Guy Maddin quartet of short films: a unique style and vision at work

Guy Maddin, “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” (2002), “My Dad is 100 Years Old” (2005), “Spanky: To the Pier and Back” (2008), “Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” (2009)

Canadian director Guy Maddin presents a very singular vision and style in his films. His short films are an excellent introduction to his work. From what I have seen so far, his short films at least are mostly silent and are presented in black-and-white; and they have the style of old films made in the late 1920s / early 1930s. Sometimes they may be set in near-recent historical or alternate historical periods. There is usually a definite narrative and the subject nearly always revolves around the subconscious and may be treated in a bizarre, surrealist way. His work has been likened to early Eraserhead-period David Lynch in its use of absurd imagery and juxtapositions, the implied sexual psychology and humour involved, but it could just as easily be compared to films made by Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau.

I’ve seen four film shorts so far and they’re at once similar yet different. “Fancy, Fancy Being Rich” is close to being a music video of sorts: a housemaid (Valdine Anderson), singing the eponymous song taken from Thomas Ade’s opera “Powder Her Face”, reminisces about all her drowned sailor lovers who are shown rising from the ocean waves as they roll onto a sandy beach, reuniting briefly with her and then returning to their ocean graves. Quick editing and a fast pace sweep viewers breathlessly along with the floridly sung song. The singing is not synchronised very well with the speedy images and the film doesn’t quite succeed on current music-video terms but as a self-contained story with its own themes about the power of the subconscious in enabling someone to cope with unfulfilled love and a mundane life otherwise lacking in hope, it’s very touching. There might be a deliberate metaphor in the images of the dead men rising from the waves as these roll up the beach in early scenes.

“Spanky: to the Pier and Back” is an affectionate piece that might be about Maddin’s home city of Winnipeg: a small pug dog takes a long, long walk around various landmarks and scenic spots in an unidentified city. The style of the film is fast and choppy and suggests a home-made video by its jerky quality. Most noteworthy is the music soundtrack by Matthew Patton which starts off slowly and builds up amid the sounds of breaking ocean waves.

“Send Her to the ‘Lectric Chair” features Isabella Rossellini as a Woman hypnotised from afar by a sinister elderly man and lured to his secret hide-out where ghost men materialise out of the air and strap her carefully into an electric chair full of dangly wires, leather straps and steampunk-styled gadgetry. One ghost guy proceeds to tap-dance on a sparkboard while a ghost lady tickles the ivories on an upright piano; other ghost gals in skimpy sequinned costumes start shimmying about the place. The Woman, obviously distressed, is forced to sweat out her torture while her boyfriend (Louis Negin) – we’ll call him the Man – races up the spiral staircase (how did he know where she was?) to rescue her. In the chaos that follows when the Man bursts into the room, the senile Svengali looks to have the last laugh on the unlucky couple. Again the action is fast and agitated with several overlapping images and lots of quick, choppy edits; and the music is stormy, brassy and screechy.

Rossellini pays tribute to her father Robert – or rather, his gravid belly from the looks of things – in “My Dad is 100 Years Old” by appearing as various famous producers and directors he knew (David Selznick, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and an angelic Charlie Chaplin, complete with wings and sub-titles) and as her mother Ingrid Bergman, all engaging with the belly in a conversation about cinema as art and what the purpose of cinema is for. Should cinema reflect reality or should it just be about commercial entertainment? What should the film director’s role be in making films: is s/he merely a hack in service to commercial imperatives or can s/he, should s/he, must s/he encourage viewers to question the world as it is and broaden their horizons and awareness? “My Dad is 100 Years Old” looks at Roberto Rossellini as an eccentric who did most of his best work in bed (well, one of them is talking to him!) and who experimented with and stretched the boundaries, stylistically and technically, of what film-makers in his day could do.

The film itself is surreal and has at times a noir flavour, notable in the Hitchcock scenes where the portly one appears mostly as a silhouette in profile, standing in a distant balcony. Bergman appears on a screen larger than life in front of Isabella Rossellini, making the daughter appear very small. In contrast with the other films reviewed here, the pace is leisurely and most shots are maintained for more than a few seconds. Rossellini herself commands Maddin to bring the camera down low and close to her and her embrace of the giant belly in emulation of her father’s style and Maddin unhesitatingly obeys.

Rossellini’s tribute certainly is self-indulgent and in the hands of a lesser director would be laughably silly and kitsch; but in Guy Maddin’s sphere of control, the film is lovely to watch, comic and affectionate, and in itself is a homage to cinema history and its development. The surreal and the real blend easily, the ordinary becomes extraordinary and the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

These shorts may not be representative of Maddin’s corpus but viewers certainly get an idea of and a feel for his style and vision.

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