Filmmaker Guy Maddin has been described as “the Canadian David Lynch” for his surreal, visceral films. His unique vision has gained both critical admiration and an impressive cult following for his many shorts and feature-length films such as Tales from the Gimli Hospital, The Saddest Music in the World and Dracula: Tales from A Virgin’s Diary.
Born on February 28 1956 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Guy was named for 1950s Western B-movie star Guy Madison. His father was a prominent hockey coach and national team manager, and his mother worked as the proprietor of a local beauty shop. As a child, Maddin spent time at both his parent’s workplaces, viewing the everyday eccentricities of the players and the fans involved in Canada’s unofficial national sport, and of the women who frequented his mother’s beauty salon. He was an abnormally imaginative child, but became even more so when a common cold developed into an intense neurological condition that resulted in strange physical sensations that made him feel as though he was constantly being touched by ghostly fingers. Add to this his father’s Willy Loman-esque life and early death, and his brother’s suicide, and you have the building blocks of either a repressed, angry introvert or a budding artistic mind.
But Maddin didn’t consider a career in film until he was in his late 20s. At first he aspired to a career that is often the enemy of many a creative artist, finance. He attended the University of Winnipeg, where he graduated with a degree in economics. He spent the next few years working as a bank teller and house painter during the week, and watching countless films with his friends John Paizs and Steve Snyder on the weekends.
After watching his friends acquire careers in the film business, Paizs as a filmmaker, and Snyder as a professor of production at the University of Manitoba, Maddin decided to put his own knowledge to use and make his first film.
The 26-minute black-and-white The Dead Father (1986) tells the story of the death of a family patriarch in an artificially aged, 1950s melodramatic style. It`s chock full of the stylistic adventurousness and quirky sensibilities that would become recognizable as his unique style over the next 15 years.
Two years later, Maddin had finished his first feature film. Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) takes place in turn-of-the-century Gimli, Manitoba, as it recovers from the effects of a smallpox epidemic. In a surreal, expressionistic world, a melodramatic competition between two patients at the hospital becomes a life-and-death struggle. Tales from the Gimli Hospital was shown at film festivals and critics drew comparisons between it the work of surrealist masters David Lynch, Luis Bunel, and F.W. Murnau. Tales from the Gimli Hospital struck a chord within audiences, and the film continues to be shown as a midnight feature in New York theatres.
Unlike most filmmakers who achieve success with their first full-length film, Maddin was reluctant to abandon his passion for the short film and continued to alternate his features with short films. During the two years between Tales from the Gimli Hospital and his next feature film, he made three shorts. In 1989, he released the seven-minute Mauve Decade, which tells the story of idle bonvivants conspiring to steal money for alcohol. That same year he released BBB, a 12-minute documentary feature on middle-class, middle-aged woman’s hairstyles, inspired by the time spent in his mother’s beauty salon as a child. As with all of his films – short and feature-length – Maddin artificially aged the physical film in order to give it an early cinema quality, reminiscent of the Lumière Brothers. The four-minute Tyro (1990) is about 12 harrowing hours in the life of a poor Viennese boy who is inexplicably handcuffed by his father and turned over to the police as a dog killer.
In 1990, his second full-length feature was released. Entitled Archangel, the film takes place during the First World War in a northern town about to be swept up in the Russian Revolution. In the town of Archangel, everyone seems to be suffering from amnesia, mistaken identity and broken hearts, themes Maddin seems to be endlessly interested in developing. Archangel was presented as part of the Perspective Canada showcase during the 1990 Toronto International Film Festival and won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Experimental Film in 1992.
In 1991, Maddin released the 34-minute Indigo High-Hatters. It told the true story of a 1920s Canadian jazz band that play their every performance gagged and almost completely immobilized by thick cords that bind them hand and foot. Despite this self-imposed adversity, they manage to play a full range of instruments and produce some effectively bizarre music.
Continuing to use his fascination with the silent films of Russia and Germany, Maddin’s 1992 feature Careful takes place in the fictional alpine town of Tolzbad, where people speak in whispers to avoid triggering avalanches. An homage to the “mountain” films made in the 1920s by German filmmakers, Careful is a comedy, though not in the traditional sense. One critic described it as “surrealistically amusing, the kind of humour you’d find in a dream.” Careful was also Maddin`s first film utilizing colour, though it was in the hand-tinted, intensely artificial style of early cinema. Careful was presented as Perspective Canada’s opening film at the 1992 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Best Canadian Film Award at Sudbury’s Cinéfest.
The Pomps of Satan (1993), his next work, was a five-minute short that tells the story of Roulette Ruby, a gambling spinster who works the boats of Lake Winnipeg, until she loses a particular high-stakes game to a tough old Northern Manitoba fried chicken trader, who takes her as his mistress up to the icy shores of Hudson`s Bay. A love triangle develops when a pilot lands near their home, and falls in love with Ruby.
His 1994 film, Sea Beggars, a seven-minute short, is about the legend of Sea Beggars’ Night, a night when ghosts of the sea arise and cuckold every man as he sleeps. That same year, Maddin was awarded the Telluride Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award at 39 years old, becoming the youngest recipient ever. Ironically, the award would mark the start of one of the most creatively stifled periods in his life. The project that was to be his fourth feature, entitled The Dykemaster’s Daughter fell through when a financier backed out at the last minute. His attempted to recover from the disappointment by taking it easy for the next few years, teaching and concentrating on creating some critically acclaimed shorts.
Maddin`s next two shorts were a bit of an artistic departure for the filmmaker, focusing not on plot and character but on sound and vision. The intriguingly titled Sissy Boy Slap Party (1995) is a two-minute musical mantra, and Odilon Redon or the Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts toward Infinity (1995) is inspired by an 1882 painting by French symbolist artist, Odilon Redon. Odilon Redon was awarded the Special Jury Citation Prize at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival. These two shorts brought Maddin the personal, professional and critical satisfaction he had been without since his last feature had to be aborted. Guy Maddin, it was widely touted, was back on his game. That same year, his 30-minute thriller The Hands of Ida (made for television) was nominated for Best Dramatic Short Program at the 1995 Gemini Awards.
The three-minute Imperial Orgies was released in 1996 and told the story of a “House Rabbi” in a posh air-raid shelter located in the basement of a Jewish bordello in wartime London blissfully unaware of the atrocities being committed against his people in eastern Europe.
In 1997, Guy finally completed his fourth feature. Entitled The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, it tells the story of a man named Peter, who returns from prison to his home in fictional Mandragora where his spinster sister lives raising ostriches, feuding with her hired-hand and pining for a one-legged mesmerist besotted with a statue. On the way, Peter falls in love with the mesmerist’s love slave, who is the daughter of a prostitute artificially inseminated with the sperm of a hanged man who ejaculated when his neck broke. The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs clearly was a return to familiar Guy Maddin territory! It was presented as part of the Perspectives Canada program during the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival, though it was seen as a bit of a disappointment by many of Maddin`s followers.
As usual, he returned to short films after the release of The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. The four-minute Maldoror: Tygers (1998) is a tale of lust and bestiality set in a zoo. The zookeeper is obsessively in love with a strange carrion-creature, while his daughter makes increasingly desperate attempts to be noticed. The Hoyden (1998) is a four-minute, condensed silent remake of Erich von Stroheim’s lost talkie Walking down Broadway. The Cock Crew (1998) is a five-minute film about a small unhappy papermaking factory. When a rooster is given to the factory owner’s long-suffering wife, it’s cries cause erotic disquietude in anyone within earshot. 1999’s Hospital Fragments was a three-minute series of impressionistic images inspired by Tales from the Gimli Hospital and seemed to hint that perhaps Maddin was struggling creatively.
However, while he was teaching film at the University of Manitoba and pondering his own future as a filmmaker, a student named Deco Dawson provided the inspiration needed to get his career back on track. That inspiration led to the brilliant The Heart of the World (2000), which was commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival. It is an inspired six-minute short that was acclaimed worldwide by audiences and prompted one critic to describe as “the entire history of early cinema in six minutes”. The Heart of the World tells the story of “state scientist” Anna, and the two brothers who vie for her love while she tries to save the world. It went on to win awards at film festivals in Brussels, Miami, San Francisco, and Aspen and won the 2002 Genie for Best Live-Action Short.
Next came Fleshpots of Antiquity (2000), an expressionistic drama about a woman who seduces a tycoon into giving her his gas factory, which she uses to unleash chemicals upon the workers of the world.
Maddin’s fifth feature film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2001) is a filmed version of a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of the classic horror story. He shot the film in his usual style, paying tribute to classic black-and-white silent films and focusing on the sensuality and eroticism of the vampire myth. The film won numerous awards at film festivals and in 2002 won an International Emmy Award.
The following two years, Maddin made a six-minute short/music video for television, entitled Fancy, Fancy Being Rich (2002), and was commissioned to do an experimental autobiographical art exhibit for Toronto’s Power Plant gallery. The exhibit was entitled Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and had 10 chapters, viewed only through strategically placed peepholes in a museum wall. In the film, Maddin has recast important people in his life as characters, including an abortionist, a seductress, a fisting fetishist, a beautiful ghost and, of course, a faithless, hockey-playing coward named Guy Maddin who`s been given the blue-stained hands of a killer. Cowards Bend the Knee was honoured at the 2003 Rotterdam International Film Festival with a special mention “for its perversely witty fusing of the silent cinema tradition and contemporary installation art…”
At the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, Maddin returned to form by releasing The Saddest Music in the World, perhaps his biggest triumph to date, because it was slightly more accessible to a broader audience in both its story and its style. Scripted by acclaimed Remains of the Day novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, it is a Depression-era melodrama and pseudo-musical set in Winnipeg. The film tells the story of an eccentric beer baroness, played by Isabella Rossellini, who uses a pair of prosthetic glass legs filled with beer. Worried about the effects of Prohibition in the U.S., she decides to boost business by holding a contest to see which country can produce the saddest music. The contest reunites her family, as they converge on Winnipeg to compete for the $25,000 prize. The Saddest Music in the World was a hit at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, appearing on many best-of-the-festival lists.
When the DVD of The Saddest Music in the World was released in 2004, it included Sissy Boy Slap Party, and two new Guy Maddin shorts – A Trip to the Orphanage and Sombra Dolorosa. All three were intended to be viewed as spin-offs of The Saddest Music of the World, despite Sissy Boy Slap Party having been made almost a decade before. Both of the new shorts ran about four minutes in length and featured a combination of music and Maddin’s bizarrely beautiful imagery. A Trip to the Orphanage features one of Saddest Music’s stars, Maria de Medieros, opera music, haunting imagery and an overwhelming sense of sadness. Sombra Delorosa has been described as “a demented take on demented Mexican melodramas” that tells the tale of the Widow Paramo who must battle El Muerto (the eater of souls) in order to save her suicidal daughter. The battle, naturally, takes place in a Mexican boxing ring. Also in 2004, the Sao Paulo International Film Festival featured a retrospective of Maddin’s work.
While filming The Saddest Music in the World, Isabella Rossellini approached Maddin with the idea for a film she hoped to make to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her father`s – the neo-realist filmmaker Roberto Rossellini – birthday. Their subsequent collaboration, My Dad Is 100 Years Old! premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, and combined Rossellini’s very personal memories of her father with Maddin’s reflections on Rossellini’s influence as a filmmaker. My Dad Is 100 Years Old! was described as “delightfully odd” and garnered rave reviews, and a large number of teary-eyed film festival audiences.
Maddin completed work on his latest feature film, The Brand Upon the Brain! for a one-off screening at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. It played at the festival as silent films used to be shown, with a live orchestra playing along and foley artists providing the sound effects the orchestra cannot (footsteps, breaking glass, etc). As Maddin himself put it: “if you hate the movie, you can at least…watch the big, burly, hairy guy putting on a pair of women’s pumps…in anticipation of the staircase a woman will have to climb in the upcoming scene.”
Guy Maddin perhaps can now stand alone, without the endless comparisons to better-known, more-established filmmakers like Luis Bunel, David Lynch and F.W. Murnau. He’s a fearless filmmaker, unafraid of possibly alienating his audiences if he wants to make a point in his own unique style. His ability to blend the look, feel and sound of the old, with the humour, irony and masochism of the new is utterly original and deserves its own attention.
His films are impossible to experience by description alone. They demand to be experienced in their true oddity and visual sensation in darkened theatre, on a softly glowing screen. It is only there that Guy Maddin’s love of cinema is truly obvious and his own work should be treated with equal affection and awe.
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