Fairy Tales for Men

Winnipeg director Guy Maddin is one of Canada’s most challenging auteurs.

My library of Canadian film books is not much larger now than it was when I first started studying the subject more decades ago than I care to remember. At least in English Canada, the list of major works about Canadian filmmakers has been fairly modest. Shorter articles on the subject are more abundant, of course, and anyone working in a post-secondary film studies program would be able to track down a respectable number of essays about individual films, film genres, filmmakers, and the material and regulatory frameworks in which films have been made in this country to underpin yet another article on the subject. The periodicals Canadian Journal of Film Studies and CineAction have always included contributions on Canadian film, and one can usually find a journal somewhere in the world that will happily accept a piece on the films made in this country.

Only a handful of feature-length filmmakers have generated sustained scholarly interest. Most Canadians would probably have difficulty naming more than one or two, anyway. Those who have received the most attention are, not surprisingly, those whose works frequently show up at international festivals, on Air Canada flights and as the subject of essays in non–Canadian-based journals, Film Quarterly or Screen. David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan easily share the load of critical attention, each Toronto-based artist having achieved to date both a healthy body of feature-length material and international acclaim to merit book-length studies. Of that generation only Quebec-based Denys Arcand can compete for writerly attention in this country, his films having crossed over into the English-speaking market with remarkable success.

In all three examples, we can point to distinctive bodies of work, each almost as recognizable as a Chanel handbag. One could probably identify an Egoyan picture after watching only about five minutes of film lifted straight out of any segment of one of his dramas. Consider how much the more recent Chloe looks and feels like Exotica or Felicia’s Journey of the 1990s. Cronenberg’s work is more varied and accomplished, but to the trained eye there is no mistaking the crisply edited frames, the psychological tension or the relentless dissolution of the human body in any one of his achievements. Consider the common themes of Videodrome, Dead Ringers or A History of Violence, to name only three exceptionally fine films separated by decades, all bearing the unmistakable fingerprints of the director. Arcand’s work shows a steady consistency as well, notably a focus on ensemble casts and a straightforward, witty, visual style common to classic American moviemaking. A good ear can catch an Arcand film of the 1980s and ’90s just by listening to a little dialogue.

There are so many more features made annually in this country on which fingerprints are not discernible—not recognizable ones, in any case. Most could be identified by the genre they fall into, not the personal style of their creators. Could one find a signature on, say, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, Zeyda and the Hitman or Hank and Mike? Of course, one would have had to watch these films in the first place to attempt an answer. The most acclaimed and widely circulated English examples of 2009—Cairo Time, Crackie and The Trotsky—were all debut features from still emerging artists: Ruba Nadda, Sherry White and Jacob Tierney respectively. It remains to be seen whether any of these promising filmmakers will be developing a repertoire particular to a vision and style we will call their own.

Ever since the late 1950s, when the contributors to French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma famously extolled the moral and aesthetic authority of the director, we have been reading the best and most enduring films as expressions of personal vision and talent. It is hard and probably futile to shake this auteurist view of cinema, regardless of how displaced authorship has become, or how computer-generated the screen might now be. François Truffaut’s accepted maxim—that “there are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”—underscores our continuing faith in an intelligent design theory of filmmaking. A smart film must be the product of a smart creator. Inspired by the French New Wave rebels of Cahiers du cinéma, Andrew Sarris famously championed this position in the United States, and today every self-respecting film student of the period should be able to describe Sarris’s well-constructed pantheon in which his film gods played.

For a short while, a focus on the filmmaker as the major agent of creation and production fell out of favour. Rattled by Roland Barthes and his declaration of the death of the author in the late 1960s, readings of text—literary and filmic—that invoked authorial intention, thereby implicitly establishing a tautological method of interpretation, were pushed aside. The text was, for Barthes, a “tissue of quotations” drawn from many cultural and linguistic sources, many incidental to whatever intentions the author might have had. The reader suddenly acquired more responsibility for producing meaning than the author. Michel Foucault modified Barthes’s position somewhat by establishing an “author-function,” and so a more complex understanding of the role of the author-creator took hold. The author was no longer dead, nor was he merely resting. He was seen to be occupying one role among many elements in the act of creation, signifying a set of practices specific to the social and historical conditions in which his book was being written or his film was being made. It is as if the watchmaker theory of creation had shifted to the watch, to the object itself as a nexus of layered social and historical practices. This interpretive slide away from the creator to the work liberated criticism to a large extent, opening up the practice of reading films to much more textured, socially grounded interpretive approaches. In effect, it annihilated Truffaut’s aphorism, rendering even the notion of good or bad directors moot. Thus freed from the tyranny of tying a film to its maker, a reader could speak to genres of all kinds, especially the most traditionally debased or ignored, often the most popular examples.

But, like all good artists, distinctive filmmakers have a way of exerting themselves. Auteurist approaches to understanding cinema remain both alluring and powerful. They are nothing if not reassuring, because they centre the source of meaning back with the creator, offering even the most agnostic among us the comfort of an origination myth. And when a body of film challenges and provokes audiences, defying easy interpretation or categorization, then the appeal of auteurism is even stronger.

It follows, therefore, that Guy Maddin has emerged as one of this country’s most observed auteurs. The Winnipeg-based filmmaker is the subject of two major scholarly studies in this year alone, and of at least two other monographs, several articles and a number of published interviews in the last decade. Who knows how many masters and doctoral dissertations within and beyond this country have taken up the man and his works for analysis and explication, or how many film clubs, festivals and film marathons have focused on screening his material? We should point out that Maddin is only half way through his career, if we assume he will have an average life span.

Maddin’s repertoire is marked with such a relentless consistency of personal style and subject matter that it would be foolish to separate the man from his work. Only a Guy Maddin could have produced a Tales from the Gimli Hospital or a Saddest Music in the World. Only a Guy Maddin could have conjured the strange, tortured world of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, let alone come up with those titles. Two recent critical works are openly auteurist in their approaches, unapologetically viewing film accomplishments through the lens of their creator. Both David Church’s edited collection Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin and William Beard’s full-length study Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin acknowledge a hunger for understanding the filmmaker’s uniquely vexing work in large part through an understanding of Maddin himself, and each aims to satisfy a spectator’s need to make sense of what, perhaps, only a film studies scholar has the patience to explore.

Church’s Playing with Memories is a handy compendium of reflections on “vision” and thematic preoccupations, with some close readings of particular films. Geoff Pevere’s brief foreword labours to mark Maddin as quintessentially Canadian in his steady beavering away at the obsessive task of filmmaking, “dragging wood to water, no matter how much the current insists on washing those efforts into splintered oblivion.” Fortunately, the weight of this extended metaphor easily collapses in most of the ensuing essays, which are less concerned with whether Maddin embodies Canadian cinema than with the particulars of his aesthetic practice. The tendency to nationalize the auteur yields to a curiosity about his peculiar image repertoire, a suite that almost always includes grotesque objects of desire, exaggerated expressions of feeling, characters suffering loss, amnesia or delirium, all of these caught within the stylized trappings of the silent cinema.

Beard’s Into the Past is an impressive in-depth look at all of the major works in the Maddin inventory and more than a glance at almost everything else Maddin has ever produced. This immaculate achievement comprises a close set of readings and analysis that could only have been driven by a scholar happily lost in the funhouse of the material. Both Church and Beard (sounds like a Freudian brotherhood Maddin might have invented) draw on the known facts of Maddin’s childhood and unusual apprenticeship in filmmaking to frame discussions of his works. They each emphasize, as Maddin himself does in interviews, the psychic burden of losing both his brother to suicide and his father to a stroke at a young age; the vivid experience of an Icelandic-Canadian ancestry; the slow drifting toward film classes at the University of Manitoba and eventual professional collaboration with professor George Toles; the fascination with the silent cinema model and its fulsome expression of the emotional life; the irresistible appeal of the early works of Bunuel and Dali, of Murneau and Sirk and other masters of melodrama; the simultaneous sense of play and sincerity that characterizes the tone and texture of his work.

I have always thought of Maddin’s films as fairy tales for adult men. The conspicuous male gaze of his film frames women as exotic, curious and sometimes threatening creatures. Male protagonists, such as Twilight’s Peter Glahn or The Saddest Music in the World’s Chester and Roderick Kent, do a lot of wandering in forests of confusing signs, often unable to figure out just what is going on. Indeed, in a terrific interview conducted by Beard and included in Church’s book of essays, Maddin admits he makes “movies that are mostly for boys.” This might explain why this reviewer has often felt left out of so much of the drama, even while acknowledging just how much drama seemed to be taking place. In the same interview, Maddin also speaks of his literary and cinematic touchstones:

I like those old Lon Chaney movies and you know I love melodrama, but I also like fairy tales. They’re all kissing cousins: surrealism, fairy tales, and melodrama. These are little allegories of disability where someone’s inner wounds are shown expressionistically, outwardly. So I’m comfortable with things like that.

Here Maddin offers up quite a handy nutshell, one that Beard cracks wide open to explore how to make sense of so much texture and suggestiveness. Moving from one film to the other in scrupulous detail, Beard is clearly drawing on Maddin’s own account of his “little allegories” to appreciate what we see on screen. In particular, Beard is really helpful when examining the silent or “primitive” film techniques deployed in Maddin’s work. So many of the strange and often alienating effects of the film spectacle draw on those distancing strategies. But there is so much more. Beard offers nothing less than a “blitzkrieg” of detailed analysis, a word he uses to describe Maddin’s own method of combining strange elements. So it is that the early and not entirely successful experiment of Tales from the Gimli Hospital—which clearly draws on the ancestral Icelandic connection with the province of Manitoba and less clearly on the historical details of an epidemic befalling the town of Gimli, not to mention several narrative lines involving thwarted romance and sexual jealousy—invites us to consider how it “strikes deeper than you expect it to.” And that Archangel (1990), less well known than Gimli but more critically appreciated, merits about 40 pages of detailed scene-by-scene analysis. Beard moves insistently through the Maddin repertoire, carrying forward his insights and observations on earlier films to lend more weight and texture to later ones, building an exhaustive case for the unique and coherent vision of the alternative filmmaker. By the time one gets to My Winnipeg, to date Maddin’s most popular film, the reader can more confidently anticipate the dynamics at work and dare to interpret the strange juxtapositions that bring personal and public histories into play with each other.

Here, again, Beard slices and dices the complex structural framework on which this documentary, or “docu-fantasia,” in Maddin’s words, hangs. And just as Maddin works from the “trivial to the genuinely important,” so, too, does Beard trace the source, nuance and suggestiveness of almost every detail. The subtitles of this chapter alone reveal so much about the rich cinematic landscape of My Winnipeg: “The Forks, the Lap, the Fur,” “Treasure hunt,” “Sleepwalking in Winnipeg,” “Cold is good,” “Eaton’s,” and so on. The icy current that runs through this documentary and every dramatic feature that precedes it is informed by a simultaneous embrace and loathing of the past, a complicated response fuelled by an urge toward nostalgia and a profound suspicion of its reliability. If this all sounds too dreary, we are reminded throughout of Maddin’s subversive humour, his habit of sometimes mocking his own pretensions, of exaggerating his claims to history and truth, and of teasing us to laugh, even inappropriately, when the spirit moves us. In so many ways, as Beard observes, My Winnipeg invites the spectator to think about his or her past in similar ways, as occupying a place of personal myth and public narrative, a singularly experienced place we call home.

Ultimately, with both Church’s collection of essays and especially Beard’s dogged study in hand, one comes to a much fuller appreciation and understanding of the strange world of Guy Maddin’s cinema. It is not at all certain that one would like these films any more or less than one already does, but it sure helps to see them with far more than a little knowledge.