Early in Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Anderson’s amazing film about the city that never sleeps because we’re always dreaming about it, the narrator, who is supposed to be Anderson but is also something like God, says one of those things that is so obviously true that the hearer may have the paradoxical experience of satisfaction at an epiphany of something we already knew colliding with the surprise that we hadn’t figured it out before: ’If we can appreciate documentary films for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations’.
This is certainly the case when it comes to emotional truth (Braveheart was shot partly in Ireland, but still quickens the hearts of Scots; so was Saving Private Ryan for that matter, but it inspired mass catharsis among veterans of the Normandy landings); but it’s unquestionably profound for films actually made in places we know. I have a theory about this. Speaking form my perspective as an un-trained metaphysicist, I think there’s a reason why our memories of home feel different to other memories. Everyone has memories of the place (or places) they’re from; and these memories, perhaps more than any other kind of memory, are like dreams because our earliest memories were formed when our brains were at a stage of development that emphasizes feelings over facts.
This is partly because, of course, our earliest memories are of the first times we experienced things that we have now repeated so often that we don’t even notice when we’re doing them. The first bridge, the first sandcastle, the first TV show we watched regularly, the paper-like skin on our grandmother’s cheek, the way our favorite candy got stuck between our teeth, the first fluttering of a heart when someone touched it, the building site where we played with our Star Wars figures or Barbie dolls. (Or both – my sister’s three story Barbie house was a fantastic substitute for the Ewok village, largely because it had its own elevator.) The way we remember these things feels like the way we experience cinema, at least for me, and the way I hear other people talk about it implies it’s the same for them.
Don’t get me wrong – surely people from Mumbai dream in different colors to people from Warsaw; no less so people from Des Moines must have different dreams to people from Reno. But cinema, being the most dreamlike art form, may then invite each of us into a dream experience in which we are not just experiencing the story that’s unfolding in front of us, but being triggered in the parts of our brains that remember the past, especially the part of the past that can’t be anywhere other than where we’re from. If you want to remember your past in a way that offers healing laughter as well as a look at what needs fixing, movies will do the trick, and one of the most potent is My Winnipeg.
Every city deserves a film like My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin’s experimental fantasia about his home, just released on Blu-ray. Every city deserves a film like My Winnipeg, with its structure a dream of the past we may begin by thinking we can’t escape, but end by knowing we wouldn’t want to anyway. It’s all about dreaming, dreaming about where we’re from, memory here portrayed as a train journey back to where we came from. Maddin’s narrator imagines his city as the product of some kind of urban planning Frankensteinian lab orchestrated by David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock, and Frank Capra (he sounds like the speaker in Robert Wilson’s opera The CIVIL warS, itself a kind of fantasia on historic themes that avoids ‘accuracy’ in favor of ‘truth’). Winnipeg is the dead center of the continent of North America – right in the middle of the world’s dreams of what America is, snowbound and filled with magical horses, surveilling mothers, a place ‘teeming with oddity’, where the narrator lived in (of course) ‘the biggest house in the neighborhood, and also the strangest.’
The center of the continent is an amazing place to be, but so is anywhere – one of the joys of My Winnipeg is that it makes you both want to visit Winnipeg and return to your own home town, appreciating the contours and warts and crazy-beauty that can only be appreciated—maybe even only seen—by natives. Dallas Willard, among others, encouraged us to conceive of spirituality as something that happens in the body – that we have nowhere else to be except where we are.
So many of us are laboring under the pressure of a socio-cultural system that identifies happiness as something that requires us to radically alter ourselves (sometimes even physically); we’re pushed – and we accept the push, and begin to push ourselves – to leave our bodies, to become something else, living from the outside in. It’s the nightmare of our times, at least for people privileged enough to follow the temptation: to see life as a never-satisfying chase, rather than perceive things from the quietude of knowing where we’re from, what we’re for (and what we’re not).
If your body is a place, then a film about place might help you think about how you can become at home in yourself. A life animated by love can only take place in the place love happens; and identities only form out of the stories we tell about ourselves; and these stories are circumscribed by memories, which themselves are stories, not photographs of what actually happened. What do you remember about your city? What is your city’s gift and burden? What is the story you tell about yourself? And your gift, and your burden?
It occurred to me, watching Los Angeles Plays Itself, how many movies are about people shooting other people. This is the burden of the movies. My Winnipeg describes the tendency of human beings to become ‘stupefied with nostalgia’ – this being the passive and amoral shadow of nurturing what John O’Donohue called ‘the sanctuary of memory,’ in Maddin’s words, when ‘we dream of where we walked, and walk to where we dream.’
This is the gift of the movies: to remind us that how we think about life is a dream that we’re dreaming while we’re awake, and that we are writing the dream, whether we’re conscious of this or not. Remember when you were small and swallowed an apple pip and became sincerely terrified that a tree was going to start growing inside you? (Hat tip to @primarysklprobs for the deep psychological wisdom here…) Well, in the movies, that actually happens (see The Fountain if you want to think about how dreams make a life, and the way we think can actually heal the past). It’s a warning, and a joke, and it’s a reminder that we each contain more power than superheroes, though we should be careful how we use it.
Who owns a city? Who owns your memories? What wounds are you being invited to heal? Who don’t you understand? What does being human constitute? What do you need to remember in order to be able to look forward? My Winnipeg and Los Angeles Plays Itself won’t tell you, but they might show you how to find the answer.
My Winnipeg is available from January 20th at www.criterion.com; Los Angeles Plays Itself is streaming on Netflix.
Gareth Higgins is the Founding Director of Movies and Meaning, a weekly newsletter and upcoming festival decicated to finding and featuring only the most meaningful of movies. Keep up with him by frequentling his personal website.