To learn where Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s head was as the turn of the millennium approached, it pays to watch the 1997 documentary Waiting for Twilight, shot during production of his fourth feature, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. His most ambitious film to that point, Nymphs found Maddin working for the first time with name actors in a studio environment that quickly became suffocating. This was on top of the cancellation of a project that potentially could have starred Leni Reifenstahl and Christopher Lee, so it’s no wonder Maddin winds up being interviewed in bed, depressed about his prospects. “Just close the mausoleum lid on me,” he deadpans early on. “I don’t really feel like working on movies anymore.”
Fortunately for Maddin, the Toronto International Film Festival extended an invitation to make one of the “preludes” for its 2000 edition. The result was The Heart of the World, an energetic amalgam of German Expressionist sets and Eisensteinian montage that packs an entire melodrama’s worth of plot into six glorious minutes. Duly reinvigorated, Maddin was ready when Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet asked him to film their production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula for posterity. This kicked off one of his most fertile periods, yielding five features in as many years, including a triptych of semi-autobiographical fantasias inspired by his memories of coming of age in chilly Winnipeg, Manitoba. There’s a world of difference, however, between 2003’s noir-tinged Cowards Bend the Knee and 2007’s My Winnipeg, which was commissioned by The Documentary Channel but is still given over to delirious flights of fancy. Helpfully, both are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, along with six of his other features and a brace of shorts to celebrate Maddin’s 65th birthday on February 28th.
For the Maddin novice seeking an entry point into his wide-ranging oeuvre, 2002’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is an ideal candidate. Freed of the need to come up with a plot to apply his fetish for early-cinema techniques to, Maddin concentrates on filming the performances in interesting ways – if nothing else, this is a dynamic dance film – and inserting intertitles and onscreen text where appropriate. (For example, Renfield is identified as an “EATER OF BUGS.”) He also employs computer-aided tinting at various points, most evocatively the green fog that heralds the arrival of Dracula in London. The most obvious Maddin touch, though, is the glass coffin Lucy’s mother lives in and the industrial-grade ventilator it’s hooked up to, presaging the presence of similar devices in 2006’s Brand Upon the Brain!
His next two features, both released in 2003, deftly illustrate the different modes he’s accustomed to working in. Where Cowards Bend the Knee began as a gallery installation, viewed through a succession of peepholes which eliminated the need for sync sound, The Saddest Music in the World is made up of a succession of elaborate production numbers, with star turns by Isabella Rossellini (a Maddin muse in waiting), Mark McKinney of The Kids in the Hall, and Maria de Medeiros. While Maddin takes the sole writing credit on Cowards (which is set in a sinister, alternate-universe Winnipeg where his Aunt Lil’s beauty salon doubles as a bordello and abortion clinic), on Saddest Music he shares it with frequent collaborator George Toles, their work based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. (The transposition of the action to Winnipeg in 1933 – “The World Capital of Sorrow in the Great Depression” – is one of their many alterations.) In spite of their differences in scale, the films have elements in common, including amnesia, amputation, and hockey. The latter comes into play when the Winnipeg Maroons and Russian team from Cowards get a cameo in one of Saddest Music’s many musical numbers.
Not included in the Criterion Channel series in spite of the fact that it’s in the Collection – spine #440 – is Brand Upon the Brain!, the second film in which actor Darcy Fehr plays a character called “Guy Maddin.” This time he’s an adult returning to the lighthouse/orphanage he once called home, a journey that stirs up all kinds of oedipal conflicts. Subtitled “A Remembrance in 12 Chapters,” the film allowed Maddin (again in collaboration with Toles) to deal obliquely with the fraught relationship between his sister and mother, who employs all manner of eavesdropping technology to keep close tabs on her children. Their father, meanwhile, remains a distant, unknowable figure, appropriate since he was previously the subject of Maddin’s first short, The Dead Father.
A similar family dynamic is at work in My Winnipeg, in which Maddin cast Ann Savage, star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s fatalistic film noir Detour, as his mother. Revisiting the biographical details first brought to light in Waiting for Twilight, Maddin uses the documentary form to mythologize his past and that of his hometown to the point where it’s difficult to tell what’s true and what’s a fabrication. Are there really city ordinances allowing sleepwalkers bearing keys to their former addresses to enter them at will and requiring the homeless to live on rooftops? Probably not, but “If Day” – when uniformed “Nazis” invaded the city in 1942 – was real enough, as is Maddin’s disgust when the subject turns to the civic mismanagement that resulted in the demolition of his beloved Winnipeg Arena, site of many of his formative experiences.
In the next decade, Maddin continued down his idiosyncratic path, frequently working with brothers Evan and Galen Johnson. First, though, came the surreal 2011 gangster saga Keyhole, starring Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, and Kevin McDonald (making him Maddin’s second Kids in the Hall alumnus). Impressive as that lineup is, it was surpassed by 2015’s The Forbidden Room and 2016’s Seances, two intertwined projects made in concert with the National Film Board of Canada. Along with game actors Louis Negin (a Maddin fixture from Cowards on), Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, and countless others, Maddin and the Johnsons sought to bring dozens of lost films back from the celluloid netherworld. In The Forbidden Room, the effect can be overwhelming, a smorgasbord of nested stories endlessly circling back to where they started. With Seances, it’s tantalizingly ephemeral, with no way of viewing the same film twice.
For an encore, Maddin, Johnson, and Johnson stitched together 2017’s The Green Fog using footage from 101 films and television shows shot in San Francisco to recreate the plot of Hitchcock’s Vertigo using a kind of dream logic. In so doing, they recast the central role of John “Scottie” Ferguson with an array of actors including Rock Hudson, Vincent Price, John Saxon, Fritz Weaver, Karl Malden, Dean Martin, Joseph Cotton, Jeff Bridges, Richard Gere, Humphrey Bogart, Chuck Norris, Anthony Quinn, Matthew Modine, O.J. Simpson, Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland, and Ricardo Montalban, effectively making The Green Fog Maddin’s most star-studded film yet. They also brought his 21st century output full-circle by opening on a ship arriving in port accompanied by a green-tinted fog, recalling Dracula’s dramatic entrance 15 years earlier. It remains to be seen what will emerge from the fog of Maddin’s fevered imagination next, but it’s sure to be a sight to behold.
“Directed by Guy Maddin” is now streaming on The Criterion Channel.