Guy Maddin makes movies that look like backwoods approximations of the artistic movements of the ‘20s and ‘30s: Soviet Montage, German Expressionism, Hollywood melodrama, Freudian imagery, Buñuel Surrealism, and a dash of the old French Symbolists. He picks these styles up as if they had never been discarded, mining them for unrealized potential. His movies are modern while making a joke of not being modern at all; they are anachronisms belonging to no time.
My first viewing of a Maddin work, the short The Heart of the World, seen prior to a movie at the Screening Room in Tribeca, was thrilling yet baffling. I recognized the Metropolis references but didn’t know how to interpret the rest. I wondered, as most people probably do, “What is this and where did it come from?” Zeitgeist Films has released a box set containing a good deal of his feature length work through 2004, The Quintessential Guy Maddin!, that goes a great length towards answering these questions. The where is Winnipeg Canada, which might be as good a place as any to start answering the what.
The set includes some of Maddin’s more celebrated shorts along with backstage documentaries, commentaries, and the production ephemera common to lovingly produced boxed sets. This includes the documentary Waiting for Twilight, which provides a detailed account of Maddin’s artistic formation.
It includes numerous interviews with local filmmakers, college professors, and film enthusiast friends, who endlessly watched, discussed and their favorite old movies. Here one can see the general archetypes that would coalesce into Maddin’s artistic identity: the Great Plains oddball with the surreal, perverse and campy nostalgic taste of David Lynch; the film geek from the same obsessed generation as Quentin Tarantino, raised on video tape and late night movies; the post modernist film studies academic.
But Maddin’s primal inspirations came earlier. The most commonly evoked images by Maddin from his childhood, in this documentary and others, are of being raised in the beauty parlor run by his aunt and mother and the Winnipeg hockey arena where his dad worked. It was at these two workplaces that Maddin was exposed to a heightened sense of melodrama and a retro conception of heterosexual roles – showy, rigid, and repressed—which he would gleefully upend. (For a similar, but more entertaining version of this biography, I would check out Maddin’s memoir/movie My Winnipeg, not included on the set.)
The way a place can affect personality and vice versa is a recurring theme throughout his films. The stories are often set in a bizarre landscape that seems to have been distorted by the characters’ psyches. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), about frustrated love, takes place in a Technicolor hued fantasy world. Cowards Bend the Knee (2004), originally conceived as a peepshow art instillation, is the most nakedly autobiographical of the features, its hero a voyeur who frequents a combination beauty parlor/brothel and a comically warped version of the Winnipeg arena, where a wax museum of enshrined hockey players hovers above the ceiling.
Archangel (1990), the earliest feature on the set (it was Maddin’s second after Tales from the Gimli Hospital), firmly established his trademark stylistic template. It is a World War I movie, set in 1919, about military forces unaware that the war is over and still fighting in a remote outpost of Russia. The style appropriates the techniques used in the fifteen years or so after the war ended. The themes touch on love, patriotism, amnesia, history, and memory.
The movie seems to encourage the idea that it came from some phantom past and begs the question, “But when, where, and by whom could this have been made?” The sound design suggests it was made during the transition from silent film: intertitles are used to convey plot and dialogue, the spoken dialogue has clearly been dubbed in post production, sound effects and background noise are clumsy and loud, corny string music hastily intrudes.
The black and white images are brightly lit in the foreground and cloudy with smoke, seeming to hide the studio backdrops of a low budget feature. Within the shabbily faked reality lay signs of an even shabbier reality. A stray shot reveals a boy’s flea bitten scalp.
The “filmmakers” don’t seem to be aware that World War I is over either; the intertitles champion the czar and spit on the Bolsheviks as if the Russian Revolution had not already been decided.
More than anything the movie appears to emanate from the amnesiac minds of the characters. The techniques used visualize their clumsy thoughts, fumbling after half-remembered loves and military triumphs. The film looks roughed up, scratched and jumpy, like an old print found in an attic, hazy and gap-ridden. Maddin mimics how the flaws of poor movie making – narrative lapses, grotesque melodrama, shoddy-looking production design—can reveal subconscious desires in vulnerable, endearing, and creepy ways
With his next feature, Careful (1992), Maddin and his frequent screenwriting collaborator George Toles developed this conceptually metaphoric approach even further. The story, about a village in the Alps that must stay absolutely quiet in order to prevent avalanches, is told in the style of a 19th century German psychodrama. The village people self-police themselves against making any noise, leading to general societal repression.
Maddin, in his treatment for the movie included in the book From the Atelier Tova, says it “might best be described as an ‘opera without singing’… [the characters] lead operatic lives roiled with the grand Germanic passions: bosom-quivering repression, homicidal self-torment and incestuous longing.” The stentorian narrator speaks for the village: “Keep a lid on it. Don’t be rash.”
With this film Maddin adopts more classic silent film-making techniques: tinted black & white photography, irises, expressionistic studio sets. The datedness reflects the stunted mindset of the characters, trapped in a peevish morality of the past, while capturing the fragility of their landscape and giving the telling a fairy tale quality. The settings for both Archangel and Careful could be stand-ins for Winnipeg itself—isolated and snow-deranged, several decades behind the rest of the world.
Maddin spent the rest of the ‘90s struggling to get feature projects made. This set includes some sketches and commentary attesting to these lost movies. The one movie that did get made, the disappointing Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, was an attempt to move forward and branch out with a more ‘40s-‘50s Technicolor style, featuring name actors like Shelly Duval and Frank Gorshin. In Waiting for Twilight Maddin says, while on the Twilight set, “I’m tired of the twenties already. I’ve hung around in the twenties longer than the twenties hung around in the twenties.”
But it wasn’t until he returned to his old inspirations that he made a significant leap forward in the layering of his style, technique, and humorously dramatic storytelling. The short The Heart of the World, made for the Toronto Film Festival in 2000, returned him to prominence in the art film world. It’s seven minutes of Fritz Lang meets Sergei Eisenstein insanity where two brothers fight for the affection of a scientist studying the “heart of the world” with a giant telescope. The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Maddin’s splintered allegorical narrative and diverse spastic effects follow obscure laws that are entirely their own. This is a film we have to chase after, but no matter how many times we view it we can never catch up.”
Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (2002) followed. A filmic presentation of a performance by the Winnipeg Royal Ballet shot for Canadian television, later released theatrically in the United States, it is a seamless integration of a theatrical production with a filmic vocabulary and it brought Maddin to the attention of a wider audience. The dancers’ movements naturally mimic the exaggerated actions of the high melodramas Maddin appropriates. The Gothic historicism of the story is a natural fit with his expressionistic art direction. He uses silent film intertitles to emphasize the thematic interpretation of the material, that Dracula was a creation by xenophobic Britain as a symbol for sexual and economic threats to the empire. The disc includes a behind the scenes documentary from CBC television that is a fascinating look at how the seemingly quotidian sets and actions are transformed in the camera and through editing by Maddin into his singular images.
In the years that followed it seemed as if Maddin was having an easier time getting his movies financed and the next phase of his career in the is marked by more confident adventurism and the inclusion of a more over autobiographical element. The set ends with the first of these, Cowards Bend the Knee, and includes a behind the scenes documentary on its companion piece Brand Upon the Brain!. Both movies feature a protagonist named Guy Maddin and appear to reference his childhood, his parents, growing up in Winnipeg, and struggling to become an adult there. The stylistic references are still old, but the settings appear to be modern, or a hallucinatory approximation of the present.
In these films it is now Guy Maddin-as-character who is projecting the crazed fantasy whose dream-life takes shape as a movie. In doing so Guy Maddin-as-filmmaker moves his style further out from their inspirational sources, personalizing his inner torments for greater emotional resonance and acknowledging what has always been evident, that the primary location for his movies is not the past or old movies or Winnipeg, but his highly idiosyncratic mind.