Guy Maddin Selection (ACMI Virtual Cinémathèque)

Canadian film director Guy Maddin has a very distinctive aesthetic. Heavily influenced by silent cinema, his films utilise a wide range of techniques and materials to recreate the look and feel of old films which have not been well looked after, exhibiting signs of scratches, overexposure, missing frames, and narrative jumps suggesting that the original prints are no longer complete. They resemble reconstructed memories of dream fragments based on a past which never existed. Having previously encountered his expressionist ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) and his musical comedy The Saddest Music in the World (2003), leading to a long-term fruitless pursuit in quest of the limited edition DVD box set The Quintessential Guy Maddin!, I was excited to discover that the ACMI Virtual Cinémathèque recently curated a selection of his work.

My Winnipeg (2007)

Made available via DocPlay, this is far from being a conventional documentary. Framed as the muddled, dreamlike reminiscences of the filmmaker, tossing and turning in a train carriage as he tries to leave Winnipeg behind, providing film noir-tinged narration about a city of somnambulists stumbling through the night streets, it takes over 10 minutes until anything resembling a representation or recreation of the past begins to appear. Maddin introduces the idea that he is trying to recreate the memories of his life in 1963, and to that purpose has recruited his mother and a bunch of actors resembling his siblings to live with him for a month in a recreation of his house. He claims that, as his father is dead, he was planning to leave him out of the picture, but at his mother’s insistence that he be present in some way, he has dumped a pile of earth in the middle of the living room to represent his father’s grave, covering it with a rug, which apparently meets his mother’s approval. Except that his mother is also portrayed by an actor, and the person on screen who is purportedly Maddin himself is actually another actor, both of whom appear on the television screen in their living room as the stars of a supposed weekly series called “Ledge-Man” in which a man threatens to throw himself off a ledge but is talked down by his mother. The layering of artifice upon artifice completely throws into question whether any of the biographical information in the film is actually true, and if so, what.

Layered in among the more “personal” material are sections dealing with different aspects of the history of Winnipeg. The use of vintage footage within these sections at least makes them appear to be more authentic, although they spiral off into realms of disjointed fantasy which can only bear a small resemblance to real events. A sequence dealing with a fad for spiritualism in 1920s Winnipeg dispenses with the otherwise almost constant narration, providing a dramatisation of a séance among city councillors and bordello madames which transforms into a ballet performed by the medium and two entranced young séance attendees. An imagined Nazi invasion of Winnipeg in 1942 is revealed to be based on a (perhaps) real event in which a troupe of 5000 Nazi-uniform-clad government employees descended on the town in an attempt to drum up business for war bonds.

According to a self-penned review of his own film: “Maddin was commissioned by Canada’s The Documentary Channel to make this portrait of his hometown. Back in Canada, debate over whether the resultant picture was a documentary or not was virulent enough to sink the channel.” While it’s difficult to fully extract whatever elements of fact are buried within My Winnipeg without extensive research, I enjoyed it thoroughly on its own terms and would happily recommend it.

The Heart of the World (2000)

A madcap compression of a Russian silent epic fever dream into 6½ minutes. Two brothers, Nikolai (a mortician) and Osip (a passion play actor playing Jesus) are rivals for the love of Anna, a scientist who has discovered the (literal) heart of the world is about to die and everyone is doomed. While Osip takes on the persona of his part and Nikolai constructs explicitly phallic weaponry, a wicked industrialist attempts to take advantage of Anna. Everything escalates to an ambiguous climax, propelled in a delirious frenzy by the frantic musical accompaniment.

Seances (2016)

A collaborative web-based project which generates original ephemeral short films, existing only for the duration of their viewing before disappearing into the ether. The film I watched began with Tuva, a night club singer jerking spasmodically while singing (in a unique fashion) the tale of Gong, who (shortly after divorcing her husband) crashes her motorcycle and is delivered to his surgical care for her recovery. Suddenly the same actress (Caroline Dhavernas) is now Rachel, a bartender with a crush on a fireman who tells tall tales but runs from the sight of a candle flame. When she follows him to apologise, he accidentally kills her and tries to confess, but when he is not believed he returns to the site of her death and sets up a stall selling “cabbages grown by a murderer. At this point we return to Gong post-operation, who has has the memories of her divorce removed, before a brief vignette with snake-mummy-women and the conclusion of Tuva’s song. The footage shifts between B&W and queasy colour, with occasional random intrusions of grainy VHS footage breaking through the digitised film stock and intruding crocodile heads or more everyday sights. Difficult to get a grasp on, but you can generate your own disorienting experience if you wish at the National Film Board of Canada’s Seances website.

Night Mayor (2009)

Tells the story of Nihad Ademi, an inventor who supposedly learned how to convert the sight of the aurora borealis into music and pictures, which he then broadcast throughout Canada. The real Nihad Ademi (who plays himself) is a documentary film maker who was held in a concentration camp during the Bosnian war. The workshop in which the fictional Ademi carries out his operations, with the assistance of his family, feels like the inside of a camera and the images generated by the aurora gradually change from abstract splashes of light to documentary depictions of Canadian life, before government troops arrive to close down his workshop and prevent him from communicating his art. Maddin’s fantastical scenario is surprisingly strong at conveying an impression of Ademi’s experience of being silenced – the feeling of his film came through strongly even before I looked into Ademi’s background and realised just how relevant it was.

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