Q: Why is Guy Maddin one of the world’s greatest living directors?
A: Because he finds cinema’s future in its past.
Boiled down into a sentence fragment, that’s essentially why I love the movies of Guy Maddin. That’s why I’m on tenterhooks to see his new movie, Keyhole, which debuted to middling reviews at TIFF. (Hah, as if any reviews could keep me away from the latest Maddin!) He’s an alchemist, cultivating fake mythologies and secret histories from a lifetime of pop-cultural consumption. If any 21st century filmmaker deserves the epithet “mad genius,” it’s this long-lost love child of von Stroheim and von Sternberg.
And he’s not just a Dr. Frankenstein, breathing life into dead forms. Yes, he smears his lens with vaseline and invokes the techniques of silent cinema, but these willful anachronisms are colored by Maddin’s sensibilities: a sharp sense of verbal and visual humor; a love of manically over-the-top melodrama; and a sardonic, nostalgic, magically realist vision of his native Winnipeg. These hallmarks brand each of Maddin’s films as unmistakably and unforgettably his.
Conveniently, Maddin’s filmography has a clear halfway point to chart the evolution this loopy, quasi-surrealist style; just look before and after his landmark short film Heart of the World (2000), a frenzied origin story for cinema. Pre-Heart, we see four feature films, each with their respective virtues and signs of a true original at work, but also fairly detached and silly. Archangel (1990), for example—a hazy tale of raging amnesia in WWI-era Russia—has its share of unique pleasures, but it’s by no means essential.
But post-Heart of the World, Maddin really took off. He made a silent ballet adaptation of Dracula (2002); the musical tragicomedy The Saddest Music in the World (2003), also his greatest crossover success to date; and three weird, wonderful semi-autobiographical films, culminating in his masterpiece My Winnipeg (2007). (Though Cowards Bend the Knee’s traumatic peepshow and the gimmicky adventure of Brand Upon the Brain! are not to missed.)
In these increasingly personal films, Maddin mixes irony with genuine emotion like a kid conducting a risky science experiment. The border between real life and his strangely plausible fantasies grows thin. Even in the outrageously expressionistic Saddest Music, Maddin plays devilishly with cultural memories of the Depression and personal definitions of “sadness.” By the time of My Winnipeg, which meshes archival footage and childhood recollections with grainy shots of present-day Winnipeg streets, any and all “truth” has been swallowed whole by Maddin’s feverish imagination.
His wistful voice, the voice of a poet-documentarian, guides the viewer down My Winnipeg’s stream of consciousness, through bursts of absurdist comedy and pockets of deep, unexplained trauma. Maddin is an odd, endearing man; when I saw him provide live commentary on Saddest Music in the summer of 2009, he sprinkled his talk with extremely personal details, shocking in their candor. But, judging by his films, that seems to be how Maddin operates: life fuels film, and vice versa, and it’s unclear where one ends and the other begins.
P.S. — For more Maddin love, go read Christianne’s post about him at Krell Laboratories, “Heart of Cinema.”