Two typical Winnipeggers on a leisurely stroll, c. 1920—unless, of course, this is a hideous recreation by Guy Maddin.
Ben Katchor’s melancholy, dreamlike Julius Knipl, Real-Estate Photographer is a comic strip that fleshes out the negative space where nostalgic memory and pure fantasy converge. In “Katchor’s Knipl, Knipl’s Katchor”, a 1993 profile by Lawrence Weschler, Katchor describes what he’s up to in his weekly strip:
I asked [Katchor] where he got the name “Knipl.”
“It’s Yiddish,” he said. “And it’s one of those Yiddish words you can’t really translate. It’s sort of a nest egg, you know, the little treasure you store away for a rainy day—they say, ‘That’s your knipl.’ And the strip’s all about the little treasures of the city—not exactly [New York], but almost. This city in some slightly different time—maybe just before I was born. And, in fact, what Knipl does is what I, as a child, thought all grown-ups did—you know, head out into the city, walk around all day, have these little adventures. So it’s the past but at the same time not the past, it’s very much the present—though maybe it’s true that that way of looking has been dying out. Everywhere you go these days, there’s still so much of the old stuff preserved, as if in a state of perpetual decay, right there, just beneath all the superficial modernizations—the buildings with their sleek new lobbies, and one flight up you’re back in the nineteenth century. And this strip gives me a chance to catalogue all that, to work toward something like an encyclopedia of the city. My utopian city, with all its little horrible things. Or maybe not utopian—idealized, rather. The strip is the closest I can come to approximating my perfect city.”
Knipl, in his rumpled suit and crumpled hat (maybe it’s a fedora gone to seed, maybe it’s a porkpie), wanders through the city on his rounds. Each week finds him musing on tiny, archaic details and obscuria —soda-fountain displays, fortune tellers who “read” parked cars rather than palms, a tour bus that runs through a no-longer fashionable part of town, subterranean luncheonettes. We’ve forgotten that some of this stuff actually existed—newspaper weights, fountain drinks made from a mixture of carbonated water, syrup, and half-sour milk. Much of it—the directory of the alimentary canal, The Evening Combinator (a daily newspaper devoted to reporting on dreams), chewing-gum removal stores, people who are hired to watch storefront light displays (to make sure bulbs don’t go out)—never existed, but we feel it should have. (Katchor has a way of making the most bizarre notions seem so natural that we, too, wonder if these things actually existed, and we’ve just forgotten them.)
Knipl is patient. He has to be. Waiting for the perfect composure of light and shadow to which he can shoot his photographs, Knipl looks sharply, but nostalgically, at the forgotten corners and slowly decaying avenues of Katchor’s imagined, specifically Yiddish, city.
It’s telling that Knipl is a photographer by trade, for Katchor’s art is deeply cinematic. Its sharp black-and-white contrasts and dramatically tilted angles draws from film noir. His gray watercolor wash, which occasionally bleeds through his rough-hewn lines, gives each strip a sense of the shaky, scratchy, queasy instability of silent films.
Katchor finds his truest cinematic soulmate in Guy Maddin’s fantastic My Winnipeg. I don’t use “fantastic” casually. The movie is both marvelous and, as Maddin described it before the screening, a “docu-fantasia” of his hometown.
Winnipeg is a strange place to call home, but maybe all hometowns are. According to Maddin’s ironic, deadpan voiceover narration (as funny as Katchor’s near-constant use of voiceover banners in his comics), the following is true: Winnipeg is the coldest city in Canada; home to more sleepwalkers per capita than any other city in the world; and includes a winter lake that eleven horses rode into, froze to death, and thus became a grotesque park of statues—faces writhing in fear and agony—until the following spring. A makeshift league of old hockey players (some dead) meets to play in the remains of a decrepit arena. Politicians held Jazz-Age séances featuring naked ladies and ghosts. Labor strikes, and the local newspaper’s attempts to portray workers as sexual deviants who will defile wayward Catholic girls, gets mixed together with jaunty, propagandistic animation.
Maddin’s city myth/history fuses with his personal life—for one month, he recreates his childhood, hiring actors to play his family (including cult femme fatale, Ann Savage, who plays his mother), meticulously putting all the décor back to how it was circa 1968, and re-imagining key events and horrors of his childhood. But the past won’t stay past. His family no longer lives in his childhood home, so he has to rent it; the current owner refuses to leave, and so becomes part of his family psychodrama. The opening shots feature his mother practicing vicious lines she would later spit out at her daughter, who—through convolutions too delicious and Freudian to reveal here—thinks the girl (an actor) is a tramp because she’s come home with blood and part of a deer carcass on the car’s hood. The point is that this is a documentary—who practices their lines in a work of reportage?
But it’s not just history or journalism or memoir. The title, My Winnipeg, makes clear that this will be a personal, idiosyncratic account of the city’s culture and resonance. Maddin’s narration, full of emotion and humor, brings together these strands of history and personal life, but he’s also angry. This is as much an op-ed piece as anything else. After the screening, a couple behind me—the woman was a Winnipegger—argued passionately about the movie’s assumptions. One man’s first question—really, it was a comment—to Maddin was: “You know, I lived in Winnipeg for twenty years before moving to Toronto, and I think we lived in two different cities. My Winnipeg is pleasant and joyful, and nothing like this.” Maddin’s quick response: “Yeah, so why’d you leave? I’m still there.”
Maddin rails against his beloved Winnipeg Jets for joining the National Hockey League, which subsequently abandoned the team. He’s upset that Eaton’s (a beloved department store) was torn down and replaced with a personality-free monstrosity. He wants to relay these old, obscure stories and myths before they’re lost in the rush of progress and the endless here-and-now. My Winnipeg is about cultural memory, Maddin’s and Winnipeg’s, as much as it’s about history. The process of remembrance, and the facts that are smeared and smudged as we recollect them later, is paramount here. The history of Winnipeg gets muddled in his head. On the upper floors of the late, lamented Eaton’s department store building—at one time, says Maddin, 60% of Winnipeg owned a piece of Eaton’s clothing—there were a series of lascivious “Golden Boy Pageants” aimed, delicately, at the city’s homosexual population. Did they actually happen, or did he imagine it? Are the old hockey players rambling through the old arena real? If not, how come he’s heard the story from more than one person?
To this end, he’s clearly recreating some of these events, just as he’s obsessively trying to recreate his childhood. His filmic technique mirrors Katchor’s comics, in that the murky, grainy black-and-white stock—it looks as deteriorated as film stock from the 1920s, but it’s probably digital effects—obscures as much as it reveals. We’re constantly calling into question his version of events. These people walking among the frozen horse heads, petting them and smiling: Is this documentary footage, or is Maddin putting us on? The items that we regularly accept as stock footage can’t be in this case. The angles and motions are shaky, and the visuals are fuzzy—they often are zooming slightly into and out of focus, while the camera shakes a bit—so that we’re forced to look more closely. We can’t accept anything in My Winnipeg on faith. Like Katchor, Maddin interrogates our acceptance of documentary conventions, of the standards of memoir, and of ultimately the way we remember life.
Maddin also interrogates himself. Throughout the movie, we see fleeting images of a man asleep on a train. The man, presumably, is Maddin himself. (It’s not, by the way.) Maddin tells us at the outset that he’s trying to escape Winnipeg by train—Winnipeg connects almost all railway traffic between eastern and western Canada—and the groggy man on the train becomes a visual motif. It’s clear from looking at the window that it’s not a normal train: the tracks are passing through downtown, suburbs, down alleyways, and even into houses. Maddin wants to flee. But the train gets caught in snowdrifts, the man on the train can’t stay awake, and the tracks are moving in circles. Maddin’s repulsed by aspects of Winnipeg, but loves its working-class roots and its bitter cold. The movie’s a love/hate letter to a place he can’t leave—even when he’s physically departed it, the city’s with him. Its traumas, charms, and pains are his as well. He spends substantial amounts of time making fun of himself and his pretensions. He recreates his childhood, he says, to escape its chains, but ends up just as mired in his own psychodramas as he was as a kid. His behavior is sometimes atrocious, especially to his put-upon mother (who, it must be said, is no saint, either).
Just as that train’s never leaving Winnipeg, we’re never going to get the full truth of Winnipeg from this film. Again, that’s the point. We’re seeing the city filtered through Maddin’s consciousness and concerns. So, we learn more about Garbage Hill, an actual mountain made of garbage and covered with soil and seeds, than we do about the world-renowned Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Through the inky blackness and snow flurries that divide the scenes, we learn about an underground taxi system that is forced by law to use only the alleyways and back roads for their fares. Learn, schmearn—does this exist? It sounds like a knipl to me but, like Katchor’s best docu-fantasias, it feels like it could exist.
Like Maddin’s brain, Maddin’s Winnipeg is a frightening, shadowy place, but it’s one filled with quiet wonders and antiquated oddities so bizarre that they must be true. Even if, of course, they’re not.