Tuesday, 8 July 2008


My Winnipeg Dir. Guy Maddin (Canada) 2007, 80 mins.

At first appearances there seems to be lots in common between Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg (2007) and Bruce Weber's Chop Suey (2000, currently showing at the Curzon Soho). Both are heavily stylised, with a high proportion of images shot and manipulated in ways that emphasise grain and emulsion for a heightened, emotional effect. Both follow an associative structure, linked by the autobiographical voice over of the film maker. Both are working with areas of obsession and fascination, the linkage of creativity and desire, fantasy and reality : Maddin through the linkage of familial and geographical home, Weber through his relationship to Peter Johnson, a high school wrestler who became a long term photographic subject.

But the effect of these shared themes and techniques is very different. In Maddin they add up to a remarkably slippery, ever mutating visual style, where no face or moment can ever be fully comprehendible or held onto for long, where everything is a trace, an echo, a psychoanalytic symptom. For Weber the fascination, rooted in the history of photography, is with looking, and with the way emotional, passionate relationships become expressed in the taking of still images. Throughout the film it loops back to Weber and Peter Johnson looking at and discussing the images in Weber's collection of photographic prints, including images by Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Robert Mapplethorpe, Imogen Cunningham, and Tina Modotti. Weber is a great guide to these images, and one story seems to function as something of a lodestone against which he measures photographic honesty and commitment. It goes something like this:

A man asked Alfred Stiegltiz to take photo's of his wife, saying he wanted images with the passion and engagement found in those images Stieglitz had taken of his own wife, the painter Georgia O'Keefe. Stielglitz said: if you knew what was involved in taking such images, you would never have asked me. It is too dangerous.

So what are the differences between Maddin and Weber? Maddin's world, as his earlier films also evidence, is deeply Freudian, a place where the repressed surfaces, and a confused, entangled, potentially violent sexuality expresses itself. It is retrospective, and intensely private. Everyone is present in the film through their presence in the theatre of his (un)conscious: his father is exumed to figure as a bump beneath the carpet, his mother is B movie icon Ann Savage, directed by Maddin to say the lines he feeds her, and the other characters are hired actors with strong physical resemblances to his brothers and sisters.

Chop Suey Dir. Bruce Weber (USA), 2000, 98 mins.

Weber's world is joyfully free of such Freudian concerns. In contrast to Maddin his world is a deeply social one. To explore his fascination with Johnson, Weber presents a whole host of friends, film stars, singers, surfers, stylists, Vogue editors, and models, and if this doesn't feel nepotistic it is because it's part of a broader utopian project that sees no contradiction between desire, fantasy, homoeroticism, heterosexual family life, stardom and small town America. When he starts to take nude photographs of Peter, Weber jokes there will have to be two editions of the final book - one for Wisconsin and Peter's relatives and one for the rest of the world, but then he realises what honesty and commitment it takes for Peter to make these photographs and promises himself and Peter there will only be one edition.

It's revealing to see both these films, as I did, on consecutive days and see how you respond to such differing worldviews. I hugely preferred the worldly romanticism of Weber's film, its desire to fully explore moments of beauty, wherever they might appear, translating them into whatever they wanted to be: friendship or sex or style or photographs or all four and just an overwhelming visual sense of living well. I am surprised the film never seemed fey or annoying before remembering both the deep commitment to his craft the film evidences and what Larry Clark says when Weber asks him how he got teenagers he had just met to let him photograph them having sex: I never mocked anyone.