Very Lush and Full of Ostriches

A fair-haired goddess with wisdoms infinite: from the Heart of the World
photo: Zeitgeist

I can never read reviews of my own movies. I'm terrified to find out what the barbaric world thinks of my trembly filmic dreams and, by extension, my overly frangible soul.

As a hedge against catatonic depression, for years I gave all the print reviews to my nonagenarian Granma, who would translate them out loud into Icelandic to her big brother Hjalmar, who in turn would promptly translate them sentence by sentence, with a shrill dental whistle, right back into his own archaic approximation of English, while I listened in a cold sweat.

By the time my review went through this two-stage process, it no longer frightened me, having acquired the flavours of a bowdlerised Nordic folktale. Most of the cruelties were recouched in quaint hearthside metaphors with more charm than stomp. Even better, the not infrequent praise warbled out in the singsong falsetto peculiar to Icelandic typically depicted me as a mighty storytelling slayer of Hollywood ogres, a fair-haired god with wisdoms infinite, or some kind of mischievous lava-sprite—all good things!

I never suspected generous mistranslation, but when these two handy ancestors of mine recently climbed up to Valhalla, I hauled out my clippings to reread the encomia. Without fail, I was shocked at the sorry level of writing in the original English text, film journalism as sloppily hammered together and painted as a kid's klubhouse—no grace of line, no awareness of harmony, no evidence of an eye. And this was the positive press! Really! (I've actually received very little, or no, bad press that can't be easily explained off as reviewer's insecurity.)

If this well-meaning but unfortunate scrivening is the best America's top film critics (some of them very nice people) can come up with, and if I want a fair shake in the press, then I am left no choice but to review, with great reluctance, my own movies, starting right now on the eve of a mini-retrospective of my four features, along with a short, at BAM . . .

Made while he was practically still a child, Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988) is Guy Maddin's primitive first feature. Setting out to be, not juvenile, but willfully childish, Maddin shot the movie in the vernacular spoken by film in the year of its own glorious second childhood—namely 1929. He mixes b&w with toned sequences, mime with talking, locked-down expositional tableaux with bumpily fluid musical numbers. His moral sensibility is strictly precode. His mono soundtrack drones and hums out a comfy wool blanket of ambience—the viewer can sense his own mother tucking him in beneath a sweetly decaying quilt. The director eschews sharp focus in favour of oneiric portraiture and dismisses the literal-mindedness of continuity as inimical to dreaming. He seems always careful to throw the picture together carelessly, with the delirious glee of a finger-painting preschooler.

Gimli's story takes the director back to his own ethnic prehistory in a 19th-century Icelandic settlement in rural Canada, where an epidemic (cleverly unnamed to invite comparison with AIDS) has paved the pioneers with unsightly fissures and landed them all in a makeshift hospice shared with invaluable heat-generating farm animals. Here, in the titular hospital, dark but bouncy tales of death and jealousy exchanged between two men eventually pit the endomorphic raconteur Gunnar against the necrophiliac Einar in a buttock-shredding climax that is probably the most autobiographical moment of Maddin's career.

Though finding a Canadian Ned Sparks or Guy Kibbee for this project proved impossible (virulent strains of Berkeleyism infect almost every frame of the picture), the filmmaker did find a stalwart actor in Kyle McCulloch, whose ability to pitch his mannered performances perfectly to each anachronistic script won him the starring roles in this and the next two features.

The fluency with which Maddin speaks a dead movie-language suggests he suffers from a most plangent nostalgia, that he has spent most of his life looking backward through misty eyes, and with absolutely no idea where he is going. Traveling through a film in this fashion, he bumps into and rearranges much narrative furniture, often standing still to weep while he and his viewers get their bearings.

In Archangel (1990), all of Maddin's backward-gazing characters grope about in the murk of their memories in a sad attempt to regain loves and comforts lost. Archangel is a full-blown amnesia melodrama set deep in the confused winter immediately following the Great War—the last war designed exclusively for the pleasure of children. (The uniforms worn in battle made all the combatants look like scaled-up toy soldiers, and Maddin himself described the movie as a "Goya painting etched upon a child's windowpane in frost.") Another part-talkie, this is Maddin's most delirious feature; there is a narrative, but it lies buried somewhere beneath a fluffy snowfall of forgetfulness. All the characters, being amnesiacs, have forgotten the war is over, and between naps continue to fight. They fight painful facts, they fight the love gods, they fight through thick mists of Vaseline. (The Archangel camera crew went through a whole keg of this unguent.) Soldier and viewer alike fight confusion, unsuccessfully. This is said to be the director's favorite among his movies.

Careful (1992) is a pro-incest mountain träumerei shot in the two-strip technicolour used in that holy year of 1929. Maddin's most fully realised project, it's also his most accessible. His longtime collaborator George Toles was possessed by a high-altitude Hamletism when he wrote the meticulously detailed script as a mad tribute to Herman Melville's Pierre. (Careful is actually much closer in feel to its source than the recent adaptation by Leos Carax.) Prairie-bound Maddin was obsessed by mountains, which he had never ever seen, when he shot it. McCulloch gives his strongest performance as a Butler Gymnasium student who must endure paddy-whacks of oedipal privation to win his beloved's heart. Both violent and cozy! The colours are extremely lurid.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) drifts away from the familiar confines of the archaic film (it's shot in 35mm full colour with a contemporary aspect ratio and nary an intertitle) and into the deep waters of language, and therefore decadence. The dialogues are drawn from the ascetic Knut Hamsun's Pan, then corrupted by dollops of Prosper Merimée. The theatrical decors are inspired by fevered Gustave Moreau. Toles gave actors Frank Gorshin and Shelley Duvall plenty to say, and Maddin let them say it all as musically as possible. Very lush and full of ostriches! Has the strongest final reel in the auteur's filmography.

Running before each feature at the retrospective is the five-minute agitprop pastiche The Heart of the World (2000). Some have described this frenzied feature-compressed-into-a-short as a call to arms meant to topple the complaisantly flaccid cinema of today, a plea to reinvent movies from scratch, or a reverent myth which finally places film at the very center of the universe where it belongs. Maybe Guy Maddin, that great lava-sprite, has been expressing all these impassioned sentiments since the very beginning of his career. Who am I to say?

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