I was once queried by two solemn early-movie devotees, "What’s the greatest year in the history of cinema?" As if there was a proper answer. "1933?" I ventured. Wrong! "It’s 1932," I was informed. Well, what about 1929-1931, when movies were strivingearnestly, clumsily, desperatelyto speak? The Canadian filmmaker, Guy Maddin, has forged an odd, magnificent career reimagining, in loving comic fashion, the semi-halycon cinema of 1929-1931, Hollywood, mannered and stilted, stumbling to find itself. There’s something Borgesian about Maddin’s archaic celluloid-world, an oeuvre of unburied "lost" movies which never earlier existed --except in a musty film library of the mind.
Maddin, who lives in faraway-and-frozen Winnepeg, is a film critics’ filmmaker, and many in my profession have written eloquently about Maddin’s inspired comic vision. Though the essays have bolstered his career, Maddin remains a "cult" item with a coterie of exuberant fans, those who have chortled a dozen times through his daffy features. Why can’t such a fabulous filmmaker be more popular? Perhaps it’s frustration about Maddin’s absurd obscurity that led critics to oversell his recent The Saddest Music in the World, writing about it as a madcap crossover film for just about everybody. Bring Aunt Ida and Uncle Fred! Not true. Though it was Maddin’s largest-budget film by far, and it features Isabella Rossellini, The Saddest Music is pretty opaque, a difficult entry point to "it’s a Maddin, Maddin, Maddin Maddin, world." I’ve had conversations with sophisticates who were prompted to The Saddest Music by the gung-ho reviews, but who just couldn’t get into it. What I’m saying: "Give Guy a chance. Race to your video store, and get out Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Maddin’s uproarious first feature, about a mysterious epidemic befalling a 19th century Canadian-Icelandic settlement. Then go for Careful (1992), Maddin’s feature masterwork, described aptly by its cineaste as "a pro-incest mountain traumeri shot in the two-strip Technicolor used in that holy year of 1929." For a recent work, check out Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), a wild-and-bloody ballet dance version of Bram Stoker. Finally, see if you can locate Maddin’s 2001 short, Heart of the World, which is Eisensteinian montage made ha-ha funny, and probably the greatest movie on the globe of the new millenium.
And for advanced Maddinites? I recommend a recent book of his musings, From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings ($19.95 paper, Coach House Books, Toronto). What you get at chbooks.com: an amusing intro by Toronto critic, Mark Peranson. Pages ripped from Maddin’s ongoing diary, which veer wildy from what-I-ate-today minutia to maudlin erotic longings to thick, almost Faulknerian family memories. Jaunty, astute, journalist assignments, for Film Comment or The Village Voice. Lists: movies to watch, books to read, diets to follow, exercises to do, ways to stop being a self-pitying sloth. Treatments of films, made and not made.
Maddin is a delicious writer, and this is the best-scrivened book by a film director since John Waters’s tomes of the 1980s. Maddin’s movie reviews, usually of long-ago "B" pictures, are amazing humorous stuff, Manny Farber jazz-solo riffs and beyond. Road to Glory (1936):"A gorgeously mudded-and-mustard-gassed and outright oneiric war drama melodrama that crams every human fear and desire into the baggiest jodhpurs ever worn by a Hollywood leading man." Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels (1930): "The young millionaire and eventual collector of his own urine was a perfectionist obsessed with aviation when he shot the spectacular dogfights that zigzag across this photoplay. . . . Long may his toenails grow!" The family memoirs are mordant longings by the guilt-ridden Maddin for his long-deceased aunt, father, and brother, some of this sorrowfulness eased by his soulmate relationship with Jilian, his beloved daughter. Did Maddin really do what he claims here, as a sluttish lover of both Hollywood melodrama queen, Joan Crawford, and Danish filmmaker, Carl Dreyer? Teach an advanced university course called "Dreyer and Joan’?
(Boston Phoenix - August, 2004)