Guy Maddin  



If anyone deserves to be in the same category as the incomparable David Lynch, it's Guy Maddin. Not that he has the same style or that he is a clone in any way, but he does live in his own strange universe and has comparable affinities for the bizarre for its own sake without the usual political or artsy pretentions of the surrealists. However, Maddin goes beyond Lynch in his alien humor, and in his cinematographic obsessions over recreating the look and feel of old films, complete with foggy lenses, jumpy editing, inconsistent film-speeds, missing frames, old costumes, bad film exposures, tinted monochrome, saturated color and scratchy musical recordings. This style lends other-worldly atmosphere to his works when the material is appropriately matched, otherwise it comes off as an artsy gimmick. In addition to this form of presentation, Maddin also experiments with entertainment gimmicks that allow his films to be experienced in different ways, such as using live narrations, or viewing the film through peepholes. His works often mix elements of bizarre human behaviour, humor, dream-logic surrealism, ironic twists, right-brain absurdities and bizarre whims that almost take on a subconscious meaning, sexual perversions such as incest and necrophilia, and over-the-top melodrama. Some are silent movies with scratchy music and sound effects, and others have dubbed dialogue voice-overs. He makes a wide variety of shorts, many of them 5 minute tangents or whims inspired during the filming of a feature, as well as several full-length features which are reviewed here along with some noteworthy shorts.

Recommended

Keyhole  
I've been waiting for over a decade for Maddin to recreate the surreal atmospheric magic of Tales from the Gimli Hospital without gimmicks and distracting flaws. This is it. A masterpiece of surrealism that creeps up on you as soon as you give up making sense and watch it with your right brain. There is a melodamatic narrative somewhere, but a lot of it is in reverse, and experienced via extremely muddy memories as seen through a fever dream. And, of course, it is peppered with Maddin's usual highly eccentric humor and Freudian subconscious perversions. I especially liked the increasingly warped soundtrack. This is a typical Maddin mish-mash of ideas and scenes that shouldn't go together, unless the movie lets you dream, allowing you treat the inexplicable as throwaway but amusing surreal oddities. There's a 30s gangster noir that rapidly deterioriates into a ghost drama as the boss locks himself and his gang in a house full of memories and spirits. He brings a drowned, blind girl with him to psychically find his way around the house that is full of dead people, screaming ghosts, and secrets, including a naked grandfather literally chained to his bed. His goal is to connect with his wife who may or may not be dead and who isolated herself with her chained father. Characters appear out of nowhere, before he enters a room he goes through an odd ritual of talking through keyholes out of which he pulls threads of hairs. The grandfather whips other ghosts, there's an amusing association of masturbation with yahtzee that only Maddin could come up with, a dusty penis, violence via a quaint electric chair, and lots more. The dramatic narrative at first reminded me of the annoyingly intrusive narrative in Brand Upon the Brain, but thankfully quieted down as soon as the movie built up its elements. An utterly unique and superb creation.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital  
Like Lynch's Eraserhead, this first feature from Maddin is an incomparable, bizarre, surreal piece of work. While their mother is dying in Gimli, children are told strange stories of Gimli's past involving a mysterious plague that brought together Einar the Lonely and Gunnar, who recently lost his wife. Gunnar is popular with the nurses much to Einar's frustration and the rivalry reaches new heights when their own stories are tied together and reveal a dark, ironic secret. The real star of this movie is the atmosphere, dark humor and surreal world, which includes people who squeeze fish into their hair, a puppet show used as anesthesia, a hospital that is also a barn, games that look like wedgie wrestling, etc. The movie is not always sure of itself and there is some amusing experimentation but it builds slowly, drawing you into its bizarre universe, into its final long dream-sequence that blends together the details of the story. An unforgettable surreal experience.

Of Some Interest

Archangel  
Maddin's followup to Gimli Hospital seems to lack inspiration and is merely content with reproducing an Eisenstein movie while both subverting its imagery of patriotism and bravery with Maddin's odd humor while enhancing it with strange and surreal touches. The main dramatic story involves a complicated love quadrangle of shell-shocked soldier denying that his love has died, a look-alike woman whom he thinks is his dead girlfriend, her husband, an amnesiac whose mind was warped by his mother painting a scary face on her breast when he was a baby, and a landlady who pines unrequitedly for the soldier. This is set amidst a backdrop of the Russian war in WWI, complete with a morality tale of a cowardly soldier who finds his bravery by saving his family from Bolsheviks by strangling them with his own intestines, a sneak attack by bunny rabbits, an image of two patriarchal old soldiers kissing each other, and various strange machinery, leftover props from Caligari, Eisenstein-esque close-ups of strange warped faces, strange local customs like reviving a man with horse-brushes, a theatrical recreation of paintings using costumed men to symbolize countries during which Canada gets abused, and other oddities.

Brand Upon the Brain!  
One of Maddin's best creations but flawed in its experimental approach. The bizarre story is pure Maddin imagination: Guy rows to a lighthouse where he grew up, with memories of the past overwhelming him. His first crush, the orphans brought up in the lighthouse with strange markings on their necks, and his father, always working in a mysterious lab relentlessly, so much so that even death can't stop him. His overbearing, insanely neurotic mother who obsesses over returning mentally and physically to her childhood, with an unhealthy dependency on her young son and the orphans. A sister who falls for a gender-bending investigator who comes to uncover the secrets of the lighthouse, and who only allows kissing and undressing using magical gloves. And finally, the Aerophone which communicates between rooms via passions, and Savage Tom who performs Satanic rituals with the orphans. As memories awaken, we see how this strange setup develops into psycho-sexual tensions, violence, melodrama, bizarre developments, and a resurrection involving a writhing, screaming-mad mother, a huge syringe and a wet corpse. The presentation is the usual Maddin dreamlike, surreal but jumpy B&W, with too much aggressive editing in some parts (especially the first 30 minutes which features an average of 2 seconds per shot), and one unique gimmick: The film toured the country accompanied by an orchestra and a live narrator. The DVD features various recorded narrators, but while this may have worked as a unique theatrical experience, I find the narration annoyingly obtrusive, ruining the magic of the film every time it starts up again. If only they would release an audio track with only the music...

Careful  
A unique entry in Maddin's oeuvre that reproduces various old German film styles using a mixture of hazy saturated colors and color-tinted monochrome, along with harsh camera angles, lighting and melodrama. The setup, another strange created world by Maddin, is in an Alpine village where everyone is afraid, repressed and strict. The grand fear is for the always impending avalanche of snow looming over the heads, for which they impose strict rules about silence, shoot overflying geese, and remove animals' vocal cords. But their lives are always full of warnings, superstitions and disciplines, with many men training at a strict butler school, and women working in mine-shafts with candles on their heads. Amidst this setup flares dark secrets, love affairs, incestual obsessions, molestations, brooding lusts and anger, secret corpses, a man who had his eye gouged out as a baby by a brooch on his mother's clothes, and a secret brother hidden in the attic visited by a family ghost. Unfortunately, I found this one much more dull than other Maddin works, since behind the careful and impressive cinematic work there isn't much of a story or mesmerizing atmosphere, with the plot simply meandering from one scandal and dramatic scene to another.

Cowards Bend The Knee  
High-melodrama, silent film with pseudo-autobiographical elements and the usual Maddin bizarre humor. A sperm hockey team, as seen through a microscope, has a player who likes to drop girlfriends for new faces, one of which he leaves during an abortion inside a bordello/hairdressing salon. This new girl has an unhealthy obsession over her father who is dead but left behind his severed blue hands. She wants revenge, only lets her father's hands touch her, and Guy is just the easily manipulated coward she needs. Amusing over-the-top melodrama with sudden bizarre laughs like when two men are showering and in a gay impulse he touches the other's behind as if it were a doorbell. The big flaw here is the frenetic editing, which greatly over-uses cuts, jumpy scenes, rapid montages and intertitles, making this movie hard on the eyes and brain and which doesn't let any atmosphere build.

Dead Father, The  
Maddin's first movie is a 26 minute mostly-silent, surreal short about a young man, his sister and morose mother, and a dead father who keeps appearing in their lives seemingly at the behest of the son. They try to connect with the commanding patriarch only to watch him leave again and again, their moods and resentment growing until the son explodes in a bizarre act of self-loathing. Gripping and atmospheric.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary  
A unique blend of ballet, the classic story of Dracula, Mahler's music, and Maddin. The elements are put together masterfully and with balance, with Maddin filming the story in his usual B&W hazy dream-like cinematography and melodramatic touches, and the scenes of dancing or high drama synchronized with Mahler's sweeping symphony. In between Stoker's story of Dracula coming to town to seduce his dream-woman, the mad insect-eating Renfield and Van Helsing's battle with the undead, Maddin inserts surreal and campy touches, including a devilish dream-dance-sequence, some fun poked at immigrants, and an odd obsession with money, with gold coins coming out of Dracula's flesh.

Glorious
An unusually surreal and slightly longer short by Maddin with his usual strange sense of humor. An old criminal is haunted by dreams of death, crime, gangs of unruly criminals invading his home which may erupt in a shoot-out and death. The dream sparkles in firefight and bullet fireworks, morphing into some nonsense about firework shoes and a crackling basement stove before diving into what the guns and six-shooters really represent: A glory-hole orgy of oral sex.

Heart of the World, The  
6 minute short from Maddin that made a big splash, a condensed and frantic Metropolis-esque movie squeezed into a short (comparable to Odilon Redon, another condensed short). Anna is a scientist studying the (literal) heart of the world. She loves and is loved by two men: A mortician and an actor who seems to be stuck in his role-playing of Jesus. Between death and religion, she is seduced by a fat Capitalist rich man while the world goes into heart failure and a full scale panic. Will someone find a way to save the world? The music soundtrack is pounding, the pace is pumping, and the movie is gripping - all 6 minutes of it.

My Winnipeg  
A unique creation from Maddin that combines documentary, personal diary and exploration, and fantasy, creating a collage of nostalgia, tall-tales and surreal snippets of autobiography. You're never quite sure what is true in this movie but that is part of its charm. Some of Winnipeg's history is shown through a haze, the rivers and railroad lines that pass through are dreamily compared to objects like a woman's thighs, its citizens sleepwalking through the city and unable to leave. Buildings and events are seen through nostalgic eyes, anger turned towards councils and businesses that tear down old memories. Maddin travels in a hallucinative derelict train car always half sleeping and going in circles, with his mother staring down at him, until he attempts to leave by 'filming his way out'. He explores memories of the beauty salon under his childhood bedroom, and various eccentricities and strange habits while growing up are recreated in his old home using actors. Tales are told of horses that froze in the lake with their heads sticking out, strange ghostly hockey teams, surreal seances and psychic fugues organized by various city notables, and so on... A magical tour through memory, history and autobiography that is reminiscent of Fellini but is all Maddin.

Worthless

Saddest Music in the World, The  
Maddin gets a bigger budget and some famous actors but unfortunately, this is a failed experiment. The story involves a legless beer baroness in Winnipeg during the Great Depression who launches a contest to find the saddest music in the world. Her former lover represents the gaudy USA with lavish musical numbers. He is attached to his girlfriend who is a nymphomaniac, his brother, who lost his wife, represents Serbia with his cello, and his father, who cut off his ex-wife's legs, is now attempting to buy forgiveness with artifical glass legs filled with beer. Yes, you read that right. Ethnic musicians battle each other over a buzzer and slide into a pool of beer, while the melodrama plays itself out. This time, the dubbed voice-overs, silly and overlong musical scenes, crude attacks on the USA and messy story don't blend well with the usual Maddin B&W cinematography tricks, making it all a pretty dull gimmick.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs  
For this outing, Maddin seems to have put all his effort into creating the most stilted, childishly pretentious and deadpan dialogue with horribly uninvolving and dull results. The movie is presented in full color (a rarity for Maddin) but the look is fuzzy, the colors bright, the costumes and props are cheaply extravagant and artificial, and the scenery is stagily pastoral, making the movie look like a 50s children's fantasy. The story doesn't go anywhere and involves a variety of odd or annoyingly neurotic characters on an island: Peter is an ex-prisoner coming home with a penchant for having strange dreams while he hunts and throwing temper tantrums, his mad sister runs an ostrich farm and pines for the local strange one-legged Dr Solti who is a mesmerist and who seems to have the mysterious and arrogant Juliana under his spell, which angers the love-struck Peter. Add to this typical Maddin salad a fisherman's wife, born of a prostitute and hanged man's sperm, who seduces Peter, an ostrich farmer who gets into a vicious, violent quarrel with Peter's sister, and a statue of Venus slowly rising in the forest with which everyone seems to have a mystical relationship. Unfortunately, the movie is made terribly tedious due to the aforementioned dialogue that tries too hard to be an homage to artifically meaningful and romantic flicks of the past.




2000- by Zev Toledano Table of Contents