A stranger from the north

Guy Maddin’s creepy, mannered cinema worms its way into the Walker.

by Tom Horgen

Guy Maddin makes family melodramas.

That’s what the Canadian director will tell you, anyway. Dreamy, family melodramas.

And he’s isn’t lying. Although when his name comes up, it’s often mentioned along with John Waters and David Lynch – guys notorious for perverse, bizarro filmmaking and not weepy melodrama.

But comparisons to Waters and Lynch are a little misguided. While Maddin is eccentric, the idiosyncrasies in his filmmaking have a deliberate quality, an exactness that defies such comparisons.

To fully grasp this calculated madness, it’s wise to step back and survey the director’s entire body of work. The Walker Art Center intends to illustrate Maddin’s unique place in the cinema with a career retrospective that picks up Friday night with a personal appearance by the director.

So while melodrama is apparent in Maddin’s work, it is his total co-optation of early cinema aesthetics that distinguishes his films. He is obsessed with silent-era filmmaking and the transition period that ushered in talkies. His features, beginning with his 1988 debut, “Tales from the Gimli Hospital,” often employ gritty black-and-white, splashes of tinted color, jarring title cards, “bad” sound dubbing and an abundance of overacting.

It’s this pastiche of dead film aesthetics that allows Maddin to foreground his politics in his movie’s visual style. His 2002 film, “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary,” uses many of his signature tricks to transform the vampire myth into a meditation on xenophobia. The film opens with blood oozing across a map of Europe while blaring words appear, warning that “others” are coming “from the East.” As you might expect, Dracula is Chinese. And to complicate your reading, the entire film is performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

While Maddin’s choices always seem calculated and thought out, his filmmaking philosophy still has him walking a tightrope. On one hand, his style provides us with an experience that opposes the slickness of Hollywood, where getting lost in fantasy is dogma. But just as Maddin wants his audience to always be aware that it’s watching a film, he is still concerned with story and emotion.

“I like a movie that aggressively says, ‘I’m artifice but I’m still telling you something that’s true about you,’ ” Maddin said.

It is this sense of truth, this piercing look at the gooiest of human emotions, that Maddin also focuses on in his films. For him, the best way to examine the human condition is through melodrama. And it is the hyper-stylized melodrama of the 1950s Maddin adores most. He points to Douglas Sirk, the genre’s master, as the prime example of someone who pumped tangible feeling into a genre notorious for dulling its audience with flamboyant colors and overacting.

“Everyone thinks melodrama is life exaggerated, but it’s Sirk that convinced me it’s life uninhibited,” Maddin said.

The director’s synthesis of artifice and uninhibited emotion is most evident in his masterpiece, “Careful.” The 1992 film focuses on a mountain community where everyone speaks in whispers for fear of an avalanche. The repressive atmosphere leads people down paths of misbehavior – often times sexual. Maddin’s mimicry of the primal sound and two-strip Technicolor of the 1930s gives the film a tangible eeriness that further mocks the early 1990s trend of molestation movies.

“Careful” has an anti-repression underpinning, but Maddin jokingly refers to it as his “pro-incest” movie. And as it is with many eccentrics, Maddin, who exudes modesty, often attributes the political and formal complexity that others see in his films to a penchant for being mischievous.