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The Wizard of Winnipeg

By Andreas

[This post is my contribution to the Maddin-est Blogathon in the World! Contest, being hosted by Fandor’s Keyframe blog.]

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.”

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Ending the year with international cinema

And now the year 2009 is really coming to an end. Which means another year, another decade past – the first decade of a new millennium. Etc., etc. In this, my last little post of the year, I just want to touch on some of the movies I’ve been frantically watching as December wears on.

First of all, there was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Das Leben der Anderen, which won the Oscar for best foreign film back in 2006, beating out Pan’s Labyrinth. Known in English as The Lives of Others, the film involves Wiesler, a surveillance operative for the Stasi (State Police) in 1984 East Germany, who’s assigned to watch over a potentially subversive playwright.

Das Leben der Anderen is an intelligent film about the  hazards of creating art in a totalitarian state, anchored in the eerily stoic performance of Ulrich Mühe as Wiesler, who moves from being an interrogation-happy servant of the state in the opening scene to someone visibly different in the quietly ecstatic freeze-frame that closes out the film. Through its drab decor and Orwellian anxieties, the film recreates a very recent dark chapter in German history (hell, one that ended just before I was born).

I also watched a pair of films by French-Canadian director Denys Arcand: The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Watched back to back, they tell a lot about the twenty year span between them, as the flirtacious comedy of the first film leads into the sober satire of the second.

The former film follows a group of professors enjoying a weekend in the country while chatting freely about both their frequent affairs and their theories of human history. (One sequence, for example, has Pierre relating how he met Danielle: receiving a “happy ending” during a massage while discussing millenarianism.)

The proceedings have an apocalyptic, Buñuel-esque undercurrent to them; as the title suggests, they seem to be enjoying their decadence at the end of an age. Claude is HIV-positive (though this goes unmentioned in the sequel), Louise feels betrayed by her husband Rémy’s infidelity, and the film’s title derives from the idea that the widespread pursuit of personal happiness signals the downfall of an empire (e.g., Rome or 18th century France).

This harsh edge is amplified in The Barbarian Invasions, which revolves entirely around Rémy’s gradual death from cancer. Set against the decaying medical system in a post-9/11 world, the film reunites everyone from The Decline of the American Empire as they’re gathered up by Rémy’s estranged, affluent son, Sébastien. The satire remains, but tinged with an omnipresent fear of mortality, as Sébastien makes contact with one of the older character’s daughters, Nathalie, in order to acquire heroin to numb his ailing father’s pains.

Arcand certainly likes his comedy black. I still have to see his Jesus of Montreal, about a passion play performed by nonbelievers, but just judging from this duo of films (which have since been followed by Days of Darkness), he’s a filmmaker very aware of the bleak ironies inherent in the sociopolitical climate of North America.

In The Barbarian Invasions, he presents this group of friends laughing about their former lusts for life when death looms so close, pressing them face to face with some toxic truths: that these well-meaning intellectuals have been bypassed by history, with their affairs as ancient and buried as any optimism or innocence they had in 1986. It’s rare to be able to compare such different attitudes in two adjoining films, and I’m glad to have had the experience.

The last film I want to talk about this decade is a very underappreciated classic from New Zealand: Geoff Murphy’s Utu (1983). I watched it last week with very few expectations or preconceptions since, well, I’ve never seen the movie discussed anywhere. It’s a fictionalized account of a Maori uprising in 1870s New Zealand, a mere thirty years since the Treaty of Waitangi had handed the islands over to the British colonists.

Unlike so many movies about rebellions against imperialism, Utu isn’t full of speeches clearly delineating which side is right and which is evil. Instead, most of its characters are pretty confused about what’s going on. The motivator for the film’s events is Te Wheke, a Maori who’s also a lance corporal in the British army. After he sees his village razed by his overeager comrades, he has his face ceremonially scarred and begins a massive campaign of revenge. (Specifically, utu: achieving a balance with one’s enemies.)

However, the film isn’t just about Te Wheke self-righteously avenging himself on the Brits. There’s the question of whether violence can be justified – graphically illustrated when Te Wheke interrupts a minister’s sermon on how “those who take the sword will perish by the sword” to behead the minister. Te Wheke also spurs others to pledge their own vengeances, like Williamson, who becomes paranoid and obsessive after Te Wheke causes his wife’s death, and develops a one-man arsenal.

Opposing Te Wheke’s slowly growing ranks of guerillas (who also include Maori wives and children) are the British soldiers, led by the scrupulous, sexually repressed Col. Elliot, the young, New Zealand-born Matthew Scott, and the well-educated Maori Wiremu, who has a deep connection to Te Wheke. And caught between the lot of them is Kura, a beautiful Maori woman intermittently held captive by the British.

Maybe this is why I love this movie: it’s about a small war, but it doesn’t build its story out of sheer historical import so much as the smaller conflicts of its characters. It’s an intimate war, where the main players have personal grievances against each other, and where the ties of land and blood play a larger role than the colonial interests of some “fat German woman,” as Te Wheke calls Queen Victoria.

I’m glad to have seen Utu, and you can bet I’ll be soon checking out director Geoff Murphy’s postapocalyptic follow-up, The Quiet Earth. Between Murphy, Jane Campion, and Peter Jackson, I love Kiwi cinema. Now I’m off to check out Avatar, which might lead to some interesting postings of its own. Here’s to another ten years of great international cinema (notwithstanding the inevitable onslaught of subpar 3D sci-fi epics)! Happy New Year.

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My Favorite Movies: The Saddest Music in the World

Beer, music, and the interplay of emotions

So, I haven’t done one of these posts in a while what with starting classes and all, but here’s a movie that demands to be written about: Guy Maddin’s quasi-musical comedy melodrama The Saddest Music in the World (2003, watchable here). Maddin, whom I saw giving a live director’s commentary this past June at the Heights Theater, is one of my favorite still-working directors; hailing from Winnipeg, he’s as much of an international envoy for Canadian cinema as David Cronenberg, and about as blatantly weird. But instead of expressing sexual hang-ups and Freudian confusion through gory physical displays like Cronenberg does, Maddin’s neuroses manifest themselves in explosive tributes to Hollywood films of the 1920s-’30s, full of absurdly overemotional characters and editing that could best be described as hysterical.

And out of Maddin’s films (though I have yet to see Careful or My Winnipeg), I’d say that Saddest Music hits all the right notes, emotionally and musically, bringing his style into a precise balance with the subject matter. It’s not quite as amnesiacally muddled as Archangel, and it expands impressively on the psychosexually tangled love triangles of earlier films like Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Fantastically entertaining, visually unique, and very strange – this could be Maddin’s masterpiece, lying deep in his fictionalized historical Winnipeg and yet relatively accessible to mainstream audiences (at least more so than, say, his silent ballet version of Dracula). So, where to start discussing it?

The plot of Saddest Music is fittingly complicated, with baroque psychological twists crawling out of the floorboards. It tells of a very dysfunctional family, the Kents: patriotically Canadian father Fyodor, sociopathic American showman Chester, and the melancholic hypochondriac Roderick, who’s taken on the Serbian national identity after the death of his child and the disappearance of his wife. The story’s background is that of the Great Depression, when legless beer baroness (the three words that really sell the movie) Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest to find the titular saddest music, pitting the Siamese against the Mexicans, the Germans against the Poles, and so on. It’s a concept from an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day) that found itself somehow in Maddin’s hands. Processed through his feverishly inventive mind, it becomes a perverse catalog of classical Hollywood cliches lovingly made ironic by Maddin and his writing collaborator George Toles.

Lady Port-Huntley's legs: a Chaney-esque allegory of disability

Amidst the Kents’ emotional chaos is the film’s wild card character, Narcissa, played by Portuguese beauty Maria de Medeiros (of Pulp Fiction fame, though Maddin knew her from Henry & June). Roderick’s amnesiac wife and now Chester’s “kept woman,” she wanders hazily through the film speaking of attractive ears, telepathic tapeworms, and claiming to be not an American, but a nymphomaniac. She also triggers Roderick’s hysterical hypersensitivity, which points out one of the ways I view the film – as a battle royale between contrasting emotional viewpoints. I don’t think Maddin intended the film to be any grand statement about the wide palette of emotions, although I do believe he knew he was making a family melodrama that went over the top and back again. But, while last viewing the film, I found a way to reconcile this emotion-based vision of the film with its apparent lack of seriousness: by comparison with Amanda Palmer’s also highly ironic song “Oasis,” discussed many times on this very same blog. Just as Amanda Palmer has described “Oasis” as showing an alternative way to cope with trauma, Saddest Music‘s feuding central characters can represent happiness and sadness, glass half full or half empty. (As Chester says, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass.”)

So in Chester we have the embodiment of perpetual positivity, the quintessential Ugly American with a can-do, go-go spirit of rugged individualism. He manages to co-opt the other performers’ cultures, but only by offering to pay their way home. Chester – incidentally, named for and partially based on the character played by James Cagney in Footlight Parade (1933) – begins and ends the film by denying the sadness that’s filled his life, from his mother’s premature death to his own. “I ask you,” he says, always with a Cohan-esque lilt to his voice, “is there anybody here as happy as I am?” I don’t think it’d be too extreme to compare Chester to Amanda’s blithe protagonist in “Oasis.”

But turn Chester on his ass, and you’ve got Roderick, aka Gavrilo the Great, who proclaims, “In the jar, preserved in my own tears, is my son’s heart.” Whereas Chester appears impervious to emotional pain, Roderick’s life is nothing but. His behavior in the movie consists of one breakdown after another, puncuated by frantic pleas not to trouble his overly acute senses of touch, hearing, and smell. Roderick is the psychological hiccups and excessive reactions of melodrama incarnate in a character and played splendidly by Ross McMillan with a plaintive accent to match. So, as the title indicates, the film is largely on some level about emotions: Roderick fighting (but failing) to assert his genuine tearfulness against Chester’s “razzle dazzle showmanship” pretending to be sadness.

The hysterical Roderick, unable to cope with his sensory input or the trauma of betrayal

And always present alongside the characters’ escalating (and comedic) emotional intensity is Maddin’s far-flung visual style, which incorporates anything and everything to evoke the director’s madly oneiric vision of 1930s film. We have thick film grain, a coloring technique resembling two-strip Technicolor (used mostly for funeral scenes), nonstop rear projection, and manic montage for the film’s climax. Maddin is in love with the fakery and illusions of the cinema, and this love propels his film into violent visual and narrative fragmentation. The Kents’ house, as well as downtown Winnipeg, is constructed with claustrophobically expressionistic architecture, and the entire film was shot in a giant, freezing Winnipeg warehouse. You could go so far as to call it anti-location shooting.

This is one of Maddin’s bizarre triumphs, his view of the unconscious mind in relation to perceiving cinema. I think he referred to his brilliant short film The Heart of the World as the world’s first “subliminal” film, and on some level this applies to much of his other work as well. Realism is set aside, because old movies aren’t perceived as reality, and there’s nothing realistic – from a narrative or emotional angle – about the contortions and exaggerations of melodrama. In Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), the character of Guy Maddin is said to suffer from “brain fever,” and this is akin to the sensibility that informs all of the director’s work: the human brain is consumed with fever, every impulse or emotion heightened, every reaction doubled, every moment of the plot fractured via editing.

As he’s divulged in various interviews, Guy Maddin’s life has been fairly traumatic – a brother committed suicide, his father died young – and it’s definitely plausible to see his films as, in some ways, melodramatically dealing with the real pains of life. At the same time, he’s creating these insane but beautiful vistas of unreal cinematic worlds, retooling the materials of the past and our collective fictional memories, accelerating recollections of Cagney and Kirk Douglas, of Chaney/Browning collaborations, of Eisenstein and von Stroheim, Busby Berkeley, Astaire & Rogers. And all of this comes to dreamlike fruition in The Saddest Music in the World, where emotions and sexuality run like wild horses through a labyrinth of madness and memory. As usual, I want to highlight one particular scene that stands out, here being the fullest realization of the film’s musical side. It’s the part where Narcissa sings “The Song Is You,” an actual pop standard written in 1932 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. From Chester’s opening reminiscences, the song permeates the film’s atmosphere, whether on cello, piano, or played by a flashy big band as it is here. Maddin attributed this scene’s inspiration to Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (also 1932), where Maurice Chevalier’s singing of “Isn’t It Romantic?” turns out to be contagious.

Few films are able to engage the past so sincerely and with such frenzied passion as The Saddest Music in the World. It’s by turns dazzling, perverse, ironically tragic, very funny, and always mesmerizingly melodramatic. Whether you’re new to the chilly, phantasmagoric world of Guy Maddin or if you’ve seen a number of his films, it’s always worth rewatching, for Isabella’s dancing with glass legs, for the kneeling performance of “Red Maple Leaves,” for the surreal behavior of Winnipeg citizens in an age long forgotten, if it ever existed at all. With its spectacular blend of excessive emotion, hysterical past, and life uninhabited – all with plenty of musical fizz – The Saddest Music in the World is on of my favorite movies.

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