Academic journal article CineAction

Thoroughly Modern Maddin

Academic journal article CineAction

Thoroughly Modern Maddin

Article excerpt

  I do feel a bit like Dracula in Winnipeg. I'm safe, but can travel
  abroad and suck up all sorts of ideas from other filmmakers--both dead
  and undead. Then I can come back here and hoard these tropes and
  cinematic devices.... And I sit here in almost eternal darkness all
  winter long and try to make these dead things live.
  --Guy Maddin in a 2004 interview

Wrapping up the fraught production of his fourth feature, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), Guy Maddin confessed that, "I'm sick of the twenties. I've hung around in the twenties longer than the twenties hung around in the twenties." (1) Indeed, Maddin's habitation of the seminal decade of modernism could be said to date as far back as his formative undergraduate friendship with fellow Winnipegger John Boles Harvie, who not only shared with Maddin his encyclopedic knowledge and cinephiliac obsession with the silent cinema, but immersed himself in the role: speaking, dressing, and acting like a twenties dandy. (2) While Maddin's persona is resolutely contemporary, his cinematic twenties are the navel point of an idiosyncratic but highly original and increasingly influential engagement with the phenomenon of modernism in its myriad facets, a phenomenon that can be said to have stretched from the Romantics through to the end of the Second World War. Consequently, when he accepted the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's offer that his next feature after Twilight be a film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel, Dracula, he was not in fact escaping from his twenties aesthetic, but stretching its centripetal force into an earlier thread of modernism. In this article, I will discuss the many strands of Maddin's modernism, from the historical aspects of a Manitoban chronology extending from the 1870s to the middle of the twentieth century; to the primitivist credo of one's life as a performance, one's art as a melodramatic refraction of one's life, and one's life and art as wholly at odds with the establishment conventions of professionalism; to the birth of the cinema itself in 1895 and the fecund decades of its childhood search for its most effective identity; to the modernist obsession with memory, nostalgia, the past, and buried truth. Moreover, I will argue that it is through Maddin's peculiar engagement with the era of modernism that we can best distinguish his work from the labels of postmodernism, camp, or pastiche to which it has so often been reduced.

The Garage Modernist

  It's sort of like the Ramones. I just refuse to learn how to play my
  instrument. The Ramones will never go away, as far as I'm concerned. I
  work more slowly than they did, but I hope that by the time I go away
  I'll have a nice body of work.
  --Guy Maddin in a 2004 interview

Central to Maddin's persona as a filmmaker is an insistence on his status as an amateur, autodidact dilettante, an insistence customarily framed in terms of laziness and neurosis. In interview after interview, he has honed the slacker image of the aimless twenty-something who got into films because he couldn't be bothered to do anything else. Still, unlike what we could perhaps call the mainstream American slackers, the video-store, computer game and internet addicts that followed Tarantino's inspirational lead, Maddin's version taps the modernist lode of self-mortification rather than the late twentieth-century keg of self-promotion. Commenting on his decision to publish the film diaries from the production of The Saddest Music in the World in the Village Voice, Maddin sounds genuinely tormented by the embarrassment their exposure will cause him. (3) Deadpan episodes like the opening inability to plant a tree from a sapling in his backyard to commemorate the start of the production read like the absurdist failures of Dostoyevsky or Kafka: frozen ground, skyrocketing overtime rates, and irreparable damage to the garden of his beloved and deceased Aunt Lil echo classic motifs of loser modernism. …

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