In the early days of DVD there was an excellent series of releases called, simply, Short. On a disc called "Dreams," which I'd purchased exclusively to see La Jetee (now forthcoming on Criterion), I first encountered the mysterious hypnagogic tranceworld of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon" (sometimes erroneously credited as "Odilon Redon") was commissioned by the BBC, who asked Maddin to create a film after a piece of art. He chose Odilon Redon's "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity," which he literally represents in the closing image--a swelled eye suspended above a hot-air balloon's basket--but the five minutes leading up to this follow a chugging train snaking through a mysterious, submerged world to a barren polar landscape. It evokes the Hindenburg disaster, King Lear, and Un Chien Andalou, and it is one of Maddin's stranger works, but it quickly became, apart from "La Jetee," the only reason I kept this DVD around. It was an original. Like most of Maddin's films, it seems to have erupted from the earth, a time capsule from ninety years ago, a propaganda film for the Marx Brothers' country of Freedonia, as co-directed by Eisenstein, Riefenstahl, and Bunuel. I say "Eye Like a Strange Balloon" is strange, but today, after seeing Brand Upon the Brain! (and loving it), I've come to look at Maddin's career as wholly logical, almost tragic--but not strange. This short film, which won me over to his work, is almost inaccessible, which is why it's the odd film out in his career. Maddin's films are unique, but they're endearing and far from inaccessible. They make their intentions clear, and it's easy to see why he made them. They are films of passion and repression, libido and self-censorship to the point of mutilation. Across his career, Maddin has battled for his deeply personal cinematic vision, and almost in spite of himself, he's become a successful cult icon, our new David Lynch--an artist that the public demands remain idiosyncratic.
Maddin won a Lifetime Achievement award from the Telluride Film Festival in 1995, despite the fact that his best known and most widely-seen film (to date), The Saddest Music in the World, was still nine years away. Saddest Music created Maddin's reputation and brought him international attention and acclaim, but he had been quietly making films out of his native home of Winnepeg since 1986. His first feature-length film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), was released, along with his '92 masterpiece Careful, by Kino Video in 2000; and it was these two DVDs which first brought Maddin enough exposure that he could become slightly more than a whispered secret amongst Canadian film buffs. Gimli is a dire comedy about disease, bloody operations, and secret lusts. An amateur production with a microscopic budget, the young Maddin nevertheless shows a virtuosic visual style that overcompensates for the limitations of the sets and actors (many of whom share his last name).
Archangel (1990) is less Lynchian, and more recognizable as a descendent of Maddin's purple-prose vision. Referenced on the Decemberists' first album with an extended dialogue cue, it's also my wife's favorite Maddin film, thanks to its hushed poetry, simple surrealism, and charcoal-sketch imagery. Set in a frigid wasteland at the edge of Russia just after the close of World War I, the residents of Archangel remain in the trenches, assuming the battle is still raging--somewhere. Thus prisoners of their own fear and paranoia, the characters enact a peculiar melodrama straight out Kafka, but with a dreamer's stream-of-conciousness logic. There's a treasure map, a disembowling, furtive lustful glances, and recreational biplane flights. Perfect Maddin territory. But like a dream, Archangel has a way of sticking in my mind with just a few key images, while the rest recede as I set my mind to more logical patterns the following morning. It's almost too ephemeral to stick. I admire it greatly, but I'd instead pick Careful as my favorite, though the reason might just be that it's the first full-length Maddin film I ever saw. I remember being put off at first by the post-production dubbing of the characters, but I quickly came to realize just what Maddin was after: for one thing, the dubbing creates a sense of disorientation and unreality that contributes the dreamy feel of his films, but it's also mischievously fetishistic for a 1920's film buff like Maddin, as many of the distinctly flawed films of 1929 were just as awkwardly post-dubbed to cash in on the new sensation of sound. In many of Maddin's films he seems intent on expanding upon this obscure moment of filmic history, when the great heights of the silent film era, epitomized, perhaps, in the films of F.W. Murnau, suddenly plummeted to new lows to accommodate the demands of sound cinema. Almost all of his films are like Fritz Lang masterpieces fiddled with by a frantic studio, and unable to arrive at anything but more accidental poetry. Maddin's films are deliberately flawed, just as he smears vasoline at the edges of his lens and cuts his films as to give the impression that the film is about to melt or split apart. He knows that this ancient, fragile milieu mirrors the landscape of the subconscious, as volatile as the rotting pieces of silent film saved in Bill Morrison's compilation Decasia (2002).
Careful now almost seems like the dry-run for all the themes and obsessions that would drive his next decade-plus of filmmaking, though it hasn't aged a day (the benefit of filming in the style that he's chosen). The film is mostly tinted in singular colors, apart from certain scenes that are blasted with a bright Technicolor simulation that suggests The Wizard of Oz. It's Maddin's equivalent of a big-budget risk, breaking from the dour, black-and-white Gimliworld of his last two films. Careful is about repressed passion and its grim consequences, and the setting is his most perfect encapsulation of the theme: the village of Tolzbad, high in the mountains, in which all citizens are ordered to remain silent--the vocal cords of all animals have been cut--because the slightest noise could cause an avelanche. Nevertheless, this little mining community seems to be thriving, and occasionally they indulge in a concert deep in the Alpine caverns. The screenplay, by Maddin and his longtime collaborator George Toles, charts the dissolution of a family through incest (in this film, one son's forbidden lust for his mother) and jealousy (between brothers), and encompassing a ghost and a climactic silent duel in the slick, steep slopes. It should be noted that Guy Maddin's films might be devastating or disturbing if they weren't constantly defused with camp humor, evident in every exclamation point lovingly punctuating his interstitial cards. Toles might be insufferable on a DVD audio commentary track, but to his credit, he brings a storyteller's discipline to the elaborately structured stories, and presumably contributes to much of the overblown pulpy dialogue and narration which has become his partner's lovable trademark.
Much less successful, and the bastard child of Maddin's career, is Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), the one film which broke from his usual method in order to evoke a more painterly canvas. You can practically see the brush-strokes in every frame of this beautiful film, but the beats are off and the pace is a bit too languid and self-satisfied. Most of all, it doesn't really seem to go anywhere--something you can't say about any other Maddin film. It's a fairy tale, a love triangle, cast with Alice Krige, Shelley Duvall, and Frank Gorshin, so at least psychotronic fans owe themselves one viewing. There's some good black humor here--particularly when Duvall struggles to murder Gorshin, who just won't die--and a nice moment in which a tour is offered of a magician's castle, but curiously it became a footnote rather than the career high-point that it was clearly intended to be. It has many defenders, but why bother with this when you could be watching one of his delirious silent-film fables instead? Take, for example, the six-minute-long short "The Heart of the World," commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, which is like Maddin's new manifesto, re-embracing the visuals of Lang and the frenetic montage of Eisenstein and Vertov. It plays almost like a trailer for an epic film that doesn't actually exist, dashing from one awe-inspiring event to the next in its plot, which seems like a cross between Metropolis and L'Age d'Or (if that's possible), and culminating in the spittle-drenched title cards reading "Kino! Kino! Kino!"
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) is his return to feature-length films after several years of producing shorts wherever he could, but by now his reputation had been further fermented by the pollination of the DVDs, and his latest could receive a fairly healthy art-house run. It was actually an adaptation of a ballet, a lustful reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's versatile source novel, but in Maddin's hands it humorously becomes a parable of xenophobia, with the (now-Asian) vampire arriving on British shores with a cache of cash--glowing green through the black-and-white cinematography, a la Greed. He's also a sympathetic figure, opening Mina Murray up to her inner passions and exhibitionism, while the constrained conservatives Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing struggle to end his reign through wooden stakes and bloody murder. It's difficult to find anything new in this material--even the Dracula-as-antihero has been played out--but you can definitely say that it's never been filmed as Maddin filmed it, and the decision to film a ballet in such a stifling style--he's not one to pan back and watch dancers simply dance--is almost perverse.
The Saddest Music in the World (2003) came quickly after, and this remains, to date, Maddin's genuine epic. Blessed with a fatter budget (small by any other standard, but stretched to sheer spectacle beneath his vaseline-smeared lens), a story by famed author Kazuo Ishiguro, and a talented cast (Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Mark McKinney), he goes for broke and returns with a jewel. It's the story of a legless beer baroness (Rossellini) who sponsors an international contest to find "the saddest music in the world." Countries bring their finest musicians, singers, and songwriters to Winnepeg, home of the baroness' beer factory and undoubtedly, as Maddin would tell you, the saddest place on earth, to compete on a stage, mano a mano, like a WWE wrestling match, blasting music in each others' faces while the cheering, stein-wielding audience chooses the winner of each round. (The winner gets to tumble down a slide into a giant vat of beer. Sublime.) The vain Chester Kent (McKinney) assumes he can buy the prize by seducing the baroness and putting on a lavish spectacle in which she's the star. His brother, representing Serbia, is a moody artist who probably deserves to win, if only because the misery that wracks his soul is of truly epic proportions. Narcissa (de Medeiros) is caught between them, for reasons that involve amnesia and a preserved human heart. Like so many of his films, the complicated familial relationships, wracked with passion, rivalry, and hatred, call to mind The Brothers Karamazov--which Maddin seems destined to direct eventually--but the tone is balanced perfectly between comedy and tragedy, and it all ends on a sweeping, flamboyant note that is Maddin's biggest gamble. With this film he won a new collaborator and loyal defender in Rossellini, for whom he quickly directed the short film "My Dad is 100 Years Old," about her relationship with her father Roberto Rossellini. She must have known that if the subject was troubled relationships with fathers, Maddin was the man for the job.
The same year as Saddest Music, Maddin produced an art installation which functioned as a peepshow. Participants could watch each of the ten chapters of his melodramatic serial, Cowards Bend the Knee aka The Blue Hands, by peering through a tiny hole and thus capturing just a bit of the queasy guilt which has cast a shadow over Maddin's life--the subject of the film. It was released in theaters briefly after the success of Saddest Music, and then on DVD in 2004 by Zeitgeist Films. As Maddin says in his "artistic statement" which accompanies the DVD, "This film is my autobiography. Into it, all the memories of my early and recent courtships have been folded, pressed and crushed. Pieces of my life have broken in the process, but all of it is here, only slightly reordered." Well, it's about as true to his life story as any of the occasional tall tales in his book of essays, From the Atelier Tovar (2003), which are so good that you want them to be true. And, undoubtedly, there's plenty of truth amidst the fiction, although there's undoubtedly more fiction in Cowards (however honest it might be to the nature of his emotional wounds). But Cowards is a pure dose of sensationalism, with the central character, one "Guy Maddin," a quivering ball of neuroses whose inner longing is toyed with, and perverted, by the women in his life--although both Maddin the director and Maddin the character possess too much self-loathing to provide for a misogynist narrative. This is a film about murder, lust, and hockey, and it commits to these ideas like a holy Canadian trinity.
The newest, Brand Upon the Brain!, might be considered a sequel, or a second act that displaces the first. Guy Maddin (an actor playing him, that is) visits an island for the first time since his youth. This little island, home to a towering lighthouse, was where he spent his childhood; his mother operated the lighthouse and the orphanage beneath it, domineering and obsessing over her daughter and son to the point of jealousy and lust, respectively. Her husband is a scientist who's using the children as part of a sinister scheme to harvest a kind of cranial nectar, for purposes best kept "secret, secret!" (to echo the narrator). Maddin has claimed that no, wait, not Cowards Bend the Knee, but Brand Upon the Brain! is the true Guy Maddin autobiography, but this is a tall tale of an even taller order; it's hard to imagine that twin teen detectives Chance and Wendy Hale provided any role in his childhood, let alone existed. It's Wendy Chance who dominates Guy's confused childhood crush, but Wendy is in love with Guy's sister, to the point of pretending to be her twin brother in order to seduce her. The cross-dressing and gender-bending manages to champion the shifting gender identities and sexuality of the modern cultural landscape, but at the same time it's positively Shakespearean, never mind that Shakespeare never would have conceived of "the undressing gloves." It's both a classic story--and by classic I mean 1930's Nancy Drew books as well as Twelfth Night--and a steamy cesspit of frustrated sex that could earn an NC-17 if it was necessary to submit this cult item to the MPAA. Like Cowards' unusual origins, Brand Upon the Brain was conceived first as a multimedia experience, and right now, briefly fleeting, is your chance to experience it that way. Live orchestra accompaniment provides a lush, sweeping score written by Jason Staczek (I want the CD!), performed by the Ensemble Noamnesia. A live foley soundtrack is provided by the Footsteps Studio, who dress in lab coats and squeeze celery when a young girl's brain is being extracted. A "castrato" sings during a couple segments (well, sort of), and live narration is provided--by Isabella Rossellini, or Lou Reed, or, when we saw it in Chicago last night, Crispin Glover, who, I expect, can scream "Romania! Romania!" with more ferocious intensity than anyone else (during the grotesque reanimation scene). It's Guy Maddin overload, and the audience was gasping and laughing and giving a standing ovation. It's Maddin's most perverse joke yet, given the taboo confessions he confidently unspools on the screen, like a doctor's encyclopedia of exotic, eradicated diseases. Brand is all about sights so intense and viscerally felt that they must be locked up, repressed, silenced! "Too much for Guy!" reads the title card. But an intoxicating dream for the rest of us.