunts and devours them. By morning, Sis regains control of the island, banishes Mother, and sends Guy off to be adopted.
This, according to Maddin, is pure autobiography. It’s all true except for what he calls “surface details.” Even in this hallucinatory fable, Maddin recognized so much of his interior life that he would be brought to tears on-set and hurry away to weep in private. The film has a distinct flavoring of German expressionism, and it’s no coincidence—Maddin has referred to that style of silent film as “interior landscape expressed in the exterior.” More than a true accounting of the events of his childhood, this is a true accounting of the world as viewed through the eyes of young Guy Maddin.
Like the classic films that form the stylistic basis for his autobiographical trilogy, Brand Upon the Brain! is unapologetically melodramatic. But Maddin is a staunch defender of that style even as the word has become a disparagement. “So few people understand what melodrama is,” he told Isabella Rossellini (who provides voiceover narration for Brand Upon the Brain!, among other collaborations with Maddin) in a 2009 interview for BOMB Magazine. “Really good melodrama is the truth uninhibited. In our dreams, where our emotions are uninhibited…we get to possess the one after whom we lust, strike the one we hate, steal, wail out loud, and remove our clothes…You see, these are not exaggerated feelings, they are repressed feelings liberated. There’s a big difference!”
For all the uninhibited lust, rage, and sorrow that occurs there, young Guy loves his home, and we follow him as he gorges his newly-awakened senses on the natural world. The worst threat that Mother can make is that she might sell this “beloved island” that he views as a birthright. And that’s why, after years of exile, he returns for the startlingly bleak chapter that ends this otherwise lively and cheeky adventure. Guy puts his house painting skills to work, refurbishing the lighthouse in a feverish attempt to turn his home back into the place where he was once so happy. But no matter how he tries, he finds himself in the end literally painted into a corner, alone and tormented by ghosts that he both fears and yearns for. None of the symbolism is particularly subtle, but that’s as it should be—uninhibited inner truths don’t traffic in subtlety.
Guy’s failure to recreate the past is a culmination not only of the story’s themes, but of a particular obsession of Maddin’s. In the documentary attached to the Brand Upon the Brain! DVD, he describes a childhood belief that he would get a second crack at his experiences. He felt inhibited in his emotional responses, and so he comforted himself with the belief that he would get to retrace these exact events some day and experience them properly. He clung to the belief as he grew older, coming to expect it as a deathbed fantasy. Then, he realized he could do it himself by picking up a camera.
“Everything that happens will happen again twice,” the narrator attests in Brand Upon the Brain! as young Guy tries to recreate past events by retracing the exact order of places he’s touched. “A second chance to really feel these things, really.” A second chance to creep into the depths and investigate the dark chemistry that was happening all along.
Cowards Bend the Knee is the story of a character named Guy Maddin, and his relationship with a character named Meta, who was based on Guy Maddin.
Completed in 2003, and first presented as an art installation to be viewed through peepholes, this was Guy Maddin’s first autobiographical film. In an interview conducted between production and release, his friend and frequent interrogator, Robert Enright, presses Maddin to identify how much of the film is based on true events. “I have lived every one of those episodes in a literal way,” Maddin insists. In fact, he claims, the only difference might be that this fiercely histrionic silent melodrama is less intense than his real experiences.
As always, Maddin doesn’t use the word “literally” the way most of us would. Though not as fantastical as Brand Upon the Brain!, Cowards Bend the Knee very much takes place in a fictional world, even judged solely on the fact that one of the most prominent and active characters is a ghost. It’s a brutal tale of murder and revenge set more than 20 years before its creator’s birth, but even if we discount these pesky plot concerns as “surface detail” irrelevant to the central truth, Maddin took an unusually complex approach to autobiography.
In attempting for the first time to tell the story of his life and his inner landscape, Maddin did what he describes to Enright as refracting his life through a prism, dividing himself into component parts “like colours of the rainbow.” So while the protagonist, Guy, bears the weight of Maddin’s own self-perception as a coward, it’s the biracial teenage girl, Meta, whom this white adult man most explicitly based on himself. Into her, he poured his “petulance and stubbornness and hysteria,” as he said in a 2007 interview with Stop Smiling magazine, going on to compare Guy and Meta to the dual protagonists in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, a whole character halved in order to more effectively dramatize one interiority.
Much of the film’s story takes place at the Winnipeg Arena, the workplace of both Guy’s father and Maddin’s own. But it’s Meta who lives in a version of Maddin’s childhood home, an apartment attached to a beauty salon run by her mother. While Maddin’s mother ran, by all accounts, a law-abiding and upstanding business, Meta’s mother operates a den of iniquity, with her salon doubling as a bordello and clandestine abortion clinic.
As he did with Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin uses the term “pure autobiography” when describing Cowards Bend the Knee. But when he defines this term for Enright, he doesn’t even allude to the idea of objectively rendering events. Instead, he believes a pure autobiography should tell the story of “things that have obsessed me for a long time, long-held secret desires.”
So while his mother’s salon (probably) wasn’t the site of prostitution and abortion, to the young boy who would grow up to immortalize it on-screen, it was no less illicit. Maddin has recalled seeing women come and go from the salon long before dawn and long after dark—his mother kept odd hours to accommodate customers with full-time jobs—and as a young boy, the sight of women passing below him in the dark was hopelessly mysterious and alluring. And when the salon was closed for the night, his older brother would host parties, where the young Maddin could glimpse drunken sexual escapades through shampoo bottles and hair dryers. Apparently haunted for decades by his exclusion from this salacious vision of his home, he could now finally create it for himself, amplified melodramatically into an uninhibited truth.
During the making of Cowards Bend the Knee, Maddin believed this might be his last film, and so he emptied his head of a lifetime’s worth of obsession. But the experience energized him. “I don’t think I’ve used up my autobiography,” he told Enright. “Someday I’d like to present another version, as I say, that’s just as true and completely different. And maybe another one after that.”
There’s another notable difference between Meta’s home and Maddin’s: While Maddin slept above his mother’s salon, Meta sleeps below hers. As he would spend the rest of the decade demonstrating, down below is where the deepest urges are, where the darkest truths are laid bare.
As of this writing, Guy Maddin does not plan to film the story that a conventional filmmaker might think of as his pure autobiography.
Speaking about the treatment he wrote around the turn of the 21st century for a still-unmade film to be called The Child Without Qualities, he once told an interviewer, “I don’t think it’s filmable.”
It’s hard to say why this might be. Judged against the outrageous visions he’s cooked up before and since, The Child Without Qualities is comparatively realistic. Beyond a few references to intertitles, it’s not clear what style he might have intended, but the plot seems downright conventional.
This is the story of the Bellamy family, but beyond that change of surname, they are the Maddins in every respect. The parents are Chas (Maddin’s father was Charles) and Herdis (Maddin’s mother went by that name, though her full given name was Jörina Herdis, which, Maddin has noted, when pronounced with the proper Icelandic accent, sounds distinctly like You’re gonna hurt us). As with the Maddins, the three eldest children are Cameron, Janet, and Ross. The only one whose name was changed is the youngest son, referred to as “The Child Without Qualities.”
So named to evoke his uninhibited perceptions of the world, The Child spends the film exploring the three places he calls home. In his mother’s beauty salon, he crawls around in underground passages, where his consciousness is first awakened when a trapdoor opens to dispose of hair clippings, and he briefly glimpses the light above. At the Winnipeg Arena—where his father works in some role The Child can’t quite comprehend but conveys an air of celebrity—the young boy feels “more ‘at home’ than any other place.” His third home is his family’s beach cottage, where—exactly as occurred in real life—The Child’s older brother Cameron falls in love with a girl named Carol, who soon dies in a car accident, prompting Cameron to fatally shoot himself while kneeling on her grave.
Cameron and Carol are just two of the many fatalities that suffuse The Child Without Qualities. Marilyn Monroe’s overdose apparently falls on the same date as Carol’s death. Several of The Child’s peers die in ways that range from quietly passing during a school nap to an apparent autoerotic asphyxiation. The climax of the story centers on the death of The Child’s grandmother. And while Chas survives the story, his eventual death by heart attack hangs in the air as a foregone conclusion, with the most Maddin-esque flourish being an early sequence of seven vignettes identified as “Things That Kill Fathers.”
Despite the ever-present specter of mortality, we are informed that The Child is the happiest child in the world. One of the few things that does bring him pain, though, is the feeling that he was born into “a family past its prime.” All of his belongings, from clothes to toys, are hand-me-downs that he considers artifacts, and he spreads them around him to feel he’s “[giving] shape to the story of his family.”
All told, it seems like a supremely filmable story. But as we’ve learned, Guy Maddin doesn’t often mean what you might think he means. So it must be that, for some reason, it didn’t feel like something he could film. Something inhibited him from putting a “realistic” account of his family’s story on screen. Perhaps the naked truth felt too small, not nearly true enough to capture the feelings of his youth. As he told The Village Voice in 2008, “we can watch security-camera tape if we want to see unbroken representation.”
Something about the story must have gnawed at him, though. Because after publishing the treatment for The Child Without Qualities in his 2003 collection, From the Atelier Tovar, he went on to create a kaleidoscopic tripartite autobiography so ambitious and singular that just about any other filmmaker would easily judge the idea unfilmable.
In his treatment, Maddin tells us that when The Child plays with his family’s artifacts, he sometimes needs to separate himself from his playthings to feel he’s properly experienced them. “Sometimes,” Maddin writes, The Child “played with the memories of them. And then played with the memories of the memories. There were inexhaustible powers of renewal” in stepping away enough to let his experiences amplify themselves.
Speaking to online film journal Offscreen in 2006, he said, “I’ve always thought of movies as another species of bedtime story or campfire story.” There should be no inhibition around the campfire. Better to mythologize, open the hatch and let your uninhibited truth burst up into the light with all the melodramatic flair you’ve kept inside for so long.
Guy Maddin eased into telling his own story. There is little about Cowards Bend the Knee that’s openly
confessional about his family’s history. He altered details, divided up truths—he named Meta’s father Chas, while making Guy’s father an employee at the Winnipeg arena, but Guy’s father is a much more domineering force than Maddin’s; he made Meta’s mother the salon owner, but named her Liliom after his aunt Lil; he put Guy’s mother in the hospital, pining for a visit from the cowardly young man, but in truth it was Lil who died in the hospital before he could bring himself to see her. Maybe this spread out some of the intensity of feeling as he warmed up for what would come later.
He set the story two decades prior to his own birth, referring (on the film’s commentary track) to this milieu as “some kind of silent movie past, just because that’s where it felt like my life really began…the myths that made me what I am.” Given that The Child felt he was born after his family’s history was over, it seems like appropriate wish fulfillment that Maddin cast his life story to roughly coincide with the era when his parents started putting down the roots of his family tree.
The spirits of the dead lovers, Cameron and Carol, are an unseen presence in The Child Without Qualities. But a very real ghost haunts Cowards Bend the Knee in the form of Veronica, who begins the film as Guy’s girlfriend before dying alone, abandoned by the one who swore to protect her. And while it wasn’t yet time to fully grapple with his own loss, Maddin paid a tribute: the actress who plays Veronica’s ghost is Carol’s niece, so the spirit of Guy’s lost love is portrayed by a woman who shares part of a soul with Cameron’s lost love. By altering details but preserving his life’s architecture, Maddin found a way to make his own story filmable. Ever the artist, he saw it as a second draft. “Your life is all about editing,” he told Robert Enright, “because that’s what remembering is.”
Cowards Bend the Knee is the opening salvo in Maddin’s experimental blending of his life with Greek tragedy. In his Offscreen interview, Maddin speaks at length about Euripides, whose style he can see in all his favorite films, “stories that are both delightfully ludicrous and powerfully human and tragic.” He mentions dreaming up the film while swimming laps in a pool. Hovering in what he calls a “chlorine delirium,” he realized that his life and Euripides’ stories were one and the same.
So there are shades in Cowards Bend the Knee of Medea’s rage over her abandonment, and Electra’s quest to avenge her father. But as much as the storylines inspired him, it was the spirit of the tragedies that brought the film to life. As he conceived his project, Maddin saw a production of Strauss’ opera, Elektra, and he was thrilled by the emotional intensity. But, one of the opera’s producers told him, it wasn’t there yet. “It’s not crazy enough, it’s not hysterical, the frenzy isn’t pitched high enough.” And this was the jolt that truly sparked Cowards Bend the Knee. What if he could blur his life story with the content of a Greek tragedy, but infuse even more emotional intensity? What if he took another step away from the past, and filled the gap with melodrama?
In the climactic moments of the brief, raw film, when Guy climbs to the rafters of the Winnipeg Arena, accompanied by Meta, their fathers, and his lover’s ghost, there’s a palpable, uninhibited glee to the howling maelstrom of madness, confession, and violence that takes place high above the ice. “I was seized with a sense of mischief, a sense of tattling on my family,” Maddin told Enright. He felt he had permission to open up a part of himself, and now he could “just about faint from giddiness and the Niagara Falls torrent of potential emotion.”
Looking down at a broken surface that reflected his own story back in cubist shards, he must have liked the view. Because two years later, he did it again.
Guy Maddin has described a childhood feeling that he was living through a personal Greek tragedy, that a cruel destiny had been decided for him long before his birth.
Along with Cameron’s suicide, the childhood experience that dominates Maddin’s autobiographical trilogy is the fierce battle of wills between his mother and his sister, Janet, seven years his senior. His mother, he reports in the Brand Upon the Brain! documentary, seemed to believe that if she tried hard enough she could prevent her daughter from growing up, and save her from the temptations and perils of adolescence. Watching Janet struggle to mature amidst her mother’s repressive rage, Maddin felt he was receiving his own prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi: This will happen to you one day. And there’s no way to avoid it.
Sophocles is the reference point here, and the notion of an unavoidable fate isn’t the only Oedipal thread in the story. Mother’s manipulations of Guy are queasily sensual—she constantly caresses and kisses him (at one point, when their horsing around reaches a frenzy, she pulls down his pants and kisses “Mother’s little tushy”), she makes him eat food from her mouth, and she forces his head into her lap. Sexual dysfunction runs rampant through the film, as Mother’s obsession with her children’s youth and their accompanying urges becomes more and more crazed until she’s driven to literal beasthood in the final chapter.
This transformation resonates with the other mythic inspiration for Brand Upon the Brain! Observing the fights between his mother and sister, Maddin told Offscreen, he understood the stories of Jekyll and Hyde, werewolves, and other horror stories of sudden transformation. Before his eyes, the two most important women to him became emotional monsters he could hardly recognize. “It seemed like every day was a full moon in my house.”
So it makes sense that when Maddin decided to tackle these memories head-on, he chose the lens of gothic horror. Ever visible through the layers of genre style that make up the surface details, the raw heart of Brand Upon the Brain! is the battle between Mother and Sis, enacted in scenes that seem almost unchanged from Maddin’s own memories.
“You look like you just got out of the bed of a seducer!” Mother shouts when Sis returns home from an investigative outing. When she finds Sis wasting food, she breaks dishes, howls that she’ll never cook again, and throws a block of butter at the wall. While her manipulative power is amplified by the genre trappings—when she truly needs Sis bent to her will, Mother is able to hypnotize her with a foghorn—these emotions are the element of the story that feel most nakedly realistic.
In the documentary, Maddin suggests that we construct a model of the world as children, an understanding of the rules governing this insane universe we’re dropped into. And then we continue building on those models as we age, so that by adulthood our perceptions of the world are a tower built on a “spectacularly flawed” foundation. The final image of Brand Upon the Brain! is of Guy perched on just such a tower. Overcome with terror and sorrow by his inability to return to his childhood, he climbs to the ledge of the lighthouse and looks down, struggling to make sense of where he’s been, and whether there’s any point in continuing on.
Even among this torment, though, there’s that vivid feeling of euphoric mischief that unites the trilogy. This had been his ultimate chance, Maddin said after finishing Brand Upon the Brain!, to mythologize his home. But he was wrong. The next year, he would do it again.
My Winnipeg opens with Guy Maddin giving line readings to his own mother. She isn’t fighting with Janet properly.
This is the real Guy Maddin, as opposed to the character representing him later in the film, and much as he knows that actors hate having their performances micromanaged, he later told Robert Enright, the actress playing Jörina Herdis was stubbornly insisting that she knew best how to deliver dialogue pulled directly from his own memory. After 40 years, he finally got off the sidelines and joined in the battle he’d witnessed, fighting with his mother about how, exactly, she fought with his sister.
After twice attempting to cure himself of childhood obsessions through obscene melodrama, when Maddin was invited by the Documentary Channel to mythologize his home, he took it beyond the city. He decided, we learn from his voiceover, to make one last attempt to understand his own experiences by renting out the apartment he grew up in (whether this is true, or whether the home scenes were shot on a constructed set is, of course, beside the point) and hiring actors to portray his siblings so he could take another look at his childhood through his adult eyes. His mother, he tells us, could never truly be evoked by an actress, so she played herself. This is the most demonstrably untrue element of this frequently ludicrous film—in a rare instance of using a recognizable performer in his trilogy, he hired famed noir actress Ann Savage to play his mother. He’s discussed hoping to covertly start a rumor that Savage was his true birth mother (she retired from acting around the same time he was born), but that was too many levels of interlocking myth and truth for even Guy Maddin to sustain.
And so, finally, we witness the apocalyptic arguments that obsessed Maddin for decades. We watch as Janet, sporting prototypical 1960s fashions, pleads with a mother who flings appalling accusations at her. “I know what it’s like out there,” Savage snarls with melodramatic flourish. “Every night, the same old story. Take that off, put this on, take this in, pull that out. Push, pull, roll over and done.” The scene is immediately recognizable from Brand Upon the Brain!, as though a magically tinted lens has been removed, allowing us to witness not what Maddin’s childhood imaginings whipped the scene into, but something much smaller and sadder, even in its histrionic heights—something much closer to what most of us would call realism.
Maddin strews exhumations across his documentary. He resurrects Cameron via a teenage actor named Brendan, and in one of the final moments, we learn that Jörina Herdis has become warped by the experiment to the point of obsession with the boy—we see them cuddling in a snowbank, as she coos, “It’s better between us…Now that you’re gone.” And, we learn at the outset, she insisted that Maddin’s late father be present in the film, though he had no place in the events, so his body was exhumed and placed in the middle of the living room, covered with a rug. Throughout the rest of the story, the actors step across this unremarked-upon corpse, forced to make room in their instructed routines for the shape of death.
The signature image of My Winnipeg is an icy river studded with the frozen heads of a team of horses trapped fleeing a fire. After a brief period of horror, we learn, the citizens of Winnipeg accepted these heads, with their bulging eyes and pained rictuses, and made them a part of the winter landscape, snowshoeing past them, holding jamborees among them.
There’s sorrow and pain all around us, but in Guy Maddin’s home movies, there’s no way to live on except to recognize it, accept it, and build a life that fits alongside. It’s not so bad once you’ve taken a good, long look.
The final third of My Winnipeg is largely devoted to the destruction of the Winnipeg Arena, the happiest home of the child who grew up to become Guy Maddin. The vintage style that’s defined the trilogy is suddenly shattered, and we see color video of the arena being knocked down.
In the film—and, apparently, in reality, though by now perhaps we’d best accept that there’s no meaningful difference—Maddin is the last person to slip into the arena before it’s demolished, climbing around this huge, multi-layered structure where he grew up. He’s the last one to plumb the deep darkness of the locker room, and the last one to climb to the rafters and look down.
And then, finally, the massive tower collapses onto its foundation, and there’s room for whatever might come next.
In a conversation with Michael Ondaatje, conducted after completing My Winnipeg, Maddin observed, “I’ve noticed in the past that if I made a movie about something I was obsessed with, the project cured me of the obsession.” He was fascinated with World War I until making Archangel in 1990. He was fascinated with mountains until he made Careful in 1992. “It’s a weird kind of therapy,” he told Ondaatje. “You actually haven’t learned anything—you’ve just bored yourself talking about them so much.”
Though My Winnipeg leaves the point ambiguous, we can imagine its version of Guy Maddin, huddled on a train as he fights the urge to sleepwalk home, will finally, after a lifetime of trying and many botched attempts, reach the edge of town.