It has been three full days since I saw Guy Maddin’s “documentary,” My Winnipeg, and the ambience still hasn’t left my consciousness. It is quixotic and visually arresting, preposterously absurd and yet quite tender, both epic and lyric at the same time. I was enchanted.

My Winnipeg, by Guy Maddin

And as the critic Peter Scarlet wrote about the film,

My Winnipeg offers little in the way of proof that anything described in the film actually happened in Winnipeg, or happened to Guy Maddin in Winnipeg, or happened anywhere for that matter. In fact, viewing the film may make you pause to wonder whether Winnipeg actually exists, or Guy Maddin actually exists, or you actually exist.

To further mystify this disorienting and yet hauntingly beautiful portrait of his hometown, Maddin’s voiceover references an Indian belief that Winnipeg’s confluence of rivers—the ones that freeze over every winter and can be seen with the human eye—are paired with invisible mythic rivers that run beneath the surface of the earth. Maddin melds and blends images of these river systems, both mythic and topographic, with the delta of his mother’s lap. River, lap, river, lap. (He is a frequent user of repetition of language and image to incant and to make the dream-like even more so.)

Snowy River

Maddin’s mythic mashup of River and Source was still ambient in my mind when I came across photographs of the newly “discovered” Snowy River, a massive underground formation inside Fort Stanton Cave in New Mexico. It is a cave passage and geological structure unlike anything anyone has seen before and may be the largest cave formation in the world. (An excerpted article about Snowy River is posted on Slow Painting. For more photos, go to New Mexico BLM.)

Wow. This is so compelling, both visually and metaphorically. I can’t stop thinking and feeling this.

So it was inevitable that these images—Maddin’s mythic rivers and the cave river of calcite crystals—have been conflated and comingled with recent reading from Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, by Belden C. Lane:

One’s symbolic participation in a place of mythic significance is never totally available to scrutiny…in the most basic sense, myth that is understood is no longer myth. That which we analyze with thorough objectivity—turning into psychology, history, or social geography—has ceased to exercise any formative power upon us. “When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way,” says Joseph Campbell, “the life goes out of it…The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky.”


Lawrence Durrell argues that “the important determinant of any culture is after all—the spirit of place.” But what are the avenues of access to such a phenomenon? Is this entirely a mystical-poetic insight, or does it find parallels in our common human experience of recognizing the enduring texture of the familiar—discerning there more than we had first expected to find? Perhaps the process of “making strange” that to which one has become habitually accustomed—viewing it in a different perspective so as to enter it anew—can be seen in the most important manner by which meaning is continually renewed in any community. This is as true of place as it is of any other mythic conception.

Lane references Victor Shklovsky, a Russian literary critic, who used the word ostranenie (the idea of “making strange” a given concept) to argue that “the goal of the poet is always that of occasioning an utterly novel view of the world.”

Whether Maddin’s unwieldy vision of Winnipeg or the inexplicable river of calcite in Fort Stanton Cave, “making strange” creates a narrative that cannot be parsed or scrutinized with traditional tools. And as a result, there’s energy and life in these entities, whether in film or crystal. Lots of it.