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The Captivating Madness of Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin in Kansas City in 2007. Photo by Lybarger.
by Dan Lybarger

I don't understand Guy Maddin, which is probably why I love his films.

Having once interviewed the Canadian director, it's not as if Maddin is incapable of expressing where he gets his inspiration or how he processes it. If you watch his films closely enough, you'll spot how he's pulled concepts from high culture (for example, Straus' opera Electra) or from more popular sources like the Nancy Drew stories.

Even when you do know where he gets his warped ideas, it's captivating to figure out how he can take familiar or even mundane concepts and turn them into sick, bizarre but entertaining movies. Perhaps only a lifelong resident of Winnipeg, Manitoba, would feature a scene where a scientist examines a sperm sample and discovers a hockey game going on in the fluid.

Since he began directing movies in the mid-1980s, Maddin has borrowed ideas from Fritz Lang to Sergei Eisenstein to David Lynch and still managed to create his own legacy. His movies incorporate photographic ideas that have been abandoned since the silent era, much less since color has become the norm. You'll see iris shots, images where the only the main character is in focus or muted or saturated colors that would be "corrected" in a Hollywood movie.

Because his storylines are so weird (his most accessible movie The Saddest Music in the World is about a Depression-era brewer who wants to use gloomy tunes to sell her beer), his skewed images are appropriate.

Maddin's films aren't for everyone, but viewers longing for adventurousness as well as ample doses quirky, dark humor should definitely pick up The Quintessential Guy Maddin!, a four-disc set that includes five of Maddin's features (Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary and Cowards Bend the Knee or Blue Hands).

To say the collection is generous is an understatement. As of this writing, I'm still eagerly plowing through its contents. The movies come with detailed commentaries from Maddin and his collaborators as well as a documentary about Maddin's career. It even comes with some of his short films which are as good if not better that his features.

Archangel (1990)
Supposedly set in Russia during the aftermath of World War I, Archangel appears to have actually been filmed on location in Oz while the Wizard was away. The young Lieutenant Boles (Kyle McCulloch) is limping through a Russian village looking to bury an urn carrying the remains of his beloved Iris. His gait might have to do with the fact that he's minus a leg. Fortunately, he's billeted with a family who happens to have a prosthetic leg that fits him. The lady of the house (Sarah Neville) has a thing for Lt. Boles even though he can't get his mind off of Iris and that she's married. Meanwhile, an amnesiac compatriot of Boles named Philbin (Ari Cohen) has returned to the village to remarry his wife Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who left him back when he could remember her.

From here it gets weirder.

The cast should probably received Oscars for their ability to recite co-screenwriter George Toles' non sequiturs as if they actually meant something. Perhaps they do in an environment with Russian architecture populated by English speakers. Furthermore, the sound isn't always synchronized with the actors' lip movements.

The world is completely artificial, and even the outdoor situations were shot on a soundstage. This makes all of the eccentricity seem natural. In this sort of world anything is possible. Long stretches of quirkiness are interrupted by moments of explosive laughter because the characters have no idea how people here on planet Earth view them. On a technical level, Maddin's visuals are astonishing because his predecessors like Lang and Eisenstein often spent considerable sums to achieve the effects he's able to replicate on the cheap. It's amazing what a few decades worth of technology can do.

Careful (1992)
Much of the joy of this new set is hearing Maddin and his collaborators talk about their work. They describe how they achieved their breathtaking images in remarkable detail and manage to be downright hilarious in the process. For Careful, Maddin quips that his idea to make a mountain film meshed with Toles' inspiration for a pro-incest melodrama. He describes it as his chocolate meeting Toles' peanut butter.

Perhaps the Hershey company should use that quip in their next ad campaign.

Careful is set in a Teutonic valley surrounded by mountains with snow packed so heavily that the slightest sounds can result in catastrophic avalanches. The animals have their voice boxes removed for fear of setting off a calamity. Despite this the human residents, through a delightfully absurd quirk of acoustics, can play music and get themselves into bizarre predicaments.

One young man named Johann (Brent Neale) winds up losing his touch at butler school because he can't keep his mind off of his shapely mother Zenaida (Gosia Dubrowolska). At the same time, his fiancée Klara (Sarah Neville) is trying to please her platitude-spouting father when she isn't toiling in a mineshaft. Meanwhile, Johann's brother Grigorss (Kyle McColluch) has an obsession with defending his family's honor that borders on madness.

Maddin's creative use of color and his dream-like approach to storytelling result in film that's both melodramatic and darkly amusing. In the commentary, he even thanks his backers for insisting that he shoot the film in color. It's odd to hear an auteur like Maddin express gratitude for a constraint.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997)
Despite the title, it has little to do with cold climates. It's hard to imagine ostriches living in Manitoba. While he may be working with name actors British and American actors and using conventional color photography this time, Maddin's idea of ordinary is thankfully a little different than most.

A recently freed convict named Peter Glahn (Nigel Whitmey, with Ross McMillan's voice) returns to his sister Amelia's (Shelley Duvall) ostrich farm to find that his sister is desperately wooing the one-legged Dr. Solti (R.H. Thomson) when she isn't feuding with her bitter hired hand Cain Ball (Frank Gorshin). Meanwhile, Peter finds himself involved with both the pregnant wife (Alice Krige) of a long-absent fisherman and the not-too-good doctor's mistress (Pascale Bussières).

Before the histrionics get oppressive, Maddin and Toles find several ways to insert their trademark sensibilities. Pay close attention to how Duvall prepares an egg sandwich.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002)
Perhaps only Maddin could get away with making a filmed adaptation of a ballet reworking of the Bram Stoker novel. Thanks to some expressive black-and-white photography (with strategic use of red, green and gold), he finds a potent missing link between silent movies and the art of dance. The title character is played with creepy assurance by Zhang Wei-Quiang.

Maddin and choreographer Mark Godden) poke fun at the xenophobia and Victorian sexuality of the book. Both approach the material with a sense of mischievous glee. The Count is infinitely more engaging than his brave but prudish antagonist Abraham Van Helsing (David Moroni). The dancing is great, and Tara Birtwhistle relishes the chance to be both Lucy and her evil doppelganger.

An added bonus is the effective use of Gustav Mahler's themes. He may never have had a chance to read Stoker's book, but his tunes easily fit the tone of story.

Cowards Bend the Knee or Blue Hands (2003)
This semiautobiographical silent movie was actually made for an art exhibit and was originally intended to be viewed through a series of 12 portholes. Of course, Maddin can't resist the opportunity to place the story decades before he was actually born, even if the protagonist is named after himself.

The film's Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr) is a hockey player who in a daze dumps his pregnant girlfriend (Amy Stewart) for Meta (Melissa Dionisio), the daughter of a bordello madam (Tara Birtwhistle). Meta demands that Guy strangle her mother and her lover in revenge for killing her father. To egg him on, she persuades a mad Winnipeg doctor named Fusi (Louis Negin) to transplant the dead man's hands onto the easily led hockey player. While all of that is going on, there are undead wax replicas of former members of Guy's team.

That's a lot of madness to pack into a one-hour running time, but Maddin's relentlessly off-beat approach works as well on home video as it might have in a museum. The commentary is also a treat. Unlike some filmmakers, Maddin readily admits that the blurry inter-titles are a result of his forgetting to properly focus the camera instead of an aesthetic decision. This sort of candor is frankly refreshing.

The Other Stuff
Included with the set is Maddin's six-minute The Heart of the World, where Maddin simultaneously spoofs and celebrates silent cinema. He can do more with that brief running time than most filmmakers can with hours to play with. The set also includes reproductions of the lobby cards for the features, a documentary on Maddin and other featurettes and shorts he has made.

t's a shame that this set doesn't include Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), which is described in one of the featurettes, Tales of Gimli Hospital (1988) or his award-winning semi-documentary My Winnipeg (2007). Nonetheless, it sure whets an appetite for his unique brand of moviemaking.

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originally posted: 12/21/10 16:11:39
last updated: 12/21/10 16:22:38
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