Dialogue: Guy Maddin and Elvis Mitchell
- Retrospective: February 4–14, 2004
- Regional Premiere: The Saddest Music in the World
“Bold,” “vivid,” “ironic” may be the first words to come to mind when considering filmmaker Guy Maddin’s oeuvre, especially given his appetite for stylized black-and-white tableaux depicted with a teeming, sometimes overwrought vitality—Bosch-scapes with the action, and actors, almost spilling out of the frames. But that showmanship is balanced by a sense of emotional detail. The films are often rendered with the melodramatic creaminess of early, less subtle cinema, but with a dramatic verve that subsumes mere “tongue-in-chic” poses. The aspect of spiritual honesty, paired with his vaudevillian existentialism, results in a filmography that is simply unforgettable. Maddin’s output isn’t merely sardonic homage, nor is it simple, ostentatiously florid filmmaking; he uses the archness of the past to offer insight into the present. (He casts actresses with large, dark, expressive eyes and cherubic faces—iconic old-fashioned camera subjects he then subverts by using contemporary acting skills).
Maddin is most emphatically a storyteller; his intense and fleet narrative drive churns up a breathless momentum, as if answering a kind of dramatic physics problem. Most tellingly, you want the films, like his Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, to commence again immediately so that you can combine the pixilation from the first showing while sifting through the mise-en-scène for new information. At the heart of his projects, even going back to the 1995 short The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity, lies the battle between postindustrial determinism and the whimsical, and often crushing, power of Fate. In the case of The Saddest Music in the World, Western arrogance and its resultant curse of obliviousness are no match for the casual one-upsmanship of Destiny. (It also features one of the best lines to be heard in a movie in years: “I’m not an American. I’m a nymphomaniac.”) Maddin’s newest film, a Depression-era black-and-white tale, is undeniably limited in budget but epic in imagination and achievement—his prodigious, no-budget mixture of absurdism and earnestness is a standard no one else can match.
Elvis Mitchell is a film critic for NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Formerly a critic for the New York Times, Mitchell has recently been teaching as a visiting faculty member in the African American Studies department at Harvard University.