Thursday, January 07, 2010

Modern Maestros: Guy Maddin

Robert here with the makeover of my Directors of the Decade series, henceforth known as Modern Maestros (because alliteration is always awesome).   The mission statement will be simple: an ongoing series celebrating working directors who define the state contemporary cinema.  Suggestions are always appreciated.  That being said, let's start!

Maestro: Guy Maddin
Known For: Modern purveyor of manic, kinky, autobiographical and sometimes silent films.
Influences: The expressionists… Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Murnau, etc.
Masterpieces: His two most recent and most autobiographical.  My Winnipeg and Brand Upon the Brain.
Disasters: zero
Better than you remember: Maddin has yet to make a bad movie, so if you dislike any of them give it another shot.

Awards: Best Canadian Film at TIFF is the highest award that’s thus-far been bestowed on one of cinema’s most creative directors.
Box Office: The Saddest Music in the World has grossed over 600 thousand dollars to date.
Favorite Actor: Guy teamed with Isabella Rossellini for the feature The Saddest Music in the World the short My Father is 100 Years Old and as one of many narrators of Brand Upon the Brain.

No one makes silent films anymore. Even Chaplin eventually relented and made talkies. To make a silent film in these our modern times would be nothing more than a gimmick, right? Except Guy Maddin has found a way to make it work. Mind you, Maddin doesn't only make silent films, but his cinema is always and inevitably influenced by the great silent expressionist masters.  They never seem like an experiment or merely an intellectual exercise.  Every one of Guy Maddin's films is a stylistic homage to films past and every one feels completely modern, exciting and new.  Why?  Because Maddin's best films act as a recreation of memories, whether they be his own bitter loves (Cowards Bend the Knee), controlling parents (Brand Upon the Brain), or legendary hometown (My Winnipeg).  And memories do not exist in straightforward narrative form.  They're jumbled up, over-exaggerated, and intensified by fantasy and fear... as are Guy Maddin movies.  Even Maddin's non-biographical films exist in a world of fantasy where the expressionism becomes a necessity.  After all, if you're going to make a ballet version of Dracula, how else but as a silent film?  Although he may be best known as a silent filmmaker (even though he's technically made more talkies), Maddin's talents don't end when the speaking starts.  Take this line of dialogue from The Saddest Music in the World when Marie de Medeiros has been asked if she's an American: "No I'm not an American.  I'm a nymphomaniac."

Speaking of kinky sex, let's talk about things often found in Guy Maddin movies.  Forty-two years since the Hayes code expired and there's still something that feels just a little forbidden about seeing nudity and sex in a black and white or silent film.  But it's not just Maddin's intention to tittilate.  He's interested in how sex controls and manipulates us (the women in Maddin's films make the women in Truffaut and Godard's films look like Disney princesses).  And there are few areas where he's not unwilling to tread.  A chapter in Cowards Bend the Knee unexpectedly entitled "Fisty" turns out to be about exactly what it sounds like.  Invariably Maddin proceeds with a comedic touch.  He needs to, as the world he portrays is random, cruel and unforgiving (often with his autobiographical stand-in serving as the patsy).  But still there is that touch of non-seriousness that makes watching a Guy Maddin film a fun experience, never a burden.

Take his short The Heart of the World.  The world is ending as a woman cruelly rejects our two protagonists.  Yet there is not a depressing moment.

So what makes Guy Maddin a filmmaker of our time?  He made his debut feature in the 80's.  Followed it up with three features in the 90's and has made five (of his most successful) films since the turn of the century.  Few directors are doing what Guy Maddin does, that is using the medium outside of it's expected form. But be warned, watching a Guy Maddin movie will only make you wonder why it is that so few other directors are determined not to be bound by common cinematic narrative standards.  And those other directors may start to seem a little too average and conventional.  Guy Maddin's latest film, My Winnipeg allowed him to show off his talents to a new extent, adding elements of surrealism and documentary into his uncategorizable style.  Roger Ebert recently named it one of his top 10 films of the past decade. So is Guy Maddin at the peak of his career?  I hope not, as that would suggest an inevitable downturn.  His next feature project is as of yet unannounced, though he continues to make short films in between.  Whatever it is it will be wildly inventive and courtesy of one of the most creative filmmakers working today.


Cameron said...

Ahhh I was hoping Maddin would be included in this installment! Brand Upon The Brain (!) blew me away the first time I saw it. Any news on when My Winnipeg will finally be released on DVD in the States though?


Heart of the World is totally one of the best films of the Aughts (too bad it's a short or it would be on my top 100).

but i have been a bad fan this decade. I've only seen Dracula and Saddest Music. Oh and Sissy Boy Slap Party (another short). OK maybe i'm not a bad fan. But i am not, i admit, a devotee.

steve said...

i really loved how his version of "Dracula" really played up western fears of the east

how better to turn it up several notches than by having a Chinese actor at its core?

Bing147 said...

I've only seen Dracula and My Winnipeg. The first is great and the 2nd is a masterpiece, so I'm looking forward to seeing more.

CanadianKen said...

ARCHANGEL from 1990 is one of my favorite films. Set in Russia in the late teens. And every frame magical. It's available as a companion feature on the Zeitgest DVD TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS. As an added bonus you get the stunning HEART OF THE WORLD. In short, the disc adds up to a wonderfully immersive Maddin experience.

Patrick Gratton said...

I Took a Course tought by Maddin last semester at the University of Manitoba. He's not only a genius but also a generally nice guy

Patrick said...

haha i meant a genuine nice guy

Glenn Dunks said...

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is stunning. Love that movie. So so beautiful. I already really liked My Winnipeg and I quite like Saddest Music, but other than that I haven't seen anything else from him.

notanotherblog said...

I'm not the biggest fan of Dracula, but Brand Upon the Brain and My Winnipeg are classics. And I really really wanna see Gimli before I die.

And I don't work for these people, but I'm plugging some multi-day even thing where Guy Maddin's gonna do lectures in UofT or something.

AR said...

I've seen several Maddin films at this point. The Saddest Music in the World would have to be my favorite, but The Heart of the World and Brand Upon the Brain! are also great. I still need to see Careful, My Winnipeg and Dracula, but I'd agree that he's never made a particularly bad movie (though Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is weirdly disappointing). You do have to kinda "get" his aesthetic to enjoy his films, but there's no denying he's one of the most iconoclastic filmmakers of the last 25 years. Love him.

Andreas said...

Maddin is definitely one of my favorite currently working directors - all that sublime Canadian weirdness, so well expressed in once-dead film language.

I adore Saddest Music as well as Heart of the World, but tragically have yet to see My Winnipeg. I met him briefly at an event in the Twin Cities last summer, and he's surprisingly soft-spoken.