Mar. 13, 2007 - Issue #595: Mark Templeton
Guy Maddin’s Archangel is the strong, silent type
You could say Guy Maddin’s 1990 feature Archangel is deliberately saturated with upheaval, bridging the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution, mustard gas, missing limbs and mangled marriage. And, of course, the movies.
Maddin’s highly peculiar sense of style was—and, in ever-morphing forms, remains—very much grounded in the vocabulary of the budding cinema that ran more or less contemporary to Archangel’s setting, a moment when the medium was inciting a sort of revolution of culture and consciousness in those days before sound, realism and sophisticated romance established the norm.
It’s no accident that, within the film’s pervading haze of confusion, at least two of Archangel’s characters suffer memory disorders. Maddin’s wildly eccentric melodrama moves within fog-choked fields of forgetting, not only referencing forgotten forms of filmmaking but also, as with its cult hit predecessor Tales From Gimli Hospital, forgotten chapters of Canadian history. Thus when lovesick and peg-legged Canadian Lieutenant John Boles (Kyle McCulloch) arrives in the Russian city of Archangel, his presence allows Maddin and company to mingle historical fact with hallucinatory fantasy, and set fire to our collective imaginations so accustomed to dormancy regarding our nation’s expeditions abroad and hidden mythology. Metro Cinema is holding a special screening of Archangel on Saturday (Mar 17) night, preceded by an introduction from Professor William Beard, director of film studies at the University of Alberta. Beard is the author of, among other works, Persistence of Double Vision: Essays on Clint Eastwood and The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. He’s now been contracted by Wallflower Press for a book on Maddin, the most recent object of the professor’s auteur obsession.
Beard’s special interest in Maddin was sparked by fairly recent entries in the Winnipeg filmmaker’s 20-year filmography—projects galvanized by the merging of a vision of cinema at its most primitive with the latest technological innovations: Maddin’s short The Heart of the World (2000), his installation Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), which Beard unabashedly hails as “a frigging masterpiece,” and his latest feature Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), which with any luck will have its Edmonton premiere this fall, timed to coincide with a Maddin Retrospective Metro Cinema hopes to program.
Each of these are silent, monochromatic films, yet their antiquated veneer, potentially fraught with winky nostalgia, is subverted by a frenetic editing style that brings Maddin’s more bizarre preoccupations writhing to the surface, an integral element that would likely not have been employed without the advent of digital editing.
“What has happened since The Heart of the World onward,” explains Beard, “is that Maddin’s integrated a lot of avant-garde editing techniques into his work, this new layer of speed and repetition and looping, combining this editorial approach you’d never find in silent film with the sort of lyricism and pathos that you almost exclusively find in silent film. These films are the ones that really caught my attention and sent me back to take a closer look at the earlier work with renewed enthusiasm. Once I started doing that, the richer aspects of these films overall just sort of opened right up.”
As a lover of early cinema and the singular modes of expression it allows for, Beard began to sense an unusual kinship with Maddin, particularly with his honing of the emotional and social resonance that can only be found in melodrama.
“My thesis about Maddin is that he’s using these things because they allow a conduit to a whole range of expression and feeling that in our current cultural environment you can’t find elsewhere. Contemporary filmic style just doesn’t touch on the same truths.”
Of Archangel in particular, Beard wants to address the multiplicity of Maddin’s approach to story and style by examining one of the less recognized and perhaps more difficult Maddin films, one that virtually put Cinephile, its Canadian distributor, out of business while nevertheless earning the US National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Experimental Film, signalling a career that would come to be marked repeatedly by an uneasy balance of commercial disaster and critical adoration.
“I’m going to emphasize the fact that Archangel is a serious film,” explains Beard, “even though it’s full of these absurdities and deliberate frat house excesses. I’m going to point out that it’s essentially a very sombre and depressed, slow, almost funereal film, and that as such it’s going to be an indication of what kind of filmmaker Guy Maddin really is deep-down. The eye-catching things about Maddin are not necessarily the serious or more important things.”
The gravity of Beard’s emphasis may sound bleak to those unfamiliar with Maddin’s oeuvre, but keep in mind that we’re talking about a filmmaker whose latest short, entitled Nude Caboose, concerns a conga line that’s eventually joined by a naked person—proof that it’s not easy to pigeonhole the many faces of Winnipeg’s most beloved weirdo. V
Sat, Mar 17 (7 pm)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by Maddin, George Toles
Starring Kyle McColloch, Kathy Marykuca, Sarah Neville, Ari Cohen
With an introduction by William Beard
Metro Cinema, $10
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