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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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Best films of the 2000s: a premature list

While I have this lovely little interlude called “working on Friday night” and am able to post blogs, I think I’ll touch on a topic that’s been discussed heavily as of late in the Carleton film community (OK, amidst me and 3-4 other people). See, this is late 2009, which means that 2010 and a brand new decade are just around the corner. And us human beings (and film lovers) being such 10-centric creatures, we like to divide up history by which decade it lands in. So the point I’m coming to is this: it’s time to determine, roughly, the “best movies of the decade.” In other terms, that means figuring out which films released between 2000-2009 were highest in quality, contributed most to the sum of our culture, were the most transcendent works of art. Etc.

Here’s the hitch, though: I am a poor college student. Also, earlier in this decade, I was about 12. This means I have by no means seen all, or even most, of this decade’s good or great films. This may well disqualify me from making any sort of list or judgment, but so be it. I do not put myself forth as the ultimate arbiter of that which is beautiful; maybe when somebody ponies up the cash for me to see every movie that comes out, then I’ll declare myself arbiter. Till then, this will have to do. I’ve pretty much just glanced over lists of movies from this time period and picked out a few particularly good ones I’ve seen. Trying to make such selections, especially with films that may yet make a difference historically, is full of its own special hazards, but this is my own little, minimum-effort attempt at it. I’ve assembled 10+ movies, in no real order, because fuck that. Enjoy!

Timecode (2000). It’s a perverse, complex experiment from Leaving Las Vegas director Mike Figgis: four cameras, shooting continuously for an hour and a half, mapping out the quadrants of a story set in a small Hollywood production company. It may seem gimmicky to some, distracting and confusing to others, but it really worked for me, and as with most of the movies to be listed here, I desperately need to see it again. (Oh, but for an extra day without responsibilities.) If the technical and logistic innovation required weren’t enough, it’s also dramatically solid – the actors (an ensemble including Salma Hayek, Stellan Skarsgård, and Julian Sands) aren’t just window dressing, but provide a four-paneled window into a set of confused people striving for romantic and professional success. It’s a challenging film (the four soundtracks, for example, are carefully mixed to emphasize some pieces of dialogue at the expense of others), but also very worthwhile.

Adaptation. (2002). Charlie Kaufman: mindbending screenwriter/auteur of our times. I still haven’t seen Synecdoche, New York, which has received mixed reviews (and has been included on some similar lists), but I think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is also probably one of the best-of-the-decade. Adaptation., though… despite a general, well-earned antipathy toward Nicolas Cage (he was in the Wicker Man remake, 2 National Treasure movies, etc.; don’t pity him), he pulls off being one of Kaufman’s nervous, sweaty men just as well as John Cusack did in Being John Malkovich – and in this case, said sweaty man is Charlie Kaufman himself, or a fictionalized version thereof, full of humorous neuroses and foibles, as well as a healthy, also-fictionalized sibling rivalry. Then he starts adapting an unadaptable book by Meryl Streep who’s really Susan Orleans who wrote the book Adaptation. is adapted from… and the typical Kaufman craziness begins (this is a movie engineered to make you repeat “Kaufman” many, many times). As with Timecode, the gimmick – in this case, metafiction to the extreme – works, and every Kaufman, fictional or otherwise, gives some insight into the creative process, with alligators. Chris Cooper is great, too.

Cage/Kaufman/Kaufman is shattered in Adaptation.

Mooladé (2004). Note to self: watch more African cinema. Senegalese master Ousmane Sembène showed why with this powerful, engrossing film about the ritual of female genital mutilation in western Africa, and a fearless woman who wants to put a stop to it. I wrote about the film in more detail shortly after I first saw it, and I have no reservations about putting it on this list. It simultaneously takes on clashes between old and new, Africa and Europe, women and the patriarchy, being political and good-spirited at the same time. It’s a beautiful film that shows you what’s happening and why it’s wrong, while balancing a number of colorful village characters and day-to-day events. And its matriarchal heroine, Colle Ardo Gallo Sy, is one you won’t forget soon. I hope to keep my eyes further open for the next decade of African film.

La Pianiste (2001). Again, I begin this listing with a single name: Michael Haneke. You can love him or you can hate him. If you’re fond of pleasurable cinematic experiences and not so fond of abrasive, agonizing art films, it’s more likely to be the latter. (I could say the same of a lot of people, I suppose. Lars von Trier and Antichrist, from what I’ve heard, probably count.) My experience with Haneke is pretty limited (this and his original Funny Games), but he’s a creative force to be reckoned with as the century marches on – hell, he won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, as I learned earlier. La Pianiste, or The Piano Teacher, is driven largely by one performance: that of the also to-be-reckoned-with Isabelle Huppert, here a freckly, receding woman full of intelligence, Freudian conflict, and self-loathing. She teaches piano; she experiments with forbidden sexuality; she does some very, very bad things involving glass. Through Huppert’s actions, Haneke sticks his dagger into bourgeois sickness and twists it, hard.

Brick (2006). It was made cheaply by a first-time director, Rian Johnson, who edited it on his personal computer. The tale of a loner moving through dark circles attempting to solve the murder of a loved one wasn’t new, but the story’s milieu – a suburban California high school – was. Three years later, the novelty’s worn off, but the tag of film-noir-set-in-high-school doesn’t really do it justice. Johnson creates a new, identifiable world out of ones that more or less existed before, whether in our miserable adolescences or on Warner Bros. back lots in the 1940s. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the stoic Brendan, investigating his girlfriend’s death, and undeterred by the crowd of teenage thugs leaping at him (often literally) out of the woodwork. The rest of the cast is filled in by archetypes-made-flesh, from the Pin, a kid with a cane who could’ve been George Macready, to Tug (Mike Mazurki?), former flame Kara (maybe Gloria Grahame?), and Laura, the femme fatale. It’s visually engaging, fast-moving without being rushed, and with staccato dialogue right out of Sweet Smell of Success to match. Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom unfortunately made little impact when it was released earlier this year, but his career’s still full of potential, and I’m excited to see what else he produces from Brick‘s promise.

A dead hand lies in the water in Rian Johnson's Brick

The Saddest Music in the World (2003). This is another film I’ve covered in depth on this blog, and an admittedly very idiosyncratic choice. Like Rian Johnson, Canada’s resident mad scientist Guy Maddin plunders cinematic history for inspiration, but unlike anyone else, he transmutes classical Hollywood gold into his own brand of very strange gold (that’s an alchemy metaphor that didn’t quite work out). Co-writer George Toles fills in the dark non sequiturs, stars like Maria de Medeiros and Isabella Rossellini turn the words into viable conversation, and Maddin provides an overarching vision of Depression-era Winnipeg, all expressionistic set design and splintered editing, like that perfected in his The Heart of the World. There’s sad music, fake folklore, and allusions aplenty to Maddin’s ’20s-’30s forebears, all wrapped together in a melodramatically absurdist package. (This has also been quite a decade for Maddin’s countryman David Cronenberg; I haven’t seen A History of Violence, but Eastern Promises was an international gangster film that carried over many thematic elements from his horror films.)

Let the Right One In (2008). In an age when vampires are most associated with a sparkly, vapid teen idol called “RPazz,” it was sheer relief to see this intense, crystalline horror film travel across the Atlantic, like the plague-infested cargo of some Swedish Nosferatu. It doesn’t focus exclusively on the bloody truth of vampirism, nor does it take the accursed SMeyer path of reducing its monster to a glamorous mannequin entangled in a love for the ages. Instead, its protagonists are a quiet 12-year-old boy living in a typical, snowy Swedish town, and a quiet, slightly older vampire girl who wants to be his friend. Background characters are normal, sometimes drunken adults and selfish schoolchildren who go about their own lives. Like another recent Swedish masterpiece, You, the Living (2007), these are pale, average people; only in this case, one of them happens to hungrily scarf up blood every chance she gets. It’s a somber film about a connection between two lonely kids, punctuated by scenes of ferocious violence. And it’s certainly in a class of its own.

Spirited Away (2001). Hayao Miyazaki is probably the most consistent positive force in animation over the past 20-30 years. I haven’t yet seen Ponyo, but Miyazaki just looks unstoppable: imagine, making Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away back to back! The more I think about it, the more Spirited Away – or properly Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi – looks like one of the greatest accomplishments thus far in animation history. It has as much potency as any one of the Magic Kingdom’s properties, whether you go with Snow White, Fantasia, or Beauty and the Beast. It’s a Japanese film, but it’s absolutely universal. It speaks in terms of friendship, nature, and kindness, as many of Miyazaki’s films do, rather than national or cultural boundaries. It’s endlessly rewatchable, and appealing to any age group with its detailed settings and playful artistic sensibilities.

A young girl experiences new worlds in Spirited Away

Gushing about Spirited Away aside (OK, it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the decade’s best films), there are some other animation highlights to point out. Also in 2001, Richard Linklater directed the rotoscoped Waking Life, a smörgåsbord of philosophical and sociocultural rumination, as the narrative itself digresses from idea to idea, and from character to character – as if in a dream, or in a Linklater movie (see 1991’s Slacker). In 2003, French animator Sylvain Chomet produced the oddball, Tati-influenced Les Triplettes de Belleville, an endlessly inventive, primarily visual story of a resilient old woman rescuing her bicyclist grandson from enigmatic gangsters.

And sure, there was Pixar, but fuck Pixar. Finding Nemo was full of prefab sentiment, The Incredibles was tolerable, and WALL-E was certainly more impressive than either, but Pixar inevitably leaves me dissatisfied – maybe it’s their world of glossy-eyed underdogs, or maybe the fact that they’re constantly trying to produce a milestone as big as Toy Story. In any case, I prefer films like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a faithful adaptation of her graphic memoir of the same name. The film is as beautifully illustrated as the novel (I feel like more comics should be adapted that way), with the added pleasure of hearing Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux voicing Marjane’s mother and grandmother, respectively. Beside that, it’s damned poignant and politically relevant. Persepolis is the kind of animated adaptation I want to see more of in the 2010s.

The Dark Knight (2008). Yes, it was overhyped. If you were around in the summer of ’08, you were probably being asked “y so srs?” It was also the most profitable movie of the ’00s. And, by and large, it was good. Christopher Nolan stayed true to his gritty, naturalistic self. The film has several climaxes, a number of high-adrenaline set pieces, but doesn’t get bogged down in them; Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman brave a number of ethical dilemmas, but it’s never self-righteous; and Harvey Dent goes more than a little crazy (and deformed), but it feels natural. The single reason for the film’s greatness, what prevents it from being just another Batman movie (and Christ, we do not need another of those), is exactly what everyone’s said the reason is: the late Heath Ledger. Because his Joker is a character who so defies straight, Manichaean action, who laughs at the notion of ethics, and to whom crazy is just as good as sane. Basically, saying that Dark Knight is one of the great films of the 2000s is saying that Heath Ledger gave one of the great performances of the 2000s. He did, and it really makes the movie work, and it’s a really enjoyable movie.

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight: grimy, smarmy, and anarchically comical

No Country for Old Men (2007). It’s the Coen Brothers. They’ve done, they did it, and they’re still doing it. No Country is set in a bleak world where a little greed can lead to a lot of mayhem, Treasure of the Sierra Madre style, except now a cattle gun is involved. [Worth noting: doesn’t this show how appropriate it was for the Coens to adapt Cormac McCarthy? Bleak and violent… Blood Simple? Blood Meridian? I rest my case.] As with The Dark Knight, a villain ties it all together, but it’d be inane to lump the Joker together with Anton Chigurh. He’s taciturn, undefeatable, and more fiercely deterministic with his coin-flipping than Two-Face. It’s one big game of cat and mouse across Texas, with interlopers trying to get their own fistfuls of would-be hero Llewellyn Moss’s dollars, but to quote The Third Man, “they can’t stay the course like a professional.” And always in the background is Ed Tom Bell, a sheriff musing about the film’s goings-on and the transitory nature of life. Granted, the Coens’ vision is dark and pretty male-centered, but it’s also a diverting, thoughtful yarn set against the expertly filmed heat of the Southwest.

So, it’s almost 4 am, and that’s all I have at the moment; other movies I didn’t have time for include Mulholland Drive (2001), Hable con ella (2002), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As for 2009, from what I’ve seen, Coraline and Inglourious Basterds both look like they might turn out to be important films. But that’s the problem with declaring movies the “best of” something. Historical perspective might just come around and bite you in the ass, and next thing you know, you’re the guy who said How Green Was My Valley was undoubtedly better than Citizen Kane. Maybe someday I’ll be a real critic, and somebody’ll pay me to write one of these lists. For now, though, it’s all off my own dime, and it’s all for love of the art form. Here’s to the 2000s, and here’s hoping that another 10 years of great movies is right around the corner (and that the Mayans don’t cut it off 2 years in).

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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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