Sunday, 8 March 2009

Man On Ledge

Two of my favourite films of last year were Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg and James Marsh's Man On Wire.

Guy Maddin is a fairly unique voice in cinema. He has long been going to painstaking lengths to ensure his films echo the style of early cinema - taking clear influence from film noir, Eisenstein's agit-prop and German Expressionism. He was hauntological before the term existed. Others may have recently borrowed this retrofied style, see for example Esteban Sapir's enjoyably pulpy La Antena, but Maddin takes his films into the bizarre and psychosexual - one only need look at Careful, his incestuous take on the German mountain movie.

Recently Maddin has delivered a series of semi-autobiographical works, the latest of which is My Winnipeg, a docu-fantasia looking at his hometown. The film sees Maddin (appearing through voiceover) trying to escape Winnipeg. He decides to film his way out of the city- subletting his old home and hiring actors to play his siblings in order to recreate childhood events with his 'real' mother (played by the late Ann Savage, best-known for her femme fatale role in Edgar G. Ulmer's low-budget noir Detour). All the while, using stock and created footage, Maddin discusses events and landmarks in the history of the city. Some details are clearly true - when the city's NHL side the Jets moves to the more wintry climes of Phoenix (becoming the Coyotes), the team's former home, the historic Winnipeg Arena, is made redundant by the erection of a new ice arena, the MTS Centre, on the site of the beloved Eaton's department store, but this new arena apparently has too small a capacity to entice back an NHL franchise. Other events seem more flights of fancy - the winter when horses froze in the lake, with only their heads protruding; or the public baths consisting of three stacked, segregated swimming pools. However, with Maddin's seamless blending of footage, and further of fact and fiction, it is often hard to tell which parts are actually true. While this might come across as a problem in less capable hands, Maddin is so witty and inventive that, real or not, his Winnipeg is the one you want to believe in.

Man On Wire is a documentary about the high wire walk performed between the Twin Towers in 1974 by Philippe Petit. Carried out without consent, Petit enlisted a group of friends to help him achieve the feat he had dreamed up before the Towers had been constructed. Combining both real and recreated footage, the plot is played out in the film like a heist, gripping you in spite of its well-known conclusion. However, no footage of the wire walk itself exists. This compares interestingly with My Winnipeg: one 'recreates' footage of imagined events, while the other cannot do this for its central, real event. And yet, this is no flaw: understandably it is impossible to recreate the event for real, and no amount of trickery would do it justice. Instead, by simply using still photographs, the vertiginous moment is given a strange air that borders on the surreal, recreating the wonder of the onlookers (or, rather, 'uplookers'), trying to believe the unbelievable.

The one issue I have with the film is in its use of the music of Michael Nyman, culled mainly from the films of Peter Greenaway. Having seen these films, I so strongly associate the music with them, that they evoke strong senses of Englishness (particularly Chasing Is Best Left To Shepherds, as mentioned in a previous post) that seem at odds with the tale of a Frenchman in New York.

Much of the enjoyment of the film though comes directly from the extraordinary personality of its protagonist, which was perfectly illustrated when Man On Wire picked up the award for best documentary at this year's Oscars.

1 comment:

  1. I'd concur on this, both brilliant films (I'd add 'Imaginary Landscapes' and 'Of Time and the City' as two other excellent documentaries from 2009). My Winnipeg has actually inspired me to create an audio guide for Codsall (my home village): although it's very much an 'alternative Codsall' based on the utopian visions I used to have as a kid (in which Codsall had its own functioning monorail system, operated by the local community). It's proving incredibly hard to write though- I'm not sure how much to acknowledge as fantasy and how much to present as real- it's left me in no doubt as to Maddin's genius.