Few artists are asunderappreciated in their home countries as Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, and few underappreciated artists are at greater risk than he is of being overexposed. The start of 2004 finds three very different Maddin films in circulation: the stupendous silent-movie ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary; the wild mix of autobiography, hockey, and Euripides' Electra known as Cowards Bend the Knee; and a musical with Isabella Rossellini called The Saddest Music in the World. All of these--in addition to Maddin himself--will appear at Walker Art Center this month as part of the museum's final blowout before its expansion imposes a yearlong hiatus.
Among the world's most prolific filmmakers, Maddin puts even Japan's DV provocateur Takeshi Miike to shame. Indeed, the director's astonishing output could only be compared to the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the late 1980s. And yet Maddin, born in the '50s, seems to remain stuck in the '20s. Since 1985, the most idiosyncratic of Canadian filmmakers has released seven highly personal features and roughly 20 shorts--a body of work that, despite its surrealist trappings and strong resemblance to silent cinema, is impossible to pigeonhole. You might say that Maddin directs in a genre all his own, remaking melodramatic movies that never existed. His riotous, emotionally masochistic curiosities--never far from mythos or a movie reference, from his own childhood dreams and anxieties--are designed to entertain and confuse, to delight and dislocate. Perhaps the time is right for this director's work: After all, nostalgia is as de rigueur these days as the glorification of kitsch, and the self-flagellating Maddin offers both in abundance.
Maddin's stern Icelandic childhood on the Canadian prairies--he was raised above his Aunt Lil's beauty salon, near the Winnipeg hockey arena--was one of slothdom, the kid craning his ears to catch the ambient crackling of late-night radio signals. Along with the glory of having scrubbed the backs of Soviet hockey players, there's tragedy in Maddin's past: When he was young, his hockey-manager father died, and his older brother committed suicide. The filmmaker's stylistic primitivism seems to stem from the raw emotion and limited means of those early days: Using handheld cameras, black-and-white film, and "special effects" such as fog and Vaseline on the lens, he proves that the most valuable tool is a pliable imagination.
Maddin home-schooled in rabid cinephilia, watching film noir, melodrama, and silent movies borrowed from the 16mm collections of local libraries; remnants of these 1,001 nights speckle his own movies. Galloping, for example, through the Riefenstahl-meets-Caligari universe of Careful (screening along with four other features as part of "Dusk to Dawn Maddin," which begins at 9:30 p.m. on Valentine's Day and runs until five in the morning), one finds allusions to von Sternberg, Hitchcock, Keaton, Ophuls, Mèliés, and Clair. But the way Maddin juggles his sources is based on forgetfulness--both the viewer's and his own. After bringing up one reference, he quickly moves along--never allowing another filmmaker to cohabit his space for too long, never allowing the audience to dwell on the twisted narrative. Haunted by lovelorn amnesiacs, the films bubble over with the illogical grippes of passion. "The only real themes that matter to me are how humans love each other or hate each other or are envious of each other," Maddin has said. Accordingly, each of his films finds a pair of lovers isolated in a honeymoon suite, enjoying an idyllic moment that's soon soured by Point Three of the triangle. Sexuality breeds psychosis in these most noirish of worlds, and is often followed by disappointment and death--though not necessarily in that order.
Maddin's protagonists (often played by Kyle McCullough, now a South Park writer) are generally trapped in hilarious, hallucinating states of self-pitying cowardice on studio-bound sets, their highly mannered expressions resembling those of silent-era stars. Yet despite the films' blatant anachronisms and deliberate continuity errors, Maddin's work never descends into full-blown camp. Nor does it give way to wistful nostalgia: Indeed, how could anyone want to return to the absurdly corked-up Tolzbad of Careful, which provides a painfully precise depiction of childhood repression? Maddin complicates nostalgia by placing a grain of sand in each oyster: Something's foul in these culturally toxic films.
Maddin's debut feature, the cult classic Tales from the Gimli Hospital (included in "Dusk to Dawn Maddin"), came out of nowhere in 1988. Promoted by New York midnight-movie impresario Ben Barenholtz, it packed Greenwich Village houses for a year. Even more alienating (and involving), the timeless Archangel went on to win a Best Experimental Film award from the National Society of Film Critics. But despite these successes, Maddin's "art films," criticized for their incoherence and elitism, had been bombing at home: Returning to Winnipeg after Careful's sold-out screening at the New York Film Festival, Maddin was informed of the film's dire first-week grosses in Toronto. Though Maddin became the youngest director to receive the Telluride Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, he was submerged in a career funk. Telefilm Canada had decided to withhold funds from The Dikemaster's Daughter, deeming it a "lateral move." This failure would haunt the troubled production of the hermetic Twilight of the Ice Nymphs in 1997: Interviewed on set, Maddin vowed that he would never make another film; later, he would say that the final product "came out of the birth canal stillborn."
Maddin's awareness of the lassitude possible when pursuing arch stylization to its limits led in turn to his realization that things ought to be sped up. The filmmaker's fertile second coming sees him tossing off playful, aesthetically overloaded works that laugh heartily at traditional storytelling. This stage began in 2000 with the Soviet-constructivist-cum-sci-fi head rush "The Heart of the World." Shot out of an Uzi of inspiration, Maddin's masterpiece--one of the greatest short films ever made--is an entire melodrama in six minutes, frenetically edited to elide any need for plot development. Ironically, this primitive filmmaker found his groove through the use of contemporary technology; indeed, Maddin's recent work is unimaginable without digital editing.
Not merely a dance film made by a director with zero interest in dance, Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is an authentic work of silent Expressionism shot in oft-tinted monochrome. With its images of ballet reflected in mirrors, shrouded by plumes of fog, or sped up to the point of abstraction, Dracula (screening Wednesday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m., on a double bill with Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee) feels like Dreyer's Vampyr crossed with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Cowards, the director's "autobiographical" follow-up, might be a Feuillade serial run through a blender. Designed as an installation for Toronto's Power Plant gallery, where it could be seen only if the spectator crouched down and gazed through peepholes, Cowards is jam-packed with kinetically photographed action. The mythomaniacal director casts "Guy Maddin" (Darcy Fehr) as a hockey sniper made lily-livered by mother and daughter femme fatales, and resurrects his dead father as both the team's broadcaster and his own romantic rival. The plot verily drips with Grecian formula, as sordid family secrets spawn unintentional murders. Maddin fixates on his characters' uncontrollable desires, providing room for alternately poignant and explosive slo-mo replays. Frenzied moments of impulsive violence and sexuality lend the movie the sublime naughtiness of a hand-cranked skin flick. After all, the whole thing takes place within a single drop of sperm.
Compared to this, Maddin's "proper feature," The Saddest Music in the World (Wednesday at 8:00 p.m.), almost disappoints. Almost. Set in 1933 Winnipeg, a town that has accumulated a "glistening wealth of unhappiness," the audience-friendly Saddest Music has the ham-fisted Maddin touch. A Canadian-born Broadway "producer of musical spectaculars" (Mark McKinney) returns to Winnipeg penniless, and comes to represent the U.S. in a saddest-music contest--a scheme hatched by Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) to promote the brewery's peaty wares south of the border in the final days of Prohibition. The film finds brothers battling once again, this time over a nymphomaniac amnesiac (Maria de Medeiros's Narcissa). There's a father and son as romantic rivals (for Isabella's legless Port-Huntly), and two forms of cowardice: McKinney's crass extrovert Chester Kent (named after the Jimmy Cagney character in Footlight Parade) and his veiled, timid, and self-hating brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), reborn as Serbian cellist Gavrilo the Great.
Saddest Music is politics fused with autobiography. Although the film alludes to Busby Berkeley's Broadway Melodies and the paraplegic revenge melodramas of Lon Chaney, the standard that holds it together on an emotional level is Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You." The grist for the mill is Maddin's own career, with its inherent conflict between art and commerce. In fact, Saddest Music can be seen as the most pointed statement to date on American cultural imperialism, made in the country that has suffered from it the most. Seeking to put on a show that's "vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks [and] sadness, but with sass and pizzazz," Chester sounds like he could be the Pentagon's media consultant. As the contest climaxes, Chester buys off the other nationals, directing fish-spearing Eskimos, Swiss pan flautists, and Indian sitar players in a mongrelized version of a song sure to cockle the heart of many an aspiring Hollywoodian: "California, Here I Come." Furiously independent as always, Maddin is daring us to admit that the saddest music in the world might be the sound that change makes when it jingles in the pocket of someone who has just sold out.