The Magical Cinema of Guy Maddin
By Ricardo Reis
Canadian film maker Guy Maddin won the Tellutide Medal for Life Time Achievement in 1995.
He was 39.
In 2000 his 6 minute short The Heart of the World was best film, short and feature classes, at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Special Award winner with the National School of Film Critics; it also won Golden Gate Award from San Francisco Film Festival.
Not bad for a guy who never went to film school.
Many film makers concentrate on narrative, storyline, character-sketching; setting and atmosphere often seem an afterthought.
“Most films are basically illustrated novels, they have the structure of a novel…” (Isabella Rosellini, interviewed by Andrea Meyer).
Guy Maddin reverses this structure; with him we smell time, the mustiness of age. It started by accident. His first short the Dead Father (1986) would not come right until he set it in the past; then everything became possible. From dabbling cine-man, to film maker.
Although his concerns are very contemporary it seems he can best address them through an offsetting filter. Emotion, for Guy Madden, is a Canadian thing, that is, it is suppressed, yet apparent in everything.
He has a long fascination with 1920’s Silent Cinema, magic shows, fables, above all, with melodrama. His keyword is, yes, Atmosphere, and that deconstructs into, above all else mystery, drama, high play.
“I always see myself going back along the road of film history and picking up all these great and abandoned technologies and film vocabularies…”
High play allows flexibility: boom shadows, film equipment in back shots, all signs of the out-and-out amateur, he incorporates, makes use of. This could become all so very winkingly post-modern, but his work has charm, a fascination, an earnestness that takes the chill off. And the finished product is always polished and professional.
He first became known through the saturated colours and ‘mountain fever’ of his 1992 classic Careful. His 3rd feature Careful is “a moral tale”, “a tragedy told as if it was an absurdist comedy.” (Roberto Curti).
For Derek Hill it is “an operatic satire of characters so tightly wound by their repressed desires that even the thought of stepping outside… will set off (an) avalanche.”
This is the main conceit of the film: Careful is set high in avalanche country, where even a sneeze, we are told, could be disastrous; we glimpse cattle with voice-boxes removed, tied as if for toothache with cartoon neckerchiefs around the neck,
Some see strong autobiographical elements in his work. He plays openly with Freudian symbols: the recurring image of the one-eyed father (whether blinded by a brooch pin in childhood, like his own father), who could easily become on one level an emasculated Odin figure. The key phrase is Play: he plays with his past, fictionalised images, as much as our present-day images: one-eyed cameraman, eye glued to viewfinder; the half-seen world we only allow ourselves to see….
He also has the enviable ability to attract the most stunning women actors, not only Isabella Rosellini as Lady Port-Huntly in Saddest Music of the World, but also the lovely Gosnia Dobrowolska, as Zenaida, in Careful.
He throws this away as “accent”, that is, inbuilt atmosphere, bringing an intriguing sound element to the mix. It works wonderfully.
The film that really broke his name was 2003’s Saddest Music in the World.
Chatting to film goers who “just didn’t get it”, he asked: Did you understand there was a music contest?
… two brothers competing with each other?
… a wife sleeping with one who should be with the other?
Then you got it!
Disingeuous. Pure chance one brother (Chester) was representing America, the other (Roderick) by adoption Serbia. All Canadian. Already we have a satire on Canada’s inability to keep its talent at home. But also in the rapacious Chester America’s economic and political foreign policies; on one level we have Europe (old world values and cultural legacies) pitted against brash young America. To complicate matters Canadian Lady Port-Huntly, brewery magnate, is just as rapacious and corrupting as Chester.
Set in Prohibition times, American tvs show the Canadian competition, funded by a wealthy brewery to increase sales: all losers slide into a huge vat of beer.
Visually lapidary; legless Lady Port-Huntly is wooed and won by the brothers’ glass-maker father, with a gift of glass legs.
They are shapely, and filled with the light amber beer from her own brewery, complete with light fizz.
She wears them in triumph; the effect is stunning.