“I KNEW WHEN I WAS STARTING OUT THAT I WAS A primitive,” allows director Guy Maddin, speaking by phone from his home base in Winnipeg. “So the films would be primitive, and therefore I'd best choose a story that might benefit from being told primitively. All the elements have to evolve simultaneously. You have to make a film that has just the right number of flippers and fins and gills to survive.”
No one will ever accuse Maddin of employing a conventional vocabulary. Now 43, he is one of the most uncompromisingly idiosyncratic filmmakers on Earth, working during one of the most homogeneous periods in movie history. His 1988 debut feature, the grisly smallpox farce Tales From the Gimli Hospital, played midnight shows and was compared to Eraserhead. But Gimli wasn't just a gross-out romp; it was a feverishly self-conscious art toy, a fake silent movie shot in grainy black and white, with elaborate retro title cards, iris-outs and stylized broad-brush acting that made a virtue out of sub-shoestring production resources and an admittedly rickety technique.
Maddin's subsequent features, the deliciously screwy Archangel (1990) and Careful (1992), have been more rigorous and sophisticated but no less willfully anachronistic. Set respectively in a remote Russian military outpost and in frozen alpine vistas, the films were studio fabrications that flaunted their artificiality, and were physically and hence emotionally snowbound. His new feature, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, is all about heat and light: hot weather and hot blood. A complex love quadrangle set on a magical tropical island where the sun never sets, it betrays the influence of one of Maddin's favorite films, the 1935 Max Reinhardt/William Dieterle adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
“I liked the idea of denying myself my usual cheapest prop, which is a shadow,” says Maddin. “And then I thought, 'What psychological tenor would impose itself in such a world?' It would have to be that people see things too clearly, as the paranoiac does. Things are almost magnified by an optical anomaly created by wavering wafts of heat.” In Maddin's organic aesthetic of interrelationships, some of the work of motivation is always supplied by the setting, by the pressure of an extreme environment. In Twilight, he explains, “All the characters are intoxicated by seasonal adjustment disorder because the sun never sets.”
A Canadian director might be expected to know a thing or two about the pressure of an extreme environment, and Maddin may be as distinctively Canadian, in this sense, as Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg, typical only in his context-free singularity. He's not part of a movement, has no precursors or imitators. He's a dodo bird, a throwback, which is part of why he's so appealing: Maddin proves that it's still possible, even in today's bland and hypertrophied movie climate, for one weirdo to make feature films that couldn't have been made or even imagined by anybody else.
Maddin admits he'd enjoy reaching a wider audience outside the avant-garde ghetto of critics' awards and career achievement nods at Telluride, and his luscious visuals and effortless sense of fantasy could be applied to many kinds of genre material. But he has to talk production companies into giving him money, just like everybody else, and his rarefied, one-of-a-kind achievement is a tough sell. Even when he is able to raise some cash, as on Twilight, it inevitably comes with strings attached.
“I guess the way I was viewed in Canada was as an imaginative black sheep who needed to be taken to obedience school. The thought was that if I just had real actors and a real 35mm camera and a lot of discipline, I could produce a far more marketable film. So I made it in 35 even though I didn't want to, because it shows too much detail and costs $300,000 more than 16mm — so we had $300,000 less to put into the art department, but the film shows more.”
It's still an open question whether a Guy Maddin movie can ever be domesticated, or “pass” commercially. His plans to make a musical, The Dykemaster's Daughter, and a docudrama about the '60s Canadian hockey scene fell by the wayside after the release of Careful. He wrote a script adapting the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs, but could not get producers to bite. (“It must have looked really expensive on the page. They didn't realize I was planning to make 17th-century England out of cardboard.”) And he keeps busy making short films with wonderful titles like Mauve Decade, The Pomps of Satan and Sissy Boy Slap Party. He doesn't know where his next feature will be coming from. Perhaps, like the others, it will simply sprout gills and emerge from the water someday soon, seemingly under its own power.
SILVER APPLES OF THE MOON: The Films of Guy Maddin | The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater | 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood April 29May 1 | (323) 466-3456, Ext. 2 | Maddin is scheduled to appear at the screenings.