The Quintessential Guy Maddin! 5 Films From The Heart Of Winnipeg (Zeitgeist)
Canadian maverick Guy Maddin makes films like no one else: surreal studies in repression and sexual hysteria with the textures of silent cinema and the scuffed-up surfaces of neglected cinematic ephemera unearthed. In the 22 years since first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), he continued to make his films his way: Obscure, lush, and antiquarian, made on tiny budgets and released to tiny audiences. Zeitgeist has been there from the beginning, releasing five his ten features in theaters and on DVD (accompanied by many of the short films he made between features). There’s nothing new on this set (not even new masters of the old films; the old discs are simply repackaged) but it does offer a quick and efficient way of collecting a big chunk of Maddin’s filmography, and an excuse to roll back through his career.
Witness his sophomore feature Archangel (1990), a surreal silent movie melodrama of love, war, and amnesia for the sound era: an absurdist silent WWI epic that never was. Set in WWI Russia by way of claustrophobic sets transformed into Maddin’s dreamland imagery, this story of a one-legged soldier (Maddin regular Kyle McCulloch) caught in a romantic triangle between his lovesick landlady and a married nurse (Kathy Marykuca) who resembles his dead lover is less a parody of silent cinema than a loving crackpot tribute. Shot in often soft focus B&W, artificially aged to look like a survivor of yesteryear, and filled with absurd imagery (bunny rabbits leap into the trench in the midst of battle) and unfathomable twists, this is a farce with a tragic dimension and a singular vision that defies categorization and description.
Careful (1992), his third feature and first color film, is an utterly surreal tale of the repressed residents of a small alpine village who live in virtual silence for fear that slightest sound could trigger an avalanche (which only warps their suppressed desires), and he returns to color for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), a story of sex and obsession in a hallucinatory forest lit by the golden hues of a perpetual sunset. A mysterious political prisoner returns home to his ostrich farm in the storybook land of Madragora and falls in love with two women, exotic temptress Pascale Bussieres and woodland beauty Alice Krige, both under the sway of a sinister hypnotist out of some expressionist German silent. It’s an Aubrey Beardsley painting come to life by way of Maddin’s unique rhythms, rich textures, and surreal stories, and peopled by his best cast to date: Shelley Duvall co-stars as the hero’s sister and Frank Gorshin is her tetchy handyman. His obsessed hero remains unidentified in the credits, but he’s since been identified as the body of Nigel Whitmey and the voice of Ross McMillan.
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2003) – Surreal in every classical sense of the term, Guy Maddin’s aggressively uncommercial and expressionist silent horror spectacle adapts the Winnipeg Opera Ballet interpretation of Bram Stoker’s novel, but is in no way a “dance film.” Rather Maddin marries the expressive quality of dance and movement with his silent-movie inspired style (enhanced by his typically iconoclastic decision to shoot on Super-8 film, and then enhance the grain of the image in the transfer to digital) for a bold and slyly satirical critique of Victorian morality and repression and fear of the exotic. In process, he delivers the most startlingly original and creative reading of the novel ever put to film. The traditional virgin in versions of this story is Lucy, but diary belongs to Jonathan Harker, and the title couldn’t be more appropriate in a tale of sex, repression, and obsession, with Dracula as a simultaneously corrupting and liberating figure and Van Helsing as a force of repression and protection of white supremacy (the casting of an Asian dancer to play gives the threat of the “foreign” an added exotic dimension). Color bleeds through the grainy B&W like a lifeblood threatening to invade the world of gray that the self-appointed arbiters of morality will kill to protect. Amidst this frenzy of moral hysteria, the sexual awakening of Lucy and the naïve Jonathan is surprisingly tender against the hypocrisy of the Victorian watchdogs. If it’s not the greatest adaptation of the novel, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary remains the most fascinating and beautiful, and to date my favorite Maddin feature.
Cowards Bend the Knee (2004) – Oh, the joy, joy, joy of seeing something new! As strange and wonderful a film as ever made by Guy Maddin, this murky melodrama about an ice hockey hero (named, but not played by, Guy Maddin), a beauty salon femme fatale, back-room abortions, and a pair of severed blue hands pretty much defies description. The silent movie, shot on bleary low-fidelity B&W film (and roughed up and scuffed up to give it an aged and battered look), was originally made as a series of peephole films for an art instillation. Maddin re-edited it as a linear feature, not that it actually feels all the linear. This twisted soap opera is a miniature, barely more than an hour long and shot on sets even more unnervingly claustrophobic than usual for Maddin, but it bubbles over with lust, guilt, and betrayal, not to mention weirdness. The film can be seen as a complete feature or viewed as 10 individual short films.
Note Maddin’s preference for the old Hollywood aspect ratio of 4:3 in all of the films except for Dracula, which is, disappointingly, the same non-anamorphic widescreen presentation of the original DVD release; you have to “zoom” the picture to fill a widescreen monitor correctly (with an accompanying loss in visual integrity). The rest of the features are in their classic square aspect ratios.
The set features six shorts by Maddin and the highlight of the shorts is Heart of the World (2000), a mock Soviet sci-fi adventure condensed into a breathless six minute short that seems to burst off the screen. Maddin described it as “world’s first subliminal melodrama.” I call it Maddin redux, a distillation of his themes (yes, it’s another love triangle) and his love of silent movie textures and antiquarian imagery. Commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, it landed on numerous 2000 Best of the Year lists. Odilon Redon (aka Eyes Like a Strange Balloon“) and Love-Chaunt Workbooks (four short film blueprints from a lost Maddin feature plus audition reels) complete the shorts line-up.
Maddin provides commentary on each of the five features (in collaboration with screenwriter George Toles on a couple of them) and the supplements include Noam Gonick’s 1997 documentary Waiting For Twilight, which is largely about the shooting of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and is narrated by Tom Waits. Four discs in a standard case with hinged trays.