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The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin started making films in his back yard and on his kitchen
table. Now his unique work, which relies heavily on such archaic means
as black and white small-format cinematography and silent-film story-
telling, premieres at major film festivals around the world and is avidly
discussed in the critical press. Into the Past provides a complete and
systematic critical commentary on each of Maddin’s feature films and
shorts, from his 1986 debut film The Dead Father through to his highly
successful 2008 full-length ‘docu-fantasia’ My Winnipeg.
William Beard’s extensive analysis of Maddin’s narrative and aesthetic
strategies, themes, influences, and underlying issues also examines the
origins and production history of each film. Each of Maddin’s projects
and collaborations showcase his gradual evolution as a filmmaker and
his singular development of narrative forms. Beard’s close readings of
these films illuminate, among other things, the profound ways in which
Maddin’s art is founded in the past – both in the cultural past, and in his
personal memory.

william beard is a professor and Film Studies Program Director in the

Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.
Little Guy, family photo reproduced in Maddin’s latest film, My Winnipeg.

Guy Maddin, credit title from Maddin’s first film, The Dead Father.
Into the Past
The Cinema of Guy Maddin



Toronto Buffalo London
© University of Toronto Press Incorporated 2010
Toronto Buffalo London
Printed in Canada

isbn 978-1-4426-4139-6 (cloth)

isbn 978-1-4426-1066-8 (paper)

Printed on acid-free, 100% post-consumer recycled paper with

vegetable-based inks.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Beard, William, 1946–
Into the past : the cinema of Guy Maddin / William Beard.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

isbn 978-1-4426-4139-6 (bound) isbn 978-1-4426-1066-8 (pbk.)

1. Maddin, Guy – Criticism and interpretation. 2. Motion picture producers

and directors – Canada. I. Title.

pn1998.3.m332b43 2010 791.4302′33092 c2010-901453-7

University of Toronto Press acknowledges the financial assistance to its

publishing program of the Canada Council for the Arts and the
Ontario Arts Council.

This book has been published with the help of a grant from the
Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the
Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme, using funds provided by the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

University of Toronto Press acknowledges the financial support for its

publishing activities of the Government of Canada through the
Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP).

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi
A Note on DVD Sources xiii

Introduction 3
1 The Dead Father 16
2 Tales from the Gimli Hospital 26
3 Archangel 50
4 Careful 88
5 Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 127
6 Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 163
7 Cowards Bend the Knee: or, The Blue Hands 192
8 The Saddest Music in the World 232
9 Brand upon the Brain! 270
10 My Winnipeg 313
Envoi 358

Appendix: The Short Films 361

Notes 403
Bibliography 447
Index 459
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List of Illustrations

My Winnipeg, family photo of Guy Maddin as a child in sailor suit (by

permission of Paddlewheel Productions) ii
The Dead Father, credit title for Guy Maddin as writer and director in
uniform of naval officer (by permission of Extra Large Produc-
tions) ii
The Dead Father, the dead father on the dinner table (by permission of
Extra Large Productions) 19
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, credit screen for Extra Large Productions
(by permission of Extra Large Productions) 28
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Gunnar watching puppet show through
opera glasses (by permission of Extra Large Productions) 35
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Snjófridur as angel (by permission of Extra
Large Productions) 39
Archangel, Teutonic leader with death’s-head hat (by permission of
Ordnance Pictures), with inset from The War Illustrated 57
Archangel, Veronkha in The Illumination (by permission of Ordnance
Pictures) 67
Archangel, Veronkha as warrior (by permission of Ordnance
Pictures) 72
Archangel, Geza reunited with his father after death (by permission of
Ordnance Pictures) 82
Archangel, Boles surrounded by fog (by permission of Ordnance
Pictures) 86
Careful, the ghost of the Swanfeeder (by permission of The Greg &
Tracy Film Ministry) 93
Careful, Johann and Grigorss as Romantic-painting silhouettes (by per-
mission of The Greg & Tracy Film Ministry) 95
viii List of Illustrations

Careful, Grigorss freezing to death in Klara’s cave (by permission of The

Greg & Tracy Film Ministry) 101
Careful, Johann as Byronic hero (by permission of The Greg & Tracy
Film Ministry) 115
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, tableau of the death of Cain Ball (by permis-
sion of Marble Island Pictures) 131
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the assault on Cain Ball (by permission of Mar-
ble Island Pictures) 143
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Juliana mesmerized by Dr Solti (by permission
of Marble Island Pictures) 152
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the title screen introducing Dr Van
Helsing (by permission of Vonnie Von Helmolt Film) 169
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, ‘a little Max Ernst collage,’ the head
of Lucy Westenra (by permission of Vonnie Von Helmolt Film and
Bruce Monk) 170
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Lucy’s dance of possession (by per-
mission of Vonnie Von Helmolt Film) 176
Cowards Bend the Knee, Guy discovers his girlfriend Veronica is pregnant
(by permission of Guy Maddin) 205
Cowards Bend the Knee, Guy strangles Liliom to death as Meta looks on
(by permission of Guy Maddin) 209
Cowards Bend the Knee, Meta has a cigarette while Dr Fusi performs an
abortion on Veronica (by permission of Guy Maddin) 212
Cowards Bend the Knee, Guy Maddin of the Winnipeg Maroons, in an
idealized portrait (by permission of Guy Maddin) 221
The Saddest Music in the World, the legless Lady Helen Port-Huntley
(by permission of Rhombus Media) 237
The Saddest Music in the World, Chester in flames (by permission of
Rhombus Media) 254
The Saddest Music in the World, Chester and Narcissa walking down the
main street of Winnipeg (by permission of Rhombus Media) 257
The Saddest Music in the World, the image of Roderick’s dead son appears
to him (by permission of Rhombus Media) 265
Brand upon the Brain!, Mother at her telescope-panopticon (by permis-
sion of The Film Company) 275
Brand upon the Brain!, the burning Father (by permission of The Film
Company) 280
Brand upon the Brain!, Mother’s invitation into the bed of knives (by per-
mission of The Film Company) 290
List of Illustrations ix

Brand upon the Brain!, Wendy’s moonlike face of desire (by permission
of The Film Company) 297
My Winnipeg, the all-seeing Savage mother looks through the window
(by permission of Paddlewheel Productions) 319
My Winnipeg, the dead father’s face on the ice-surface of the dead
Winnipeg Arena (by permission of Paddlewheel Productions) 340
My Winnipeg, Citizen Girl resurrects the Wolesley Elm (by permission
of Paddlewheel Productions) 352
My Winnipeg, the little Guy asleep (by permission of Paddlewheel Pro-
ductions) 356
The Heart of the World, Anna, State Scientist (by permission of the
Toronto International Film Festival) 370
Sissy Boy Slap Party, a pile of sleeping children (by permission of Jody
Shapiro) 376
Sombra Dolorosa, El Muerto finishes eating father (by permission of Jody
Shapiro) 381
My Dad Is 100 Years Old, Isabella Rossellini talks to the movie of Ingrid
Bergman (by permission of Spanky Productions) 393
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This book’s first and greatest debt is to Guy Maddin himself, who gener-
ously granted me many hours of interview and chat time over a period
of four years, and answered dozens of free-floating questions in e-mails
and telephone calls. I never felt at any time during this process that the
filmmaker was trying to influence my thinking, or to cover up anything
he had regarded as mistakes or misjudgments in his own career (just
the reverse, in fact: he is the most self-critical of artists). His conversa-
tion is as uninhibited, eloquent, and thought-provoking as his films are,
and nearly as funny. Scarcely less important has been the similar kind
willingness of George Toles, Maddin’s collaborator, mentor, and friend,
to sit and talk to me for hours at a time in sessions that I found not only
informative and thought-provoking, but invariably diverting.
My work would not have been possible without grants from my home
institution, the University of Alberta, whose funding bodies gave me the
opportunity to travel and conduct interviews, and furnished the means
to acquire much invaluable research material, especially rare video ma-
terials. Nor could I have completed the project without a six-month sab-
batical leave, and a further grant from the university’s Faculty of Arts of
a one-course teaching release during another term.
Thanks to Ritchard Findlay, Ethan Garber, Steve Gravestock, Geordie
King, Greg Klymkiw, Guy Maddin, Isabella Rossellini, Jody Shapiro, and
Vonnie Von Helmolt for their generous help in obtaining stills permis-
sions, and to Jeff Solylo for his wonderful Archangel still and poster de-
sign that is the basis for this book’s cover.
Thanks to graduate student research assistant Mary Chan, who pro-
vided exemplary bibliographical research and interview transcription,
and to graduate students Tiffany O’Hearn and Amy Shirkie, who also
xii Acknowledgments

helped to transcribe interviews. And special thanks to Rob Rimes, who

helped greatly in the preparation of the index.
Thanks also to my colleague and Department Chair Garrett Epp for
his consistent support and for a great conversation about Sissy Boy Slap
And, as always, thanks to my wife Wendy, and my children Michael and
Anne, for putting up with me during this time-consuming project and
providing a bedrock of sanity under all endeavours. Perhaps I should
thank my golden retriever Chloe, too, because dog-walks have proved to
be great opportunities for rumination.
A Note on DVD Sources

I have used exclusively NTSC DVD sources throughout. For a number of

the short films I have had access to Maddin’s own cuts of the films, which
are sometimes longer than versions otherwise on view. Maddin has also
generously provided his own video sources for stills.
The DVD commentary tracks and documentary extras referred to in
the text are taken from the following Region 1 NTSC issues:

• Tales from the Gimli Hospital – Kino Video 2000

• Archangel – Zeitgeist Video 2002 (coupled with Twilight of the Ice
• Careful – Kino Video 2000
• Odilon Redon, or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity
– Quickband/Warner Brothers 2000 (miscellaneous shorts anthology
entitled ‘Short 2’)
• Twilight of the Ice Nymphs – Zeitgeist Video 2002 (coupled with
• Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary – Zeitgeist Video 2004
• Cowards Bend the Knee – Zeitgeist Video 2004.
• The Saddest Music in the World – TVA Films [Canada] 2004
• Brand Upon the Brain! – Criterion Collection 2008
• My Winnipeg – Seville 2008

In 2009, Zeitgeist Video released a new DVD transfer of Careful, ac-

companied by a new director’s commentary track, which I was not able
to hear before publication.
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The Cinema of Guy Maddin
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The most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of

J. Hoberman1

Guy Maddin is one of the most interesting film directors in the world.
His work is strictly unique – a description that cannot be applied to many
film directors of whatever stature. Perhaps another filmmaker might be
able imitate Maddin’s work, but his work, no matter how many influ-
ences and homages it may contain, resembles no one’s at all. The circum-
stances of his entry into the craft were unpropitious, and his first films
(and not just his first ones) so strange and even ridiculous that people
didn’t know what to make of them. There are still a lot of his viewers who
can’t get past a jumble of descriptors: black-and-white quirky pastiche
silent melodrama arcane outrageous silly irreverent bizarre-beyond-be-
lief. Gradually he acquired champions, his work penetrated the world of
festivals and cult movie venues, and he got a precarious foothold in the
world of feature filmmaking, albeit of the oddest kind imaginable. Now
his films are shown all over the world, and he has gained almost universal
critical respect, including passionate bouquets thrown from some of the
most discerning commentators across four continents. Still, I wish I had
a dollar for every time someone has asked me what I was working on,
and when I told them ‘Guy Maddin,’ replied with: ‘Who?’ Screenings of
Maddin’s films in non-festival venues have often been low in attendance
and high in walkouts. Whatever kind of film these patrons thought they
were going to see, clearly it was not the same one being greeted so en-
thusiastically by high-profile reviewers. Despite the amazingly wide com-
4 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

mercial distribution of The Saddest Music in the World and the surprising
relative popularity of My Winnipeg, Maddin’s films remain the province
of festival-goers, art-house denizens, cult devotees.

Elements of Maddin

His cinema can be described, but not classified. The Village Voice’s J.
Hoberman delivered perhaps the best attempt in the characterization
quoted above – one that Maddin himself is fond of repeating. Yet Mad-
din is really neither a mainstream filmmaker nor an avant-garde one. Let
me try to triangulate (or polygonate) the phenomenon ‘Guy Maddin’ by
listing some of the things he is:


Maddin did an undergraduate degree in economics, but after an un-

happy time in a bank ended up working as a house painter for ten years,
off and on, in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, he began to accumulate
cultural interests. He fell in with staff members from the University of
Manitoba’s Department of Literature, Theatre, and Film, in particular
George Toles and Stephen Snyder. Snyder invited him to 16mm screen-
ings, projected on the paint-cracked wall of his apartment living room, of
whatever he happened to be teaching. These screenings would often also
involve Maddin’s close friends Ian Handford, John Harvie, and Kyle Mc-
Culloch (a group christened ‘the Drones’ by Wodehouse-reading Hand-
ford and Harvie and compared by Maddin to Fellini’s vitelloni), as well
as Toles, John Paizs, and others. During extended periods when Snyder
was absent, Maddin would be left with free access to the apartment with
its ‘great bohemian rancidness,’2 and whatever films were lying around,
and this could result in the group doing things like watching Stroheim’s
Foolish Wives a million times. Maddin sat in on some of Toles’ film classes
as well, and there and in private conversations Toles opened up to him
a vast landscape of world literature and cinema. In effect, he became
Maddin’s mentor – and, later, his most important collaborator in provid-
ing scenario ideas and writing filmscripts. Toles is no average English
professor, and the mostly off-the-books education Maddin received at
his hands was anything but mainstream. Maddin’s copious reading en-
gendered a desire to produce something himself, but although he would
have liked to write, he felt that he lacked the gift. In the area of film,
however, he had the local example of John Paizs and the institution of
Introduction 5

the Winnipeg Film Group which could furnish, most importantly, edit-
ing facilities. Paizs just went out and shot stuff on mini-budgets with local
people and no distribution deals or anything like that, and managed to
actually make movies. It was a suggestive spectacle.
So Maddin too just made a couple of films. He didn’t know how to op-
erate a camera, didn’t know how to edit, didn’t know how to do anything.
Nevertheless, The Dead Father (1986) gradually accreted over a period of
many months, and eventually got accepted at the Toronto Film Festival
owing to the enthusiasm of a few members of the screening committee,
notably Geoff Pevere. Then came Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), an
intermediate-length film that eventually (again the gestation period was
long) got expanded to something approaching a feature. A stranger film
was never made – not even Eraserhead, which it replaced at New York’s
Quad Cinema for midnight cult screenings that went on for a year. Mad-
din had begun to arrive.
The main point here is that Maddin had no training in filmmaking,
no real academic background, no connections outside of Winnipeg, no
clear path to anything. He taught himself filmmaking a step at a time,
over many years, and even now, at the height of his current mastery, the
films he knows how to make (superbly) have about them something self-
taught, something far outside the exigencies of any kind of commercial
filmmaking. Early generations of Hollywood filmmakers had no formal
training either, but they learned, rather like apprentices, by observing
films being made. Maddin didn’t observe anything but books and com-
pleted movies: he worked deductively, backwards from effects to causes.
Doubtless Maddin’s technical limitations are less severe than he is in the
habit of implying, but it is for this reason that he has constantly referred
to himself as a ‘garage-band’ filmmaker, somebody who doesn’t really
have the technical ability to be a professional artist but might have some-
thing authentic and personal to say anyway. This condition compelled
him to use the very simplest means and the very smallest resources, and
(in the tradition of the garage-band ethic) it freed him and spurred him
to let his imagination run as free and wild as he could.

Silent-film lover

Congregating with Snyder and Toles and the Drones turned out to have
amazingly productive results for Maddin related to the idiosyncrasies of
their tastes. Watching Foolish Wives and Murnau’s Sunrise multiple dozens
of times may, from one standpoint, have been perverse and even patho-
6 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

logical behaviour, but together with his exposure to other films of the
1920s it did give Maddin an appreciation for the great aesthetic system of
this once-grand, now-dead form of silent cinema in its highest era. More
than an appreciation: an in-the-bones understanding – of its rhetoric,
its narrative strategies, its landscape of heightened subject matter and
heightened expression. Moreover, silent movies, even those made un-
der rather elaborate studio conditions in the 1920s, were a gold mine
of simple methods to create ambitious dramatic and emotional effects.
Irised and vignetted shots are easy to achieve, and give instant access to a
more elevated form of portraiture. Double exposures – in Maddin’s case
conducted in the camera just as in pre-1920s cinema – not only allow an
easy-as-pie entry into the realm of mental and spiritual events but are
always-already poetic. Intertitles are powerful workhorse tools of narra-
tive and character exposition that also slide easily into metaphor and
poetic commentary. This entire plane of storytelling and visual realiza-
tion is one that virtually all feature filmmaking has abandoned. Seeing
Maddin’s early movies for the first time, say Gimli Hospital or Archangel
(1990), and encountering there a detailed re-enactment of the narrative
and poetic devices of silent cinema, simply produces astonishment. What
a very unusual thing to be doing! And although there is a good deal of
self-satire and mischievous despoliation in this work, there is also a trans-
parent wish really to make these old forms once more eloquent. As well,
the partial or total absence of dialogue, and certainly of direct sound,
has the inestimable added benefit of making filmmaking cheaper, and
greatly reduces the need to direct line readings.
An additional attraction of this visual language is its oldness. Not only
is oldness something desirable in itself to Maddin, but it also serves as a
way of disguising and occluding his images in ways that make them more
expressive for him. And this oldness is occurring in two separate time
frames. The first is the historical frame of silent cinema, gone since the
1920s. The second is a mimicking of the historical frame of Maddin’s
viewing experience of old films, seen in battered and multiple-genera-
tion 16mm prints that spoke their age in the scars of many trips through
the projector and the black-halating overcontrast, graininess, and poor
definition of serial duplication. So in Maddin’s films we find scratches,
light leaks, simulated hairs in the projector gate, fog, heavy film grain,
high contrast, fuzziness – all methods of image ‘degradation’ (Mad-
din’s word) that serve the dual purpose of obscuring the bare poverty
of his production circumstances and technical address and of making
new films that come into the world already bearing the marks of oldness
Introduction 7

and loving usage. This effect, however backward looking it may be, has
the strong contrary flavour of modernist self-consciousness and indeed

Cinephile, bibliophile

Maddin’s film enthusiasms are not confined to silent cinema. Early

Hollywood sound films, especially ‘part-talkies,’ are a particular source
of appeal. But he also loves, and reflects in his distorting mirror, early
musicals, horror movies from the 1930s to the 1960s, film noir, and at
least some branches of trash cinema. Whether these movies are good or
bad according to the criteria of serious cineastes is irrelevant: Maddin,
like many, many others, is perfectly capable of loving things because they
are bad. But his taste for entertaining aesthetic failure cohabits with a
deep admiration for genuine masters of the cinematic medium. Not only
Stroheim, Murnau, and others from the silent era, but Vigo, Sternberg,
Ophuls, Hitchcock, Buñuel, Renoir, even Carl Dreyer, the most austere
and forbidding of directors. One of the things linking many of these de-
ceased art-filmmakers is that they also were, or wanted to be, mainstream
filmmakers – a thing that Maddin can only distantly contemplate.
Maddin loves and is widely read in a whole range of older literature:
the list of authors who have influenced or are referenced in his films
comprises an astonishing range. A few examples: E.T.A. Hoffmann,
Melville, Dostoevsky, Ruskin, Chekhov, Musil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz,
Robert Walser, Geza Csáth, the Comte de Lautréamont, Knut Hamsun,
Henry Green, and practically every French or Belgian Symbolist writer.
When viewers try to compute the fact that the creator of so much low
comedy and low-culture pastiche is also reflecting such aesthetic refine-
ments, they gain a clue to his profound idiosyncrasy and odd complexity.


One of Maddin’s absolute touchstones is the 1930 Buñuel/Dali film

L’Âge d’or, whose bizarre deadpan inappropriateness and anarchic sex-
ual transgression wreak havoc in the context of a satirical extended nar-
rative. The low-budget production base of first-generation Surrealism
was something else that understandably spoke to this kitchen-table and
backyard filmmaker: all you need is ideas! Maddin’s work is indisput-
ably dreamlike, and sleepwalking, delirium, and amnesia are constant
features of his work, together with a gleeful Surrealist desire to deliver
8 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

savage thrusts of perverse and destabilizing humour. Surrealism with a

lower-case ‘s’ has become so generalized a term that it can be applied to
some aspect of practically everything, but Maddin’s allegiance is to the
original brand, and his brothers-in-arms among contemporary filmmak-
ers are those from whom a similar descent can be traced – Jan Svankma-
jer, the Quay Brothers, the further reaches of David Lynch’s work.


As I said, Maddin is not an avant-garde filmmaker – at least not in the

strict tradition that extends from Hans Richter and Jean Epstein to Stan
Brakhage and Michael Snow. Maddin makes feature films with charac-
ters and plots, so unless you employ the loosest definition of the term
his work is not avant-garde. This has not prevented the National Society
of Film Critics in the United States – a distinguished body of leading
mainstream reviewers – from twice giving Maddin films the award for
Best Experimental Film. If Maddin is not an avant-garde filmmaker, still
less is he an experimental filmmaker, an even more restrictive and pur-
ist category. The NSFC’s awards went to Archangel (a feature) and The
Heart of the World (2000, a six-minute short). But clearly they wanted to
give him something, and what else were they to do? Again, Maddin is
But someone walking into the middle of a Maddin movie might im-
mediately think it was avant-garde because of its ‘degraded’ images, and
(in his later work) its manically looping editing: these are things he does
have in common with the ‘strict’ tradition. His low-budget dress-up pro-
ductions also have affinities with earlier avant-garde quasi-narrative films
from Man Ray to Kenneth Anger. Maddin’s aggressive and sometimes
cheesy humour in no-money production circumstances can almost in-
voke the über-cheesiness of bargain-basement Kuchar Brothers films
from the 1960s. None of these models, not even Anger’s, are very close
to the Brakhage-Snow landscape. Could Maddin have links to the found-
footage (or ‘recycled images’)3 tradition in the avant-garde, even though
he doesn’t use found footage but rather, as it were, manufactures his
own in the form of imitations of cinematic image-making of long-dead
forms? Looking at Maddin’s paraphrases of Lon Chaney’s The Penalty
(1920), the Bela Lugosi B-shocker White Zombie (1932), or the early musi-
cal The King of Jazz (1930) can stir recollections of Joseph Cornell’s ca-
nonic Rose Hobart (1936), with its fetishized re-presentation of shots from
the fairly trashy jungle melodrama East of Borneo (1931). An even closer
Introduction 9

resemblance exists to Peter Delpeut’s Lyrical Nitrate (1991) and Bill Mor-
rison’s Decasia (2002), both of which consist of assemblages of silent-era
movie footage on nitrate stock that has suffered visible chemical decom-
position. There is, I think, an important resonance here, especially to
the achingly nostalgic Lyrical Nitrate. It is hard to imagine Maddin’s mov-
ies really at home in gallery settings (except for Cowards Bend the Knee
[2003], which actually debuted as an only partially successful installa-
tion). In short, Maddin’s movies don’t send out the same high-modern-
ist or serious-postmodernist signals that almost invariably attach to this
kind of avant-garde cinema.


One thing that separates Maddin decisively from almost any comfortable
avant-garde catergorization is the way his work has espoused melodrama.
‘Melodrama’ is just as elastic and indefinite a term as ‘surrealist’ and
‘avant-garde.’ Maddin’s affiliation is not with the all-purpose melodrama
that is, so to speak, the flour out of which so much movie and televi-
sion bread is made, but rather with that distinct form which once domi-
nated the stages of nineteenth-century theatres and the screens of early
twentieth-century movie houses. Invoking here the hypertropisms of the
Romantic drama of Schiller, Kleist, and Victor Hugo (Careful, 1992),
there the noble idealisms of a Victorian or Belasco-like later nineteenth-
century theatre (Archangel), adapting Bram Stoker (Dracula – Pages from
a Virgin’s Diary, 2002), making Euripedes into a quasi-noir melodrama
(Cowards Bend the Knee), or essaying a Grand Guignol family melodrama
(Brand upon the Brain!, 2006), Maddin is at all times alive to the ways that
his silent-cinema model is a natural carrier of the idealist transports and
heightened clarity of feeling that are the gift of traditional melodrama.
Sound-era movie melodrama – the kind that has received the bulk of at-
tention in writing about film – tends to be strongly social in its subtextual
meanings; and although Maddin loves Douglas Sirk as much as anybody,
his own melodrama has no social commentary at all.(Perhaps it does
have a kind of cultural commentary, however, or at least a symptoma-
tology of a cultural condition, as I have suggested in an earlier essay.)4
The societies, the ideologies, that come back in Maddin’s resurrection of
older forms of melodrama are dead. How can they then sustain any kind
of social critique, particularly when their author has no aim whatever
of recreating history with any accuracy or detachment? Maddin’s melo-
drama is as outmoded as the silent cinema that he paraphrases.
10 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin


It is a rare Maddin movie that does not feature a strangulation, an im-

palement, an amputation, a disembowelment, a decapitation, and/or
some other form of physical atrocity. It is an even rarer one that does
not contain some lurid sexual transgression (incest is a strong favourite)
to go with copious equal-opportunity nudity and pathological levels of
romantic betrayal. The violence is so extreme, and usually presented in
such a low-tech manner, that its referentiality to cheap horror movies is
hard to miss, while the sexual transgressions may likewise be seen as es-
calations in explicitness of elements already present in traditional melo-
drama. In any case, the effect is complex: self-parody and low-culture
signifiers of sensationalism on the one hand, genuine queasiness and
surreal disconnection on the other. Nudity and explicit sexual devian-
cies are always markers that the old forms of melodrama and silent film
that Maddin paraphrases are being discordantly updated, and they add
to the dissonant bitonalities of temporal idiom that are at the centre of
his cinema. And however covered in ironies of exaggeration, these ele-
ments are still sharp enough to draw blood.


Maddin is the first to realize, and the first to point out, how outmoded
his models and his practice are. And the way he points it out is to direct
an endless series of jokes at the silliness of old melodrama, silent cin-
ema, naïve social attitudes, and personal idealisms. Their non-viability
is marked by deliberate exaggeration, pastiche, and merciless guying
(good word). He makes innocence into ultra-innocence and obsolete
belief systems into ridiculous ones, and he also makes melodrama into a
parody of itself by pushing every exaggeration and simplification innate
to its method to the level of absurd caricature. For most of the length
of Maddin’s artistic career, he has elaborately reconstructed these old
forms because they can carry feelings and beliefs, and varieties of pure
aesthetic expression, that are no longer possible in the contemporary
environment. And then he directs a torrent of eggs and rotten vegeta-
bles at them to dramatize their impossibility. Maddin’s sense of humour
is ubiquitous and virtuoso; it can be witty, delicate, affectionate, playful.
But its most dangerous and destabilizing iteration is this scalding, punc-
turing attack on everything he himself appears to hold dear. Indeed, in
many of his films it appears to be an attack on feeling itself, and in a way
Introduction 11

that often seems involuntary and uncontrollable. It is a powerful imp

of the perverse that is at work – but what is the nature of that perverse?
Maddin and his co-author George Toles poke fun at the hopes, fears,
joys, and sufferings of their characters, and they also poke fun at their
own film insofar as it is condemned to express these things. Maddin is
trying to sustain an almost self-cancelling project: to advance this ethic
(of obsolete narrative, character, and cinema), and also to underline its
impossibility. This is perhaps a hard thing for viewers to take in, certainly
at first sight.


The entire cocktail of contradictions comprised by all the previous head-

ings makes Maddin a postmodern artist. The sense that he is combining
such incommensurables as quotation and re-creation, naïve narrative
and avant-gardism, lyricism and sensationalism, innocence and derisive
scepticism, the highest and the lowest artistic models, the highest and
lowest economic production models marks him in this way. Even the
sense that he is manipulating contradictory forms as a way of dealing
with the blockage of any kind of direct expression in our culture, and es-
pecially of any kind of elevated idealism or lyricism, shows him as a crea-
tor who both reflects and tries to resist the fragmentation and scepticism
of our era, and hence a variety of postmodern artist. Historical quotation
or pastiche, explicitly ‘retro’ elements, are widespread in postmodern
art, and they are far more extensively deployed in Maddin’s cinema than
usual. For Maddin, though, the intention and the effect are very differ-
ent from the detachment that usually marks these modes. He does feel
distance from this old cultural material, but with him there is a nostalgia
that infuses the situation with longing and sadness that are quite unlike
the norm. This whole topic, really, is a subject for a broader kind of
cultural analysis than I will be undertaking here. But the recognition of
Maddin as postmodern, and in a way as martyred by postmodernity like
the rest of us, is, I think, part of the instinctive response of his devotees
that sees him as a sophisticated and relevant artist of the moment, rather
than simply a diverting one.

Child at play

The notion of play is something important in much postmodern art,

and Maddin’s cinema is playful on multiple planes. It plays with older
12 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

forms, it plays with viewers’ expectations and experience, it plays self-

conscious games with its own discourse. But there is an even more basic
sense of the term that applies to Maddin’s work. It is a kind of primitive,
sometimes almost totemistic, playing with his materials almost exactly
as a child would play with its toys. In Tales from the Gimli Hospital Mad-
din is playing with his family’s, and his region’s, Icelandic past, putting
together settings and stories from an actual tome of historical memories
called The Gimli Saga. In Archangel he is dressing his sets and his char-
acters with fantasies inspired by the World War I picture books that he
leafed through constantly as a child. His literary and cinematic consump-
tion has furnished him with similar subjects for play. The inner child,
who is the first imaginer and the first player, and who survives robustly in
the adult creator, reimagines and plays with these materials from culture
and history encountered both in childhood and later. These resulting
fictional worlds, all of them fantastic in one way or another, have only
a distant and coincidental relation to the real world or any other pri-
mary source of inspiration. All of them bear a resemblance, rather, to
dollhouse or (Maddin’s word) sandbox worlds where the imaginer is
playing with the toys he has imagined and then fashioned in a relatively
home-made way. It is a process that continues right through his most re-
cent work, where however its primary materials are no longer historical
culture of one kind or another but now his own life, and particularly his
childhood and young adulthood. So in Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand
upon the Brain!, this feeling of play – with toylike iterations of the hockey
heroes of his youth (in Cowards) or of his parents (in Brand) – remains
present, but now with greater substance and more forthright power.

Maddin’s progress

The study that follows examines each of Maddin’s feature films in chron-
ological order, one film to a chapter. At the end of the volume, after
a very brief conclusion (Envoi), there is a large Appendix, in effect an
additional chapter, that covers all of Maddin’s extant short films, also in
chronological order. Although all of these chapters convey some infor-
mation about project origins and production circumstances, their main
activity is to provide extensive close readings of the films. In each case
I provide a description of the film’s content and an analysis of themes,
narrative forms, literary and filmic influences, and cinematic techniques,
in a fashion intended to be orderly and consistent from chapter to chap-
ter. I also provide a running account of persistences, metamorphoses,
Introduction 13

and departures in both content and style. What the long curve of this
trajectory reveals is a slow growth and transformation in the filmmaker’s
range and treatment of subject matter and a slow development and then
a sudden alteration in his visual language.
The account of technique and style in Maddin’s cinema finds him be-
ginning as a kind of primitivist working in 16mm and taking up the early-
cinema methods of long takes, simple shot assembly, reductive low-key
lighting, and elementary special effects. That is certainly not the whole
story of his early filmmaking apparatus, which elaborately mimics silent-
film and avant-garde qualities as well, but those qualities of it are an
essential component. As his budgets grow and the range of his projects
expands, he experiments with more elaborate techniques, including
colour and even 35mm film. But the most profound and rapidly imple-
mented change occurs around the turn of the millennium, in the realm
of editing. Without leaving behind his avant-retro practices, his cinema
becomes plastic and kinetic, constantly in motion with micro-editing and
changes of speed. Since these visual techniques are only very glancingly
compatible with spoken dialogue, Maddin’s latest films are if anything
even more inseparable from silent cinema than their predecessors, al-
though their pace draws them in a direction very different from the
long-take, mise-en-scène style of his models Stroheim and Murnau. The
movement to a much faster editing tempo now finds a definitive techni-
cal basis in digital editing techniques, though Maddin has continued to
shoot almost everything on film in all of his longer projects. Meanwhile,
after having an unpleasant experience with 35mm, he has retreated to
the smaller, more malleable 16mm and eventually even 8mm gauges.
We find him in recent years capitalizing on the tiny size and weight of
8mm cameras to begin a regime of hand-held, multi-camera shooting
that mixes perfectly with that infinitely mobile digital editing and allows
a cinema so fluid and ever-changing that mentally reconstructing its
shooting is an almost impossible task – a style, in short, that is in many
ways at a polar opposite to the one he started with.
The business of accounting for the evolutions of meaning and affect in
Maddin’s films is a denser and more complex undertaking. It is fascinat-
ing to watch his development as an artist from this perspective. The wres-
tling match between pastiche and nostalgia, between the embodiment
of his narrative material in toy structures to be played with mockingly or
affectionately and the embattled wish to extract some kind of authentic
emotion from it is probably the main line here. The toy structures of
Archangel and Careful stage value systems of an obvious absurdity that are
14 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

caricatures of nineteenth-century idealist worldviews, full of repression

and false consciousness but also containing something precious that a
contemporary Western outlook is decisively cut off from. Maddin’s strug-
gles to quarry genuine feelings of aspiration and loss from these environ-
ments are in effect iterations of his artist’s struggle to find an expression
for his own feelings. As these chapters move in detail through his films,
they recount this evolution of expressive vehicles. The most recent, and
most important, development has been the arrival at a more direct chan-
nel of expression, less gnarled and hedged around with self-deriding
sarcasm. There was always the sense that Maddin’s art was intensely per-
sonal, and anyone reading his published writing – especially as collected
in From the Atelier Tovar (2003) – will understand its deep roots in child-
hood experience and memory. (Just how profoundly this is true is some-
thing that has become more and more evident to me as I have worked
on this project, and is reflected in the title of my book.) Maddin’s first
film, The Dead Father, drew directly on autobiographical material for its
content, and there is nothing at all obstructed about its expression. But
the grand trek that followed, through the fantasy realms of Old Gimli,
northern Russia in 1919, the early nineteenth-century Swiss Alps, the
Symbolist fantasy-land of Mandragora, and Bram Stoker’s fin-de-siècle
Europe, removes him from that primary ground, and establishes the
self-described ‘sandbox play’ of this phase of his art. Twilight of the Ice
Nymphs (for a host of reasons) and Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
(because it is a film version of an existing stage production) draw him to
the furthest distance from his personal memories. It is at this point that
Maddin turns back to the fertile ground that is the essential source of
his art: his own past, and especially his own childhood. The Saddest Music
in the World (2004) is only personal in this way by virtue of its Winnipeg
setting, but his other three most recent features – Cowards Bend the Knee,
Brand upon the Brain!, and My Winnipeg (2007) – have such a strong basis
in private memory and experience that the director has called them ‘the
Me Trilogy.’ They have extended his oneiric, self-mocking, garage-band
avant-gardist retro cinema into the very place of its origin. In the first
two of these films Maddin’s ‘memorism’ is so heavily disguised that the
untutored viewer is quite unable to recognize the life of a person any
more actual than the people in Archangel or Careful, while the buffet ta-
ble of My Winnipeg contains a whole lot of items that have little to do with
a particular autobiography. But for Maddin the creator, these disguises
and distractions are insignificant, and the return to his own life has had
the effect of clearing away obstacles, liberating feeling, and producing
Introduction 15

a species of unproblematically expressive cinema that represents a new

and rather inspiring phase of his work – as stylistically exuberant as ever,
but now speaking more directly and eloquently.
The arc of this transformation from a landscape of pastiche-laden hy-
perartifice to a landscape of ecstatic recollection and anguished con-
fession describes, then, Maddin’s progress of feeling and expression
from its beginnings until the time of writing (2008). He is an artist in
the prime of his creative life, so the present study can only be a partial
one. It is quite possible that with ‘the Me Trilogy’ Maddin has completed
some kind of purgation – a very fruitful one artistically – and that he will
now move forward to new models, strategies, and subject matter. I con-
sole myself with the thought that the cutoff point of this not-exactly-slim
volume falls at least at a watershed moment of Maddin’s art, one that has
seen it rise to new heights.

The Dead Father (1986)

It was something that just seemed so pure. It’s a pure dream. There’s noth-
ing in it that isn’t directly channelled through this experience of loss,
and his deep connection with this father who was never there but always
hovering around the edges ... There’s something so dirt-basic to dreaming
in grief and living in grief, and the letting-go process ... I’ve always been
amazed that anyone needs to have that film explained to them. It’s lucid,
that’s exactly how it is. The father who is dead and not quite resigned to
being dead. It’s perfect.
– George Toles1

Maddin’s first film is twenty-five minutes long and is a quite wonder-

ful debut. In a manner predictive of many things to come, it uses the
simplest of elements to conjure up a filmic environment that is at once
alertly inventive, surreally shocking, and endearingly homemade, self-
mocking, and eerily poetic. It announces itself immediately as nested
in the cinematic past: the opening credit sequence features a meticu-
lous copy of silent and early-sound movie title cards (one for each actor,
all introduced in costume and named as themselves and as the char-
acters they play); meanwhile on the soundtrack we hear the crunchy,
restricted-range main title music from The Public Enemy (1931). Later on
there is liberal use of low-key quasi-expressionist or noirish photography,
and there are further soundtrack interventions from Hollywood musi-
cals of the 1930s and from classical music and opera. Perhaps even more
clearly than in anything else of Maddin’s one can see immediately how
the film has turned its limitations (of budget, of production equipment
and materials, of filmmaking expertise) into virtues through repeated
The Dead Father 17

transformative acts of imagination. Every primitive strategy of the sound-

track, every drastically simplified lighting set-up, every rough simplifica-
tion of action, every continuity disruption – all are metamorphosed into
acts of conscious creative will, so that shortcomings which would disable
another film are transmuted into an array of witty and original stylistic
The source for the film was primarily a series of dreams Maddin had
had over many years about his father, who had died of a stroke at the
age of fifty-nine in 1977 when Guy was twenty-one years old. Maddin told
Caelum Vatnsdal:

In my dreams, my father hadn’t died ... he’d found a better family to go live
with. In some dreams the family was just across town, and in other versions
he’d gone to Minneapolis. He was usually just coming back to the house
to pick up a shaving kit or a newspaper he’d forgotten or something, and
he would usually agree to stay for five or ten minutes. During the course of
the dreams I would try to get him to stay longer, try and get him to love me
more. I tried to impress him with how great our family was so that he would
want to stay and not abandon us again. He never stayed. Not in one of the
hundreds of these dreams I had did he ever stay. By the end of the dream
he either died again or his health failed so badly that he had to go away, or
he just got mad and left.2

Much of this is recognizable in the film, though there are many added
surreal touches, and the final ‘eating the father’ catharsis is developed to
express what kind of radical measures might be necessary to resolve the
tensions causing the dreams. A particular inspiration for how such events
might be artistically reimagined came from the story ‘Sanatorium under
the Sign of the Hourglass,’ by Maddin’s adored Bruno Schulz,3 which
also features a son talking to a dead father. Maddin had seen from the
example of other avant-garde and local filmmakers (notably John Paizs)
that it was possible just to pick up a camera and make a film, and that is
what he did here. The project, though, was actually about three years in
the making, with shots picked up one at a time, and the principal roles
taken by Maddin’s bosom buddy John Harvie (as the Son and narrator)
and family acquaintance Dr Dan Snidal, Associate Dean of Medicine at
the University of Manitoba (as the Dead Father).4 The budget, as nearly
as Maddin can recall, was around $5,000.5 When the film was accepted
for the 1985 Toronto Film Festival, attracting the favourable attentions
of key TFF adjudicators such as Piers Handling and Geoff Pevere, it was
18 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the first step up the ladder for this completely inexperienced autodidact

Events of the film

The film is intermittently narrated by ‘the Son’ (I will use the character
names given in the introductory titles), and the bare bones of the events
that he guides us through are as follows. The narrator’s father has died,
and he is looking back now at the events of ‘that summer’ wherein the
death was followed by a number of strange reappearances of the Father:
‘it became apparent that my father wasn’t quite dead in the traditional
sense – brief recoveries became quite common.’ A shot of the Widow
(Margaret Ann MacLeod) preparing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
for the Daughter and Little Girl 1 is extended by a pan across that reveals
the dead Father laid out on the dining room table, with the two girls ob-
liviously playing cards inches from his head. The Son sits in his bedroom
working on a model kite when his attention is caught by a sinister ges-
turing shadow on the wall like something from Dreyer’s Vampyr; behind
him through the window we see what he cannot – his Father in shirt and
shorts knocking at the window and obviously annoyed that the Son is not
attending to him. The Widow climbs into bed at night, and nestles down
to sleep as the camera pans across to show her dead husband lying next
to her. At a certain point the Dead Father just exits the house and walks
out of the yard, presumably because of the failure of his family to meet
his requirements. ‘We both knew where he was going,’ says the narrator,
referring to a previously mentioned neighbour woman with a ‘mania for
cleanliness.’ ‘Why did he prefer that address to his old one with us?’
What seems to be a flashback takes us back to the night when the
Son found the Father collapsed on the sidewalk in front of their house.
Somehow he is gotten into his bedroom, where the Widow appeals to the
Son to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The Son attempts this des-
perately before shying away in disgust, after which the Father turns over
onto his side and dies. The Son runs into the dark backyard and falls
into a foetal-position sleep, from which he is awakened in the morning
by the sound of a lawnmower and the sight of his father in golf shirt and
short pants mowing the lawn and giving him orders to do things (‘awake
ten seconds and I was already following orders’). The Son is given the
task of, apparently, squiring Little Girl 2 to school. (This girl seems to be
the Son’s little sister, though Maddin himself had no younger siblings.)
‘But,’ he narrates, ‘during those forgetful days, how could I have been
The Dead Father 19

The Dead Father on the dinner table, card game in session.

expected to complete any task?’ – and he somehow misplaces her. Al-

though the girl is recovered unharmed, the parents are angry at the Son,
and the Father looks at him irately and then once more leaves the house
for the other address. At last the Son decides he must exorcise this dis-
ruptive presence. In dead of night he marches out into the backyard with
a shovel and flashlight. He moves past a whole array of family corpses
lying there above-ground to the spot where the Father is resting lightly
covered with leaves. Producing a large spoon, he pushes up the Father’s
shirt and proceeds to dig chunks of flesh out of the Father’s abdomen
and consume them convulsively, over cries of pain and angry looks from
the corpse who has once again woken up. Now the Father has appar-
ently understood that the situation cannot continue. He leads the Son
up to the attic, where they sit side by side looking at family photo albums,
with the Father pointing out interesting items and perhaps recalling the
original occasions. Finally he lies down in an old chest in the attic, and
20 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

is sealed up there. The film ends with two long shots of the Son who has
remained sitting in the attic with the photo albums.

The Maddin tone

The opening credits are charming and disconcerting, and it is worth

paying some detailed attention to them because they strike a distinctive
tone that is to persist throughout Maddin’s cinema. With the very first
image there is a strong period flavour in the black and white photo-
graph of the prow of a big steamship (the Lockport), emerging from a
set of drawn proscenium theatre curtains and surmounted by the corpo-
rate label ‘Extra Large Productions’6 and the Roman-numeralled date,
MCMLXXXV, while on the soundtrack we hear three sepulchral blasts
of a ship’s foghorn and some gull sounds. The image of a large steamer
coming through theatre curtains is absurd and delightful, almost remi-
niscent of the way the most extravagant and impossible Busby Berkeley
musical numbers are explicitly ‘placed’ on a theatrical stage. Then the
imitation of silent film introductory titles7 immediately conveys a fond-
ness not only for an era in cinema that is anything but current, but for
a concomitant world of feeling. The Hollywood silent credits Maddin is
replicating are marked by an innocence and artless good will, and also
a creative environment that allows for a degree of ‘baring the device’
self-conciousness (characters in costume being introduced as actors) that
is somehow also disarmingly naïve and transparent. Maddin’s film com-
bines the replication of this silent film practice with the additional aura
– also happy to present itself as naïve – of a children’s dress-up entertain-
ment, of him and his friends having fun. In this context there is also
the welcome opportunity for ingenuous self-promotion, as in the first of
the personnel introductions, featuring Maddin himself in naval uniform
and officer’s cap, smiling at the camera and offering a salute, with the
words ‘written & directed by Guy Maddin.’
The charm of the sequence is produced by a recognition of the gulf
between, on the one hand, the innocence and un-self-consciousness of
the silent-cinema model, with its sense of guileless certainty and self-
confidence and its complete pastness, and on the other, its actual exist-
ence in the present-day postmodern world where self-consciousness and
irony are all-pervasive, and where the production itself is quite aware of
and happy to broadcast its own poverty and amateur status. Thus, the
title ‘Filmed on location at Loni Beach and in Extra Large studios at
Lockport’ conveys a dusty grandeur that goes appealingly with the fact
The Dead Father 21

that Loni Beach is a part of the Manitoba resort town of Gimli (popu-
lation less than 2,000) and that Lockport is a nearby community that
is even smaller. The Public Enemy main title music, a bizarrely dramatic
orchestration of the song ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,’ comes from
the adjacent but nevertheless different cinematic world of early sound
What is startling about these imitations and quotations is how vivid they
are, and how reckless of any overt justification. But the mood of the film
shifts abruptly as the narrative begins (accompanied by another dramatic
chunk from the Public Enemy music track). Although silent cinema will
continue to be present by virtue of the almost complete absence of spo-
ken dialogue and the consequent necessity for a pantomimic acting style,
what we now find is not the sunny openness of the Hollywood-model ti-
tle sequence, but another world altogether – a darker and more anxious
mood even in humorous moments, and, visually, an alternation of una-
dorned home-movie-like documentary footage with other sequences in a
strongly chiaroscuro expressionist or noirish photographic style.

Surrealism, expressionism

At this beginning of the film proper, we find ourselves immediately in

surrealist territory, whether of the trivial comic variety represented by
photographs of the paws of the family dog and of the attempts of the
woman next door to keep them clean, or in the deeper and more reso-
nant vein exemplified by the body on the dinner table and in the mat-
rimonial bed. The aesthetic engine of the whole film – and of much of
Maddin’s cinema to come – may be said to be a continual surprising
juxtaposition of jarringly different elements, swerving not only between
documentary and expressionism in visual style, but between violently dif-
fering moods: the self-mocking and the eerie, the tragic and the petty,
the horrifying and the ridiculous. Much of the time, indeed, the film
does not oscillate between these poles but presents them simultaneously,
as with the early example of the corpse lying unacknowledged in the
middle of a banally domestic scene involving peanut butter sandwiches
and children playing cards. Similar juxtapositions occur in the film’s mu-
sical quotations as well. The sections from The Public Enemy are strange
and slightly jarring, but no more so than the subsequent appearance of
‘Brangäne’s Watch’ from Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, or a Dick
Powell / Ruby Keeler dialogue clip and part of a song from 42nd Street
(1933), or sections of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto and a Liszt tone
22 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

poem, or a stomping baritone-and-chorus number by Cole Porter featur-

ing Nelson Eddy from Rosalie (1937). Throughout the horror-filled nar-
rative of family grief, of a dead man who doesn’t realize he is dead and
keeps reappearing, the incongruous tone of mundane desires and petty
grievances keeps resurfacing. The dead Father’s presence doesn’t neces-
sarily inspire overwhelming dread: instead, his momentary approval of
the Son’s model kite causes a surge of fatuous pleasure, or his anger at
the Son’s failure in babysitting gives rise to lip-biting resentment. All this
might seem simply like satire or mockery if it weren’t for the genuinely
uncanny events and the dark foreboding of much of their presentation
– in short, if it weren’t for the simultaneous presence of their opposite.
The commonplace and the traumatic sit side by side (indeed literally so
in most of the Father’s scenes), exerting their equal and opposite pulls
in a relation that may be classically surreal or textbook postmodern, but
whose tone and presentation are quite unique.
The images in The Dead Father are without the severe processing or
‘degradation’ that Maddin would usually subject his photography to in
his later films. Indeed, it is fascinating to see how the uninflected docu-
mentary ordinariness of many of the sequences does nothing to inter-
fere with the strangeness of the film’s project (the reverse, if anything)
– prompting speculations as to what might pop up in Maddin’s cinema
if he were to revert to this unbombarded naturalness of representation.
But most of the film is, in fact, given over to a form of low-key photog-
raphy that might be broadly called expressionist. To be sure it is often
a cheesy, lesser-Karloff-horror-movie brand of expressionism, with ultra-
simplified uni-directional lighting that yields high-contrast images of un-
refined potency. But cheap high contrast has paid dividends in many
realms, from early avant-garde cinema to Night of the Living Dead, and in
The Dead Father the world of black shadows and glaring light that sculpts
the powerful corrugated face of the Dead Father, or the patrivore Son’s
trembling mouth with flesh-loaded spoon poised for consumption, once
again produces an effect that bears the simultaneous marks of amateur
poverty and poetic power. And in combination with the film’s extensive
use of dissolves, it does help to create a visual environment in some ways
not a million miles away from that of Murnau or Stroheim.

Sound and music

The soundtrack of The Dead Father is just as creative as the image track,
and just as indicative of Maddin’s style. The aural fragments from Holly-
The Dead Father 23

wood films of the 1930s give us sound that has distortion and compressed
range and dynamics, and also the warmth, immediacy, and ‘punch’
of early electrical recordings. At the same time, the voices of Dick
Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Nelson Eddy, like their dialogue and lyrics,
clearly emanate from a time long ago. As Powell blithely skates through
‘Say I know a bundle of humanity / She’s about so high / And I’m just
driven to insanity / When she passes by,’ or Eddy with male chorus
booms out ‘To love / Or not to love / That is the question / To decide,’
we are confronted with pathways of cultural expression for feeling that
are so much more simple and untroubled than those available to Mad-
din’s confused, suffering hero (the grotesque echo of Hamlet in Eddy’s
number is particularly apt when the Son is also troubled by his father’s
ghost). Also very evident, of course, is the absurdity to the modern eye
of 42nd Street and Rosalie, of these uncomplicated feelings and the empty-
headed directness of their expression. But what is just as striking is a mar-
velling sense that attitudes could once be so simple and easy, together
with an envy of this unencumberedness that rises in this context of grief
and confusion and absurdity to a kind of pathos. When ‘Brangäne’s
Watch’ appears, it is in Kirsten Flagstad’s 1941 recording, not anything
more up to date; and the sudden presence of this profound, sensually
ravishing music also introduces an old dimension whose conduits of feel-
ing are not blocked and tainted as Maddin’s characters’ are, where grief
and yearning can receive a powerful, unfettered expression. Maddin rel-
ishes the sonic restriction and the background noise of these recordings,
as he relishes the limitations of the photographic style, and, even more
precisely, as he will soon relish the project of inflicting his own footage
with noise, damage, and ‘degradation’ of all kinds. And the oldness of
the technology is always related to the oldness of feeling, of cultural and
artistic possibilities.
Sound editing in The Dead Father follows the same path. Like the quality
of the sound it is crude in a technical sense, with jarring transitions, unre-
fined cross-fades, and an emphasis on disruption and imperfection rather
than any attempt to smooth joins or conceal breaks. But its juxtapositions
are startling. One fine, simple example: the orchestral introduction to
‘Brangäne’s Watch’ is first heard as the narrator is talking about the after-
math of the Father’s death (sympathy cards, well-wishers greeting the Son
in the street), and the singer’s voice enters as the scene moves indoors,
to the peanut butter sandwiches and the body on the table. But when the
film moves back outdoors to the Son the music ceases with brutal abrupt-
ness, only to reappear equally brutally when the scene cuts back to the
24 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

domestic interior. In short, the music here is now being treated as though
it were diegetic – that is, originating inside the scene itself, as a radio or
record being played – but it has already been demonstrated not to be
that, but instead extra-diegetic, like any movie score. The harsh wrench-
ing off and on of this supremely beautiful music is merely the demon-
stration in another dimension of the film’s fractured relationship with a
wholehearted cultural expression. Later, after the Father’s departure to
the neighbour woman’s house, the Wagner again appears, but this time
it is succeeded by a long stretch of 78rpm empty-groove noise, this noise
becoming now a new ‘musical’ accompaniment, much more avant-garde
in style, expressive of grating absence. The brutal fragmentations and dis-
ruptions of all the older musical artefacts demonstrate the presence of a
detached modernist or avant-garde sensibility coexisting with the idealist
nostalgia which prompted the choice of exactly these musical selections
in the first place. The resulting state of aesthetic conflict is a highly char-
acteristic Maddin posture.
The same philosophy is found in the film’s presentation of narration,
dialogue, and sound effects. The not very extensive narration is spoken
in expressionless, diarylike form, with, again, a quite unsophisticated
recording technique. Dialogue is much sparser yet – a few words only,
never synched with an image of a speaking mouth. There is, however, a
considerable array of sound effects, often accompanying scenes where
people are obviously speaking and yet their voices do not register on the
soundtrack. As with everything else in the film, Maddin here manipulates
the limitations of his technical base to positive aesthetic effect. Shoot-
ing without direct sound is so much less complicated and cheaper than
shooting with it, and post-synching voice-over and sound effects much
easier and cheaper than dialogue. For a filmmaker already in love with
silent cinema, it is a lightning solution to both technical and aesthetic
questions to make a silent film with voice-over narration and sound ef-
fects – and a music track. It is piquant to hear the blaring sound of a
power lawnmower running right through a scene in which the Father,
his mouth moving, is silently telling a whole lot of things to the Son, or
to see him utter a long string of silent remarks before leaving the room
accompanied by the sound as well as the image of the door shutting be-
hind him. This selective bursting into isolated moments of what seems
like ‘live’ sound never loses its pleasing arbitrariness. And the whole situ-
ation in which we hear the Son’s inner voice (in the voice-over) but no
one else’s, and meaningless sounds made by objects but not dialogue is
merely further evidence of the condition of fractured understanding,
The Dead Father 25

communicational breakdown, and blockages of feeling that characterize

the basic situation of loss and sorrow.

The film’s use of sound, then, is performing the same kind of work as the
high-art/kitsch-popular musical fragments that are ripped from context
and juxtaposed, the radically different photographic styles that are inter-
spersed, and the jarring continuity shifts that sometimes even alternate
daytime and night-time shots within the same scene: all expressing a dis-
junctive, stuttering, unstable sensibility that is prey to mutually inimical
and completely unreconcilable emotions. The first reaction to so much
in the film is laughter – this is mock-epic, mock-sorrowful, mock-dra-
matic, even mock-traumatic. But what is mocked is also preserved, in a
way protected by the mockery. The innocence of the silent-film titles, the
drama of the quasi-expressionist photography, the strong appeal of the
musical fragments, and at last the grief and suffering of the characters
are all alive under their bell jars of ridiculous impossibility, protected
from the vacuum of scepticism that is our own condition. It is note-
worthy as well that in Maddin’s first film we already have zombieism and
cannibalism – elements from ‘low’ horror movies, but put to the service
of a project that has, essentially, no cinematic genre affiliations whatever,
and again operating in a way that is somehow ironic and serious. The
Dead Father, like almost every one of Maddin’s films to come, is impos-
sible to classify. To return to the judgment (quoted in the epigraph)
rendered by Maddin’s mentor and future collaborator George Toles,
the film manages seemingly without effort to find a clear path to the lu-
cid expression of a psychic truth. Maddin’s subsequent films would take
much more circuitous routes, and develop far more baroque incrusta-
tions, in their means of expression. Not until his most recent films, spe-
cifically ‘the Me Trilogy’ of Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand upon the Brain!,
and My Winnipeg, would Maddin return to something comparably direct.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)

I had this atmosphere in my head, kind of like someone whacking a tuning

fork on a table, and it just left me with this pitch. And I knew it was a tone
that didn’t exist in any other movie: whether it would be good or bad, it
wouldn’t be like any other movie at least. And that emboldened me to make
the picture, I knew I could create a picture that had its own tone.
– Guy Maddin1

Tales from the Gimli Hospital was the film that first brought Guy Maddin’s
name to the outside world. The Dead Father showed singular and striking
qualities, but its length made it undistributable, so hardly anyone saw it.
By contrast the 72-minute Tales from the Gimli Hospital managed to get
shown – indeed to play at weekend midnight screenings for more than a
year at the Quad Cinema in New York’s Greenwich Village2 – and inau-
gurated the stream of reviews and interviews that would install and keep
Maddin’s work in the consciousness of devotees of alternative cinema.
The film is slowly paced and cheaply made, but even before it overcomes
and then recuperates these potential drawbacks, it has set viewers hop-
ping with a blitzkrieg of strange elements bizarrely combined. Its mar-
riage of pastiche and parody with horrific elements and a visual style of
expressionist intensity reminded many commentators of David Lynch’s
first film, Eraserhead (1978), and gave rise to Maddin’s occasional appel-
lation of ‘the Canadian David Lynch.’ Erudite reviewers were also quick
to identify the presence of elements from earlier cinema that Maddin
was recycling and reimagining, and to name many of them: silent melo-
drama, Weimar-era Expressionism, early musicals, 1930s horror films,
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 27

Sternberg, Murnau, even Dreyer. The opening credits and first scenes
of the film create a deliberately archaic tone, and many subsequent ele-
ments do evoke particular filmmakers or historical moments, but this
aura of museum-cinema is quickly transformed into something even
stranger and more challenging by Maddin’s constant, manic drive to
heterogeneity. Virtually every pose struck, or mode of rhetoric adopted,
by the film is either combined or closely juxtaposed with something else
that doesn’t fit, and the jarring contrasts produced by this method leave
the viewer in a constant state of mild shock, or delighted provocation, or
perhaps annoyed puzzlement – but in any case, in a state of stimulation.
A wish to ‘mythologize’ his home environment led to the idea of send-
ing up the Norse-legendary aspects of Manitoba’s New Iceland. (The con-
tinuing project of local self-mythologizing was to culminate ultimately in
The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg.) Maddin managed to get
a $20,000 grant from the Manitoba Arts Council, and he spent that and
a little money he inherited from his Aunt Lil shooting Gimli Hospital,3
turning the former beauty salon run by his aunt and his mother into the
movie’s principal set, covered in straw and feathers and furnished with
wooden-slat beds that look as though they came from a concentration
camp. It was shot in black and white (with a few tinted sequences) on
Maddin’s light-leaking 16mm Bolex camera. The leisurely production
schedule, albeit less glacial than that of The Dead Father, once more al-
lowed Maddin to put things together one scene, or one shot, at a time,
and although in later years he had to become accustomed to much more
condensed shoots, he always looked back with fondness at the ability he
had in this early work to put his films together like hobby projects whose
completion schedules were basically non-existent.

To begin ...

Again we see The Dead Father’s company credit card – Extra Large Produc-
tions, the steamship Lockport plowing out from behind proscenium thea-
tre curtains, with the Roman-numeralled date and the foghorn on the
soundtrack. Then comes the movie’s title card, ‘tales from the gimli hos-
pital’ in archaic letters over a photo, lit from either side in strong chiaro-
scuro against a black background, of a female figure in outline. A strip
of gauze is also seen in arabesque to the right. Then come, again as in
The Dead Father, individual title cards introducing the characters by name
and epithet (‘Einar the Lonely’ ‘His Friend, Gunnar,’ etc.) over medium
28 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Credit screen for Tales from the Gimli Hospital. The steamer, Lockport, is named
for a hamlet on the Red River between Winnipeg and Gimli.

close-up of each in turn. When the credits are finished we are presented
with a slightly battered-looking postcardlike shot of a mountain, with the
following poem (composed by Maddin) in archaic lettering:

O Mount Askja!
Your Eruptions have put us in Boats
and sent us to scar new Lands.
But from across the celibate Ocean
you cast your nets and haul us back
to your smouldering bosom!

The action

Gimli, Manitoba, the present day. Well, it’s supposed to be the present
day but you might not understand that because the characters’ costumes
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 29

are strange (an older woman wearing an elaborate ceremonial head-

dress that is clearly of historical provenance – belonging to the Icelandic
Fjallkona 4), and the setting hardly looks contemporary, with its stylized,
simply constructed sets and props, its expressionist/noir lighting, and
its positioning at the conclusion of a sweeping crane shot that has de-
scended from a celestial realm full of angels. Gliding past a sign that says
‘Gimli Hospital’ and peeping in through a large square-paned window,
the camera discovers a family scene: a haggard, sweat-drenched woman
in a hospital bed, a man who makes a gesture of violent dismissal and
leaves, the woman’s two young children (a girl and a boy), and their
grandmother, or ‘Amma’ (Margaret Anne MacLeod), who decides to
distract them from this terrible circumstance by telling them stories
about ‘a Gimli we no longer know.’
At this point the film moves into its principal narrative, which the story
told by the Amma. It is ‘the story of Einar the Lonely and his friend Gun-
nar.’ Briefly, Einar (Kyle McCulloch), like many other Gimli-ites (though
they almost all seem to be male), is stricken by the pestilence5 and taken
to the quarantine station, where he and the other victims are ministered
to by a bevy of young – very young – nurses.6 While recovering here he
gets to know Gunnar (Michael Gottli), the patient in the next bed who,
notwithstanding his corpulence, has made a big hit with the nurses on
account of his lively storytelling gifts and his clever ability to carve fish
shapes out of birch bark. Einar suffers jealousy at this spectacle, and his
own attempts to attract the nurses’ attention are failures.
Then one day Gunnar asks for the loan of Einar’s fish shears, and
when Einar passes him a rather elaborately decorated pair, Gunnar is
startled, and tells him the story of his meeting, courtship, and marriage
with the beautiful Snjófridur (Angela Heck), whom he found uncon-
scious on the beach one day. But after she had nursed Gunnar through
the early stages of the pestilence, she caught it herself. When she shows
Gunnar the lesions on her naked torso, he turns away and she falls dead.
‘I killed her,’ says Gunnar in despair. This story prompts Einar to tell
his own tale (‘O Gunnar, I too have a bad fish in my net’): how wander-
ing one night he came across the body of a young woman raised on an
Indian burial platform and stole the gifts and tokens buried with her,
including the shears: ‘I don’t know what made me do it ... My head was
very dizzy with the ebony moonbeams of that black night. And Gunnar –
I say it with shame – from that young girl that night I took more than just
tokens.’ But now it transpires that this violated corpse was that of Snjó-
fridur, whom Gunnar’s Indian friend John Ramsay (Don Hewak) laid to
30 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

rest in the traditional Aboriginal way, despite Gunnar’s fever-weakened

protest: ‘John, John, why do you make this when you should be making
the hole in the ground?’ Gunnar cries out to his fellow patient: ‘Einar,
you took my presents! You took my Snjófridur! You took her goodness!
It is gone! And it is never coming back!’ At this point a fire breaks out
on the roof of the hospital, and a man puts it out with pails of milk7 that
drips through onto Gunnar’s face, blinding him. Attentive nurses hurry
to black out the lenses of his eyeglasses with paint.
After a nocturnal burial of a plague victim (a blackfaced minstrel who
has spent his every minute on screen mugging, grinning, and rolling his
eyes),8 and a scene inspired by Dostoevsky’s story ‘The Eternal Husband’
in which Gunnar appears in dead of night at Einar’s bedside and traces
incisionlike patterns on his bare abdomen with the shears, the film is
ready for its extended grand climax. It is a giddy and frankly incompre-
hensible bouillabaisse of elements. Einar staggers from the hospital and
crawls through the woods where he sees a bearded man in a top hat and
frock coat delivering a torch-light address in high-pitched Icelandic to a
group of citizens. Magenta-tinted images of the feverish watching Einar
are now interspersed with a tableau of an extravagantly dressed wood-
land goddess attended by little girl ballet dancers, the effect like some
production number from an early musical. Meanwhile these scenes are
intercut with shots of blind Gunnar stumbling around with outstretched
hands like a caricature of Karloff in a Frankenstein movie, encountering
a group of little girls playing ‘hide and seek’ and being tormented by
double-exposed images of the shears, Einar, and Snjófridur, and mock-
ing laughter, and Einar’s voice repeating his name.9 In the DVD com-
mentary Maddin explains all of this. The bearded man in the top hat is
Canada’s governor general in 1874, Lord Dufferin, who negotiated with
and gave assistance to the community of New Iceland (though why he is
speaking Icelandic, and in a most un-governor-general-like tone, is not
elucidated). Einar, in his ‘randiness-fever,’ hallucinates that Lord Duf-
ferin is the alluring ‘Fish Princess.’ Gunnar’s peregrinations and mental
suffering are part of a ‘jealousy-fever’: ‘I’m cross-cutting between two
states of mind, Gunnar’s jealousy-fever, and Einar’s randiness-fever. And
I guess Einar’s randiness-fever is magenta-toned, and Gunnar’s jealousy-
fever isn’t. So I thought that was enough to keep things clear, but I guess
cross-cutting between two points of view, neither of which is real or reli-
able, proved a bit too narratively taxing, even for me.’
Both men end up in a field, also inexplicably occupied by a Shriners
Highland Pipe Band, and proceed to engage in an epic battle of Glima
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 31

Wrestling – a grotesque if traditional form of encounter in which the two

wrestlers grasp each other by the buttocks and lift each other up in turn
until one grows too exhausted to continue.10 As this desperate contest
begins, the pipers break into sonorous, heroic cry, and the men grapple
with each other so fiercely that their trousers are torn to shreds and their
naked buttocks begin to bleed. The battle ends in mutual collapse, with
each contestant crawling off. In an epilogue, the recovered Einar is back
at his smokehouse, where he is visited by a recovered Gunnar (no blind-
ness now) with a new fiancée on his arm. They greet Einar in friendly
fashion, and as they walk away down the beach into the distance, the
music tells us that this is their happy ending. In its conventional (though
silent-cinema-dated) feeling, it could be this movie’s happy ending too.
But it is not: ‘Einar the Lonely’ is left in the same resentful, petulant soli-
tude in which he began, and the epilogue must of course take us back to
a scene of death and loss.
Finally the film returns to the Gimli Hospital, where during the tell-
ing of the story the children’s mother has died. The following dialogue

amma: She’s gone to heaven, children.

girl: Will she be coming back?
amma: No, but she’ll be watching over you day and night.
girl: Will you be our mother now?
amma: No. But I’ll visit you, if your father lets me.
girl: What’s heaven like, Amma?
amma: Heaven? Well now, if you’ll be good, I think I feel a story com-
ing on ...

And the film ends as the camera inverts its film-opening beginning, mov-
ing out of the window, past the hospital sign, and up through a collec-
tion of blurred white images to a realm where we see a giant-winged
angel. The concluding title then comes up, reading ‘Endi.’

The mixture

Tales from the Gimli Hospital hits the viewer with an even more outrageous
collection of incompatibilities than The Dead Father. It would be accurate
to describe the film’s basic form as mock-epic, but both of its compo-
nents – its epic model and the nature of its mockery – are highly idi-
osyncratic to say the least. The particular realm of heroic legend chosen
32 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

is itself a severely diminished one. The Norse Eddas and Viking history
have an authentically mythic resonance; Icelandic migration to Mani-
toba in the nineteenth century can perhaps claim some small element of
heroic pioneer saga-narrative, but nothing approaching the millennia-
old grandeur of Norse myth. And yet it is the language and posture of
Norse mythology that is echoed in Icelandic-Canadian ethnic cultural
celebration, and repeatedly invoked throughout the film. In his DVD
commentary, Maddin describes present-day Gimli:

Gimli, Manitoba, Canada, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, about an hour’s

drive north of Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba, is, by the 20th century, a lit-
tle, touristy town, vaguely Icelandic heritage, population 2,000 – but around
1874 was a ludicrously primitive Icelandic-Canadian fishing settlement ... in
what was then known as New Iceland ... Modern Gimli ... is a town of strip
malls, and it’s slowly evolving into a slightly slicker, touristy thing, but has
a lot of, like I say, malls, and hardwares and video stores that pay homage
to its roots by just calling itself ‘Viking Pharmacy’ or ‘Viking Sports Shack.’

Icelanders fleeing the volcanic eruptions of Mount Askja (as referred

to in the opening poem) arrived in the unsettled country in some num-
bers in 1874, but the size of the community was quickly diminished by a
smallpox epidemic and a number of other setbacks.11 The hardiness of
the remaining small community is attested by the survival of and pride
in Icelandic ethnicity that remains to this day in and around Gimli. A
signal example is the 1975 publication by the Gimli Women’s League
of Gimli Saga, a tome of 798 pages that assembles recollections and fam-
ily stories of the community’s history going back to its foundation (and
which formed a partial inspiration for the film). Maddin, Icelandic on
his mother’s side, has a curious attitude to this strong, severe, yet anti-
heroically tiny and limited local self-mythology. There is an inescapable
discordance between the majesty of Norse archetypes and the primitive-
ness and smallness of the Gimli settlement and its subsequent preserva-
tion of heritage. When he encountered their stories himself as a child,
Maddin relates,

I guess whenever I heard about my ancestors they always had impossible-

to-remember names (Elfa Egilsdottir, Snjolej Snigbogasson, etcetera), and
they always seemed to be going through such terrible hardships [...] I found
their stories, told with the singularly humourless aspect that most Icelandic
stories seemed to have on the surface, to be incredibly funny [...] Just sit-
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 33

ting around the family and not particularly listening to these dead serious
Icelandic stories just presented such dark and tragic tones, and gave to me
the same kind of delight the super-empurpled dialogues of Greek tragedies
gives to me.12

So Maddin presents us with a community struck down by an epidemic,

but affecting a population which sleeps covered in dirt and conducts
medical operations with incredibly crude implements; and he presents
a kind of epic love triangle whose two males are emotionally petty and
badly overweight respectively, and whose female is the posthumous vic-
tim of a casual necrophilic rape. At one end of the film the opening
poem and the Fjallkona-clad storyteller are to some degree taking the
mickey out of the Icelandic-legend project, while at the other the epic
buttock-grabbing duel accompanied by a Black Watch-like Shriners Pipe
Band is doing the same thing even more emphatically. And of course the
whole placement of an epic narrative in Gimli, Manitoba, has a kind of
ipso facto anti-heroic quality.
But any kind of uncomplicated reading of this mock-epic is derailed
immediately by a dizzy confusion about historical period. It is not at all
clear that the action of the Amma’s story is supposed to be set in 1874,
because almost the first thing we see at its beginning is a montage of
Gimli inhabitants waking up and going outdoors to the beach, set to
smooth popular band music of the 1920s (and a tenor of the time pleas-
antly crooning the DeSylva / Brown / Henderson song ‘I’m a dreamer,
aren’t we all?’), with all the females clad in flapperlike costumes from
the Jazz Age. It is clearly an homage to musical montage sequences of
early Hollywood sound films, but it sits in surreal contrast to the primi-
tive fishing village around it. As Einar exits his little smokehouse and
sees all the pulchritude, he reaches for a fish nailed to its outside wall
and quickly squeezes a large viscous glop of oil from its innards onto
his head as a pomade. ‘Einar the Lonely’ is his epithet, but though this
name bears the aura of a legendary hero, we begin to discover right away
that this epic loneliness is pretty much indistinguishable from the kind
of poor success with women that any contemporary putz might have.
The goings-on at the hospital introduce equally discordant notes for any
viewer trying to get a fix on a possible period or social environment. The
kohl-eyed nurses, in addition to loose shifts over bare shoulders, wear
low-wimpled hospital caps with a big red cross – very much a First World
War era suggestion. Meanwhile, the practice of leaving holes in the sec-
ond-storey floors of buildings in order to channel heat from the farm
34 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

animals living below, however much it might seem an utterly character-

istic Maddin invention, is based on nineteenth-century New Icelandic
actuality.13 Of course, trying to do anything so pedestrian as identifying
a fixed historical period to this farrago may seem naïve; and yet the film
has signalled its Norse-mythic and geographical settings so forcefully
that it seems called for.

Cheap thrills

What emerges from this unique mixture is neither epic nor exactly
mock-epic, but instead a certain intoxicating innocence and charm. The
primitiveness of the characters, the community, and their practices is
all ridiculous, indeed it is deliberately exaggerated to be, precisely, ri-
diculous. (That it is often exaggerated so much that it passes all the way
to surreality does not interfere with that fact.) But Maddin is not quite
mocking that ridiculousness – rather he finds it fascinating and attrac-
tive, he loves it. The community’s hypersimplicity is a mark of innocence,
of trust in received knowledge and practice that seems to our eyes faultily
based, but that is lovable in its very fallibility. Perhaps the most beautiful
example of this principle is the scene about a quarter of an hour into the
film that depicts a medical operation on Gunnar’s leg in the quarantine.
A scar-covered doctor (played by Maddin himself) cuts into the patient’s
leg with an agricultural sickle on a crude plank bed by the light of an oil
lamp: horrifying. There is no anaesthetic for this operation. Or rather,
what is used as anaesthetic is the distraction of a puppet show, staged by
the nurses in a little proscenium box stage, accompanied by a strange
archaic popular instrumental recording, and viewed by Gunnar through
a pair of opera glasses that the doctor keeps urging on him whenever he
winces in pain. The puppet show includes the raising and lowering of
a small metal disk, with face, representing the sun, and the very simple
dancing of a couple of puppet dolls to the accompaniment of clunking
rhythmic quasi-folk music. The effect of the scene is extraordinary. The
idea that looking at this rudimentary spectacle across the room through
opera glasses could form any kind of adequate distraction to having your
leg punctured by a not very sharp iron blade is preposterous.14 Yet if it
could distract you effectively, what kind of innocent subject would you
have to be? And what kind of society could devise and implement such
a strategy? There is a real tenderness displayed by the film to such a sub-
ject, and such a society. Such a pure faith in the potency of narrative, of
theatre – even the simplest form is compelling! And such a pure concep-
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 35

The ideal naïve spectator: Gunnar observing a puppet show as a form

of anaesthesia.

tion of the viewing subject – he is so innocently enrapturable that he can

be distracted not merely from sorrow and hardship, but from searing
physical pain. Thus the scene strangely exhales a real poetry, a lyricism,
an idealism at some level – even while it never ceases to be ridiculous. It
is a little paradigm of Maddin’s creative essence, and almost everything
in the film bears a similar tinge.
An appreciation for the primitiveness of the depicted world also
merges into an actual identification with it. The rude, home-made,
ridiculously simple aspects of this world are direct parallels to the
‘garage band’ poverty of Maddin’s home-made filmmaking. There is an
a priori gulf between an epic period narrative and the derisory budget
and materials Maddin has to work with, but instead of trying (hopelessly)
to conceal this gulf, the director just happily plays in it. The camera’s
opening descent through the firmament from heaven to earth, a shot
in which angels appear momentarily in double exposure, sets the tone
36 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

pretty well: the movie’s first example of special effects that use only the
most elementary apparatus for making special effects. The clouds don’t
look like clouds, but just various out-of-focus white or grey objects stream-
ing quickly past the lens. The angels, with their gigantic snowy pinions,
are actually rather beautiful; but they definitely look like ordinary people
dressed in white shifts and craft-project wings. When we arrive on earth,
the settings – a strange checkerboard projector-light building, the ‘Gimli
Hospital’ sign, the large square-panelled windows of the hospital – look
very cardboard, but at the same time stylized in an almost Expressionist
way. So it goes throughout the whole film: the musical accompaniments
are all lifted from rather decayed public-domain sources; the well-con-
ceived and evocative costumes (especially those worn by the women) are
always redolent of a children’s dress-up game; the acting has a similarly
childlike elementary earnestness; the mise en scène boils everything
down to night shots with only the barest contextual elements; editing
and camera movement are attenuated. In short, everything in the film
is perfectly frank and ingenuous about its poverty of means. Indeed, as a
primitive film about primitive filmmaking, as a rhetorically overreaching
basement-made movie about a rhetorically overreaching backwater epic,
as a tale told by an imperfect subject (Maddin in Winnipeg) about an
imperfect object (Einar the Lonely in New Iceland), Tales from the Gimli
Hospital takes its mirroring of subject and conditions of production to the
point of reflexivity.
In addition to this charm of the naïve, the impoverished apparatus
yields distinct aesthetic rewards of its own. Maddin has remarked: ‘I
think when I discovered L’Âge d’or [Buñuel/Dali, 1930] I realized that
there was much power in primitive film, that I didn’t like reading primi-
tive writing because that was just bad writing, but primitive film, or primi-
tive painting, primitive music was very effective.’15 Obviously, then, the
reciprocal virtues of cheap production and the aesthetic attractions of
‘primitive film’ were in his mind from the beginning. When he began
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Maddin’s first instinct was to imitate the look
and presentation of Stroheim’s legendary 1924 epic of realism Greed
(even for a while wanting to call his film Pestilence), but he discovered
that you can’t just go out and shoot a period story during daylight hours
without something like Stroheim’s production apparatus.16 The film just
drifted more and more into nocturnal settings:

I just decided ... [to] set the rest of the movie at night. I was able to control
the atmosphere of the movie far better, because there was no need to mask
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 37

out 7-Eleven signs, and other modern extraneous intrusions. […] I found
that the shadow was the cheapest prop.’ Then the low-key lighting that he
pursued got further simplified: ‘I had read up how to make films in How to
Make a Film books, using the three-light set-up, but darned if I could use
three lights without getting three nose shadows, so I started unplugging
lights until one remained, and one light seemed to be the way I went for
the rest of the movie.

And in the end the bald single-light chiaroscuro performs, like almost
everything in the film, this same function of being obviously primitive on
the one hand and having its own aesthetic presence on the other. It was
of the first one-light shots, when they returned from the lab, that Maddin
says, ‘I guess I was just starting to find a style that I was proud of.’17 Such
stark, high-contrast, visually simplified black and white photography has
the effect of stylizing the images often to the point of oppressiveness
while simultaneously connecting with visual qualities from the silent film
era like the contrasty look of orthochromatic film stock and the some-
times clunking forceful stylizations of early German Expressionism. The
employment of silent-film-style iris or vignetted framing and many soft-
focus or light-fogged shots simply adds to the effect.
The film’s long takes, absence of camera movement, and relatively
simple editing also present this double face. Lacking the apparatus and
the expertise for tracking shots, Maddin uses longer, more static takes;
lacking the experience to edit sophisticatedly, he prefers a simple, mini-
malist editing scheme; and wanting to expand the story to something
approaching feature length,18 he has an extra reason for slow pacing,
repetition of action, and narrative meandering. There is also the direc-
tor’s fondness for dissolves and fades (the film many, many times uses
dissolves instead of straight cuts where the latter would have done the
same narrative work), and for double-exposure shots where events from
the minds of the characters appear simultaneously in the frame with
them through overprinting (the shots depicting Gunnar’s hallucinations
of Snjófridur and the shears while he is ‘blind’ are an excellent exam-
ple). All of these technical choices bring the movie closer to the practice
of a certain variety of silent cinema. Certainly long takes, slow pacing,
dissolves, and multiple exposure are just as characteristic of German Ex-
pressionism as the shadow-filled photography is. If Maddin started out
wanting to recapture something of Stroheim, he ended up recapturing
something of Wiene, Galeen, and early Lang. And without disguising, or
trying to disguise, the limited and stylized nature of his working materi-
38 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

als, he has again produced something with one foot in the ridiculous and
the other in the sublime.
It is the same story with the soundtrack, which executes a number of
the strategies introduced in The Dead Father to even broader effect. The
main title music comes this time from Little Caesar of 1930 (Maddin’s first
two films thus recapitulating the soundtrack-score history of the early
Hollywood gangster movie), before switching to some kind of wordless
choral hymn for the ‘Mount Askja’ poem, then the aforementioned par-
aphrase of dated stylishness and sophistication in the musical montage,
and for the rest of the film veering all over the map from ‘dramatic’
fragments from movie soundtracks, Haydn’s Drumroll symphony, the big
tune from the music track to Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, an old
quasi-clog-dancing recording, extracts from the work of a Harry Lauder-
like Icelandic comedian of the 1920s (Maddin identifies him as ‘Bjarne
Bjarnson or Bjarne Bjornson’19) for Gunnar’s storytelling and Lord Duf-
ferin’s speech, a big soprano-and-chorus number from an old musical
for the ‘Fish Princess’ vision, all the way to the sonorous blare of the
highland piping for the Glima Wrestling scene, and the Liebestod from
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for the final fade-out. There is certainly more
dialogue than in The Dead Father, but it is still relatively sparse, and what
there is is obviously post-synched without excessive concern for smooth-
ing over the joins in matching ambience or lip-synch, so that here too
artificiality is converted from technical failure to stylistic statement. As
well, even more than in his first film, Maddin makes copious use of hiss
and crackle, whether record groove noise or white noise from silent sec-
tions of videotape recordings. In passing reference to its slow pace and
atmospheric qualities, the director calls his film ‘a tone poem, a tribute
to ambient crackle.’20
Altogether, this simple, crude style has an amazing presence and
power, especially in the visual realm. Its power is so great, in fact, that it
is actually able to aesthetically unify the fantastic array of variations and
contradictions going on everywhere in the film: in its tone, its themes,
its narrative peregrinations and divagations, its simultaneously different
periods, etc. This is a substantial achievement for something made in
the garage.


And then, of course, every impossibility of narrative and tone, every star-
tlingly heterogeneous juxtaposition, and every movement in the direc-
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 39

Snjófridur as angel. An image that shows how close Maddin can be to one
facet of David Lynch.

tion of coarsening and brutalizing the images and the soundtrack also
emphasizes the film’s potential positioning within the category of avant-
garde cinema. From one standpoint, Gimli Hospital, like all of Maddin’s
feature films, has too much plot to be thought of as properly avant-garde
in the heavily abstract ‘classical’ tradition running from Man Ray and
Hans Richter through Stan Brakhage and beyond. The tradition of Jean
Epstein, Watson/Webber, and Buñuel/Dali and continuing through
Cocteau is perhaps an easier fit, but Maddin’s films seem at times to be
too frivolous or casual to belong there completely. (Maddin has very
great enthusiasm for L’Âge d’or, but that film, despite its outrageous
norms-insulting comedy, always maintains a certain consistency of tone,
an immovable stone face.) On the other hand, the term ‘avant-garde’
has often been more loosely applied in cinema than in the other arts.
If the 1960s films of George and Mike Kuchar, with their vulgar day-glo
parodies and raucous indulgence in low comedy, could ever be classified
40 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

as avant-garde cinema, then there is nothing whatever to stop Maddin’s

films from sharing the label. In any case, it is a connection that (again)
commentators on the ground have made, and certain elements of Gimli
Hospital seem more usefully classifiable in this way than in any other.
Everything in the film that tends towards abstraction falls immedi-
ately into this category: the soundtrack crackle, the images sometimes
smeared and fogged almost to indecipherability, the pacing sometimes
slowed to the point of emptiness, the aggressive blankness or disconnec-
tion of soundtrack events, the bewildering juxtapositions of styles and
tones and imitative modes, the manifold disruptions of any straightfor-
ward reading of events or meanings – these may all comfortably be de-
scribed as ‘avant-garde.’


Even so, it is necessary to stress how unlike most recognizable forms of

avant-garde much of Gimli Hospital is: the mock-epic subject, the appre-
ciative (rather than ironic) inclusions of so much popular culture of
so many eras, the general sense that the film is fundamentally a story-
film, no matter how odd. Indeed it is a kind of über-story-film, with an
elaborate series of nestings of narratives inside narratives, and even a
film about narrative. The film begins with a species of direct address to
the audience, in the form of the character-introduction titles, and even
more markedly in the archaic poem that apostrophizes volcanic Mount
Askja. The opening descent literally from heaven represents the most
omniscient sort of narrative imaginable, but all subsequent forms are
specifically placed in the mouth of a storyteller. As the action proper be-
gins it is constituted primarily as a narrative: the Amma’s tale told to the
two children in the hospital. Once in this third level of story – the Story
of Einar the Lonely – the film proceeds to develop further stories within
this story. Gunnar captivates the nurses with the story of the Thorvalds-
dottir Sisters of Fjoldelund: another legendary tale just like that of Einar
the Lonely, this one featuring three little girls who strayed too far into
the woods one day and reappeared in three little coffins floating down
the river. But since, with sublime disregard for linguistic consistency,
this story is being told in Icelandic (as one of the recorded ‘Bjarnson
or Bjornson’ comic routines from the 1920s whose actual meaning is
god knows what),21 it has to be made intelligible to us by being narrated
in voice-over by the Amma from another dimension. Then Gunnar, in
his own voice, and in English (albeit slightly immigrant-accented), tells
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 41

Einar of his meeting with Snjófridur, their courtship, disease acquisi-

tion, and her death; and Einar tells of his corpse-violation. Each of these
is acted out in flashback. At the end, the film executes a quick reverse
movement from the main Einar-story to the scene in the hospital, and
then, with the promise of a further story from the Amma about ‘what
heaven is like,’ back up into the angel-inhabited empyrean for the end
title. It is an intricate and wide-ranging display of narrative forms.
The placement of narrative, specifically and repeatedly, as a form of
distraction or respite from pain is very striking. The outlandish and ri-
diculous tale of Einar the Lonely is told to the children to divert them
from the fact that their mother is dying in agony right in front of them.
The employment of puppet theatre as anaesthetic, already mentioned,
is another staging of narrative. And finally the Amma is proposing to fur-
ther euphemize the children’s condition of loss by telling them another
story about heaven. Taken altogether, these phenomena constitute an
additional form of reflexivity, a kind of statement about the nature and
function of narrative, encouraging the further perspective that the state-
ment should be applied also to Tales from the Gimli Hospital. So then we
may ask: What is it that Maddin’s film is distracting us (or him) from?
What is the nature of that distraction, and how does it work?


The placement of the principal narrative (the story of Einar the Lonely)
as a distraction from a primal form of death and emotional loss – death
of the mother, trauma of the young children – is on one level derisory, on
another deeply uncomfortable. There is nothing even potentially funny
about children losing a parent like this anywhere this side of the cruel-
est Monty Python humour, and though Gimli Hospital has a whiff of that,
it’s not all the way there. Here we have something of a repetition of the
scenario of The Dead Father: a deep, devastating emotional pain staged
partly as a farce. The children too young to grasp exactly what is going
on (though clearly not happy), the mother lying mute and sweating in a
small bed, the father who, in pantomime, arrives at the beginning of the
sequence and then leaves immediately in what looks like disgust or vio-
lent disavowal, the incongruously happy storytelling grandmother: these
elements have something of the flavour of a Saturday Night Live sketch,
but with the awful incongruity of a basic situation that is the opposite of
something to laugh at. In fact there are autobiographical connections
here. In his beautiful autobiographical scenario-fragment entitled ‘The
42 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Child Without Qualities,’ Maddin describes the moment when, as a little

boy of seven, he was told by his Aunt Lil of the suicide of his sixteen-year-
old brother Cameron:

She put the child without qualities on her ample lap and explained
with a loving simplicity that cameron had gone to be with carol, where
they could be in love. He would not be coming back, ever, but he would
be very happy there. A woman who looked like Aunt Jemima cried volumi-
nously – a child on her lap, too – on the Sunday Night Movie, and so did
aunt lil, a white Aunt Jemima, as she rocked the child without quali-
ties in her arms.22

The features of incongruity, displacement, and numbness here are

clearly related to those of the storytelling in Gimli Hospital, though Aunt
Lil’s tears are contrasted with the imperviously cheerful manner of the
Amma there.23
The idea that ‘the Story of Einar the Lonely and His Friend Gunnar’
– this story of fish-saturated backwoods primitives and their ludicrous
ways told as a legendary narrative – is a kind and natural grandmother’s
remedy for children’s emotional suffering is appalling. The most outra-
geous moment arrives when the dying mother’s pain-wracked face is seen
in close-up with, in the foreground, the little girl’s large paper-cup soda
drink bearing the trade name ‘Big Gulp.’ This is doubly clever, because
not only is the whole tableau of melodramatic family tragedy tradition-
ally evocative of a comic book-like ‘big gulp’ from the audience, but the
mother’s Big Gulp is also the Big Sleep. But the tone is unbearably disre-
spectful and cheaply mocking, a stroke that signals the film’s almost vio-
lent desire to distance itself from the painful scene it is depicting, and to
push away anything like a straightforward experience of that melodrama.
Another feature of this scene is the music coming from the old-fash-
ioned radio speaker at the patient’s bedside, which produces a manic
drone of some endlessly looped and repeating bar-and-a-half fragment
of music. The result – truly one of the most striking things in the film – is
a demented, maddening, modernist riff-chant that makes you want to
scream, and it is for a moment as oppressive and sinister as anything in
Eraserhead. This dialogue is taking place:

girl: Amma, what were you and my daddy talking about?

amma: Children, your mother needs her sleep if she’s going to get
better. Just let her listen to her music. Come. Come sit with Amma.
Have I ever told you the story of Einar the Lonely?
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 43

Of all the evasions and wrong-footings taking place here, the phrase ‘just
let her listen to her music’ is particularly chilling (and also funny) in view
of the lunatic nature of the music itself, and the most pointed example
of the casual insanity of non-recognition or non-acknowledgment per-
vading the whole scene. There are also indications that there is plenty
of extra family dysfunction in addition to this death: the father’s anger
was perhaps directed at the Amma, the girl’s question about the father’s
and Amma’s conversation is deflected, and, at the end of the movie, the
Amma is promising to come and visit them ‘if your father lets me.’ So the
family situation, which the tales are meant as distractions from, is truly
dreadful: irrevocable loss of the mother, conflict between the survivors,
the children getting to choose for solace between the father’s angry ab-
sence and the Amma’s cheerful, surreally preposterous storytelling (at
the end she ‘feels another story coming on’).
If the children can in fact be distracted and their pain soothed by this
storytelling – and if the patients in the quarantine can be similarly anaes-
thetized by puppet shows – it can only be because they are too innocent,
or ignorant, to know how inadequate these measures are. Or perhaps
they are not inadequate; perhaps they are only inadequate for the film’s
sensibility and for ours, and if we were able to attain a proper state of
purity (to take the term I used earlier), we too could find something re-
ally soothing. But in fact we cannot. Maddin is so inescapably conscious
of this that he is first in line to demonstrate, extravagantly, that such a
function for art, and for cultural narrative, is now completely impossible
and the very idea of it ridiculous. And yet he is struck by how it might be
quite wonderful if we could respond in an innocent way. In Tales from the
Gimli Hospital, the stories may be outlandish, the culture primitive, the
behaviour absurd, the basis for heroic narrative far from heroic, but on
the other hand we have only to consider what things would be like with-
out all that naïveté and ridiculousness. What is left is a reality – Maddin’s
ordinary reality, our reality – that is not only full of terrible pain, but also
flat, meaningless, and oppressive in its blankness. It is a world of depriva-
tion and plague in the past, and of loss and dysfunction in the present.
Perhaps in that reality there is no false distraction from pain, but there
is also no way to process or frame the pain, nothing to do but dumbly
suffer it without expression, and in a world whose banal quotidianness is
all-powerful. The other world – of the Amma in her Fjallkona garb telling
the children bizarre and inappropriate stories, of the puppet show as
an anaesthetic, or of the whole elevation of petty or shocking behaviour
in old New Iceland to the level of myth – may be a tissue of falsehood
and weird interpretation and grotesque metaphor, but at least these
44 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

things are some kind of response to trauma. They signal that there is
something there that needs to be processed, even if the traditional forms
of its processing are grossly inadequate. The alternative is the kind of
emotional disconnect so perfectly captured in The Dead Father where the
mother is serving the children their lunch sandwiches like something
out of Leave It to Beaver while the father’s corpse lies stretched out un-
remarked on the table in front of them. False painting, discredited and
ridiculous narrative and ritual, or else anomie and nothingness, those
seem to be the alternatives. And perhaps: it would be good to be able to
find a lie that would work, but now we know too much. So Gimli Hospital,
with a kind of artistic honesty, is driven to show both of those things: the
impossibility of earlier, now discredited and utterly unbelievable, forms
of mythification, narrativization, expression; and the wasteland of the
absence of such forms.

Wounds and the body

If reality, the bland, blank, alienated present, is characterized by anomie

and a muffled inability to express or even properly to feel pain, then
many of the devices of Tales from the Gimli Hospital – and of Maddin’s
whole cinema – become more clearly readable. They become a form of
displaced expression, the return of something repressed. In textbook
Freudian fashion, the returned is rather extreme and twisted in form:
the extravagances and ridiculousnesses of Maddin’s narratives and jux-
tapositions and stylistics. Perhaps the most recognizable iteration of
this return, though, is the presence of violence, bodily disfigurement
or violation, death, and multiple forms of severe transgression. The Dead
Father culminated in the actual eating of the flesh of the dead father’s
body. And on the other side of Gimli Hospital we may see the cavalcade of
amputations, disembowelments, self-mutilations, and Oedipal outrages
stretching through Maddin’s films in unbroken succession right to the
present. In this film there is certainly a sufficient supply of these ele-
ments, from the omnipresent graphic plague-lesions and blood-vomiting
deaths to the gory primitive sickle-and-drill operations to the sanguinary
Glima Wrestling. These are, to repeat, a subset of the larger category of
exaggerations and absurdities, and they are always presented as exag-
gerated and absurd themselves (and also partake of the poetic qualities
of this baroque array). But their violence and explicitness gives them
a much edgier and more assaultive character. Are we able to laugh off
these things? Is Tales from the Gimli Hospital in these scenes something like
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 45

a not truly horrified horror movie whose gore is a kind of ironic specta-
cle? The film is schizoid on this subject, as on every subject, but I would
assert that at some level all the physical wounding, and also the transgres-
sive crimes (notably Einar’s necrophilia and Gunnar’s corpse-slapping),
remain painful. As I have suggested, they are the most recognizable form
of the returned-repressed because of their too-sharp-to-be-laughed-off
pain. Also, their black-blood-and-scars connection with a modern ex-
pressionist horror movie like Night of the Living Dead points to a similar
queasy marriage of the obviously over the top and the actually sickening
in that genre.
Gimli Hospital certainly belongs with Maddin’s whole cinema – at least
until very recently – as a film whose qualities may be seen as symptomatic
of a condition of cultural repression and inability to express. But about
this film we might state a simpler thesis as to the core of repression and
expressive return. Here it is the death of the mother, and the inadequate
processing and expression of this horror, that gives the impetus to all the
subsequent horrors. Indeed, with this in mind the film might almost be
retitled The Dead Mother. For one thing, death is insistently present here,
and in so many forms. The explicit and sometimes hyperdramatic forms
of death in the ‘heroic’ narrative are in precise contrast to the mute and
static spectacle of the mother in her hospital bed, where the only ‘expres-
sion’ is the lunatic repeating grooves from the radio. The plague is killing
off a substantial portion of the community, and in rather vivid sore-
covered fashion. The treatments for mortally dangerous disease consist
of assault with crude tools and also voodooistic practices such as rubbing
a dead seagull on the torso of the sufferer. The three little Thorvaldsdot-
tir sisters go off into the woods where some nameless horror overtakes
them, and they come back as three little dead bodies in coffins (‘or were
they only sleeping?’ asks the storyteller, but we know the answer to that
one).24 There are ritual torch-light funerals in the forest. Einar rapes the
corpse of a young woman, while the anguished Gunnar viciously slaps the
same corpse. All of these provocations are, then, not simply in contrast
to the maddening non-recognition and non-expression of the mother’s
death, but the actual maddened result of that disavowal. If in The Dead
Father the logical remedy for a father’s corpse lying unacknowledged on
the dinner table is to unearth his corpse and eat it with a spoon, then
perhaps in Tales from the Gimli Hospital the logical response to a mother’s
blandly passed-over death is to go out and have sexual intercourse with
the body of a dead woman. There is a strong tinge of absurdity in these
more-than-operatic reactions, but finally they are as serious and powerful
46 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

as, say, the equivalent events in Buñuel films from Un Chien Andalou to
Belle de jour and Le Fantôme de la liberté.

Sex and violence

Every sexual impulse or sexual action in the film leads to something bad
or is something bad. Einar’s female-ogling on the beach results in his
cutting his thumb with his fish knife and thus his infection with plague
bacteria (splendid quick cutaway to a microscope slide squirming with
organisms, accompanied by appropriate melodramatic music for the
very brief moment the shot lasts). In the quarantine his constant sexual
desire for the nurses and his incessant jealousy gives rise to a bad state
of mind. What his desire might lead him to, what it has led him to, is evi-
dent as he recounts how, coming across the corpse of a young woman,
it somehow seemed all right to rape it. He does realize this was not a
good thing to do, but he doesn’t seem overcome with horror or even
remorse: it is simply ‘a bad fish in my net.’ This atrocity is embedded
in the larger joke about Icelandic-primitive cultural practices like fish-
grease Brylcreem, central-cattle-heating, and fire-extinguishing milk, to
which one can now add impulsive necrophilia – and in truth it is not so
far away from events in, for example, the Finnish Kalevala epic. But while
from one angle Einar’s mythic inappropriate lust is funny in an Animal
House way, from another it is truly appalling, and shows that ‘weakness
of character’ is too faint a description of the personal defects of this
Maddin protagonist, as for many of his successors. Meanwhile even the
cheerful and ingenuous Gunnar manages to cause the death of his fian-
cée by infecting her, and the mutual enmity caused by sexual conflict
leads to the bloody Glima Wrestling match. True, Gunnar and his new
girlfriend look set for a cloudless life, but the final note is sounded by the
frustrated and envious Einar the Lonely. Overall, the picture of sexual
relations is that they are a minefield of horror and death, garnished with
petty jealousies and hurt feelings.


Between the flatness of epic and the flatness of send-up, there is little
room in Tales from the Gimli Hospital for any depth of characterization.
This is hardly a criticism, when three-dimensionality in any narrative-
realist sense is far from being a goal of the film. But Gimli Hospital’s
characterizations, especially of its protagonist Einar, do give us indica-
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 47

tions of Maddin’s route to a representation of human psychology and

also of the curiously personal nature of many of his flatly rendered lead-
ing characters. In the drama of Einar and Gunnar and the nurses and
Snjófridur, the film is presenting a version of the banal romantic con-
flicts of the contemporary world, a kind of surreal and manic displaced
high school dating drama. The sullen, resentful expression on the face of
Einar is very reminiscent of the similar expression manifested by the pro-
tagonist of The Dead Father. Already we are beginning the accretion of
recurring characteristics of the Maddin hero, in this case sexual jealousy
and a certain sense of grievance. As in The Dead Father, what is perhaps
most striking is how the hero’s emotional register seems simply more
petty and undignified than its rather awe-inspiring context seems to call
for. The Son’s most visible reaction to the hair-raising presence of his
undead father is a childish anxiety that his craft projects might not be
properly appreciated, or a pique that he has been told-off for his short-
comings as a babysitter. Similarly, Einar’s reaction to the wave of grisly
deaths sweeping through the quarantine is to feel aggrieved because he
is not getting as much feminine attention from the nurses as Gunnar is.
This disproportion of trivial emotional response to massive and terrible
circumstances is something that shows up again and again in Maddin’s
characters, and indeed constitutes an insight into human psychology:
people are so narcissistic that they can’t get past their personal obses-
sions no matter how dwarfed they are (or ought to be) by circumstances.
It is a perspective often found in a certain kind of easily cynical television
comedy (shall we say Frasier or Seinfeld); but in Maddin’s case the dis-
proportion is ultimately not funny. Even beyond the idea that trivial in-
ternal events are of Brobdingnagian size to the psyche that experiences
them and Lilliputian to the psyche that doesn’t,25 in Maddin’s films the
insight grows stronger and more serious: the behavioural inappropriate-
ness of the characters gives rise to a kind of despair in the film itself at
the spectacle of their irremediable, crippled dysfunction. All this rises
eventually to real heights of intensity and self-consciousness in Cowards
Bend the Knee.
Einar’s ailments of sexual jealousy and thwarted desire are those of
many of the important male characters in Maddin’s features (the pro-
tagonists of Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and Cowards Bend the Knee;
the suitors in Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary), and what is also typi-
cal is the satire that the filmmaker directs at them. It is a satire that is
basically self-critical, if we refer to Maddin’s diaries published in From the
Atelier Tovar, and to the fact that the name of the most fully developed
48 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

of all these characters, in Cowards Bend the Knee, is ‘Guy Maddin.’ Mad-
din is explicit about this in the Gimli Hospital DVD commentary, giving
the name ‘cowardice’ to the hero’s character flaws (even though that is
not necessarily the first word that would spring to the viewer’s mind to
describe them): ‘Kyle [Einar] is of course a stand-in for me ... I’ve always
sort of just languished, happily, in my own cowardice. And whenever
something comes up in a movie I know exactly what I would do, and it’s
not proactive – it ain’t pretty [...] That’s why all the protagonists, usu-
ally played by Kyle, are extremely cowardly. For that reason my favourite
Warner Brothers character is Daffy Duck.’
Tales from the Gimli Hospital presents the spectacle of Einar, a young
and more or less presentable young fisherman whose torture it is to look
on darkly in frustration while a large simpleton, Gunnar, gets all the girls
for reasons that seem opaque to Einar. The joke here is subtle and quite
rich. During his narration of his relationship with Snjófridur, Gunnar
keeps plaintively failing to recognize Snjófridur’s interest in him, time
and again:

‘I ... I don’t think she liked me, but we spent a lot of time together.’

‘I don’t know why she ... it was very nice of her.’

‘For some reason, she made herself busy with me.’

‘She was nice, but why did she do this?’

‘She couldn’t have had anything better to do, because she started
sleeping here, too – in that very bed you are in now, Einar.’

In effect, both men are wondering what Snjófridur could possibly see
in Gunnar, and in particular Einar is baffled to know what that fat fool
Gunnar has that he hasn’t got. The subtle thing is that one gets the dis-
tinct feeling that Maddin too wonders this even while recognizing Gun-
nar’s good-heartedness and Einar’s weaselling resentment and self-pity,
and the film is thus prepared to share Einar’s moral flaws even as it is
exposing them. Or, to take a slightly different slant, Maddin is looking at
these people as if they were from outer space, but always aware that he
is one of them.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital 49

How then finally to describe this most unlikely debut feature? A parade
of personal idiosyncrasies in the strange garb of a mock-epic from an un-
noticed corner of the world. A surreal blizzard of contrarieties settled by
encasement in archaic film forms and held together by garage-band sim-
plicities of filmmaking. A meeting point of postmodernity and the dusty
attic, a constant interpretive challenge to viewers who are given no inter-
pretive clues. Tales from the Gimli Hospital is not a fully finished or entirely
successful work. It has unintentionally awkward or ill-executed moments,
its protracted pacing and repetitiveness are sometimes too visible as pad-
ding rather than aesthetic provocation. But, like its shorter predecessor,
it strikes deeper than you expect it to, its attitudes and juxtapositions are
regularly fascinating, and its invention prodigal and surprising. As the
director says, it strikes ‘a tone that didn’t exist in any other movie.’

Archangel (1990)

Amnesia is just forgetfulness, just an all-purpose tool – the kind we all need
to get through the day. Forgetfulness is kind of the necessary anaesthetic
or opiate.
– Guy Maddin1

Beginning with Archangel, the idea of a thematically and geographically

sealed-off environment where everything seems to speak the same lan-
guage militated against too much present tense particularity. The elements
wouldn’t marry properly, the light had to be all of a certain kind, he didn’t
want real trees to be arguing with pretend minarets [...] With Archangel
there was the analogy of northernmost Russia with Winnipeg, creating
these improbable kinships with spaces that are both real and/or mythical.
– George Toles2

Gimli Hospital is a movie full of delightful surprises and much promise,

but it is not an entirely realized film: for all its originality and daring, its
apprentice qualities are still visible, its step sometimes not quite certain.
Maddin’s next feature, Archangel, is by comparison solid and finished.
Indeed, despite a few miscalculations and the odd unsuccessful experi-
ment, it remains to this day one of the director’s most fully achieved
works, a film to set, in its early-Maddin idiom, next to Cowards Bend the
Knee and Brand upon the Brain! in his later one. Everything in Archangel is
on a higher level. This is true in such gross matters as the scale of the pro-
duction and the ambition and detail of the scenario as well as the true
feature-length running time of 90 minutes, but it is also true in a general
sense about Maddin’s simple command of the medium.
Archangel 51

Like its predecessor, Archangel is a historical drama. It lacks the framing

story of Gimli Hospital, and enters fully into its historical time. Although
its level of what one might call ‘historical absurdity’ is as high as in the
preceding film, there is a more discernible connection between the set-
ting and events and some recognizable referent in the history that an au-
dience is likely to have some cognizance of. In contrast to the ‘inflated
short film’ aspect of Gimli Hospital, here we find a full-blown not to say
epic period picture, a war movie demanding spectacular scale and a cast
of thousands, and boasting a budget of $430,000 (massively bigger than
Gimli Hospital’s $20,000 – $30,000). It attracted some high-profile critical
praise,3 and in the United States was given the prestigious National Soci-
ety of Film Critics award for Best Experimental Film (inaugurating the
debate about whether Maddin was indeed an experimental filmmaker
or not). But proceeding at the same slow pace as Gimli Hospital, featur-
ing a complex story and characters that apparently baffled many viewers,
and also barred by its predominant tone of earnestness from the ‘mid-
night movie’ cult status that Gimli had found, Archangel struggled to get
an audience, and remains something of an overlooked film in its crea-
tor’s output. Co-writer George Toles said later, ‘I think doing a part-talkie
with all the characters afflicted with forgetfulness posed challenges which
neither of us could comprehend until – well, until the premiere.’4 But the
story difficulties can be penetrated with some patience, and what emerges
from an ‘ideal viewing’ is a considerable achievement. In my opinion it is
impossible to find a better example than Archangel of the peculiar chemi-
cal process of the Maddin cinema – the emergence from a most unlikely
and even unpromising collection of indigestibly disparate components of
a strange, absurd, poetically moving, and finally emotionally compelling
aesthetic object.
The project began with suggestions from Maddin’s friend, John
Harvie, who had been a co-founder of Extra Large Productions and
played the central role in The Dead Father, and who Maddin describes
as ‘the greatest pitch man I’ve ever known.’5 As a history buff of great
range, Harvie was struck by the strangeness of the Allied mission to
northern Russia in 1918 that lasted past the Armistice and most of the
way through the following year, and thought it was a good setting for
a Maddin film. (He was also pitching a remake set in the Arctic of the
wacky 1933 Universal movie International House, and elements of that
idea got folded into the Archangel project, though hardly anything is vis-
ible of it.6) Maddin brought Toles in to collaborate on the script, and
Greg Klimkiw lined up the money from a variety of sources, most promi-
52 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

nently Telefilm Canada, and got a fairly substantial Canadian distribu-

tion pre-sale to Cinephile. Notwithstanding its non-minuscule budget,
Archangel was shot locally in 16mm black and white (some sequences
were later tinted in monochrome) on Maddin’s Bolex camera, with no
direct sound, tiny hand-built sets, and personally sewn or glued-together
costumes, a cast made up of (talented) friends and acquaintances, and
special effects of the utmost simplicity. The shoot took place over a
thirty-five-day period, mostly in an empty warehouse in Winnipeg’s west
end during a hot summer – ironic, since the diegesis is 100% wintry and
snow-covered, and at a polar opposite (so to speak) from the –40° shoot
of The Saddest Music in the World.7 When a new cameraman, Terry Reimer,
produced early rushes that were too clean and clear, Maddin sent him
back to ‘a really degraded copy’ of Jean Renoir’s silent low-budget fan-
tasy film La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928) as a model for greater
grain, blur, and contrast, and that resulted in images closer to Maddin’s
wishes.8 Once more the film uses the model, as Toles says, of the ‘part-
talkie.’ There is more dialogue than in its predecessors, but synchroniza-
tion is deliberately indifferent, and many scenes take place with only a
music-and-effects soundtrack. It is a model that allows, too, for dronelike
anti-naturalism in the delivery of dialogue that is very often stiffly formal,
poetic, or declamatory in long-dead styles, or simply bizarrely phrased.
Altogether, Archangel preserves much of the deliberately crude and sim-
ple quality, and obvious deployment of impoverished artifice, of Gimli
Hospital, but now in a much more ambitious and solid frame. It is always
after bigger game – and it is successful in that hunt, both aesthetically
and emotionally.

The historical backdrop

Archangel bears no very great relation to actual history, but it does specify
a precise historical setting – Archangel and Murmansk in northern Rus-
sia in 1919. During the preceding two years there had been a series of
large historical events in this part of the world: the Bolshevik Revolution
of 1917 overthrowing the Czar and casting in doubt Russian involvement
on the Allied side in World War I; the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March
of 1918 ending hostilities and making peace with Germany and Austria;
the arrival of a variety of Allied military units in northern Russia in June
of 1918 to try to forestall German activities and possibly even recreate
an Eastern Front; the German surrender in November of 1918; and the
subsequent Allied decision to continue their intervention in Russia in
Archangel 53

the hopes of overthrowing the Bolshevik regime, and thus essentially to

became a participant in the Russian civil war. All Allied contingents had
withdrawn from northern Russia by October of 1919 and from the other
theatres in which they were involved (the Don/Ukraine/Caucasus areas
and Siberia) by the end of 1920. (The civil war itself lasted until October
of 1922.) The setting of Maddin’s film then falls into that narrow year-
long window between the end of the war and the Allied withdrawal from
Archangel and Murmansk – a period in which forces that had come to
fight the Germans had ended up fighting the Bolsheviks.
Archangel’s depiction of the situation is grotesque, pitting Orthodox-
worshipping villagers and a Multicultural Heritage Festival cornucopia of
European, Asian, African, and Canadian Allies against a surreal combina-
tion of moustachioed Huns in pickelhaubes in pitched battle and drool-
ing lambswool-hatted Bolsheviks as home-front insurgents. Since the
Germans and the Russians had been enemies throughout the First World
War until the Bolshevik Revolution, and were never at any time allied,
Maddin’s implication of a simultaneous struggle against different ene-
mies is ridiculous. But it does capture the absurdity of the Allied interven-
tion in Russia, which in sober historical fact was scarcely less bizarre than
Maddin’s version. The original intervention was a panicked British and
French response to the collapse of the Eastern Front and the prospect of
scores of German divisions streaming across to France. Britain was also
(characteristically) utterly paranoid about the possibility of German units
operating so unopposed in the south that they could penetrate all the way
to British India. The decision to send troops to Murmansk and Archangel
had the specific aim of preventing their use by the Germans as submarine
and blockade-breaking naval bases; but it soon became inseparable from
what in retrospect seems like a lunatic scheme: to raise anti-Bolshevik
forces there to restart the Russian war against Germany and to link these
forces up with similar forces in the south and even in Siberia – who were
to progress thousands of miles across the Russian heartland – to recon-
stitute the Eastern Front. The first Allied arrivals in the north were actu-
ally cleared with the Bolshevik government, which had not yet signed a
peace treaty with Germany. At this point the struggle was blended in with
the civil war going on in neighbouring Finland, where the White Finns
were allied with the Germans against the Russian Empire, and where the
Red Finns thus became the natural allies of the anti-German efforts of
the Allies acting with Bolshevik permission. This changed overnight after
the Armistice, when the Allied forces themselves became Whites and thus
found themselves fighting their former allies.
54 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The Allied contingent in northern Russia was made up of British,

American, Canadian, French, Italian, and Serbian troops. It comprised
around 30,000 men in all, more or less equally divided between Mur-
mansk and Archangel. The fact that French colonial units were present
becomes Maddin’s excuse to give us exotic Congolese (!) soldiers, just
as a small Italian presence results in fantasy Garibaldian bersagliere units
in traditional miniskirts, and the Asian cultures of imperial Russia give
rise to soldiers of both sexes who look like escapees from The Arabian
Nights. Since there was a modest Canadian detachment in Archangel –
one artillery brigade numbering 487 soldiers9 – the filmmaker can make
his hero a Canadian, complete with his own flag (a veiny maple leaf en-
sign of Maddin’s own design whose crest rather resembles that of the
Toronto Maple Leafs of sixty years ago). The leaders of the Allied mis-
sion undertook the recruitment of anti-Bolshevik local forces as a high
priority, and pro-interventionists argued strenuously that these recruits
could not simply be abandoned by the governments who had encour-
aged their rebellion. In the event, though, they were abandoned, and
they paid a terrible price. Meanwhile, hardly any of the participants on
the ground or onlookers from afar could understand what Allied troops
were doing fighting in Archangel for a whole year after the Armistice.
As one American lieutenant embarking from Russia wrote at the time:
‘When the last battalion set sail from Archangel, not a soldier knew – no,
not even vaguely – why he had fought, or why he was going now, or why
his comrades were left behind beneath the wooden crosses.’10 And this
is not so very far from Archangel’s depiction of a conflict that is going
on for reasons that don’t make any sense to anyone, according to a set
of circumstances and beliefs that have been left behind by history, the
result of a kind of collective amnesia.
Archangel’s look, and much of its content, was suggested to the film-
maker by a bound set of wartime photographic reports from the Illus-
trated London News called The War Illustrated, which Maddin repeatedly
leafed through as a child. The relation of The War Illustrated to the Great
War, or even to a complex and nuanced historical account of the war, is
hypermediated: it is wartime propaganda. Although hot from the oven
when it was published, by the time it was in the boy Maddin’s hands it
was from a fairly distant past, a set of images that he read as quaintly
eloquent, unreal, and imagistically seductive: not history, but fantasy. In
the DVD commentary, Maddin remarks of The War Illustrated and his
reaction to it:
Archangel 55

Everyone in the movie and TV industry knows that TV series have a bible.
This movie had a bible, and it was those Great War books, they were war
propaganda magazines that were put out, I guess, once a month, and then
finally bound at the end of the war, and sold, and you can find them in
antique stores. What I noticed was that Russian women soldiers had the
greatest uniforms! They looked like Greek Orthodox ministers, with giant
wimples and headgear. It really got me fired up, and so when I went to Dee
Szöke, my costume person, we had a riot, just sketching them out. This is
really a war that’s always reminded me of toy soldiers – just being the baby
boomer that I am – the broken-down soldiers, the legless soldiers, that I got
to play with, the lead ones. No matter how hard I made them fight each
other, they never seemed to be able to hurt each other much. Even though
tens of millions of people perished, it seemed like a big toy war, somehow
– and that’s why I wanted the snow to be warm and cozy, blankety almost,
made out of blankets, and the soldiers appearing to be wearing costumes.

No Maddin film seems as much of a grand dress-up occasion as Arch-

angel: all these men going off to war in horsehair-plumed helmets and
other exotic military gear, the Huns, the Bolsheviks, the villagers and
their priests, all looking like participants in an amateur theatrical put on
by precocious children.

The opening

As in The Dead Father and Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the film begins
with an archaic company title, ‘Ordnance Productions,’ with a logo
that features a shield bearing a cenotaph-like object and a surmounting
eagle. And there is no main title music, but instead – in an early taste of
the distinctly quieter and more sombre mood of this film – the muffled
sound of parading infantry boots, distant artillery explosions, and a bell
tolling in slow carillon. The title credits appear against worn and archaic
backgrounds, with period lettering on scrolls or bars, the images dark
and slowly pulsing as with numerous generations of film-print duplica-
tion. A title reads: ‘The Northernmost tip of old Imperial Russia. Winter
of 1919. The Great War has been over for three months, but no one has
remembered to tell those who remain in Archangel.’ And then another
title: ‘The Dirge of Lt. John Boles.’ The opening scene, on the rail of a
steamship at night,11 the wind slowly whistling and snow faintly flurrying,
finds one-legged Canadian soldier John Boles (Kyle McCulloch) hold-
56 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ing a small decorated urn, inscribed ‘IDIC,’ whose contents are shown
to be ashes and a military medal. ‘Goodbye, Iris,’ Boles murmurs sadly.
An officer (Victor Cowie) a few paces down the deck is confiscating a
bottle resembling Boles’ urn from a pair of other soldiers dressed in
approximately naval and Cossack fashion respectively. Then coming to
Boles, the officer snatches away the container with Iris’ ashes and tosses
it overboard; Boles can only respond to this monstrous misunderstand-
ing with a resigned salute. This brief scene – a melange of emotional
loss, confident error, and dutiful acceptance – is like a microcosm of the


After the opening shipboard scene, there follows a sort of allegorical ser-
mon on the idea of Love. At almost three minutes in length, this is quite
an extended sequence, especially coming so close to the beginning of the
film and in the absence of much in the way of context. It is conducted
in voice-over by an omniscient and didactic narrator,12 and illustrated
with images of parental love, youthful and then mature romantic love,
patriotic, and finally religious love. At the end of this catalogue, the pray-
ing hands emblematic of religious devotion are enveloped by flames,
and we now get a series of images of the perversion of Love in self-love,
or Pride, which is responsible for the horrors of war. This is ‘a malig-
nant vanity, insatiable, the pride of the Teuton,’ and is accompanied by
superimposed flames and images of the hideous depredations of the
Hun, led by the Kaiser as an old man with a very strange pasted-on wool-
len moustache and wearing a rather cheap-looking Cossack hat embla-
zoned with a death’s-head.13 The narrator conducts a moralizing lecture
(‘One must have the discipline to fight for what is right in the Lord’s
eyes!’) and asks sententious questions (‘Why must such a belligerent
urge ravage all that is lovely and right?’). The images oscillate between
almost straightforward expositions of the moralisms uttered by the narra-
tor and completely fanciful stagings such as the execution of a young boy
tied to a stake with an apple upon his head, the order given by a young
girl (Jilian Maddin, the director’s twelve-year-old daughter) in Cossack
hat with death’s-head bringing down a sword almost bigger than she is.
This section is poised between the solemn homiletic tone of its dis-
course and the absurdly primitive and reductive or outright farcical na-
ture of much of its staging. It sits like a large lump at the beginning of
the film, and is certainly a substantial and probably puzzling interruption
Archangel 57

‘The insatiable Teuton’ and his model ‘the Pirate Emperor … in the uniform
of a Death’s-Head Hussar’ (The War Illustrated, 22 May 1915).

to be endured before the plot – itself rather difficult to get into – can
really begin. But it does perform the dual function of setting the histori-
cal scene and, more crucially, striking for the first time the rhetorically
heightened tone natural to the inhabitants of this world and reflective
of Archangel’s bizarre Frankensteinian revivification of it. Again, coming
so soon into the film, and presented so baldly, the sequence has the ef-
fect of a manifesto to the viewer: this is the kind of film you are going
to be watching. Like the puppet show in Gimli Hospital, and like many
other elements encountered later in this film, this sequence encourages
us to pose the question: what kind of audience could respond to such
a discourse unironically? Not us, surely; but we must nevertheless con-
front the problem of how to receive this rodomontade. Our first reaction
may be that it is satire, for it does certainly have features that seem to be
58 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

directing ridicule at the overly simple, impossibly credulous, and idealis-

tic attitudes of both the narrator and the illustrative subjects – a feeling
that is encouraged by the sometimes comic stylization of the cobbled-
together costumes and sets. Indeed at first glance it may be difficult to
see anything in the sequence that doesn’t fall into this category. And yet
this rhetorically overloaded speech and its allegorical visualizations are
too complicated and extensive and arcane to work simply as satire. The
joke is much too long and detailed, and the earnestness of tone too in-
tense and deadpan, to be really funny. In any case what exactly is being
satirized? As in Gimli Hospital, and in fact as in Maddin’s whole cinema,
this process of absurd restaging of dead beliefs and expressive forms can-
not be functionally satirical when the original objects are so truly dead as
to have been virtually forgotten. Nevertheless the large gap between the
humorlessness and absence of irony in the tone of this long oration on the
one hand, and the plentiful and inescapable ironies of its staging and the
film’s awareness of the absurdity of this tone on the other, presents to
the viewer a dilemma that is ultimately the film’s also. It is the dilemma
of a strong attraction to, and even a wish to believe in, the very ideology
and world view whose impossibility is simultaneously seen so clearly as
to provoke the film’s own derision. The love of family and country and
religion, the patriotic fervour to repel an invading army and rescue what
is precious from the depredations of a demonic enemy are powerful emo-
tional simplicities that at one level the film simply envies – envies even as
it sees their ridiculousness from a contemporary standpoint. Perhaps the
‘Love’ sequence from Archangel is a little too extended and unclear in its
purpose to be the very best example of this condition of the filmmaker’s,
but it does embody it very purely. Certainly it is a bellwether for Archangel
as a whole, which confronts this difficult emotional condition with a kind
of manic persistence. The focus for its dramatization, though, is not pri-
marily social (as in the ‘Love’ disquisition), but instead personal, in the
fate of John Boles and the other central characters.

An ideal husband

A title perfectly redolent of the everyday poetry of silent/early-sound film

titles leads us into the action: ‘Archangel – at the going down of the sun.’
Maddin’s Archangel, when we eventually see it, is a ramshackle collection
of off-kilter building fronts, wooden huts, hand-lettered cyrillic signs,
leafless tree branches, and various primitive implements, usually being
sprinkled with snow and always snow-covered. Both it and the extensive
Archangel 59

battle scenes were filmed on cramped twelve-foot stages, and the claus-
trophobic and largely nocturnal settings exert a strong and distinct aura,
miniaturely Sternbergian without a fraction of Sternberg’s resources for
settings and cinematography. Boles arrives in the town as part of the Al-
lied mission, and a further set of echt-Griffithian titles introduces the
situation and the characters and explains their significance with typical
silent-cinema narrative efficiency: ‘Chance leads Boles to billet with a
family in need.’ The family dwelling is a crude wooden house with a white
madonna and child statue in the front yard, and an interior that seems
half living space, half barn, and crammed with hanging ropes, farm im-
plements, a workbench and tools, and a multitude of objects – as claustro-
phobically cluttered as an interior from Sternberg’s Shanghai Express. The
little boy in the family, Geza (David Falkenberg) collapses with a seizure
just as Boles is coming in, and the rest of the family is introduced, one by
one, with titles: ‘the boy’s Baba’ (Margaret Anne McLeod), ‘his mother’
Danchuk (Sarah Neville), ‘and cowardly father’ Jannings (Michael
Gottli).14 Boles instantly knows what to do in the crisis: apply a vigorous
scrubbing with dry horsehair-brushes to the boy’s bare torso. After this
efficacious treatment, the following dialogue occurs:

danchuk: Thank you, Lieutenant.

boles: He may have worms. Have you tried feeding him a little horse-
hair? [examines Geza’s mouth]
baba: Won’t the hair turn to eels in his stomach?
boles: I hardly think so. [he reaches for some horsehairs on his shoulder,
hands them to Baba] Here. A few on your neck will keep goitre away,
too. [turning to Danchuk] And I might add, the breath of a mare in
foal on your little baby would clear up that whooping cough. [little
baby sounds]

Here the backwardness and peasant superstition of the locals is met with
the brisk scientific superiority of Western culture, which is then immedi-
ately revealed to be just as irrational and arbitrary as theirs. (All of Boles’
cures appear to be horse-based: perhaps an echo of the cavalry-based
ethos of military ideology so completely destroyed by the First World
War, and hence another mark of his pathos.)
Boles’ insertion into this family as the father-and-husband figure of
masculine authority is begun here, and continued throughout the film.
Danchuk cannot help but be attracted to him, so much better a man and
a father than the fat, cowardly Jannings, while Geza too sees him as the
60 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ideal heroic father figure, and Baba smiles approvingly at his every ac-
tion. In token of this picture of completion – the family’s by the arrival
of Boles, Boles’ by his fitting so perfectly into the domestic scene – Baba
digs up her late husband’s wooden leg. Looking like a large boot-tree and
absurdly decorated with Russian runes, this item is a handy replacement
for Boles’ peg leg: he marvels at its good fit and pulls his other boot out of
his pack (‘I knew I’d need you again some day,’ he says to it). Boles’ mis-
sing limb is a very concrete emblem of his damaged psyche, from which
something essential (his Iris) has been amputated. His shuffling physical
awkwardness always directly expresses his crippled emotions as well as the
inherent stiffness of his military and dutiful responses. Indeed, this mis-
sing leg is a small but pervasive and insistent sign of everything that is
missing in the film: not just a lost love, but a lost memory (amnesia), a
lost struggle (the amorphous battle in the Russian Arctic), and in a lar-
ger sense a whole set of big lost causes (solid patriarchal values, imperial
military virtue, duty, honour, order) that are as extinct in the Canada of
1991 as mastodons in the Archangel of 1919. The present scene, by pro-
viding Boles with the wooden leg of the departed family patriarch, deftly
symbolizes how in some sense patriarchal status is always incomplete and
to be realized prosthetically, how underlying all patriarchal authority is a
castration anxiety that can be allayed only in this symbolic way. Boles as-
sumes the false leg of the father. Amputation equals castration, and the
replacement phallus is a wooden strap-on dildo. The displaced desire of
the family for a patriarch, like every other desire in the film, is built on a
quicksand of cross-purposes and mistaken perception, and is doomed to
disappointment. And Boles will never truly find his leg, or his Iris, or a
meaning in his life, again. Indeed some kind of opposite transformation
occurs: Boles and everything he believes in and stands for are revealed to
be as wooden, as false, as the leg. In this sense a wooden leg really is the
appropriate completion for a wooden man – but it is a melancholy one,
for although Boles’ overearnestness is ridiculous, there is always some-
thing painful and touching about the sincerity and intensity of his beliefs.
The completion of the family by a wooden Boles is then even more poign-
antly impossible than its prima facie absurdity already renders it.

The dominion of forgetfulness

Now a defining event takes place. Glancing into a mirror (significantly),

Boles notices that a young woman has entered the room. She is strikingly
sombre and white-faced, dressed all in black, and wearing a large flat
Archangel 61

Titanic-era hat and lots of dark eye and lip make-up. A title announces:
‘The woman in the mirror, Veronkha, bears a startling resemblance to
Boles’s deceased beloved, Iris.’ Boles’ eyes roll back into his head and
he faints dead away, while the subsequent title comments: ‘Such is the
Dirge of Lt. John Boles.’ From this point forward, Boles will retain as an
idée fixe that Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca) actually is Iris, developing an
instant amnesia regarding the death of his lover, and henceforth trying
obsessively to get this new woman to acknowledge that she is in fact his
wife. Veronkha, it will soon emerge, has problems of her own, including
a husband whose own amnesia has caused him to forget her. Schematic-
ally, therefore, she is forgotten by the man she loves and incorrectly re-
membered by a man who loves her. As this skein develops, it is clear why
Maddin describes Archangel as ‘an amnesia picture,’ and why co-scenarist
and scriptwriter George Toles can say to Maddin (keeping in mind the
opening title where the armies are described as being in Archangel be-
cause someone has forgotten to tell them the war is over) that in this film
‘the Love/War thing is braided together in your mind by amnesia – since
nearly all of the characters are afflicted by it, both in their war actions
and in their love actions.’15
The basic situation is, as Maddin has confided,16 suggested by Henry
Green’s 1946 novel Back. There, the protagonist, Charley Summers, who
has lost his leg in the war, returns to England and confronts the situation
that the woman he had ardently loved has died while he was away. This
woman, whose name was Rose, had been married to another man, and
had had a son whom the hero believes is in fact his. He meets another
woman, Nancy, a war widow who is actually Rose’s half-sister, and he
instantly believes that she is in fact Rose, still alive. Although no one else
can see much physical resemblance between Rose and Nancy, Charley
is utterly convinced they are the same, and interprets all the confused
annoyance and sympathetic allowances he inspires in people as further
evidence of a plot to deceive and humiliate him.17 Like Maddin’s hero
Boles, he suffers not only from grief, disorientation, and basic errors of
perception, but also from terrible spasms of jealousy. Ultimately Sum-
mers finds his way back to true perception, and even, movingly, to a
genuine and reciprocated love for the ‘wrong’ woman. But the carnival
of loss-driven perceptual chaos offered by Maddin and Toles in Archangel
rejects any consolation at all. Instead, right to the end of the story its
cruel dramatic ironies are twisted further, the pathetic wrong recogni-
tions of their characters become more desperate and entangled. Insofar
as reality is ever recovered at all, it is as a blasted, arid wasteland. And
62 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

although this prospect is draped with the absurdity of Boles’ clunking

wooden leg, or the French-farcicalities of Veronkha’s wedding night(s),
it retains its quality of emotional desolation.
Veronkha’s husband Philbin (Ari Cohen) is quickly introduced into
the scene, so that the dramatic moment of Boles’ shocked swoon at
his misrecognition of his dead love is immediately invaded by another
set of misunderstandings and dysfunctions before we have had any
chance at all to process it. The new development is given its own title,
though: ‘Veronkha’s Dirge.’ Philbin is brought in by his doctor (Michael
O’Sullivan), who presents Veronkha with a tablecloth-sized paper that
is the marriage certificate (‘Why, it’s a treasure map!’ she bafflingly ex-
claims). The doctor undertakes a lengthy exposition of his patient’s am-
nesiac condition, tracing it to the effects of mustard gas but also giving
a psychoanalytic history that Maddin accompanies by illustrated flash-

He was suddenly weaned by his mother, who painted with boot-black upon
her breast the face of a fearsome monster. The treatment worked so well
that baby Philbin forgot, not only the breast, but his mother as well. As the
lad grew, forgetfulness was the very tenor of his existence. Forgetting the
kindness owing to God’s creatures, forgetting often the respect due to one’s
elders, and forgetting the little things that would have made life so much
easier for his forgotten mother. His romances have also been enacted un-
der the dominion of this forgetfulness. No sooner did he catch eternal love,
than he would no longer even remember the woman in question.

Philbin himself is an antitype of Boles. Where Boles is always crushed and

zombified or feverishly but unwisely hopeful, Philbin breezes through
both the war and all the emotional wreckage he has created in the lives
around him with a brainless confident smile relieved occasionally by a
look of vague puzzlement arising from his drastically misfiring memory.18
He has his own line in cheerfully impervious and unhinged dialogue, as
when he remarks to Veronkha upon his first entrance, ‘There’s a dead
sparrow on your roof – a good omen for our marriage,’ or later on in this
exchange with Geza, who has mistaken him for his saviour:

geza: You saved my life!

philbin: That’s nice. Your father said he’d drive me to the aero-
drome. Have you seen him?
geza: [gesturing to floor] He’s dead!
Archangel 63

philbin: [looking] I can see that. Nothing seems to be going right to-
geza: My father died a coward, didn’t he?
philbin: I believe there’s a reason for everything. For instance, some-
one shaved off my moustache while I slept last night. Who could
that be?

If Boles’ amnesia is a psychic mechanism whose function is to protect

him from the pain of loss, Philbin’s is simply one that relieves him of
responsibility. On the DVD commentary track, Maddin remarks confes-
sionally: ‘I know that everything about the way I’ve led my life is after the
fashion of an amnesiac. I’ve forgotten my marriages, promises – conven-
iently, alas – duties; I’ve forgotten that people have dumped me, and I’ve
forgotten that people have died.’
This seems to be Philbin all over. But Maddin goes on to say that his
identification with and experience with the problem of amnesia have
‘opened the doors for exquisite pleasures to be found in movies like
Vertigo and books like Henry Green’s Back.’19 We have touched on Back,
but it is worth recalling that Vertigo too, like Archangel, is about a psychic
obsession, a fog of unknowing, whose dispersal brings no release or ful-
filment, but only a clear and devastating recognition of loss. Amnesia
seems to be Maddin’s code word for an expressionist mental state that
is ruled more directly by unconscious desires and fears, and distracted
less by rationality and ‘daylight’ perception, than the norm. It is in this
sense that he can feel so intense an affinity with it that it can seem like
a universal condition, especially in cinema: ‘The more I started think-
ing about it, the more I realized that almost all movies are about am-
nesia.’20 Between too-present, too-powerful currents of feeling and the
blind self-preserving wish to avoid or transform them somehow, a retreat
into quivering, fog-lost atavism or blithe dissociative cheerfulness does
seem not merely the strategy for a Boles or a Philbin, but also an ana-
logue to Maddin’s own creative state – something that will later receive
more direct and detailed expression in Brand upon the Brain! and My Win-
nipeg. The physical representation of this almost universal condition is
the snow-flaked, fog-bound, arbitrarily illuminated blackness of the mise
en scène. And its narrative representation is the dizzying replication of
structures of misperception, hopeless desire, and mutual frustration.
Boles loves Veronkha because he thinks she is Iris; Veronkha loves Phil-
bin even though he has forgotten their marriage; Danchuk loves Boles
although he has no reciprocal inclination and she is already married.
64 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The demented quality of this circling structure is amplified in the rep-

etition of action: Veronkha’s three weddings and honeymoons, Boles’
three ‘treasure hunts.’

A child is being beaten

Following a scene in which Boles is elaborately prepared by the whole

family for some formal occasion (Danchuk and Geza bathe, brush down,
and talcum up his torso; Baba disentangles the horsehair plume of his
cuirassier’s helmet, he is tricked out in helmet, long cape, and sabre),
Geza is found toying with Boles’ collection of medals. Danchuk, ap-
palled, decides that he must be punished for this non-existent infraction
(‘Get into your buckle!’). She proceeds then to begin a ritual beating,
wherein Geza has his shirt ripped off, his wrists manacled to posts, and
a whipping administered by his mother with a scourge made of what
looks like ostrich or peacock feathers. A title asks: ‘Where is the father at
such a time?’ – a question answered by a shot of Jannings turning away
from the spectacle, and fiddling nervously with other medals hanging
from the mantelpiece. A shocked Boles asks Jannings ‘Isn’t it a man’s
place to discipline a wayward child?’ but gets no answer. Danchuk takes
a breather from this hot work, and Geza, his head bowed in submission,
says, ‘Please continue, mother.’ Boles approaches and says to Danchuk:
‘I’m not used to seeing a woman doing a man’s job. Would you mind?’
Taking the whip, and formally straightening his gloves and helmet, Boles
lays into Geza with a will, several low-angled shots showing his counten-
ance transformed with violence (then popping back into complaisance
with a suddenness that is equally disturbing). It goes on for some time,
with a cutaway to Jannings slinking away in cowardice. When it is fin-
ished, Danchuk runs and embraces Geza’s naked back, and as Boles
says, ‘He’s a good lad – you should be proud of him,’ both she and her
son gaze up at him with reverent gratitude. A shot from Geza’s point of
view shows Boles transfigured by a hagiographic low-angle and ultra-soft
focus into an object of adoration. Boles offers a smart salute, and with an
Erich von Stroheim 200mm cigarette-in-holder21 suddenly jutting from
his mouth, pivots precisely and comically on his wooden leg and heads
out into the snow like the hero that he is.
What are we to make of this provocative scene? Absurdities abound.
Geza’s crime is to have reverently fingered Boles’ (impressive) collection
of military decorations. From the standpoint of the prevailing ideology,
it is good that Boles has these medals, and it is good that the boy admires
Archangel 65

them. He has committed a tiny infringement in actually touching them

(though his mother’s shout of ‘Geza, what are you taking!’ perhaps im-
plies something more). The notion that even such a small liberty, or
that even such a false accusation, should automatically and ‘naturally’ be
met with physical chastisement is ridiculous to Maddin’s modern view-
ers. When all concerned then line up to agree on the appropriateness of
this corporal punishment as a matter of course, and when the exercise of
the ritual is properly arrogated to the domain of the patriarchal male fig-
ure of ideological power, viewers are more or less forced to laugh at the
preposterous beliefs of these ridiculous characters: what fools these ar-
chaic subjects be! Beyond that, the sadomasochistic creepiness of Boles’
violence-spasmed face and (even more pathologically) the socialized
submission of the child who begs to assume his position as the beaten
malefactor, seems to emphasize that the film is conducting a savage cri-
tique of this earlier ideology. The one figure who acts sympathetically –
the father who will not beat his child – is explicitly labelled as a shirking
moral jellyfish.
But we are left with the same dilemma as with the ‘Love’ sermon. What
can be the purpose of conducting a searing critique of, or else of laugh-
ing in satirical superiority at, the moral failings of a society so far re-
moved from our own experience that it needs to be expounded in detail
from scratch in order for us even to understand these shortcomings?
Once more we can detect in the sobriety and detailed care of this fantasy-
reconstruction something else: an affection, a kind of admiration, even
a yearning for the simple sturdy rigour of this ideology. I am certainly
not suggesting that Maddin or Toles want to bring back a world of stan-
dard whippings, pompous patriarchal violence, and compliant children
who have precociously bought into the system. If such a world ever truly
existed, indeed.22
As with the puppet show in Gimli Hospital and the ‘Love’ sermon
earlier (and as we will see again extensively in Careful), Maddin’s con-
fections are attempts not to construct a historical past, and not even to
construct a parody of a historical past, but rather to invent something
unique – a fantasy on themes from the historical past. And this fantasy
has built into it an awareness of the serious ethical limitations of the
past, of its impossibility staged partly as a recognition of those limitations
which nothing could now induce us (or Maddin) to accept. But again,
the other half of the impossibility is the unreachableness of what is also
desirable in this world. This is the curve the movie throws, as so many of
Maddin’s films do, and it is what gives it that sober and melancholy qual-
66 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ity which sits so unprocessably right next to its wild, comic absurdity. And
what is that desired thing? Maddin’s version of what Toles explains as
‘the rules’: solidarity, social wholeness, personal security deriving from a
solid sense of the individual’s place in the group, absence of the chaotic
freedom to want and go after everything and anything – in short, a life
without fundamental alienation. These values are akin to the fantasies of
social conservatism or of religion (and religion does also play an import-
ant part in Archangel’s world), but in Maddin’s non-socially-conservative,
non-religious cinema they come with their own disavowal or, again, the
explicit recognition of their fantasy status, their impossibility in part be-
cause of the profoundly unacceptable qualities inseparable from their
idealism. Under this rubric, it would be desirable to have even a whip-
ping ritual – and its particularly egregious and sensational qualities are
a means of showing that any ritual can operate in this way – if it could
function as an expression of social, familial, and in the deepest sense
ideological meaning. Of course one’s moral sense rebels at this spectacle
and is in turn deflected by the parodistic and comic exaggeration, or
simplification, of the staging.
This, then, is one of the principal functions of the past, or fantasy-past,
in Maddin’s imaginative world: to find, or to suggest, a place which is full
of unacceptable ethical and ideological limitations but which is capable
of a solidity and coherence that may even only be there because it is
imagined to be there in this act of fantasy-creation. The simultaneity or
fusing of these opposite qualities (fantasy-historical-world meaning, real-
world ethical knowledge and scepticism) is one iteration of the project
going on throughout Maddin’s cinema: the project to hold incompat-
ible paradigms somehow together.


The film proceeds immediately to its next set-piece: the Illumination.23

After the ‘Love’ disquisition and the whipping scene, we find here an-
other version of the same phenomenon, now dramatized as a ritual pub-
lic celebration. The community assembles for a patriotic demonstration
in the form of a series of tableaux representing victorious battle scenes.
All of these scenes are basically the same: a group of citizens costumed as
Russian (or Allied) soldiers pose in menacing triumph over a group of
citizens costumed as cowering Huns. Meanwhile the voice of an announ-
cer (Victor Cowie again) booms echoingly through a super-megaphone
device with the play-by-play commentary: ‘Courageous in long mous-
Archangel 67

The Illumination, with Veronkha as personification of the heroic

nation militant.

taches, injured earlier in the war, too elderly for other detachments, they
have come from far afield, from the Congo, from Greece, from jewelled
lands, from the infirmary. These dauntless warriors of Mother Russia,
reaping a deadly harvest on the field of honour.24’
His commentary is in the same solemn, heightened rhetoric as the
‘Love’ episode: ‘In the Battle of Bessarabia, terrible was the havoc these
soldiers wreaked on the Hunnish foe’ ‘A nightmare to Germany were we
at Galicia’ ‘Can anything sate the bloodlust of these barbaric Teutons?’
Between stagings we hear, through the same PA system, the same an-
nouncer acting as stage manager (‘May we please have the Royal Scots
Dragoons, the French Reconaissance, and American Fusiliers’). One cit-
izen-actor25 quits in disgust, refusing to portray a German, and Jannings
(naturally, as town coward) is drafted in to take the part. Dominating
each of the tableaux is Veronkha, having forsaken her all-black attire for
a dazzling satinate white gown, crowned with a kind of Statue of Liberty
68 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

headdress – the goddess of patriotic idealism and battle. A further stage

call (‘Small nations! Small nations, please! Greece. The Congo. Domin-
ion of Canada’) suddenly and comically elicits a fierce spasm of patriot-
ism in Boles, and he goes onto the stage just in time to take the co-starring
part with his beloved Veronkha/Iris. During the announcer’s ‘10... 9...
8...’ countdown-to-Illumination, the equally deranged Philbin strolls on
and tries to pull Veronkha away to their wedding in Murmansk. Boles
lays him out with a rifle butt, with effortless delirium crossing the line
between representation and action, between propaganda and personal
The naïve patriotism of the Illumination, and its recourse (as in
the puppet theatre in Gimli Hospital) to the purest and most primitive
form of theatre are once more too much for a contemporary audience
to swallow straight. The rhetoric is too full of fustian and solemn self-
importance and the attitudes too credulous, while the absence of verisim-
ilitude reveals distortions of representation too gross to be overlooked
by a viewership unused to allegory (distortions happily emphasized by
the amateur-theatrical aura of Maddin’s home-made sets and costumes).
But more clearly than in either of its predecessors, this sequence presents
also a quality of grandeur, a space where the seriousness of the social
ritual being depicted is answered by a seriousness of appreciation on
the part of the film. The spectacle is, simply, impressive and beautiful
despite its ingenuousness, primitivism, and pomposity, and despite its
trailing clouds of absurdity. Well, despite these things, or partly because
of them. With the snow gently falling, the beautiful shafts of light and
pools of shadow covering the scene, the simple bravura compositions of
the tableaux themselves, the religiously enthusiastic spectators, the splen-
did formality of everything that can even sustain the incorporation of such
potentially farcical elements as the duelling amnesiacs Boles and Philbin,
the Illumination miraculously traverses the ground from comically gran-
diose solemnity to actual solemnity, from the mock-heroic to the actually
heroic. The sublime ideal of group social/religious/patriotic theatre in
the mould of Aeschylus is even suggested. We are of course very far from
Greek tragedy in this dramatic rendering which never strays too far away
from the condition of a farrago; but Maddin’s garage-band version of a
sacred social ritual retains something of its impressive essence even in the
most retrograde of circumstances. The beauty of the snowfall is undimin-
ished by the fact that it consists of potato flakes. The naivety of the means
and the naivety of what those means are expressing – the oversimple
social faith of the Illumination – unite.
On the sleigh ride back from the Illumination, Boles tries to coax
Archangel 69

Veronkha into admitting or remembering that she is Iris. All that en-
sues is a Back-like dialogue in which, because both parties are speaking
indirectly or suggestively, each confidently understands the other com-
pletely incorrectly. In response to his questions about where she lives
and how he is to find her, Veronkha enigmatically gives Boles what
started out as her marriage certificate but was identified by her as a treas-
ure map. Approaching his billet alone, Boles somehow crashes through
a glass roof panel down into a mass of white roses in Danchuk’s living
room. This is geographically impossible, but neither here nor at any
other point is Maddin bothered by such things. Danchuck is busy arran-
ging a giant memorial wreath inscribed with the words ‘Dispatched by
Wounds Innumerable’ – a phrase that will in the end be able to serve as
something of a motto for many of the film’s important characters (nota-
bly Boles, Veronkha, and Danchuk herself). As she leans tenderly over
Boles’ figure lying unconscious in a bed of white roses, Danchuk picks
up a shard of glass and slowly opens a bloody gash on her forehead with
it in a nakedly melodramatic expression of her intense love for Boles
which cannot be openly declared without encouragement from him (or
the disappearance of her husband).

Battle I

Next in the procession of set-pieces comes the first of the film’s three
battlefield scenes. A title in thick, urgent block capitals screams:


Here and in some of the other titles, Maddin’s models are clearly Eisen-
stein, Pudovkin, and Soviet silent montage cinema in general. One is
forcibly reminded of Alexander Nevsky, too, whenever propaganda denun-
ciations of ‘the Teuton’ appear from the mouths of Mother Russia-loving
patriots, while some of the film’s more monumental and imagistically
heavy moments are quite reminiscent of Ivan the Terrible. Silent or re-
stricted-sound cinema, Russian locations, a situation of serious social
conflict, not totally the wrong time period – it all adds up in a certain
way. But in another sense it is ridiculous, because the enemy in Archangel
is precisely Bolshevism, the inventor and owner of the propaganda lan-
guage the film is imputing to the proto-Czarist community for which our
70 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

heroes are fighting (it’s too late for them to be actually Czarist, the Czar
is deposed and gone forever) and of which the film is the mouthpiece.
Actually, the enemy is Bolshevism and Teutonism, it is the inherently
absurd entity Bolshevism-Teutonism. (Of course, as we have seen, it was
an entity not too absurd for history, or at least the hysteria and hubris
of the Allied powers.) In Archangel, Soviet-style propaganda is the deliv-
ery system for a sentimental patriotism that has its incongruity further
emphasized not only by the icons of military service and the shibboleths
of the patriarchal family, but by images of religious piety and Orthodox
crosses and priests, and representations of old-world fealty and empire
in the Cossack and Asian motifs. This is complexly surreal. A further
element in the cultural mix is the sombre rhythmic tread of the musical
accompaniment: a seriously slowed-down old recording of the opening
of the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov overlaid with
quavering bugle calls.
Danchuk and Boles say farewell to little Geza (‘If nothing happens to
us, we’ll be back in a few hours’). The soldiers who are seen heading to
the front through the snow and the fog are a strange symphony of un-
restrained design inspirations: crutches, medals, Uhlan lancer hats, tur-
bans, Italian rustic stocking caps, girl fighters in crocheted headdresses,
Jannings in a giant white braided jacket looking like a band master, Dan-
chuk in her sober black dress and big flat hat with enormous bow. Boles
in his regular officer’s uniform salutes the crowd with the noble self-
possession of a hero who knows he is one, while Danchuk allows a private
possessive smile to escape. Once they are out of the town, their journey
in silhouette through the snowy fog-shrouded landscape of leafless trees
and large Orthodox crosses is summarized by the narrator in a passage
that Maddin explains in the DVD commentary was an attempt to imitate
his beloved Bruno Schulz:

On the march to the front, Danchuk imparts to Lieutenant Boles her

thoughts about darkness. She believes that darkness can be kept, a black
juicy harvest actually plucked from the night. That darkness can be sculpted
into huge furry logs and complex corridors. That little piles of darkness can
serve as useful road signs for the weary traveller. Or for anyone who swims
in that dusky fluid. Sometimes the deeper shades are cramping, and one
has to duck down low to squeeze beneath them. One can always wend one’s
way through the night.26

The battle itself is largely elided. There are iris-framed long tracking
Archangel 71

shots along the trenches showing the World-Encyclopedia-of-Peoples

variety of dress, nocturnal shots of Veronkha poised with a flag at the
brow of a trench, and Boles and Danchuk traversing a quiet battlefield
whose corpses turn out to be only resting – until they find one genuinely
dead poilu for whom Boles erects the classic soldier’s grave marker of
planted rifle with helmet perched on top. Boles wonders aloud to Dan-
chuk about the whereabouts of Veronkha/Iris’s dwelling and even her
identity (‘perhaps she is a ghost’). Then the fighters tramp back to town.

Women are warriors

Archangel is full of women who take on traditionally male activities. In

particular they are warriors in the most literal sense, marching off to
battle, fighting and dying with every bit as much courage and aggressive
energy as men (in fact the film’s one official ‘coward’ is a man). Leav-
ing for the front, Danchuk proclaims the classic male field-of-honour
motto: ‘I will be back, bearing my shield or borne upon my shield.’ Male
warriors are clothed in a fantastic array of different national and his-
torical uniforms, but women, hunkered down in the same trenches or
fiercely engaged in the same shooting matches with the enemy as the
men, have almost no military signifiers other than their rifles. Veronkha
and Danchuk are both garbed in sober floor-length black dresses and
wear very large, wide-brimmed, flat-topped Edwardian ‘public’ hats.
Danchuk looks exactly like a suffragette, albeit with perhaps a little more
eye make-up. Other women look like Scheherazade or the Lady of Sha-
lott but with rifles and cartridge belts and possibly epauletted jackets that
suggest Marlene Dietrich in military drag. There is an unceremonious
presentation of woman as citizen and soldier positioned right next to the
‘nostalgic’ picture of a strongly patriarchal society of which it is, strictly, a
contradiction. At the same time women perfectly retain their dress-and-
decoration markers of femininity. We may recollect the whipping scene,
with its mother-who-controls-the family and its ‘isn’t it a man’s place to
discipline?’ So, women go to war, but they do it in suffragette hats and
lots of make-up; women are energetic, independent, warriors, but they
want patriarchy at the same time. And from the film’s viewpoint, the im-
agined world has patriarchal values, and also feminist values.

Veronkha’s wedding

Boles trails Veronkha in order to discover her address, but only finds
72 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Women are warriors: Veronkha on the way to the front.

her going to a meeting with Philbin’s doctor, where the doctor and a
Svengali-cum-Rasputin hypnotist put her into a trance and get her to
recall her wedding to Philbin.27 Apparently the memory is so painful
that she has repressed it in some measure – making her yet another am-
nesiac. Boles manages to eavesdrop through a gigantic Heath-Robinson
listening device made up of banks of polished metal horns and snak-
ing lengths of flexible piping (it is another iteration of the PA system
from the Illumination).28 Veronkha’s recollection is accompanied by a
flashback to the wedding, and to the couple’s traumatic honeymoon in
Murmansk, where they fly in Philbin’s two-seat biplane. The airport set
consists of a papier-mâché proscenium gate, and the take-off is a charm-
ing and hilarious shot of a model airplane banking at triple-quick speed
over a cardboard model onion-domed city and exiting the shot.29 A
close-up shows Philbin in flying helmet and goggles but Veronkha still in
her wedding bonnet and what look like welding glasses (a good example
of the film’s thousand little inspired wardrobe decisions). Arriving at
Archangel 73

‘the famed Murmansk Hotel,’ Veronkha is overcome with nervous ex-

hilaration: ‘Everything was very exciting: a Bolshevik carried our bag!’
While Veronkha slips into a negligee, Philbin goes out to the stables
‘with some old revolutionist friends.’ Veronkha ventures forth to look
for him, only to discover him in the arms of the front-desk girl, hav-
ing apparently forgotten the fact that he has just been married. A small
chorus of tall-headdressed women observe her plight from behind the
decoratively painted doors of the hotel, shaking their heads in sympathy.
Back in the present, the doctor pleads for his patient: ‘But to Philbin,
this desk clerk does not even exist. He has no memory of her. There has
been no infidelity.’ The eavesdropping Boles reacts to all this with the
selective understanding that dominates his whole outlook (again, Back-
like) and experiences a fit of severe jealousy. When Philbin strolls by, the
following dialogue occurs:

boles: Do you recognize me?

philbin: [arms folded] Should I?
boles: I’m the one who struck you in the head with a rifle butt the
other night.
philbin: [hand to chin] Really? I think I would have remembered that.
boles: You’re no more an amnesiac than I am! You’re an impostor!
philbin: I’d love to hear you out, soldier, but I’m in rather a hurry. I
seem to have mislaid my wife. But as soon as I find her, we’re leav-
ing on our honeymoon.

This is of course a splendid crystallization of the comedy and tragedy of

amnesia, especially the pain-filled but farcical cry, ‘You’re no more an
amnesiac than I am!’


Since the scene of Veronkha’s and Philbin’s wedding and honeymoon

brings the film perhaps closer than at any other single point to the ex-
ample of Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress (1934), this may be as good a moment
as any to consider the Sternbergian aspects of Archangel. The wedding
scene of The Scarlet Empress is arguably the Mount Everest of black and
white cinematography, and although Maddin cannot hope to approach
those heights, Archangel has a dimension of seductive visual beauty that
is both very successful in itself and quite different from anything in his
previous films. It shares Sternberg’s fondness for gauzy soft focus and
74 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

emulates his virtuosity in thickening and enriching the mise en scène

with a cluttered decor and such almost ubiquitous atmospheric elements
as falling snow and fog, as well as a striking palette of chiaroscuro that is
now edging away from a rougher Expressionism and towards something
more refined.30 Archangel’s wedding-night scene has a number of fea-
tures that very specifically recall The Scarlet Empress: the same soundtrack
music (Anton Rubinstein’s Kamenoi-ostrow, though here in a different ar-
rangement); the painted door-frame decorations of the Murmansk Ho-
tel; the icon behind the hotel’s main desk, which looks even more like
a quotation of the Orthodox icons proliferating insanely in Sternberg’s
film; the image of multiple court ladies peeking out from behind mas-
sively decorated doors. Later on, the ‘restaging’ of the wedding which
has Veronkha inviting another man (Boles) up to her room in order to
get revenge on the man she has really loved (Philbin) is, in the context
of all these homages, strikingly similar to Catherine’s invitation to an
anonymous palace guardsman to climb the back stairs to her room as a
deliberate message to Count Alexei, a scene that is also a ‘restaging’ of
an earlier trauma.
In a larger sense as well, Sternberg is a potent and fertile model for
Maddin. He has often mentioned Sternberg’s use of intertitles years after
the coming of sound, and also his admiration for Sternberg’s unconcern
about the consistency of accents in The Scarlet Empress and elsewhere.
Scarlet Empress has a German-accented Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the
Great of Russia (although as a child she apparently spoke like a mod-
ern Californian), with her Oxbridge-accented father C. Aubrey Smith,
her mid-Atlantic Social Register mother Olive Tell, her Ivy League lover
John Lodge, and her predecessor-sovereign Grand Duchess Louise
Dresser who talks like the boss-lady of a Midwestern boarding house – all
without the slightest acknowledgment of inconsistency or, indeed, any
effect of cacophony.31 In Sternberg’s case, it is one more sign of the film-
maker’s fundamental creative strategy of reimagining every real-world
setting and character in utterly personal terms. Perhaps The Blue Angel
does authentically catch some of the lassitude and stale cigar smoke
of Weimar Germany where it was actually shot, but the authenticity of
the subsequent Dietrich vehicles (Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express,
Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil Is a Woman) is entirely that
of Sternberg’s imagination and the utmost degree of artifice that a large
Hollywood studio apparatus could bestow. When the Sultan of Morocco
was reported as praising the accuracy of Morocco, Sternberg declared
himself disappointed and even insulted. Likewise, any resemblance be-
Archangel 75

tween the actual eighteenth-century Russia of Catherine the Great and

its reimagination in The Scarlet Empress is purely accidental. Sternberg’s
worlds are fantasias on themes from the Morocco, the China, the Spain,
the New Orleans, the St Petersburg of his imagination, made up of the
free-floating images of a wholly vicarious and often picture-book-centred
vision. What is important in them is not their inherent characteristics,
but their ability to provoke a kind of opium dream of fantasy-projection
for the artist. And this is precisely the way that history and outlandish
settings work for Maddin, at least in the aesthetic dimension. Maddin’s
design impulses for 1919 Archangel, fired by the exotic images of The
War Illustrated, almost exactly replicate Sternberg’s imaginative appro-
priation of the old Russian Empire, with its barbaric torture and its crude
but ultra-expressive icons and statues and its dazzling uniforms, all lead-
ing to the image of Marlene Dietrich in white hussar’s drag and a shark’s
grin waving a sabre on the steps of the palace as she seizes power.
The intertitles of The Scarlet Empress were strange to see as late as 1934,
and bear the marks of their creator’s autodidact historical enthusiasm
and poetic fervour (at one point Catherine is described as ‘the ill-famed
Messalina of the North’). The dialogue, too, is stylized in itself, and even
more stylized in its delivery. The slow motion, underwater zombie-pitch
of much of the dialogue delivery in The Scarlet Empress is definitely some-
thing that is echoed in Archangel, where the infrequency of dialogue
scenes, their odd phraseology, very approximate synch, and disembod-
ied acoustic give the actors a sleepwalking quality that floats in the same
ether as the setting, the costumes, and the action. Indeed, because of
their simplicity or primitivism, Maddin’s effects go further down this
Sternbergian path than Sternberg ever did. It may be a startling thing to
say, but Guy Maddin is our Josef von Sternberg. A principal difference,
of course, is that although Sternberg’s films were almost as bizarre in
the context of Hollywood studio filmmaking of the 1930s as Maddin’s
are today, he managed to occupy for a moment a position where he
could command all the technical and material resources of a Paramount
Studios. That, and the fact that for his own survival Sternberg needed to
keep his ironic self-awareness secret from a broad mainstream audience,
while Maddin really needs to broadcast his if he is to have any credibility
with his much narrower base.

A restless night

After Philbin leaves, Boles tunes back in to the Veronkha/Philbin’s

76 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

doctor session, in time to pick up another crucially wrong fact. ‘And

what about a baby I’ve heard about?’ asks the doctor, ‘Do you have a
child?’ The tormented Boles jumps instantly to the conclusion that Iris/
Veronkha has had a baby and that he is the father. Back in his billet, he
starts to think that Danchuk’s baby is his own. Rocking the cradle, he
coos: ‘Your daddy’s come back, little one – you see, I haven’t forgotten
you.’ Boles’ insistence that the fevered emanations of his own imagina-
tion are solid fact, and his attempt to ground memory in the abyss of
amnesia, are like his assertions of medical knowledge: utterly fallible
but suffused with a confidence that is ‘natural’ to him. Again, this confi-
dence and certainty founded in a void is like his wooden leg, a part of his
being that is supposed to be there but, derisorily and pitifully, can only
ever exist prosthetically. The festival of obliviousness and projection con-
tinues, with personal damage flying off in all directions. Boles assumes
the parentage of this baby, inflicting one more instance of careless dis-
respect on the actual father, Jannings. Meanwhile Danchuk, who would
be thrilled actually to have Boles as the father of her baby, is just razored
out of the picture by Boles in his Iris-delirium. (The chain continues with
Danchuk’s utter contempt for her existing husband: on the way back
from the front, in response to Jannings’s greeting of ‘I was worried about
you,’ she replies, ‘No need – I’d nearly forgotten about you.’) The fol-
lowing scene (introduced with the title ‘Nocturnal transmissions from all
corners – the dire rhythm of married life’) shows a nude Geza somewhat
provocatively climbing into bed with a nude Boles in search of comfort,
and a series of close-ups of sleeping or restless members of the house-
hold apparently in the grip of repressed sexual desire. It all culminates
in the explosion of a cactus plant that covers Geza with wriggling anima-
tion insects, and leaves viewers as baffled as by the ‘Fish Princess’ vision
from Gimli Hospital – the most egregious of Archangel’s miscalculations.

Treasure hunt I

After this dream episode, Boles awakes and immediately embarks on his
search for Veronkha by following the clues on her ‘treasure map.’ But
is he really awake, or is this another extension of the dream world? Cer-
tainly the idea of the treasure map and the spectacle of Boles following
its directions are quite dreamlike, and difficult to imagine literally. On
the other hand. the question may be meaningless, because what aspect
of Archangel is not dreamlike and difficult to imagine literally? Still, we
must examine the notion of this treasure map, and treasure hunt. The
Archangel 77

map begins as Veronkha’s marriage certificate, so although Boles, the

recipient and follower of the map, thinks he is going to find Veronkha’s
house, what he is actually going to discover is that Veronkha’s dwelling is
her marriage. This ‘treasure’ then, will take the cruelly mocking form of
a devastating truth; this ‘treasure hunt’ will be a hunt that ends with the
discovery of something awful. Consulting the map at every turn, Boles
makes his way past a fallen onion dome, a giant unexploded shell, a hut
with the Kaiser’s caricature painted on it, the Madonna in front of Dan-
chuk’s hut, a series of lovers (many in uniform) reclining and spooning,
a door bearing a handprint into which he fits his own hand, and the
soldier’s corpse with rifle and helmet marker that he and Danchuk had
arranged earlier. (One of the shots features an ingenious split-screen
where Veronkha is seen in an onion-dome-shaped cutout in the middle
of the screen while Boles with map searches from one side to the other
of the remnant of the shot, unable, of course, to penetrate to Veronkha’s
dimension.) At the end of the sequence, Boles has not been able to find
her. It is a journey he will make two more times before the film is fin-
ished, and the results will never be happy. What is the purpose of this
device, what is the content of the map and its referents? Perhaps the best
explanation is that it is a representation of Boles’ experience: his funda-
mental sense of lostness, his attempts to find some rational and practical
understanding of his condition by charting his way with this or that ‘fact,’
his wish to work his way through the terrain of this amnesiac disorienta-
tion to the object of desire who will restore everything including mean-
ing to him. And yet the status of the map itself is highly uncertain. Are
these real places? Where, actually, does his search lead?

Battle II

The film’s big battle scene is next. It begins with a blue-tinted sequence,
‘Sleepy Trenches,’ that is noteworthy for the surreal descent of dozens
of rabbits falling on Boles and his fellow soldiers. Even in Archangel this
is a strange occurrence. In the DVD commentary, John Harvie explains
that it was inspired by a moment just before the Battle of Shiloh in the
American Civil War when Union soldiers were delighted to find an in-
flux of forest creatures into their camp, only to discover that the animals
had been frightened there by the massive wave of Confederate troops
about to attack and kill them. The hunt sequence of Renoir’s La Règle
du jeu was also an inspiration for Archangel’s all-bunny invasion. But view-
ers are quite unable to read this rain of rabbits as a cute, then terrifying
78 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

precursor of violence, and it remains just another free-floating surreality.

Once more, the environment is such that whether an event is narrative
or commentative/atmospheric or both is almost irrelevant. As with the
exploding cactus plant, the scene’s meaning for actual spectators is quite
different from the one imagined by its creators. In both these cases the
intended meaning is almost certainly not apprehended, but the aura of
bizarre disconnection can do its own work: the utter surreality of the rab-
bit-storm is often recalled by viewers as a favourite moment.
The battle is now joined. This is the film’s spectacular cast-of-thou-
sands combat-epic set-piece. There are charges and counter-charges and
fierce hand-to-hand fighting involving demonic Huns, wimple-head-
dressed and bandoliered women, Orthodox priests, and regular soldiers,
all staged with heavy use of silhouettes and backlighting amid flashing
lights and sounds of gunfire and explosions on the soundtrack, with
dramatic chunks from Verdi ballet music churning in the background.
Meanwhile, back in the town, Bolsheviks are breaking in at the house
containing Geza and a cowering Jannings (accompanied by the sound
of breaking non-existent plate glass), and the remainder of the segment
unfolds as an extended cross-cutting between these two locations. The
home invasion gives rise to perhaps the single most memorable moment
in Archangel: the disembowelment and heroic resistance of Jannings, who,
after spilling a wheelbarrow-load of intestines onto the ground from his
capacious nightshirt, finds his courage at last, and kills all the Bolsheviks
with his bare hands. He crams one Bolshevik’s mouth with Boles’ military
decorations (‘Perhaps this Bolshevik would like a war medal for break-
fast!’ crows a title), gouges out the eyes of another with his thumbs, and
uses his own dangling innards to kill another (giving rise to the indel-
ible title, ‘Strangled by an intestine!’) Geza sees none of this, since one
of the Bolsheviks has shoved his head in a burlap bag while gnawing on
one of the boy’s nipples. Jannings’s transformation is perhaps the high
point of the film’s insistence on presenting its most heroic moments in
a brine of ridicule. The cheap horror-movie gore, the comical quantity
of link-sausage viscera, the sheer outrageousness of the employment of
internal organs as weapons, Jannings’s elaborately mimed glee in find-
ing his homicidal strength at last – everything is designed to produce
titters and guffaws in the viewer. At the same time, there is a satisfaction
in seeing the character whom everyone has treated with casual contempt
showing some guts (so to speak),32 a kind of uncomplicated happiness
in both the character and the viewer. The outrageousness mocks the
simple-mindedness of heroic moments in a thousand other movies, and
Archangel 79

yet once again the film seems to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we really did
have such moments of pure personal redemption, and were oblivious to
how ridiculous the idea is?’

Around and around

After the battle Veronkha takes it into her head to renew her marriage
to Philbin (she’d had the first one annulled), so it’s off to the airport,
the biplane, and the Murmansk Hotel again. Here, perhaps, viewers
really feel the great wheel of the film turning and begin to sense its
grand dreamlike mechanism of repetition and return. Each iteration of
Veronkha’s marriage or Boles’ treasure hunt repeats the flimsiness and
farcicality of the staging and the in-some-dimension silliness of the ac-
tion; but each time these events come back their flimsiness and silliness
are more tinged with desperation, their farcicality transmuted more fully
into suffering. Meanwhile Danchuk moves endlessly in her own circle of
suffering, now having to mourn a husband she did not love or respect
while observing the increasingly manic fixation by the man she does love
and respect on a woman who does not exist. Even Geza – who alone will
be delivered, after death, from the round of misperception and pointless
longing – continues to believe that his father was a contemptible coward
and his saviour the heedless narcissist Philbin.
Each repetition deepens the ruts, and the wounds. Veronkha has in
fact decided to manipulate the second marriage to avenge the offence of
the first: she will use Boles’ crazed devotion as a weapon against Philbin.
But events unfold, as they always and inexorably do in Archangel, in a
way that makes a mockery of plans and crushes the heart’s desire. Boles
has followed Veronkha to Murmansk in a hell-for-leather sleigh journey.
Now Philbin exits the apartment (just as he did at the first honeymoon),
and shortly thereafter is copulating with the desk clerk (just as he did at
the first honeymoon). At this exact moment, Boles arrives at the bridal-
suite door and – in obedience to some exact prompting of Fate – dons
Philbin’s discarded flying helmet as he enters. Taking Boles for her
husband, Veronkha now attempts to make him jealous by confessing a
deep love for Boles – a falsehood,33 but one that of course strikes Boles
directly in the heart. The comedy of disguises, mistaken identities, and
false inferences is exactly what one might expect in a Feydeau farce; its
ridiculousness is unignorable however disastrous the consequences for
the characters.34 Needless to say, Boles pays no attention whatever to
the fact that Veronkha addresses him as ‘Philbin.’ It all culminates in
80 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Veronkha’s discovery that she has been pitching this elaborate theatrical
event for Boles – and the shock is so great that she too loses her memory.
A title sums it up: ‘As a result of the shock Veronkha joins her two lovers
in forgetfullness [sic]. Total amnesia. Boles now has his Iris.’
For Boles this is an excellent development, since he can now convince
Veronkha that she is Iris, and help her back to a state of alignment with
his own fantastic picture of things. The spectacle of Boles’ schooling of
the emptied-out Veronkha is, narratively speaking, one of the purest dis-
tillations of the film’s project:

Concentrate and it will all come back to you. We are in Russia. Fighting for
the Czar. We are to be married soon. You had a baby out of wedlock. My
baby. And I’ve wept countless nights for dishonouring you. We each bear
many scars. [pointing to her knee] You received this scar when you were three.
A tureen of boiling soup spilled on you.

It is amazing to witness such a complete tissue of mental fabrications

so sincerely, carefully, tenderly laid out as facts. He introduces her to
their baby. Once more Boles, the film’s demonstration-model charac-
ter, standing on one real and one wooden leg, is trying to build a solid
structure on nothing but fantasy and projection. He is trying to put his
beloved on the same memory-footing as himself, as exemplified in his
earlier assertions: ‘You’re no more amnesiac than I am!’ ‘Your daddy’s
come back, little one – you see, I haven’t forgotten you.’
When Veronkha disappears from the billet, Boles embarks on a sec-
ond treasure hunt to find her. The onion dome, the artillery shell, the
Kaiser’s caricature, the Madonna, and the handprint on the door all
reappear in sequence, and are now joined by Boles’ hands-and-knees
trip through some kind of large boxlike contraption run by an operator,
which sends jolts of electricity through him and causes his eyes to roll
back in their sockets. Informally dubbed ‘the electric sodomizer’ by pro-
ducer Greg Klimkiw,35 this device was inspired, in the typical Archangel
way, by something from The War Illustrated – an electrical ‘healing ma-
chine’ used by the Germans to treat the wounded.36 And as with most of
the film’s other ‘based on a true story’ elements, this one is quite unrec-
ognizable. It does add an important note of hideous physical discomfort
and even torture to Boles’ treasure-map via dolorosa. This time the map
leads him to her, and he flings himself into an embrace with her, and
they start passionately kissing. Soon they are seen, beautifully enveloped
by blackness and illuminated by random bursts of light, taking a stroll
Archangel 81

through the street: Daddy, Mommy, Geza, and Danchuk’s other child,
the baby. It is a poetic picture of a nuclear family constructed from fan-
tastic distortions (and certainly at the severe expense of Danchuk, who
continues to suffer an exemplary fate). Boles murmurs, ‘Iris, Iris, Iris, I
didn’t mean to fall in love with you,’ in echo of a hundred embarrassing
romantic movies that hadn’t yet been made in 1919. Boles is so close to his
paradise, but it is simply in Archangel’s nature that such a development is
only permitted in order to worsen his ultimate pain. The sight of Philbin
brings Veronkha’s memory back, and as shots of a ghastly vein-covered
throbbing internal organ show us Boles’ extreme pitch of anxiety, she
curses him for lying to her and tells him if he ever touches her again
she’ll kill him, then leaves with Philbin.

The last circuit

We are ready for the film’s last great circuit of its course. A third battle
is beginning, and everyone is heading to the front. Boles returns to the
billet and has the following conversation with Danchuk:

boles: She’s finally gone. Forever.

danchuk: Yes? [looks at him with great expectancy]
boles: There’s just the two of us now.
danchuk: Yes.
boles: I want to know – this is a lot to ask – if anything happens to
me – would you look after my baby? [hands her the baby and leaves]

And the ensuing title, openly articulating the meaning of the scene in
typical silent cinema style, reads:

Taking back her own baby.

Her heart ‘dispatched by
wounds innumerable.’

The remainder of Archangel is pulled up to a plane of straightforward

eloquence. Nothing changes about the staging, the costuming, or the
characters, but now there is a seriousness that seems wholly earned. If
the central characters have all failed in their pursuits, the film itself has
somehow achieved its goal; the absurdity of everything is still there, but
somehow it doesn’t seem important any more and ceases to distort every
move in the direction of affect.
82 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Geza finally achieving in death an ideal union with his father, Jannings.
Silent era multiple exposure at its simplest and most effective.

The battle scene is swathed now in fog, the cinematography glowing

in this thick atmosphere. Boles, a lost man, limps stubbornly through the
battlefield, stepping over lines of corpses. Here he finds Geza, carrying a
rifle too big for him, and Geza falls to an enemy bullet. Boles maniacally
fires off his rifle to kill the criminal foe, then kneels beside the boy, who,
in a close-up seriously ‘degraded’ by nitrate-decay marks, gasps out the
classical slogan of the British imperial patriot who has sacrificed his life –
’It is sweet to die for one’s country’37 – and then expires. In a lingering,
silent close-up, vignetted with blur, Boles announces: ‘Never. Never. I
alone against all of you.’ And moves off. Now comes the counterpart to
the scene of Jannings’ intestine-death-and-revenge, for his bandmaster-
uniformed presence appears in double exposure in the white landscape
beside Geza, and the boy’s soul arises from his body to meet his father
in that second plane of exposure. At first resisting his entreaties, Geza is
at last convinced by Jannings’ happy mimed re-performance of his stran-
Archangel 83

gulation and eye-gouging of the Bolsheviks that his father had saved his
life, and had found his courage. The boy jumps into his arms: father and
son are at last lovingly joined in the realm of the ideal and eternal.
This scene is one more demonstration – perhaps the most convincing
of all – of Maddin’s wish, and his ability, to transmute the archaic, dis-
carded, and contemptibly sentimental and melodramatic machinery of
this film language into something entirely functional again. However
forgotten this mode of filmmaking, the intent remains entirely clear to
a viewer of today. The utter sentimentality of the moment is always un-
mistakable, but there is something magical about seeing once more how
simply and directly silent film was able to stage the ineffable. A transpar-
ent second exposure just shows the eternal realm; and if the idea of an
eternal realm where a father and son who were spiritually sundered in
life are able to unite is a fundamental naivety of religion and sentiment,
the ability of the cinematic process to depict that transcendent sphere as
just another photographic image, practically as real as the one it is laid
on top of, becomes a fabulous demonstration of mechanically reprodu-
cing cinema’s ability to enter the dimension of the spirit, and in the easi-
est way. Although sound cinema is of course able to do this just as well
as silent cinema, it almost never wants to. (The recording aspect of the
soundtrack redoubles the realist qualities of the recording aspect of the
image track and erects a barrier to this easy movement from the physical
to the spiritual.) Scattered throughout Maddin’s work, but never more
clearly than in this scene from Archangel, are instances of the filmmaker’s
grasp of the expressive territories that contemporary cinema in effect no
longer has access to but that may still be reclaimed by adoption of an
earlier language. The idealist projection of a realm in which all injustices
are rectified and frustrated virtuous desires are rewarded is an idea that
is just too transparently wish-fulfilling for sceptical adult scrutiny; and yet
its emotional appeal is still potentially strong even for the most rational
onlooker. We watch the reunion of Jannings and Geza with a full aware-
ness of how outmoded such a dramatic moment is, and how outmoded
its cinematic language is. The innocent idealism of that moment of silent
cinema romanticism is joined again with the ‘primitive’ cinematic means
of depicting the spiritual realm using double exposure. (Maddin even
reproduces the primitivism of creating these multiple exposures in the
camera – by winding back and re-exposing the same stretch of film stock
– just as silent filmmakers did before the industrialization of the business
moved such activities to an optical printer in the lab.) But the language
is, as moments such as this remind us, also the language of Griffith, Stro-
84 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

heim, Murnau, Vidor, and other great masters of that earlier moment in
film history, capable of an awesome grandeur of gesture. In any event,
Maddin is able to rehabilitate at a stroke both the form and the con-
tent of an earlier and in many ways more inherently expressive kind of
cinema – rehabilitate both the sentiment and the visual realization. Jan-
nings is still buffoonish in his uniform and his gleeful silly pantomime,
Geza a cliché of archaic fiction; Maddin has not really transformed the
characters into something less impossible. But the scene simply works,
and without any irony – and because the materials of the scene (a heav-
enly land of righteous restoration) are big, the scene is big too. The
effect is like hauling an old, rusted piece of machinery out of a barn,
putting some fuel in the tank, setting the choke, vigorously turning the
crank – and it goes.38
As Boles walks doggedly through the battlefield, Maddin cuts away
to some pickelhaubed German soldiers fondling a large grenade, in-
scribed with the words ‘gott strafe kanada,’ and tossing it over the
parapet. This is a delicious moment for Canadian viewers, and goes well
with Maddin’s fondly ridiculing depiction of the Canadian soldier of the
British Empire, a type that has vanished from the earth. The explosion
flattens Boles, and he recovers only slowly. Probably there was mustard
gas in the shell, because he begins to cough up blood. Staggering now
through fog, gas, snow, and soft focus, Maddin’s hero becomes an in-
tensely eloquent figure of suffering: heroic at last because of his suffering,
because his suffering has at last completely vanquished his absurdity. His
march is accompanied by the remorseless, sinister tramp and tolling bell
of slowed-down Boris Godunov, returning one more time with heightened
appropriateness. The cinematography, too, is very beautiful: soft and
laden, foggily luminous, expressing the scene’s fullness of feeling with
a fullness of texture, while at the same time in another sense simple and
bare in its relentless close-up portraiture. In voice-over, Boles tries to
establish some existential solidity in this decontextualized wasteland of
suffering: ‘My name is John Boles. I’m in Archangel, fighting a war. I’m
trying to find the woman I love. Iris!’ Boles is now speaking to himself as
he had before to Veronkha (‘We are in Russia. We are fighting for the
Czar’) ticking off items on the list of facts that are supposed to establish
his identity – a fruitless and pitiable exercise. Everything now combines
to express the same meaning: the fog of memory and identity, the fog
of feeling, the fog of battle; the disjunctive explosion of shells and light
and emotional turmoil; the simultaneous and unified iteration of story,
theme, and visual expression.
Archangel 85

Boles’ excruciated traversal of the battlefield becomes a third journey

through the landmarks of the treasure hunt, now also refigured as an
endless torment out of Dante. The Kaiser, the Madonna, the handprint,
the fallen soldier with helmet monument, the Healing Machine which
now does seem exactly like a Kafkaesque engine of torture and yields a
close-up of the martyred Boles with eyes turned into his head and blood
streaming from his mouth, which is open in a scream of the damned. It is
a terrible wheel of suffering. And it continues as he arrives at Veronkha’s
house just in time to see the ceremony of her marriage to Philbin. There
is no music now: the film has gone ghostly silent39 and will remain so until
the epilogue. As Veronkha and Philbin leave the room, moving past the
utterly stricken figure of Boles, she pauses to stare mutely at him for a
moment; mutely, he expectorates a gout of blood. It is a moment of pure
horror. Then the pair head out past him, thence through the gates of the
airport with Boles trailing futilely behind, thence into their biplane for
one more manic shot of the little craft whizzing around and past the on-
ion domes. (It is a mark of Maddin’s unique gifts that this shot can retain
its sketchlike comic silliness without dispersing the mood of devastation –
indeed can somehow even complement it.) There is a lingering close-up
of Boles’ face expressively surrounded by soft focus and fog. The piercing
valedictory shot is a high angle of the protagonist, surrounded by black-
ness and swirling snow in a vaseline-vignetted frame, turning and walking
away until he is swallowed up by darkness. Wonderful.


The silence that has been such an eloquent aspect of the last few minutes
of the film is now broken by the cheerful tinny energy of a number from
the Black American World War I army band of James Reese Europe on
the soundtrack.40 The soft white and soft black visuals of snow-covered
Archangel at night are jolted by a blast of actual daylight and actual out-
door locations – something, we now realize, entirely absent from the
film before this last scene. A crowd of pretty girls (four, actually) are wav-
ing flags and cheering the homecoming of the troops to Canada. Boles
is seen looking stolid and emptied-out seated in a truck-bed, and even
when descended upon by this little flock of girls with kisses and caresses
he is completely oblivious. There is a cutaway to the goggled Veronkha
in Philbin’s cockpit, her set face an unreadable mask. It is the image of
definitive loss for Boles, and, as his present demeanour indicates, he
is now a destroyed shell of a man. The sound of the airplane’s engine
86 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Boles near the end of the film: gassed, abandoned, amnesiac, and enveloped
by fog and vignetting.

continues over a final zoom-out into a retreating iris shot that traps Boles
in a shrinking circle, and an abruptly arriving black screen shows the
single word ‘END.’ The airplane engines persist through the end credits,
which again are in the 1920s-1930s style of single portraits of each actor
in costume against a black background that has an onion-spire landscape
overprinted upon it.

It is fascinating to look at Archangel as an amplification and more com-

plex realization of the project of Maddin’s two previous films. Compar-
ing it with Gimli Hospital, one is struck by the much greater investment in
story and character (perhaps arising from the more extensive presence
of George Toles) in a context that shares the earlier film’s alienating
absurdity of environment and tone. The Archangel-1919 of this film is
certainly not any more ridiculous than the Gimli-1879 of its predecessor,
but with its avalanche of discordant historical and stylistic details, and
Archangel 87

its naïve sententiousness of discourse, it is not much less so. The charac-
ters are less purely flat than the ‘legendary’ personages of Gimli Hospital,
but their rootedness in social mores that are felt to be far more simple-
minded than our own makes them impossible to ‘relate to.’ And yet in
Archangel, the central characters and to an extent the whole fantastic,
ridiculous society is in some respect redeemed and made to seem sympa-
thetic to a degree never approached in Gimli Hospital. There is no genu-
ine pathos, or tragedy, or even melodrama in the earlier film. But by the
time that Boles is found wandering, gassed and battered, through the
fog and into his loved one’s third wedding, Archangel has hauled itself all
the way up to a place where such feelings are fully tangible. They are still
accompanied by the preposterous, but they are dominant and strong.
Similarly, Archangel’s technical apparatus has matured from the one
on display in the previous film. Once more it combines deliberate cheap-
ness and oversimplification with high-flown visual rhetoric; once more
it applies the expressive techniques of silent cinema to a kind of grand
amateur historical send-up; and once more it transforms itself somehow
from affectionate mockery to something aesthetically expressive. But
its tools are much more supple and potent, its visual ‘ordnance’ is of a
higher calibre. In a tour de force of style strategy, the pathos of its ele-
mentary cheapness in production and technique marries perfectly with
the pathos of inadequate characters, especially the wooden Boles with
his wooden leg. The refinement of the photography and the command
of framing is far greater than before, the mastery of occluded textures
like soft focus, snowfall, and vignetting newly powerful, the employment
– especially in the last half of the film – of chiaroscuro and dynamic
lighting manipulations enters another realm of expression. Affect has
entered the scene, and it has done so without displacing the alienated
distanciation of mocking pastiche and the deliberately false. A few scenes
in the film aren’t quite fully achieved or integrated, and as noted, one or
two just misfire; the film’s equilibrium is not perfect, and it is not with-
out flaw. But in an overall sense, Archangel shows the Maddin ‘balance’
between travesty and feeling as fully in place, and we can see, really for
the first time, what this artist is.

Careful (1992)

Careful is a pro-incest mountain träumerei shot in the two-strip Technicolor

used in that holy year of 1929. Maddin’s most fully realized project, it’s also
his most accessible. His long-time collaborator George Toles was possessed
by a high-altitude Hamletism when he wrote the meticulously detailed
script as a mad tribute to Herman Melville’s Pierre.
– Guy Maddin, Careful self-review (2001)1

The idea for Maddin’s next film, he says, came to him during a trip
through the Rockies after the completion of Archangel:

I couldn’t even recall seeing mountains before, so I was basically seeing

them for the first time. Then something that [University of Manitoba film
professor] Howard Curle had mentioned to me came back. He’d said that
there was this mountain picture genre in Germany that was as popular
there as Westerns were in North America. I thought, that’s it!2

Maddin cooked up a script with George Toles, made a pre-sale to dis-

tributor Cinephile, got contributions from Manitoba Film and Sound,
the Canada Council, and the Manitoba Arts Council, then took that to
Telefilm Canada for a matching grant and ended up with the (for Mad-
din at that time) rather amazing amount of $1.1 million.3 Once again
the project was shot over a twenty-five-day period in Winnipeg, this time
in a disused grain elevator mostly, with Maddin’s local cast and crew, but
a new cinematographer (Mike Marshall) and two imported actors (Paul
Cox and Gosia Dobrowolska). He edited the film entirely by himself.
Exactly like Archangel, ‘Careful just took nine months from the minute
Careful 89

George and I thought of writing it and the minute we were sitting down to
watch it.’4 And, he says bluntly, ‘I was ordered to do the movie in colour.’5
This latter condition was part of the narrative that Maddin and Telefilm
continued to develop that he was working his way up the ladder from
artisanal production to something more like mainstream moviemaking.6
Careful adds a number of new elements to Maddin’s cinema; but it
also seems like a polishing, and a summation, of everything he had been
doing in the feature film to date. The basic situation is repeated from
Archangel (and even to a limited extent Gimli Hospital): in a ‘historical’
social setting whose characteristics are primarily those of ‘traditional’
ideological purity and the rigid social expectation for people to conform
to and act out the common value system, a number of interconnected
individuals become enmeshed in webs of desire and prohibition, with
unhappy results. The underlying substratum of melodrama in Archangel
becomes in Careful a much more fully imagined and articulated machine
– really now the true essence of the narrative. This is very likely in large
part the result of a much augmented emphasis on character and psych-
ology. Notwithstanding the dumbfoundingly wide commercial distribu-
tion of The Saddest Music in the World, it is probably true to say that Careful
is the closest Guy Maddin has yet come to a ‘normal’ movie. It is not
very close, of course, but, as Maddin remarked to the film’s co-scenarist
and scriptwriter George Toles, ‘this movie had by far the lowest walkout
quotient of any movie we did together.’7 Viewers trying to make Careful
into even an indie-movie have an arduous climb and many dangerous
precipices ahead of them; but there are enough recognizable narrative
elements in the film that the attempt to align it with some kind of fam-
iliar movie experience, however offbeat, does not perhaps seem an en-
tirely hopeless undertaking. The film does have a story powered by the
romantic and other emotional drives of characters who experience ela-
tion and disappointment, try to overcome obstacles, and achieve goals.
Like Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Archangel, it situates itself in a society
too bizarre and ridiculous to do anything but laugh at (at least initially).
But unlike its two predecessors, its satire of the society it is depicting also
seems relatively easy to read, owing to the fact that the absurdities and
rigidities of this hypercareful society are quite familiar to practically all
viewers who have themselves been socialized by a process of parental
and social indoctrination. Careful’s laws of behaviour, unlike Archangel’s,
are simply an exaggeration and caricature of our own, mediated by our
sense that we are far less oppressed in this dimension than were our an-
cestors of a century or two ago.
90 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

In addition, Careful has two other qualities of a ‘normal’ movie: it is

shot in colour, and it has a specially composed musical score instead
of the musical found fragments that had accompanied Maddin’s three
earlier efforts. These new characteristics have at least superficially the
effect of taking the film in the general direction of mainstream film-
making, and away from the archaeo-avant-gardism of grunged-up black
and white photography and tinny and crackling old musical fragments.
But in these respects, what Careful gives with one hand it takes back with
the other. Its colour is perhaps the most deliberately and elaborately
artificial concoction ever seen in a narrative film, while its musical score
is in many ways simply the continuation of Maddin’s history-scavenging,
degraded-object politics by other means. Moreover, the basic produc-
tion stance of the film fits seamlessly into the director’s pattern: mount-
ing an epic reconstruction of a bygone and/or fantastically imagined
world – a world so utterly different from the one we inhabit that it has to
be manufactured from the ground up – on tiny soundstages with hand-
fuls of extras, home-made props, and papier-mâché sets. The typically
imprecise and suggestible historical setting is a Swiss8 Alpine village
sometime in the, perhaps, early nineteenth century; and the film takes
it upon itself to represent, in caricatured form, not only the sublime
sweep and scale of heroic mountainous terrain but the panoply of so-
cially conservative Germanic class structures, Biedermeierish cultural
customs, and Schilleresque Romanticism. Meanwhile the plot is one of
Maddin’s most overtly melodramatic ever (a large statement), progress-
ing from the realm of stifled longings in the bosom of the family to the
lurid blood and thunder acting out of incest, mutilation, suicide, mur-
der, and thunderous avalanches. Of all Maddin’s many collaborations
with George Toles, Careful is perhaps, after Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the
one where Toles’ fingerprints are most clearly and extensively visible.
For one thing, there is much more dialogue than in the earlier films, and
that dialogue has the characteristic Tolesian identifiers of baroque for-
mality, crazy heightened diction, and casually surreal landmines buried
in the musty surroundings of old-tome phraseology. To be sure, these
are qualities that Maddin is highly susceptible to as well, and probably
productive of; but Toles’ grim aspect of bizarre strait-laced pronounce-
ments, of high seriousness and sobriety enveloped in a wild deadpan
absurdist humour, and with a hand inexorably propelling everything to
a bad end, seems quite distinctive. In general the Toles ‘flavour’ is very
strong, and its general aura of literary and historical culture conveys the
sense that there is something substantial and graspable in the film (even
Careful 91

though the collaborators are often leading viewers along this path only
to push them off a cliff-top at the end of it).

The story

The mountain town of Tolzbad (I suppose ‘Tolesbad’ would have been

just too obvious) is ruled by iron laws of caution. The film begins with
a voice-over very reminiscent in both tone and function of the ‘Love’
oration in Archangel. In fact it is the same voice (that of Victor Cowie),
preaching an extended sermon on the necessity for every inhabitant of
the town to be CAREFUL in every aspect of life. An endless downpour
of admonitions, all-encompassing or trivial, rains down: ‘Don’t spill it!’
‘Hold your horses!’ ‘Heed the warnings of your parents!’ ‘Think twice!’
‘Put a lid on it!’ ‘Don’t be rash!’ ‘Don’t stand so close to the walnut tree!’
‘You’ll catch a chill!’ ‘Don’t put too much pepper on it!’ The stern di-
dactitian himself – Herr Trotta is his name – is seen in black frock coat
and top hat presenting his lecture with a pointer in front of a curtained
stage to the townsfolk (almost like Dr Caligari), intercut with continuing
illustrations of his homilies. So many bad things can happen to you –
falling into a crevasse, slipping on an icy mountain path, pitching over a
precipice. Moreover the town itself sits perilously under the permanent
Damocles sword of a catastrophic avalanche, so hair-triggered that the
slightest sound may bring it down. In now-familiar Maddin fashion, this
plight, itself absurd, has led to a series of even more absurd extensions
– notably the surgical excision of the vocal chords of animals, so that we
have shots of a cow wearing a post-operative neck bandage and a dog
fiercely barking but emitting only the dry clicking sound of teeth coming
together. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that throughout
the film the cast speak mostly in whispers or very low tones, even when
events reach full-purple stage. (As always in Maddin’s movies, there is no
direct sound, and doubtless it was easier to manage this particular effect
with post-synchronization.)
In this community living in constant danger of an annihilation brought
on by incautious behaviour, all are of one mind, and citizens constantly
exhort each other not simply to stay clear of actions that might bring
on a common disaster, but to preserve themselves from every ill that
might befall, however trivial. This concern to avert harm extends then
further into the whole ideology of repression, covering all actions and
all thought. ‘Silence! Propriety!’, commands the voice of Vic Cowie, and
as we get to know the community we see that the system extends to such
92 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

unspoken but clearly internalized commands as ‘Obedience!’ ‘Order!’

‘Deference!’ ‘Self-Denial!’ It is true that there exist, in rare corners of
the mountain ranges, odd little spaces where sound waves cancel each
other out and disappear. ‘Here,’ Herr Trotta expounds, ‘cautious vent
can be given to stifled impulses. We can sing, laugh and cavort.’ (These
unbridled pleasures are illustrated by shots of small children playing
‘pat-a-cake’ and youths engaged in some ultra-innocent game requir-
ing synchronized movement.) Clearly, it is a society dedicated to prin-
ciples of repression to a truly silly extent, and its exposition is not so far
from that of a satire sketch. It is also a society utterly in the grip of class
hierarchy: all of the villagers demonstrate a profound respect, in fact a
comically reverential awe, for the aristocratic head of this society, the
reclusive Count Knotkers (Paul Cox), who lives in his castle and is served
by a small troupe of servants trained at the Tolzbad Butler Gymnasium.
In this environment we find embedded the central characters – es-
sentially, two families. The first, the Bernholz family, consists of a widow,
Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska) and her three sons, Franz (Vince Rim-
mer), Johann (Brent Neale), and Grigorss (Kyle McCulloch). There
seems to be a warm and loving relationship between the mother and
her two younger sons, Johann and Grigorss. Mother and sons dance
together, there are many expressions of mutual love and respect, and
generally it seems like a very happy home. But it is missing some rather
crucial elements, and gradually it is revealed to harbour deep pain and
dysfunction. One major problem is the fact that the eldest son, Franz,
is parked in the attic of the house, covered with cobwebs, and unable
to speak or move, banished there by his mother’s revulsion for him.9
And that revulsion is largely the result of Zenaida’s revulsion for Franz’s
father, her dead husband, known only as ‘the Swan-Feeder.’ This figure
has already been introduced to us in passing as part of Herr Trotta’s
opening address, as a terrible example of the horrors that can befall one:
as a baby one of his eyes was put out when his mother hugged him to
her bosom while wearing an unclasped brooch, while the other was lost
as the result of a too-close inspection of a cuckoo clock (or, in this case,
a goose clock). The baby’s-eye-put-out-by-a-brooch-pin is a simple tran-
scription of Maddin’s story about the accident that befell his own father,
Chas,10 and carries an extra frisson of meaning in its echo of Oedipus’
scratching out of his own eyes with his mother’s brooch. This person-
age, impotent and ridiculous in every dimension, now comes back as a
ghost to solemnly warn his eldest son about dangers and wrongs in the
family, and to command this attic-bound, dumb, and paralysed young
Careful 93

The ghost of the Swan-Feeder appearing, like Hamlet’s father, to his

attic-bound son Franz as a blurred and quivering reflection. Another Maddin
dead father.

man to do something about them, now. It is a very Hamlet-like situation,

especially when the ghost’s ire is partly directed at his wife, who despised
her husband and cherished an impossible love for Count Knotkers (im-
possible because opposed by the Count’s mother) – except that it cari-
catures the dignity of this patriarchal ghost by presenting him as utterly
futile and out of touch with what is possible, and caricatures also the
ineffectiveness of the son by having him physically disabled from any
kind of intervention.
The second family is that of Herr Trotta, whom we presume is a wid-
ower since there is no sign of a mother, and his two daughters, Klara
(Sarah Neville) and Sigleinde11 (Katya Gardner). Here too there is
an imbalance of parental affection: Herr Trotta dotes on his younger
daughter Sigleinde, while Klara desperately wants more of his love and
attention. Where Zenaida’s rejection of Franz is a symptom of the chan-
cre secretly eating at the Bernholz family that will eventually grow to
94 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

destroy it, Herr Trotta’s neglect of Klara will be actually productive of

catastrophe as his daughter turns her feelings of hurt into destructive
anger. The intertwining of the two families begins at the communal cele-
brations attending the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (a pregnant
title in view of the film’s emphasis on parental sexuality and its effects
on children),12 where Johann is playing a nine-foot yellow alphorn in
the concert while making eyes at Klara. Soon their romance blossoms,
and they become engaged. Herr Trotta gives his blessing to the union, as
does Zenaida on Johann’s side, and although Grigorss is silently in love
with Klara he congratulates his brother with genuine good wishes. At the
end of the film everyone from both generations of both families except
for Franz and Sigleinde will be dead, and in the most awful way, and the
ideal picture of Propriety, Decorum, Family Devotion, and Chaste Love
will lie in complete ruin. (George Toles, in some published remarks
about the film, points out that when your belief system is as simple and
all-encompassing as this one is, it can provide an essentially untroubling
environment as long as it is working, but when it begins to dissolve it
throws everything into question in disastrous ways.13)
In the ultra-repressive world of Tolzbad one might imagine that it
would be sexuality which would explode the structure and be the cause
of disaster, and so it is. But it is not ordinary, young-lovers sexual desire
that creates the trouble. The passion that young men and women feel
for each other is effectively restrained by the rules of decorum. (The
height of romantic impetuosity is reached by Johann’s exclamation to
Klara, ‘Your eyes are so blue!’ and her demure reply, ‘Johann, watch
yourself!’) And eventually it is fulfilled properly and safely, in the sanc-
tity of marriage. Rather it is the intense, tangled sexual feelings running
unexamined between parents and children that are the whole problem.
I should say instead ‘between children and parents,’ because it is the sex-
ual desires, or sexual jealousies, of the sons and daughters towards their
mothers and fathers that cause the conflagration. Johann’s sexual attrac-
tion to Klara poses no difficulty, but no sooner does properly permit-
ted sexual feeling arise in him than it is massively diverted into a sexual
desire for his beautiful mother. The arrival of this overpowering forbid-
den appetite transforms him into a kind of Byronic damned soul. He
becomes hyperconscious of her body at mealtime, then has a lust-dream
where the female object starts out being Klara but is transformed into
Zenaida. Desire now sweeps him away like a leaf in the torrent, and he
passes rapidly to hanging upside down in the chimney like a bat in order
to spy on his mother in her bath,14 and from thence to brewing up a love
Careful 95

German Expressionism: the silhouettes of Johann (centre) and Grigorss

(with lantern) in a composition whose genealogy runs from Caspar David
Friedrich to Weimar-era cinema.

potion that will put her into a receptive sleep, and then cutting through
her bodice with a giant pair of garden shears before fervently kissing
her naked breast. Horrified revulsion comes immediately, and Johann
quickly (and graphically) burns his offending lips with a live coal, cuts off
his offending fingers with the garden shears, and rushes away to throw
himself from a mountain crag, with a final cry of, ‘Forgive me, mother!’
For the other brother, Grigorss, things are slightly more conventional.
He is outraged that his mother could have loved a man who was not
his father. For Zenaida’s own romantic passion had been for the young
Count Knotkers. The passion was returned, and they wished to marry,
but the match was forbidden by the Count’s mother – a formidable lady
whom the Count was quite subservient to (‘It was difficult for me to think
about anyone else while she was alive,’ he says), and whose body now lies
in an open coffin in a secluded chamber of the castle, covered with face
make-up and black buboes of decay.15 What kind of an awesome figure
96 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the Countess might have been we do not know; but we can say that it
was her son’s surrender to her that crushed his prospective marriage
to Zenaida – that is, he was more deeply fixed on his mother than on
his young love. To what extent this maternal attachment is simply what
a child owes to a parent in the deeply conservative world of Tolzbad,
and to what extent it is Freudianly proto-incestuous – or indeed to what
extent these two are inseparable – can only be speculated upon, but it
does continue the pattern of children’s intense infatuation with their
opposite-sex parents as a primal cause of all the trouble. Then, when the
heartbroken Zenaida married the Swan-Feeder, it was in despair, and
she endured her husband’s love and his physical caresses with inner con-
tempt and disgust. This is the reason she has banished her crippled son,
who ‘smelled like his father’ so that she could not nurse him. (In a nice
ripplingly reverberating moment, she is having an erotic dream about
the young Count even as her other son Johann is incestuously kissing
her breast.) Grigorss, eavesdropping on his mother and the Count while
stretching over a picturesque mountain outcrop like a figure in a Cas-
par David Friedrich painting, overhears her telling the Count that she
thought only of him ‘while my husband blindly and clumsily laboured’
to inseminate her, so that both her dearly loved other sons are his, ‘in
spirit at least.’ Grigorss is sent into a cold rage by this new knowledge,
and when the Count showers honours and a title on him at the dinner
to celebrate a forthcoming wedding to Zenaida, he slaps the Count in
the face with a napkin and challenges him to a duel for ‘leading my too-
easily-tempted mother from the path of virtue.’ Grigorss declares war on
the Count ostensibly because of the insult to the honour of his father
the Swan-Feeder, but it is difficult to believe that his own overinvestment
in his mother is not the principal cause. In a scene that is rather rem-
iniscent of another region of Hamlet – the Prince’s relationship with his
mother – he says to her, ‘If I cannot believe in you, all the women of the
world are painted like the harlots of …’ (his words are cut off when she
places her hand over his mouth). This is certainly not quite the same as
his brother’s peeping on, drugging, and sexually assaulting his mother,
but it is not absolutely different, either.
But as this scene between Grigorss and Zenaida progresses, she assures
him movingly of her love for him, pleads with him to beg the Count’s for-
giveness, and finally wins his agreement when she accedes to his request
to express at last some love for her neglected son Franz and accept him
back into the family. When these three are fully reconciled again after
all their agonizing divisions, it represents the complete solution to all
Careful 97

the problems of the surviving members of the Bernholz family: Franz is

brought back from his terrible exile, Zenaida will remove that stain from
her conscience and also be able to marry the Count whom she has loved
for most of her life, and Grigorss can rid himself of his jealous anger and
feel he has been the means of healing his family. It is, in fact, a happy
ending for the most central cluster of characters in the film, and almost
for the film itself – or at least it shows what a happy ending for Careful
would look like. That is not, however, the kind of melodrama that the
movie has its sights set on: Careful’s kind of melodrama must be ruled by
catastrophe and violence. So just as a way becomes clear for one awful set
of problems to be resolved, another awful set of problems comes down a
sidetrack and smashes everything to smithereens.
This other set of problems belongs to the Trotta family. It begins
with Herr Trotta’s casual but appalling differential treatment of his two
daughters. He is fixated on Sigleinde, hovering around her, painting her
portrait, buying her little gifts, always worrying about her. Klara he takes
quite for granted and is not very interested in, despite her never-ceasing
efforts to get his attention and claim some affection. Herr Trotta’s be-
haviour as a parent towards his two daughters contrasts very unfavour-
ably with Zenaida’s equally loving embrace of her two sons Johann and
Grigorss – though not, of course, with her criminal banishment of her
eldest son, Franz. But while Franz sits alone, sad-eyed and covered in
cobwebs, a figure of pure suffering, Klara is made of sterner stuff. Freud
gave the term ‘Electra complex’ to the syndrome of a daughter who is
sexually invested in her father, and Maddin is quick to associate that
figure from Greek tragedy with Klara. Although Klara’s attachment,
and engagement, to Johann seem unproblematic, no sooner does he
disappear from the scene than her fixation on her father becomes com-
pletely dominant, and she moves quickly into pathological behaviour.
First she tries, probably, to drown her sister in a pool. Then she develops
a ‘secret place’ in a stalactite-filled (and green-lit) mountain cave filled
with emblems of personal value and twin chairs affixed with name tags
of ‘Klara’ and ‘Poppa.’ When Herr Trotta is quite unmoved at his intro-
duction to this spot, and can only harp on about Sigleinde, Klara tears
her undergarments to pieces, visits Gerda the ‘Mountain-Top Wild Girl’
(who is chained to an isolated crag en deshabillée writhing ceaselessly in
the grip of desire) with whom she recognizes some kinship, and at last
comes to the conclusion that Grigorss is the solution to her problem.
Klara is a ‘Mountain-Top Wild Girl’ herself – not because of her un-
bridled sensuality, but because of her freedom in other respects from
98 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

social restraints on outlook and behaviour. While Grigorss smothers his

own feelings in deference to his brother’s romantic attachment; while
both he and Johann are enthusiastic devotees of the Prussian rules-fetish
of the butler school; while Zenaida worries about at least two of her sons;
while the whole community is constantly adjured to subordinate per-
sonal desire to the common good, Klara’s utter investment in her own
desire for her father and utter disregard for anything else allows her to
use Grigorss like a piece of Kleenex in the pursuit of personal aims that
have little to do with him. Such tunnel-vision narcissism certainly does
have disastrous consequences for others (indirectly bringing about the
deaths of the Count, Zenaida, Herr Trotta, and Grigorss) and suggests
that she too ought to be chained to a rock far from society. But there is,
dramatically speaking, certainly something impressive about such single-
mindedness and unhesitating action. The film very much benefits from
the presence of a character of such clean outlines and awesome force – a
wonderful combination of fiery envelopment in her own priorities and
ice-cold disregard of anyone else’s. (So much so, indeed, that a character
very much like her will return a dozen years later in Cowards Bend the Knee
to play an equally manipulative and destructive part in that story’s tra-
gic unfolding. There, Meta is a young woman who again coldly uses the
infatuation of her boyfriend to enact her father-fixated vengeful mania
in a scenario that at times seems like an actual reworking of Euripedes’
Klara’s first disastrous action is to undo, with horrifying ease, the pact of
peace, forgiveness, and rehabilitation that Grigorss has achieved with his
mother, Franz, and the Count. She does not love Grigorss at all, is in fact
largely indifferent to him – this much is conveyed in a dozen little ways.
But when he pours out to her his distress and relief over the relationship
of his mother and the Count and recounts his promise to apologize, her
response is simply to remark: ‘What about your father? ... Think of what
the Count has done to him. His honour must be vindicated.’ Klara could
not care less about the Swan-Feeder or Zenaida or the Count or anyone
else involved in that situation, including Grigorss. The only thing she
hears in this whole heart-rending tale is the (minor) presence of a dead
and gone father: ‘I could not love a man who placed anything above his
father’s honour.’ In order to have some kind of vicarious effect in a father
scenario, however distant, she is quite prepared to jerk Grigorss around
on the gaff of his unrequited love for her. Again, what is impressive is
not so much the cold-blooded manipulativeness of this behaviour as the
psychopathic ease with which the pain of others is ignored.
Careful 99

Grigorss, knocked over by the possibility that Klara might return his
love, immediately assumes again the mantle of the Hernani-like Roman-
tic hero-of-honour that he had renounced in the scene with his mother
and brother. He meets the Count on an ice-covered mountainside (‘Mit-
terwald’s Tongue, 11,212 feet,’ the title tells us),16 and the two conduct
a duel to the death with daggers, one that begins with each combatant
struggling to unfasten the dozens of buttons on the other’s ankle-length
coat-front in order to extract his dagger to use against him. Accompa-
nied by much blowing on the fingers to restore circulation in the cold,
it is a ritual combat as delightfully absurd as the Glima Wrestling match
in Tales from the Gimli Hospital (and very much its descendant). After an
elaborate facing-off and rolling-around fight reportedly inspired by a
knife-fighting sequence from Leni Riefenstahl’s Tiefland (1940–54),17
Grigorss at last thrusts his poignard home. After raising his arms above
his head and emitting a feral ‘WWF victory chant,’18 he goes home and
collapses on the floor. In another scene of pure melodrama, Zenaida as-
sumes it is because his apology to the Count has exhausted him, and puts
him to bed where she rubs his bare chest with ‘the goose grease, just as
I did when you were a little boy,’ and he deliriously recalls so often as a
child promising her to ‘sail out in a big ship and bring you back all the
treasures in the world.’ Again, as with the peace pact involving Franz,
this scene is truly affecting, goose grease or not; and again it is dreadfully
shattered. The fact that viewers know that this primal mother-son bond
can only be momentary, that it will be obliterated the minute Grigorss
imparts the news of the duel, gives it extra poignancy, and looks forward
to the final scene of Grigorss alone in the cave visited by the visions of his
parents and especially his mother. But now Grigorss does tell his mother
of the duel, and of the Count’s death with Zenaida’s ‘name forming
on his lips as he died’ (this is not strictly true, since we have ourselves
heard the Count’s last whispered words: ‘I curse my luck!’) Zenaida is
destroyed by this news, pretty much a literal description when after eject-
ing Grigorss from the house (‘You have killed my love for you! There is
no goodness left in the world!’) she goes briskly up to the attic and hangs
herself before the eyes of the ever-helpless, ever-suffering Franz, after
making a few sarcastic remarks to him (‘If only you could help me. Am
I doing this right?’).
Grigorss is mercifully spared the knowledge of this act, but his Byronic
cast has now grown irremediably deep. However, the destruction of his
family does not render him useless to Klara as a tool for manipulation or
possibly a human Ken-doll. First (wielding him in the latter capacity) she
100 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

incorporates him into her fantasy of cave-dwelling solitude: ‘The two of

us can be outcasts here together. We need never see anything but each
other. We can live on berries and grasses, and small animals we can kill
with sharp sticks.’ But she has already begun her next move, which is to
tell him that her father has raped her. She imparts the information dur-
ing a gondola ride to her secret cave, and their conversation is punctu-
ated by frequent involuntary yawns from both parties, a side-effect of the
high altitude. In the green cave, clutching a stalactite, Grigorss is finally
convinced, and from this it is a short step for Klara to manoeuvre him
into a plan to kill Herr Trotta by taking him out on a sleigh ride, firing
off a pistol to start an avalanche, and fleeing to safety. After an impas-
sioned argument in the green cave, Grigorss Romantically agrees, and
then Romantically carries out the deed, only to discover Klara leaping
back into the sleigh with her father and kissing him passionately on the
mouth before they are both swept into the abyss by the avalanche. Truly,
it is hard to imagine a more full-bloodedly Romantic moment, and a bet-
ter or grander solution for Klara, whose greatest moment this is.
Returning alone to Klara’s cave, Grigorss lies on a stone slab, sheds a
single tear whose echoing sound creates an avalanche that seals him for-
ever into this tomb, and proceeds to freeze to death, while hallucinating
visions of his mother and father sitting by the fireside and at last of his
mother leaning close over him to offer him her comfort. It is an extra-
ordinary ending (or near-ending), comparable to the elevated suffering
and powerful, simple expressive force of Boles’ last treasure hunt and the
conclusion of Archangel. One is again surprised at the wholeheartedness
and the bigness of the feelings involved at the end of Careful – surprised,
once more, because of the film’s forceful registers of mockery and farce,
established right at the beginning and maintained throughout most of
the film. Indeed, they reappear, albeit in muted form, in the film’s epi-
logue, which, in a montage of the survivors Franz and Sigleinde, briefly
outlines the possibility of a new beginning. The narrator tells us:

The eldest brother’s journey now begins. He could call out Grigorss’ name –
Sigleinde might hear him. She too is searching – for a father. And she could
dry her eyes, and she and Franz could continue their search – together.

And the music swells up to resolve itself in a major-key resolution. But

of course such a positive outcome, even such a severely limited, only
partially positive outcome, is clearly impossible. How has Franz, unable
to move from his attic, managed to get himself into a sleigh19 with every-
Careful 101

Grigorss freezing to death in Klara’s cave. The original is a pale emerald green.

body else in his family dead? When he calls out Grigorss’ name, perhaps
Sigleinde might hear him, but Grigorss certainly isn’t going to. And Si-
gleinde’s search for her father cannot have any good result, either. The
pair could continue their search, a hopeless search doomed to failure,
but to what end? This morsel of consolation is false, this papering-over
of vast chasms is derisorily thin – and meant of course to be seen as such.
It is not a happy ending, but a ‘happy ending,’ a resolution that flies
in the face of the facts, of the kind so often to be found in Hollywood
melodramas of the 1950s like Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life or Douglas
Sirk’s Imitation of Life.20

Mockery, melodrama

As in almost all of Maddin’s films, the drama and the characters in-
habiting it have to pull themselves onto a level of some substance and
affect from a firestorm of ridicule and silliness. The ‘prologue’ of Care-
102 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ful goes to greater lengths even than the ‘Love’ sequence of Archangel
in its relentless mockery of this society and its inhabitants. To some
extent this is inherent in Maddin’s impoverished ‘garage-band’ pro-
duction circumstances. The heroic historical societies his films have set
out to represent – Icelandic pioneers of the nineteenth century, noble
warriors for Czar and country in World War I, and in Careful an elabo-
rately articulated iteration of certain facets of fully developed European
civilization 175 years ago – are constructed with pasteboard and potato
flakes, mounted on tiny soundstages, and shot on a defective 16mm
camera with minimal lighting gear. The mighty Alps are cheap props,
the Romantic crags are made of papier-mâché, the cattle-pulled train
running down main street and directly into the mines has cars made
of wood, one of which doubles as a sky gondola in another part of the
film. Under these circumstances of course everything looks insubstan-
tial and sketchlike (and we must also remember that, with a million
dollars to play with, Maddin could have made things look rather more
conventionally ‘convincing’ it he had wanted to). The film’s visual in-
substantiality rhymes easily with the ludicrous exaggerations built into
the dramatic material itself. If they are often simultaneously charming
– as with the wooden train that Toles correctly suggests might make a
pair with the one in Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923)21 – that does
not render them less ridiculous.
Herr Trotta’s opening lecture presents a blizzard of absurdities (ava-
lanches caused by sneezes or dropped dishes, children and pensioners in
bondage gear, a baby with an eye-patch like Captain Kidd, the very fact
of the lecture itself). The fundamental premise – that any noise above a
whisper can cause an apocalypse – is rather brilliant, but it is absurd; the
film is built upon a fundamental absurdity. The next move is an equally
brilliant short cut – to bring all forms of caution onto the same level,
to conflate vitally important safety measures with trivial slacknesses like
standing too close to the walnut tree or putting too much pepper on
your food. It all resolves into the principle that the key to safety is self-
denial (most overtly visible in the illustrative sequence from the lecture
where a little girl is looking wishfully at a little doll in a shop window,
but is warned off by the lecturer’s voice: ‘You can do without that!’). Ty-
ing this sort of repressive socialization, this sort of child-training-by-fear,
with the fundamental survival of the society is a beautiful literalization
of what many little persons in the real world no doubt feel as their par-
ents and social authority figures bury them with commandments: ‘Curb
Careful 103

your impulses or the world will come to an end.’ The opening exposi-
tion of Tolzbad offers a systemization, a reduction, a caricature of basic
repression, and prompts the notion that the movie’s arena is perhaps
a psychoanalytic territory as much as a social one (though this is a dis-
tinction that would, I suspect, make little sense either to Maddin or to
Toles). For once a Maddin film actually functions as satire, since, as I
remarked earlier, viewers are in a position to recognize the film’s object
of mockery. But the literalization does render its object silly, starts the
film off on a comedy-sketch plane, and once again creates those condi-
tions from which the story and characters must clamber painfully up to
substance and affect. In the DVD commentary, Toles expresses satisfac-
tion with the expositional qualities of Herr Trotta’s lecture: ‘I love the
idea of ... setting out not only the environment but also all the rules of
the movie.’ To which I would add, perhaps unnecessarily, that the rules
are not only those that help to determine character motivation, narra-
tive action, and so on, but also those that set the grounds of the general
climate of absurdity.
Careful has a good deal of fun expansively articulating these basic con-
ditions. The Tolzbad Butler Gymnasium is a particularly enjoyable play-
ground.22 It is presided over by ‘Frau Teacher’ (Jackie Burroughs), who
wears a mannered but severe burgundy dress with oodles of fasteners
and piping and an equally mannered but severe coiffeur dominated by
scroll-like locks, and speaks in dense Teutonic accents of sadistic com-
mand that would not disgrace Ilse the Beast of Belsen. Lessons in place-
setting and napkin-folding (some conducted with surreally antique
photographic flashcards) are intermingled with broader lessons in be-
ing careful that may be illustrated by, for example, the crushed and fro-
zen body of an incautious climber laid out in the classroom. Disciplinary
measures include caning and throwing hot coffee into the face of pupils
who falter in any detail. The society is structured by a strict class system
whose expression is just as caricatured as everything else in this world.
The highest ambition of any Tolzbad youth is to be chosen to serve in
Count Knotkers’ household, and when eventually Grigorss receives the
inconceivable honour of a personal interview with the Count on his first
day of service, the conversation includes the following almost parentheti-
cal interchange:

grigorss: The villagers dream of capturing a glimpse of you.

count knotkers: As they should.
104 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Notwithstanding what the film’s viewers must interpret as the cruelty

and fanatical repressiveness of these and so many other features of Tolz-
bad life, the inhabitants show no signs at all of rebellion or indeed any
kind of dissatisfaction. Repression certainly exists, but it is not experi-
enced as oppression by its ‘victims.’ Insofar as the film’s social picture is
acting as satire, its targets include everybody. When Maddin and Toles
refer to Careful as a ‘pro-repression’ movie (and they often do), their
intent may be humorous, but whole swatches of the film support such a
characterization as straightforwardly descriptive.
There does, though, at least seem to be a clear reciprocal relation
of repression and return in the instances of violence in the film. The
tolerance of physical punishment for children or microscopically errant
butler candidates seems to stretch at times almost to a sadomasochistic
enthusiasm for it, as when Grigorss and Johann are demonstrating what
they learned in butler school that week, and Grigorss hands his mother a
rod and says eagerly: ‘If we make any mistakes, feel free to cane us – our
Frau Teacher says that’s how you learn to be more careful next time.’
(Although she doesn’t use it, Zenaida tests it with some small degree of
pleasure.) This moment is a somewhat less troubling repetition of the
scene of Geza’s whipping in Archangel, and again what it demonstrates
is the ideological internalization of corporal punishment. In the case of
Johann’s lip-burning and finger-amputation the violence is far more ex-
treme, indeed venturing into horror-movie territory, and seems a kind of
equal and opposite reaction to the psychological violence of repression.
We can also extend this notion of repression-and-return into the more
general realm of melodrama that is so important in Careful. That is, there
is a kind of aesthetic balance between a world of rules and repression,
on the one hand, and melodrama – especially its more hysterical expres-
sions – on the other. Such an aesthetic counterpoise is entirely in keep-
ing with the history of melodrama over the past 150-odd years. So many
melodramatic scenarios from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-
twentieth century are built on and powered by injustices and frustrations
arising from the order of the world and its non-congruence with the vir-
tue or vice of individuals, and in general by the failure of ideology to ful-
fil its promise and furnish a just society where the good are rewarded and
the bad are punished. Careful resembles this model insofar as it presents
a fixed ideology on one side and tragically suffering individuals whom
that ideology can do nothing to save on the other. (And we can also
observe that the film’s model of melodrama is a primarily nineteenth-
century one of stark situations, simple oppositions, and lurid articula-
Careful 105

tion, rather than the relatively genteel and ‘realist’ later forms.) The
central individual dramas of the film are almost a caricature of primary
Freudian Oedipal and Electral dramas: the sexual attraction of a child
for the parent of the opposite sex is heavily repressed by social norms,
and this repression gives rise to compulsive, very destructive burstings
forth of pent-up impossible desire in either action (Johann) or displace-
ment (Grigorss, Klara). ‘Honour’ and ‘justice,’ then self-mutilation, sui-
cide, and homicide, are the excessive and hysterical forms taken by these
impulses whose excess and hysteria themselves arise from the terms of
their repression. So as we are watching the film, the terrain, at least, of
traditional melodrama is totally recognizable, and the effects seem to
be arising from traditional and recognizable causes. The conflicts in,
for example, Zenaida’s heart (between her lost lover and her husband,
then between Grigorss and the Count) and Grigorss’ heart (between his
mother and the memory of his father, between his mother and Klara)
are of a kind familiar not only from older dramatic forms but from many,
many popular dramatic forms descended from melodrama.23
Careful picks its way gingerly from absurdity (the sillinesses of Tolz-
bad society and individual behaviour within it) to something gentler and
more substantial, as the characters whose first aspect is ridiculous begin
to assume more sympathetic qualities and more humanity. As we first
make acquaintance with the anguished plights of the personages, their
suffering states are depicted in laughable ways. The Swan-Feeder’s first
eye-loss is more horrifying than silly, but the second – pecked out by a
carolling goose clock – has nothing in it but ridicule. The affect that
might attend Franz’s lonely exile in the attic is always leached away by
the absurd overkill of its depiction: crippled, voiceless, neglected, and,
most characteristic stroke of all, covered with cobwebs. Johann’s incestu-
ous reveries are festooned with comic details (his inappropriate behav-
iour at a butler-school flashcard session, for example), his plot to drug
his mother comes complete with a cheap mad-scientist laboratory out
of a James Whale movie,24 and even his terrible self-mutilations carry
the trashy, distanciating mark of B-horror-movie sensationalism. Every
instance of suffering, or indeed emotion of any kind, is branded in this
way to some extent.
But already at points in the first half of the film, there is something
softer and more feeling, something non-ridiculous, entering the picture.
The most fully realized example is found in the behaviour of Grigorss.
There is always something touching about Grigorss’ innocence: his quiet-
ness, his modesty, his quite selfless affection for his brother which is not
106 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

deflected by Johann’s engagement to the object of Grigorss’ own love.

Kyle McCulloch’s performance must get a large measure of the credit
(what a pity that this splendid partnership ended here), for he demon-
strates again, as he had in Archangel, the ability to bring an absolutely
straight-faced conviction to the depiction of mental states of simplicity
and belief, without the slightest tinge of irony or self-consciousness, and
with a subtlety and sureness of touch that lies concealed beneath a sur-
face of apparent immobility and monotone. The innocent devotion of
the character survives the ludicrousness of having to scale a mountain
crag to steal a condor’s egg to present to Klara on behalf of Johann, and
to make excuses for his brother’s absence (in fact he is at home spying
on his mother in her bath). This condition persists after Johann’s death,
too, as when, speaking to Klara, he is careful to deflect any glory that
might accrue to him as the butler-school pupil with the highest marks
and hence hired immediately as a servant in the Count’s castle: ‘Of
course the job would have gone to Johann ... were he still with us.’ This
childlikeness, this trusting innocence, this touching absence of guile or
selfishness are still visible quite late in the film, in his scenes with Klara,
and even as he descends into tragedy, it is through a route that is carved
out by the advice and persuasion of people he loves. It is what allows him
his extraordinary death scene, the climax and highlight of the film.
In this way, Grigorss is actually a good advertisement for the Tolzbad
way of life. And regularly the film shows how the ‘Careful!’ ethic makes
room for genuine tenderness and concern between people. People are
constantly expressing their love for each other through banal, and in
this context comical, little Tolzbadian exhortations. As Johann and Klara
are parting at the end of their betrothal scene, they draw out their fare-
wells even as the physical distance between them grows in an exchange
of ever-fainter tender admonitions: ‘Don’t lose your way’ ‘Don’t stay up
too late’ ‘Don’t forget to wear your sweater with a cravat.’25 The ethic
continues to come under mocking assault, but the balance shifts. As Jo-
hann hangs upside down in the chimney peeping on his naked mother,
a close-up of his maniacally desiring face, with unholy gleams coming off
eye and teeth, is intercut with Zenaida calling an exhortation through
the locked door to her son: ‘Johann. Johann! You better put your name
on your new toothbrush or else some accident might happen.’ This can’t
be anything but funny; and yet the contrast between Johann’s ravenous
Oedipal appetite and Zenaida’s tender maternal care (however absurdly
trivial) carries an emotional force because of the terrible ironic contrast
between these impulses, with its clear prediction of the doom that will
Careful 107

fall upon a relationship where inscribing your toothbrush has hitherto

been an important consideration. This contrast is melodramatic, and
it functions emotionally as melodrama even in the presence of ‘tooth-
brush’ ridicule.
An even more bizarre – and even more subtly affecting – example is
furnished in a detail of the scene where the mutilated Johann rushes to
his suicide and his concerned brother (alerted by some nameless cur-
rent flowing through the mountains, apparently) follows to catch up
with him. Johann runs through a gate in the middle of a bridge span-
ning a mountain chasm, but even in his desperation and physical agony,
turns back to close the gate that he had momentarily forgotten to close
behind him. Then a few moments later Grigorss enacts the identical
scene, turning back to close the gate that only desperate worry had
caused him to neglect the first time across. Toles points out this detail in
the DVD commentary, and remarks on how this rote behaviour has per-
haps caused Grigorss to lose ‘that precious ten seconds’ that might have
allowed him to save Johann’s life. But since both brothers perform the
same action, the ten seconds are neither gained nor lost: it is a zero-sum
game in the socially conditioned world of Tolzbad where all are running
to the same clock.26 My point, however, is different: I find the brothers’
adherence to their childhood training even under such inconceivable
duress to be not simply ridiculous, but also one more touching evidence
of their childlike innocence, their poignant striving to be dutiful and
good. It’s not that the absurdity of their action is eclipsed in any way; it
is simply that here again a (tiny) moment of affect is able to exist in a
climate of absurdity.
Now, a more extended, more powerful, and clearer example of the
same phenomenon. After Grigorss’ first day at the castle, he tells his
mother (with some satisfaction) of his interview with the Count, and
questions her about the fact that the Count has asked after her. This
flusters Zenaida, not entirely unpleasantly, but then the conversation
takes a turn that is more menacing to her. Here it is:

grigorss: I was a little troubled by his way of talking about you.

zenaida: [troubled herself ] How do you mean?
grigorss: Oh, I don’t know. Familiar. Almost flirtatious. [almost
flirtatious himself ] I realize he is the Count. But you are my mother.
And with father and Johann gone, I am your protector as well.
zenaida: [breathless] What did he say about me?
grigorss: You really loved papa, didn’t you?
108 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

zenaida: [shakes off an unpleasant thought] What a question! It’s not

like you to have doubts about me.
grigorss: [quickly] I never doubt you, mother – only ...
zenaida: [in a whisper] What?
grigorss: I’m afraid to ask you this.
zenaida: Then perhaps you should think on it better.
grigorss: Why do we keep Franz in the attic? Why won’t you let us
mention him in your presence?
zenaida: [gasping with distress, puts her hand to her neck] I have a hair-
ball in my throat. [gasp] I will swallow it. [she swoons, Grigorss catches
her. Tableau]

Grigorss has stumbled upon the foundational sin in his own family, the
rotten ground upon which it rests: Zenaida married the Swan-Feeder
without loving him, despised him for their whole married life, and ban-
ished their firstborn son because he reminded her too much of his fa-
ther. The bald line ‘Why do we keep Franz in the attic?’ raises a laugh
(or ought to), because of its unceremonious reductionism of an awful
human situation (you keep your old tennis racket in the attic, perhaps),
but it is not a real obstacle to the flow of melodramatic feeling: tension,
conflict, apprehension. But a hairball in the throat? On the DVD com-
mentary track, Toles expresses satisfaction that nobody in the produc-
tion process even suggested changing this line, and is clearly particularly
pleased with it. Its effect, of course, is to inject a massive local dose of
silliness into the scene just at the point where it was becoming most ef-
fectively melodramatic. It brings viewers up short, violently derails the
flow of feeling, and is a textbook example of the way that Maddin’s films
display an unappeasable will to inflict damage on their own affective
projects, to punish them almost. The tragic story of family trauma – with
so many awful events in its past, and so many awful events in its future –
must now survive this harpooning. If it succeeds in doing so, its victory
will be heroic, even if it is half-buried in the detritus of its own prepos-

On the road to affect

The next scene I want to examine retraces the same ground – affect and
ridicule, affect attacked by ridicule – in a deeper and more extensive
way. It is the scene where Zenaida persuades Grigorss to apologize to
the Count, and where Grigorss persuades Zenaida to accept Franz back
Careful 109

into the family. Earlier I called this a kind of happy ending, or potential
happy ending. The form it takes is precisely that of a scene of reconcilia-
tion and healing in an old melodrama, full of a billowing affect that rises
in waves from the relief of so much pressure and pain. Its final, lingering
shot is of a static tableau of the three characters posed in a composition
that represents their unification and the satisfying formality of this reso-
lution of long-standing and structural problems. Maddin himself calls at-
tention to the theatricality and the deliberate melodrama of the staging
in his DVD commentary.27 And in what I would call a potent expression
of the central difficult knot of the film’s process, Toles remarks about
the same scene: ‘If the tears were to flow, however self-consciously, for a
few seconds at this point, I would say: it is permitted.’ The basic sense of
this remark is that (1) the scene is genuinely affecting, and (2) the affect
is threatened by self-consciousness and somehow needs permission to
exist at all. Another symptom of the condition is heard in the soundtrack
music at this point. The basic material is a sensuous, minor-key waltz
(think of a kind of Schnitzleresque version of Sibelius’ Valse triste), light
in tone but expressive and capable of carrying some depth of feeling.28
As it rises from an unobtrusive accompaniment to the Grigorss/Zena-
ida interchange to take on a more central and expansive emotional role
when the scene moves to the attic, it is carried by a prominent violin solo
of an overtly expressive nature. But this solo, in itself teetering between
deep feeling and schmaltz, is pushed cruelly in the latter direction by
the soloist’s excruciating uncertainty of intonation and vibrato, and by
the introduction of a satirical quavering wow onto the music track that
envelopes both solo and orchestra. The effect is precisely to self-label
the musical idiom as cheaply tear-jerking and corny, to mock the ‘heart-
felt’ performance whose too naïve and too overt expression of feeling is
deficient in both technique and taste, and also to ridicule by extension
as cheap, tear-jerking, and tasteless the ‘heartfelt’ emotion that is the
purpose and goal of the scene itself. In this context, Toles’ idea that
your tears will be self-conscious and that you will need permission to
shed them comes into sharper focus. The film truly feels the scene, it
truly feels the melodramatic conflict and the upwelling of melodramatic
sentiment, but – and in this it exemplifies the practice of so much of
the film, and so much of Maddin’s output – it also wants to be first in
line to point out the sentimentality, the schmaltziness, the threadbare
and ridiculously obsolete nature of these kinds of feelings, and this kind
of drama. You’d better point out your own shortcomings before any-
one else points them out for you. And in terms of creative imagination
110 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

and the aims of the narrative artwork, the moral of this is: it’s not so
much that reconciliation and happy endings are impossible with this or
any other story and group of characters – it’s the idea of reconciliation
and happy endings that is impossible. For reasons of historical eclipse,
pervasive cultural scepticism, political deconstruction, epistemological
revolution, and every other toxic environmental condition, wholeness
and resolution as non-ironic narrative goals are too deeply suspect to
live. Affect itself is only allowed to live if it wears the obsolete label of
melodrama, is deeply marked by the leprosy sores of its grotesque im-
possibility, and goes about crying ‘unclean!’ by means of hairballs and
wow-quavering music.
And there are many, many other examples of the same phenomenon.
The duel, with its many-buttoned coats and ostrich-feather ceremonial
neck scarves, ludicrous rules of combat, and WWF victory chant, works
in the same way. The scene’s final words (the Count’s expiring ‘I curse
my luck!’) is a parody of obsolete dramatic diction, and the rain of
shot-down geese and their subsequent arrangement by Grigorss into a
neat pattern are not simply surreal but aggressively grotesque. Later,
the insertion of a series of yawns into a tense character dialogue whose
central content is an electrifying allegation of paternal daughter-rape
serves to inject laughs into a scene of melodramatic narrative content
where laughter – and yawning – are the most dramatically inapposite
things imaginable. The ‘justification’ of these yawns is that the altitude
is very high at the point where Klara and Grigorss are riding a gondola
across a mountain gorge, and that because of the lack of oxygen ‘you
may find yourself gasping for breath.’ None of the other high-altitude
scenes exhibit the same condition, but of course the script’s explana-
tion is transparently improvisational; and in the context of a script that
is constantly broadcasting its own artificiality, this is hardly any kind of
a drawback.

klara: Could you marry me, Grigorss, even if I were not ... chaste?
grigorss: Chaste! My God, did Johann dishonour you [yawn] before
his [yawn] accident?
klara: No. [yawn] His thoughts were [yawn] pure. He used to call
me his golden fleece.
grigorss: Who, then?
klara: [yawning] My father. [luxurious yawn, then assuming a cold, hard
voice] He ravished me in the woods.
grigorss: [agitated and yawning at the same time] I refuse to believe it!
Careful 111

The yawns are a result not of a lack of oxygen but of a lack of belief in
the functionality of such a scene in the absence of absurdist disclaimers.
Then the introduction of goose-grease rubbing to the scene of Grigorss’
collapse at home after the duel, and of a chair labelled ‘Poppa’ into
Klara’s mountain-hideaway secret place, like those yawns, puncture any
straightforward operation of the pathos and drama of the scenes in ques-
tion. In all of these cases the melodramatic, affective base-content of the
scenes needs to survive the mocking interventions, like so many blows
endured in running a gauntlet.
That affect finally does survive, and indeed frees itself almost com-
pletely of absurdist attack, is something of a miracle under the circum-
stances. The scene of reconciliation between Zenaida, Grigorss, and
Franz carries a real emotional power, even though the dog of ridicule
never stops barking throughout it; and in the end we do receive permis-
sion to feel that power. As we gradually come to understand the desola-
tion and waste, and the tragic irony, of the characters’ fates, there is
an accumulating weight of anti-mockery emotional investment, and this
evolution of the action towards a realm of greater recognizability and
sympathy allows melodrama now actually to be itself, and not an obso-
lete form dredged up to be caricatured. As events move swiftly and with
ever more forceful momentum from the duel, to Grigorss’ terrible evic-
tion from the house, to Zenaida’s suicide, to the scheme to kill Herr
Trotta, to the scheme’s dramatic enactment with its Wagnerian conclu-
sion of Klara’s Liebestod,29 the film shuffles off its habit of derision and
emerges at last onto a terrain of almost pure melodrama. Although the
duel scene still has its silly elements of too many buttons and preposter-
ous ritual, there are also many images there that display the undiluted
rhetoric of thrilling Romantic drama. And when it is time for the next
parricide – the murder of Herr Trotta – all mocking elements are ab-
sent. The sublime landscape of mountain peaks, ice, and snow is allowed
to speak directly as the appropriate anthropomorphic setting for grand
and terrifying events. Grigorss pulls with grim determination at the reins
of the sleigh to skid it off the path, raises the gun to fire it into the heav-
ens as Herr Trotta sits frozen with astonishment, then levels the gun to
point directly at the victim (and in one Great Train Robbery shot, directly
at the camera). All these images have now only a pure Romantic rheto-
ric, which is emphasized as they move to strikingly posed tableau shots
where the action is halted so that we can savour the intensely suspended
dramatic moment: true, uninhibited, unashamed blood-and-thunder
melodrama. It is true that the sleigh carrying Klara and her father then
112 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

plummets into the abyss and whirls around in a fashion reminiscent not
so much of The Wizard of Oz (as Maddin suggests on the DVD) as of The
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend in 1905. But, strange to say, this does not detract
from the current of authentic melodramatic feeling. Indeed, their jux-
taposition becomes a kind of expression of how much Careful has been
able to achieve: here is the affect, flowing freely and strongly, and here
is the primitive special effect necessitated by working with a small set, a
few props, and no optical printer. The latter is almost comical, but if we
smile it is with affection, not derision, because Maddin has all his ele-
ments in balance now; he has risen to these emotions without abandon-
ing the fundamental sandbox play-acting and garage-band terms of his
cinema, which now can be seen in a moment like this as, miraculously,
not prohibiting something grand.
The final destination of the movement away from self-consciousness
and mockery and towards a pure affect scraped clean of those barna-
cles – and it is the final destination of the film as a whole – is the scene
of Grigorss’ death. He emerges from under the snow the avalanche has
covered him in to a spectacle of icy Alpine emptiness, stunned by the last
blow of Klara’s suicide. Like Boles after Veronkha’s last wedding in Arch-
angel, Grigorss is left in a condition of absolute loss – of his family and
home, of his love (which he can now doubtless see he never possessed),
of his personal and social goodness. Retrospectively, and without even
analysing it, the viewer too can see what a perfect disaster Grigorss’ life
has been, all its assumptions and projects in ruins, all the participants
dead in terrible ways. He makes his way back to Klara’s cave, and as he
lays himself down in utter spiritual exhaustion, an intertitle is able to
express the pathos of his situation in a way that is a pure replica of silent
film’s ability to explicitly invite affect: ‘Alone in a home meant for lov-
ers.’ The pathos is crystallized then in the single tear that rolls down his
face. The photography in this scene is in a yellowy-green monochrome
(less green than earlier renderings of this space), and heavily fogged
with a lens filter, soft focus, light-leak, or all three. This fogging has the
double effect of creating a kind of warmth which is a wonderful equiva-
lent of the warmth experienced as you freeze to death and of obscuring
almost everything except the blurred outlines of Grigorss’ face in a rep-
resentation of dreamlike fading consciousness. This dreamlike percep-
tual space then becomes the space of the dying man’s hallucination of
his childhood home, with his parents sitting by the fireside in a picture
of domestic contentment and stability, and his mother’s image emerg-
ing to bend over him to comfort and reassure. ‘How did you find me?’
Careful 113

he whispers; and she replies, ‘It’s Mother’s secret.’ The power of this
sequence is great, because of the vast chasm between what the character
wishes for and what we know is actually the case. The sense that every
person of whatever age is in some constitutive way still a child, and still
longing for some originary wholeness and belonging, and that this is
always poignant because we all lose our way and cannot get back home,
and that Grigorss as someone who spectacularly will never be able to do
this is thus an exemplary subject for all of us, are what is at the base of the
deep and strong feeling here. On the DVD, Toles says: ‘It’s always grati-
fying to have a family reconstituted. That comfortable pre-bed scene,
where the mother and father almost wordlessly communicate, and the
mother knowing, as she does in Proust, exactly what to do: go up to little
Marcel’s bed, and tuck him in.’ That Proustian moment is just what is
recaptured in this scene (and later in Maddin’s career, above all in Brand
upon the Brain!, the affective power of an emotionally defeated adult son
revisiting primal family scenes is conjured up again, in a personal and
autobiographical way). But of course the family is not reconstituted, and
the fantasy-reconstitution that Grigorss hallucinates has essential differ-
ences from actuality: Zenaida actually despised the Swan-Feeder, and
there are no siblings present. (A telltale symptom exists in the tiny fact
that although Zenaida is heard speaking, when the Swan-Feeder’s lips
move there is no sound.) You can’t go home again, or if you do it will
be in a fevered death-dream. Once again it is the prospect of loss that
underlies this fantasy of fulfilment. In any case it is a fine death, and a
fine resting point for the film.

From Biedermeier to Byron

According to George Toles, ‘the characters in Careful have struck many

viewers as lacking in internal definition.’30 Of course this is true if you
compare the film to Le Journal d’un curé de campagne, or even an episode
of Friends. Maddin’s and Toles’s form of filmmaking is not a hospitable
environment for verisimilitudinous psychological detail. But the inter-
nal definition of the characters in Careful is far more extensive than it
is in Maddin’s earlier features. This is certainly the case if we use char-
acter development as a criterion of judgment. The three most impor-
tant younger characters – Johann, Grigorss, and Klara – all manifest
rather startling changes in outlook and behaviour, certainly on a scale
different from anything in Archangel, let alone Gimli Hospital. Both Jo-
hann and Grigorss undergo a major transformation from good, hum-
114 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ble, contented, repressed Biedermeier subjects to tortured, fate-hunted

figures of Romantic rebellion, pretty exactly retracing the transforma-
tion of a crucial strand of nineteenth-century European culture under
the pressures of a gnawing realization that existing belief systems were
inadequate or false. Of course this is just the realization that Johann
and Grigorss both experience, the former twisted out of shape by an
absolutely unprocessable incestuous desire, and the latter shocked by
the discovery of his mother’s extracurricular sexuality and the lie of his
parents’ marriage. When the comfortable Tolzbadian world of these
youths is shattered, they move directly to become little avatars of Byron’s
Manfred, suffering and desperate heroes stalking the Alps in a state of
damnation.31 And Maddin stamps them with this Romantic iconogra-
phy. Johann strikes a pose of manly defiance on a mountain ledge in
a monochrome shot of sulphurous yellow, and proclaims his complete
defection from ruling ideology:

klara: Look at that butterfly. How innocent it is. Let us strive for pu-
rity in everything. Even after our wedding.
johann: Purity sickens me. You can be pure for both of us.
klara: Johann!
johann: Klara – suppose that the sounds of angels singing hymns to
our virginal love was in reality a choir from the deepest pit of hell?

The shot itself is so strongly composed, so splendidly rhetorical, that it

would be suitable for framing (though, typically, it is also so overexposed
and vaselined that its outlines have to be peered at). It takes Grigorss
longer to go over the edge, but when he challenges the Count he is al-
ready using Romantic diction. The duel scene and the avalanche scene
are both, as I have said, full of Romantic imagery wherein Grigorss is
prominently posed in archetypal images recalling Romantic theatre and
painting. In the scene of his and Klara’s plotting of her father’s death,
the dialogue is strongly Romantic-melodrama:

klara: One dire thought occurs to me. But it would freeze my blood
to utter it.
grigorss: Speak!
klara: [in a small voice] You could kill my father.
grigorss: Oh Klara!
klara: Or better yet – I could throw myself off a precipice. Then per-
haps father could repent of his crime and life could go on as usual.
Careful 115

German Romanticism: Johann, posed with Byronic defiance and enveloped

in a sulphur-yellow blur so strong that his companion Klara is scarcely visible
(‘You can be pure for both of us’).

grigorss: Why should the victim suffer? We shall have no more talk
of suicide. Do you think your father is capable of repentance?
klara: The hardness of his gaze makes me doubt it. He asked me to
come to his room tonight. He told me ... there would be no more
grigorss: Monstrous! He must be killed. [turns and grasps a stalactite]
A few hours ago I rid this mountain of another villain. I can still
smell his blood on my hands. Soon I can wash these filthy hands in
the blood of your father.

In his DVD commentary, Toles characterizes this dialogue as Melvillian,

but I would rather call it operatic. Grigorss’ last speech in particular,
translated into Italian, would be right at home verbatim in an early Verdi
or other high-Romantic opera libretto. (Grigorss’ last line of this scene
116 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

hardly contradicts the impression: ‘I hear the angel’s trumpet. It is or-

dained.’ If this isn’t opera speaking, it is opera’s theatrical model.) Klara,
meanwhile, has experienced a similar transformation, from typical de-
mure Tolzbad maiden to Electra-like figure of deranged vengeance.
Her transformation starts earlier, and is less marked, but it is certainly
there. Generally speaking, all three characters are empowered by these
transformations, if not in their own lives, then in terms of the power of
the striking, posed images imbued with suppressed violence that they
now present. This is especially true of the brothers, who progress from
butler-school subservience and rote synchronized behaviour to these im-
ages of grand defiance and heroic strength. But Klara too becomes a
more powerful figure when she starts acting out her Electra fantasies,
even though her visual presentation does not rhyme so resonantly with
a cultural bank of images of Romantic heroism. It is true that all three
characters are progressing from one archetype to another, and their de-
velopment does not show the subtlety or detailed particularity of charac-
ters in a nineteenth-century novel; but they are not in a novel, they are in
a nineteenth-century melodrama, and in that context their psychological
make-up is not ‘lacking in internal definition.’

Dialogue and acting

As we have noted, there is a lot more dialogue in Careful than in any

of Maddin’s earlier films. And it is dialogue that is everywhere marked
by Maddin’s, and especially Toles’, unique and bizarre combination of
heightened period diction pushed to the point of exaggeration and the
repeated puncturings of this ‘high’ sphere of speech and thought by
missiles of surreal inappropriateness. Now that there is so much more
speaking, the task of the dialogue becomes a much more ambitious and
difficult one. No longer can the surrealities of particular mots just pop
happily in and out of the film as they largely do in Archangel (a random
example, Philbin’s ‘There’s a dead sparrow on your roof – a good omen
for our marriage’). Instead there is much more plot to carry, much more
character development to unfold. Any of the passages I have quoted in
discussing the film will testify to this condition: the diction is still strange
and stilted, but it is also doing more actual narrative work. Careful treads
a perilous line not only between mockery and melodrama but narrato-
logically between authorial exposition (the titles, the opening lecture)
and a more normative ‘realism’ driven by dialogue – although ‘realism’
is not a word one really wants to use with dialogue like this. In any event
the screenplay is juggling a number of potentially chaotic contending
Careful 117

elements, and it is a tribute to the film that it all actually works. Indeed,
Careful may be Toles’ masterpiece for Maddin to date. It seems to me
more successful as a screenplay than Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, a film
where Tolesian dialogue takes a perhaps even greater role; and although
both Archangel and The Saddest Music in the World show Toles’ stylistic
presence strongly, the former has much less dialogue and the latter con-
tains also the evidence of other creative forces. In Careful the hothouse
collaboration of Maddin and Toles is pure; its subject is absolutely and
inimitably characteristic; and there is a virtuoso balancing of elements
that are very difficult to control.
The whole question of acting and dialogue delivery in Maddin’s cin-
ema is inseparable from the conditions of production of his films, and
from the aesthetic stance and creative philosophy that lie at the base
of all his work. Maddin did not have access to a large pool of polished,
professional actors to put in his films; nor would he necessarily have
known what to do with them if he had had them. The ultra-artificial,
done-on-the-cheap and meant-to-be-seen-as-done-on-the-cheap physical
staging and the ultra-artificial and in some degree caricatured dialogue
all required something stylized in the way of performance. Maddin’s ac-
tors, most of them anyway, perhaps couldn’t play Hamlet very well, still
less Willy Loman. Their limited training and skills were simply a given for
Maddin. But they were the equivalents of his own lack of training and ex-
perience in filmmaking, and the solution to both sets of limitations was
to be found in the amateur-theatricals staging and the flat artificialities
and downright oddness of the stories and the dialogue. Maddin didn’t
need to know how to run a giant soundstage with 35mm film stock, Pan-
avision cameras, elaborate and expensive lighting equipment and set-
ups, and every other aspect of mainstream filmmaking craft, because the
kind of film he wanted to make was so far distant from that model; and
in this context, shooting Careful in a disused Winnipeg grain elevator
with pasteboard mountains is truly the right solution in every possible
dimension for him. Similarly, the fact that his actors may not have had a
virtuoso ability to produce convincingly verisimilitudinous line readings
is really not a problem when Careful’s dialogue is so strange that there
can no longer be any such thing as verisimilitude in its delivery.
Most of the actors that Maddin got may have been drawn from a pool
of personal friends, acquaintances, girlfriends, and random local discov-
eries, but they end up serving him as well as his papier-mâché settings
and props, and in something like the same way. If their tones of voice
are going to be monochromatic, if their line readings are going to be
strangely flat or awkward, if their movements and expressions are going
118 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

to be blank or exaggerated or simple, then those features of perform-

ances are made to work with the film and not against it. Perhaps I should
rephrase that. We don’t know what the histrionic capabilities of Maddin’s
actors are, but there is a sense that even if they didn’t innately possess the
stylized characteristics I just described, Maddin would need to fabricate
them out of actorly skill, because he gets exactly the performances that
suit his cinema. In the case of some of his regular actors in these earlier
films, the match is so good that Maddin has never surpassed them in sub-
sequent films with more famous and/or experienced performers. Kyle
McCulloch is truly a star in the Maddin universe, and his performances
may be properly recognized as just as virtuosic and emotionally effective
within the flatly stylized, surreal, quasi-expressionist, quasi-satirical world
of Maddin’s films as any mainstream actor’s within a mainstream con-
text. Not so much in Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but in Archangel and
Careful his performances end up being not only meticulously crafted
and flexible, but emotionally big and genuinely moving. Other Maddin
performers, by craft or luck, are equally well suited to the roles they ap-
pear in. Victor Cowie, Sarah Neville, Michael Gottli, and Brent Neale are
all actors without much of a screen life outside Maddin’s films, but who
make really substantial contributions within it. When Brent Neale, not
necessarily a conventionally armed actor, utters the lines ‘Purity sickens
me. You can be pure for both of us,’ he sounds like the oracular phoney
Criswell in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, but this stentorian mono-
tone slots perfectly into his desolate new psychological landscape. Even
Michael O’Sullivan, whose line readings (despite his soft Irish lilt) can be
rather featureless, becomes a substantial tool in the director’s hands. As
Maddin’s career picked up more steam, new opportunities or pressures
began resulting in the appearance in his films of actors of a different
kind. Even Careful features two examples, Gosia Dobrowolska and Paul
Cox. They are both excellent, and their imported Polish and Australian
accents respectively just add a headier flavour to the delightfully chaotic
cultural brew. But Careful represents something of a last hurrah for Mad-
din’s initial repertory company (though Victor Cowie returns for a final
fling in Cowards Bend the Knee), and it is proper, I think, to render it some
kind of salute for its more or less complete success in doing exactly what
it needed to do.


Once more, by virtue of its historical setting and its paraphrase of earlier
cultural models of narrative and diction and cinematic approach, Careful
Careful 119

is a knot woven of different strands of influence and inspiration. Trying

to unpick this knot, to sort out and tabulate the different cinematic and
other cultural models lying behind the film, can be a bewildering task.
Just in the DVD scene-by-scene commentary, Maddin and Toles make
reference to an extensive and wildly variegated smorgasbord of fore-
bears: among writers Melville, Ruskin, Robert Walser, Camille Paglia,
Kafka, Proust, and among additional literary works Hamlet and Howard
Pyle’s 1888 children’s book Otto of the Silver Hand; among filmmakers
Riefenstahl, Sternberg (The Blue Angel, The Scarlet Empress), Stroheim,
Max Ophuls, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, René Clement, Buñuel (Land with-
out Bread), James Whale, David O. Selznick, Jean Renoir, René Clair (Le
Million), and among additional films The King of Jazz, Glorifying the Ameri-
can Girl, A Woman’s Face, Rear Window, The Wizard of Oz, and I Am a Fugitive
from a Chain Gang; among actors Conrad Veidt, Joan Crawford, and Lon
Chaney Jr; and among composers Wagner and Bernard Herrmann. In
addition to this list and the cultural overtones I have already mentioned,
I would say that the example of Murnau’s Sunrise is very close to a few of
the shots – notably those involving the moon – and Careful ’s shots of the
village of Tolzbad, tiny in a cradle of papier-mâché mountains, seem to
echo both Sunrise and Murnau’s Faust, with its master shot of a gigantic
Mephistopheles looking down on the town. But truthfully, identifying
all the paraphrases, remodellings, and echoes would be an endless and
uncertain task.
Two, however, deserve at least some comment. The first is the already
mentioned origin of the film in a preconception of the genre of Ger-
man Bergfilme (mountain films) – and in the DVD commentary the dir-
ector again mentions ‘the Riefenstahl mountain pictures’ as a model.
Riefenstahl recurs throughout Maddin’s many commentaries and con-
versations on his film enthusiasms. The mountain films for which she
is generally well known, and which made her famous as an actress in
Germany in the late 1920s, were not directed by her anyway, but written
and directed by the mountain enthusiast and documentarist Dr Arnold
Fanck. His three mountain films starring Riefenstahl are Der heilige Berg
(The Holy Mountain, 1926), Die weisse Hölle von Piz Palü (The White Hell
of Pitz Palu, 1929, co-directed by G.W. Pabst), and Stürm über dem Mont
Blanc (Storm Over Mont Blanc, 1930), and there is a related Arctic adven-
ture film with Riefenstahl, but without mountains, S.O.S. Eisberg (S.O.S.
Iceberg, 1933). None of them has much of a social dimension, and the
plots of all, insofar as they deviate from the strict requirements of scal-
ing that rock face, negotiating that crevasse, or surviving that blizzard,
are of a mild and sentimental cast. I see more similarities to Erich von
120 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Stroheim’s Blind Husbands (1919), which has a grand mountain finale

ending in a duel and the spectacular death of one of the characters,
and for the remainder of the film a hysterical potential-adultery melo-
drama featuring a sexual predator played by Stroheim himself, ‘the
man you love to hate.’ Maddin doesn’t specify it as a model, but he is
great Stroheim enthusiast, and perhaps he simply neglected to mention
There are two films directed by Riefenstahl that are somewhat echoed
in Careful. Das blaue Licht (The Blue Light, 1932), Riefenstahl’s first film as
a director, is about a girl living by herself in the mountains who is held
to be strange and perhaps dangerous by the narrow-minded villagers
living in the valley. Das blaue Licht, unlike the Fanck films, is certainly
crazily Romantic enough to be related to Careful. It was available only in
ultra-execrable videotape versions until a relatively recent German DVD
issue. Maddin might indeed have come across it in that ‘degraded’ form,
however, and if so perhaps one can find echoes of it in Gerda the Wild
Mountain-Top Girl solitarily chained to a crag, and especially in Klara’s
‘secret mountain hideaway.’ The other relevant Riefenstahl film is her
last feature film, Tiefland, which again has a solitary person living in the
mountains, a shepherd whose pure soul and natural solitude have heroic
qualities, while the dwellers in the ‘Tiefland,’ or lowland, are riddled
with compromise and corruption. And, as already noted, Maddin drew
on the climactic knife-fight between the shepherd and the wicked Mar-
quis for his own staging of the Grigorss/Count duel. In Tiefland there are
some mountain-scapes that are not too far away from some of the scenes
in Careful (especially anything with goats or lambs), and the fight to the
death between a commoner and an all-powerful local aristocrat is a strik-
ing resemblance. But in fact none of these resemblances except the last
is very strong or particular. It is rather as if Maddin were influenced by
the idea of Leni Riefenstahl mountain films, rather than by the films
A more complex case is presented by Careful’s relation to Herman
Melville’s novel Pierre: or the Ambiguities (1852). This connection is em-
phasized by George Toles:

One major style for the dialogue style in Careful is Herman Melville’s in-
cest-novel Pierre, written a year after Moby-Dick. And obviously a movie that
looked like this could not have conventional Masterpiece Theater period dia-
logue, and I wanted something that had its own kind of strange coloration
to it. But what Melville’s dialogue has, in addition to having parody – on
Careful 121

one level he’s sending up conventions of domestic fiction, but at the same
time there is an authentic hysteria in the book that the parody and the sen-
timent never effaces. And to get something of that mixed in with the other
stuff was still an ongoing hope with the writing. So you would have, yes,
laughter and mischief, but never just that.32

Pierre has exerted an abiding fascination for Toles ever since his days as
a graduate student,33 and its influence on his writing for Maddin may
be seen not only in Careful but, arguably, in aspects of dramatic pres-
entation and dialogue style in many of his other collaborations with
the filmmaker as well. Perhaps, then, it will be worthwhile to look a
little more closely at it. Pierre was a resounding failure in its own day
(one review called it ‘perhaps the craziest fiction extant’),34 and it is
certainly not entirely well regarded today (a colleague of mine in Amer-
ican literature describes it simply as ‘a mess’). It is the story of Pierre
Glendinning, a young man of intelligence, good social position, and
high moral character, who discovers he has an impoverished half-sister,
Isabel, whom his sainted and deceased father had adulterously engen-
dered unbeknownst to Pierre’s mother. In order to spare his mother
the pain of discovering this stain on her husband’s virtue, Pierre breaks
off his engagement with the blameless Lucy Tartan, and pretends to
have married Isabel so that they can live under the same roof and he
can be her brother, protector, and best friend. Pierre’s mother reacts
to this by ejecting him from the family home, disinheriting him, and
dying of frustration and grief. Lucy follows Pierre to the city and begs
to be allowed to be near him, notwithstanding his apparent marriage
to another woman; her brother and Pierre’s cousin seek to revenge her
dishonour and stalk Pierre until he shoots one of them dead in the
street with a pistol. Pierre is imprisoned, Lucy dies of shock, and Pierre
and Isabel commit suicide with poison.
The novel’s ostensible purpose is to represent the difficulties and con-
tradictions of trying to live virtuously and morally: Pierre’s actions are
consciously motivated by moral idealism, and the result of these idealis-
tic actions is extravagant catastrophe. But Pierre is also, though of course
not overtly, what Toles describes simply as ‘Melville’s incest-novel.’ The
hero’s relation with his mother is conducted with much flirtation, elabo-
rate loverlike attentions and endearments, and an effacement of their
age difference (they call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’). And his rela-
tion with Isabel is always imbued with sexual attraction on both sides, a
thing that is never expressed or allowed to be understood clearly by the
122 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

characters, but which can hardly be missed by readers willing to dig one
millimetre beneath the surface of the narrative. But perhaps the most
startling aspect of all is the novel’s style: hyperbolic, Teutonic, archaic,
extravagant to a hair-raising degree. Here is one rather mild example of
the typical authorial narrating voice:

That the starry vault shall surcharge the heart with all rapturous marvelings,
is only because we ourselves are greater miracles, and superber trophies
than all the stars in universal space. Wonder interlocks with wonder; and
then the confounding feeling comes. No cause have we to fancy, that a
horse, a dog, a fowl, ever stand transfixed beneath yon skyey load of majesty.
But our soul’s arches underfit into its; and so, prevent the upper arch from
falling on us with unsustainable inscrutableness.35

(It is not surprising that one contemporary review accused Melville of

imitating Carlyle.36) Even more jaw-dropping is the dialogue, as in this
typical exchange between Pierre and Isabel:

‘Speak not to me yet awhile, if that seemeth best to thee, if that only is pos-
sible to thee. This thy clasping hand, my sister, this is now thy tongue to me.’
‘I know not where to begin to speak to thee, Pierre; and yet my soul
o’erbrims in me.’
‘From my heart’s depths, I love and reverence thee; and feel for thee, back-
ward and forward, through all eternity!’
‘Oh, Pierre, can’st thou not cure in me this dreaminess, this bewildering-
ness I feel? My poor head swims and swims and will not pause. My life can
not last long thus; I am too full without discharge. Conjure tears for me,
Pierre; that my heart may not break with the present feeling, – more death-
like to me than all my grief gone by!’
‘Ye thirst-slaking evening skies, ye hilly dews and mists, distil your mois-
ture here! The bolt hath passed; why comes not the following shower? –
Make her to weep!’37

Four-hundred-odd pages of this kind of thing is enough to drive a reader

to desperation. As Toles notes, the novel is sometimes characterized as a
parody, but in truth such a description does not at all encompass the cornu-
copia of strangenesses that is Pierre, and in particular its ill-assimilated
aspects of tortured intensity. Toles is surely right in calling its hyperbo-
les a mask for something very disturbing beneath, in effect a form of
Careful 123

To what degree does this array of qualities have some kind of equiva-
lent in Careful apart from its dialogue style? The novel’s framework of
impossible moral idealism may perhaps be echoed in the entrenched
regime of impossible caution in Tolzbad, and perhaps Pierre’s progress
from paragon to outcast, murderer, and suicide is echoed in the some-
what parallel journeys of Johann and Grigorss. (This, indeed, seems very
close to Toles’ earlier-cited description of how the collapse of a simple
belief system can leave its inhabitants catastrophically stranded.) But the
incest connection is probably what Toles had in mind, and in particular
the relation between incestuous desire that is repressed by taboo and re-
emerges as something twisted and violent, with the sign of that condi-
tion being its expression in hyperbolic and strangely false diction. Toles
describes the dialogue as having a parodic quality – but in Careful, what
is being parodied? It is the same question that one so often encounters
with respect to the caricatured treatment of the risen-from-the-dead set-
tings and societies in Maddin’s films. Is it a parody, then, of Melville? Or
of whatever Melville was parodying? In any event it cannot have the same
effect as Pierre’s parody, since Melville’s targets were alive and well at the
time of the novel’s writing. Still, the Byronic dialogue given to Johann in
his last phase, or to Grigorss and Klara in theirs, becomes readable as an
echo of Melville. By extension the whole verbal world of the screenplay is
a kind of atmospheric rendering of the novel’s hysterical condition as a
byproduct of repression, or of some hysterical response to psychological
danger. As in Pierre, the authorial voice manifests the condition as much
as the dramatis personae do, and I would argue from this fact that Care-
ful is itself attempting to suppress a psychological – or in this case artistic
– conflict. In this model, what is somehow dangerous is a forthright ex-
pression of the feeling that is inherent in the melodrama of the story and
characters; and the grotesqueness and hyperbole of the diction (voice-
over and dialogue alike) becomes then a way of masking or fighting off
that feeling. This interpretation does, of course, overlap with the one I
have been advancing of the film throughout this chapter. I will add that
after reading Pierre in the light of its importance to George Toles, I am,
as I was suggesting earlier, tempted to see its stylistic hypertrophies and
dizzy oscillations reflected in much of his work for Maddin: the mock so-
lemnity and inflated formal diction, the absurd idealism, the vertiginous
clashes of tone, and the underlying outlines of emotional tragedy. That
is a picture to be found not only in Careful but in Archangel, in aspects of
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and even in some details of The Saddest Music in
the World.
124 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Colour and music

Careful is Maddin’s first colour film, and it also embodies his most ambi-
tious and best use of colour. He was pressured by his producer and dis-
tributor into using colour, and at first didn’t like the idea at all:

But watching this almost anonymous little picture, Paul Whiteman’s King
of Jazz – just a primitive two-strip Technicolor – gave me the courage to
proceed. And I thought that by limiting the palette to pretty much two
colours at a time – sometimes even two-strip Technicolor can mysteriously
produce a third colour – and then cautiously retreating into one colour at a
time (such as the opening sequence, this sort of sepia-tobacco colour) that
I could approximate something that was antique, but something that felt
refreshingly different, and therefore modern.38

In other words, what reconciled Maddin to the idea of using colour was
the insight that he could make colour photography as stylized and ‘de-
graded’ as black and white. In many of its scenes, Careful does recap-
ture that pale, pastel, eggshell-fragile two-colour quality. The effect is
achieved not, of course, with actual two-strip film stock, but through re-
striction of the design palette, often via an aggressively stylized painting
of sets and props.39 In this respect, although the film does rather recall
The King of Jazz and other two-colour films from the 1920s, the effect is
quite different. The King of Jazz is largely a musical, and therefore has de-
sign licence to be overtly stylized and fantastic in its set and costume de-
sign. But Careful is not a musical, even though it does import the whimsy
and fantasy reserved in Hollywood for musical production numbers into
its ordinary expository and narrative proceedings. With its vast quantities
of chalky cornflower blues and mid-yellows attached to set and costume
design that is itself very stylized, the film produces effects that are in-
tensely mannered and decorative. The use of soft focus and occasional
overexposure to blur edges and shapes creates a kind of bath of gentle
and insubstantial colour in these scenes.
But this two-colour (or, properly, restricted full-colour) scheme is not
used throughout the film. In many important scenes, the film is in fact
monochrome – black and white footage tinted a single colour. Often, in
fact, these mono-colour shots are more vibrant and strongly colourful
than the ‘two-colour’ shots, because the single colours employed can be
very vivid ones. Herr Trotta’s opening lecture is done in a rich cinna-
mon-red monochrome, Johann’s mountain-ledge scene with Klara is (as
Careful 125

we have noted) a sulphurous yellow, and Klara’s cave is emerald green.

As the events of the film move to their climax, the film moves from gen-
tle two-colour effects to broader, and stronger, monochrome ones. The
duel scenes, and the murder of Herr Trotta, take place in cyan blue,
and Grigorss’ death scene in Klara’s cave has a single green-yellow tinge.
This shift from multi-colour to mono-colour is not haphazard. It follows,
broadly, the heightening of the drama, so that as the film becomes more
seriously melodramatic it reverts to the cinematographic language which
is, for Maddin, the home of this kind of feeling: black and white, or
tinted black and white. The film’s drive to seriousness is also a drive to
monochrome. And if the full-colour sequences have prettiness, charm,
and invention, the later monochrome sequences have, simply, power.
Careful is Maddin’s first film with a specially composed musical score.
The ‘found footage’ aspect of the music for Maddin’s earlier films – and
of Cowards Bend the Knee, which is an extremely effective later example of
the practice – is so perfectly suited to the filmmaker’s creative set that it
is difficult for any mere contemporary movie composer to rise to its level.
I confess I was initially somewhat sceptical of John McCulloch’s score,
simply because of that fact. The combination of a traditional Romantic
musical idiom (certainly what is required) with a small band of instru-
mentalists at first seemed to me too thin for the rich soup of emotions
needing expression. But I have come around completely on this ques-
tion. The small orchestra, augmented by a not very numerous chorus
for a couple of effects, now seems an excellent correlative to the Mad-
dinian ‘inadequacies’ of the physical production. To hear the opening
Romantic fanfare of French horns, an upward-striving motif expressive
of optimism and idealism, followed by the shivering downward glissando
of a female choir, which is a kind of parody of a lamenting wail, is to have
the whole trajectory of the film wittily encompassed in two bars. From
this opening flourish to the end, the score walks the narrow line between
sickliness and parody on the one side and true emotional expressiveness
on the other – again in a fashion completely parallel to that of the film
as a whole. At times, as with the melancholy waltz accompanying the ‘rec-
onciliation’ scene, the quality is very high. In the end, the film’s encoun-
ter with a composed score is as successful as its encounter with colour.

Careful is as virtuosic a juggling of heterogeneous elements as anything

Maddin has ever done (and that is saying something). Its incorporation
of more plot and more dialogue, and colour, and music, represents
certainly a development for the director – if not necessarily the clear
126 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

progress towards a less strange cinema that so many people around him
were urging on him. As I said at the beginning of this chapter, Careful
may be more like a normal movie than anything of Maddin’s, but it’s not
very normal. Its ability to give a thorough workout to issues such as incest
and Oedipal/Electral conflicts is rather impressive, given the strong ‘toy’
or parodistic aspects of its narrative environment (and one must not for-
get to credit George Toles strongly here). The Alpine setting is as de-
lightfully cheap-theatrical as the Russian Arctic in Archangel. Many of the
inspirations here, such as the Nibelung-like mine staffed with nubile girls
in their underwear and candle-headdresses swinging picks or the violent
gyrations of the Swan-Feeder’s ghost as reflected in a piece of agitated
Plexiglass (to name two examples of many) are as delicious as anything
in Maddin’s cinema. But, as ever with Maddin’s best work, the most im-
pressive thing is the ability to create – slowly, painfully, against great odds
– a place for feeling in the minefield of mockery and disbelief.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997)

Of all Maddin’s features Twilight proved the most troublesome to its direc-
tor, and it remains the least satisfying of his features because Maddin’s lack
of control over everything from casting and film stock to, finally, the lead
actor’s line readings makes it clear how much Maddin’s art depends on his
artisanal, rather than merely auteurist, approach to movie-making.
– Brenda Austin-Smith1

Paradoxically, it was the greater volume of visual information with the high-
definition formats – VistaVision, CinemaScope, Todd AO – that eventually
forced filmmakers out of the studios and into real-world locations. If loca-
tion photography meant better-looking backgrounds than the painted flats
or rear-projection screens of the studios, it also meant that filmmakers had
to curtail their creative urges in the face of unmalleable reality.
– Dave Kehr2

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs brings many things that are quite new to Mad-
din’s cinema. The script was George Toles’ take on Knut Hamsun’s Pan
as filtered through the sensibility of Melville’s Pierre, and Maddin trans-
ferred the Arctic Scandinavian setting into a Symbolist world of perpetual
light. On the production side the presence of a major distributor (Alli-
ance) made for great differences of organization and approach, not to
mention a budget of approximately $1.5 million. An Alliance-designated
producer (Ritchard Findlay) brought a regime very different from that
of Maddin’s previous producer, Greg Klimkiw, who was a fellow-Winni-
pegger and personal friend. The distributor also strongly encouraged
the use of the 35mm film format, Dolby stereo, and full colour – not the
very strange ultra-stylized 16mm two-colour-reverting-to-monochrome of
128 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Careful. Shooting took place over a surprisingly short twenty-day sched-

ule in the disused Vulcan Iron Works, ‘cradle of the 1919 General Strike’
in Winnipeg, and the finished films came in at 92 minutes.3 For the first
time, Maddin has a cast full of recognizable or semi-recognizable fig-
ures: Shelley Duvall, Alice Krige, Pascale Bussières, Frank Gorshin, R.H.
Thomson. On the script side, the contribution of George Toles is larger
than ever. Uniquely in his collaboration with Maddin to date, Toles here
receives sole screenplay credit, and rarely has a picture been more com-
prehensively ‘written’ than this one. Each of Maddin’s films since The
Dead Father had had a little more dialogue than the last without ever
reaching anything very close to a ‘normal’ level. Now Twilight of the Ice
Nymphs, foregoing its predecessors’ intertitles and voice-over narrations
and early-sound stretches of silence, fills many scenes with extended,
highly articulated speech by the characters and makes a leap all the way
to ‘talky’ and in a certain sense even past it. Toles’ language is most often
assiduously lyrical or else carefully explanatory, sometimes poetic, per-
ceptibly wanting to say much and suggest more with each line, seeking
just the right phraseology for even the most cursory utterance.
And certain things are, correspondingly, absent or much reduced.
The visual realm of soft focus, light leaks, and all forms of ‘degradation’
is gone, replaced by a forthright and clear-seeing photographic image.
There is certainly a full-blooded visual lyricism in Twilight, but it is of a
different order from what Maddin has offered before: it is not able to
peep out from, or hide behind, the bushes of a half-archaic, half-avant-
garde ‘primitive’ visual regime that is stylized almost to the point of ab-
straction. Rather, it borders on more familiar and less problematic forms
of cinematic beauty. The look of the film is by no means mainstream,
even photographically: the more closely one examines it the more this
is apparent. The settings, costumes, and props are always unusual, and
they very often hearken back to the kind of visual imagination we are
familiar with from Maddin’s earlier films. But their quirkiness now seems
less completely integrated with the whole visual regime, and the forth-
rightness of 35mm and full colour pulls the movie at least in the direc-
tion of the cinematic centre and casts the artifices of screenplay and
design in a different key – one that is itself more forthright and less
scarred with irony. The perverse and wilfully destructive self-mockery in
setting, action, and speech so familiar from Gimli Hospital, Archangel, and
Careful is only sometimes evident, and the dialogue, although certainly
‘unnatural’ enough, is comparatively earnest and striving for effects of
insight or eloquence that in earlier films would have been rigged with
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 129

booby traps designed precisely to sabotage any such effects. ‘Gorgeous’

and ‘ravishing’ are words that have been applied to the film’s look,4 and
there is no doubt that the film contains countless delectable visual mo-
ments, most of them in colour manipulation. But I have some difficulty
always relating the aesthetic of the film’s visual world with the meaning-
world of its script and even more with the wounded, ‘impossible’ creative
world that all of Maddin’s earlier features manifest – the world that is
so amazingly constructed from material poverty, extreme ideological in-
nocence + scoffing disbelief, and a style comprehending preclassical and
radically modernist forms. Compared with these other films, Twilight of
the Ice Nymphs seems almost disconcertingly straightforward, even though
none of its aesthetic philosophies can remotely be characterized in that

The action

The action is set in the land of Mandragora, a fantasy world where the
sun never sets – or at least not for days and days, until it appears at last to
be doing so near the end of the film. Although there is practically noth-
ing in the film to suggest such a thing, it may also be meant to be actually
underground.5 In this land of the midnight sun, with its seas and forests,
we follow the adventures of six interrelated characters (a small cast being
another of the distributor’s requirements for the project). The period is
impossible to determine, although a number of details seem to indicate
it is a quasi-nineteenth century in this fantasy landscape. The newly re-
leased prisoner Peter Glahn (Nigel Whitmey / Ross McMillan)6 returns
home to the ostrich farm run by his sister Amelia (Shelley Duvall), after
having had an almost mystical romantic encounter on board ship with
the beautiful Juliana Kossel (Pascale Bussières). Amelia has a hired man,
Cain Ball (Frank Gorshin), who teases her cruelly about her attraction
to the gentleman scientist Dr Isaac Solti (R.H. Thomson) and thus initi-
ates a serious quarrel about whether she will sell the farm to him, as she
has earlier promised. She is indeed hopelessly in love with this scientist
and medical man, whose interests include mesmerism and the power
of pagan idols, and whose detached, polite, aristocratic manner is laid
over a refined taste for sadistic manipulation. Hunting one day, Peter
encounters the sensual forest-wanderer Zephyr (Alice Krige), married to
a fisherman but strongly attracted to Peter, and also in the first trimester
of a pregnancy. She prays to the stone goddess of Venus in the wood to
‘give me Peter to lie with,’ and makes the statue a gift of her wedding
130 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ring. The two do meet again, and consummate their attraction, even as
Zephyr explains that she is married to another man and Peter says that
he is in love with someone else (Juliana, that is). Dr Solti, too, has been
communing with the statue of Venus, who for his pains had toppled over
and crushed his leg so badly it had to be amputated. A picnic outing
brings the two Glahns together with Solti and his female companion,
whom Peter is astounded to discover is Juliana. A complicated toxic mix
develops of Peter’s violent jealousy, Juliana’s alternating appeasement
and anger, Amelia’s awkward attempts to be an agreeable object for the
Doctor, and Solti’s quiet malicious delight in everybody else’s suffering.
Things come to a head after they return to the Doctor’s palace, where
he mesmerizes Juliana and seems to reveal that he is the author of her
words of intimacy to Peter, and Peter attacks Solti’s artificial leg with his
own walking stick, makes him hop about in a dance, and smashes the
place up before leaping from the balcony. Juliana jumps after him, and
there follows the brief moment of consummation in their affair.
Now the film enters its final stage, where all the relationships and plot
strands are resolved, every one of them negatively. The feud between
Amelia and the rough-speaking Cain Ball progresses through a series of
bizarre campaign strategies before culminating in Amelia’s perception
that Cain Ball is trying to kill her, at which point she seems to capitulate,
gets him drunk, and pounds an eight-inch nail into the top of his head
while he’s unconscious. She is, of course, mad – driven so by a kind
of profound disappointment in life and the derisory prospects for her
romantic aspirations – and spends the rest of the film in a state of mild
catatonia. Zephyr, making a connection with Dr Solti on the basis of
their shared belief in the statue of Venus, reveals (via flashback) that
she lured her husband to his doom by enticing him to jump into a pond
filled with snakes. Peter’s relationship with Juliana revives for a moment,
but then founders irretrievably on the rocks of his jealous paranoia and
the harsh reaction it prompts in Juliana. In an absurdly detailed and hy-
perbolic Grand Invocation, he calls desperately on the trees of the forest
to descend and block out the sins of his tormentors Juliana and Solti;
but all they can manage is a faint droop. Zephyr now tries to retrieve her
ring from the statue – not, obviously, because of any commitment to her
marriage, but as a token of her independence from the goddess – but it
topples over and crushes her to death. Cain Ball, in a death-delirium fol-
lowing the extraction of his head-nail, hallucinates a boat into which the
bedside onlookers pile to deliver what looks like a re-enactment of Wash-
ington Crossing the Delaware, and then expires. Now that everybody
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 131

The ship-of-fools pantomime staged by Dr Solti for Cain Ball’s death-passage.

From left to right: Juliana, Solti, Cain Ball, Amelia, Peter.

who’s going to die is dead, Solti makes off for new territory, and Juliana
goes with him. The penultimate scene depicts the parting of Peter and
Juliana, in which she asks him for a memento, namely, his dog Aesop.
He agrees, but kills the dog before presenting it to her. All that is left is a
brief scene, some time in the indefinite future, showing Peter attending
his still-mad sister in a cave amid snow and winter winds.


As always with Maddin’s films, there are a number of texts or other artis-
tic influences in the background. In the case of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs,
there is one clear foundation for the script in Knut Hamsun’s short
novel Pan (1894) – Toles even says that the film is ‘a loose remake’ of that
book.7 Pan has a contemporary setting, and takes place in northern Nor-
way in a town above the Arctic Circle during the summer months where
132 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the days are very, very long. Its hero, Thomas Glahn, is a former military
officer who lives in a hut in the woods with his dog Aesop and spends
most of his time hunting and ecstatically communing with nature, but
comes down to the town occasionally for parties and other social events.
The main action centres around his relationship with Edvarda, the teen-
aged daughter of a local magnate, and it is a roller-coaster ride of a re-
lationship, with both parties ultrasensitive, uncertain, and changeable,
giving themselves over to passionate devotion or paranoid suspicion and
jealousy, swinging between extravagant tenderness and insulting cruel-
ties. There is a good deal of almost explicit sexual tension amid an af-
fective environment where all kinds of strong emotional impulses are
swirling. It ends in separation, Edvarda’s engagement to an eminent vis-
iting social scientist from Stockholm, and Glahn’s departure from the
place forever. In a highly characteristic touch, and one that better than
anything else embodies the hysteria and violence underlying the narra-
tive’s vortex of feelings, after Glahn has agreed to give Edvarda his dog as
a parting memento, he kills it and delivers its corpse to her.
From the novel, both Glahn’s name and his dog Aesop now attach
themselves to Twilight’s hero (though his given name is now changed
to Peter), and the hero’s gift of two green feathers and then the dead
dog to Juliana is replicated in the screenplay. The other echoes of the
book, and there are many, are less straightforward and range from
the quite different to the barely recognizable. Juliana is obviously the
‘Edvarda’ character, although her air of mystery and exoticism is quite new,
and her extreme youthfulness disguised.8 Dr Solti contains what is left of
Edvarda’s father, her fiancé, and a local doctor who is in love with her
but is always criticizing her (the latter two even walk with a limp, as the ar-
tificial-legged Solti obviously does). But we are now already speaking the
wrong way around: the characters of the film are not very usefully seen
as versions of Hamsun’s characters; rather they merely retain some per-
ceptible traces of aspects of Hamsun’s novel. Solti’s resemblances to the
trio of characters in Pan are far overshadowed by his new characteristics
of somehow sinister scientific knowledge and quasi-magical power, cour-
teous sadism, and devotion to the statue of Venus. Even more tenuous
are Zephyr’s ‘origins’ in Eva, the young married woman who falls in love
with Thomas Glahn, enters a physical relationship with him that serves
mainly to distract him from his failures with Edvarda, and is finally killed
by falling stone. We can say that the all-daylight world of Mandragora is
a version of Hamsun’s northern world of the midnight sun – especially
when we learn that the first draft of the screenplay had a Nordic setting9
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 133

– but there is not much left of Hamsun’s pantheism, and where Pan’s
endless daylight is an ambiguous and two-sided thing, Twilight’s is better
described as simply oppressive. It is certainly the case that Twilight’s gen-
eral atmosphere of place, with its extensive fantasy elements and what
Toles calls its ‘Mediterranean’ feel,10 is far away from the heightened
naturalism of Hamsun’s world. Two of the film’s six characters, Amelia
and Cain Ball, have no equivalent whatever in Pan. One might say, how-
ever, that the film preserves something of the book’s pattern of constant
emotional oscillation and in particular of the hero’s impossible and self-
defeating approach to his love-object and human relations in general.
Meanwhile, some important details of the film spring from different
literary sources. For example, the statue of Venus who kills those who
give her their wedding ring and try to get it back is very close to Prosper
Mérimée’s 1837 story ‘The Venus of Ille,’ and Dr Solti’s manipulations of
a female creature to ensnare the affections of a young man is quite remi-
niscent of Dr Coppélius and his female automaton in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s
famous tale ‘The Sandman’ (1816). Doubtless this does not exhaust the
list of the superbly eclectic Toles’ literary inspirations.
The whole production process, and by extension the creative proc-
ess, for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, differed from those of Maddin’s ear-
lier projects, and one of its features was a less-close collaboration with
George Toles at the different stages of the scriptwriting process, and the
lack of sufficient time to massage the finished script to the accustomed
degree. As Maddin said in 2005: ‘This was the first time I’d actually tried
to adapt a script that was already finished rather than being in there
[at earlier stages] … I liked the script, but I just don’t think I was ca-
pable of adapting yet. (I think I’m better now.) I felt a commitment
to keep the script the way it was and go with it, and there weren’t little
personal things to go on.’11 So in this case, at least to some degree, Mad-
din becomes more of a metteur en scène. And his contributions to staging
are characteristically stylized and strongly marked. The ‘Mediterranean’
setting goes with gravitation towards a late nineteenth-century ‘deca-
dent’ set of cultural models, whether literary or visual. The film’s title,
which Maddin did contribute, was inspired by Pierre Louÿs’ collection of
fables with ancient Greek personae, Twilight of the Nymphs (written be-
tween 1893 and 1898), and on the DVD Maddin mentions also that he
had recently been reading K.-J. Huysmans’ À rebours (1884). In his jour-
nal entries during the run-up to the production, the director describes
his ‘book stack’: ‘Swinburne’s poems; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Savinio’s The
Lives of the Gods; Chateaubriand’s Atala and René; LaForgue’s Moral Tales;
134 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Sachey Sitwell’s Splendours and Miseries; and Beardsley’s Under the Hill.’12
He further reports that his principal visual inspiration was the French
Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826–1898).13 All these writers plus
Moreau add up to quite a lot of Symbolism.14
An application of ornate and decadent Moreau-style imagery – and
for that matter the ultra-refined artifices of Louÿs’ Greek maidens or of
Huysmans’ aesthete-hero Des Esseintes – to a Hamsun-inspired script
was never going to be a natural fit. Of course Maddin’s cinema is full
of unnatural fits that produce something new and wonderful, but when
these heterogeneities are added to the 35mm-colour production base
and the more direct screenplay, the dangers of a certain state of artis-
tic disconnection begin to mount. Many elements of Twilight of the Ice
Nymphs are impressive, and many more are interesting. But its successes,
in my view, often seem to occur in isolation from each other, and the
film as a whole seems to exist in a realm where the left hand may know
what the right hand is doing, but where the two are not working with
complete efficiency to support each other. There are important areas
where the film’s touch is uncertain, and much of that, I think, may be
traced to this sense of different projects going on.
So, although there is much to be said about the look of the film, about
its casting and design, and in general its realization, I would like to begin
a closer analysis by investigating the underlying narrative and character
layout and looking at the film’s thematic content – elements, that is,
principally to be discovered in the script (insofar as the script may be
quarried out of the finished film). I would guess that it is partly owing to
the screenplay’s ‘independent’ creation and partly to its embarkation on
a narrative enterprise that is more literary and three-dimensional than
usual for this partnership that Twilight displays a range of themes, char-
acter types, narrative overtones, and even philosophical viewpoints that
may be clearly seen and talked about in a way that is unprecedented, and
not approached since, in Maddin’s cinema.

Love, love, love

The six characters of the film (or six-and-a-fraction, if you count Zephyr’s
unlucky husband who shows up once in a flashback only long enough to
be murdered) are displayed in a range of interactions that serves almost
as a typology of love relationships – or perhaps we should say of doomed
love relationships, as all of them fail. Indeed, the film proceeds almost
systematically along this road. It begins with the shipboard encounter
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 135

of Peter and Juliana, and Peter’s sudden enchantment represents an at-

tempt to capture in as pure and economical a fashion as possible an
example of instant romantic fascination, strongly marked by its arbitrari-
ness, suddenness, and elements of mystifying allure. No sooner are these
two brought together than they are parted, and now, in as Romantic
a fashion as his first capitulation, Peter must sustain this perfect love
through an indefinite separation, fighting off doubts and temptations.
Then, as the story follows Peter in his return home, it encounters his
sister Amelia, and this gives rise to two more variations of love. First,
there is Amelia’s conventional aspiration to a union with Dr Solti: she
is in love with him from afar, trying to gain his attention and approval
by little gifts and flatteries. As a basically uncultured, unbeautiful, and
unbrilliant person, she recognizes the odds against any success with the
scientist, intellectual, and aristocrat Solti, but she can’t help herself. Her
hopes are buried in abuse and insult by her hired man, the crude Cain
Ball, who dwells particularly on her lack of beauty, and this in turn sets
off a civil war between the two of them which lasts for the entire film and
ends only when Amelia kills him. But what is not so clear is the unspoken
love for Amelia that Cain Ball very likely feels,15 concealed so thoroughly
under multiple levels of crude and cranky aggression that no one can see
it – and this constitutes another of the film’s forms of love. Next comes
the mutual attraction of Peter and Zephyr. This is represented as simple
and immediate physical desire on both sides by two people who have
other commitments – Peter to Juliana, Zephyr to her husband and un-
born baby. It is also connected to Zephyr’s negotiations with the statue
of Venus, to whom she gives her wedding ring in return for the goddess’s
gift of Peter, and to what then becomes a metaphor for human, and
especially sexual, freedom of choice and escape from duty or account-
ability. And last we encounter the mysterious and impenetrable bond
between Juliana and Solti, wherein he routinely subjects her to mesmeric
hypnosis and is to some degree able to control her behaviour – activities
that carry an ambiguous but palpable erotic charge à la Svengali and
Trilby.16 So Juliana speaks words of an intimate nature to Peter that have
been hypnotically planted in her mind by Solti (‘This might have been
the day we first knew we loved each other, and my kissing you now would
not have meant goodbye’), and she says that she wanted Solti for a lover.
It might be noted that in the Eros-worlds adjacent to that of the relation-
ship of Peter with Juliana, there is the presence of some larger, more
mysterious, more powerful influence: the statue of Venus associated with
Zephyr, the uncanny forces of mesmeric manipulation associated with
136 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Solti (and these forces are themselves connected through Solti’s attrac-
tion to and embroilment with the statue).
The dispiriting and often terribly destructive failure of every one of
these forms of love and desire makes the film a kind of meditation on
the inability of humans to cope with their deepest aspirations and feel-
ings. Peter and Juliana represent the window-display instance. Juliana
presents herself to Peter’s view as such a paradigmatic case of the un-
known, intoxicating, romantic object of desire that the impenetrability
of her own feelings and motives – the very aspect of her that ultimately
drives him to distraction – is completely essential to his attraction to her.
It is not much use finding your ultimate True Love if (a) the basis for
your attraction to her is her mysterious quality, and (b) you are unable to
trust her without knowing her innermost thoughts. The fatal flaw in this
model is, thus, laid open to an almost mathematical deconstruction. It
is true that Juliana does seem, not only to Peter but to the viewer, under
some sort of influence that might at least call in question her commit-
ment to him, and it is also true that Peter’s psychology is revealed to be a
profoundly self-defeating one that needs to destroy anything good in his
romantic life as soon as it is born. But these qualities only serve to allow a
more detailed investigation of the pathologies of the hero and a greater
degree of viewer understanding of them, because the film withholds al-
most any ‘fact’ at all about Juliana and does not obscure the essential
representation of the Romantic ideal as inherently impossible.
Amelia and Cain Ball present a very different, and more mundane,
picture. Both of them are people who have gone all the way through to
middle age in a state of fundamental disappointment. Amelia is recog-
nizable as something like a certain spinster-aunt type17 Mandragorized
– a woman shunted off onto a siding far away from what she is not only
supposed to want, but what she actually does want, namely, a fulfilling
love relationship. A relationship that might present itself, with Cain Ball,
is so completely low and lacking in allure that it doesn’t even register.
And whatever Cain Ball’s softer feelings towards Amelia, his abrasive
gruffness, casual insensitivity, and truculently defeated psychological
posture are more than sufficient to torpedo any good outcome to them.
Given that he has been physically castrated by an accident with a chair
nail earlier in life, and that even if Amelia knew about his feelings she
is instinctively looking farther and higher than him, Cain Ball’s love is
more comprehensively impossible and failed even than the film’s very
dismal norm. Altogether, these two miss each other’s signals and defeat
each other’s purposes with such perfect reciprocity that they are as much
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 137

a demonstration of the sad failures of human emotion as Peter and

Juliana are. And in the end they inflict not just psychological pain but
physical damage on each other, as Amelia’s feet get cut up with broken
glass strewn in her bedroom by Cain Ball, and she replies by pounding a
nail through his skull, dousing him in flammable liquid, and immolating
him, and when he has improbably semi-survived these assaults, filling his
mouth with live flies. At last he dies and she goes mad – which indeed she
has already demonstrated herself to be by the extremity of her violent
acts. Notwithstanding its lurid finale, the entire relationship seems, in
its relatively detailed account of escalating petty and spiteful behaviour,
closer to some Zolaesque rural domestic tragedy than anything we are
used to seeing in Maddin.
The pairing of Peter and Zephyr is always circumscribed, above all by
Peter’s devotion to another woman (he tells Zephyr more than once, ‘I’m
in love with another woman’). The way Zephyr’s behaviour is related to
a quest for personal freedom, though, is another matter. If we can judge
from her fate, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs seems to be as pro-repression as
Careful. An early expression of Zephyr’s freedom has been to murder
her husband, and the last one is the demand to the goddess to return
her ring (the statue kills her for her presumption in this demand), and
between those bookends she receives little enough joy from her momen-
tary success with Peter. So there is really not much to be said for personal
freedom here, even if the film is rather impressed by Zephyr’s generally
forceful personality. What is more striking in the context of Maddin’s
cinema as a whole is Zephyr’s combination of commanding sexuality and
moral ruthlessness – the same configuration seen in Careful’s Klara and
Cowards Bend the Knee’s Meta.
Of the relationship between Solti and Juliana it is difficult to say any-
thing concrete. Juliana tells Peter that they have not been lovers, even
though she had wished it. Solti for his part seems sexually fascinated only
with the statue of Venus, who has crushed him, caused the amputation
of his right leg, and in a sense symbolically castrated him (all the men in
Twilight are symbolically or actually castrated to one degree or another).
His clear delight in a quasi-sadistic manipulation of Juliana under mes-
merism seems no different from his delight in tormenting Peter or in
giving Amelia the odd backhanded but very wounding gibe – that is to
say, not particularly sexual, still less romantic – and his ironic remarks
about Juliana’s whims and attitudes of independence have the flavour of
appreciation, especially when she seems quite immune to these darts. But
whatever is going on here, it is not a picture of a workable love relation.
138 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The note that finally resounds from most of these dysfunctional ro-
mantic relations seems, indeed, to resemble the one struck during Solti’s
story of the two sisters whose skulls are sitting on his table, one still
pierced by a large nail (they are the Ice Nymphs of the title, as a Gothic-
lettered label tells us). The antipathy of these two was so great, says Solti,
that not only did it cause one of them to murder the other and be exe-
cuted for it, but even in death their crania remain so averse to each
other that if they are manually turned face to face they will slowly revolve
to their back-to-back configuration (one of them actually bites Amelia
when she puts her fingers too close). Here, the ruling force, in life and
in death, is not love but bad feeling; and the final picture of both the
Peter/Juliana and Amelia/Cain Ball relationships portrays the victory of
negative over positive emotions. (Indeed, Amelia’s nail in Cain Ball’s cra-
nium is an explicit re-enactment from the example of the skulls.) Pain
is always greater than love, and in its detailed and repeated elaboration
of this perspective, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is, as it were, Maddin’s and
Toles’ Ingmar Bergman movie.
A further position on the film’s map of desires and aspirations is the
one articulated by Amelia at some length. After the outing, when the
foursome returns to Solti’s palace, and just before Peter’s jealous out-
burst, attack on Solti, and leap from the balcony, Amelia asks a question
of Dr Solti:

amelia: These skulls make me think of the Last Judgement, when

Jesus resurrects our bodies to heaven. What I wonder is: will the
angels put us all back together again? Like bits of a broken statue?
Will we look as we did when we were young and healthy, before we
were sick or fat or old? Will mother’s face still be covered with can-
cer? Will we have teeth? Will it be easy to recognize our loved ones?
dr solti: And what if, during our lives, we lost an eye, or a leg, or the
cannibals ate us? How much will we get back?! I find it hard to im-
agine that God cares that much about our bodies.
amelia: No? Well, I think he must. I want him to care.
dr solti: Why?
amelia: [serious, in pain] Because. Some of us got cheated on earth.
And there has to be a place where all our bodies have a chance to
be loved.

There is no answer to this from Solti (only a banal ‘time will tell’), but
after the massive distractions of the mesmerization of Juliana, Solti’s hu-
miliation of Peter, and Peter’s physical attack on Solti and the trashing
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 139

of his palace, Amelia is revealed still to be stuck in the same sad place of
desperate longing:

dr solti: None of this is your fault, Amelia. I’m sorry if it means the
end of our friendship. Let me take you home.
amelia: [gasping] No. Our scattered bones will all be knit together,
and the beasts and the birds and the worms will spew up every part
of us they’ve eaten. And not a single hair will be lost, doctor. [em-
phatically, gesturing, face working] Do you know, not a single hair.

In the DVD commentary, Toles remarks that ‘whatever other people’s

take on the possible centre of the movie, that speech is emotionally the
fullest, for me.’ What it articulates is a deeply human but terrible condi-
tion of wanting things that are quite impossible. The next time we see
Amelia, she is on the point of losing her mind, or has lost it already. She
is destroyed not by self-doubt or jealousy or paranoia (as Peter is), or the
desire for freedom without responsibility (as Zephyr is), but by a sadder
and quieter neurosis. It is the idea that everybody should start out with
the same assets in life, a frustrated sense of entitlement that feels it unfair
that she should be ineligible for the Doctor’s attentions by virtue of her
lack of beauty, without any sense that Cain Ball, for instance, might logi-
cally have a similar claim vis-à-vis her.
Amelia’s pain here is touching in a way that no one else’s in the film
is, and does, as Toles asserts, represent a point of real depth in the film.
Indeed it is more than touching. What is touching about it has partly to
do – as in so many Maddin/Toles concoctions – with the innocence of
the speaker, her unaffectedness, her simplicity and purity of emotion.
But the vehemence of her feeling, which is strong to begin with in this
scene and grows to a pitch of great distress, has a power that is rooted in
existential despair, and by that fact climbs into the realm of the tragic.
Her fixation on this insistence that God must right the fundamental injus-
tice of life entirely possesses her here, overriding and ignoring all mere
events (Peter’s torment, most notably), and establishes her mental state
as one that is alarming not only because it shows her teetering on the
edge of pathology but because it expresses a kind of all too recogniz-
able horror at the way life actually is. When, later, Amelia is astonish-
ingly found just whimpering under a pile of leaves at the place of Peter’s
invocation of the forest, the film for a moment achieves a quiet pathos
that is quite surprising – especially coming after the gleeful mania of her
murderous assault on Cain Ball.
And generally the film has this dimension of what we might call a liter-
140 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ary-philosophical realm. The question of those who feel they have been
cheated in life, of those who defeat themselves through disabling inabili-
ties to trust, those who are victimized, and those who are manipulators
– these are all subjects of the film. Peter’s scarred wrists, the repeated
reference to manacles and the scars they leave, are a suggestion, in a
way, that life itself is a prison. This and Zephyr’s determined crusade for
personal freedom are indications that the film is saying that existential
freedom is unattainable, however much it is valued and attempted, and
however much deluded individuals might feel they can simply insist on
it. And it can also be said that at its climax the film – like Archangel and
Careful – reaches for a realm of grand feeling to achieve a climax and seal
to its journey, and tries to become big in affect. Cain Ball’s fevered hal-
lucination, with its ship-of-fools theatrical staging and keening deluded
emotional imperatives, is meant to rhyme with the dramatic, impossible
existential demands of Zephyr. They both end in death and Juliana’s
life’s wish in madness, while the ensuing farewells of Peter and Juliana
represent a final answer to the quest of their relationship that is no less
definitive and no less dark. If the film itself cannot attain this level, the
script at least shows that it is there in intent.
Finally, before we move on to a somewhat different focus, I would
just like to point out that the kind of parsing of characters and themes
and philosophical exposition that we have just been doing would be an
impossible project in any of Maddin’s other films. It is Twilight’s solidity,
seriousness, and straightforwardness, and its overtly poetic and philo-
sophical method, that allow it – just as it is the wildness, extreme styliza-
tion, and incessant climate of absurdity that forbid it in the other films.
In short, it is a demonstration of the differentness of Twilight of the Ice
Nymphs that we can even do this.


The fantasy-place Mandragora is, as its name indicates, a land ruled by

a drowsy opiate or something like it. What makes it different from our
world is an atmosphere that creates strange psychological states. The
clearest example of this is Peter’s propensity to slip unwillingly into a
condition of dreaming or partial sleep, or else simply to black out. He
often rubs his eyes to create a truly waking state where one seems not to
exist, and the film helps us to share this circumstance with double expo-
sures or screens of starry black skies or phosphorescent twinkles. Twice
the film shows Peter aiming his musket, and then, at the moment of the
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 141

trigger’s pull, cuts suddenly to another scene where he is hunting in the

forest. On the first occasion Peter remarks to his dog, ‘Well, Aesop, it
seems I’ve been sleep-hunting again.’ The second occasion is prefaced
by a vivid erotic dream of Peter’s in which Juliana is being impaled and
buried by a hooded executioner. He tries to fire his gun backwards to-
wards the tormentor, but cannot pull the trigger, and so she is pierced
through the heart by a stake; when he does succeed in firing his gun,
there is another abrupt cut away to a hunting scene. He complains of
feeling faint, and once, as he and Zephyr are getting along famously,
he just swoons dead away and wakes up in her bower, where she has car-
ried him. In a gesture remarkably predictive of Cowards Bend the Knee, he
stares repeatedly at his hands as if wondering whether they, and he, are
really there – and right near the end of the film does so one marked, fi-
nal time while lying on his back and leaning off the edge of a pier in the
direction of Juliana’s departing ship. (This upside down and backwards
view of an unreachable Juliana is replicated from Peter’s dream of her
impalement and burial, and is an apt representation of his sense of diso-
rientation and powerlessness regarding his love object.)
In the first scene, the first encounter of Peter and Juliana on ship-
board, the dialogue is half spoken with lip-synch and half as character
voice-over where their mouths do not move, as if it were a purely men-
tal conversation. Since whether a line appears in one state or the other
seems almost arbitrary, the impression created is of a kind of dreamlike
blurring of objective and psychological events. Similarly, later in the film
there are a number of large, strongly marked stretches of parallel mon-
tage where aspects of the story appear in paired harness (the last, climac-
tic example of many features Cain Ball, Amelia, and everyone else in the
hallucinated boat, intercut with Zephyr’s final confrontation with the
statue). In other words the dreamlike condition is not simply something
that pertains to the characters or the depicted world: the film itself seems
to be trying to create a Mandragoran effect on the viewer with these
intertwining and boundary-destroying forms of narration. The prolifera-
tion of unrealistic events, ranging from the supernatural to the highly
unusual, supports the effect, and of course the setting itself is always
working to this end as well. The ever-present oppressive daylight, with its
searchlight glare and its refusal of any place of cool, quiet reflection, is
a principal expression of the emotional stress exerted by this world. (It
is particularly hard on Peter, newly arrived from years in a dark prison
cell.18) This is a place where anything can happen, where insinuating
moods and strong emotions and obscure impulses all seem to swirl in the
142 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

atmosphere, where it is hard to know anything and hard, too, to avoid

succumbing to your feelings. Certain characters – notably Dr Solti but
perhaps also Juliana to a degree – seem to float above this world, to be
able to command it rather than drowning in it, but since we know next
to nothing about the motives and feelings of these two characters, it is
difficult to say that with confidence, either.

Paranoia, hysteria, violence

What all the failures of the projects of desire show is that wherever love
is – at least, wherever it is in this film – there is also distrust, paranoid sus-
picion, and destructive behaviour. In this the film resembles its Hamsun
source, although the film’s exposition of the idea is more systematic and
demonstrative. Peter, the movie’s protagonist, is the clearest and most
exhaustive manifestation of this idea, but Amelia and Cain Ball are not
too far behind. As Juliana tells Peter in the midst of their relationship-
ending fight (which follows directly upon their five-minute actual rela-
tionship), if he cannot trust her words and her actions there is nothing
about her he can trust, for if Dr Solti can manipulate her at his will there
is no possibility of belief. This amounts to a philosophical statement on
the part of the film, and its assertion that people are unwilling to simply
trust – and its observation also that trusting might indeed be unwise –
simply adds weight to its sad conclusions.
But the film has another dimension to attach to this one of melan-
choly failure: a dimension of boiling-over emotion that is expressed in
demented mood surges and ultimately in physical violence. The para-
noia of the hero’s attitude towards the woman he loves, and of his sister’s
towards her hired man, has already been mentioned. The level of pain
these characters suffer, self-inflicted or not, is enough to drive them wild
at moments and to envelop them in a cloud of hysteria. Peter is driven to
such distraction that he shoots himself in the foot with his musket, then
smashes up Solti’s drawing room and attacks him with his own cane, and
finally kills his devoted dog. Amelia, a gentler soul it would seem, per-
petrates a horrifying homicidal attack on Cain Ball that surpasses every
other brutality in the film. There is, moreover, a kind of background
of violence in the narrative. Peter arrives in the film already bearing
permanent scars on his wrists and has a very explicit sadistic-scenario
dream about violence committed against Juliana, Cain Ball has had his
manhood physically torn away, Solti is an amputee, Zephyr murders her
husband, the statue of Venus commits bodily assault and manslaughter,
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 143

Cain Ball with nail in cranium (‘Jesus Christ, woman, I’m a redhead!’)

and there are those skulls of the two sisters. Peter’s wrists and his fixation
on his hands invoke a Hands of Orlac scenario (something that returns
far more explicitly in Cowards Bend the Knee), and he tells Zephyr of how
they want to form themselves into claws, into weapons. Although the
degree of violence is not at all unusual for a Maddin film, the fact that
it is occurring in a more sober and stable narrative environment makes
its effect different. At no point does Twilight of the Ice Nymphs resemble a
cheap horror movie, as practically every Maddin feature film from Tales
from the Gimli Hospital to Brand upon the Brain! is happy to do for at least a
scene or two. Indeed the whole dimension of historical paraphrase or ar-
tistic necrophilia is absent here. Not just cheap horror movies, but most
of Maddin’s other habitual artistic models – notably nineteenth-century
melodrama, silent cinema and other older cinematic avatars, the avant-
garde – are missing. And in this context hysteria and violence somehow
take on a more sober mien as well, even if the film seems not quite to
have a place for that sobriety, or rather seems to want still to conduct
144 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

itself according to the rules of a more madcap narrative environment

even while inhabiting one that is less so.
The same conditions apply to the inclusion of that other dimension of
Maddin/Toles wildness, the domain of the absurd and the silly. Twilight
of the Ice Nymphs has its share of preposterous moments, even if the pro-
portion is lower than in other films. The omnipresence of ostriches – in-
herently ridiculous animals – in so many of the scenes at the farm is one
example, as is the love-couch at Zephyr’s house, littered with stranded
frogs and lobsters when the tide goes out after the literal flood of passion
accompanying her and Peter’s lovemaking.19 There are plenty of silly de-
tails along the way, but Peter’s invocation of nature and Cain Ball’s nail
in the head are probably the most extended and important examples.
Certainly putting a nail into Cain Ball’s head has overtones of the Three
Stooges (if not Tex Avery), and having him exclaim to Amelia, ‘Jesus
Christ, woman, I’m a redhead!’ strikes the authentic Maddin/Toles note
of crude iconoclastic comedy in the face of horror. And yet the film is
constitutionally barred from reaching the slapstick-related level of Jan-
nings’s disembowelment in Archangel or the cheap-and-potent Grand
Guignol of Johann’s self-mutilations in Careful, and all the film’s deaths
and maimings have an inherently greater weight simply because it is now
not so easy to flatten and guy them in the familiar way. Moreover one has
the sense that Twilight is not really benefited in any way by these japes,
that they do not serve the vital function they do in Maddin’s other fea-
tures. One wonders, too, what this film might be like without them.

Castration anxiety

Relations between men and women have always been dangerous in Mad-
din’s cinema, from the necrophilic rape of Tales from the Gimli Hospital
through the multiple homicidal jealousies of Careful and on through
other landscapes of rather extreme male-female violence in Dracula –
Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Cowards Bend the Knee, and The Saddest Music in
the World. Two of the three women characters in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs
are murderers, and if we count the statue of Venus as another female
quasi-character, then the count is three out of four. Zephyr and Amelia
kill men close to them, while the statue assaults another male, Dr Solti.
These homicidal women do not benefit very much from their violent
victories: Zephyr is killed herself, and Amelia becomes catatonic. (In the
Mérimée story ‘The Venus of Ille,’ even the statue is melted down after
it has killed the offending male.20) It’s not that the men are particularly
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 145

guiltless or unwilling to engage in a fight with the other sex; it’s just
that, apart from Solti, they don’t seem to be as good at it. Cain Ball’s
strategy of undoing, in the most destructive way possible, all the unpaid
chores he has done over the past years is a masterpiece of petty revenge,
but Amelia’s response is always more violent, from the ostrich egg she
smashes with a hammer into a sandwich for Cain Ball all the way to the
nail, the immolation, and the flies. Peter too tries to be violent in re-
sponse to his goading by Solti and what he perceives to be his betrayal
by Juliana, but with only minimal effect on others. He simply smashes
up Solti’s furniture and whacks him repeatedly on his false leg (twice, as
he is being maniacally assaulted, the doctor helpfully tells him, ‘Wrong
leg’). As for Solti, his victories in hurting people are only with those he
cares nothing about; with the statue he too must be damaged.
In general, this poor male success with violence is tied into a pattern
that is all too familiar from Maddin’s cinema: male impotence and sym-
bolic castration. In Twilight, Cain Ball’s castration is of course not even
symbolic, and the spectacle of this character ‘nailed at both ends’21 is
one of rather extensive and unrelieved humiliation. But Peter’s shot
foot and Solti’s artificial leg are also very legible in this way, as legible as
Boles’ damaged limb in Archangel. Peter suffers humiliation after humili-
ation at the hands of Solti and (Solti-programmed?) Juliana. As stupidly
self-destructive as his behaviour during his second meeting with Juliana
is, it is abundantly clear that Peter does feel himself choked and drown-
ing in humiliation throughout. Even more striking, perhaps, are some of
the details of his momentary dalliance with Zephyr. First, he faints and
has to be carried by this woman to her dwelling, in a comic reversal of
caveman romance. Then, after she has him installed in her lair and has
stripped him and put him to bed and is drying his clothes, she persuades
him into wearing her purple negligee. ‘What would my hunter look like
dressed in dainties?’ she asks, and he responds, ‘I’ll be your bride.’ A
fine, ridiculous spectacle he makes in this role. They turn then to love-
play, and she tells him of how as a little girl she had become sexually
excited at the spectacle of the mating of a bull to a cow. The bull was
‘a sickly specimen’ and had trouble mounting the cow by itself, until
helped by a young woman who took its member in her hand and guided
it. This narration is taking place while something not totally different is
happening between Zephyr and Peter, and the implication is that Peter,
too, is perhaps a sickly specimen and needs help. Like Zephyr’s later
scene with Solti, this one takes place while she looks into a mirror, with
her male interlocutor behind her – an implication perhaps of the narcis-
146 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

sist or at least determinedly self-pleasing side of her character and her

life-aims. After Zephyr has stated her intention to get her wedding ring
back from the statue, what is a kind of muffled contest for dominance
continues as follows:

zephyr: I control my fate.

peter: That [pregnant] belly of yours says something else.
zephyr: What do you know about it? You can wear my clothes until
doomsday, but it won’t make you any more of a woman. Just less of
a man.

Inserted into this relationship that for Peter is always basically a distrac-
tion from his Grand Romance with the Idea of Juliana there is a strange
and dissonant perspective of conflicted masochistic desire and a poten-
tially humiliating power struggle. It is a perspective seen in different
forms in a number of Maddin’s features, and very explicitly in Cowards
Bend the Knee, where the hero once more possesses a pair of ‘manacled’
hands that are somehow connected to a dominant and sexually aggres-
sive woman. Cowards presents in an overt and articulated way the picture
of a swooning and surrendering male hero who disapproves of his own
desire and finds it demeaning; in Twilight what we see is a fainter shadow
of the same configuration.
Peter’s epic (and endless-seeming) Invocation to Nature,22 pleading
for every detailed variety of tree to ‘descend!’ ends, it is true, with some
signal from Nature that It has heard him, but the expression is a mild,
anti-phallic drooping of branches. During his dream of Juliana and the
executioner, he keeps trying unsuccessfully to pull the trigger, a rather
clear figuration of impotence. And when he finally does pull the trigger,
his victims are himself (his foot), and his faithful dog. This last violent
gesture is the film’s (as it is Hamsun’s novel’s) most pointed and forceful
dramatization of its hero’s emotional pathology: his powerlessness, his
rage, and the ugly and destructive nature of his impulsive actions. In the
end, Peter’s is a comprehensive picture of masculine failure: in love, in
sex, and in violence, and he assumes his place in line with the heroes of
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel, Careful, Cowards Bend the Knee, and
The Saddest Music in the World.

Formal structures

With its mandated basis of six characters, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs has
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 147

every reason to come back again to some of the formal structures that
we have seen Maddin and Toles using in Archangel and Careful. A cluster
of characters are interrelated with each other, like atoms in a molecule,
to form a larger corporate group. The range of types is wide: from the
most ‘primitive’ (Cain Ball) to the most sophisticated (Dr Solti), with
a number of stations in between. And this range encompasses spectra
from the plainest to the most mysterious, from the most artless to the
most manipulative. The narrative unfolds an almost mathematical set of
pairings: Peter with Juliana, Peter with Zephyr, Peter with Amelia; Juliana
with Peter, Juliana with Solti; Zephyr with Peter, Zephyr with the statue;
Amelia with Cain Ball, Amelia with Solti; Solti with Juliana, Solti with the
statue – and so on. A practice of mix-and-match, parallelism, and instruc-
tive contrast among these pairings, and the addition of threesomes or
foursomes to the list of possibilities, gives rise to a kind of abstract play
of different characters and different character-positions. Put all these
things together, and you have the conditions for the kind of quasi-philo-
sophical meditation I referred to earlier, while its basic mechanism is to
create a kind of rondelay of desire and disappointment.
Then on a more ‘micro’ level, there is the reappearance of doubled
or paralleled tropes. Although there is nothing approaching the system-
atic repetitions and revisitations of Archangel, there are the echoings of
shipboard arrival at the beginning and departure at the end, the repeti-
tion of Juliana’s important speech beginning ‘The first time we met,’ the
doubling of Peter’s wrist-manacle scars with Zephyr’s self-imposed sym-
bolic forest-manacles, the deliberate visual paralleling at different times
of Juliana and Zephyr with the statue of Venus. At the same time, this
profusion of symbolic patterns and abstractions, this play of parallels and
echoings, is taking place within a context ruled to some degree by the
magical, the mysterious, and the supernatural. The entire picture is not
completely distant from what we find in, say, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer
Night’s Dream or perhaps a strange later ‘comedy’ such as The Winter’s
Tale, and there is indeed an attempt, I would say, to achieve some ruling
viewpoint of wise detachment of the kind found in the most serious com-
edy. The film’s combination of this rather contemplative position with its
in other ways wholehearted Romanticism, or Symbolism, is very unusual.

Tone and dialogue

Earlier Maddin films clearly signalled the wish to engage in a kind of

heightened diction of language, a parallel to their models of heightened
148 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

visual rhetoric. The early title card invoking Mount Askja in Tales from the
Gimli Hospital, the narration accompanying the Illumination in Archan-
gel, and the many high-flown passages of dialogue in Careful are exam-
ples of this tone of voice. As we have seen, this big, serious, sometimes
stentorian register exists in those earlier films in precarious cohabita-
tion with a perspective of ridicule and anarchic silliness. The situation is
not entirely dissimilar from the one in the Strauss/Hoffmansthal opera
Ariadne auf Naxos, where the sublime and tragic outpourings of the clas-
sical heroine must try to impose themselves in the midst of a troupe of
Italian theatrical entertainers who dance, juggle and sing showy tunes.
In Maddin’s films, the rhetorically pure and noble always has to struggle
mightily to survive and impose itself against scepticism, mischievousness,
and fear of failure, and this strange struggle is one of the central ele-
ments giving his work its distinctive flavour. In Twilight of the Ice Nymphs
the balance is crucially different. There is still a degree of absurdity and
silliness, but, again, it is diminished and never really a ruling element.
In conjunction with the more sober representation of psychology
and philosophy, the language is more overtly, and less self-parodyingly,
poetic – as well as being more extensive altogether. Take, for example,
the first dialogue interchange of the movie, between Peter and Juliana
on the ship bringing them to Mandragora. Here is an extended sample:

juliana: Mandragora. There is no night there now. Daylight shouts in

your ear. Did night-time hold you down by the wrists? Where did
you get those bracelet-scars?
peter: Prison. Prison. Prison ...
juliana: You have the look of a cornered animal, very menacing. Did
you go mad? And what now? Now that you’re free.
peter: Home. To Mandragora.
juliana: Oh.
peter: What, do you know it?
juliana: There is no night there now. It is so strange a place at this
time of year, when the sun never quite leaves the sky. One keeps
dreaming of the darkness, and wondering where it’s hiding.
peter: I love the sounds of the long white nights. When you can hear
the mountains, the forest, and the sea, whispering to each other.
juliana: That’s for quiet people. I’m too restless. I dream of being
lost in a cloud so thick that I could kiss a total stranger without ei-
ther of us seeing each other. That’s what I miss when the sun won’t
go down – being kissed in the dark.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 149

peter: I’ll tell you something strange. See these hands? [holds them
out] In the dark, with chains on, they were my lover’s face. Some-
times I’d hook them to the wall, so my mouth could barely reach
them. Every tender image I could hold onto, I would try and see in
the shape of my hands. And if I so much as breathed on them, they
would tremble, and open for me. [his hands open]
juliana: Are these hands wild or gentle after so much love?
peter: They still have their secrets.
juliana: Perhaps if we meet again I shall dare to kiss one.
peter: Please, don’t laugh at me for asking you this, but am I imagin-
ing you?
juliana: What would be wrong with that?
peter: You seem very young. Have you had many lovers?
juliana: Already you’re trying to tame me?
peter: No.
juliana: [her lips don’t move] It would be horrible, you know. If you let
yourself turn out ordinary.
peter: In prison I kept myself alive by clutching every ordinary mem-
ory for dear life.
juliana: Yes. But aren’t you tired of thinking like a prisoner? How
about thinking like a criminal again?

I want to point out again that there is no dialogue scene anything like
this one (or a dozen others) in any other Maddin film. At times it is quasi-
conversational (‘What, do you know it?’), at times rhapsodic (‘you can
hear the mountains, the forest, and the sea, whispering to each other’),
at times loudly metaphorical (‘Daylight shouts in your ear’), at times
lyrically poetic (‘Are these hands wild or gentle after so much love?’), at
times Romantic in a rather courtly way (‘Perhaps if we meet again I shall
dare to kiss one’), at times extensively explanatory (‘See these hands?’),
at times almost formally clever (‘How about thinking like a criminal
again?’), and throughout rather elaborately, high-stylishly flirtatious.
There just isn’t room for so much verbal substance, or for that much
verbal decoration, in most Maddin films. One can clearly hear the echo
of the Tolesian vocabulary and metaphor cabinet from the other projects
he has contributed to, but this is a unique experience of it in its entire
expanse. And so it goes throughout the film. At times – and I would say
that Amelia’s speech about what ought to happen at the Last Judgment
is a particularly good example – this program allows for a truly striking
moment, a kind of creative achievement that Maddin’s cinema ordinarily
150 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

does not even try for, let alone achieve. But at other times it can have the
effect of dragging the scene under like waterlogged clothing, sitting too
heavily on a frame that is not three-dimensionally solid enough to bear
its weight.

Cast and performance

The casts of Maddin’s feature films of the 1990s indicate the rise of his
reputation. Archangel’s cast (like that of Tales from the Gimli Hospital) was
all local, and mostly personal acquaintances of the director’s. Careful im-
ported Gosia Dobrowolska and Paul Cox from Australia, the former a
fine Polish professional whose film career had been almost entirely con-
fined to Australia and much of it as a leading performer for Cox, and the
latter of course an internationally known filmmaker who made the oc-
casional onscreen appearance. Now for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, almost
the whole cast has some history and profile outside Maddin’s cinema.
The two Americans, Shelley Duvall and Frank Gorshin, are not exactly
big stars, but both are widely recognized and both have had their time
in the sun. Alice Krige’s movie career has been perhaps rather special-
ized in ways that are somewhat puzzling, given her great talents, but she
certainly made a big impression in a couple of parts, and her work in
theatre in Britain has been extensive and impressive. Pascale Bussières
is a star in Quebec, and to a lesser extent in the wider French-speaking
world, though almost unknown to English-speaking audiences. R.H.
Thomson is a highly respected actor from Ontario with a very long list
of Canadian film credits and a lot of distinguished work in theatre. The
hero’s part went to Nigel Whitmey, a young western Canadian actor. But
the producers, and also to an extent Maddin, were seriously unhappy
with his line readings, and in post-dubbing his voice was replaced by that
of Ross McMillan, a Winnipegger who also appears briefly and silently as
Zephyr’s husband Matthew. Whitmey was understandably upset by this
action, and had his name removed from the film.23
The multinational, multi-accented potpourri of performers was some-
thing that Maddin actively sought, moving further along a path he had
already embarked upon in Careful, his model again the uninhibited un-
likelinesses of cast accents in Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress.24 Marrying this
polyglot cast to Toles’ extensive, musical, and ‘decadent’ dialogue was a
kind of experiment, especially for a director who, on his own testimony,
had neither a lot of experience nor a lot of expertise in dialogue direc-
tion. Sometimes the experiment works, but in many instances, I have
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 151

to say, it doesn’t. Take that first Peter/Juliana scene, quoted at length

above. There are a number of problems with this scene, but Bussières’
French-Canadian accent creates an effect of awkwardness rather than
exoticism, and can’t encompass the dreamy intensity the words require,
and McMillan, though his relative blankness is definitely a better fit,
can’t really weave a spell either. Although they both have their moments
later in the film, especially McMillan, the unhappy pattern is not seri-
ously disturbed. The next pair, Duvall and Gorshin, produce an equally
bumpy ride. Duvall’s unaffected, down-home approach is always looking
to be natural and idiomatic in dialogue that is neither. She does rise
beautifully to the climax of her role – and perhaps of the film – in her
‘Last Judgment’ speech, where her simple earnestness is very touching.
Elsewhere she often seems to be doing pretty well at the wrong job. I con-
fess to finding Gorshin’s very presence intolerably grating most of the
time. His performance is abrasive well beyond the demands of the role:
his harsh barking of dialogue itself like a rusty nail screeching over slate,
and his constant vocal fidgeting, facial mugging, and endless pieces of
business irritating in this world that always needs at least some degree of
actorly decorum.
The last two actors, Krige and Thomson, show at last what the poten-
tial of the script is. Krige alone has the sensuous singing vocal tone, the
mysterious intensity, the unerring instinct for pitch and rhythm that are
required. She is never even slightly bothered, let alone thrown off course,
by any of the variety of strangenesses the film throws at her. Crooning
erotically at Peter or dressing him down (or up), making pleas to or de-
mands of the statue, negotiating with Solti or communing with her own
reflection and memories, vigorously plying a shovel – in all situations
she is right at home. Thomson, playing the role of a detached cynic who
however still has some curiosity and existential appetite left, has perhaps
a less unorthodox task to perform than the other actors, but he is quite
splendid, striking exactly the right dry, artificial note with his not quite
100% accent, his fake politeness, and his stance of witty disengagement
and cool didacticism.
Looking at Bussières in some of her close-ups – above all the ones we
get while she is mesmerised – one sees exactly what Maddin found right
about her. There, her loveliness looks incredibly exotic and strange, like
that of a beautiful alien creature, or an unknowable goddess: exactly
right. But as she struggles through dialogue scenes in her sometimes
heavy and difficult to understand Québecois accent, and takes her place
in group shots with rather prosaic effect, she can’t sustain herself on that
152 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Juliana mesmerized by Dr Solti.

plateau, or rather the film can’t sustain her there. Meanwhile Krige is ac-
tually suffering from too much refinement: her cultivated RADA-trained
voice with its educated English accent isn’t exactly right for a fisherman’s
wife, and, when it is set next to Bussières’ more demotic dialect in a prin-
cesslike role, it has the effect of reversing the intended social classes of
the two characters, and unbalancing the movie. Bussières tends to sound
stiff and empty when uttering a difficult but typical line like:

Then it can be our place. And it’s me you’ll have in your thoughts when you
see these white flowers opening at night.

By contrast, Krige sounds perfectly in command with an equally difficult

passage such as:

I look at her and I can hardly pull myself away. I want to stand there for
hours. And it seems my whole life is dissolving the more I stare.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 153

These complications make it hard for the film to do what it is trying to

do in the Peter/Juliana scenes, especially the later ones, while Gorshin’s
crudely lilting delirium in his dying hallucination interferes materially
with the ability of the collective boat-piloting enactment to form a proper
culmination. It is not fair to blame shortcomings in performance entirely
for the film’s lack of success in rising to the Archangel and Careful final
level of climactic feeling, but they are definitely part of the problem.
On the whole one might have cause to regret the passing of what I
think of as the Kyle McCulloch / Sarah Neville / Victor Cowie regime of
actors in Maddin’s cinema – a regime essentially captured in Archangel
and Careful, though present also in Gimli Hospital (where, however, act-
ing doesn’t seem to matter so much). This troupe, which also includes
other members like Michael Gottli, Brent Neale, and Michael O’Sullivan
taking important roles, essentially disappeared from Maddin’s work fol-
lowing Careful, except for one last glorious appearance of Cowie in Cow-
ards Bend the Knee. Their level of professional skill in a different kind of
drama can’t be properly estimated on the basis of their appearance in
Maddin’s work, and one can understand why Telefilm Canada, or Alli-
ance, or anybody else trying to guide Maddin into making a more main-
stream kind of cinema would have preferred anybody with a reputation
outside Winnipeg to any of those actors. How wrong such an impulse was
– and Maddin seems even to have shared it to some degree – is attested
by the way Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is so often unable to reach, no mat-
ter how often the script calls for it, that dream state which is as good a
description as any for Maddin’s filmic world. In retrospect that condition
of ‘delirium,’ called for by Maddin on the set as virtually the only acting
direction he gave (so he reports25), can be recognized as a beneficent
fog enabling the filmmaker’s unique surreal world where every creative
impulse, no matter how superficially impossible and discordant, can
flower. ‘Delirium’ is a necessary suspension that allows anything to hap-
pen. Absurdities and contradictions can arise in that soup of the uncon-
scious, in that lifting off of the requirements of rationality and reality,
that return to a childhood freedom of imagination unshackled by adult
boundaries and definitions. McCulloch’s delivery of Toles’ dialogue is a
demonstration that if you become hypnotized and zombified all things
become possible. It may even be the case that the resulting ridiculous-
ness of everything in the movie is a kind of guarantee of this state of
transportation and divine madness, and a reason, therefore, why Maddin
keeps insisting on it. (For Toles it is perhaps rather different. The state
of topsy-turvydom is, as in his key-text Melville’s Pierre, a harsh evidence
154 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

of the impossibility of everything, the necessity for the Romantic project

to come spectacularly to grief and to leave behind jagged incongruous
shards in evidence of its smash-up.)
In any event one of the enablers of this precious and difficult to achieve
state for Maddin is the universal ‘degradation’ – of image, of sound, in
every aspect of production primitiveness and poverty – a muffling and
quasi-throttling condition which forces/allows the film back into some-
thing like the womb.26 And that crucial condition is warred on by many
aspects of the production set-up of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, including
its cast of well- or at least better-known actors reciting acres of coher-
ent dialogue. Subsequently, of course, Maddin fled back to that womb:
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is a silent film, and so is Cowards Bend
the Knee, while Brand upon the Brain! has narration but no dialogue, and
none of them has anything like a movie star in the cast. (Just to finish
the thought, The Saddest Music in the World represents a fairly successful
compromise, in which most of the imported actors manage to integrate
pretty well into the exotic Maddin/Toles world, rather as Gosia Dobrow-
olska and Paul Cox did in Careful. My Winnipeg, of course, is something

The look


But we have postponed for too long any discussion of what is, in the con-
text of Maddin’s cinema, the film’s most startling feature: its look. Twi-
light represents the first, and so far the last, time that he has ever worked
in 35mm film – the standard format for movies worldwide. All of his
previous films had been shot on the smaller format, 16mm. One might
think that 35mm, with its much greater refinement and solidity, wider
visual range, and bigger scale, would be a bonanza for a filmmaker as
visually grounded as Maddin, and in particular a filmmaker whose visual
rhetoric has so often sought for the full-blooded lyricism of high silent
cinema, and whose avowed masters include such sovereign practitioners
of 35mm cinematography as Murnau, Sternberg, Dreyer, and Ophuls.
How, really, can a film achieve the photographic opulence and ravishing
visual refinement of a Sunrise or a Scarlet Empress without using 35mm?
Yet this one foray into the field, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, was followed
by a reversion to 16mm, then, amazingly, to 8mm (and finally even, in
one short film, to cell phone), in a kind of headlong format shrinkage.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 155

The distributor had certainly expressed a preference for 35mm, and the
debate over 35 versus 16 descended to a subcommittee comprised of
the producer, the cinematographer, and Maddin, where Maddin found
himself outvoted.27 It is perhaps not unlikely that, as reluctant as the
director was to abandon 16mm, he might have felt at least some curios-
ity and even excitement about working in 35, as long as he was going
to be dragged into it. In the end, though, he found that although the
format did pay the expected visual dividends, the complications attend-
ing it were so troublesome as to seriously interfere with his usual creative
To begin with, the 35mm camera is bigger and bulkier than its small-
format cousins, and lighting set-ups are more complicated and slower.
So individual camera set-ups require much more preparation and indi-
vidual shots are more complicated to get, as well as being more expen-
sive all around. More care and time have to go into every shot, the whole
shooting process becomes more ponderous, and risk-taking becomes
more dangerous. Spontaneity and improvisation go out the window, to
be replaced by storyboards and more intensive and irreversible plan-
ning. Equally problematic for Maddin’s practice is the very quality that
everyone likes about 35mm – its resolving power. All other things being
equal, everything in a 35mm shot is more solid, more exact and actual,
than in a smaller format: there is just more information, you get what
you shoot, whether you want it or not. Moreover the director felt that the
apparatus, and the whole tenor of this production’s shift to bigger and
more mainstream means, was going to expose all the weaknesses of his
lack of training. He wrote in his journal during pre-production:

If these people, Telefilm, Alliance, etc., had simply listened to me when

I tried to explain how I took a shortcut to my modest position in the film
world, how I entered the industry through the back door, as a novelty act
without a ticket, how I was quite clever in doing so and owed my very pres-
ence there to peculiar trickery, then these people would not be so quick to
remove all these tricks from my bag: my Vaseline, scratches, monochromes
and tableaux, all my mannered dialogues and feigned magic-lantern in-
nocence. Now they want to make me pass muster at the front door, where I
must check my bag.28

The 35mm format inherently goes against not only Maddin’s ‘garage-
band cinema’ ethic, but also (and this is visible perhaps only in retro-
spect) his whole realm of fantasy-invention. We have seen how, in the
156 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

creation of nineteenth-century Gimli in Tales from the Gimli Hospital, of

1919 Arctic Russia in Archangel, of a Romantic Alpine Neverland in Care-
ful, the primitiveness and ‘inadequacy’ of the physical production were
woven completely into the aesthetic fabric of the films; how the real tri-
umphs of visual lyricism and poetry there were inextricable from the
technical simplicity of their realization; how the cheaper and simpler
visual tools of silent cinema could be remarried to the cultural and aes-
thetic innocence and power of that model; and how the process of bat-
tered and ‘degraded’ visuals could express the pathos of a lost, precious
object. Now, in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, this entire realm is gone, or at
least crucial aspects of it are. No more scratches, blurred focus, hairs in
the projector gate, egregious crackle on the soundtrack; no more irised
and vignetted shots, extensive multiple exposures, intertitles, selective
silence, or part-talkie procedures. And no more papier-mâché sets and
props and costumes showing off their handmadeness in a simultaneous
comedy sketch send-up and heartfelt display of over-innocence in every
dimension. Instead, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs offers a more coherent and
less always-already-compromised effort to produce a fantasy world, and
the 35mm format is a powerful component of that new direction.

Sets, props, costumes

Still, Maddin is intent on producing a world that is 100% imagined –

Mandragora, with its eternal daylight, its forests, lakes, ostrich farms,
tide-houses, palaces, and its odd inhabitants. The budget for Twilight of
the Ice Nymphs was bigger than Maddin was used to, but there is still an
immense distance between the conditions of this film and those of Mad-
din’s models – for example, Murnau’s Sunrise at Fox in 1927 or Stern-
berg’s Scarlet Empress at Paramount in 1934. Murnau could build a whole
village and swamp for one half of his movie, a whole city fairground for
the other, and a whole railway spur just to get one shot; and Sternberg
could fill the Paramount soundstages with gigantic doorways, acres of
mural-painted walls and individually carved statuary, and an entire pal-
ace painted white and decorated with antler bones. Maddin had been
used to paraphrasing effects like these on a super-cheapened scale. With
Twilight, he was moving from the realm of the super-cheap to the realm
of the cheap, and also moving from a heavily fogged and grained-up and
variously ‘degraded’ 16mm to a far more straightforward and revealing
35mm format. To design this film, then, would require not only a new
visual approach but a new strategy for achieving epic effects with sub-
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 157

epic resources. Maddin’s own dissatisfaction with the way things went
on Twilight – discernible particularly in Caelum Vatnsdal’s interview
book Kino Delirium and Noam Gonick’s documentary Guy Maddin: Wait-
ing for Twilight (made during the shooting of the film) – stemmed in
part from this combination of a too-revealing medium (35mm) and a
too-compromised-for-that-medium production design. To Vatnsdal he

I wanted to shoot on 16mm, just like all my other movies. There was a
quaintness in the kind of artifice that the movie needed which wouldn’t
survive the degree of detail revealed in 35mm. And there’s a style of acting
for 16 that would seem out of place on 35. I thought that the money it would
take to shoot in 35mm should have gone into the art department.29

In 2005, he told me:

You’re shooting a 16mm art department in 35mm, and props and back-
drops and sets that are charming under low resolution conditions all of a
sudden become kitschy when they’re seen in sharp focus.

And talking to Vatnsdal about Max Ophuls’ episode-film Le Plaisir

(1952), he mused:

Unbelievable décors. I loved the dance hall set in the first story and wanted
it for the inside of Dr Solti’s palace in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. With all the
cost compromises it turned into something not related at all. It only takes
three compromises or so, and you end up with something like a dog house
with a whistle on the top.30

In the DVD commentary, as he and Toles are discussing the first ship-
board meeting of Peter and Juliana, Maddin remarks that this is a world
‘where people sail around in boats that look like Caramilk bars’ – a refer-
ence to the gold-paper fronting for the ship’s bulkhead seen behind the
two actors. (My own reaction to this scene is, I’m afraid, even more ir-
reverent: with its gold paper and rhinestones and yellow chiffon drapery
and, especially, its gold railing-poles, it reminds me of a strip-club set.)
And there are other instances of design that the filmmaker himself has
expressed some disappointment with.31
And yet the designs are strikingly successful in many areas of the film.
The many forest settings are all very evocative, the sky backdrops offer
158 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

wonderful opportunities for colour design, and the costumes work very
well at least half the time. It is true that Juliana, in her cyan chiffony
short skirts, magenta feather boa, and Second Empire upswept hairdo
with prominent temple-curls and streaks of red, looks rather like Sym-
bolist Barbie (although perhaps the intention was something closer to the
Greek mythological heroines of Louÿs’s Twilight of the Idols). But Zephyr’s
lovely yellows, greens, and ochres are winning, the design stroke of her
and Peter’s Papageno/Papagena leaf costumes is highly successful, and
Solti’s eighteenth-century pigtail and frock coat say exactly what needs to
be said about him. Solti’s palace, despite Maddin’s critique, is a perfectly
workable design, especially when by the strange yellow light coming in
through the windows. Amelia’s elaborate butter-yellow costume for the
outing with Solti is bizarrely pretentious and very ugly, but that is doubt-
less its intention, since it perfectly expresses how her efforts to impress
him will always appear as ridiculous and pathetic. There is no constant
sprinkling of potato-flake snow in Twilight, as there is in Archangel or Care-
ful (and so many of Maddin’s subsequent films), but Maddin achieves the
same effect with numerous flurries of bullrush spores, glowingly back- or
side-lit in the eternal yellow daylight and floating luminously through the
air in a most beautiful way. There are many individual scenes that are
masterfully designed – Peter’s dream of Juliana’s execution, for exam-
ple, or the ridge-top scenes featuring the statue and its suppliants, with
glorious sky backdrops. Even when, as with the aquamarine polythene
love-couch-and-sheets for the coupling of Zephyr and Peter, there is that
sense that the result falls too far short of the opulence that is intended,
the effect is often vivid and interesting.

Colour and lighting

If you look at almost any shot in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs in isolation –
separated, that is, from the characters and story and dialogue, and from
John McCulloch’s musical score32 – the chances are it will create an ar-
resting impression. The colour palette is simply extraordinary. Gustave
Moreau may have been the most conscious model for Maddin, but the
strong, vibrating colours of other Romantic and Symbolist painters, from
Delacroix to Odilon Redon to Maxfield Parrish, come to mind as well.
Such energetic and glowing yellows and greens; such bold accents and
unexpected shades of blues, oranges, magentas, purples, golds; such un-
inhibited, exuberant overtures to the eye. This film looks like no other
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 159

in history, for the models are utterly transformed, and there is (unlike
Maddin’s earlier and later films) no effort to revivify an earlier cinematic
visual tradition, nor are there any modernist or avant-garde gestures in
the cinematography. As a filmic bow to ‘decadent’ nineteenth-century
and fin-de-siècle painters, it draws on those inspirations without calling
specific attention to them. Its experimentation with striking and unu-
sual colour combinations, its picking out of startling hues, seems even to
echo the decadent pains taken by Louÿs’s protagonist in À Rebours to ar-
range his visual environment in a determinedly artificial and completely
ravishing way.
As Peter and Amelia look out over the forest across a verdant barrier,
the sky behind them is light magenta and purple. Peter in his hunter’s
blind is surrounded by vegetation that the sun has turned a vibrant
bright yellow – although the sky is still that light purple colour. The for-
est ridge near the Venus statue is backed by a succession of glorious
sky-scapes that run a wide gamut of colour ranges from pastel blues and
pale yellows to massive organ-stop notes of throbbing purple, orange,
and yellow. Zephyr’s bower brings aquamarine blues and greens, Peter’s
‘invocation’ scene a tree-scape of deep oranges, ochres, and browns,
Zephyr’s murder-flashback is in Expressionist dark blue with a Sunrise-
swamp lavender moon glaring out of the sky, while her final demands of
the statue are drenched in magenta. And so on. These colour strokes are
far removed from the soft and gentle two-colour effects in Careful.
Mandragora’s eternal daylight becomes an invitation to create a range
of bright worlds where the sun is often seen staring in the background
sky, where the light has a pulsating quality that seems actually to create
the hues that are so remarkable. Many shots, too, are playing with the
placement of faces and bodies in light or shadow in a real chiaroscuro
manner whose tone is, again, quite different from that of Maddin’s black
and white films. As the story moves towards its end, the daylight at last be-
gins to fade, and, as with any visual tool whose use has been eschewed for
a whole film, the introduction of darker tones, shadows, and higher con-
trasts on the screen has a big and weighty visual impact. (Incidentally,
the arrival of darkness brings none of the relief from an importunate,
oppressive, inescapable daylight such as the one Maddin and Toles both
describe in the DVD commentary; instead it brings the usual associations
of bad endings and the death of things.) In any event, whatever prob-
lems the film might not have overcome, and whatever disappointments
it might have occasioned for its director, Twilight’s visual world is surely a
160 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

thing of value. But Maddin has even distanced himself to an extent from
this aspect of the film. He remarked to me in 2005:

Don’t get me wrong. Some of it I thought was beautiful looking [...] It

looked pretty and artificial, but in a way that didn’t really matter to me
much. About the only thing anyone ever said nice about the movie repeat-
edly was that it looked very beautiful. That’s when I learned that that’s what
people say when they have nothing else to say about a movie. So I don’t
even consider it a big compliment, really.

It is difficult, though, to think that so much invention in the area of col-

our was achieved without an investment from the filmmaker. The film’s
‘prettiness’ (too tame a word) is emphatically not that of so many pretty,
vapid films, where an all-purpose gorgeous look is just laid on top of the
story. In such cases it is true that to say of a movie that it looks good is no
particular compliment. To say of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs that it looks
beautiful in a way no other film ever has is not quite the same thing.

As I started out by saying, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is something of an

anomaly in Maddin’s output. Production circumstances, creative proce-
dures, experiments were undertaken there that have not been repeated.
Like the pressure to use performers with bigger reputations and the pres-
sure to work on scripts that weren’t so weird, the pressure to use 35mm
and full colour seems to have issued from an institutional desire to get
Maddin to be a regular grown-up filmmaker making regular grown-up
movies instead of a precocious kid playing around in his backyard with
home-made toys and strange, self-indulgent, somehow immature ideas.
It would be normal for a major Canadian distributor like Alliance to
think this way, less reasonable but still sadly familiar for a state body like
Telefilm Canada whose constitutional aim is not particularly to foster a
good Canadian cinema, but simply an economically viable actual one.
It is not too surprising that a producer and a cinematographer (under-
standably eager to get a 35mm film on his resumé) might also think
along these lines. Maddin too is aware that this is probably a sine qua
non for an economically rewarding career, and conceivably even for any
kind of sustained career at all. He is not nested within a gallery and
museum exhibition world, and he does not have a true high-art relation
with the grant-giving bodies, so that a career such as Michael Snow’s is
not really possible no matter how much good press Maddin gets from
the most discerning critics. And of course he is a very poor fit for main-
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs 161

stream venues, and often not that much better for art-house venues. His
films, one cannot repeat this too often, fit no category. He has not closed
the door on 35mm, and he is completely credible when he says that he
learned very much from his experience on Twilight and that in any fu-
ture 35mm production he would not undergo the same kinds of creative
problems he felt on this project. Still, he has moved resolutely in the
opposite direction.
George Toles’ relatively unreconstructed script also fulfils a wish
that I confess I have sometimes had regarding the work he and Mad-
din have done: namely, to forsake the instinctual silliness and the de-
structive irony and scepticism that are so pervasive in most of their work
and go simply for a more rhetorically direct art – an art that will try to
preserve the impulses of lyricism and the grander diction of earlier cul-
tural forms, but without that element of ridicule that acts both as life
preserver and enemy. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs essentially does all that.
The wackiness quotient is considerably down (if hardly gone), and the
scepticism is completely absent. The poetic worlds of a Knut Hamsun
or a Pierre Louÿs, the aesthetic worlds of a Gustave Moreau or a Karl-
Joris Huysmans, are able to exert their influence without being set into
quotation marks or pastiched or presented as impossible. As a result,
the ‘literary’ aspirations of the script especially are more extensive than
anywhere else in Maddin’s oeuvre, and the kinds of subjects it addresses,
and the detail they are addressed in, are deeper, more complex, more
integral. This form, new to Maddin and requiring a certain bravery from
both creators, brought problems that overlapped with those attached to
the 35mm/full-colour machine – namely, a lot more dialogue, a differ-
ent kind of cast, and a need to direct actors in a different way. From this
more literary model, too, Maddin has moved away in subsequent produc-
tion. Except for The Saddest Music in the World (and the ‘documentary’
projects My Dad Is 100 Years Old and My Winnipeg), all of his later films
have gotten rid of dialogue completely, and their general aesthetic set
has moved back into Maddin’s home territory, with its dazzling and tee-
tering dialectic or schizophrenia of detachment and immersion.
Probably there were just too many variables changing at the same time
for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs to be a real artistic success. It has a polish
that far surpasses Tales from the Gimli Hospital or some parts of Archangel.
But the sense persists that things just don’t quite come together in the
film. The script and the directorial imagination seem to be working in
different directions, the 35mm is unhappy with the production design
even as it is achieving new kinds of beauty. The film is fascinating for
162 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the avenues it opens into, for example, what a real George Toles movie
might be like, or what Maddin’s aesthetic might do with a 35mm visual
base. Twilight isn’t entirely the answer to either of those questions, but at
the very least it is an interesting failure.

Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002)

I needed to open up Dracula because when a ballerina needs to tell a boy

ballet dancer that she loves him she needs about the space of a football field
worth of dance floor to say it. And I realized that the sets couldn’t be claus-
trophobic unless I could figure out ways to capture the motion breaking it
up and using smaller pieces and composing them like a David Hockney.
And also even more frightening was the fact that dancers can only dance
about six hours a day [...] so you have to get everything in one or two takes.
Which is fine with me because I like moving quickly. So that was when I
started covering it kind of like a sporting event. With two or three or four
cameras going at once, getting it from a number of angles.
– Guy Maddin1

Maddin’s prize-winning 2000 short The Heart of the World 2 may have been
as exhilarating for him as it was for his viewers. Both the experience of
setting off in new creative directions and the universal enthusiasm that
greeted this jeu probably helped to elevate the director from the trough
he seemed to be in following the less than perfectly happy experience of
making Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. But where his next feature film would
come from was hazy for quite a while. Then there arrived an invitation
from Winnipeg producer Vonnie Von Helmolt to direct a television ver-
sion of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s acclaimed production of Dracula for
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Maddin’s first reaction was
negative, since he had neither a particular love for ballet nor any ex-
perience in bringing stage productions to the screen, but for a variety
of reasons he decided to take it on. And then it turned into a wholly
positive experience for him, and ended up in a production that not
164 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

only succeeded in its original mandate as television arts programming

but actually made the leap to theatrical exhibition. The resulting film,
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, is of all Maddin’s features the one
most without viewer difficulties, buried knots of creative contradiction,
startling heterogeneities of tone and action, and all the other ‘problems’
that have made Maddin’s work such a minority taste. It is nothing like
a normal movie, but then since it is a filmed ballet nobody thinks it is
going to be. And as a filmed ballet, whatever canons of fidelity to the
original staged performance it may be offending against, it utterly avoids
anything static or simply documentary.
The Royal Winnipeg Ballet production dated from 1998, and it had
been a great success for the company both in Winnipeg and on tour. (It
continues to be so – I saw it on tour as recently as the summer of 2007.)
The stage production’s running time of two hours needed to be cut back
into a 75-minute television slot, and there were some additions that Mad-
din wanted to make, so a good deal of the original choreography had to
be omitted or compressed and the scene construction sometimes altered
as well. Choreographer Mark Godden was an integral part of the filming
process, however, and what emerged can justly be called a reimagining
of the stage production for a new medium. The budget was a startlingly
large $1.7 million, though of course the RWB fee was a considerable part
of that. Shooting took place over a twenty-day period, on sets built in ‘an
abandoned mattress factory, a block north of where I shot Archangel.’3
(Every Maddin feature made in Winnipeg has been set in an abandoned
something-or-other – corollary evidence for the city’s apparently endless
economic decline as lamented in My Winnipeg.) After screenings on CBC
television, it won an ‘International Emmy,’ and subsequently played the-
atres in the United States and elsewhere.
Given the degree of creative freedom that Maddin was granted, the
idea seems in retrospect a natural one. For every ballet adaptation is
in effect a silent film with music, and to loose Maddin into a project
that was in this way required to be a silent film, and on a subject dating
from and set in the late nineteenth century more or less at the time of
cinema’s birth, now seems simply inspired. And the sensibility of Bram
Stoker’s novel is rooted in that same fin de siècle as so many of the direc-
tor’s other literary enthusiasms, even if Stoker is essentially trying to ward
off exactly the aspects of the period represented by the more decadent
artists Maddin admires (he states baldly that he hated Stoker’s novel).4
The Dracula subject matter, with its period sexual transgression and vio-
lence, its melodramatic and gothic elements, its hysteria both muffled
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 165

and overt, and its rich possibilities for subtextual mining, could present
itself to the filmmaker as a field already half-ploughed. He did first have
to resist assumptions that the production should be filmed in HDTV
colour, and insisted instead on 16mm (and sometimes even 8mm) black
and white film with silent-film-style whole-frame toning and some hand-
colouring of specific details. The result returns to the image world of
Maddin’s earlier silent film recreations, and also, with the renewed pres-
ence of deco dawson as editor and associate director, carries over some
of the dynamism and montage energy of The Heart of the World. As with
that short film, the response to Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary has
been uniform and very positive.

The ballet

Godden’s ballet, a beautiful and often thrilling piece of work in its own
right, divides the story into two parts. The first concentrates on Lucy
Westenra and her three suitors, her ‘infection’ by Dracula whom she
has in some way welcomed as a sexual visitor, the arrival of the vampire
expert Dr Van Helsing, her quasi-demonic possession, and finally her
death at the hands of the pike-wielding men, and the decapitation of
her corpse by Van Helsing (her severed head is displayed for all to view
as a kind of curtain-tableau at the end of the first act). The second act
then tells the story of Mina Murray, her fiancé Jonathan Harker, and her
attempted seduction by Dracula. The backstory of Harker’s encounter
with Dracula and his three succubi in Transylvania (which forms the be-
ginning of the novel) is reduced to the barest of skeletons, with his diary
and its tales of unholy sexual debauchery the only remaining elements.
Mina’s temporary habitation in a convent, her greater piety (greater,
that is, than Lucy’s), and the intervention of the vampire hunters (Van
Helsing and Lucy’s three suitors), lead to a final scene where Dracula
and the imperilled Mina are tracked to the Count’s sepulchral castle,
and an extended balletic combat ensues, at the conclusion of which
Dracula is defeated and impaled on a pike.
Godden’s scenario has made some obvious changes to Stoker’s origi-
nal story, including the separate presentation of Lucy and Mina each in
a different act (in the novel, they are best friends and interact a good
deal with each other in the first part of the story),5 and the invention
of an extended combat between Dracula and the vampire hunters at
the end. The reading of the story is firmly in the revisionist camp where
Dracula is interpreted not simply as a monstrous fiend, as in Stoker, but
166 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

as a far more ambiguous and even sympathetic figure. This interpreta-

tion has for some years now been so strong that such revisionism is more
the norm than a deviation, and the Dracula legend itself so de-fanged,
as it were, that it is a Halloween favourite in primary-school classrooms
and the Count can appear regularly on Sesame Street. The RWB Dracula
certainly has some sinister characteristics, but he is presented as a power-
fully attractive figure, and in particular as a figuration of female sexual
desire in the context of Victorian male hysteria and repressive need to
control women. So not only is Dracula beautiful, strong, and graceful,
he is also tender and his mastery a kind of mirror of feminine desire.
Meanwhile the suitors, fiancés, and professional experts are alarmed
by the unseemly appetites of the young women, to the point where the
women’s expression of sexual desire is taken for madness and demonic
possession, and they need to be killed. In addition, the anxiety Dracula
provokes is a byproduct of his Otherness in cultural and racial terms.
Stoker’s novel dwells pointedly on Dracula’s origins in an Eastern Eu-
rope that is frighteningly unknown and believed to have access to primi-
tive and irrational forces forgotten by Western Europe, while one of the
principal dancers of the Dracula role – and the one used in Maddin’s
film – was, happily, an Asian man, Wei-Qiang Zhang. The ballet’s presen-
tation of Dracula as a kind of projection of female sexual desire is quite
straightforward and far more articulate than Stoker’s, as is its sympathy
for the liberatory project of a free feminine expression of feeling, while
its critique of a white male social establishment that reacts to this project
with hysteria and oppressive violence lies very close to the surface. It
would not be inaccurate, I think, to call Godden’s Dracula loosely femi-
nist, multicultural, and (using the term in a non-pejorative way) politi-
cally correct.
The music chosen was from Mahler’s First, Second, and Ninth Sym-
phonies, not necessarily whole movements but good long unedited
chunks. It is not a source that would have sprung to just anyone’s mind,
and there is perhaps even something counterintuitive about using Mah-
ler’s often idealistic music in this way. But it was nevertheless a splendid
choice, for other aspects of the music fit extremely well. Its fin-de-siècle
Romanticism is contemporary for the period; its strong dramatic ges-
tures can be adapted often very well to specific theatrical situations; its
extravagant yearning, moods of irony and grotesqueness, and heights
of grandeur reflect illuminatingly on the revisionist story; and even its
lack of classical ballet regular metres is helpful in creating a freer and
more narratively complex style. It hardly comes amiss that the Second
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 167

Symphony, the Resurrection, has an actual poetic text sung by a choir and
deals with metaphysical questions culminating in a grand striving tran-
scendence of death and human limitations, when this Dracula story is
itself gesturing metaphorically at new and transcendent realms of expe-
rience. The end of the ballet coincides with the stupendous finale of the
‘Resurrection’ Symphony (albeit some of its more ethereal parts), and there
is something strange about overlaying the death of Dracula with the res-
urrection of the soul in Mahler – strange, that is, in a context where
Dracula is an agent of freedom. But somehow the ballet manages to sug-
gest simultaneously that the death of Dracula and the triumph of organ-
ized religion (crucifixes and chastity) are textually appropriate for this
music and that, subtextually and more fundamentally, the eternal realm
belongs to Dracula and that it is the principle that he represents that
will be resurrected. The film, in not only cutting overall running time
but also reordering or omitting events and scenes, has to play faster and
looser with Mahler, and Mahler becomes less something on which the
ballet is founded than very high-quality movie music that synchs rather
more roughly to the events than was the case before. But the general ef-
fect is certainly the same.

A silent movie

As the film begins there is a tremendous gust of echt-Maddinism in visual

and auditory presentation. The black and white sea churns darkly while
the soundtrack carries faint sounds of ship’s bells and seagulls. After the
production credits, the first image is an eerie, unexplained shot of a
man’s hand making a circular wiping motion on a wooden wall or door
and creating what looks like a big black grease stain, where the movie’s
title appears. The actor/dancer credits that follow are in the silent film
style that goes back in Maddin all the way to The Dead Father. All these
sequences in Maddin’s films are impressive, but the ones for Dracula are
perhaps the strongest of all. As Mahler’s powerful and evocative music
pours from the soundtrack, each character is introduced in a separate
iris-shot title card. In double exposure, Mina is set against a handwritten
diary page, Harker against a corsage of white blossoms, Lucy against a
candelabra, and Van Helsing counterposed to his large black portman-
teau (full of vampire hunting tools). All of the background shots are
marked with copious rivulets of black blood gliding down the frame or
splashing off the flowers or suitcase behind. Simple, and wonderful. The
sequence concludes with a shot of what must be a bat’s skeleton, stark
168 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

against a black background. The titles continue, now introducing the

story – ‘East Coast of England, 1897’ ‘Lucy Westenra’s Manor & Neigh-
bouring Whitby Lunatic Asylum’ – and an epigraph from the novel:
‘There are bad dreams for those that sleep unwisely.’ It is immediately
apparent from these how economical in narrative terms and expressive
in mood such a method can be. One recalls again how well Maddin un-
derstands these forms in their original context, and how naturally they fit
into a film version of a stage ballet (a form that can use all the narrative
clarification it can get). In another silent film gesture, this time from the
historical avant-garde, there appear a pair of shots of Lucy cut out and
pasted, as it were, on a background of rolling sea waves, her eyes opening
into a startled stare. (On the DVD commentary track, Maddin remarks,
‘Ah, a little Max Ernst collage.’) Then, in an overt thematic exposition,
we see a map of Western Europe with a huge, thick black globule of
blood spreading quickly across it from east to west. A title in large block
capitals shouts, ‘immigrants!!’, and after quick shots of a wooden box
creaking on a ship’s deck, Lucy’s uneasy sleep, and Dracula’s eyes vis-
ible through the cracks in one of the boxes, the map returns with blood
further advanced, and the titles, ‘others!’ ‘from other lands!’ Mad-
din could hardly be more upfront about the cultural subtext of Stoker’s
novel, and the interpretive perspective of his own film. Blood engulfs the
British Isles, then Lucy’s bed in double exposure, as she draws up her
legs to avoid it. Again, the forcefulness and directness of these strokes
are as simple as can be.
We become quickly aware of how appropriate these silent film devices
are (black and white, only musical accompaniment, titles that convey
character and thematic information) in the context of this late-Victo-
rian story. The additional powerful echoes of German Expressionism
and horror cinema of the 1920s and 1930s are perfectly in keeping with
this visual mode. Right from the character introduction screens onward,
the film immediately demonstrates how useful the silent modus is: its
lyricism, its fervour, its easy compass of emotional possibilities and visual
rhetoric wholly suited to the task at hand. Maddin’s Dracula strikes a
mood that seems exactly right, and exactly authentic, powerfully articu-
lating even as it is critiquing the world view and expressive habits of the
period it depicts. Watch five minutes of Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s
Diary and five minutes of Coppola’s lavish spectacle Bram Stoker’s Dracula
(1992) that is trying so extravagantly hard to be faithful to the original,
and the empty ornateness of the latter and what one can only call the
natural procedures of the former, are immediately clear. Maddin, with
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 169

The silent era credit title for Dr Van Helsing. Thick black blood drips juicily
onto his medical bag as Mahler’s stirring music surges on the soundtrack.

his bargain-basement production apparatus, his antiquarian cinematic

language branded with avant-gardisms, and his mocking yet naïve nar-
rative stance, connects directly with Stoker’s world, and with those of
Victorian stage melodrama, Griffithian sexual hysteria, Murnau’s Nos-
feratu (1922), Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), and James Whale’s 1930s
monster movies. Coppola, great filmmaker though he once was, can only
ponderously embalm the story in lavish costumes and sets, elaborate spe-
cial effects, fashionable movie stars being fashionable movie stars, and all
the cold opulence of high-budget Hollywood postmodernism.
The character of Renfield, omitted from the ballet, is reintroduced by
Maddin – and Brent Neale’s enthusiastic performance, crazily jumping
up and down, his mouth often awash in blood, is a pleasant solitary souve-
nir of Maddin’s local rep-troupe. The earliest scenes in the story proper
have no or very little dancing in them: they are simply silent film, and of
an almost classic purity despite the occasional evidences of a more recent
accelerated editing style. The situation of Lucy and her three suitors is
introduced via a shot of Lucy in a garlanded swing – absolutely descended
from Marlene Dietrich’s in an early scene of The Scarlet Empress – rushing
towards and away from the camera as she coquettishly points her finger
170 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The inverted head of Lucy Westenra, awakening with sudden Expressionist

alarm in a ‘a little Max Ernst collage.’

at one after the other of her three suitors. A demented cry from Renfield
in the neighbouring asylum seems to propel her off the swing and into
Arthur Holmwood’s arms (prompting the very Maddinesque title, ‘Be-
trothed by a scream’). The sounds of the lighthouse foghorn accompany
these scenes and shots of Dracula in his box. As Maddin says,6 the light-
house proves a most useful presence, not simply for those excellent fog-
horn sounds, but because it can serve as the source for a spotlight beam
that the director can play back and forth across the set. It furnishes a
kind of cinematic visual activity to the choreographic visual activity of the
scenes, and creates endless opportunities for chiaroscuro in the mostly
nocturnal settings.

Filming choreography

Presently the choreography assumes a more important role, and the film
is more recognizable as based on a staged ballet. But Maddin’s approach
to filming even the most extensive or formalized dance numbers car-
ried over from the stage production is highly fluid and cinematic. Part
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 171

of his reluctance to take the project on had been his own experience
of filmed ballet, which it seems had been largely of the relatively stuffy
and formal sort. Of course dance films do not at all necessarily resemble
this model: there is an extremely rich body of, especially, contemporary
dance pieces created or recreated for television over the past decade
and more. But there is a kind of dance film that has as its primary aim
the wish to ‘capture’ the original. The received truth about how to do
a dance film is that the film must ensure that the dancer’s whole body
and whole performance must be visible, and the choreographer’s whole
creation. Close-ups or framings that exclude parts of these wholes are
frowned upon. There is a common sense about these strictures, and I
confess that had the director of Swing Time decided to give us only part
of Fred Astaire’s body as he was dancing I would be very upset. But in
the case of a ballet designed for a proscenium stage, with multiple danc-
ers, a whole record of the dance would require a very restricted range of
camera positions, and in fact most films based on classical ballets or any
ballets conceived initially for the stage embody this regimen. Maddin
was determined to get the camera right into the action on a 360º basis, to
use all kinds of framings including close-ups, to be ruled by the impera-
tives of film aesthetics and not those of the dance. But any misgivings
he might have had about offending ‘dance purists’ were allayed by the
attitudes of the RWB dancers themselves. Maddin gives this account of
the process:

I approached this project very cautiously, so the first thing I asked the
choreographer and all the dancers was what their favourite dance films
were, and they said they didn’t have any, that they didn’t like them. While I
was videotaping the dance, just so I could have a record of it ... Mark God-
den, the choreographer, arranged for a performance for me. He held me
by the nape of the neck while I walked around with a video camera. I just
moved in amongst all the dancers on the stage and then every now and
then he would pull me out of the way if a ballet dancer was going to come
kicking through or something, so we wouldn’t have collisions or my head
taken off or something like that. I quickly got bored with just document-
ing it, so I would go in for closeups. And I could feel that the dancers were
actually enjoying the closeups. Far from being insulted that their dancing
bodies were being removed from their heads, I could feel them and I could
see with my eyes that they were doing a lot of work with their faces. Then
I would wander down to check out what their bodies were doing now and
then and I could see that they were doing things with their fingers and that
172 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

reminded me of the great expressionist silent movie actors. I kept finding

myself returning to the hands and then back up to the faces for ways of
capturing expression. And now and then I would feel guilty and move back
for the full body things. So I got kind of a record of what was going on.
And every now and then I realized that there were two things going on on
the stage at once. The vampire hunters were over there, and that Dracula
and Mina were over here, and so I would swish pan back and forth with my
video camera, just keeping it running for the full two hours of the ballet’s
original length.7

This fluidity of camera placement and hand-held movement was aug-

mented by dolly shots, some of them conducted by deco dawson strapped
into a children’s high-chair on wheels and whizzed and whirled through
the dancers, panning and swooping and gliding. When these shots, to-
gether with close-up inserts and, of course, wider shots – all of them mas-
saged by various archaic or ‘degraded’ inflections – were integrated into
an editing scheme that was much more interventionist and fast-moving
than anything Maddin had been doing in his previous silent-film-influ-
enced features, the result was something new in Maddin’s cinema, and
something new in dance cinema.
Some of the best recent dance films created for television have been
conceived for, and staged and shot in, the outdoors, sometimes even in
big-city streets. On the contrary, there was never a more wholly studio-
bound film of any kind than Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. This co-
incides, of course, with the theatrical basis for the production, but it also
felicitously revives the low-budget but ambitious mode of films like Tales
from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel, and Careful. In his commentary for the
DVD issue, Maddin delights in explaining how primitive are his means:
how cheap this prop and that setting was, how the trepanning instru-
ment used on Renfield is an ordinary table fork from the commissary,
how the graveyard set for Lucy’s last scene consists of brown paper walls
with some dead weeds and was assembled in the loading dock of the old
factory where the film was shot. Then the material impoverishment of
the physical production is half-celebrated and half-disguised with all the
treatments and ‘degradations’ at Maddin’s command: shadow-filled Ex-
pressionist photography in low-resolution black and white 16mm (some-
times overexposed or ‘blasted’ in processing to remove more detail),
startling cut-ins to high-grain 8mm shots, soft focus and large quantities
of drifting mist and ground fog. Every trick of Maddin’s early filmmak-
ing is now seen to be still working – intact and ready to submit to his and
deco dawson’s vigorous new editing massage.
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 173

On the soundtrack, Maddin has augmented the Mahler that is both

ballet accompaniment and silent-movie music with judiciously positioned
sound effects. The creaking of ship’s timbers and ropes and muted
clanging of bells, the foghorn, are heard at the outset. Later on sounds
are laid in of doors, of footsteps on floors, of trains, ticking clocks, pi-
geons, of blasting steam whistles, of crowbars opening crypts and coffins,
of Lucy’s decapitation and Dracula’s rippling cape, even of a cattle drive
behind the Texan suitor’s title card.8 These effects add substantially to
the vividness of the action, and carry the film further from the realm of
ballet where the only (intended) sounds are those of music. They also
carry the film away from a strictly silent cinema, and into that brief sliver
of history right at the beginning of the cinematic sound era when sound
effects could be added to films but dialogue had not yet arrived. Maddin
has of course always loved this strange half-enabled realm – this moment
and the immediately succeeding one of ‘part-talkies’ which contained
curtailed dialogue scenes and many silent scenes with sound effects (and
his cinema has many times revisited this terrain from The Dead Father to
Brand upon the Brain!).
The lighting process is equally backward-looking, equally simple and
‘primitive.’ One of the very first tools Maddin seized on as a director was
low-key lighting. Quoting the old B-movie adage that shadows are the
cheapest set-dressing, explaining that simplified, shadow-casting lighting
was all he could manage at the outset, and always professing an admira-
tion for German Expressionism, 1930s and 1940s horror movies, and film
noir (all canonic citadels of cinematic chiaroscuro), Maddin had many
reasons for gravitating to the practice. Dracula of course bears a subject
already made into German Expressionist and 1930s horror movies, and
was from the outset limited by a smallish budget; and in its realization
Maddin actively pursues a freer, more improvisatory filming method.
Under all these circumstances, a simplified low-key lighting is multiply
determined. In the Lucy scenes, the rotating lighthouse searchlight re-
peatedly and obsessively sweeps across the darkened set, a lighting equiv-
alent to the roving camera. Its powerful beam reflects off glass surfaces,
sometimes directly and blindingly into the camera’s eye in a sketchlike,
anti-illusionist way that would have horrified any silent era or studio era
DOP. Like so much else in the film, the aesthetic end product is an
image-set that is simultaneously connected to old cinematic practice and
to a stylized, avant-gardish contemporaneity.
A further silent era technique on view is double exposure – another
Maddin favourite. There are many usages of this practice in the film,
from graceful small-scale expressions like diary text entries shown to-
174 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

gether with their writers to the grand and powerful appearances of Drac-
ula’s face, or eyes, double-exposed over a person or scene that is feeling
the force of his influence. This is always a technique that can accomplish
what no stage version ever can, and Maddin uses especially the image of
Dracula inserted into scenes where he does not appear in the original
ballet to clarify and comment on character experiences and motivations.
One notable instance is the appearance of Dracula’s eyes in giant close-
up9 over Lucy’s sleeping form just prior to his actual appearance at her
bedside and swooping attack on her throat. This usage – and the related
technique of quick cut-in shots of Dracula at different moments – acts as
it almost always does in silent cinema: as a picture of events in the mind.
Throughout his DVD commentary Maddin emphasizes how Dracula is
the projection of the desires and fears of the characters. Such a notion
is naturally easy to convey cinematically, through cutaways and above all
double exposure. Godden’s ballet may well harbour a similar viewpoint,
but it is just harder to express directly on stage.
And so Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary becomes a romp through
Maddin’s retro-cinema, an all-you-can-eat blowout of portraited irises
and vignettes, intertitles wonderfully counterposed with moving images,
soft focus and clouds of mist, toning and hand-colouring, dissolves and
multiple exposures, judicious and witty sound effects, great movie mu-
sic. The hand-tinting (a practice that goes back to the very beginning of
cinema) is especially effective: the red-dyeing of neck wounds and blood
leaking from Lucy’s mouth, of the pupils of Dracula’s eyes, and of the
spear points and mortal body piercings of the vampire-kill; the green
clouds of steam coming from the giant organ at Lucy’s house and the
green wads of cash in Dracula’s trunk; the golden coins that spill from
his body when it is slashed open in combat; the blue centre-jewel on
Mina’s crucifix. Every single appearance of these points of colour in the
monochrome world produces a little surge of delight and demonstrates
how in a ‘degraded’ and ‘primitive’ visual world the smallest strokes can
create an effect of opulence. The myriad little panning and tracking
shots, the camera that shakes in moments of excitement, the general agi-
tation of movement in the cinematic realm are additions from a later era,
but they seem to meld seamlessly into the archaic realm of silent cinema:
the film’s reformulated mixture of old and new once again attaining an
aesthetically unified zone.
All this is of course applied, as it were, over top of the strong quali-
ties of the ballet. Ballet dancers, like silent film actors, are required to
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 175

be mimes: using their bodies and faces to express things that in theatre
or talking pictures are conveyed by dialogue. Maddin’s remark, quoted
earlier, about his discovery that the dancers were furnishing wonderful
performances in the tradition of ‘great expressionist silent-movie actors’
is a judgment he also turns to in the DVD commentary:

So the dancers are just superb silent-movie performers – they’re not just
dancers, but exquisite mimes [...] You would think that because facial ex-
pressions are not even visible from the cheap seats, or even from the front
row in most cases, that they wouldn’t even bother. But they give close-up-
worthy melodramatic performances – and by ‘melodramatic’ I mean prop-
er stage melodrama, not any derogatory connotation at all.

Again Maddin waxes particularly enthusiastic about the degree of elo-

quence embodied in the dancers’ hands and hand movements. One
must repeat how fine the acting is – as distinct from and in addition
to the dancing. Although Wei-Qiang Zhang has a marvellous presence
as Dracula and Johnny Wright is perfectly fine as Harker, perhaps the
strongest ‘silent-movie performances’ come from the other three prin-
cipal characters of the story: Lucy (Tara Birtwistle), Mina (CindyMarie
Small), and Van Helsing (David Moroni). Moroni has a splendid patri-
archal sternness and certainty, and Small brings a wonderful demure
beauty and wide-eyed sincerity to her performance – no minor achieve-
ment when she is required at one point to try to undo her fiancé’s trou-
sers and feel up his private parts. Generally, what is most striking about
these performers is their ability to bring a presence and a conviction to
their habitation of nineteenth-century character types. When Maddin
calls them ‘melodramatic’ performers, I believe this is partly what he
is referring to: their ability to present historically based ‘melodramatic’
personages seriously and wholeheartedly, without irony or subtly per-
ceptible quotation marks. (Any quotation marks can then be inserted
by the director.) Their attitudes and emotions are presented strongly
and forthrightly, aided no doubt by the fact that ballet dancers are often
necessarily required to characterize in a more simple and hieratic style
and hence in a way already closer to the polarizations and heightened
simplicities of melodrama. In this respect we can once again speak of the
authenticity of the film’s approach. Birtwistle’s case is somewhat different,
because of all the characters in the ballet (except Dracula), Lucy is the
most ‘modern’ – that is, the one most called upon to embody desires
176 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The possessed Lucy’s dance of demonic sexuality. The hands of the dancer,
Tara Birtwistle, performing the kind of expressive gesture Maddin found so
inspiring in the dancers.

and actions that transgress against Victorian propriety and gender stere-
otypes. Exactly for this reason she has the juiciest part, and she seizes it
with great relish. Beginning as a coquette, she flirts with her suitors, wel-
comes Dracula literally with open arms and submits ardently to her own
sexual desire, and ends as a quasi-demonic sexual predator. Birtwistle
scales this ladder admirably, and reaches the apex of her performance
in the final ‘Mad Scene’ phase, where her cruelly knowing smile, wicked
sidelong glances, casually shrugged shoulders, and seductive gestures of
hand join together with her gliding swoops across the stage in a consum-
mate tour de force. As Maddin says, the finer details of these perform-
ances would be invisible in the theatre; not so in the film.

A more dynamic cinema altogether

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the change in editing and

mobile-camera styles that occurred in Maddin’s cinema with The Heart
of the World and that have played an important part in every feature film
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 177

since then. Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary was the first of these fea-
tures, and it set the tone for later ones like Cowards Bend the Knee and
Brand upon the Brain! in its much quicker editing pace and higher inci-
dence of camera movement. The latter characteristic, itself an important
evolution in Maddin’s filmmaking, derives from using more and more
portable cameras (16mm, 8mm, DV) and multiple camera operators in
a space that has become far more three-dimensional.10 This latter char-
acteristic, filming in three dimensions instead of in some kind of pro-
scenium configuration, with cameramen darting through the action and
swish-panning around it, certainly has its origin in the fact that Maddin
could, in Dracula, insert himself in this fashion into a production that was
already staged in three dimensions. And these endlessly active hand-held
cameras form a natural partnership with a more radically interventionist
editing style. Shot changes combine with much more movement by the
camera (and, in a ballet film, in front of the camera too) to produce a
more dynamic cinema altogether.
Dracula’s more energetic image flow doesn’t approach the Soviet
silent style machine-gun editing of Heart of the World (or even the digitally
edited pace of Cowards and Brand), but it is far more up-tempo and ener-
getic in its visual rhythms than anything before that in Maddin’s output.
It’s not as if Baz Luhrmann moved from filming Shakespeare’s Romeo
and Juliet as a music video to filming the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Dracula
as a music video – but there is a whiff of that. Of course strictly speaking
the movie actually is a feature-length music video, except that Maddin’s
film, with its insistent archaisms, doesn’t look like any actually existing
examples of the form.11 Although the change in style represents a move
in the direction of the avant-garde, the editing pyrotechnics of Maddin’s
Dracula are in a contemporary cinematic context far less challenging to
the average viewer than the stately pace of Careful or the downright lugu-
brious one of The Dead Father, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, and Archangel.
Indeed, their quotient of aggressive sophistication is clearly one factor
in the success of the film, and also something that draws it away from the
model of high silent era cinema it is otherwise so in love with.
Globally, it might also be said that fast editing has made things easier
for Maddin’s viewers because it has distracted them from the otherwise
unavoidable task of actually grappling with his difficult program. The
resurrected cinema of Archangel and Careful is difficult, it requires almost
as much patience and attention and thinking-about – as much work – as
a Dreyer or Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr movie or, in a different way, as rela-
tively primitive silent features (not that it is much like any of these). On
178 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the other hand, the accelerated-editing Maddin cinema, especially Cow-

ards and Brand, is more like watching sequences from early Eisenstein
(as Heart of the World revealed) because you don’t have to ‘get’ anything,
don’t have to agree with anything, to enjoy the kinetic stimulation.
There is a reason why advertisers emulate Eisenstein more than Murnau.
It is a truism to say that image culture is now unrecognizably faster and
more bombarding. Insofar as there still is a contemplative, lyrical main-
stream cinematic rhetoric, it is glossy and fashion-magazine in its look, or
else creating a direly Disney/Hallmark always already phony idealist aes-
thetic. Maddin used to have to punctuate and relieve the solemn tempo
of his movies with outrageous jokes and, as it were, fart noises. Since
Heart of the World and Dracula, without having given up those tools, he
has added the constant stimulative relief of micro-montage, hyperactive
camera movement, and pace manipulation – massaging, juicing, ham-
mering, shaving the images. If you don’t understand what’s going on in
Cowards Bend the Knee or Brand upon the Brain!, well, at least it isn’t boring.
It is hard to separate this Great Kinesis Shift from the presence of deco
dawson on both Heart of the World and Dracula, especially when the edit-
ing styles adopted to a greater or lesser extent by these films resemble
to a degree that of dawson’s own short, abstract films, and when dawson
receives credit not only as the editor of Dracula but as its ‘Associate Di-
rector.’ Maddin says that even before dawson’s arrival he had decided to
quicken the pace of his films,12 and certainly since dawson’s departure
his films have maintained that practice. There is no doubt that not only
the general plan of the editing but, even more, its detailed realization
owes a great deal to dawson’s talent and skill. My own sense is that as a
mostly self-taught filmmaker, Maddin has had to feel his way with edit-
ing from the very beginning and that, although he is probably now quite
capable of doing it himself, he has been grateful for and even depended
on the highly skilled assistance of creative craftspeople like dawson. (The
same may be said with Maddin’s reliance on his current editor, John
Gurdebeke. That collaboration, beginning with Cowards Bend the Knee,
has produced even more startling results.)
The editing in Dracula draws on a wide range of technical tools and
stylistic gestures. Dissolves and fades are of course extremely familiar
from Maddin’s earlier films, and they are seen here again in profusion,
though now sometimes much more quickly paced and applied to single
shots that are then integrated into a montage-whole for a given scene,
rather than forming more emphatic punctuation to larger units of shots,
as in pre–Heart of the World days. Very quick dissolves and fades join a
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 179

parade of other radical editing interventions. Rapid shifting within

a scene between different camera positions – or sometimes between
16mm and 8mm cameras – are one, straightforward, example. A kind
of stutter-editing, where shots are chopped into small pieces and then
reassembled with tiny gaps (a technique referred to as ‘step printing’) is
often employed, especially at climactic moments. Sometimes this process
is accompanied by slow motion. Slow motion is not, of course, a form of
editing, but when it is briefly introduced into sequences or individual
shots, and this happens quite a lot in Dracula, it has the effect of an edit-
ing device (and indeed may be achieved in post-production, like editing,
and thus actually be a kind of honorary editing). At moments like these
the film really does nestle into the camp that has avant-garde cinema
at one end and high-stylish music video and action-movie editing prac-
tices at the other. And the final battle between Dracula and the vampire
hunters is certainly Maddin’s most extended, and best, action sequence.
From the duel in Careful to the last combat in Dracula – Pages from a Vir-
gin’s Diary is a large step. Perhaps the strangest and most amazing of all
the little editing tools displayed in this sequence is the almost impercep-
tible reverse action of one shot, where Dracula’s cape winds around him
(with a wonderful Foleyed heavy crack).13 The impact of all these editing
techniques throughout the film is always strongly mediated by the whole
array of photographic tools Maddin is using – chiaroscuro black and
white, irises, vignettes, soft focus, and high grain – to create a unique ef-
fect very far from the pop-avant-garde forms to which they are kin.
So Dracula is also demonstrating that Maddin’s new editing philosophy
can be seamlessly combined with the existing panoply of his neo-silent-
film techniques from, say, Archangel. And if Archangel could represent a
new form of expression in the world, then Dracula is the inauguration
of a new form of that new form. Here, the much-accelerated editing
rhythm and camera movement are found to be compatible with lyricism,
melodrama, and narrative cinematic models of the high silent period,
and even to provide new avenues for their expression. There is nothing
like this in The Heart of the World, whose six-minute length confines it nar-
ratively to the realm of parody. There, the model is a form of Soviet mon-
tage cinema (particularly Eisenstein and Dziga-Vertov) that was trying
to purge itself of mainstream narrative structures and many mainstream
narrative rhetorical strategies – also of psychology and excessive lyricism
– and replace them with Pavlovian stimulus-response and a modernist/
avant-gardist escape from the glutinous emotional traps of a melodrama-
derived narrative form.14 But in Dracula Maddin has grafted some of the
180 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

editing language of Eisenstein and Dziga-Vertov (and their descend-

ents all the way down to the mainstream present) onto the generally
slower and visually more stable world of melodrama. Making this work
in Dracula is perhaps easier because of the fact that Maddin is adapting
an already fully realized narrative creation in the form of the RWB bal-
let and simply applying this editing language to it, or seeing how it can
be expanded and cinematized by such an application. Cowards Bend the
Knee represents the real jump. With these films and Brand upon the Brain!,
Maddin has created yet another new form.

Stoker and melodrama

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is among other things a melodrama. The novel

has for several decades now been broadly interpreted as an expres-
sion of late-Victorian anxieties about sexuality, gender roles, and social
Otherness, the existence of something like the unconscious that escapes
rational control, and the problems of modernity. In fact the book is
more complex (and interesting) than an open and shut application of
interpretations like this can accommodate. In view of its primary focus
and the primitive atavism of Dracula and the forces he embodies, its
technical up-to-dateness is almost obsessive. Phonographs, Kodaks, type-
writers, bicycles, shorthand, medical technology, railway timetables, and
repeating rifles are introduced into the story without real need, while
the figures of Professor Abraham Van Helsing and Dr Seward are at-
tempts somehow to reconcile professionalism and scientific method with
irrational and supernatural forces. (The result is a kind of vampire sci-
ence for dummies, where all you need is to learn a few basic rules of
vampire life, and to employ the risibly simple tools of garlic, crucifixes,
and consecrated hosts.) Stoker’s Dracula is just one more symptom of
the sense of uncertainty arising from traditional beliefs under the as-
sault of Darwinism and the march of science. Meanwhile, anyone read-
ing the book after encountering a thousand later iterations of the legend
will be surprised at how small a role Dracula himself plays in the action,
and how the horrific appearance of sexuality in a twisted and monstrous
form is confined to a very few brief moments.
Of course it is the presence of a general atmosphere of repression and
displacement that makes these moments so shocking, and indeed all the
threatening phenomena of the novel are rendered with a smothered
panic that a more forthright sensationalism could not duplicate. And
these are also precisely the conditions for a certain kind of melodrama.
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 181

Middle-class melodrama in particular – and Dracula is eminently middle-

class melodrama – has most often as its engine a sense of scandal. It is a
sense that arises from the presence of contradiction: something shock-
ing or troubling amid the prevailing, fully installed, respectable system
of truths and values, something that is ideologically illegal and whose
existence calls into question all the grand claims that ideology makes to
embody justice and truth. The scandal in Dracula is primarily twofold.
First, in a modern rational society full of scientific gizmos we ought not
to be troubled with irrational fears; or, conversely, in a spiritually and
religiously grounded society we ought not to believe that rationality and
science have any kind of ultimate power. Since Stoker’s society was try-
ing somehow to be both founded on reason and science and founded
on faith, this is a scandal that will never go away. Not only does the novel
fail to offer any kind of solution to or reconciliation of the contradic-
tion, but even its expression of it is very chaotic and unthoughtful. And
second, according to the idealized moral order in which good people
are motivated by purity, honour, selflessness, piety, truthfulness, loyalty,
duty, compassion, and a dozen other virtues including those supposedly
inhering in gender, there is no place for anything as amoral as sexual
desire; and if sexual desire does manifest itself in a ‘pure’ woman or an
‘honourable’ man, it must be something monstrous and an occasion for
hysteria. Indeed, the body itself is something problematic, something
that our higher selves are constantly needing to transcend, and yet some-
thing whose goodness and health we need fundamentally to believe in
and whose ‘infection’ or ‘pollution’ by elements threatening its comfort-
ing stability is cause for a dizzying, overdetermined anxiety. Here again
Stoker’s novel, with its emphasis on pure blood or tainted blood, good
sleep or bad sleep, and its curious constant worrying about rest and en-
ergy, has zeroed in on a profound underlying problem.
Dracula has pushed out sex, but gender is fully in operation – indeed
Stoker is deploying the system of gender characteristics and values with
an amazing, tireless excess. A man’s bravery and energy, a woman’s sweet-
ness and angelic compassion, are truisms the novel cannot assert fre-
quently enough. These indeed are the forces that need to be marshalled
against Dracula’s realm of horrifying appetite, uncanny shape-shifting,
and unaccountable power to somehow get past even the stoutest psycho-
logical defences of virtuous men and especially women – marshalled,
it often seems, by sheer dint of repetitive proclamation. What a man’s
heart is, what a woman’s heart is, what it is to be manly and true, what
it is to be womanly and true, a man’s strength and a woman’s trust, and
182 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

on and on. Dracula can be defeated because his pursuers have a ‘man
brain,’ collective and organized, while he has only a ‘child brain,’ power-
ful but primitive and selfish: a dichotomy that represents the battle be-
tween socially achieved ideology and the desires of the individual psy-
che, and between the mechanism of repression and the powers of the
unconscious. Women are Dracula’s targets and victims. The novel never
even advances a hypothesis as to why this should be the case, but to the
contemporary reader it is clear enough. The sweet, pure Lucy Westenra
has somehow invited Dracula into her house, had her blood sucked, and
become a vampire who must be murdered in her tomb. The description
is one of those very few in the novel that does gesture nightmarishly to-
wards sexual congress and orgasm:

The Thing in the coffin [i.e., Lucy] writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling
screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and
twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together un-
til the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared by a crimson foam. But
Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling
arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake,
whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it
[...] And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the
teeth ceased to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible
task was over.15

Obviously male sexuality is being displaced here into violence, with

piercing of the viscera with a giant stake and decapitation standing in
for coitus and orgasm (this translation is clearer in the ballet, and pretty
much spelled out in the film).
In truth, there is no expression by any male of a sexual attraction to
either of the virtuous women in the novel: only expressions of spiritual
love and esteem. And actually, this is less a fear of sexual women and
their bodies – as is the case in much horror literature and cinema – than
an attempt to desexualize gender relations, and a fear that even noble
and honourable men will not be strong enough to keep them so. It is
fundamentally a crisis of masculinity that Stoker is staging. Probably the
strongest character in the novel is Mina, who is as brave or braver than
any of the men, as intelligent, and as technically adept (a dab hand with
typewriters, train schedules, and shorthand, and always curious about a
new mechanical device). Van Helsing pays her the highest compliment
by saying more than once that she has a man’s brain together with the
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 183

spiritual strength of a woman. Meanwhile Stoker emphasizes the warmest

and most demonstrative homosocial relations among the male vampire
hunters, recalling his attraction to Walt Whitman’s admiring homophilia
and opening the door to a queer reading of Dracula. (Though again it
seems to me that Stoker is just happier without sexuality, and that the
appeal of homosociality is primarily because it is a safer and more com-
fortable form of human intimacy for him – suggesting a form of arrested
emotional development that is hardly unique to his person or his era.)
There is indeed a disturbing recognition that women are both objects
and subjects of sexual desire, but this is kept resolutely at arm’s length,
covered and deflected as much as possible, and peeps in only as a few
hysterical outbursts of exciting and disgusting bodily horror. This proto-
sexual force is, moreover, assigned to and dammed up in the personage
of Dracula, and Dracula himself is kept off-stage for the great bulk of
the novel, his existence acknowledged but his presence constantly de-
flected, postponed, looked at only sidelong. The three suitors’ sexual
desire for Lucy, and in a way Van Helsing’s too, is displaced into the
medical ritual of giving her their blood to replace the blood stolen from
her by Dracula. This deed starts out as a representation of sacrifice and
commitment on the part of the men, but quickly shows signs of its covert
status as a stand-in for sexual contact – given legal standing and disguise
simultaneously by the imprimatur of medical science. ‘No man knows
till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own life-blood drawn away into
the veins of the woman he loves,’ says Seward (not Lucy’s fiancé).16 And
the men start to complain in a childish way that one of them got to give
more blood than the others. (Both Seward’s line and the complaint are
cherry-picked by Maddin for intertitles in the film.)
But we should not lose sight of what is classically melodramatic about
Stoker’s novel. A principal quality is of course the polarization of perso-
nae into characters who are ideally noble and selfless and a villain who is
fiendishly evil, with the consequent flattening of character compensated
for by the sensational exaggeration of what is at stake in their opposi-
tion. And of course there is that sense of scandal whereby sexuality and
the lure of transgression cannot be accommodated into the ideology
of the book, or the age. Indeed they are not supposed to exist at all,
and the suspicion that they are secretly there inside even the most stain-
less of individuals produces the paranoia and hysteria that are the seed
of this gothic melodrama (just as a similar mechanism is operating in
Hollywood film melodrama from The Cheat and Way Down East to Written
on the Wind and Bigger Than Life). The victory of men with stakes and med-
184 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ical knives over an eldritch supernatural creature from Transylvania, the

spectacle of the redemption of tainted and depraved women through
impalement and decapitation – punishments that are themselves dis-
guised sex murders – enacts that disavowal and dramatic displacement
central to so much melodramatic practice. And then the novel’s con-
fused underlying attempt to reconcile the incommensurabes of science
and spirituality is an almost textbook realization of Peter Brooks’ thesis
of the origins of melodrama in the death of the sacred.17

Melodrama, revised

The ballet very heavily articulates what in Stoker is only faintly discern-
ible, or at least what is unconscious and unacknowledged. In the RWB
Dracula, Lucy’s coquetry and overt lustfulness and Mina’s sexual curios-
ity are straightforward and unmissable qualities, and they are wholesale
inventions, nowhere to be found in the novel except as deeply buried
subtext (and even that calls for qualification). Stoker’s Lucy is not the at
first flirtatious and later openly sexually desiring character of the ballet,
but rather a ‘sweet’ young woman whose principal emotion towards her
suitors is gratitude and a concern that, having received three marriage
proposals in a single day, she must cause pain to two of these fine and
noble men. And his Mina is certainly not that of Mark Godden: she,
upon reading her fiancé Harker’s journal account of his assault by suc-
cubi in Dracula’s Romanian castle, immediately starts making physical
advances to him and citing page references in the diary as justification.
Harker’s phobic response to this sexual advance is of course also new,
and serves to articulate one of the ballet’s major points of interpretation:
that the men are not simply controlling and repressive, but are them-
selves neurotically overcontrolled and sexually highly repressed. This is
perhaps Godden’s version of the novel’s refusal of sexuality, though of
course here it appears clearly as outright sexual squeamishness and is
frowned upon as such. Stoker’s Mina, as suggested above, is an intel-
ligent, resourceful, self-reliant woman, indeed almost a proto-feminist;18
but nowhere does she show the slightest sexual curiosity to go with her
scientific inquisitiveness. Certainly in the novel her subjugation to Drac-
ula in the scene where he forces her to drink blood from a wound on
his breast, and her subsequently ‘colonized’ behaviour, can take a sexual
interpretation; but the ballet jettisons all ambiguity or uncertainty on
this point and makes the big Dracula/Mina pas de deux unmistakably
sexual. In the ballet’s scenario, Mina must in the end turn from this
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 185

sexual temptation and employ her piety and womanly ‘purity’ as weap-
ons against Dracula, finally subduing him with her blue-light crucifix
(effective where the men’s crucifixes were not). At this point I would say
that the ballet – and the film, which follows it in this respect – becomes
rather incoherent, since the sexually curious Mina is a sympathetic fig-
ure and her relapse into conventional repression seems rather opaque
and unarticulated.
The ballet’s melodrama has thus reinterpreted all the forces, and thus
knocked askew the alignments of the book’s melodrama. Indeed, it can-
not function so straightforwardly or effectively as melodrama because
there is no mechanism of disavowal or displacement any more operating
in the ballet’s own creative imagination – it is only present in the origi-
nal story, and is now being unmasked as sexual and political repression.
Here, transgression is not so transgressive, and horror and disgust not
at all horrifying or disgusting. Stoker’s other issue, irrationality versus
modernity, spirit versus brain, feeling versus calculation, has no role in
the ballet, which has no particular interest in science and is not threat-
ened by any Zeitgeist crisis of lost spirituality. Instead, turning Stoker on
his head, the ballet presents a stark, sensational drama of cold daylight
repression of darkly liberatory desire. The outmoded Victorian forces of
convention and respectability are crystallized into a homosocial band of
brothers (Van Helsing, Harker, and the suitors), all with a base in social
station and professional institutions, who act as a self-righteous policing
power. Women who try to break free of this rubric are demonized and
punished with extreme violence, and Dracula, the emblem of desire that
escapes policing, is hunted down as a monster. The original melodrama,
still visible through the screen of revisionist interpretation, is rejected
by the ballet and its audience. For the contemporary viewer, there is no
edification in the conclusion of the now ironically viewed melodrama,
which shows the defeat of the women and of Dracula. Instead, there is a
spectacle of historical oppression on the part of forces too blind to see
what we can see, and a kind of heroic martyrdom unfolding in the pleas-
ing confines of a period setting that allows modes of visual lyricism no
longer available in quite that form.

Maddin’s melodrama

At every point Maddin has seized on the ballet’s sexual characterizations

and extended them with relish. The presentation of Lucy is Exhibit A.
Her question to Mina, imported by Maddin from the novel as an inter-
186 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

title ‘Why can’t a woman marry three men, or as many as want her?’19
has of course faintly scandalous undertones in the late Victorian era, but
in Maddin’s interpretation becomes pretty frankly promiscuous. Stoker’s
Lucy makes this remark in the perfectly ‘proper’ context of feeling sym-
pathy for the fine manly men she must reject, not out of an appetite for
more than one of them: hence ‘as many as want her’ rather than ‘as many
as she wants.’ This distinction is completely invisible in Maddin’s impor-
tation of the line, where it becomes just straightforward evidence of a
lusty female appetite for men. Lucy’s coquettish behaviour in the ‘swing’
sequence, indeed the sensuality of her general manner, culminating in
the salivating close-ups of Birtwistle’s demonic sexual desire, are all fur-
ther points. Maddin even takes the outrageous further step of embodying
that desire in a large, Phantom of the Opera type organ, incongruously posi-
tioned in the Westenra sitting room and emitting clouds of dense green
steam whenever Dracula’s approach and her sexual excitation occur: in
the lewdest possible way, it is Lucy’s organ. Nothing in the representa-
tion of Mina quite reaches this level of frat-house bawdy suggestiveness,
even if she is made to lose her under-petticoat in the final scene. Mad-
din also is eager to show that Dracula’s appetite for blood, and persons,
is not only heterosexual: a couple of his scenes with Harker make that
clear. (Stoker’s Dracula shows not the slightest interest in sucking men’s
blood.) In short, Maddin has taken Godden’s sexualizing reinterpreta-
tion of the story yet further. Indeed, Maddin actually says, ‘I don’t even
think Dracula exists – he’s just the embodiment of female lust and male
jealousy.’ He also muses: ‘I’ve often wondered who the virgin referred to
in the film’s title is. You always think of women when that term is used,
but it’s the men who seem to be displaying a lot of virginal naïveté, and
a lot of sort of virgin-pressured jealousies.’ And later, ‘I have a hunch ...
that Van Helsing is the virgin of the title.’20
All this is a prelude to the observation not only that Stoker’s melo-
drama has been completely denatured in Maddin’s hands (and those of
Godden before him), but that this truly ironic or retro-critical presen-
tation of an old melodrama is quite different from what Maddin’s films
have usually embodied. The basic ingredients are still present – melodra-
matic conflict and transgression, a period setting, outmoded social values
– so perhaps their very dissimilar meaning is not immediately apparent.
This time, unlike Archangel and Careful, there is no sympathy for the older
system. The overtly repressive system of Careful is treated far more sympa-
thetically than the relatively less repressive system of Dracula, and there
is absolutely nothing of Archangel’s weirdly tender affection for a distant
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 187

land of innocence and social idealism. Perhaps this is one reason why
Dracula is less problematic for viewers, certainly less complex and knotted
and just strange, than those earlier films. The ballet is p.c., and the film is
p.c. Squarely in that mode, the film critiques the older system from a posi-
tion of greater moral sophistication, or simply greater moral correctness,
and the drama of spiritual alienation that is the underfloor of Maddin’s
earlier work is no longer there. That is, Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
is no longer gnawing manically at the fact that contemporary forms are
inadequate to convey innocence or lyrical wholeheartedness, but instead
lovingly building a Maddinian edifice on top of a lyrically formalized
contemporary ballet – and on a photogenic period subject which comes
ready furnished with a stock of, as it were, quoted poetic images of its
characters and situations. It is no longer alienated from its own time, but
now at least in part embodies a quite uncontroversial contemporary out-
look on the characters and institutions it is depicting. For Maddin’s Drac-
ula to present the same kinds of viewer dilemmas as Archangel and Careful,
it would have had to be anti-Dracula or at least pro-vampire-hunter to
an important degree; it would have had to see the constrained, noble,
and ridiculous Weltanschauung of the suitors and Van Helsing in the way
Archangel regards that of the White Russians and Lt Boles. And of course
it could never do this, for a variety of reasons of which the existence of
the stage production is entirely sufficient in itself. So in the end, Dracula
– Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is less melodrama and more ‘melodrama’ than
any of Maddin’s melodramas.
Aesthetically, too, Maddin’s Dracula is more unified and less problem-
atic for viewers (that is not to say that it is completely unproblematic,
only that it is less so than his earlier feature films). The presence of the
period setting, and the period cinema gestures, occur now in a theatri-
cal realm that is already ‘staged’ (already has been staged). The sense of
postmodern quotation is stronger than in Maddin’s other work because
the retro-realm is already familiar from a thousand other Dracula nar-
ratives (contrast the utter unfamiliarity of the settings in Gimli Hospital,
Archangel, Careful, and even Twilight). If Maddin does, as I suggested ear-
lier, achieve a greater authenticity than many of those other narratives by
dint of his genuine, very atypical immersion in the older cultural forms,
nothing he does can quite efface that viewer familiarity, especially when
the narrative hews to the p.c. revisionist line so closely. Moreover, the im-
portation of quasi-music-video styles of editing and camera movement al-
lows the film to merge smoothly into a contemporary aesthetic mode on
one level even as it is creating its own aesthetic space on another. Mad-
188 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

din is still having fun with silent film apparatus, and with the spectacle
of blood and impalement in a period setting, still creating frissons with
the juxtaposition of archaic and avant-garde (and now with the addition
of avant-garde editing techniques), in short still able to stoke the engine
with the heterogeneities of old and new. Still, if Dracula – Pages from a Vir-
gin’s Diary is both true Maddin and truly successful as an artwork, many
of the things in it that are different from Maddin’s earlier work do also
ensure that its viewers are not required to negotiate quite so tortuous an
interpretive path.

Opposing systems

Stoker’s Dracula stages the collision of opposing systems: atavistic irra-

tionality versus modern technology. Cinema is being born at this exact
historical moment (1897), and in some of its most powerful iterations
in the first decades of its existence the same collision is played out: mo-
dernity versus tradition, modernism versus romanticism, progress versus
regression, reason versus the sublime and the terrifying. In particular
we have this technologically advanced, forensic photographic recording
apparatus almost immediately attempted to be used to express inward
mental and spiritual events. And – a point of potential difficulty for some
film-oriented theorists of modernity – we have the coincidence of this
highly advanced industrial technology applied, via popular culture, not
to equally progressive aesthetic avant-gardism, but to some of the most
backward-looking and already-superseded narrative forms, notably mel-
The ballet jettisons almost all of Stoker’s modern technology, it points
backwards instead, from the antique Victorian world to the timeless and
mythological realm of Dracula. But the film reimports the collision, now
(as so often in Maddin) between past and present, between a period sen-
sibility/aesthetics and the contemporary sensibility/aesthetics, between
Dracula (an atavistic force, an expression of an earlier culture and nar-
rative medium) and the movie (electricity, filmmaking technology that
is in this film newly emphasized). As Stoker moves forward (telegraph,
phono-diaries, etc.) and backwards (superstition, irrationality, primeval
horror), so Maddin moves forward (modernism, postmodernism, tech-
nology, avant-gardism) and backwards (silent cinema, Expressionism,
melodrama, historical ‘degradation’). And Maddin is doing more with
technology in the film than the ballet does. There are Mrs Westenra’s
ventilator (coal-fired, it looks like), hand-operated blood pumps, and
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 189

wind-up flashlights, Van Helsing’s crude burglar’s and assassin’s tools.

But then there is the technology of the movie: the cinema. As simplified,
primitivized, and ‘degraded’ as it is, it is certainly still a technological
force in this Victorian world. The modernist and postmodernist editing
and swishing camera movement make it even more so. And in this way,
the film again expresses that strange chemical combination of old and
new that is the essence of Maddin’s cinematic method.
As we have seen, Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary cannot preserve
the instability of that combination as it had previously existed in Mad-
din’s work. But the director has taken a number of opportunities to add
elements that are more truly close to his usual creative stance. The inter-
titles, with their culling of some of the lines from the novel that interact
most juicily with Maddin’s sensibility, are one example. The reimporta-
tion from the novel of Lucy’s mother (excised from the ballet), is an-
other – here, in its imagining of a frail but fiercely protecting mother
who ends up inadvertently admitting the vampire and who shares a bed
with her daughter only to be unceremoniously rolled out of it onto the
floor when Dracula arrives, the film looks forward rather startlingly to
Brand upon the Brain! Most characteristic of all, though, is the intermit-
tent appearance of Maddin’s wild sense of humour, relatively subtle at
some points, crass and outrageous at others. That destructive comic de-
mon that rampaged so anarchically through Gimli Hospital, Archangel,
and Careful intervenes at certain moments here. In particular there is a
sexual symbolism that borders on, or strays right into, bawdiness. The
set designs for two of the later scenes – both the ‘convent’ scene and the
final scene in Dracula’s cave – feature ranks of entryways or alcoves that
are distinctly vagina-shaped (Maddin remarks of the one that the vam-
pire hunters are crowbarring their way into that ‘that particular entry-
way would make Judy Chicago jealous’).21 There are a number of tiny
instances as well, such as the vampire hunters’ onanistically wound-up
flashlights; Lucy’s green organ is the most outrageous of them all, but
perhaps bypasses most viewers. The film’s very last stroke is irreverently
grinning in this way as well: Van Helsing is seen surreptitiously stuffing
Mina’s undergarment into his jacket. Such cackling mockery always has
the potential to derail any serious project that is going on, but in Dracula
– Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (even more than in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs)
irruptions of this kind are circumscribed, and they never fundamentally
destabilize the relatively mockery-free project of Godden’s ballet. Go-
ing back to Stoker’s distinction between Dracula’s ‘child brain’ and the
hunters’ ‘man brain,’ it can be said that Maddin has a ‘child brain’ of his
190 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

own, and that it is responsible for very many of the most powerful and
distinctive features of his creative imagination. That wild humour defi-
nitely springs from this source, and these irrepressible appearances of
his ‘child brain’ in a project that is in some ways rather sober and by-the-
numbers function as darting evidences of the director’s constitutional
instabilities and difficulty-makings, a reassuring reminder to his devotees
that the old Guy Maddin is still there.

Perhaps I have been speaking too much as though Dracula – Pages from
a Virgin’s Diary were somehow not quite ‘pure’ Maddin. But although
the film does certainly show its foundation in an already existing piece
of work, I am tempted to say that any fifteen-second slice of it looked
at anonymously would be enough to identify its creator beyond much
doubt. And if Maddin’s Dracula is not quite so 100% bizarre as his ear-
lier films, there is also a very real sense that with this film the director
has hit a new, comfortable creative stride. Progressing through his work
chronologically, one has the sense that certain creative problems had
accumulated for him – in particular, the increasing distance between his
original home-made ‘garage-band’ process and the ever more complex
and unwieldy procedures that had manifested themselves as pressures
drove his projects closer towards mainstream filmmaking practices. Arch-
angel added to Gimli Hospital a much bigger budget and cast, in gen-
eral a bigger scale, and a bit more dialogue. Careful then brought colour
and more dialogue. And Twilight of the Ice Nymphs brought 35mm, an
international cast, and a lot more dialogue. Of course at no point did
Maddin’s films ever actually approach the mainstream, either aestheti-
cally or industrially, but the production of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs had
accumulated enough mass in a number of dimensions that it started to
constitute a kind of work he just didn’t want to do, as well as emphasizing
the fact that, never having done it, he wasn’t completely sure how good
at it he could be.
It is exactly this sense of slowly accruing oppression that just vanishes
in the Dracula film (well, actually in Heart of the World – but it was a prob-
lem that never had existed in the world of Maddin’s short films, only his
features). At one fell swoop, he was relieved of almost everything that
had started to torment him: 35mm, colour, full sound, dialogue man-
agement, the direction of actors. The sense of freedom and relief are
palpable as you watch the film – a true black and white, silent, 16mm
film. Maddin has spoken several times about his gratitude at the fact
that he could just show up and film every day, without the necessity of
Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary 191

rehearsing the actors. It allowed a kind of visual spontaneity that even

Archangel or Careful had not permitted. Post-production could then be
reduced to the editing of image and sound effects, and the difficulties
of doing post-synchronized dialogue direction that had given rise to a
rather spectacular problem during Twilight of the Ice Nymphs were just
blessedly absent. So Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary has about it an
ease, an enthusiasm, and an absence of constraint, that spring from Mad-
din’s being let alone to play with his favourite toys in the sandbox, in a
kind of joyous homecoming to what he knows and loves best. And as his
subsequent feature films would show, Dracula provided a platform on
which to build some substantial and now completely original work.

Cowards Bend the Knee:

or, The Blue Hands (2003)

It became more consciously autobiographical because I thought maybe this

was my last picture. I really thought that. I had a real sense that there were
just a few seconds left in the game and I had a lot of yardage to make up
– I have to use NFL metaphors – and so I had to throw a long bomb right
into the end zone and hope that someone on my team would catch it. So I
stacked it with the things that really mattered to me.
– Guy Maddin1

I tried to cram so many things into the one-hour running time of this movie
that I ended up sort of stomping on them to make them all fit.
– Guy Maddin2

In his review of the DVD issue of Cowards Bend the Knee, the excellent
J. Hoberman (one of Maddin’s smartest and most stalwart supporters)
called it ‘Maddin’s masterpiece.’3 I am inclined to agree. None of Mad-
din’s feature films is without flaws, but Cowards comes the closest yet to
perfection. It has such compactness, verve, and potency, such an effortless
and assured wielding of his self-developed silent cinema and avant-garde
practices, such an unerring integration of outrageousness and feeling,
that it seems like a summation of everything he had achieved so far in
exploring an utterly personal sensibility and finding a filmic language
in which to express it. Awkwardness, uncertainty, flat spots – all gone.
Chiasmic collisions between seriousness and ridicule so compulsive-
seeming they sometimes appear to be beyond the artist’s control – magic-
ally recuperated into a smooth, onward-driving process that somehow
blends Greek tragedy and The Gong Show into a single entity. It achieves,
Cowards Bend the Knee 193

in fact, a sublime point of balance reconciling all the heterogeneous

forces that swirl chaotically through Maddin’s work.
The film was actually made under a commission from an art gallery –
the Power Plant in Toronto – to be presented as an installation, but the
project had quite an extensive earlier, pre-commission history as a set of
voluminous notes that began to accumulate as early as 2000 and grew
to more than 150 pages,4 and eventually emerged in printed form as a
script much longer and more elaborate than what is in the finished film.5
But when this idea melded with the gallery commission, it shrank in the
filmmaker’s mind to a single installation film of less than fifteen minutes,
and then regrew into a set of ten peephole installation films of about six
minutes each presented as successive ‘chapters.’ And so the project ar-
rived at its finished length of 64 minutes, where in theatrical screenings
or on video it would be experienced as a single continuous work in ten
chapters, just like a short feature film. In the event the process of boil-
ing down the rather substantial material in the notes to this format re-
sulted in an entirely beneficial effect of compression and concentration,
a sense of nothing being wasted and of a pressure to pack in a multitude
of essential things. The formal vehicle Maddin chooses is that of a real
silent movie with intertitles, music, and sound effects and not a single
line of spoken dialogue. The shooting took place in October of 2002,
actually simultaneously with the beginnings of shooting for The Saddest
Music in the World, during a phase of last minute pre-production for that
film. Cowards was paid for essentially out of Maddin’s pocket at a cost of
about $30,000,6 and its shooting schedule was a phenomenally brief five
days.7 It was shot, in Super-8mm, in a variety of local locations. In addi-
tion to its status as apotheosis of Maddin’s formal and aesthetic qualities,
it is, if only on account of its ridiculous budget and shooting schedule,
also the crown jewel of his output as a ‘garage-band’ filmmaker.
After his sojourns in Arctic Russia, Switzerland, Mandragora, and
Transylvania, Maddin here returns to his home town and his own story
in a way that seems very close to the inspirational roots of The Dead
Father. Maddin describes Cowards as ‘a blatant autobiography’ and ‘al-
most ninety-nine percent autobiographical’ and says ‘I’d like to insist
that I lived every one of those episodes in a literal way.’8 The fact that
the principal character is given the name ‘Guy Maddin’ might possibly
be a clue. Cowards forms the first of what is, to date, a trilogy of autobio-
graphical films that also includes Brand upon the Brain! and the feature-
length documentary/memoir My Winnipeg (Maddin jokingly calls it ‘the
Me Trilogy’9). It thus stands as a very important way-post in Maddin’s
194 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

creative journey. And yet it would be difficult for any viewer – except for
one very familiar with Maddin’s family background and personal life –
to see the phantasmagoric landscape and narrative of Cowards Bend the
Knee as anybody’s autobiography. Of course Maddin did not play for the
Winnipeg Maroons eighty years ago or have his hands amputated at the
behest of a crazed girlfriend, and in fact there is almost nothing in the
film that can be read ‘in a literal way’ – so that this claim might seem as
extravagant and fantastic as the film itself. But the vehemence of these
statements does function as an exhortation to understand the work in
a certain way. To follow Maddin’s prescription to read it as autobiog-
raphy is not to get anything other than an utterly jumbled and mostly
opaque account of his literal history (however sensitively his experiential
history might be being rendered in metaphorical terms). But looking at
the film in this way certainly does encourage us to receive it with some
gravity, and it does also provide further insight into the process of ex-
treme transformation that any real-world material undergoes in his cre-
ative imagination. The film’s representation of events of Maddin’s inner
and outer life bears about the same relation to the events themselves as
Tales from the Gimli Hospital does to the actual history of New Iceland or
Archangel does to the Allied presence in northern Russia in 1919. There,
Maddin transmuted historical settings into a personal fantasy world, and
here what he has done is to transmit his own physical and emotional his-
tory into a personal fantasy world. As we have seen, so much of Maddin’s
cinema has been self-declaredly about amnesia. But Cowards – and this
becomes more and more pervasively true as one looks at the case closely
– is profoundly a work of remembering.


The biggest single item in Maddin’s 2003 collection of miscellaneous

writings From the Atelier Tovar is a thirty-two-page ‘film treatment’ entitled
THE CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES. This resembles an actual film
treatment to begin with, but almost immediately slides into something
much closer to a straight memoir, before just stopping rather abruptly
without any kind of an ending. (Maddin states flatly that ‘it will never be
made’ as a film.10) THE CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES is an extra-
ordinary piece of writing, uneven and clearly unfinished, but often won-
derfully vivid and poignant in its rendering of a child’s sensibility and
experiences. It is quite undisguisedly an autobiographical document,
with Maddin’s family members and friends given their own names,
Cowards Bend the Knee 195

and locales and important events straightforwardly identified – always

through the eyes of the child without qualities (always named only
thus), young Guy himself. It covers the period roughly between 1960
and the death of Maddin’s grandmother in 1970, that is, between Mad-
din’s fifth and fifteenth years. It lays out many striking and often trau-
matic events of Maddin’s childhood, and conveys a coherent sense of the
child’s subjectivity through it all. It presents a sensibility that, however
tinged with rueful detachment, is essentially serious and unironic, per-
haps the most extended form of that mood in anything of Maddin’s and
a fine corrective to any belief that his imagination is wholly anarchic and
gleefully destructive, or any denial that it is based in a deep stratum of
feeling. It is also a very useful tool in reading especially Cowards Bend the
Knee and Brand upon the Brain! for autobiographical content. Little Guy’s
position as absolutely the baby of the family, seven years younger than
his next eldest sibling, is forcefully laid out. His lengthy description of
playing with the mangy, headless toys and threadbare furniture he had
inherited from them is marvellously evocative, as is his experience of
seeing old photos in which these items were in pristine condition, in the
World Before Guy. The following passage is especially striking, and has
always seemed to me a clue to Maddin’s love affair with old and battered
cinema and other forms of culture:

What vigorous and loving play these toys and couches and radios had been
submitted to before the child without qualities had entered the world.
Now, as a result, a residue of better quality seemed to sit on everything in
the deserted house. The house held a dormancy, a potential to divulge
what it held for his family before. Every object in it was full and ready to
discharge its payload of history. (187)

The family home and place of business are quickly described:

The little child without qualities lives above Lil’s Beauty Salon, the fam-
ily business, with his mom, herdis, and his high-school-age siblings: ross,
the oldest, cameron and janet. Downstairs, in an apartment behind the
beautician’s, live his aunt lil and his elderly blind gramma. (180)

There are vibrant descriptions of the busy ‘gynocracy’ of the salon’s

working quarters, and of the layout of the establishment. The boy would
wedge himself into various chutes and ducts and peer into the salon at
floor level. (He says in the movie’s DVD commentary: ‘I guess my first
196 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

erotic memory is just a row of swollen, nylon-clad ankles lined up be-

neath a row of roaring hairdryers.’) In the basement, never joining the
rest of the family, was the mother of Herdis and Lil:

The blind gramma spent all her waking hours in profound loneliness. She
sat in a hardwood chair against the stucco wall of her living room, in an
austere composition that would have made Dreyer envious. (204)

The child’s (and Guy’s) father, chas, was business manager for the
Winnipeg Maroons, and then, briefly, held a not quite so exalted posi-
tion with the Canadian National hockey team that took up residence in
Winnipeg for a few years in the 1960s.11 The Maroons played at the Win-
nipeg Arena, and in 1964 (when Guy was eight or nine) won the Allan
Cup, emblematic of supremacy in the ranks of senior amateur hockey
in Canada. During these years Chas took little Guy to the Arena repeat-
edly, let him wander around freely in the dressing rooms and the empty

The place in which the child without qualities felt more ‘at home’
than any other place ... was none other than the Gothic and gargantuan,
the elitist and elysian, the perfumer of megalomania and melancholia, the
habitué’s haunt of heraldry, horror, hockey and hearses, the wonderful
womb of the wondrous: namely, in a word, the Winnipeg Arena ... The
child without qualities knew and loved its every dark corner [...] He
loved the smell of the ice, the Zamboni and the acrid dressing rooms, where
his father let him cut oranges for the players [...] Large swarms of bats is-
sued from the black infinities of the rafters and catwalks. The giant pipe or-
gan played J.S. Bach and a few hockey anthems. The games themselves were
played by men helmeted only in a thick protective gloss of Brylcreem, drip-
ping above lumpen faces heavily cross-hatched with the wounds of many
years’ play with blade and cudgel. The fans seemed to be selected from the
same pool. (190–1)

In one scene after the arrival of the national team, chas and the boy visit
the dressing room:

they soon found themselves, fully dressed, standing among the naked play-
ers in the shower room. chas introduced the child without qualities to
the great huck [team star Fran Huck], who stood before him all soapy and
steaming, smoking a cigar while the shower water beat off his back. huck
Cowards Bend the Knee 197

extended a hand in greeting to the awestruck lad, whose shy eyes were ex-
actly level with the player’s genitals. (200)

In the DVD commentary to the film, Maddin recounts this moment again,
saying, ‘My head only came up to Fran Huck’s penis in the shower.’ The
boy listened to games at home:

huck was there for him only on those radio broadcasts, which offered to
the listener only cubist glimpses of the players – the blur of a brushcut, the
overlapping of elbows … (201)

Also recounted here is the tragic melodrama of Guy’s brother Cam-

eron, who at the age of sixteen (when Guy was seven) committed suicide
on the grave of a girl who had been killed in an auto crash. Eventually
in its wake – and in the wake too of an extraordinary number of fatal
accidents and suicides among his group of friends – come the deaths of
his father (of a heart attack, when Guy was twenty-one and the day after
his girlfriend’s announcement that she was pregnant), and the now very
aged gramma (pitching down a flight of stairs in her blindness). These
latter two deaths were much feared in advance, impending disasters that
the child without qualities feels a special responsibility to try to pre-
vent by whatever rational or superstitious means he can – but vainly.

The film

The elements of the film are as follows. The place is Winnipeg. The time,
as stated by the published script, is the 1930s – but the film itself is silent,
with old 78rpm records as musical background, while sound effects are
often discreetly inserted in a fashion not so far from what happens in
the earliest ‘part-talkies,’ or for that matter in many scenes in Archan-
gel, so it feels more like, say, 1927 or 1928. And in the DVD commen-
tary, Maddin says ‘around 1930’ but adds that it’s hard to specify. In fact
the period is unstable (for example, it shows the Winnipeg Maroons as
winning the Allan Cup, something they didn’t do until the 1960s), but
not nearly to the degree that Tales from the Gimli Hospital is. The hero
is Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), ‘Rover for the Winnipeg Maroons,’13 and
his father, Maddin Sr (Victor Cowie) is ‘the Voice of the Maroons’ on
radio. Following the Allan Cup victory, Maddin Sr tells his son to be sure
to visit his mother, gravely ill in the hospital. Guy’s girlfriend Veronica
(Amy Stewart) is pregnant and he takes her to get an abortion in an
198 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

establishment that functions also as a beauty salon and a bordello, but

in the midst of this operation he leaves with a girl he meets there, the
daughter of the house, Meta (Melissia Dionisio). Veronica meanwhile
crawls out onto the ice of the Arena and bleeds to death. Meta, holding
Guy in sexual thrall, engages him in her own deranged compulsions: her
father Chas (Henry Mogatas) had been murdered by her ‘whore of a
mother,’ salon-owner Liliom (Tara Birtwistle), with help from her ‘foul
paramour’ Shaky (David Stuart Evans), a police captain who also plays
for the Maroons. During the murder Chas’ hands, stained blue from
years of hair-dyeing, had been severed, and Meta now keeps them in a
jar, while telling Guy that he shall not touch her until he has aided her
project of revenge by killing the murderers. She gets the team-doctor/
abortionist Dr Fusi (Louis Negin) to chloroform Guy and instructs him
to saw off Guy’s hands and sew on her father’s. Instead Fusi throws away
Chas’ hands and paints Guy’s blue. Guy sets out to kill Liliom in the sa-
lon one night, but instead ends up making sexual advances to her and
finally fist-fucking her at her own invitation. Meanwhile, Veronica has
risen from the grave and reappears in the story as a ghost, who, like Guy,
now gets work in the beauty salon. Guy visits a forgotten wax museum
in the rafters of the Arena, housing life-size sculptures of ‘The All-Time
Maroons’14 – middle-aged men in hockey gear, one of whom is Chas.
Guy falls in love again with Veronica, apparently oblivious to the fact
that he has just dumped her and indirectly caused her death. Fiery Meta,
though, is still hell-bent on her plan to have Guy kill her father’s assas-
sins. During a Maroons game against the Soviets, Guy strangles Shaky on
the ice, undetected in the middle of the extensive celebrations following
a Maroons goal.15 Appalled by his deed, he tries the next day to confess
it to Mo, also a policeman, and when Mo tries to hush him up Guy leans
over the desk and strangles his friend to death, surrounded by a precinct
full of unheeding officers. Meanwhile Veronica has taken up with Mad-
din Sr following the death of Guy’s mother (never visited by him). Guy
finds himself in the position of being in love with a woman (a) whom he
has fatally mistreated and (b) who prefers his father to him, while still
being urged to acts of criminal vengeance by the girl he is quite unsuc-
cessfully trying to disburden himself of, and being bossed around also by
that girl’s mother, whom he also has some kind of sexual relation with,
all the while piling up an ever-growing accumulation of horrifying acts
committed by himself out of compulsions he cannot identify. Apparently
the ghost of Veronica is going to have another abortion, because there
Cowards Bend the Knee 199

she is in the backroom of the salon with Dr Fusi operating on her and
Meta standing by. When Liliom tries to prevent Guy from bursting in to
stop it, he wrestles violently with her, and at last succeeds in strangling
her to death as well. Meta witnesses this act with turbulent mixed emo-
tions, and then instructs Fusi to return her father’s hands to her. Guy is
forcibly chloroformed and this time suffers a genuine double amputa-
tion. Perhaps he is now free of Meta, but at quite a cost. He heads di-
rectly to the Arena and dresses for the upcoming game. His stumps are
concealed by his hockey gloves, taped around his wrists by a stick-boy not
a million miles distant in appearance from the historical little Guy Mad-
din. Taking his pre-game pee, Guy finds himself at the urinal next to his
father. With no hands and taped-over hockey gloves, he finds it difficult
to proceed. ‘I see you still need your hand held,’ Maddin Sr remarks.
Guy looks down to see his urinating father possessed of the largest penis
in the world (or at least in Winnipeg). The game under way, Veronica’s
ghost arises from the crowd and walks zombielike across the catwalk and
up to the radio booth, summoned by Maddin Sr’s caresses of a lump of
ice on the table in front of him (‘the ice breast’). Meta is still as jealous
of Veronica as ever despite the fact that she has now dumped Guy and
repossessed his hands. Guy too climbs the stairs and enters the wax mu-
seum, where his tarot hockey cards ‘predict a mysterious apocalypse.’
Maddin Sr and Veronica come in, and the father says: ‘Son, meet your
new mother.’ In anguish, Guy utters a lengthy and imposing invocation
to the wax heroes, calling upon them to awaken and help him. They do
awaken, and Maddin Sr and Veronica back out of the room, followed by
Guy and the shuffling Immortals. As they come onto the catwalk, Meta,
in the crowd, sees her father and rushes up to meet him. In the traffic
jam on the catwalk, Meta and Chas are reunited, but when she swoons
with emotion, her father tries to catch her, but – as handless as Guy –
cannot hold her, and she plunges to her death on the ice. The film’s last
scene, which occurs ‘the following season,’ shows Guy now himself a wax
figure in the museum (his plaque reads ‘Red Dunsmore’). He has be-
come another figure of failed masculinity trapped eternally in a posture
of impotence and humiliation. To further emphasize this condition he
is shown being spoon-fed by Maddin Sr during the ‘feeding time at the
Wax Museum.’ The final title offers a moralizing quote from that wise
elder to the effect that ‘like the French Foreign Legion, the museum is a
sanctuary ... for cowards, for husbands afraid to face the burdens – nay,
the terrors – of living with wives and families.’
200 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

A life mash-up

Maddin kicks off the DVD commentary to Cowards Bend the Knee with the
following statement:

I decided to set the film in my pre-history – I was born in 1956, but just
vaguely set it in some kind of silent-movie past, just because it felt like that
was where my life really began, where all the melodramas, all the myths that
made me what I am, took place.

The DVD commentary altogether is a telling source of insight: unaccom-

panied by his usual sidekicks, Maddin finds, especially later in the movie,
a self-communing and even saddened tone, seemingly prompted not so
much by the film as by all the things that inspired it. As well as many details
connecting events in the film to events in Maddin’s life, it offers a kind of
tunnel into the composite personality that imagined the project in the
first place. The film takes place almost entirely in only two locations: the
beauty salon and the Arena. These correspond to the two principal places
of Maddin’s childhood so lovingly commemorated in THE CHILD
WITHOUT QUALITIES and elsewhere. A third place, the family lake
cottage at Gimli, does not figure here, although it does appear quite rec-
ognizably in The Dead Father, and in a transformed version in Brand upon
the Brain! There are a couple of scenes in a cemetery, and one in a police
station, but the rest are rigorously restricted – even Veronica somehow
contrives to crawl out onto the ice at the Arena to bleed to death after
her literally backroom abortion in the Salon. Some actual events and per-
sons are reproduced in rather fine detail. Liliom’s mother (‘Gramma,’ a
role in which the filmmaker wickedly cast his own mother Herdis) lives in
a rocking chair in the basement, her blindness Expressionistically signi-
fied by black-paned spectacles, an unheeding witness to various sex acts
of Guy and Meta, and on one occasion singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Li-
liom through the heating vent (this exact event related in THE CHILD
WITHOUT QUALITIES as gramma’s happy birthday to herdis16). The
orange-sucking ritual of the hockey team’s dressing room and the vivid
nudity of its showers are faithfully transcribed; the Arena, the Winnipeg
Maroons, and the Allan Cup are all called by their right names; and the
players inhabiting the Hall of the All-Time Maroons are connected by
name to the Maroons and the Canadian National team of the 1960s.17 The
salon, meanwhile, was tricked out with props from the actual Lil’s Beauty
Salon – even though it is given the name of the rival salon down the street,
Cowards Bend the Knee 201

‘The Black Silhouette.’18 That name was in any case more appropriate to
the salon in the film, which, as the intertitles tell us, is ‘beauty salon by
day ... bordello by night,’ and which features backroom abortions in
the back room. This is another transformation of more of his own child-
hood memories. Maddin reminisced to Robert Enright:

My brother [Ross] was a big man on campus and had many undergraduate
parties in the basement that were full of hot Commerce babes. Sometimes
a busload of nurses would come over. The party would always overboil from
the rumpus room in the basement up into the beauty salon. I remember
drunk, beautiful girls shampooed by horny teenaged boys and then both of
them going under the dryers together, and ... rolling around in the dark. It
was right on Ellice Avenue, a heavily travelled street, and there were huge,
noirish venetian blinds and the room was full of mirrors, so the car head-
lights going down the street would bounce off the mirrors and constantly
move the venetian blind shadows up and down and wash them all over the
place [...] [A]ll of those activities excluded me completely because of my

How precisely accurate these memories are we can’t know, but as

with so many other instances of Maddin’s reminiscences, there is quite
enough weirdness in the events as narrated to make visible a pathway to
the frankly surreal worlds of his films. And actually the nocturnal activi-
ties in the salon are, in the film, visually quite close to this description.
Most of Cowards Bend the Knee consists thus of a lurid and flamboyant
mash-up and transmutation of earlier events of Maddin’s life and earlier
events inside his head.
Although the settings are those of Maddin’s childhood, some of the
most important events stem from later periods of his life. The missing
character from this landscape of the past is little Guy himself, the per-
ceiving subject. Instead, we see a grown-up Guy perambulating through
situations that belong to his childhood. The pivotal relationship between
Guy and Meta is, says the filmmaker, a twisted version of one that he had
been in only four or five years previously.20 Both the way that Guy casu-
ally walks away from an existing relationship (actually during his girl-
friend’s abortion!) and the perverse and destructive acts he performs
while under Meta’s influence represent lurid restagings of felt adult be-
haviour patterns of his own, and both are labelled as ‘cowardly.’21 In
the DVD commentary, the director states flatly that the ‘cowardice’ de-
picted in the film is ‘simply the terror of breaking up with somebody.’ In
202 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

fact the whole notion of ‘cowardice’ is something that stems from more
or less current history rather than a childhood environment, and has a
particular, rather counterintuitive, meaning in the film, to which we will
turn in a moment. This surreal, fertile overprinting of past and present
– more astounding the more one thinks about it – can then present the
spectacle of Maddin’s child-sensibility inhabiting the role of star hockey
player,22 or re-enacting Oedipal confrontations with the father’s giant
sexual member and the mother’s perceived cruel and aggressive sexual
appetite directed at the son, while at the same time existing as a mature
sexual subject who comes from the present, however much he may be
set in the past. Of course it is entirely possible that these simultaneities
seem much less fantastic to Maddin than they do to us: probably his
childhood past always seems as present to him as the present (there’s
certainly enough evidence for this in his work). Best, then, simply to de-
scribe this impossible synchronicity as the realization of a psychological
state – bizarre to viewers, ‘a blatant autobiography’ to their creator.

Oedipus wrecks 23

There are plenty of other wonderful alchemical transformations as well,

most notably the presence of both the mother and the father in two
separate and contrasting personae. The father is both the powerful Mad-
din Sr, cold, judgmental, and Oedipally threatening, and the harmless
victim Chas, friendly and loving, amputated and murdered (in the latter
persona recalling the maimed and betrayed Swan-Feeder in Careful). If
the character of Chas, endowed with the name of the director’s real fa-
ther, represents the parental figure as victimized and disempowered,24
then Maddin Sr (as Maddin tells us in the DVD commentary) is endowed
with ‘all sorts of Zeus-like strength – the kind my father deserved, but
never got to enjoy.’ But Maddin Sr also has some of the institutional
power that Chas Maddin had as business manager for a famous hockey
team. Maddin says that he got the idea of his father as a successful ri-
val to his son in romance from Turgenev’s First Love, because he’d just
been reading it and wanted to give his father those godlike powers.25
But it seems a particularly explosive power to give him in the context
of a story that is overdetermined with signifiers of symbolic castration
and Oedipal trauma, and it really seems that Maddin Sr is some kind of
avenging-superego father of the unconscious. The mother, meanwhile,
is both the pathetically dying wife of Maddin Sr, seen only in one irised
shot in her hospital bed and entirely neglected by her son, and the harpy
Cowards Bend the Knee 203

Liliom, swaggering predatory monster of power and sexual appetite. In

a way, both of these are Maddin’s Aunt Lil: Liliom as a transformation
of the gentle real woman into one who was aggressive and sexual, finally
empowered in a way; the mother in the hospital a version of the real
Lilian who died in hospital in 1986 while her nephew felt distracted by
semi-toxic things going on in his love life.26 But, as Brand upon the Brain!
will show us, they are both representations of Maddin’s mother Herdis as
well (who is of course actually present in the film herself as the blind and
blinded Gramma). All four of these parent figures are versions of the
powerful phantasmatic parents of little Guy’s child sensibility, monstrous
or pathetic, and when put back together as a single pair, monstrous and
pathetic. The self, too, is multiplied: Guy is both hockey star displayed in
pillar-of-light soft-focus glamour shots and comprehensive failure – in
love, in ethics, in action – horribly amputated before being frozen into
a position of impotent stasis and put on display forever as the hopeless
loser he is. Moreover, since Liliom is in some sense very much a version
of the self’s mother, then the alarming Meta becomes another version
of the self (as the director has suggested).27 If the film’s ‘I’ is both, in
a major way, ‘Guy Maddin’ and in a partial way, ‘Meta,’ then that poor
self seems to get a drubbing both coming and going. The nominal pro-
tagonist is a spectacular moral failure in every dimension, and finally a
symbolically castrated figure of pathos and dismay, whose awful punish-
ment is explicitly declared to be quite appropriate. This is self-loathing
at its finest. The imperious, sexually manipulating, blindly self-concen-
trated personage of Meta reflects not just a quasi-comical complaint
about some high-handed girlfriend, but an arresting repetition of the
awesome figure of Klara in Careful. Both Meta and Klara are most strik-
ing not so much in their arbitrary and tyrannical behaviour as in their
motivation: deep involvement with parental figures that the film asks us
to respect. In fact the fullest moment of positive melodramatic feeling in
Cowards Bend the Knee occurs in the scene of Meta’s joyful and fatal reun-
ion with her handless dead father, and this wounded child aspect of the
character is the one that Maddin has expressed an identification with,
so it is probably not wrong to speak of Meta as the filmmaker’s positive
version of the ‘I.’ Insofar as the film reproduces the plot of Euripedes’
Electra (and Strauss’ opera28), then of course Meta is Electra (as Liliom is
Clytemnestra and Chas is Agamemnon and Shaky is Aegisthus), and that
makes Meta the protagonist of the story. It is a configuration that casts
Guy as Orestes, Electra’s brother, and thus makes Guy’s sexual attraction
to Meta something quasi-incestuous.29 Maddin has resisted the idea of
204 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

psychoanalysis, saying that he doesn’t know much about it, and that it
might be destructive to creativity.30 But in Cowards Bend the Knee (and in
Brand upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg), he is pretty close to psychoana-
lysing himself.


An introductory caption to the published script reads:

In human relationships all men are cowards. They lack the capacity for tell-
ing the truth even when there is little risk in doing so, and by chronically
surrendering to even the smallest fears, they invite, even oblige, women to
exploit this masculine cowardice for their own feminine ends. Both men
and women are cowards!!! (14)

So, on this account, the characters of the film, and especially the protag-
onist, are cowardly because they shy clear of any kind of confrontation,
they lie in order to avoid unpleasantness, they are too compliant because
they are confused by desire, and they render themselves weak before
their women lovers who are thus encouraged to bully and manipulate
them. Maddin told James Quandt:

In the battle of the sexes, women seem to have the bigger army and the
chemical weapons, and the only way a man can swim upstream, almost like
a little sperm trying to get at the egg [...] men will always take the slipperiest
way! ‘Be a man’ means John Wayne, but the men I know are more like Daffy
Duck or George Costanza.31

Although the published script accuses ‘all men,’ the only real example
the film offers is the protagonist. Guy is thus bullied and manipulated
by Meta and by Liliom, who can order him to do things that alarm him
by sheer force of personality and his own ‘cowardice.’ Under their influ-
ence he murders Shaky and Liliom, he takes a job as a hairdresser where
he is ordered around by them all day, he is alienated from his own body
(his hands strangle, his sexual appetites move in ways that disgust him).
What is cowardly here is the lack of courage to follow true impulses – to
escape Meta, resist Liliom.
But there is a second, equally important, form of cowardice on view
in the film. This is a more straightforward form of moral cowardice in
which one shirks one’s ethical and human duty. Guy’s abandonment of
Cowards Bend the Knee 205

Guy Maddin, in the uniform of the Winnipeg Maroons, hears from his
girlfriend Veronica that she is pregnant, as tiny hockey players flitter
around the ice behind.

Veronica just at the point she needs him most, and just in the sad condi-
tion where his appetites have helped to land her, is a clear example, as
is his neglect of his mother on her deathbed. Both kinds of cowardice
seem inscribed into the muddy final epigraph-title, referring to the wax
museum (including Guy) as ‘a sanctuary ... for cowards, for husbands
afraid to face the burdens – nay, the terrors – of living with wives and
families.’ The confusion prompted by this sententiously pious title sim-
ply highlights the dual and contradictory nature of the concept as used
in the film: have these husbands neglected their families (‘burdens’), or
have they just been too quick to do what those families wanted them to
do (‘terrors’)? Likewise, the film accuses Guy of being cowardly because
he selfishly follows his own desires (in neglecting Veronica and his sick
mother) and cowardly because he pusillanimously suppresses his own de-
sires (to get away from Meta and Liliom).
206 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The concept is slippery and mutable, but one thing is clear: Guy is
weak and guilty every which way. In this heads-you-lose, tails-you-lose
fashion, the film gives the distinct sense of just being so disgusted with
its hero that it really doesn’t matter how you look at it, or what stan-
dard you apply to him, a big COWARD sign is going to be hung around
his cowardly neck. It is somewhat strange that the forms this cowardice
takes include acts such as strangling a teammate in full view of an arena
full of spectators, or strangling a cop in the middle of the day shift at
a police station, or for that matter strangling Liliom in front of lots of
witnesses. In general the film makes the firm point that when its hero is
confronted with the enraged and autocratic Meta, any kind of violence,
danger, or craziness will seem an easier option than standing up to her.
And it is also pretty clear that an underlying weakness in every sphere is
responsible not just for his treachery to Veronica and his spinelessness
with Meta, but also for his shame and shrinking powerlessness in the face
of Maddin Sr. That Freudian viewers will recognize in that character the
castrating father of the superego, rendered in a fashion so elementary
as to be comical, and perceive the son therefore as in some way helpless
by necessity is of no interest to the filmmaker, whose wrathful mood is
so contemptuous that he is not going to quibble over questions of which
if any of Guy’s failings may not be entirely his fault. The state of waxen
inaction that the cowardly protagonist ends up in becomes an expres-
sion of Guy’s own self-castration.32 That is an event prefigured almost
from the beginning in his ignominious submission to Meta, a failure of
traditional masculine power – of masculine power such as that effort-
lessly manifested by the patriarch Maddin Sr with his enormous penis
and easy expropriation of the son’s love object. So cowardice = castration
(or castration = cowardice), as well as moral failure. This swirling brew
of incommensurate psychic energies just flows wonderfully through the
film, another index of its almost magical success in uniting everything
that works and has always worked for Maddin.

Horror and mutilation

As with many of Maddin’s films, Cowards Bend the Knee fuses elements of a
number of earlier movie genres, albeit in fragmentary form and in alien-
ating surroundings. Heading the list is horror, since the resemblances of
this story to The Hands of Orlac are readily discernible. Beginning in 1920
as a novel (Les Mains d’Orlac) by horror pioneer Maurice Renard, the
story was turned four years later into a German Expressionist silent film
Cowards Bend the Knee 207

(Orlacs Hände) directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt. It

had a number of later movie adaptations, of which Maddin’s avowed
favourite is Mad Love (1935), directed by Karl Freund and starring Peter
Lorre.33 The essential idea is that a concert pianist has his hands de-
stroyed in an accident, and they are replaced by those of a murderer
owing to the skill of an extraordinary surgeon, after which the here-
tofore virtuous patient finds that his hands want to kill people: a kind
of cousin, therefore, of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The Wiene film, meticu-
lous and stately with impressive settings and extraordinary slow-motion
ghastly pantomime by Veidt, in the end reveals that the hands were not
those of a murderer at all, and thus becomes the equivalent of a haunted
house movie where there is no actual ghost. Mad Love changes almost
everything. Orlac becomes in effect a secondary character, as centre-
stage is taken over by the mad doctor Lorre, who is desperately in love
with Orlac’s fiancée and tries to manipulate his patient into believing
that he has killed his own father. The film is an egregious mishmash,
which gives the fiancée the profession of star actress in a Grand Guignol
theatre troupe in which she is tortured every day to great applause and
appreciation for her art. Lorre never misses a performance, and kidnaps
the life-size wax statue of her that was used to advertise the show and
then talks to it in his living quarters while playing demented music on
the organ and laughing maniacally. Additions of important characters
such as a wisecracking American reporter and a drunken housekeeper
with a parakeet on her shoulder have a truly dire effect on any unity of
mood (quite the opposite of the sombre monomania of Orlacs Hände),
but it is quite likely that it is exactly this crazy-quilt of grotesque horror,
absurd caricature, and inappropriate humour that Maddin finds most
appealing about the film. Certainly that irrecuperable melange, classic-
ally presented without the slightest acknowledgment of its wild internal
incongruities, bears perceptible affinities to Maddin’s work when you
start to think about it.
The trope of amputation is hardly unique to The Hands of Orlac, and
of course it is startlingly persistent in Maddin’s cinema. The one-legged
characters in Archangel and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the brother who
slices off his fingers in Careful, the decapitation of Lucy in Dracula – Pages
from a Virgin’s Diary, and (simultaneously with the creation of Cowards
Bend the Knee) Lady Port-Huntley in The Saddest Music in the World who
suffers another double amputation by hacksaw even worse than that of
‘Guy Maddin’ – these form a dismayingly populous gallery of amputees.34
When I asked Maddin about this, he replied that he loved Lon Chaney
208 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

movies, melodrama, and fairy tales, and that ‘these are little allegories of
disability where someone’s inner wounds are shown expressionistically,
outwardly.’35 Chaney’s films are an entire little subspecies of silent cin-
ema. A fascinating figure with a ravaged heroic countenance that would
have suited Milton’s Satan, he attracted a fanatical fan base for his pain-
ful melodramas of tortured sacrifice or villainy that often displayed a
vivid and startling masochistic suffering. Chaney was most famous as ‘the
man of a thousand faces,’ and he deliberately inflicted upon himself
extremes of physical pain to acquire spectacular deformities. His most
famous agonies included hideously contorting his body and face for The
Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), inserting wires into his cheeks to distend
his face in Phantom of the Opera (1925), and forcing his limbs into tor-
ments of compression to play a legless character in The Penalty (1920)
and an armless one in The Unknown (1927). The last-named title, and
several of Chaney’s other films, were directed by Tod Browning, whose
disturbing career eventually progressed through horror movies of the
1930s like Dracula (1931) and Maddin favourite The Devil-Doll (1936), and
reached its apogee of disturbingness with Freaks (1932).36
Maddin’s echoing of Chaney’s amputation-work and Browning’s gro-
tesquery has in some ways a relation to his echoing of the aesthetics of
silent and early sound film in general. That is, it is based in a recogni-
tion of the simple power of these forms, and also of their impossibility
of working in the same way for a modern spectator, and thence of the
necessity for some kind of accompanying irony. The absurdities of Mad
Love and The Devil-Doll (which features a literally unbelievable movie-long
drag act by Lionel Barrymore among many other delights) make them
always-already campy, but however ridiculous the extremes of Chaney’s
films (and The Unknown is jaw-dropping in this respect), their anguish is
at some level so appalling that it is more or less impossible to laugh at
In Cowards Bend the Knee there are amputations, strangulations, hu-
miliations, terrible crimes, and suffering, but they have too the purely
Maddinesque simultaneous quality of ridiculousness. As Dr Fusi turns
up for surgery – an abortion or an amputation – his whalebone corset
and Stroheim cigarette-in-ridiculously-long-holder instantly render the
scene absurd. When Meta demands that he cut off Guy’s hands and re-
place them with those of her dead father, he replies, ‘Impossible!’, she
retorts with a menacing (yet strangely cute) scowl, ‘Do it!’and he meekly
complies. This operation, of course, never takes place: Guy’s hands are
painted blue and Chas’ dropped into a garbage bucket with a Foleyed
Cowards Bend the Knee 209

As Guy at last strangles Liliom, mashing her face into the two-way glass of the
beauty salon. Her daughter Meta in white salon-employee uniform looks on
from the near side with profoundly mixed feelings.

‘clunk’ that is both chilling and funny. But later on he actually does
saw off Guy’s hands, under a similar compulsion (one more demon-
stration that ‘all men are cowards’). As this is taking place the viewer
is experiencing a mixture of feelings that is quite intoxicating. In the
first place, these hands-on-and-off and operations-pretended-and-actual
games achieve a virtually Feydeauvian level of abstract farce, where vio-
lent events are rendered almost weightless in a wild environment where
anything can happen, according to a formula whereby the more outra-
geous an event is, the more abstract it becomes. (Perhaps Joe Orton is
a better parallel than Feydeau.) But the spectacle of desperation and
suffering, the speed and momentum of events, and those aspects of the
presentation (music, visual style) that encourage a sober vantage point
are pushing in the opposite direction, towards pity and terror. This
vertiginous mix is, to repeat, practically Maddin’s hallmark. Just as the
severed hands and stumps are metaphors for ‘inner wounds’ and this
210 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

amputated condition a clear realization of symbolic castration, so the

pathological condition of alienation from the body, the sundering of
desire from will, and zombielike destructive actions are realized in the
hands that want to transgress of their own accord – like in every other
version of the Orlac scenario. Cowards Bend the Knee is probably the most
articulate version of this aspect of the scenario, because, first, the hands
that transgress actually are Guy’s hands (and in any case Chas was not
a murderer but a murder victim), and second, uniquely among all the
Orlacs, Guy in the end has his hands amputated and not replaced at all.
He is left neither in a condition of unwilling criminality nor in one of
redeemed virtue, but simply in a state of waxen impotence. And the reat-
tachment element of the story is only an idea, a fairy-tale idea, thought up
by Meta whose whole narrative is poised between a fairy tale with its flat
characters of good father and evil mother and a melodrama which mar-
shals the same elements into a turbulent broth of emotion (in between
lies Euripedes).

Film noir

If Cowards Bend the Knee is a horror/mutilation movie, it is also a film

noir. Indeed, Maddin baldly labels it as such on the opening page of the
published script, which reads:

time: 1930s
place: the environs of Winnipeg’s criminal underworld – its hockey
arena, its most lurid hair-styling salon
genre: film noir

The description certainly fits the physical environment of the film, with
its nocturnal settings, seedy back rooms, and dilapidated public build-
ings with their aura of lowness, its photographic style descending from
German Expressionism in its very noirish use of high contrast and Wee-
gee effects of flash-blast and surrounding blackness, its mirrors and ven-
etian blinds. (Maddin told me that ‘hockey photography in the early 60s
and the 50s always looked like a Weegee photograph because it was a
flashbulb taking the picture and then everything grading off into dark-
ness instantly. You sort of really felt that hockey players were more sinis-
ter then.’37) In fact Cowards is more of a true Weimar-era Expressionist
film noir than almost anything, since it is using silent film techniques like
high-contrast iris shots, multiple exposure, and heightened images, but
Cowards Bend the Knee 211

in the noir context of the twentieth-century city. Certainly the lighting

effects created by venetian blinds and passing car headlights in sex-satur-
ated Lil’s Beauty Salon at night (as related to Enright, above) are repro-
duced in the film in a way that is 100% noir. The moral environment is
equally low: crass appetites, treachery, crime and sex, concealment and
guilt. Even the most sensational aspects of horror and mutilation can be
nested appropriately within a noir context – and of course what noir gets
from Expressionist horror and crime models is not just visual.
But Maddin is also interested crucially in another aspect of film noir:
its gender map. He offers a partial definition of original noir as stories
‘where you start seeing delusional males who seal their own fate in the
opening moments of the movie and then you get to watch them die over
the next seventy-five action-packed minutes,’ and adds, ‘My favourite
noirs seem to be about a guy and a gal and some quicksand.’38 Cowards
reproduces the frequent noir configuration of (1) a male who is not as
much in control as he is supposed to be, (2) a femme fatale who leads
him off the right path, and (3) A good girl whom he makes the mistake
of not preferring. In fact it has two femmes fatales, since Meta and Liliom
both qualify. Maddin’s protagonist lacks the overwhelming classical con-
text of powerful, narrative-mastering heroes that made the weak, flawed,
or failed males of 1940s and 1950s noir so extraordinarily disturbing by
contrast, and in general the proliferation of the ‘erotic thriller’ since
the 1980s has made Meta and Liliom types less alarming. What Cowards
does echo recognizably is that subcategory of noirs that feature a weak
and self-indulgent hero who (to quote Maddin on his own protagonist)
‘gets exactly what he deserves’:39 films like They Won’t Believe Me (1947)
and Pitfall (1948) and Angel Face (1952) that make Robert Young, Dick
Powell, and Robert Mitchum into figures of painful unworthiness. But
unlike those characters, ‘Guy Maddin’’s crisis of masculinity has no so-
cial dimension; it does not reflect in any way a culture-wide failure of
good patriarchy. Nor are the film’s femmes fatales any kind of response
to an institutionally masculine fear of sexually powerful women. In this
dimension, as in all the others, Cowards remains private and personal,
no matter how extensive its paraphrasing or reanimation of existing cul-
tural forms.
Melodrama, Greek tragedy

Yet in ways that horror or noir rarely do, Cowards Bend the Knee proclaims
affinities with Greek tragedy and melodrama. The echoes of Electra have
been noted, but it can perhaps be underlined how the starkness, simpli-
212 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Noir heroine Meta lights a cigarette in the back room of the Black Silhouette
Salon. Dim in the background, white-corsetted Dr Fusi is performing an
abortion on Veronica.

city, and elemental power of the situation and the characters make their
way into the film’s mixture of so many other elements, and are brought
out by the film’s swift tempo and the tone of seriousness struck by the
musical soundtrack. It is rather wonderful that these qualities can persist
through so much pastiche and absurdity, but the fundamental bedrock
of parent’s crime and child’s passion conveys an essential note of gran-
deur despite all distractions. It is above all in the Electra-plot that these
qualities show themselves most clearly, and especially in the personage
of Meta. And here we find ourselves also in the domain of family melo-
drama. That form is commonly held to be incompatible with tragedy,
but we might reflect that from one angle the story of the House of Atreus
really is a melodrama (indeed, a good update would make an excellent
television miniseries). It is the addition of trashiness, or at least mun-
daneness, and of broad conduits for sentimental feeling that convert the
Cowards Bend the Knee 213

awesome ritual narratives of Greek theatre into the ‘low’ form of melo-
drama. In Cowards, the seedy sex and crime of the noir world invade the
drama and lower it, while the hailstorm of ridiculousness pummels every
high emotion just as in Archangel or Careful. Meta must deliver her fear-
some Electra-like pronouncements while clutching a glass jar containing
her father’s hair-dye-stained hands in formaldehyde, and enact a stern
design of vengeance in the context of surgical ludicrousness and petty
jealousy, all in a beauty-salon environment of perms and manicures,
abortions and prostitution. But melodrama has evolved in response to
the anti-tragic climate of the modern world, and if its analyses and cath-
arses are shallower and more disconnected than tragedy’s, they never-
theless give some relief of expression to volcanic underlying pressures,
and in those very qualities of relative thinness and off-the-rackness re-
flect modernity’s failing ability to make sense of things.
Maddin, master jackdaw, is perfectly at ease in adding together all of
these elements without the slightest concern for clashes of tone or any
other kind of contradiction, and expecting each separate element still
to function. So Cowards can be farce, horror movie, film noir, Greek tra-
gedy, and family melodrama – and surrealist avant-garde piece and three
different kinds of silent film – in quick succession or all at once. (The
director has also called it ‘an opera without singing.’40) It is the register
of melodrama, though, that Cowards chooses for its most genuine mo-
ments of feeling, and for its emotional climax. The pathos of Veronica’s
pregnancy, abortion, abandonment, and eventual death are achieved
largely through her presentation in the old stereotype of demure vir-
tuous girl sadly led from the path of respectability and suffering a fate
much too cruel for her transgression, an image coming directly from
Victorian melodrama. And as all the plot elements of the film move to
their garish climaxes, the one element that is accorded a redemptive
flow of feeling is Meta’s reunion with her dead, adored father. I have
talked about Archangel and Careful as movies that must journey slowly
and doggedly through all kinds of obstacles to some plane of genuine
(and melodramatic) feeling. Cowards doesn’t do that, exactly, partly be-
cause its compactness and pace discourage any kind of expansiveness,
and partly because its principal subject is Guy, whose condition is block-
age and alienated action and whose final state is petrifaction: precisely
not a redemptive flow of feeling at any stage. But it does allow Meta,
the most passionate and active engine of the story, to reach an exalted
apotheosis in keeping with the grandeur of her deranged project. (Care-
ful had allowed Klara something similar, but her heroic death-moment
214 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

is brief and sudden, and the film’s climax of pathos is left to Grigorss.)
Espying her father issuing from the wax museum and appearing on the
catwalk above the Arena ice surface, she runs up to meet him, melts
with joy, then faints under the dazzling power of this miracle. One of
the idyllic memories of her daughterhood had been of ‘play fainting’
in the delightful confidence that her father would catch her before she
fell. This concept, this game of ‘play fainting,’ is a typically bizarre and
whimsical Maddin invention whose bizarre whimsy somehow alchem-
ically becomes real and touching, and at this culmination flowers into a
sublime moment, like something from an opera. The scene is crowned
with the bitter irony that this idealized world of father and daughter
cannot survive in the real world: in the real world the father was mur-
dered, and in the real world now, as the intertitles tell us, ‘the weight
of a daughter [is] too much for a father with no hands’ – so the
unconscious Meta slides off the catwalk and plummets to her death (for
in the real world the distance of the fall is not a play-distance either).
Like everything else in Cowards, the moment is upon us swiftly and does
not linger in the execution, but it nevertheless achieves the true plane of
melodramatic pathos and release.

Male inadequacy

But in its more central activity of self-meditation through the examina-

tion of its self-named protagonist, Cowards remains the apex of Maddin’s
representations of male inadequacy, failure, and symbolic castration. It
is a collection of work that begins in Tales from the Gimli Hospital with
the maladroit Einar the Lonely, and progresses through one-legged
Boles and gutless Jannings in Archangel, manipulated Grigorss, crippled
and abandoned Franz, and their blind unheeded father in Careful,
tricked, foot-shot, and wrist-scarred Peter, actually castrated Cain Ball,
and wooden-legged Solti in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs to Guy in Cowards,
Maddin’s most centralized, articulate, and comprehensive example of
symbolic castration (with poor Chas thrown in as an added bonus). As
for the three murders Guy commits, they are performed with his own
hands, not Chas’, and so seem to endow him with some sort of power.
But it is a perverse, unwilled, and even rather inadvertent power. Guy
violently assaults Shaky exactly the way Dr Fusi violently assaults him,
out of a cowardly obedience to an overbearing woman. It is never made
clear why he strangles Mo, an act that seems surreally uncalled for in any
dimension (and consequently perhaps the most authentically horror-
Cowards Bend the Knee 215

monster moment in the film) – though this is perhaps an artefact of the

script-editing process, and it is probable that what is intended is another
demonstration of Meta’s jealous tyranny, this one detaching Guy from
his male friends.41 By the time he kills Liliom, one feels he has rather
grown into these murdering hands, and is for once acting on his own
anger rather than simply Meta’s, even though this is the deed she has
been urging him to commit since the beginning. Nevertheless, the total
picture is of a man whose only power is excessive, lethal, and not his own,
and that when he attempts to exert power for deliberate and personal
ends, he can only perform acts of omission (abandoning Veronica, not
visiting his sick mother) or else fail abjectly and have his impotent con-
dition inscribed violently upon his body in the form of mutilation and
waxen immobility.


Perhaps we may now turn to what is perhaps the most brilliant area of
success in the film: its range of rhetorical devices encompassing pho-
tography and mise en scène, editing, music, and elements drawn from
silent cinema and the avant-garde. Building on the editing and camera-
movement revolution of Heart of the World and Dracula, Maddin now takes
this combination of elements and applies it to a more ambitious pro-
ject, with an original script ‘from life,’ a strict episode structure, and the
kind of found classical (and historically ‘degraded’) music that he had
last employed in Archangel. There is a respect for precise formal require-
ments (ten episodes, six minutes each), and despite manifold assaults
from the muse of derision consistently a kind of heightened tone that
shows an awareness of the work’s commission as a gallery installation in
the world of high art. (Maddin’s way of overtly acknowledging this is typ-
ically perverse: the opening montage shows the rapid alternation, almost
overprinting, of images of an onanistically curled hand and a large nail
in penis position. Explicating this surreal image-montage in the DVD
commentary, the director says: ‘I had so much respect for art galleries, I
really feared being viewed as a wanker, so I think I had to introduce the
project with that image there.’ This addresses the masturbatory element
of the image, but not its even more evocative suggestion of crucifixion.)

Music and sound

The air of gravity emanates from the austere black and white images with
216 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

their ‘degraded’ high contrast and blur, but even more immediately it is
conveyed by the soundtrack music. The film’s use of ten discrete classical
music selections from the 78rpm era, one to an episode, is the best vin-
dication possible of Maddin’s minimalist ‘found music’ strategy, which
had contributed so materially to The Dead Father, Gimli Hospital, and Arch-
angel, but then been left behind as the films acquired specially composed
scores (this acquisition seen, like the move towards bigger budgets and
better known actors, as part of a necessary maturation process by every-
body trying to coax Maddin away from kitchen-table solutions to artistic
problems). Again, both Heart of the World and Dracula returned to found
music as well – although in the latter case the music had already been
found by somebody else and came pre-welded to the story. To some ex-
tent the choice of individual selections is arbitrary, because the specific
musical content is only part of the equation – the other part is simply the
presence of scratchy, limited-recording-range classical music as an omni-
present background, the presence of a certain atmosphere. Still, it is an
important part, too. Most of the selections are from what one might call
mainstream classical repertoire – Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Dvomrák’s
Cello Concerto, Brahms’s Double Concerto, relatively familiar piano pieces by
Chopin and Liszt – and none of them are so obscure that I (admittedly
a classical music devotee) couldn’t recognize them at first hearing.42
Sometimes there is a straightforwardly appropriate choice – the sombre
minor-key tread of the ‘Allegretto’ from the Beethoven Seventh for the
doleful procession of figures marching to the Night Clinic for Veronica’s
abortion in the second chapter (‘A SQUEEZE OF THE HAND’); the
menacing, skipping trumpets of the Ballabile from Verdi’s Macbeth in the
sixth (‘WAX TRYST’); the urgent high drama of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’
for the final chapter (‘THE FURIES’). Gluck’s ‘Dance of the Furies’ is
not only strangely appropriate to the fevered erotic frustration of chapter
3 (‘UPON A PILE OF HOCKEY GLOVES’) but also rather interpretive
of the characters and their future, given Meta’s Fury-like behaviour. On
other occasions the music, while not inappropriate, adds a different ele-
ment to the scenes it accompanies, expressive but in some way setting off
the story content rather like two contrasting colours that complement
each other. The pensive lyricism of Chopin’s C#-minor Waltz works this
way in the sixth chapter (‘META’S BEDROOM’). Putting Dalila’s seduc-
tive love-song from Saint-Saëns’ opera (‘Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’)
over Guy’s murders of Shaky and Mo is magnificently counterintuitive:
the music’s dramatic content may be meant to emanate from Meta’s
erotic hold over Guy, but its sensual presence is an utter contrast to the
Cowards Bend the Knee 217

events taking place in front of us, and the hooty tunnel-sound of the ar-
chaic voice recording is an additional alienating quality that somehow
mediates these impossible contrasts.
One detailed example will show the kind of complex effect Mad-
din is capable of creating with this resource. The music for the open-
ing chapter (‘SPERM PLAYERS’) is a transcription for solo cello with
piano accompaniment of a number from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser,
the baritone’s big number in Act III, beginning with the recitative
‘Wie Todesahnung.’ Almost certainly the B-side of this 78 would have
included the aria itself, the very famous cantabile melody ‘O du mein
holder Abendstern,’ but all we get here is that introductory recitative –
a solemn, expository address in speechlike cadences, setting a tone of
high oratory that absolutely hits the desired spot. The half-smutty chap-
ter title and masturbatory hand, the bizarre spectacle of Fusi squeezing
sperm onto a microscope slide, then bending over to see a diagrammatic
overhead shot of a hockey ice surface with little cartoon players gives us
that highly characteristic Maddin combination of surreal poetic inven-
tion and sharp-stick pokes of juvenile provocation. Only in retrospect,
perhaps, do we surmise that the masturbation and the sperm are the
filmmaker’s and that the product of this receptacle-less insemination is
the movie. On the one hand, this is simply an elaboration of Maddin’s
self-characterization as a ‘wanker,’43 the product of whose imagination
is not an actual living organism but only a B-movie mad scientist’s sleazy
experiment with a sensational substance on a microscope slide. But on
the other hand, it also, simultaneously and with brave seriousness, func-
tions as a kind of sublime incantation to the muse of inspiration, and
this aspect of the scene is what the music is the perfect metaphoric and
rhetorical presentation of. The recording’s aesthetic language is obso-
lete: the whole genre of transcription-piece to which it belongs, once
the calling card of virtuoso instrumentalists, is now basically dead, while
the degraded sound marks the passage of many decades, and these fac-
tors help also to push the musical idiom of nineteenth-century Roman-
ticism further into the musty past. But both music and player have no
consciousness of this; their magniloquence is unselfconscious, and they
nobly assume the posture of faded grandeur with no recognition of their
extinct status. For Maddin, as conscious as the rest of us of how anti-
quated they are, their resurrection in 2004 in a film that may paraphrase
older artworks but could never be mistaken for one itself has that same
effect of fantasy and lamentation – and it is exactly the same effect as that
created by the archaic idealisms of Archangel. As with many recordings
218 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

from the 1920s and 1930s, the early electrical process actually allows the
solo instrument or singing voice to ‘speak’ with a very appealing warmth
and forthrightness despite the limitations, and this quality too becomes
part of the effect: old and worn but beautiful, and not just beautiful
but beautiful in a way that nothing new ever is. And throughout every
individual usage of these old classical recordings that immediate pres-
ence of an outmoded but whole and eloquent form of artistic address is
conveyed to the images and story they accompany.
Just a word about non-musical sound in the film. As in many moments
of The Dead Father, Gimli Hospital, and Archangel, Maddin has re-employed
that favourite technique of early sound films: scattering sound effects
liberally through every chapter. We hear skate blades scraping across the
ice together with stick, puck, and crowd noises in the hockey scenes, the
discreet whooshing of hairdryers, scissors clipping, and girlish chatter of
patrons in the salon sequences, innumerable Foleyed details to accom-
pany actions or convey atmosphere throughout the film. Simply delight-
ful to find a quick high-pitched yip coming from a little Scotch terrier
on the floor of the beauty salon, or the sounds of Chas’ (and later Guy’s)
severed hands landing in a garbage pail. All the slaps and tape-ripping
punctuate the film vividly, and the grim sound of a hacksaw grinding
through bone is something more than punctuation. A times, the effects
are, as it were, imaginary, as when Liliom shoos everybody out of the sa-
lon at night to the witty accompaniment of a whip cracking. Apart from
the piquancy of individual moments, in general the device works just as
it does in early sound movies, something to carry viewers through the
movie more vividly and ‘naturally,’ and it is one more element of Cowards
Bend the Knee that makes this a completely painless silent film for a mod-
ern audience to watch.

Photography, degraded images, silent cinema

Cowards is shot entirely on Super-8mm film – and let us just pause to

acknowledge how unusual this choice of format is. All commercial film
formats are 35mm or larger (70mm, Imax), and even avant-garde films
using a smaller gauge are overwhelmingly in 16mm. There is a growing
use of digital video, a trend that is very likely in the long run to sup-
plant film in all usages by virtue of its increasing quality, relative low cost,
and infinite manipulability. Maddin has taken great advantage of digital
editing technology in his recent works, very much including Cowards,
but he has maintained allegiance to the film format for photography
Cowards Bend the Knee 219

right up to the present.44 He has taken, and then in an almost didactic

way reversed, the pilgrimage to bigger film formats: 16mm, the stand-
ard format for amateur or avant-garde filmmakers, in Dead Father, Gimli
Hospital, Archangel, and Careful; 35mm for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs; then
scurrying back to 16mm and even further to occasional Super-8mm in
Heart of the World and Dracula; again a mixture of Super-8 and Super-16
for the ‘commercial’ project Saddest Music in the World; then Super-8 only
for Cowards and Brand upon the Brain! (My Winnipeg ‘is shot on just about
every format I’ve ever used’).45 Maddin has emphasized the flexibility of
this format – a camera that is small and light, allowing the cameraman to
plunge personally into the stage, whirling, zooming, and whip-panning
to pick up details of the action and add physical energy to the images.
Clearly, this kind of filmmaking can work easily in a project without dia-
logue or synch sound; and indeed the presence of dialogue or live sound
would probably make this kind of process very difficult or impossible
for Maddin (and indeed the dialogue movie Saddest Music retreats from
this whirling immersion). In any event lightweight, athletic 8mm has
played a major part in his ‘new’ silent cinema: Heart of the World, Dracula,
Cowards, Brand, and My Winnipeg. Here is the liberatory antithesis to the
35mm boat-anchor of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. The director’s ability to
physically enter the dancing space in Dracula has been noted, and he
remarks à propos Cowards how, acting as his own cinematographer, he
could get right into scenes and, moreover, create a whole new kind of
direction and performance:

I surrounded myself in a three-dimensional space, almost always. The

beauty salon set was three dimensional, the hockey rink – both 360 degrees
[...] And so I could, if I was on the ice, on skates, or if I was in the beauty
salon, I could literally in the middle of a shot decide that I was going to
shoot someone else, and I would swish-pan to them [...] I just set up the
actors and then just start swish-panning around and quite often not even
looking through the camera, and if I wanted a close-up of somebody I
would just suddenly find that person and start walking toward them with
the camera and get to their face and not really looking through the cam-
era. And the performers just got comfortable just acting. And somehow the
more I just swishpanned back and forth between actors – or maybe I was
shouting orders out at them, or maybe they just got into the spirit of the
rhythm – my arm extended rigidly with a camera at the end of it must have
reminded them of a metronome and the faster I swishpanned back and
forth it seemed like a cue to them to just dial up their performances as well.
220 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

So I felt like a conductor with a baton sort of whipping up an orchestra into

a fury when I had like seven main characters. 46

Of course the principal visual characteristic of 8mm in relation to other

film formats is its limited resolution, whose artefacts include high grain
and lack of sharpness. This absence of visual refinement and resolv-
ing power, like the absence of every other amenity of more upscale
filmmaking, is actively embraced by Maddin. In contrast to some ‘gar-
age-band’ artists, he has adhered to limited and relatively primitive pho-
tography and staging not just out of economic necessity, but well past the
point where economic conditions might have allowed a more elaborate
form of production.
But there is nothing of the grunge artist about Maddin. He does not
use a lower-resolution visual format in order to make his work deliber-
ately drab or ugly, and hence more authentic in a realist/documentary
or avant-garde/grunge mode. Instead, the aggressive fuzziness and grain
of 8mm film are married to other aspects of the Maddin aesthetic in a
complicated act of synthesis that brings many contrasting artistic qual-
ities together in the director’s unique and unlikely way. Again it is the
worn look of ancient and battered old films, but films that were trying
to be as lyrically refined, beautiful, and impressive as possible, that he is
inspired by. So, as so often in Maddin’s work, fuzz and grain are married
to exaggerated contrasts of black and white and clouded edges, as in
photocopied-photocopy images, and to the harsher and more contrast-y
look of orthochromatic silent film stock. Other archaic markings include
heavy scratching of, especially, intertitle frames, to go with the out-of-
focus lettering, and the addition of blue-rinse tinting to selected shots
(or even its arrival and departure within a continuous shot). Quite often
there are portrait shots that adopt that available-to-silent-cinema mode
of formal presentation, the painterly posedness, of characters, but in a
fashion that grossly exaggerates the idealizing features of the original
model. Several times we see Guy in his hockey gear, posed rather nobly
with his chin uptilted, and bathed in a brilliant overhead light whose ce-
lestial luminescence is made even more dazzling by the emphatically soft
focus and light-diffusing film grain. Also portraitlike, and silent-cinema-
like, are the many irised close-ups of Meta, sucking her finger or emit-
ting a flashing look – and most of the principal characters receive this
kind of visual treatment. Many times there are effects that are quite strik-
ing and lovely in a similar tableaulike vein – as in the early two-shot of
Guy and Veronica bracketing a background long shot of swirling hockey
Cowards Bend the Knee 221

Guy Maddin, Rover for the Winnipeg Maroons. This shot, flooded with top-
light, blurred by soft focus, and grained by 8mm film stock, has no narrative
function and exists on a plane of idealized representation poignantly
counterposed to the many failings of the protagonist.

players, Guy putting his hands to his head in an pose of Expressionist

angst while Veronica looks down in troubled demureness, or the grisly
(and funny) but expressive irised shot of the half-clothed Meta clasping
daddy’s severed-hands jar to her bosom in a child’s possessive hug. All of
these elements ensure the creation and persistence of a strong rhetoric
of silent drama – and of course Cowards is a silent drama. Many of these
familiar qualities are scarcely any more important here than in Tales from
the Gimli Hospital, but now the effect is different because of the bobbing
and dancing camera, the accelerated editing, and the complete absence
of dialogue. And one may note also the forceful effect of the intertitles,
and the kind of work they are doing. There is no equivalent for such a
device in sound cinema – a narrative voice that can convey the words of
the characters, perform exposition with an efficiency unknown in dia-
222 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

logue films, and make portentous edifying pronouncements or poetic

ruminations from some position of high omniscience.

Editing: scrolling with Gurdebeke

Cowards marks the debut in Maddin’s work of a major creative partner:

editor John Gurdebeke, whose work in this film Maddin says was ‘the
closest thing I’ve had to a 50-50 collaborator on a project.’47 The editing
revolution in Maddin’s cinema coincided with his association with the
very young avant-garde filmmaker deco dawson on Heart of the World and
then Dracula. Between them, they introduced into Maddin’s films the
Eisenstein/avant-garde style of editing that moved from maximal Soviet-
silent-style machine-gun montage in Heart of the World to a necessarily
more modulated but still flashy style in Dracula. dawson edited these
films on flatbed editors, as fiddly and awkward as this process was, es-
pecially for 8mm footage. But beginning in Cowards (though with an
exception for Saddest Music in the World, which had a different editor),
the Super-8 footage was digitized and then edited by Gurdebeke using
computer software, and this process allowed for all kinds of effects dif-
ficult or impossible to achieve when manipulating physical film. Rapid
montage all the way down to one-frame-a-shot levels becomes relatively
easy, and many other tricks now present themselves. The technique
that Maddin has particularly adopted for Cowards, and for subsequent
films he has used Gurdebeke on (and that includes everything substan-
tial up to the present moment except for Saddest Music in the World), is
called ‘scrolling.’ Scrolling as an editing strategy was something they dis-
covered more or less accidentally, as they were ‘binning’ (sorting) dai-
lies for assemblage into the film. Strangely, in view of the end result and
indeed the whole arc of Maddin’s visual development, his first plan for
the editing of Cowards was actually a move in the opposite direction, back
to a more primitive editing style: ‘I just thought it would be very straight-
forward cutting, and I saw it being cut more like one of those Edwin S.
Porter movies, you know, just very simple.’48 But then something com-
pletely different emerged almost by accident. Maddin explained to me:

Every now and then I didn’t shoot entirely in script order so John would
have to fast-forward or fast-reverse back to a shot to find it. And then I’d go,
‘there it was,’ but he’d speed past it and then he’d go back again, and he’d
go past it again, and I’d go, ‘no no no,’ and he’d go back and forth and
what you’d see while the mouse was going backwards and forwards really
Cowards Bend the Knee 223

quickly was not just fast-forward and fast-reverse smooth action, but it was
more like leaping with lots of ellipsis [...] So I fell in love with scrolling; it
seemed to make sense; it seemed to be the way the wiring of your memory
worked [...] Sometimes we would be epileptically skipping all over the place
and out of order and we would chance upon an insignificant image instead
of an important one, and things like that. So I loved it, and John agreed that
he would scroll the entire movie and record it for me ... [This resulted in a
three-hour version that had to be scaled back.] I was so in love with scroll-
ing, all of a sudden [...] because it just took my footage at its most ordinary
and transformed it into something. And Super-8 footage is already trans-
formed miraculously from real world in Winnipeg into something quite
magical, and so this double transformation is really intoxicating to me.49

It is perhaps not exaggerating too much to say that the editing tech-
niques of Cowards transform Maddin’s cinema. Dennis Lim, talking about
a later iteration in Brand upon the Brain!, has called the effect ‘cubist,’50
and that is a good analogy, for like cubism scrolling produces something
analytical, transforming, and expressive in a new way. Sometimes its rhet-
oric is dramatic and sometimes lyrical, but (and perhaps here the cubist
analogy breaks down a little) it is always poetic. In itself it has no narra-
tive function, only an expressive or at best interpretive one. It often isn’t
even an editing technique in the original sense of an alternation of shots
– often it breaks up a single shot into frame-length pieces and then re-
acquires the editing function by presenting that single shot as a flurry of
separate shots. Moreover, tempo can be infinitely manipulated with this
technique. Rapidly skipping shots will resolve back to normal motion,
then speed up again, or normal shots will move in the opposite tempo
direction, into slow motion and even freeze-frame. Some shots will rock
back and forth between these extremes. All this converts narrative into
something like music: an abstracting medium that expresses through
tonal and temporal connections in a way that is only distantly mimetic.
As a cinematic device it has artistic relations stretching from Eisenstein
to rock video to non-representational avant-gardism, but Maddin’s form
is unique. Unique not only in itself, but in the ends to which it is put and
above all in the material that it is exerted upon. There is a wonderful
piquancy to the application of kinetic avant-garde editing to those ut-
terly past forms that Maddin has soaked his film in: melodrama, Greek
tragedy, Expressionism, 1930s horror cinema, 1940s film noir, 78rpm
classical music recordings, artificially aged images, and naturally aged
sounds. And so scrolling allows Cowards to slip and slide and frantically
224 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

skip and lyrically slow down through this archaic melange, in a way that
asserts the film’s contemporaneity without disabling its historicity. More-
over it gives the director a fabulous tool with which to embody his own
poetic sensibility, to treat gestures, looks, actions, and tableaux in a way
that emphasizes the affective meaning. In the DVD commentary Maddin
compares its effect to that of memory, returning to and replaying earlier
events in the mind in a stop-start-skip way. I would prefer to say (though
it may amount to almost the same thing) that it conveys feeling – skitter-
ing in panicky or vertiginous out-of-control ways, fetishistically repeating
its object or dwelling on it in slow motion. Nestled inside these unstable
surroundings the photography itself continues with its idealizing, silent
film beauty, and the result of the overlaying of both modes is of a unique
trembling intensity of beauty, lyricism, and emotional surges.


One need go no further than the example of the film’s most promin-
ent single visual image: hands. Maddin says that after his revelatory
experience of watching the fabulous expressiveness with which the
dancers used their hands in the Dracula ballet, he was inspired to make
this great form of silent film acting a central part of a film that would
also use hands as an integral part of the story.51 And so the iterations
of this trope extend everywhere in the film, from the very title, Cowards
Bend the Knee: or, The Blue Hands, through a plot strongly featuring sev-
ered hands and strangling hands, to a thousand emphases on hands
performing meaningful actions. In the Guy/Veronica two-shot tableau
with hockey players in the background, Guy’s hands are on his head,
Veronica’s folded over her womb (and this detail gets its own series of
scrolled close-ups). The first chapter ends with an obsessively repeated,
fractured, slowed-down and brought-back-up-to-speed close-up of Guy’s
hand sliding into and out of his father’s in an ambiguous handshake
that is partly congratulatory (the Maroons have just won the Allan Cup)
and partly shame-inducing (Maddin Sr is urging him not to neglect his
sick mother, Guy is nude in front of his fully clothed father). The second
chapter is entitled ‘A SQUEEZE OF THE HAND,’52 and in it, during the
abortion, Veronica is repeatedly grasping Guy’s hand but he slips it away
to leave and pursue Meta. There are many shots of Dr Fusi’s surgically
gloved hands performing one horror after another. Meta is constantly
sticking her finger in the sugar jar, then licking it in a marked manner,
and throughout the film there are many shots of her curled or pointing
Cowards Bend the Knee 225

fingers. In ‘UPON A PILE OF HOCKEY GLOVES’ Meta many times de-

flects Guy’s hands from caressing her bare breasts, and in the following
‘META’S BEDROOM,’ Gramma is seen extensively administering to her
granddaughter an ‘Icelandic hand charm.’ Two pairs of severed hands
are practically characters in their own right. Once Guy has had his fake
hands-transplant and begins to strangle and involuntarily caress and fist-
fuck with them, he is repeatedly seen holding his hands up before his
face and looking at them in intense horror. Guy several times slaps Mo,
and Liliom slaps Guy while he is waxing her legs. As she is being stran-
gled by Guy, Liliom’s hand is seen dreadfully spread out in agony against
the two-way glass in the salon. There are many close-ups of Maddin Sr
caressing the mysterious ‘ice breast,’ and in the urinal scene he says to
his handless son, ‘I see you still need your hand held.’ But it would take a
very long time to catalogue the film’s hundreds of uses of this device that
is both essentially poetic and deeply embedded in the plot.


Like every other Maddin movie, Cowards has humour worked right into
its bones, and there is hardly anything in it that does not have some
humorous overtone, however distant or bizarre. The range stretches
from broad and often low comedy through surreal incongruity to the
deftest touches of wit and elegant allusion. At the latter end of the spec-
trum – more heavily populated than in some Maddin films – one might
note little delicately self-lacerating details such as the way Veronica’s re-
turn as a ghost is greeted with the same intertitle that had accompanied
her abandonment when Guy first saw Meta (‘The joy, joy, joy, of meeting
someone new!’) and that she is thereafter referred to as ‘the new girl.’
Then there is the light-handed treatment of the two dominant women,
Meta and Liliom. Until her reunion with her father and her death, there
is always something comic about Meta, no matter how destructive her
acts. As with her counterpart Klara in Careful, Maddin is somehow com-
pelled to see her blind self-absorption and utterly conscienceless treat-
ment of a convenient poor boob of a suitor as irresistible in almost the
way some Jeanette MacDonald character in a Lubitsch musical might be:
her tyrannical foibles are unmistakable, but somehow they only serve to
make her more delectable.53 Of course no Lubitsch heroine behaves as
destructively as Meta, who is after all also Euripedes’s Electra together
with some demented character in a cheap horror movie, but that element
of appreciation for such a strong-willed filly is easy to see. ‘Off with his
226 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

hands!’, she barks, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, and
the film’s reaction is an appalled admiration for such a magnificent tem-
perament. Maddin’s special gift is to give us the two antithetical qualities
simultaneously – the horror and the delight – and they are never hom-
ogenized or blended, but presented in all their incommensurableness
as one more item in the filmmaker’s unique smorgasbord of aesthetic
contradictions. Liliom is brew of a stronger proof, but her presence has
similar effects. She is a murderer, tyrant, beast of unholy appetites and
savage punishment; but also, with her cigarette and beetle brow and
shark’s grin and swagger, she is one tough babe, a cartoon of a gangster
villainess that you have to admire. A ‘criminal slattern,’ the director calls
her.54 (Much of this quality, incidentally, stems from the performance of
Tara Birtwistle, prima ballerina by profession as we saw in Dracula, who
replaced the ill Alice Krige in the casting scheme. Maddin remarks that
Krige would have given Liliom ‘a hauteur and a coldness that I wrote for
her.’55 Instead we get this fantastic dame, this broad, who’s quite hot and
in-your-face.) Fusi is another nightmare/comedy-sketch mixture, look-
ing through his microscope or pulling on his surgical gloves with pro-
fessional aplomb, only to set upon some Guignol task like a backroom
abortion or a double amputation by hacksaw, his professional costume
an antiquated lace-up ladies’ corset over a white-furred bare chest and
a cigarette dropping ashes onto the operating table.56 And the contrast
between Fusi’s sublime indifference to crime and his meek knuckling-
under to Meta is essentially comic, even as its effects are ghastly.
There is a lot of this comedy of horror in the film, and it all has a
queasy quality no matter how witty or hilarious it may be in some re-
spects. When the hemorrhaging blood from Veronica’s abortion forms
the perfect shape of a maple leaf, Canadians in the audience will grin
even as they are sickened. Near the beginning of the movie we see Shaky
viciously pounding with his fists on some opponent whose team sweater
bears a Star of David crest – a representation of cheerful, anxiety-free
anti-Semitic violence that recognizes the political incorrectness of the
past while taking a not-that-concerned attitude to the institution of fight-
ing in hockey. Guy’s murder of Shaky at centre ice, even more his mur-
der of Mo in a police station, have an almost comedy-sketch garishness
of humour. In a related way, the comedy of Guy’s symbolic castration is
just the same combination ratcheted up to agonized levels. As he is being
congratulated after scoring a goal (and after strangling Shaky), a team-
mate tells him, ‘You always had soft hands around the net’ – that is hu-
mour of an irony so strong it almost amounts to sarcasm. But when Guy
Cowards Bend the Knee 227

is having his gloves laced up over handless stumps, getting phallically

humiliated in the urinal by his father, and then trying to play the game
with no hands at all,57 the spectacle of physical clumsiness has an aura
of slapstick, while the protagonist’s physical and psychological condition
has become painfully abject.
There are moments in Cowards where a low comedy of transgression
becomes visible as a kind of curse. In the Maroons’ shower room after
Shaky’s murder, Guy feels compelled to poke his finger into the anus of
Mo as he is bending over to pick up the soap, as his mind flashes back
to that same finger poking at the buzzer of the Night Clinic when taking
Veronica for her abortion: ‘Two longs, two shorts,’ reads the intertitle.
Poking Mo in the fundament is a truly low-comedy, Animal House kind
of prank, and it gets an automatic laugh. But the expression on Guy’s
face as he looks at his Shaky-strangling, Mo-poking hands is one of utter
horror, while the association with the abortion trip is of a prior moral
guilt uncomplicated by any actual or imagined hand-transplant. The
conclusion then is that this kind of stupid infantile bum-poking is not
really a jape, but an awful compulsion, a curse. Can we extrapolate this
moment to the many similar moments of uncontrollable besmirchment-
by-comedy, from Einar’s casual necrophilia in Tales from the Gimli Hospital
to hairballs and yawn-stifling revelations of horror in Careful to cruel and
tacky jokes about leglessness in The Saddest Music in the World? Perhaps
that is too straightforward an operation, but this moment in Cowards
does seem to bring to a point the sense so often encountered in Mad-
din’s cinema of raspberry-blowing as a kind of reflex reaction to pain
or guilt. Perhaps it is no accident that one of his favourite silent films is
The Man Who Laughs,58 a grisly Victor Hugo adaptation starring Conrad
Veidt (again!) as a man whose mouth has been horribly carved into an
eternal, hideously exaggerated rictus-grin that he is compelled to carry
through heartbreak and sorrow.

The fruits of introspection

Cowards Bend the Knee gives the strong impression of being closer to the
filmmaker’s fundamental source of imaginative activity than any of his
films since The Dead Father. Of course it is easy to say that in retrospect
when we have Maddin’s copious testimony to its profound autobiograph-
ical resonances. It is not necessary to read the film autobiographically in
order to appreciate its artistic qualities, and it is at all stages of reading
as deeply tangled, displaced, and hard to decipher as an account of any-
228 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

one’s actual life. But once one has begun to do this, and followed the
filmmaker’s own accounts in interviews, the writings in From the Atelier
Tovar and the movie’s DVD commentary, one develops a picture that
shows just how deep this pool is. Maddin’s childhood is such a strong
presence here. And its particular conditions start to become not just
the anecdotal details of anybody’s childhood, but the massive building
blocks of an entire psyche. Begin with the fact that little Guy was a late
addition to the family, an ‘afterthought,’ growing up as, so to speak, the
only child in a family with four children. Everyone else seemed to him to
have moved on. The picture of little Guy playing by himself with the toys
abandoned by his older siblings, looking through his hockey cards and
old volumes of The War Illustrated, peering up through vents and chutes
into the beauty salon, and keeping his blind isolated grandmother com-
pany, or creeping alone through the catwalks and empty rows of seats in
the Winnipeg Arena, overwhelmed by the bigness of the bustling salon
and the enormous Arena both regularly invaded by vast quantities of
strangers from the outside world, wrestling too with the big qualities of
his parents (his mother’s volatility, his father’s weariness and inability to
be a ‘Zeus-like’ patriarch) and of course with the unthinkable trauma of
his brother’s suicide – this picture with its many other elements plays a
vital role in the film. But it is one that is only dimly detectable behind
the visible elements, elliptically transformed and needing to be pieced
together emotionally rather than rationally.
The little perceiving subject of this world, the boy Guy, is, as we noted,
missing from Cowards Bend the Knee. He is present only as the childhood-
remembering sensibility of the filmmaker, the sensibility of the film-
maker as the child he was and is. This sensibility-behind-the-film feels
profoundly that the most important emotions and experiences are in
the childhood past. They are the most important things in the world,
and they exist, in a sense, only in his imagination, his fantasy. Even when
he actually was a child he could look at them endlessly, walk around in
them, be buffeted or comforted by them, but ultimately could not sub-
stantially affect them in any way. Moving through this world in an almost
dreamlike way (and how much more dreamlike the experience in recol-
lection!), he was too little to do anything but observe and feel. In a sense,
then, he is isolated from everything that is primary and foundational,
cut off from it by time and by the disparity between a child’s sensibility
and the unknowable constitution of the adult world and adult feelings.
Psychoanalysis tells us that we are all sundered in this way from primary
meaning and satisfaction, exiled from an originary or pre-originary
Cowards Bend the Knee 229

wholeness that we can never get back to, and in this respect the Guy
Maddin that I am postulating is perfectly ‘normal.’ Yet what is unusual
about this personage is the depth and detail and refinement of those
memories, so present and yet so far away. It is, perhaps, what makes him
an artist.
The perceiving subject who is present in the film is the adult Guy.
The strange condition of this narrative – a world of childhood memory
inhabited by an adult version of that child – can now be seen as a re-
flexive metaphor: it is a concrete staging of the condition of the adult
filmmaker still immersed in childhood memory. The grown-up protag-
onist Guy can have relationships with other adults, sexual relationships
and friendships, but there is something about these relationships too
that is cut off, characterized by feelings of littleness and powerlessness.
When ‘Guy Maddin’ leaves his girlfriend in the lurch or neglects his
dying mother, he is, perhaps, reliving the sins of childhood, in particular
the child’s ‘cowardly’ wish to avoid emotionally painful situations. In the
DVD commentary, Maddin talks obscurely about his family connection
with Amy Stewart, the actress playing Veronica; he tells us elsewhere59
that she is the niece of the girl his brother Cameron had killed himself
over. When he talks equally obscurely about the fact that there are ghosts
in his life, too, he is referring to the ghost of his dead brother Cameron,
present as an unquiet spirit in his little brother’s mind, returning from
death like the ‘dead father’ of Maddin’s first film. This is certainly im-
possible to work out just from looking at the film, but it does connect
with the uncanny, sad, powerful presence of that ghost-character, whose
fate the hero is somehow to blame for, or at least feels very bad about.
My point here is that in this film the crime of the adult Guy becomes
inextricably conflated with the trauma of the child Guy. And one can go
on to say that the whole condition of this adult Guy – intimidated, not in
control, unable to grasp his desire, finally utterly passive and cut off phys-
ically as a metaphor for his emotional condition – has some relation to
the condition of the child cut off, too, from the world around him. Little
Guy was overwhelmed by the eye-level view of Fran Huck’s giant penis,
and now grown-up Guy must look over to see the enormous cock of an
adult in the Big World, located on the body of a representation of the
grand patriarchal superego. He cannot compete, he is not an adult like
the other adults, and he doesn’t even have hands to pull out his relatively
puny member.60 Perhaps for this reason, too, he abandons Veronica and
falls under the sway of powerful, volatile females like Meta and Liliom,
who will simply grab away from him the torturing burden of impossible
230 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

adult male power and tell him exactly what to do as if he were a slave, or a
little child. And his reaction then is that of an ordered-around child, re-
sentful at the parental power of these women, but incapable of truly jet-
tisoning them and disavowing of the constitutional elements of his own
personality that attract him to them. (Some of this comes back, more
literally, in Brand upon the Brain!) His own hands by themselves can only
do bad things: it is better that they are cut off. He cannot do anything
(except damage by a process he can’t grasp) – he can only feel, feel bad.
A corollary is that the childhood world of memory and imagina-
tion, of fantasy and projection, is the real world for him, and the actual
real world remote, baffling, even uninteresting or else just scary. That
childhood world is a place where one is relegated to the status of non-
participant through insufficient age and then exiled from by adulthood.
It remains the centre of beauty and longing. Maddin’s aesthetic loves –
for old movies and old books, products of other cultures and eclipsed
artistic forms – are consistent with this general sense. We can now re-
assert the claim repeatedly made in connection with earlier films, that
the appeal of Maddin’s fictional worlds for him is that they are archaic
and impossible, they not only resemble or actually reproduce the fan-
tasy worlds he invested himself in as a child but their status of being
unreachable, non-existent really except in the imagination, forms a cru-
cial, potent aspect of their value. What love he expends on these impos-
sible worlds with their impossible people, what appreciation for their
impossible beauties, how tenderly he treats their poor inadequacy! It is
true that there are symptoms of the pathology in this condition, namely,
the utter suppression of reality in them, symptoms that begin with their
overtly playful and impoverished staging and end in the zany derision
that breaks through like Tourette’s Syndrome to self-destroy the beauty
and nobility of the mood.
But in Cowards there is a breakthrough to a different, more directly
engaged and analytical relation with this impossible past. The humour
appears explicitly as a curse, a baleful nervous symptom, and it is there
to defend not just pre-emptively against any accusations from outside
that the imaginative world is silly, but now also in a more refined and
witty way as a defence against anguish, and also against desire that is too
powerful and unmanageable. And the self is explicitly situated in the
environment and made the object of attacks more deflating and painful
than those against the absurd idealism of Boles or Grigorss. The overtly
unhealthy nature of the situation may be seen in a nutshell in the fact
that the Winnipeg Maroons that rise up in his imagination are not alive,
Cowards Bend the Knee 231

vibrant, youthfully athletic representations of ideal masculinity, but the

dusty wax statues of sagging and paunchy middle-aged men in pathetic-
ally dated uniforms and gear. The fantasy itself is decayed. In the end he
is himself one of these statues, in a gesture that confirms his condition as
essentially an inhabitant of the mouldering past. Meanwhile, the Good
Mother dies neglected in the hospital, the Good Father is castrated and
murdered, the self is a Bad Boy who has to stand in the corner for eter-
nity, never to achieve adulthood, and it serves him right. This new level
of explicit introspection and seriousness, combined with the film’s verve
and confidence, its still triumphant preservation of archaic beauty and
its much heightened ability to apply avant-garde editing techniques to
achieve a new dimension of poetic affect, make Cowards Bend the Knee, as
we began by saying, Maddin’s masterpiece to date – and a platform for
future developments as seen in Brand upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg.

The Saddest Music in the World (2004)

It’s something that’s just steeped in sadness, but it’s almost never directly
– Guy Maddin

All the characters in the film are grieving, but are doing so in ways that are
comically inadequate.
– Ross McMillan

Have fun, but don’t think that the fun won’t have some fish-hooks along the
way. But that’s what fun is. It’s fish-hook time, it’s fish-hook time! There’s
one in your throat, and then another in your heart, and another in your
balls, but it’s fun! It’s fun, it really is!
– George Toles1

The originality, the difference, of Cowards Bend the Knee is only emphasized
when we turn to The Saddest Music in the World, the big film that Maddin
had in development, and in production, simultaneously with the reali-
zation of the much smaller Cowards. In contrast to the latter’s $30,000
budget and five-day shooting schedule, Saddest had a $3.8 million budget
and a twenty-two-day shooting schedule, an international roster of per-
formers and a cast of thousands (well, hundreds), a script that was origi-
nally written by a Booker Prize winner, and production/distribution by
Rhombus Media, a substantial player in the world of art movies and tel-
evision whose track record included The Red Violin, 32 Short Films about
Glenn Gould, and Last Night. The cast was the starriest Maddin had had
so far, and its contribution is substantial and consistent in a way that the
The Saddest Music in the World 233

director’s previous star-studded entry, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, is not.

From a uniformly strong team, Maria de Madeiros may be singled out as
melding effortlessly into Maddin’s strange world, and above all Isabella
Rossellini (who has since become a Maddin supporter, multiple collabo-
rator, and even writer/commissioner) brings a splendid straight-faced
confidence to every aspect of her challengingly odd role.2 The casting,
and its success, no doubt helped to allow Saddest Music to masquerade as
something not completely weird. Indeed, it achieved a breadth of distri-
bution that was quite astounding for such a freakish movie, opening in
commercial cinemas across North America. Sitting in a mainstream thea-
tre and watching this film, shot with vaseline-coated lenses on black and
white or strange two-colour Super-8 and push-processed Super-16mm
stock that exhibits ‘film-grain the size of baseballs,’3 bizarre characters
and dialogue, and a plot of staggering absurdity, is on my personal short-
list of most surreal movie-going experiences.
In Saddest Music, we see a return of the Maddin/Toles model that had
been set aside for Heart of the World, Dracula, and Cowards – the regime,
that is, of Archangel, Careful, and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. In fact from a
certain angle Archangel, Careful, Twilight, and Saddest Music are the same
movie. In all four there is a complex, painstakingly worked-out drama
of multiple characters in ironic relation and opposition to one another;
all four bear the powerful imprint of George Toles’ singular style of dia-
logue and all four wilfully counterpose ostentatious suffering with zany
silliness. Saddest Music particularly resembles Archangel and Careful in
its Stations-of-the-Cross pilgrimage from initial ridiculousness through
manic derision and mockery to something pure and heartfelt, a progress
different in profile from the more constant intermixture found in Cow-
ards. Altogether, though the film has its high points and low points aes-
thetically, it represents another success for this model, in some ways its
clearest realization of all – and also, possibly, its last hurrah.
The project began as a script by Kazuo Ishiguro that was set in Lon-
don and featured a scheme to commercialize the sufferings of Eastern
Europe in a post-glasnost environment through a contest. Maddin told
me in 2005:

[Ishiguro] wrote a script called Saddest Music of the World in 1985 or 1987,
something like that. It was the story of a music competition, very similar, set
in London, sponsored by an alcohol company, and promoted by a CNN-
like news network, in an attempt to exploit the loosening up and soon-to-
be hoped-for markets of Eastern Europe. And then it had some subplots
234 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

involving a couple of old Yugoslavian friends, or maybe brothers, but it was

set in contemporary times.

The script had been circulating for some years, and had been considered
and passed over by a number of filmmakers, including Atom Egoyan.
Producer Niv Fichman at Rhombus decided to try to interest Maddin in
it, understanding that if he were to take it up, the outcome was bound
to be pretty far away from Ishiguro’s original concept. Maddin liked the
title from the start, and then began a three- or four-way dance that saw
various treatments and versions going from Ishiguro to Fichman to Mad-
din to George Toles. Toles was instrumental in the re-setting of the story,
eventually wrote all the dialogue, and gets first screenwriting credit.4 At a
certain point Ishiguro gave permission for blanket changes to be made,
and Fichman records that ‘he was unbelievably supportive from that mo-
ment on.’5
What Maddin and Toles did was to move the place and time to, as
an opening title tells us, ‘WINNIPEG, 1933 – THE DEPTHS OF THE
GREAT DEPRESSION.’ Of course that is only the beginning. Whatever
Ishiguro’s script might have been like, we may be pretty sure that it did
not include drunken double amputations, funerals on skates, amnesiac
nymphomaniacs, cello-playing fake-Serbians in knee-length hat veils, or
glass prosthetic legs full of beer. The relocation – into the past, away
from an important metropolis – is crucial in allowing Maddin to keep
clear of the real world, and to make another big step in his continuing
ambition of ‘mythologizing Winnipeg.’6 It coincidentally places the ac-
tion of this film in a virtually identical setting as Cowards Bend the Knee,
although now the Winnipeg we see is far more the public and social
environment of streets, bars, offices, and factories. In its characteriza-
tion of these spaces and the people inhabiting them, Saddest Music is
a serious warm-up for Maddin’s feature-length fantasy travelogue docu-
mentary My Winnipeg. We will look more closely at Maddin’s Winnipeg-
of-the-imagination in a moment.

The action

The film begins with a pre-credit prologue showing Chester Kent (Mark
McKinney) and his girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) visiting an
old fortune-teller (Louis Negin), who tells him to look into the iceblock
she7 uses as a crystal ball. There he sees re-enacted his primal family
trauma. In a parlour music session where mother is singing the Jerome
The Saddest Music in the World 235

Kern favourite ‘The Song Is You,’ with father accompanying on the pi-
ano, little Chester playing trumpet obbligato and his brother the cello,
the mother has a seizure and collapses dead on the keyboard.8 The Seer
abjures Chester to ‘look into your soul!’ and when Chester demonstrates
his imperviousness by getting Narcissa to masturbate him, cries out:
‘Look to your miseries, Mr Kent – otherwise, you are a dead man!’
Local beer magnate Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini)
broadcasts a radio message:

We at Muskeg Beer are proud that Winnipeg has been chosen four years
running by the London Times as the world capital of sorrow in the Great
Depression. In recognition of this honour, we will be hosting a worldwide
contest to determine which nation’s music truly deserves to be called ‘the
saddest in the world.’

The prize is $25,000 (‘that’s right – 25,000 Depression-era dollars’). This

wacko idea is revealed by be part of a marketing scheme: Prohibition
is about to come to an end in the United States; there will be an over-
whelming demand for product; sad poor unemployed people drink
more than happy people; it all adds up. The radio announcement – ap-
parently broadcast live everywhere in the world simultaneously – starts
an immediate avalanche of musicians from all over the Depressed globe
to Winnipeg. This avalanche includes Chester, ‘a producer from New
York’ who is in fact a Winnipeg boy back in his home town because he is
‘just down on his luck,’ and who manages to get the U.S. slot under the
contest’s one-entry-per-country rules. (‘Chester Kent’ is also the name of
the go-getting Broadway producer played by James Cagney in the 1933
Warner Brothers musical Footlight Parade.) Among the flock of contest-
ants, too, are Chester’s father Fyodor (David Fox), a World War I veteran
who now drives a streetcar in Winnipeg (representing Canada), and his
brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), a world-famous cellist who has relo-
cated to Europe and uses the stage name ‘Gavrilo the Great’ in honour
of Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian assassin who started World War I (repre-
senting Serbia).9
And now the backstory of these characters emerges. Chester brazens
his way in to see Lady Port-Huntley in her boardroom to charm her into
allowing him into the contest and bankrolling his act. Helen – now re-
vealed to be a double amputee moving around on a low mini-platform
on wheels – is both transcendently angry with and compulsively drawn
to Chester. We discover the reasons in the flashback occasioned by her
236 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

invitation to tell the whole story of how she lost her legs. They reminisce,
in poetic language that modulates into song like a kind of Tin Pan Alley
Sprechstimme, about the foundational events. Helen was deeply loved by
Chester’s father, who had wanted to marry her. But she had preferred
Chester and the two of them had sneaked off to have sex at every oppor-
tunity. One night they were motoring down an icy road at high speed,
Helen giving the driver Chester a blowjob, when Fyodor leapt out in
front of the car, precipitating an accident that trapped Helen in the
wreck. Fyodor, who had turned to alcohol because of disappointment
in love, was a doctor by profession, and insisted they must cut Helen’s
leg off to free her from the vehicle – but was so drunk that he cut off the
wrong leg, so that she ended by losing both. We can fill in the remaining
blanks ourselves: Chester left town to seek fame in the American enter-
tainment business, and Helen turned all her energies to amassing profits
and becoming a sharklike captain of industry. (Her sexual needs are met
by the silent Teddy [Darcy Fehr] – ‘he has a lovely wife and two lovely
children’ – who is permanently employed to bathe, caress, and ‘swing
her in the see-saw’ in front of an always on-call orchestra of blindfolded
musicians stationed behind a scrim.) Now, in return for a renewed rela-
tionship with Chester, she agrees to accept him as the American entry.
Then we see that Fyodor has remained appalled and crushed by the hor-
rible injury he has inflicted on his loved one, and has attempted to reha-
bilitate himself by swearing off alcohol, giving up his medical profession
and taking up lowlier employment, and devoting himself to finding the
perfect prostheses for Helen as a way of expressing his continuing love
and hope for forgiveness.
Meanwhile Roderick, on his way to the contest, is seen in a train com-
partment dressed in black and unwrapping two sacred items that he car-
ries with him everywhere: an Edison cylinder recording of his own solo
performance of ‘The Song Is You’ that he had played at the funeral of
his little son, and a small jar containing the boy’s heart preserved in
a liquid bath of Roderick’s own salt tears.10 It transpires that his wife,
destroyed by the loss of her child, left home, became an amnesiac, and
is none other than Chester’s girlfriend Narcissa. (In this kind of melo-
drama, or mock-melodrama, astounding coincidences are something to
be sought out, not avoided.) Roderick has vowed never to play the song
in concert again until he plays it for his rediscovered wife. He is greeted
by his father at the train station, and upon his arrival in the family home
(more like a shack), we discover the intense sibling rivalry, not to say
hatred, that exists between the brothers. Practically the first thing out of
The Saddest Music in the World 237

Lady Helen Port-Huntley, on her ‘new dolly’ pushed by Teddy, angrily

confronts the standing Chester Kent. The model for this double-amputee status
was the Lon Chaney character in the 1920 film The Penalty.

Roderick’s mouth is ‘Did he admit to stealing my music box?’ The posi-

tions in the fraternal war are marked so strongly they’re schematic: Ches-
ter’s self-indulgent, glitz-chasing, glad-handing imperviousness against
Roderick’s lofty dedication to high art and extravagant proclamations of
the deepest grief.
The contest begins, and nation faces off against nation, their perform-
ances of sadness unceremoniously begun and ended by the crass shock
of a hockey-game buzzer. Among the first to fall in single combat is Can-
ada, represented by Fyodor in military uniform, whose melancholy an-
them ‘The Red Maple Leaves,’ is inspired by and dedicated to Canadian
soldiers who fell at Vimy Ridge.11 Fyodor performs it while accompany-
ing himself on a piano tipped violently on its back in an obvious meta-
phor of some kind (doubtless related to his wife’s piano-death), but is
brusquely given the official thumbs-down by Lady Port-Huntley, who has
hated him ever since that fatal night and never liked him all that much
before it. (Drum-beating Africans with ceremonial face-scars are the vic-
tors, for the two nations in competition are ‘Canada vs. Africa.’) Chester
238 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

manages to organize a troupe by scooping up musicians from defeated

countries and offering to pay their way home after he wins the contest if
they will join America’s team. He moves from victory to victory using the
fundamental tools of American entertainment: spectacle, energy, pro-
duction values. As he says to Lady Port-Huntley while selling the idea to
her, he’s aiming for ‘sadness, but with sass and pizzazz.’ The subjects of
his numbers are the sorrows of American history, including ‘Lindberg
Lullaby,’12 ‘Abolition Blues,’ ‘Ruth’s Bellyache,’13 and ‘San Francisco
Quake of ’06,’ and culminating in a grand finale memorialization of ‘the
long-forgotten Alaskan Kayak Tragedy of 1898’ which features a chorus
line of Indian-subcontinent girls in sequined Eskimo costumes spearing
cardboard-cutout fish that recall Gunnar’s in Tales from the Gimli Hospi-
tal. The crowd of beer-drinking Canadians in the hall love all Chester’s
numbers (just as they were insensible to Fyodor’s sentimental patriotic
appeal and indifferent to his defeat). Roderick, too, is progressing swiftly
past a series of adversaries. The winners of each individual contest must
celebrate with a ‘victory slide’ down a ramp into a large vat of beer. As
Roderick, the monarch of high seriousness, stands sopping wet in the
beer vat, one recalls Gene Kelly’s words in Singin’ in the Rain: ‘Dignity –
always, dignity.’
The inevitable meeting of Roderick and Narcissa at last occurs. Roder-
ick’s towering resentment of his brother is now augmented by a hideous
jealousy when it turns out that his tragically lost wife has nicely settled in
as Chester’s mistress. But Narcissa’s amnesia is so strong that it survives
not only face-to-face confrontation with Roderick, but having sex with
him as well (‘That was nice. I hope to see you again’). When a maddened
Roderick makes an ineffectual attack on Chester and her in the open
sleigh they are travelling in, Narcissa seems to almost feel something. It
is faint, distant, she describes it as an empty feeling; but it is enough to
precipitate her breakup with Chester. (Chester has remained a two-timer
despite his assurances to Helen.) Meanwhile Fyodor’s long researches
into prosthetic-leg design have at last found the ideal material: glass. He
has constructed a pair of beautifully contoured transparent glass legs
that, in a stroke of poetic inspiration, he has filled with Port-Huntley
Muskeg beer (‘they sparkle!’14). He gets Roderick to present them to
her, hoping that this at last will provide the key to his forgiveness. The
legs are a wonderful success – they look great, they work great, and they
utterly transform Helen’s personality into one of almost girlish joyful-
ness. A ray of hope appears in the movie: perhaps Helen will really be
able to get her life back; perhaps she will look kindly on Fyodor and
The Saddest Music in the World 239

he will achieve redemption; perhaps Chester will love Helen as he was

always supposed to and will become really human; perhaps Narcissa will
recognize Roderick and they can begin to reassemble themselves as peo-
ple. It is a moment that recalls the similar one in Careful when it seems
possible for forgiveness and healing to occur – doubly so because Saddest
Music, like its predecessor, now proceeds to turn pitilessly in the opposite
direction, and all of these possibilities but the last are cruelly shattered
in the most dramatic way.
‘Shattered’ is the operative word when breaking glass is the leitmotif of
the violent shocks that ensue. The first breakage occurs with Roderick’s
physical embrace of the unremembering Narcissa, when the glass heart-
jar falls to the floor: the tears are now just a puddle on the floor and the
heart is horribly pierced by a big sliver of glass, which Roderick must deli-
cately remove.15 It is a disturbing sign that something has broken in his
frozen world of fetishized and memorialized sadness. The next shatter-
ing is much worse. Fyodor emerges from a daydream of blissful accept-
ance by Helen to see her and Chester walking in the street. Instead of
forgiveness, he gets hostility (‘you have a long way to go before I start say-
ing thank you’) and insults (‘he’s an abomination!’) from Helen. This is
the end for Fyodor, who immediately topples off the wagon by draining
an entire leg full of beer in his shop, staggers through the snowy night-
time streets and onto the roof of the contest hall, then crashes through
the skylight and falls to his death into the victory beer vat. Fyodor’s close-
up in the mad death-plummet almost duplicates Johann’s in Careful. But
the final shattering is the worst of all. Giddy with happiness, Helen has
agreed to appear as a spectacular figurehead in Chester’s production
number for the final round of the contest against Roderick. (One of
the splendidly fulsome radio commentators offers the puzzled remark:
‘Isn’t it rather odd that Lady Port-Huntley is actually in one of these
numbers when she’s also the judge?’) Roderick is driven to distracted
fury by Chester’s hugely popular travesty of a number, and even more
by Narcissa’s unwillingness to recognize him, and his nominally funereal
cello performance turns into a demented torrent of dissonance. The ca-
cophonous onslaught causes Helen’s glass legs to spring leaks and then
explode, ending the number and plunging her into public humiliation
and a general condition worse than the one the legs rescued her from.
Roderick, however, continues to play. He removes his false moustache
and eyebrows, his absurd veil, his black sunglasses, and begins to per-
form in real earnest ‘The Song Is You’ that he had sworn to perform only
for his wife – and Narcissa listens, and remembers.
240 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Backstage, Chester goes into Helen’s quarters to find her devastated,

in tears, her blonde wig askew. He tries to embrace her, but she stabs
him in the gut five times with a huge shard of glass from her broken
legs. In a scene that Maddin describes as ‘film noir,’16 Chester manages
to utter a couple of hard-boiled wisecracks to Helen, staggers out of the
room, and makes his way haltingly down a passageway where he inadvert-
ently starts the building on fire while lighting his ‘victory cigar.’ As the
crowd flees in panic, Chester emerges onto the stage to see Roderick
and Narcissa reuniting. He slumps down, a long lap dissolve takes him
back to the scene of his mother’s death, and when his face reappears it
is bathed in tears. Heaving Fyodor’s derelict piano (which no one has
bothered to remove after his contest performance) onto its feet with a
superhuman effort, he commences to bash out a fortissimo assault on
‘The Song Is You’ with voice and keyboard – musically dreadful but, for
the first and last time in Chester’s adult life, full of feeling. As it is tak-
ing place, the stage area is more and more enveloped in flames, and the
scene becomes a reprise of the delirious conclusion of Hangover Square
(1945) where the mad great-pianist / serial-killer Laird Cregar gives his
last performance while the house theatre collapses in a conflagration
around him. The last shots show Chester’s body, still seated at the key-
board, burning like a torch. On the soundtrack, we hear his voice: ‘I ask
you – is there anybody as happy as I am?’


The early part of the film introduces themes of economic depression,

capitalist exploitation, Prohibition and Repeal, advertising and popular-
entertainment hokum as a means of exploiting social suffering for profit,
historical and Western-centric myopia about the cultures of the world,
and Hobbesian jungle ethics versus humanist idealism as contending
forces tugging at human behaviour. This panoply is certainly far in ad-
vance of anything else of Maddin’s when it comes to a subject matter that
actually pays some attention to the broader social and political world.
One might speculate that perhaps this dimension of the story preserves
the trace of Ishiguro’s original script more than others, but in any event
before too much of Saddest Music has gone by, the movie shows itself not
really very interested in any of these subjects except maybe the last. To
be sure it retains right to the end a lively interest in satirizing popular
entertainment and its reception, but the core of the film rather quickly
metamorphoses into a variety of family melodrama in which personal
The Saddest Music in the World 241

relations are far more central than social ones. Like every other Mad-
din/Toles film, it has a central group of five or six characters (here five)
whose histories and desires and relationships are tightly interlaced, in a
molecular-model kind of structure that barely allows the identification of
a central character. (Probably Chester is the protagonist, but he is really
primus inter pares.)
In fact the characters are so perfectly contrastive and complementary
in their make-up, so carefully arranged to form a meaningful landscape
of different drives and life strategies, that the film may be called struc-
turally schematic. In this respect again its resemblances to Archangel and
Careful and especially Twilight of the Ice Nymphs are evident, and like the
latter film Saddest Music might almost be construed as a philosophical
meditation on human nature – albeit one that is occurring among char-
acters often resembling those in a Frank Baum novel, and conducted in
a blizzard of ‘noise’ comprised of cartoonlike plot elements and snigger-
ing jokes on the one hand and major barriers to clear reception created
by Maddin’s heavily stylized visual presentation on the other. Structur-
ally, we have two central male characters, two brothers, one of whom
(Chester) can’t feel sadness and the other (Roderick) can’t stop publicly
proclaiming his sadness. And we have two central female characters, one
of whom (Narcissa) can’t remember traumatic past experience and the
other (Helen) can’t stop remembering traumatic past experience. In
addition we have a pairing based on emotional blockage: neither Ches-
ter nor Narcissa can feel properly, both have repressed the memory of
past pain and produced a numbed sensibility. (Narcissa’s takes the form
of a ‘tapeworm,’ as she calls it, which eats everything before it can get
into her system; when the remembering process begins, she says that
the tapeworm has died.) Each of the women, moreover, has had or is
having a relationship with two of the male characters in the film, and
each of these double relationships involves a form of betrayal (Helen be-
trays Fyodor with Chester, and Narcissa betrays Roderick with Chester).
Then those betrayals lead us back to the schematic qualities of the two
brothers, for while Roderick is ostentatiously faithful to his missing wife,
Chester is ostentatiously false to, apparently, every woman he meets. The
heavy irony of Fyodor’s undying love for a woman whose legs he has
removed with a hacksaw and no anaesthetic obscures, perhaps, the fact
that he is the sole figure who really is trying to put things back together,
to heal breaches and make trust whole again.
The fate of three of these characters (Chester, Fyodor, Helen) is ter-
rible, and that of the remaining two (Roderick, Narcissa), while certainly
242 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

more hopeful, still has a faint suggestion of the absurd hopeful after-
life of Franz and Sigleinde in Careful – so spectacular is the wreckage of
the others. In fact one might say of Roderick and Narcissa that all they
achieve is a status quo ante which redeposits them into the state of child-
loss and potential dysfunction that caused amnesia and abandonment in
the first place. Like Archangel and Careful, Saddest Music is a tragedy in its
basic narrative outline, a grim story of impossible desires, bad choices,
pathological strategies, and the miscarriage of all aspirations. And as in
Archangel and Twilight, this complex molecule of characters seems delib-
erately arranged to show how things don’t work and won’t work. There is
something bordering on didacticism in the ‘philosophical’ perspective
of all of these films: the perspective that says that erring human nature
will miss its aim almost perfectly. In the relatively calm dramatic environ-
ment of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, this spectacle can be recognizable as a
meditation, whereas in the more lurid confines of Archangel and Careful
it functions more like the dramatic irony of thick melodrama. Saddest
Music lies somewhere in between. Its frantic comedy and even more fran-
tic visual outrages carry the film equal distances away from the lugubri-
ous doom-ridden pilgrimages of Archangel and Careful, on one side, and
the aquamarine-and-gold Symbolist debating society of Twilight, on the
other. And yet it musters all the violence and cruelty of the first two films,
and much of the intricate analysis of the third.
In the end, the emotional weight of the tragic conclusions is less sub-
stantial than in Archangel and Careful. There is no equivalent here of
Boles lost in the fog, coughing blood, witnessing the crushing defeat of
all his longings without comprehension; nor of Grigorss in the ice cave at
the end of Careful, fantasizing a tender vision of childhood family ideal-
ity that we know is utterly false. One can see how Chester’s illumination
and breakthrough to feeling at the end of Saddest Music resembles these
moments, and yet the affective force is less because there has been little
ramp-up to this moment. Boles and Grigorss endure long drawn-out ago-
nies before final defeat comes to bring their sufferings to an awesome
resolution. But Chester remains sealed tightly in his cocoon of repres-
sion and sublimation until pretty close to the last minute, so that he
exists as a feeling, suffering personage only briefly before he, and the
movie, are gone. He is shallow, shallow, shallow, shallow – and then, sud-
denly, he is deep and then he is dead. He never achieves enough psycho-
logical depth for us to care about his problem. Of course his psychic case
remains interesting, one can see how his life of repression has been path-
ological, and how he really needed that fatal epiphany; but that is on the
The Saddest Music in the World 243

level of a kind of detached understanding. Even Roderick, far closer to

the realm of seriousness, only achieves something genuine near the end
of the film, and it is hard to sympathize with his grieving process when
he is so often accompanied by signifiers of triviality and possessed by
the comedy-persona Gavrilo the Great. In this respect the film is closer
to Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, where characters are lined up for cathartic
climaxes (Cain Ball, Amelia, Peter, even Zephyr) but affectivity is scarce.
By the end of Saddest Music, all the characters have achieved some kind
of reality or seriousness. Fyodor (for much of the film the most sober
of the characters, the least infected by zaniness) recognizes that an act
with such serious consequences as his will not go away no matter how
much you wish it, collapses, and dies. Helen sheds not only her giddy
neo-girlishness but her steel facade of power and contempt, and is seen
wigless and mascara-stained, just a suffering human – whose anger finally
moves from poison-dipped sarcasm to compulsive violent directness of
expression in a savage multiple stabbing. Narcissa recovers her memory
and her reality, Roderick loses his Gavrilo persona, and Chester’s attain-
ment of authenticity is brutal and climactic. But the film still has to strug-
gle to contain and stage those moments of apotheosis unironically in an
environment as hostile to seriousness as that of any Maddin film.


Like the ‘cowardice’ of Cowards Bend the Knee, the ‘sadness’ of The Sad-
dest Music in the World requires some investigation. The very first scene,
pre-credit, lays out the terms of the Chester story. Acknowledge your
inner sadness or die: an explicit warning from a personage who exactly
performs the function of a fairy-tale soothsayer or Shakespearean witch.
And, as in a folk tale or Macbeth, the solemn prediction comes to pass.
Chester doesn’t acknowledge his inner sadness – instead he flees it – and
he dies as a result, to the accompaniment of the Seer’s harsh laughter,
in a closure as implacably moralizing as that of any fairy story or Tale
from the Crypt. The film’s message, then: ‘Be sad or else!’ But what is
the nature of this sadness? Chester’s primal trauma is presented in a
flashback whose veracity we have no reason to question: a boy sees his
mother collapse and die in the middle of a family activity that is a kind
of perfect emblem of ideal family harmony (making music together).
But the scene is full of cues that we should not take it seriously. Mother’s
singing is definitely not of professional quality, and while there is no rea-
son family music-making should manifest such skill, the effect is faintly
244 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ridiculous – and becomes completely so when her seizure begins and

her voice trails off in a fashion one can only describe as comical. The
effect is distinctly related to what the soundtrack music is doing to the
pathos of Zenaida’s reconciliation with Franz in Careful. The spectacle
of this decorous Victorian-hair-bunned woman crashing onto the piano
keyboard with Cecil Taylor-like discordancy and then lying there in a
posture of bad opera acting is witty, a deft little skewering of stereotypes
of parlour propriety and nineteenth-century melodrama. The dressed-
up little boys at their instruments – above all sailor-suited little Chester17
with his trumpet – only add to this impression. There may very well be
affection in this satirical portrait of the genteel cultural content of the
scene, but there is no sadness. It is of course quite believable that a little
boy would be scarred for life by such an experience, but this trauma runs
perilously close to another one from Careful, the Swan-Feeder’s loss of an
eye through being pecked by a goose clock. There is no real pain here.
The film has to work as hard to rehabilitate Chester’s trauma, and just as
hard to reclaim any real emotional pain in its foundational event. Only
at the end of the film, as the mother’s death appears once more, over
Chester’s mortally wounded face, does the deep, deep loss of such an
event begin to seem real. Until then, the film has shared Chester’s own
insouciant dismissal of it.
A similar syndrome afflicts all the other instances of sadness in the
film. Roderick’s über-melancholy is in a death struggle to keep its head
above the waves of preposterousness that accompany its every turn.
Narcissa’s amnesia takes the form of a tapeworm that talks to her. Even
Helen’s horrible mutilation is festooned with silliness in the form of the
wall-full of sportif photos of her in her youthful wholeness that display
a set of ridiculous poses and somewhat recall the flash-card quizzes at
the Tolzbad Butler Gymnasium, while her damaged attempts at sexual
satisfaction (via Teddy) have to survive the rococo insanity of the blind-
folded orchestra. It doesn’t help when Chester meets her angry reaction
to his visit by commenting on her nineteenth-century street-cripple’s
wheeled platform – modelled specifically, like her disability, on Lon
Chaney’s from The Penalty,18 with ‘I see you’ve got a new dolly. Nice.’
Again, Fyodor is something of an exception, since he maintains a sober
and penitent demeanour, but his po-faced harping on love, forgiveness,
and redemption are not only themselves faintly satirical, but are heavily
compromised by the comic-strip Grand Guignol of his hacksaw original
sin and the inherent absurdity of his beer-legs project.
The sadness of Winnipeg is just funny. That this cold-blasted, snow-
The Saddest Music in the World 245

buried wasteland in the middle of nowhere (the film’s characterization,

not mine) has even been noticed by the Times of London, let alone voted
the world capital of anything, is a self-directed satirical jab, no more sub-
stantial than the fatuous caricatures of the Nations of the World per-
forming in its contest. The sadness of Winnipeg may be truly there, and
deep, as indeed may be that of the Nations – but, like Chester’s, they
are all presented in the register of burlesque, and they would all only
even be perceptible after a titanic burrowing operation through layers
and layers of self-protective irony. In ‘The Saddest Music in the World
Contest,’ none of the music is sad, or at least it is not allowed to emerge as
functionally sad after its trip through the gauntlet of mockery. The very
first competition, by no means the most ridiculous, pits ‘Siam vs. Mex-
ico,’ and features an oriental gentleman with bird-cage prop performing
on a wooden flute versus a family mariachi band. The contest itself is
a riot of farcical incongruities, with its arbitrary national designations,
home-made musical talents, victory beer vat, and minor league hockey
buzzer rudely interrupting every sadness. The sporting metaphor is car-
ried further by the pair of announcers, Mary (Talia Pura) and Ellsworth
(Claude Dorge) who provide play-by-play and colour commentary for
the radio audience. So in the ‘Siam vs. Mexico’ contest, Mary adds this
helpful explanation:

No one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats, or twins. But
I’m embarrassed to say that before now I’ve never taken Siamese sadness
all that seriously. You can almost hear the typhoon bearing down on a de-
fenceless seaside village through this tortured flute solo. The fatal deluge is
announced by birds. The performer has taken the trouble to put out their
eyes so they’ll have a bit more soul to their warning chirps.

Then, in elucidation of the Mexican performance, the pair of announc-

ers offer this commentary:

ellsworth: [looking at notes] The Mexicans are giving us a sad peek

into child-burial customs down Mexico way.
mary: The Mexican mama is being very firm with her dead infant.
‘Now go away,’ she wails. ‘You – are – dead. Don’t sneak in at night
to nurse from my breast. That milk is only for the living.’ To Cana-
dian ears that may sound harsh.
ellsworth: [cheerfully] Well, I guess dead children, like any other
kind, have got to learn.
246 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The extravagant ‘sadness’ of Gavrilo the Great’s performances is ut-

terly dispersed by his all-black costume including four-foot hat-brim and
bedspread-sized veil, Groucho Marx-style eyebrows and moustache, and
sunglasses as opaque as those of Gramma in Cowards Bend the Knee: a
travesty both literally and metaphorically. Of all the acts, only Fyodor’s
– dignified in costume and performance – is straightforward and mel-
ancholy, but he is quickly voted down by his compatriots in favour of
the much more spectacular group from the Cameroons performing a
pygmy funeral ceremony complete with self-laceration and wildly beat-
ing drums. After all this, Chester’s ludicrously upbeat Broadway- and
Hollywood-ized production numbers are no more preposterous as rep-
resentations of sadness than any of the other acts. Indeed, when Nar-
cissa, to Roderick’s horror and disgust, takes up the sacred grief-anthem
‘The Song Is You’ and converts it (in a kind of fantasy performance
that is not in the contest) into a jazzy production number that develops
a chorus of hockey players19 and a whole ballroom of evening-dressed
dancers with a full orchestra conducted by Chester, the result is just a
straightforwardly good musical number, really the only one in the film,
at least before Roderick’s final cello solo to Narcissa. (Who knew that
Maria de Medeiros, with her little piping child’s voice, could sing, and
swing, so well?20) The thesis statement holds: none of the ‘saddest mu-
sic’ is sad. It’s not ‘The Saddest Music in the World,’ it’s ‘The “Saddest”
Music in the World.’
So: not sadness, but ‘sadness.’ In a conversation about how postmod-
ern Saddest Music is or isn’t, George Toles had this to say in elaboration
of his contention that the film is not essentially sceptical in a postmodern

In Saddest Music, to put it bluntly and baldly, we’re talking endlessly about
fraudulent forms of sadness to the point where all sadness is self-conscious,
fraudulent, and self-serving. It’s as though that’s all we have to say about
it, but in fact the real goal of the narrative is saying that all that talk about
fraudulence, we were never away from real sadness for an instant. Sadness
was always and everywhere the real quarry, the thing that the movie is nev-
er in any deep way sceptical about. It’s just finding the way in which sad-
ness can emerge in the midst of all this gaudiness and fakery about what it
means. You can light up, with a moment, a path all the way through, and
[have the viewer say] ‘look, it’s been really sad from the start. I didn’t feel
that, I didn’t feel it that way until right here.’ And make Chester the means
for conducting that kind of both blocking and detachment, and finally dis-
The Saddest Music in the World 247

And it seems clear that the film really does embody this blueprint on
one, fundamental, level. But the question remains, as always in Maddin
and especially Maddin/Toles, why are all these obstacles there in the
first place? Saddest Music does not feel like a movie about how people
fake sadness. Perhaps it is a functional satire of how representation, how
entertainment, fakes sadness, and how audiences will flock to consume
fake sadness instead of the real thing. It becomes a comment on popu-
lar art (we will turn to this in a moment). But for the characters, fake
sadness can’t really work in that way. Roderick’s Gavrilo act, Narcissa’s
tapeworm, Fyodor’s beer-legs project – these things are too surreally
weird and ridiculous to be functional. What do they represent, what are
they satirizing? They are metaphors, perhaps, for something less bizarre,
but their exaggeration and comedy-sketch flatness create a big barrier
between the metaphor and what it is a metaphor of. The hyperbolic,
self-consciously too-grotesque aspects of suffering in the film prompt
a parallel question. Isn’t ordinary sadness enough – bereavement, the
catastrophic emotional failures occurring in families and other intimate
relationships? Surely there’s plenty of distance between this kind of
profound everyday sadness and the derisory pastiches that society and
culture make of their representation and consumption, space to allow
a critique and even a satire. Why do we need drunken double ampu-
tations, amnesia and tapeworms, child hearts pickled in tears, and all
the rest? How is the absurdity of the circumstances, and the results, of
Helen’s loss of her legs helping the thesis of fake sadness? Is the movie
saying that there would be a more emotionally honest way for her to
deal with her trauma? That instead of running a predatory-capitalist beer
company she should just stay in her room and cry? But in the event, all
the characters are in some important way ridiculous by virtue of their
suffering – not because of their fake sadness, but because of their real
sadness. The scene of Chester’s mother’s death is ridiculous while it is ac-
tually happening, before Chester even has a chance to disavow it, Helen’s
amputation-by-hacksaw equally so (albeit far more of a fish-hook). The
movie is in effect pushing the primal sufferings of its personages into
the same bin of overwrought, inauthentic dramatization as the contest.
Some elements of character sadness escape this mockery, notably the
fantasy appearance of the dead child to both Roderick (in the train)
and Narcissa (in the dressing room). And Chester’s condition can work
in a transparent way because his whole life has been a denial of feeling,
not a luridly overdramatic fakery of feeling. But the program that Toles
states for finding underlying sadness is made more complicated and anti-
intuitive by so much of the film’s presentation.
248 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The best answer to these questions must be, I think, that the faking
of sadness is a kind of pathological psychic condition, but not so much
for these characters as for the film itself. The fundamental activity is not
Chester’s or Narcissa’s progress to reach feeling by stripping away re-
pression and aversion, nor Helen’s to reach bedrock sorrow and juicy
anger instead of living in a state of horribly dry bitterness. Rather, it is
the film’s own progress to become actually sad instead of manifesting
the neurotic condition of sadness buried under comedy-grotesqueness
and other forms of armour-plating. Of course the main characters are a
vehicle for realizing this goal. Perhaps the one whose project is closest to
the film’s is Roderick, who must explicitly reject the theatrical trappings
of his emotional hiding place, stripping off ridiculous moustache and
eyebrows, to reach, simply, his own face. Just so must The Saddest Music
in the World get past its farcical mockery of everyone and everything. As
we have seen, it is once more the progress of Archangel and Careful. But
Saddest Music is the most explicit, the most self-thematizing, of all: it is
even a thesis-movie. More than any previous Maddin film, the storyline
and the thematic development of the movie are representations of the
movie, and a ruling paradigm in Maddin’s cinema. That is, the problems
of amnesia, numbness, displacement of feeling into something more
superficial and finally more manic, the thick proliferation of self-pro-
tection mechanisms – all these need to be painfully overcome until the
object itself can be attained: connection, authenticity of emotion, ethical
responsibility, self-knowledge. We may conclude that the lesson of seeing
this configuration so many times in Maddin’s cinema must be that this
gnarled and difficult route must seem to the filmmaker the only route
– that a more direct one would cause the object to vanish completely be-
fore it was reached, that the quarry would surely flee if one didn’t sneak
up on it in this most disguised and circuitous way. In Cowards Bend the
Knee before, and Brand upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg afterwards, Mad-
din does, in fact, find a more direct path (though god knows those films
are full enough of misdirection too). In this respect The Saddest Music in
the World may perhaps be seen as a kind of final, most explicit explora-
tion of Maddin’s obliquer first model.
Since the contest is kind of the organizing event for all this, we can
clearly see the film as reflexive. The musical and performative aspects of
the contest are representations of art in general and cinema in particu-
lar. Moreover the low-budget amateur status of all the acts – and even
Chester’s are low-budget amateur versions of big-budget professional
production numbers – mirrors the condition of Maddin’s cinema. When
The Saddest Music in the World 249

the Heather Belles, a Winnipeg all-girl highland pipe band, appear rep-
resenting Scotland, we are right back in the latter stages of Tales from the
Gimli Hospital, which featured the Khartoum Lodge Shriners Highland
Pipe Band. The utterly casual, and self-mocked, attitude towards eth-
nographic truth runs with perfect consistency through every group and
performance. The Siamese flutist (to begin at the beginning) is playing
Chinese music on a Chinese instrument. Maddin remarks:

This is my friend Xiang. He’s one of the two greatest Chinese Bumbershoot
flute players. He’s representing Siam here, which is just one of many ex-
amples of my attempt to pay homage to 1930s Hollywood insensitivities to
ethnicity. Just a total disregard for geographical fact.22

This, too, is a practice that goes back to Gimli Hospital, which has a char-
acter embodying Maddin’s conscious caricature of 1930s Hollywood’s
unconscious caricature of laughable Negro simplicity.23 But Maddin
loves these carefree lies even as he recognizes their mendacity. They are
another manifestation of the childlike innocence of earlier times, the
innocence that appeals to Maddin’s innocence. And in fact the relation-
ship of Hollywood ethnic caricature to actual ethnic fact is rather close
to the relation between Maddin’s historical environments and actual his-
tory. He is essentially incurious about what really happened in Archangel
in 1919 or the Swiss Alps in 1820. And if he actually knows something
about what happened in Gimli in 1879 or Winnipeg in 1933 (or any of
the other periods of Winnipeg history that make their way into his films),
his first act is to make them false, to exaggerate and caricature and fan-
tasize them.
So that all the lies about the world and culture in the Saddest Music
Contest are Maddin’s lies, or at least are intimately related to Maddin’s
lies (alternate term: ‘mode of artistic transformation’). Hence, the sat-
ire of Hollywood historical insouciance, and even of Hollywood shallow
glitziness, is essentially gentle. The combination of pure brass chutzpah
and actual naivety in ‘The Alaskan Kayak Tragedy of 1898’ emerges as
campily delightful even as it is driving the ‘genuine artist’ Roderick to
maddened transports of modernist cacophony that will shatter Helen’s
glass legs. And really, in this film, the non-existent Alaskan Kayak Trag-
edy has exactly the same status as Gavrilo the Great’s memorialization of
the proximate cause of World War I, and Roderick’s take on the assassi-
nation at Sarajevo is not so far from Maddin’s take on the Allied expedi-
tion to Archangel. The amazing thing about all the ‘sadness’ in all these
250 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

films is that they eventually do manage to reach something not-in-quota-

tion-marks. Art, as it is staged in The Saddest Music in the World, only leaves
the realm of the charmingly preposterous when it is transfixed with a
pain so great it cannot be avoided or disavowed or displaced. Roderick’s
laments for the death of nine million are fundamentally ridiculous; only
his authentic rage can produce art that will break things, and only his au-
thentic unadorned sorrow can produce art that will penetrate and dispel
his wife’s amnesia. Chester’s production numbers are delightfully silly
but weightless; only his gutted performance of ‘The Song Is You’ really
expresses something. (And one notes that the musical ugliness of Roder-
ick’s discordant performance and the musical ugliness of Chester’s bad
one are simply markers of their depth of feeling.) Meanwhile Fyodor,
whose unfeigned performance of ‘The Red Maple Leaves’ has neither
the charm of Chester’s fakery nor the farcical Wagnerian overkill of Ro-
derick’s, is simply ignored – just like his personal suit to Helen and his
personal project of redemption. In the end, what we can say is that the
mechanism of fake sadness masking real sadness is a property of the film
rather than of all the sadness fakers in the film.

Humour, savagery, elegy

All of Maddin’s feature films are funny, but Saddest Music is probably the
funniest of them all, if only because of the sheer volume of jokes. The
open bar of opportunities presented by the setting and the contest – to
single out only the most fertile fields – is so abundant that the film is able
to keep up a steady snowfall of jokes from the beginning almost to the
end. We’ll turn more closely to the comic presentation of Winnipeg in
a moment, but the contest and everything surrounding it are an endless
source of amusement. Maddin and Toles keep whacking it like a piñata,
and it keeps disgorging little treats. The extravagant absurdity of the idea
of it is rather grand. The individual acts are often rather appealing in
their basically artless way, but at the same time always ridiculous by virtue
of standing as emblems of national musical sorrow. The terms and pro-
cedures of the contest are even funnier, from the wonderful fruity radio
commentators of whom one somehow never tires, to the regal presidings
of Lady Port-Huntley who waves her handkerchief to start the contests
like a Lady Bountiful and ends them with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down
like a Roman emperor, to the victory beer vat whose coarseness is so
breathtaking it almost counts as elegance, to the rude buzzer interrupt-
ing the proceedings, to the blackboard where losing contestants are sim-
The Saddest Music in the World 251

ply crossed out in chalk, to the cutaways to ‘American Gothic’-type U.S.

rural radio listeners glued to the set in envy of ‘that happy suds-buddy to
the north.’24 Roderick as contestant, too, is a rich jest: the sheer outra-
geousness of his costume and high seriousness of manner is the perfect
counterpart to the sheer vulgarity of all his surroundings, and in par-
ticular the beer vat. When during one performance he faints, and then
is dumped unconscious into the vat and has to be fished out before he
drowns, Mary the radio commentator remarks: ‘Still no word on the con-
dition of Gavrilo the Great. We don’t know if he’s in a coma, or just very,
very sad. We’ll try to find out as soon as we can. Now, a word from Port-
Huntley beer.’ And this reminds us of the delightful beer commercials,
accompanied by a catchy jingle suitable for radio:

Get up! Get your boots on!

Hurry up, hurry up!
Time’s a-wastin’
If you’re not tastin’
Lady Port-Huntley’s Beer!

The first time this song appears, it is accompanied by shots of drab,

heavily garbed male tavern-goers hunched with dull concentration over
their beers. On a later occasion, the song is accompanied – in a move
that would create narratological confusion if you thought about it – by
a stylish montage of bubbling beer, a bottling assembly line, and other
events in beer manufacture and sales. (The editing here would cause no
comment if it were to appear on television today, but in the context of
the period-cinema environment of Saddest Music, it looks a bit like a cub-
scout Slavko Vorkapich montage.)
Chester’s numbers are all hilarious, as indeed is much of the humour
surrounding his activities as a hustling Jimmy Cagney wannabe. Serbo-
Portuguese Maria de Medeiros in fur-fringed outfit on a Ferris wheel seat
singing ‘Swing low, sweet chariot, coming forth [sic] to carry me home’
sends Gavrilo the Great into a cross-eyed synaesthetic swoon (‘Can’t
you smell that?! It’s roses! My nostrils are choking. Too many thorns!
I bleed!’). Both halves of that equation are funny. When, in an access
of enraged resentment, Roderick smashes Chester over the head with
a trumpet – signifier, incidentally, of his childhood music making – he
falls to the floor and, as he slides into unconsciousness, gasps reflexively:
‘Gimme more of that fizz!’ Roderick’s attack on Chester and Narcissa in
the open carriage is another succulent moment: leaping in, he points a
252 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

finger at Chester and announces with insane matter-of-factness ‘In the

name of Serbia I kill you both,’ pulls the trigger, and makes little shoot-
ing sounds to no effect, and then is whacked over the head with a violin
by Chester. (Assault by musical instrument is obviously just a develop-
ment of a metaphor that begins in the scene of the primal trauma and in-
forms the whole film.) Rarely has a Maddin film occupied such levels of
outright slapstick. Maddin remarks about this scene that it was the reali-
zation of a decades-old ambition to restage the assassination at Sarajevo.
It is totally characteristic that when he finally does so, it is in the terms
not even of an Archangel-like home-made dramatization of a backwater
of the Great War, but of a delusory, childishly impotent pretend-assault:
a lovely homuncular embodiment of Maddin’s whole way with the epic
violent events of the historical past. If only every mortal problem in life
could be addressed through play-acting – life could be enchanting and
funny instead of sad. The effect of all of the humour in this vein is just to
lift the spirits, to invite us to share a delectable, ‘fizzing’ comic sensibility
that is having a lot of light-hearted fun with its materials.
But there is comedy of another sort, too. Chester’s line ‘Gimme more
of that fizz!’ is echoed in another line he delivers after another, much
more serious, assault, when Helen has stabbed him in the gut: ‘Well now
you’ve given me something to laugh about.’ The configuration is the
same, the attitude is the same, but the result is not funny any more, not
funny at all. Everything connected with Helen’s amputation and legless-
ness is a giant ‘fish-hook’ – one that is big enough to stifle any laugh.
When the film jokes about blindfolded musicians and ‘singing in the
see-saw’ (Helen’s description of the on-command sex that Teddy must
furnish her with), the result is queasy to the point of distastefulness. Even
the beer legs are able to give comfort really only because they are so
surreally preposterous; and the threat of their cracking and breaking
moves this absurd comedy into realms of pure anxiety and finally crush-
ing humiliation and utter defeat. The ridiculousness of the child’s heart-
in-a-jar – an essential component – is always counteracted by qualities
that are unironically horrifying if not revolting. As the film makes its way
through so many instances of cruel humour about disfigurement, about
anguish of a dozen varieties, about pain so great you lose your memory
or your affect, I am strangely reminded of Monty Python’s Life of Brian
(1979), and especially its final musical production number that features
a whole hillside of crucifixion victims singing ‘Look on the bright side
of life.’ The pithiest expression of its philosophy is: ‘Life’s a piece of shit
/ When you look at it.’ It’s a Broadway chorus of damned souls, Samuel
The Saddest Music in the World 253

Beckett with 101 Strings, the darkest kind of existentialism without the
consolation of any kind of gravitas. You might as well laugh, say the Py-
thons, since the fundamental condition is as bad as it can possibly be,
and you have absolutely no recourse whatever. The laughter that arises,
though, is an entirely arid, maniacal cackling that is the opposite of ther-
apeutic. Crying seems out of the question, since it would require some
kind of vulnerability which you’d be mad to entertain. This is a state of
emotional blockage, trapped in an eternal hell of withering poisonous
laughter, that the Pythons never escape nor want to escape and which is
indeed home territory for them.
This is a kind of sensibility, a kind of cinema, that seems a species
of ground zero for imaginations unable any more to believe in truth,
beauty, and the Good, and see themselves surrounded by a million ever
more plastic counterfeit expressions of those values (Disney, Forrest
Gump, Titanic) that fail dismally at the awesome challenge of spontane-
ously producing one authentic tear. It’s not their fault, either, it’s the
culture that surrounds them; we all suffer from the same emotional im-
potence. The Life of Brian and Saddest Music are alike enemies of this kind
of ‘fake sadness.’ But unlike the Pythons (or Spitting Image or Curb Your
Enthusiasm), Maddin is still fundamentally motivated by the echo of emo-
tional authenticity. In his case it arises from childhood, from eclipsed
and ‘childlike’ forms of culture the foremost of which is silent cinema,
and is somehow conjured up in the very act of playing with these things.
The more ridiculous, the more impossibly naïve, the more obviously in-
adequate the model, the greater the residual current of emotional au-
thenticity, so that Maddin proceeds by debunking with one hand what
with the other he magically reconstitutes as the font of that most scarce
and precious elixir: truth, beauty, and the Good. In Saddest Music the de-
bunking of mainstream entertainment is rather extensive, and includes
the ludicrous guying of moronic showbiz strategies and even more
moronic audiences, while at the same time not exempting itself from
the same charge of falling short in the holiest tasks of representation
by staging its own dramatic strategies in the form of ridiculous excesses
of suffering and damage. But all of these things – Muskeg Beer adver-
tising jingles, gulled idiot-audiences, beer pools, caricatures of culture
and ethnicity, the frozen primitiveness of Winnipeg, and also Gavrilo the
Great with his pickled child-heart, Narcissa with her tapeworm, Fyodor
with his prosthetics laboratory that looks like Gepetto’s workshop – must
be recuperated through their inadequacy, into something whose child-
ish simplicity gives access to the lost world of innocence. So that, again,
254 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Chester at the piano keyboard as a human torch. On the soundtrack, his voice
proclaims: ‘I ask you – is there anybody here as happy as I am?’

it is their oversimplicity, their obvious childishlyimagined-ness, that as

it were guarantees their truth-of-a-certain-kind, whereas a more three-
dimensional, grown-up-realist kind of imagination and representation
would only doom the result to true numbness and lies. Underneath that
silly play-world, at its foundation, is something whose dreadful pain is
expressed in the violence of the imagery: amputation by hacksaw, child’s
heart pierced with glass, images that combine derisory artifice with hor-
rors that can’t be laughed off. And the recovery of that foundation is
then represented with the Passion de Jeanne d’Arc-like image of Chester’s
flaming body at the keyboard: a mortal holocaust where the raging fire
has burned away all disguise. And one sees how The Saddest Music in the
World has been able to go somewhere that Monty Python does not reach.
All of the savage humour at last resolves into pure savagery: Helen’s
vicious stabbing, Chester’s horrifying immolation. All humour dissolves,
but especially that humour that had served the film itself in the project
to defend itself from the underlying world of pain, from a too-clear view
of reality with its attendant danger of a too-clear form of cinematic real-
ism. Any truly grieving kind of representation of, for example, the death
of the mother at the beginning of the film is impossible: it hasn’t been
The Saddest Music in the World 255

earned yet, it can’t survive the charge of instant sentimentalism, the

event must be mocked and laughed at. Moreover the childlike-uncom-
prehending and infantile-destructive must be given their head before
any distilled form of truth can emerge. The film not only goads and jabs
with this cruel humour, it is goaded and jabbed by it. The need to make
cruel jokes about cruel reality is something it needs to get past, a big
roadblock to feeling that it needs to break through. When it at last does
so, it is not by some gradual, therapeutic process, but by an explosion,
a sudden, violent release of all the accumulated tension of avoidance
and smothered pain. A breakage, exactly, like all the narratively central
glass breakages in the film – and after the final breakage, and murder-
ous attack with glass shards, a conflagration. Only such an excess of pure
violence can pierce not just the defences of the film’s characters, but
the defences of the film. When everything is shattered and then burned
away, when all the jokes are finished, the final resting place of the film
would like, perhaps, to be elegaic, as expressed in the reunion of Roder-
ick and Narcissa, and in Chester’s tearful remembrance. That moment
of sublimity, where Chester can at last remember and feel, is to me strongly
reminiscent of Max Ophuls’ great film Letter from an Unknown Woman,
where the hero Louis Jourdan is cured in the last scene of his arid self-
ishness and connected by memory to everything truly valuable in his life
– but only when it is too late, when all that is left is to die.25 But the Letter
from an Unknown Woman ending of Saddest Music in the World has to con-
tend with its Passion de Jeanne d’Arc ending (and with its Hangover Square
ending). It is a question whether any elegaic mood can survive in the
face of those scorching flames whose cruelty is at last without any kind
of funny costume. Pointedly cruel, too, is the inserted shot of the antler-
headdressed seer, maniacally laughing in derision at this fool. Chester’s
last voice-over – ‘is there anybody as happy as I am?’ – ends the film on a
very pure note of the characteristic Maddin/Toles oxymoron: at once a
cathartic moment of self-release and a savage self-mutilation.

Our Winnipeg

Right from the start, Maddin has been a local filmmaker. To make The
Dead Father, he walked out the front door or the back door of his house
in Winnipeg, or in the door of the family cottage at Gimli, and shot what
was there. When the ‘mythologizing’ bug bit, he turned first to the Mani-
toba history of New Iceland (Gimli Hospital), then to an obscure First
World War battlefront where Winnipeggers had served (Archangel). Care-
256 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ful, Twilight, and Dracula had a far less visible relation to Winnipegness
(notwithstanding the fact that Dracula was an original production of the
Royal Winnipeg Ballet), but with Cowards, Saddest Music, and of course
My Winnipeg Maddin has returned home in every sense. As we have seen,
Cowards has explicitly local settings, but there are relatively few markers
of a Winnipeg anyone else might recognize. With Saddest Music, the city
of Winnipeg is a major character in the film. Given its musical content,
one might almost say that it is Maddin’s Meet Me in St Louis. It is actually
rather interesting to explore this eccentric parallel a little: then it seems
that every ringing tone of energy and forward-looking in Minnelli’s film
has a sourly self-mocking echo in Maddin’s. The World’s Fair of 1903 =
the Great Depression; the burgeoning exuberance of Midwest American
civic pride = ‘the world capital of sorrow’; Judy Garland singing ‘The
Trolley Song’ = the Heather Belles performing ‘Cockney Jock’; spacious
Technicolor mansions, candy-striped dresses, and spectacular coiffes =
cramped monochrome shacks, Roderick’s outrageous get-up, and Ches-
ter’s ‘slippery hair’ or Helen’s cheap blonde wig.26 And so on. In short,
St Louis’ joyful paean to local boosterism is precisely answered by Sad-
dest’s status as a kind of extended anti-travel brochure whose message is:
‘You’d have to be crazy to visit Winnipeg.’
The Main Street setting features a black sky with a big tilted sign read-
ing ‘TAR’ in the distance, frozen ponds, head-high weeds, telephone
poles buried halfway to their cross-members in snow, cheap commercial
light-bulb signs in the background, houses angled Expressionistly and
sunk to the gables into the snowdrifts, hunched and shuffling passers-by
bundled up against the cold, but also pyjama-clad sleepwalkers peram-
bulating like zombies or leaning against buildings. Altogether the effect
of this master-set is Germanic, Expressionist, evoking Caligari in one de-
tail, Sunrise in another. A streetcar trundles along half-subterraneanly, so
deeply immersed in snowbanks that it must be entered through a door
in the roof, its design suggesting Captain Nemo’s Nautilus as built by
Georges Méliès, its route a long passenger-pickup for delivery at the ter-
minus of the biggest beer parlour in town. Needless to say it is snowing
all the time. The Port-Huntley offices are brighter and more upclass – a
kind of high-key, fantasy Art Deco, geometric-patterned madness – but
all the other interiors are dark, rough, and impoverished: the contest
hall, the rooms inhabited by Fyodor, Roderick, and Narcissa. Then di-
egetically, Winnipeg is the place that the hero of the picture tried to es-
cape for somewhere important, and where his return represents defeat.
(In My Winnipeg, ‘Guy Maddin’ is trying to escape from the town, too.)
The Saddest Music in the World 257

Chester and Narcissa stroll down the main street of the World Capital of
Sorrow, vegetation and stagnant ponds in the foreground and bright lights in
the background both from Murnau’s Sunrise (1927).

In the DVD commentary, Maddin delights in suggesting to viewers that

these fantastic whoppers are the bare truth about Winnipeg, and giving
helpful explanations and amplifications, such as:

The telephone poles are all about three feet tall. Another typical problem
in the winter – you know, you’re always getting clotheslined when you’re run-
ning down the street because of the short telephone poles.

One imagines him chuckling as he thinks of viewers in Albuquerque

or Birmingham or Canberra saying to themselves: ‘My goodness, maybe
Winnipeg really is like that.’
The film’s main shooting location was the abandoned Dominion
Bridge Factory, a one-time steel mill that has since been condemned
and that was also the location for The Heart of the World. During the two
to three weeks when the shooting was taking place there, Winnipeg was
suffering one of the worst winter cold snaps in decades. The tempera-
ture inside the vast, windowless building with its concrete floors rose
258 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

as high as minus 28° Celsius (intolerably cold) but usually, says Mad-
din,27 hovered around minus 40° – a truly dreadful temperature where
exposed flesh can freeze after a few minutes. Steam-breath pours from
the mouths of the actors in many scenes, and the moments where they
are required to perform in skimpy costume or strip off to underwear
level are uncomfortable to watch if you know the circumstances of shoot-
ing.28 But there were important advantages, too. The set could sustain
real snow drifts and real frozen ponds, while the steaming clouds of heat
coming off winning contestants after their victory slides into a vat of
warm beer simply testifies to the literal reality (strange term to be using
about a Maddin film) of one aspect of the Winnipeg setting. It may also
subliminally insist to viewers that underneath all the clownish joke mak-
ing occurring in this environment is an underlying level of ferocity and
punishment – and in this it would be echoing a fundamental configura-
tion in the characters and the drama as a whole.
So, The Saddest Music in the World is an expression of civic pride in a
frozen hellhole. That expression consists largely of a deluge of mocking
caricatures and stinging darts of self-criticism. But it is a love-hate, or
perhaps a love-shame, attitude that underlies everything, as if Maddin
were saying (as he actually does pretty much say in My Winnipeg): This is
the frozen hellhole that is my home. Perhaps he is saying, too: Like my
childhood, like my family, Winnipeg makes me suffer through its deso-
late qualities, but I love them all anyway, they are me. As Maddin takes
this home town and makes jokes about its godforsakenness, exaggerates
its every quality of deprivation, isolation, and bleakness, Winnipeg be-
comes more and more clearly an avatar for his own cinema, which is also
deprived and out of the mainstream, self-enclosed in its own amateur
fabrications, somehow inadequate and besmirched and needing to be
rescued by fantasy or ‘mythology.’ (Saddest Music may be Maddin’s big-
gest undertaking to date, but its shooting conditions are as punitive as
any avant-garde or art film’s could possibly be – a kind of guarantee of
anti-mainstream authenticity on the level of production.)
It is fascinating to watch the ways this identification works its way into
extended metaphorical expression. In the making-of documentary Tear-
drops in the Snow, poor Maria de Medeiros and sundry other cast and crew
members may be perishing from the cold, but Maddin himself embraces
it: ‘I like the cold,’ he says simply, skating right past the fact that for
anybody but a polar native, minus 40° isn’t just cold, but bone-chilling,
death-causing cold. But such an attitude fits perfectly with Maddin’s en-
tire outlook, which is to embrace the conditions of your deprivation and
The Saddest Music in the World 259

your peculiar deferred pain. The character of Narcissa in fact embodies

the whole syndrome in a detailed way. When we first meet her, she is
so indifferent to and even fond of cold that she simply lies down in a
snowbank to take a little nap while Chester goes in to Helen’s offices.
An Auschwitz-inmate-clothed local denizen leans dazed against a wall.
The cold, which freezes all feeling, is, like the tapeworm that eats all
feeling, her friend; it expresses and enables her amnesia, her shallow
cheerfulness and equally shallow sensuality. Indeed it seems even to have
aphrodisiac qualities – and here we are reminded of Veronica’s Ghost
in Cowards Bend the Knee, who (especially in the published script) has an
erotic attraction to all forms of cold and is summoned by Maddin Sr’s
caresses of the ice breast. This love for cold is exactly a symptom of numb-
ness and amnesia and the disembodied condition of ‘dreaming’ that
Maddin talks increasingly about. A schema of related zones presents it-
self: amnesia = repression of painful memories, and repressed feelings =
frozenness, a numbness to cold, a liking for cold because it protects you
against your memory. When Narcissa starts to remember, she begins to
feel the cold. The defeat of amnesia creates a more normal (that is, con-
nected) relationship to the exterior world. In a larger sense this might be
thought therapeutic, but in Saddest Music these growing-more-normal,
growing-more-human developments are likely to be uncertain at best,
catastrophic at worst. Winnipeg, then, is a place where the cold protects
you from the worst pain of your bad feelings, even as it freezes you into
a certain pathological condition. How close this is to the petrified finale
of Cowards Bend the Knee, or the suspended despairing end point of Brand
upon the Brain!, or the whole inner project of My Winnipeg.
Maddin is explicitly fighting this condition in all these recent films,
and the explicit Winnipeg settings of Cowards and Saddest Music – and of
course My Winnipeg – are an aspect of the project. (Archangel too is in a
sense all about Winnipeg, as can be seen by the iconographic similarities
between its main street and that of Saddest Music, but in a much more
displaced way. Perhaps it is notable that nobody in Archangel really does
recover his or her memory.) It is a project that has the closest ties to the
attempt to overcome ‘cowardice,’ and it is surreal but not too surprising
to see Darcy Fehr (the ‘Guy Maddin’ of Cowards Bend the Knee and of My
Winnipeg as well) reappearing in Saddest Music in the wordless role of
Teddy, a degraded and humiliated lapdog of a man servicing a dominant
woman on command, briskly described by Maddin in the DVD commen-
tary in these terms: ‘he’s playing me again.’ The men of the Kent family
collaborate to severely disable Helen: Chester and Fyodor together at the
260 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

accident and its aftermath, and Roderick with his glass-shattering cello.
Fyodor’s and Chester’s catastrophic errors and transgressions are obvi-
ous, but Roderick, who devotes his whole life to lamenting the loss of his
family, is seen in his own memory as having pushed both wife and child
away in annoyance so that he can practise the cello. The unfeeling or
disassociated and self-protective qualities of Chester are precisely those
of ‘cowardice,’ and the whole tenor of the film is again that people have
to face up to themselves and their own emotions – notwithstanding the
fact that their eventual moments of truth tend to be rather disastrous.
On the other hand, Maddin’s cinema continues to avoid facing up
to reality; indeed it continues to run away from it as fast as it can. It is
eye-opening, in Teardrops in the Snow, to see the settings for Saddest Music
represented in a blank documentary-recording way, without benefit of
severe grain, blurring, monochrome, and other barriers to direct ap-
prehension. They are solid, heavy chunks of scenery, three-dimensional
buildings of real weight and presence. But in the completed movie, they
look as fantastic and flimsy as anything in Archangel. In Archangel and
Careful Maddin gets up to all kinds of ‘degrading’ tricks to conceal the
fact that his sets are cheap and insubstantial; whereas in Saddest Music he
gets up to even more extreme tricks to conceal the fact that his sets are
expensive and substantial. Clearly he has learned what he characterizes
as the lesson of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, where 35mm colour and no
vaseline revealed in the finished picture exactly what had been in front
of the camera. Now, with another (by his standards) big budget, Maddin
absolutely refuses to return to the Twilight zone. Neither the actual Win-
nipeg nor the Expressionist Winnipeg purpose-built in the Dominion
Bridge Factory is going to be allowed to look like it ‘really’ does. Maddin
remarked in an interview just after the film’s completion that he had to
create a Winnipeg ‘because you still don’t want to see the “real” Winni-
peg.’29 Sleepwalking, dreaming Winnipeggers, who will make a full-scale
appearance in Maddin’s cinema in My Winnipeg, perambulate through
Saddest Music as well, and by extension the major characters and the film-
maker too take on this tinge. The Winnipeg they traverse has the same
qualities as themselves.

Mise en scène

The Saddest Music in the World sets visual challenges for its viewers that ar-
guably surpass that of any other Maddin feature. To be sure, there are no
endless, meandering long takes as in Gimli Hospital or sections of some
The Saddest Music in the World 261

other pre–Heart of the World features. The editing doesn’t have the flash-
ing, flickering, musical quality it has in Dracula or Cowards Bend the Knee
– it hardly could have, with so much dialogue to traverse – but it moves
far more energetically and flowingly than in the dialogue-centred Twi-
light of the Ice Nymphs or the features preceding it. Of course it helps that
there are musical numbers and Vorkapich-commercials that introduce
free-editing zones into the movie, and in fact every opportunity is taken
to liven up the editing in non-dialogue scenes. So it’s not anything in the
domain of pacing that presents these challenges. It’s photography. The
irising, vaseline-vignetting, fogging, smudging, and vagaries of exposure
that occur in films like Archangel and, especially, Careful are a considera-
ble obstacle to transparent classical visual reception, but they don’t quite
measure up to what we see in Saddest Music. All of those strategies are car-
ried into Saddest Music as well, but they are now accompanied by a pow-
erful new force of ‘degradation.’ When Maddin says that the movie has
‘film grain the size of baseballs,’ he is humorously exaggerating. What it
actually has is film grain the size of golfballs: that seems a literal descrip-
tion of what you see on a theatre screen when Saddest Music is projected.
The movie is shot on Super-8mm and Super-16mm, and when one en-
counters the many moments where grain is so monstrous that the image
borders on disintegration, one is inclined to attribute the effect partly to
the poorer resolving power and refinement of the smaller format. But, as
Maddin explains, what is really happening is rather different:

[The Super-16 camera] has a crystal shutter that’s timed so perfectly it’s
almost digital, as opposed to the shutter of a regular 16mm camera which
is more analogue and irregular, I guess, on a subconscious level. The Su-
per-16 stuff on the first day’s rushes ... was coming back so clean it looked
like video compared to the regular 16mm and especially compared to the
Super-8. So we did this thing called push processing, where you just change
the SA and then leave it in the bath longer and it makes the grain really

Push processing – essentially, overdevelopment – makes images brighter

and grainier than they would with regular development. Usually it is
employed to allow shooting under low-light conditions, a way of artifi-
cially speeding up film stock. There are certainly shots in Saddest Music
that look as if they were markedly underexposed, and remain dark (and
hugely grainy) even after the brightening of push processing, and these
seem like rather twisted examples of the ordinary, utilitarian modus of
262 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the technique. But, as Maddin says, the principal aim is to de-clarify the
photography, to use it as a new tool in the filmmaker’s perpetual cam-
paign to ‘degrade’ the image, and this it succeeds in doing to a degree
unequalled before or since in his work. Maddin ended up going perhaps
even further than he wanted to: ‘I’m not sure if I had it to do over again
I would go quite that far.’31
In any event what we see in much of the film is an image that is ex-
tremely grainy, alternates between looking underexposed (too dark)
and looking overexposed (too bright), and then has the further chal-
lenges of vaseline-vignetting, eccentric framing, and most potent of all,
soft focus extending all the way to outright blur. The final result of all
these techniques combined is to make the spectator peer at and puzzle
to decipher the images, fight the photography just to see. This is image
stylization to the point of hard-core avant-gardism. Maddin, speaking of
the visuals of Dracula – Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, remarked that:

When you’re mixing 16 and Super-8, you’re getting sudden jarring changes
in grain, things like that. I wanted that. It asserts that all accidents are in-

This idea would be perfectly at home in the credo of an avant-garde art-

ist, and is certainly very far from the kind of accidentalness that might be
sought in more mainstream kinds of narrative filmmaking. But like every
Maddin feature film, Saddest Music is quite unique in its relation both to
the avant-garde on one side and narrative moviemaking on the other.
We can ask, as viewers of Saddest Music in a mainstream cinema, what we
are doing at a movie that assaults us so massively with golfballs and blur,
not to mention a plot of transcendent outlandishness. But as avant-garde
enthusiasts, we can ask in turn why our dignity is being affronted by crass
jokes (‘I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac’), beer-vat slapstick,
and a narrative that shows the director ‘intentionally turning my dial
towards American film.’33
The presence of colour, nominally a more realistic photographic tech-
nique, merely extends the syndrome. Two funeral sequences, Roderick’s
Cocteauvian dream vision during his swoon, and the final ‘Alaskan Kayak
Tragedy’ production number are in highly stylized two-colour hues ex-
tremely reminiscent of Careful, complete with actors once more in or-
ange-face. There is no visible rationale for the decision to ‘colourize’
these particular scenes except perhaps the last, but visual arbitrariness
has always been an aesthetic virtue for Maddin (as the comment above
The Saddest Music in the World 263

about Dracula demonstrates). The general effect goes back once more
to that favourite film-historical moment of early colour and early sound:
as he is fond of part-talkies, so he is of part-colour movies, traditions
that stretch from early cinema to Ivan the Terrible (and Andrei Rublev). It
is a large part of the particular charm of these films that the colour se-
quences are so often in such strange colour. The ‘failure’ of these movies
as sound films, or as colour films, is what endears them to Maddin’s own
artistic sensibility: in some way they succeed by failing, through feeble
or immature technique, just like Maddin’s films. Here, the colour se-
quences come across as just another element of Saddest Music’s cinema
of primitive attractions.
In the chapter on Archangel, I suggested that that film owed a par-
ticular debt to Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress. I have a similar sense with
The Saddest Music in the World, except this time the forebear is Murnau’s
Sunrise (which Maddin says is ‘a film I’ve seen at least 60 times’34). The
main street of Winnipeg, with its dark sloughlike (albeit frozen) ponds
and its six-foot weeds, just seems like a deliberate homage to the great
swamp set from Sunrise: an Expressionist country-of-the-mind set down
in the natural world. The cramped and askew habitations of Weimar-era
cinematic Expressionism appear to pervade the film in ways that seem
counterintuitive to a world that so much emphasizes beer factories, radio
broadcasts, and Prohibition, and yet, as we have seen, answer very well to
the film’s wish to characterize Winnipeg as a psychic symptom of margin-
alized discouragement and dull introspection. As the trolley car piloted
by Fyodor and bearing Chester and Narcissa arrives at its destination, we
get a shot through the front window of the scene being traversed and
the goal arrived at which, in the circumstances, seems rather close to the
trolley shots of Sunrise. (And, come to think of it, the main street in its
neon-bulbed aspect is not totally without an impoverished resemblance
to the City set of Sunrise.)
But what is truly Murnau-esque are the scenes in which Roderick and
Narcissa’s dead little boy comes back to each of them in imagination.
On the train as he journeys to Winnipeg, Roderick muses by a darkened
compartment window covered with raindrops. Into this black, droplet-
covered pane, just like an image appearing on a movie screen, comes in
large double-exposure close-up the head of his little son, a sweet, blond-
haired child with a clear-eyed serious expression on his face. As Roderick
raises his hand to it the head rapidly recedes and disappears. A series of
shots of raindrops on the glass follows, with a single, large, frozen drop
appearing again in double exposure. As the camera moves in to the crys-
264 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

tal, the images of cello-playing Roderick and his wife and son approach-
ing him for domestic hugs appear; he shakes them off and exits from
the droplet-image, returning then to scold them as they embrace each
other; then the image fades, and the camera moves back from the drop-
let, which disappears into the now-natural drop-covered windowpane. In
a later scene, Narcissa is seen sitting, alone and pensive, in a bedroom
in Fyodor’s house. Over her shoulder, where she can’t see it, again the
image of the dead boy that Roderick has seen appears in a dressing-table
mirror; there is a close-up of the boy; then a wider shot as she turns to
see the image. Now Narcissa herself appears as a reflection in a basin of
water which has ice chips floating in it; as Chester pops up beside her
(accompanied by a trumpet rip on the soundtrack), the water surface is
violently agitated, destroying the reflection. The shot dissolves to her son
in the mirror, who, as we hear the sounds of sex, backs into the darkness.
These sequences make a truly recreative use of the widespread silent
film technique of double exposure. Many of the greatest masters of the
medium made splendid use of this simple, straightforward tool to show
the thoughts of the character, to create a mental and spiritual landscape,
to vividly access the past, memory, emotion. There is no better exam-
ple of this than Sunrise, with its images of a Margaret-Livingstone-of-the-
mind materializing around the hero to caress and tempt him, or his cold
thoughts of drowning his wife appearing over his haunted sleepless face
in the form of the deadly waters themselves. The scenes of Saddest Music
I have just described can hardly measure up to this godlike standard,
but they are poetic, expressive, moving, and moreover in a register that
is entirely unironic. It is important to emphasize that last point, when so
much of Saddest Music is marinated in irony, or sauces sharper still. Like
most of the examples of double exposure in Maddin’s cinema, these tes-
tify once again to the filmmaker’s desire not to pastiche, or paraphrase,
or quote these techniques, but to use them.

The Canadian artist

Saddest Music not only presents Winnipeg far more directly and exten-
sively than in previous Maddin films. It also contains a little allegory of
the practice of Canadian art,35 with special relevance to filmmaking.
English Canada has always had terrible trouble, both practically and
metaphysically, generating a distinctive feature film industry.36 From the
period of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it looked as if a real Eng-
lish-Canadian movie industry might have at last been born,37 filmmakers
The Saddest Music in the World 265

In a train compartment on his way to take part in the Saddest Music Contest,
Roderick imagines the face of his dead child in the windowpane: another
instance of silent cinema’s willingness to photograph thought and feeling.

were caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the necessity
to attract at least some Canadian viewers at the box office if the national
movie industry was not to be exclusively a charity case sustained by gov-
ernment funding agencies. The hard place was the necessity for the films
to distinguish themselves from Hollywood movies, and to represent in
some way an authentic expression of Canadian identity. Since English
Canadians themselves have repeatedly found that they don’t know what
their identity is no matter how many times they are asked to think about
it, that latter requirement was a tall order. The first model proposed for
Canadian movies was an outgrowth of the sober, responsible, realist (and
often very fine) documentaries of the National Film Board of Canada:
Canadian movies could achieve distinctiveness by pursuing little, local
subjects in a documentary-realist manner. Many movies in this vein were
made over the years, some good, some bad, and all box office failures
by any reasonable commercial standard. Dour, narrow-horizoned, de-
pressed, and depressing – this is certainly no formula for attracting any-
thing but a tiny viewership. It is true that some of the greatest cinema in
266 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the world has only a tiny viewership; but that is no way to found a na-
tional cinema. But then it was also discovered that even if they wanted to,
Canadian filmmakers were unable to make movies in the Hollywood vein
which were the only product Canadian audiences had a demonstrated
desire to patronize. English-Canadian viewers, endowed with super-
sensitive antennae for distinguishing differences between themselves
and Americans that are undetectable by anyone else on earth including
Americans, could immediately sense when a particular piece of commer-
cial junk they might otherwise have been happy to watch was the product
of Canadians on both sides of the camera pretending to be Americans,
and they weren’t going to be taken in by that. The whole story is a sad
one, although at least some of the terms were changed in the 1990s when
Canadian filmmakers like Cronenberg and Egoyan began to attract an
international following, and the documentary-realist model started to be
replaced by something more wild and strange. Now the Canadian movies
that Canadian viewers aren’t watching are of a different kind – famous
for their quirkiness if not their ghoulish sickness.
While nobody could less resemble a documentary-realist filmmaker
than Maddin, he has often inserted visible markers of the Canadianness
of his subjects and himself into his films, even when they were not set in
Canada. Archangel has a Canadian hero, and also a made-up Canadian
flag that features a version of the defunct Red Ensign38 with a ‘veiny’
maple leaf instead of the actual Red Ensign’s crest or the stylized maple
leaf of the current Canadian flag. The presence of this made-up flag
makes at least a certain amount of sense in the Allied brigade in wartime
Archangel, but when another made-up flag suddenly appears just before
Johann’s suicide in Careful the effect is dumbfoundingly surreal, since
that film has no overt Canadian content whatever, and Canada wasn’t
even Canada in 1820 and didn’t have any kind of flag of its own. This
banner consists again of a large ‘veiny’ maple leaf, this time sans quar-
tered Union Jack, and described by Maddin as ‘a more sinister, expres-
sionist maple leaf’ to replace the existing one, with its ‘locked-in-the-60s
look.’39 Even more sinister and expressionist is the maple-leaf abortion-
hemorrhage bloodstain in Cowards Bend the Knee. In a narrative context,
too, Maddin has twice chosen to resurrect that imperial-Anglo period
of English-Canadian history before 1945. It gets its fullest statement in
Archangel, where, as we have seen, it represents a vanished world of duty
and Romantic idealism, full of what we would regard as severe flaws and
limitations, but somehow also achingly innocent. That same ethos re-
appears in Saddest Music in the person of Fyodor, who continues to go
The Saddest Music in the World 267

about in his soldier’s uniform fifteen years after the war’s end, who sings
‘The Red Maple Leaves’ as a sentimental anthem of explicitly elegaic
Anglo-Canadian military patriotism. Here again the attitude it expresses
is in eclipse, and already in 1933 is felt by everybody but Fyodor to be
outdated and pointless.
But for all of its lapsed currency, it may be the film’s only figuration of
a Canadian art that, if not good, at least bears some traces of authentic-
ity. For when we turn to the Kent family’s entries into the Saddest Music
Contest, we find a kind of diagram that represents the unhappy triangle
of Canadian cultural, and especially filmmaking, difficulty. Briefly, Ches-
ter’s art embodies demotic Hollywood glitz, Roderick’s embodies Euro-
pean high art, and Fyodor’s a once-living form of national culture (albeit
one highly parasitic on the mother country) now dead and in its grave.
Chester’s American popular art and Roderick’s European elitist art are
both characterized as completely phony. Although Chester is ‘a famous
producer from New York,’ and Roderick is a ‘Serbian’ master-virtuoso
of the cello, they are both from Winnipeg, and they both have disguised
themselves heavily in order to take on a greater weight of impressiveness
that they could never attain if they presented themselves as ‘local art-
ists.’ (At the same time, all the performers in the Saddest Music Contest
except Maria de Madeiros are profilmically Winnipeg local artists.) The
condition of the Kent brothers’ art is fakery, and their artistic expres-
sions are as fake as the feelings of ‘sadness’ they supposedly represent.
That they are the two finalists is attributable to the low-brow tastes of the
Winnipeg audience and the middle-brow – and corrupt – tastes of the
judges and commentators. (Is the judging mechanism in part a jab in the
direction of Telefilm Canada, the country’s principal feature-film fund-
ing agency? Given some of Maddin’s grumpy asides about that body, one
wouldn’t be too surprised.) Fyodor performs from the heart and repre-
sents himself frankly as Canadian. Perhaps his cultural stance that looks
back to more substantial times is even parallel to a retrospective gaze on
Winnipeg’s trajectory from booming gateway city many decades ago to
self-perceived backwater at the present time. In any event, he is voted
off the island at the very first opportunity, to the complete indifference
of his fellow-countrymen in the hall: a blunt yet witty representation of
Canadian film’s difficulties with its own audience.
We can read from all this the idea that Canadian filmmakers have
three options: imitate Hollywood, try to join the international guild of
art cinema, or fall back on the corny and exhausted, but once perhaps
spontaneous and true, forms of Canadiana. The Canadian artist has to
268 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

choose between being authentic and a loser like Fyodor, or inauthenti-

cally Yankee-glamorous and a winner like Chester, or else inauthentically
high-art European and a runner-up, like Roderick. Canadian, ‘Ameri-
can,’ and ‘European’ artists are alike ridiculous (and so are all the na-
tional entrants), but the Canadian at least has ridiculous actual pathos,
whereas the American has only ridiculous brazen glitz and the European
ridiculous high-toned posturing. In the end, the weight of true sadness
crushes all the fakery. Roderick strips off his disguise to perform a true
elegy, while Chester sheds his Americanness and succumbs to his own
inner sorrow, really Canadian at last. Camp and kitsch dissolve into a
psychic landscape of melancholy, and the greater truth and power of
Canadian cinema is, in this twisted and baroque fashion, asserted over its
gigantic glittering rival to the south. Or if not Canadian cinema, then at
least the cinema of Guy Maddin, an overtly Canadian artist who refuses
to play any of the accepted games and insists stubbornly on his own.
Despite Kazuo Ishigiro, Isabella Rossellini, and Maria de Medeiros, The
Saddest Music in the World is a very Canadian, and very local, production.
In managing to get wide showing in commercial theatres in multiple
countries including Canada as a Canadian-financed, Canadian-distrib-
uted movie, it actually seized the Holy Grail of Canadian film produc-
tion, if only for a moment. Given its supreme oddity, this is something of
a miracle, but it does enhance Maddin’s ability to be as vehement as he
is about the local and personal qualities of his own work, and to be the
positive pole of which the negatives are Chester’s and Roderick’s put-on
performances. For all his quotation of, allusion to, and revivification of
other forms of cinema, Maddin’s really is unquestionably itself and not
disguised as anything. As a matter of fact both the manically joke-making
surface and the depressive frozen core of Saddest Music are archetypally
Anglo-Canadian in different ways: the former resembling the anarchic
comedy of Canadian expatriates such as Jim Carrey and the original
SCTV crowd (John Candy, Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, et al.), the lat-
ter the long line of English-Canadian movies featuring loser-heroes with
American-like pretensions (from Goin’ Down the Road and Paperback Hero
to I Love a Man in Uniform and Hard Core Logo). Of course no other inhab-
itant of either archetypal wing looks anything like Maddin’s work.

The Saddest Music in the World embodies Maddin’s contradictions as

well as anything else in his oeuvre. It is a jolly, sparkling movie about
trauma and death. Its casserole of elements has more ingredients than
anything before. Especially it is a unique meeting point between two
The Saddest Music in the World 269

types of Maddin film: the Toles-written model and the dawson/Gur-

debeke-edited model. It has almost as much dialogue as Twilight of the
Ice Nymphs, yet Saddest Music avoids all the pitfalls that Maddin himself
has pointed to in that film, whether in the realm of script development
(where he was a more constant presence) or of realization (where the
over-clarity and relative cumbersomeness of 35mm full colour is most
definitely avoided). There is a real sense of joie de vivre in the film, and
paradoxically this may even be a reason why it doesn’t, in my view, reach
the level of pathos that attaches to the climaxes of Archangel or Careful.
In its conception Saddest Music may be (as Maddin says) ‘steeped in sad-
ness’ which (as Toles says) ‘was always and everywhere the real quarry,’
but there is perhaps too much going on, too many separate activities of
satire and pastiche, for this to hit with the force it might have. Dialogue
allows a far more detailed articulation and development of issues, and
the film strikes a masterful compromise between the relative visual stasis
of Careful or Twilight and the editing jamborees of the movies immedi-
ately surrounding it. Whatever aesthetic straightface the dialogue may be
imposing is totally countered by the extraordinary excesses of the filmic
‘degradation’ process. But Saddest Music also demonstrates, as it were in
the negative, how full-dialogue cinema has for Maddin never yet quite
been able to access the realms of poetic feeling that silence can. In effect
dialogue is always a potential problem for him. Even in Archangel and
Careful, the most telling moments are silent, or almost silent. Heart of the
World and Dracula don’t reach poetic intensity of that kind either (and
aren’t really attempting to). But Cowards Bend the Knee does reach it, in
a direct and problem-free manner, while at the same time carving out a
route of untrammelled communication with Maddin’s private history.
That was a pathway that the director was to turn back to immediately fol-
lowing the big adventure of The Saddest Music in the World.

Brand upon the Brain! (2006)

I realized this would be the one time to do my childhood recollection pic-

ture because I could just import huge chunks of autobiography without
having to think about it, and without having to boil them down, because
they’d already been boiled down by my memory to fit together, and they
would fit together because my life fit together already.
– Guy Maddin1

With Brand upon the Brain! I’m getting a little bit closer, I feel, to my goals.
With Cowards Bend the Knee, which is a more inherently cynical movie, and
maybe even heartless, I may have hit the bosom right on target, but by the
time the viewers got hit there was only a cold heart there anyway. The movie
had lowered the temperatures of everyone’s hearts. So here I feel, by keep-
ing the body temperature normal, and not trying to manipulate anybody’s
heart at all, I stand the best chance, just by being honest, of letting music
and image and cutting all work together best.
– Guy Maddin2

Brand upon the Brain! came into being through an invitation from The
Film Company, a Seattle non-profit cultural entity whose aim was to com-
mission filmmakers to make a film of their choice with all production
costs paid, the only stipulation being that it should be shot in Seattle
with the artists provided by The Film Company.3 Of course the budget
would be small (Maddin estimates that the movie cost somewhere in the
neighbourhood of $40,000).4 The time between Maddin’s acceptance
of the proposal and the completion of shooting was an incredible two
months, with a mere two weeks for script preparation. The extremely
Brand upon the Brain 271

short production time line was just another reason for Maddin to decide
on a dialogueless movie with voice-over narration, sound effects, and
music. The actual shoot, entirely in black and white Super-8mm (with
a few tinted shots), occupied nine days.5 This opportunity arrived com-
pletely out of the blue, while the director was still recovering from the
intensive efforts of the almost simultaneous Cowards Bend the Knee and
Saddest Music in the World, and just as he was getting ready to fulfil some
teaching duties at the University of Manitoba. But he seized on it, and
began quickly to ransack his own early life for memories and dramatic
moments, very much in the mode of creative imagination that had pro-
duced Cowards. So much so, indeed, that again his hero is named ‘Guy
Maddin,’ and again it is his childhood experience with parents and sib-
lings that produces the raw, sometimes very raw, material. To this vivid
but not very organized set of stimuli were added an old ambition to
create a Grand Guignol drama set in a lighthouse, and the example of
some John Ashbery critical writings that gave a whole range of models of
compressed poetic insight.6 And then, with notebooks full of somewhat
disconnected material, he turned to George Toles. ‘George suggested a
number of artificial plot structures that I could hang my own family story
on; he came up with an elaborate family that ran an orphanage and an
organ harvesting plot.’7 That skulduggery genre-landscape encouraged
another inclusion, of elements of period adventure fiction from Fantô-
mas to Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.8 All these things were grafted
onto a set of memories from Maddin’s boyhood experience at the fam-
ily cottage at Gimli – especially some rather sharp ones relating to the
battles between his mother and his teenaged sister, and to his own early
romantic longings. With all personnel except co-writer and editor but
including a composer provided by the Seattle company,9 the shoot was
quite different from Maddin’s previous productions (‘my first foreign
film,’ he told Dennis Lim),10 and the film has a special look because of
it. There is, for once, a lot of outdoor footage, the interior designs have
a different feel, and of course there isn’t a single familiar face among
the cast. At the same time, though, the director’s memory flood reaches
a higher tide-mark than ever, and there is never the slightest sense that
the film could have been made by anyone else.

The performance piece

During shooting, Maddin realized that certain sound effects were going
to be necessary as well as desirable for what was otherwise going to be a
272 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

silent film with voice-over narration and music. But it was not until a few
months after shooting that the notion occurred of presenting the film as
a live theatrical event with narrator, live musicians, and two songs, and
this was followed by the idea of adding live Foley artists to the perform-
ance.11 The songs were to be taken by a castrato (such was the billing for
Dov Houle, ‘The Manitoba Meadowlark’). It was in this form that the
film premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, and then
travelled to New York, Berlin, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Chicago, Mexico
City, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and several other places. The first narrator
was Louis Negin, for whom Maddin had conceived the narration (and
who gets a narration-writing credit), but in New York he was replaced
by Isabella Rossellini, and subsequent performances featured a bumper
crop of celebrity narrators including John Ashbery, Laurie Anderson,
Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Udo Kier, Lou Reed, Bar-
bara Steele, Tunde Adebimpe, Daniel Handler, and Geraldine Chaplin
(in Spanish). Jamie Hook, the producer of the roadshow production,
makes the plausible claim that ‘we were distributing the film in a way
that nobody has distributed a film before.’12 The novelty of the perform-
ances, both in concept and realization, delighted everyone, and they re-
ceived a rapturous response everywhere. To my great regret, I was never
able to attend a performance, but film and video clips document some-
thing of the intensely physical nature of this cinematic event. There were
many reviews, but to my knowledge nothing much in the way of a critical
analysis of what the performance aspects actually added to the base film.
Obviously, I am unable to provide anything of the sort either. It does
seem clear, though, that seeing Brand upon the Brain! as a performance
piece is quite a different experience from seeing it in a cinema, with nar-
ration (by Isabella Rossellini), sound effects, and music now all fixed in
extradiegetic metaspace and no performance at all going on. (The Cri-
terion DVD does give an astonishing eight choices of narrator, including
four taken from live performances,13 plus Footsteps, a documentary on
the Foley artists, but the total effect doesn’t go very far towards recreat-
ing the theatrical event.)
These thoughts are prompted especially by the particular inwardness
of this film as one consumes it in the regular cinematic fashion, away
from live performance. Beginning explicitly in the realm of memory and
private fantasy, then insisting repeatedly on the foundation of everything
in this realm through constant reminders of the private remembering
sensibility that is producing everything, Brand feels like the most direct
transcription yet of Maddin’s mechanisms of quasi-Proustian recollec-
Brand upon the Brain 273

tion. So it is hard not to think that live performances, with their P.T.
Barnum elements,14 their importation of externality (theatre) into the
landscape of internality (cinema), and their ultra-Brechtian drawing
away of attention from the narrative to the means of its production, must
inevitably put some distance between spectators and the affective entry
into the narrative world. They introduce an extra dimension of amuse-
ment, of spectacle, of playing with materials that has nothing to do with
the narrative content it is supposedly supporting – rather the reverse.15
Of course this is not to assert the superiority of the non-live version,
or to cast any shadow on the undoubtedly electrifying and theatrically
unique qualities of the live performances. Maddin’s comments on how
they could somehow recapture elements of the theatrical extravaganza
of late silent cinema as actually presented in lavish cinema palaces of the
time, or revivify the ancient tradition of live narrators who interpreted
silent drama to audiences, are also highly suggestive, if not exactly appli-
cable literally.16 But I want to claim that the ‘purely cinematic’ iteration
has an integrity of its own, not to be trumped by the live versions. Like
any theatrical production, the live Brand is definitively in the past, with
essentially the same status as, say, Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Meanwhile the stand-alone film version has essentially the same status as
Lynch’s Inland Empire – or Maddin’s Saddest Music in the World.

The action

Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), a house painter in his early forties, is
returning in a rowboat, after an absence of thirty years, to the deserted
island of Black Notch, with its empty lighthouse where he spent his child-
hood in the ‘mom and pop orphanage’ run by his parents. He is com-
ing in response to a letter sent by his mother (‘also not seen for thirty
years’) to go back and put a coat of paint on the old lighthouse to make
it a fit place for her to revisit, should she be able to do so. As he slaps
white paint on the brick and wood, and perambulates the neighbouring
beach and woods, he deeply inhales the sights, sounds, and smells of the
locale, and experiences a flood of memories which, as flashbacks, form
the basis for eleven of the film’s twelve chapters. He is catapulted first
back to a ‘secret meeting of orphans’ after dark in the woods, presided
over by Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), a devotee of violent pagan ritual.
Guy (Sullivan Brown) is a boy of twelve now – although really he seems a
bit younger than that, and in fact his age in these flashback scenes seems
to oscillate between older and younger.17 As Savage Tom is promising
274 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

to cut the beating heart out of Guy’s quivering little friend Neddie (Kel-
lan Larson), the event is terminated by the screeching breakup-distor-
tion sounds of Guy’s ‘aerophone,’ a radiolike device that Guy’s mother
uses to communicate with her children. And this brings us to the light-
house, where the orphans are kept in dorms enclosed by iron bars, the
basement is occupied by Father’s mad-scientist-like laboratory, and the
revolving light at the top is fitted with a marlin-fishing chair and is appar-
ently used only to aid Mother in her endless project to surveille her chil-
dren through a telescope. Mother (Gretchen Krich) is invariably dressed
by day in a floor-length many-buttoned black dress with white collar that
is hardly of the twentieth century and makes her look like a character
from Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. And that is a good comparison in other ways
as well, since Mother is fixated on the campaign of repression in general
and making sure her children behave properly at all times, with special
emphasis on squelching anything even hinting of sexual expression in
her daughter, Sis (Maya Lawson). Mother also enjoys telling the story of
her own birth to the orphans:

I too am an orphan. My mother, I’m told, was very beautiful, but completely
bald. Her sister had superb hair, but was barren of womb. The two girls
were so jealous of each other [...] their hatred spilled over into bloody vio-
lence. Knives were never far from hand. One was scalped for her beautiful
hair, the other one stabbed into the stomach to get at that baby [...] From
my mother’s womb untimely ripped. Now my mother and aunt are buried
in the silt of the lagoon next to each other.

(Maddin devotees will recognize the similarity to the story of the sorori-
cidal sisters in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.) Mother also routinely practises
emotional blackmail on her children, threatening to sell the island, not
to bother cooking if they don’t appreciate the food, and, in extreme
instances, to kill herself. In the meantime Father (Todd Moore) in white
lab coat toils endlessly at his workbench, never present at meals or any-
where else, even his face rarely seen.
One day in the woods Guy comes upon a lovely girl dressed all in white,
a young personage who turns out to be the famous Wendy Hale (Kather-
ine Scharhon) – ‘the sister half of sibling teen detectives known around
the world to readers of crime stories as The Lightbulb Kids’ – who has
come to the island to investigate the fact that orphans sent out from the
island for adoption have been found to have strange holes pierced in
the backs of their heads. Guy is instantly smitten (‘Smitten!!!’, actually)
Brand upon the Brain 275

Mother knows all, sees all, Part I. Mother at the giant, clanking

with this lovely teen star, who, in addition to solving crimes, plays the
harp beautifully in every sense. He sneaks out at night to play ‘spin the
bottle’ with her, Sis, and Neddie, and at this gathering he and Sis stage a
recital with miming of their mother’s often-told tale of her birth, at the
end of which Sis hikes up her nightdress to reveal a large birthmark on
her abdomen identical to the one her mother bears, in the shape of a
map of Rumania. As a repeated, surpassingly beautiful close-up shot of
Wendy’s face shows, she is deeply moved by this spectacle, and we can
soon understand that it isn’t only Rumania but the entirety of Sis’s body
that is so attractive to her.
Wanting to pursue this interest, Wendy disguises herself as her own
twin brother, Chance, Wendy having supposedly gone away to attend to
some detecting mission. The gender-switch is a simple matter of doff-
ing the white dress and donning an all-black outfit featuring roll-neck
sweater and stocking cap. She looks like a regular little commando now,
but a bewitching one who completely captures Sis’s desires and causes
Guy, though he still mourns Wendy, to develop a ‘Boy crush!’ Chance
– whom I will refer to without quotation marks and henceforward using
masculine pronouns for as long as his disguise lasts – undertakes a seri-
276 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ous effort to prove that Mother and Father are criminals, and, posing
as a lighthouse inspector, actually moves into the family home (there
is a hilarious shot of Chance displaying to Mother his credentials: an
elaborate parchment charter with large wax seal). He is now regularly
seen snooping around the lighthouse and the island, prominently mak-
ing notes in his oversize book with his oversize pencil, and meeting with
Sis for clandestine necking sessions. Naturally these pose a certain risk
for wrong-gendered Chance, so he invents a control-tool that carries its
own fetishistic pleasure for both parties: ‘The Kissing Gloves.’ As the nar-
rator tells us, ‘only the wearer of these nifty little items is allowed to do
any touching.’ Later they morph into ‘The Undressing Gloves,’ which
allow for more advanced play. The criminal investigation too is advanc-
ing, with Chance delegating Guy to crawl up into the ventilation ducts
(again!, cf. Careful, Cowards Bend the Knee) to spy on Mother in the or-
phans’ dormitory, and to drop phials of sleeping gas from overhead so
that Chance can creep among the slumberers and investigate their head-
holes – and bestow kisses on the sleeping beauty Sis. For this operation,
Chance somewhat counterintuitively changes his commando outfit for
top hat and tails and a Lone Ranger-style mask, a costume that conjures
up the image of Feuillade’s Fantômas from 1913.
The fiendish plot that is discovered through these investigations is that
Father is trooping the orphans – and also his own daughter – through
his lab and using his sharp-toothed ‘family signet ring’ to drill into their
skulls to extract ‘nectar’ from their brains. This precious liquid is then
shipped off in bottles to the mainland in a rowboat manned by sailors
who look like they came from illustrations for Treasure Island. We witness
the effects closer to home, too. Sis is nectar-harvested as a means of be-
haviour control: she turns into a zombie when Mother blows her bosun’s
whistle and has no memory of her time in the lab. Then Mother awaits
with great anxiety her ‘nightly visits with Nectar Harvest’ – the film’s
typically bizarre and flavourful transposition of conjugal relations. Fear
seems a quite justified reaction as we see the Expressionist shadow of Fa-
ther’s hands creeping over Mother’s face, but the ultimate effect on her
is to rejuvenate her by twenty years (and have her played by a different
actor, Cathleen O’Malley). Chance, after tasting a single drop of the nec-
tar, runs amok and pummels/‘ravishes’ Savage Tom out in the woods.
Mother’s avowed aim in taking nectar treatments is to revert all the way
to infancy, and certainly back before puberty made everything difficult.
But the effects of the drug on her never last, and after each day’s work
surveilling her children and being driven crazy by the spectacle of Sis’s
Brand upon the Brain 277

sexual maturity, her rage ‘withers, dries, crinkles’ her back to her former
middle-aged state. Sis’s trysting with Chance has infuriated her so much
that she is sending her daughter for more and more nectar harvests,
and on one particularly creepy occasion, when Father just keeps extract-
ing and extracting (‘Never enough!’), Sis in zombie fashion picks up a
nearby knife left over from Hitchcock’s Blackmail and stabs her father
to death. Guy, witnessing this, faints away accompanied by the intertitle
‘Too much for Guy!’ – an intertitle that appears at each of Guy’s swoon-
ings under the weight of traumatic witnessing.
After Mother and Sis strip Father’s rigor-mortis-twisted body, wrap
him in a sheet and stuff him in a coffin, the burial takes place, with all
the orphans in solemn attendance. The gravesite is on the beach at high
tide, so the grave itself is full of water, and little troops of orphans in
nightshirts and gumboots have to jump up and down on the coffin to
get it to sink. Then Mother, who is driven to extreme reactions even by
trivial events, retreats to her bed, having apparently taken poison. Gath-
ering all the orphans round her bedside, she enacts an operatic scena of
grandiose suffering and heart-rending outbursts, installing Guy beside
her in his nightshirt in the bed to receive passionate appeals such as ‘will
you not shed a tear on my tomb?’ But by this point Sis and Chance have
progressed so far, thanks to the Undressing Gloves, that their common
femaleness is now a shared secret, and Sis is so untroubled by the discov-
ery that the two are ready to get married. ‘What’s a suicide attempt with-
out a wedding?’ the narrator asks, in a marriage announcement without
the slightest preparation, explanation, or indeed literal consequence.
Even though Chance the groom appears in Fantômas garb and there is
no clear sense that anyone but themselves knows this is a same-sex un-
ion, the mere blatant spectacle of Sis’s sexual independence is enough
to raise Mother in a rage from her deathbed, shouting, ‘Wait till Father
hears about this!!’ Of course Father has just been buried, so it is neces-
sary to dig him up, stick his dripping corpse in its winding sheet in the
top berth of a bunk bed, and connect it to the beating heart of Mother
lying underneath by means of jumper cables. To rev up her engine suf-
ficiently to provide boosting power, Mother pulls out a comedy jumbo
hypodermic syringe and gives herself a giant shot of nectarite ‘just south
of Rumania!’ Amid the primitive-horror-movie sounds of electricity jolts
and the sight of rising steam and Mother’s thrashing body, ‘the paternal
body returns to a species of life.’ Mother is smiling madly, again rejuve-
nated by nectar and a metaphorically sexual encounter that in this case
has a pronounced necrophilic flavour. Mother’s youthening is typically
278 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

short-lived, while Father just lurches back to his lab, his zombie activities
scarcely any different from those of his actual life except for his fresh-
from-the-shroud nudity. This development prompts what is my favourite
intertitle of the entire film: ‘Dead or alive, it’s back to work!’ And the
spectacle is, understandably, ‘Too much for Guy!’, who collapses in a
heap and is taken to bed with brain fever.
Mother attempts to reinstitute the old order, shouting at Sis that she
knows ‘what you’ve been up to with that boy,’ and saying sinisterly, ‘your
father would like to have a “word” with you.’ But things are now in too
much flux for any kind of return. Mother’s project to revert to child-
hood resumes with greater force than ever and her frustrated attempts
to control her daughter are making her more maniacal. Savage Tom
begins a wild campaign of religious mania based on everyone’s witness-
ing of Father’s resurrection from the tomb (‘He is risen!’) Guy’s fever
continues unabating, and he becomes a delirious sleepwalker in the
woods, just like Einar in Gimli Hospital. At the height of this wander-
ing, he stumbles on the Romero-like scene of his mother devouring the
body of little Neddie, who may possibly be still alive, in a maddened
quest for more nectar. This hideous crime, on top of all the others, is
enough to precipitate a revolution. With fabulous iconographic flair, Sis
arms herself with a harpoon and forces her Mother off the island. She is
prodded onto that same rowboat with those same sailors, accompanied
by Savage Tom and the reanimated corpse of Father, packed into a harp
case for preservation and easy transport. As the craft moves out to sea,
Mother shouts into the aerophone: ‘Goodbye, Guy! I love you!’ The still
bedridden Guy responds with, ‘I love you, Mother! Don’t go!’ Another
pathos-laden scene of Mother-farewell. Because, as the narrator tells us,
‘three’s a crowd, on honeymoons,’ Guy too is soon banished from the
island – given into the care of a farcically kitsch pair of foster parents.
His emotional condition is expressed in a song, sung by a piping boy
soprano, with the repeated words ‘Whither wander, whither wander /
everything, everything twice.’
Now the film is ready to revert to the present tense. All the events so
far have been memories invading Guy’s head as he applies whitewash to
the old lighthouse, in what is clearly also a symbolic project to make the
past bearable (‘covering up major structural cracks with a thin film of
paint,’ as an intertitle spells out for us). Combing the woods, watching
the birds wheel overhead, touching and smelling the details of nature,
trying to retrace his boyhood steps to find some kind of ultimate mean-
ing, recapture some originary desire, he at last sees Wendy again, in her
Brand upon the Brain 279

first guise and in the same place he first saw her. He kisses her feet and
sits in an attitude of adoration before this phantom of lost first love:
‘phantom Wendy.’ From this ghost he hears the story of the end-days
of the Sis/Chance regime: how Sis had become a tyrant just like her
mother, sitting at the revolving surveillance telescope and even continu-
ing to harvest nectar from the orphans, operating ‘a reign of terror’ until
Chance rebelled and then escaped from the island; how Sis, driven mad
by this desertion, ran around the lighthouse lamp like a moth around
the flame until she actually combusted and burned up. Phantom Wendy
is ‘lonely and morose,’ always looking sadly off into the distance and
paying no attention to her worshipper. Now Mother herself (Susan Cor-
zatte) actually appears in the present, arriving on a rowboat with her
packed-up undead spouse for a reunion with her son and ‘blind as a bat!’
Father, ‘dried out by thirty years in a harp case’ and now, like Mother,
played by a different actor (Clayton Corzatte), returns robotically to his
workbench as before. But what Mother returns to is her idyllic/oppres-
sive relationship with her little boy, reinstituting all the hyperintimate
acts of feeding and grooming that we have seen in the past. These days
of reunion exemplify Guy’s wish to come to terms with his aged mother,
to connect on the basis of love with a figure whose history with him is
so lurid and contradictory. He finds that he cannot submit endlessly to
her caresses any more than he could as a child, but their bickerings are
minor compared to the titanic events of earlier days. Father, meantime,
at last meets his real end at the vengeful hands of sailors who used to be
orphans at Black Notch, who stuff him in a trash can head first like Dan-
te’s simoniac pope and set him alight. The spectacle of his naked legs
sticking out of the barrel ravenously licked by flames is partly surreally
comic but mostly just shocking and powerful, a recollection of Chester’s
fire-death in Saddest Music and, like it, of that fiercest immolation in cin-
ema history, the burning of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc.
Guy continues to be torn between a still-difficult mother and the phan-
tom of his remembered desire. When Mother falls in what will surely
be a mortal collapse, he pulls the stopper from a small glass bottle in
order to catch her dying breath (in an act that repeats and inverts Ro-
derick’s child’s-heart-in-a-jar from Saddest Music). Her deathbed ravings
are another pathos-laden operatic scene (‘Is Sis’s hair off her forehead?’
‘I was a good mother, wasn’t I’ ‘I love you, mother’). But at the mo-
ment of her actual death the son’s attention is deflected by phantom
Wendy, who appears to him in double exposure with phantom Chance,
and Mother dies with a last expression of outrage while he is left to bitter
280 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

The dead father in flames: Father’s reanimated corpse, finally deanimated.

self-reproach. Mother and Father and Sis dead, phantoms all dissolved
to nothingness, history and memory are both destroyed. All that is left is
‘Guy, utterly alone!’ and, in a gesture that is unique in Maddin’s cinema
for its unalloyed despair, adult Guy now stands naked on the ledge of the
lighthouse tower, poised between ‘The past! The past! The past!’ which
has resolved itself into a landscape of pure sorrow and loss, and ‘The Fu-
ture!! The Future!!’ which seems merely cold and desolate. The intertitle
‘To stay, or to go’ then becomes explicitly a question about suicide. As
Guy stands literally on the brink, the narrator intones, in imitation of a
mocking childish singsong: ‘Cry baby cry / Stick a finger in your eye /
And tell your mother it wasn’t I!’ Blackout, end credits.


Looking at this plot, one becomes aware of the heterogeneity of its con-
stitutive elements. The film’s main imaginative and affective project is
to enter memory and the past and gain access to the immensely power-
ful and formative history of childhood experience. This fact is pounded
home insistently by repeated exclamations of both the intertitles and the
narrator: ‘The past! The past! The past!’ and ‘Secrets! Secrets! Secrets!’
Brand upon the Brain 281

Amid these efforts to, as it describes it, ‘find the right combination’ of
memory stimuli, the film even proclaims this as its own foundation:
‘From this the poem springs!’ Guy wanders through the lighthouse
and the island obsessively sucking in every possible sensory stimulus
to recapture the font and origin of all desire and loss. And the activity
pays off handsomely in strong and piercing memories: of Mother, Sis,
Father, Wendy, Neddie, and Savage Tom; of tense family dinnertimes;
of mother/daughter yelling matches and sister/paramour trystings; of
the first girl he was smitten by; and most importantly of his overpower-
ing and conflicted relationship with his mother, careening sickeningly
between closest love and emotional tyranny, and at last updated to the
present with the prospect of the mother’s death. These things are what
Brand upon the Brain! fundamentally is – that matrix of raw, unprocessed
childhood feeling. Steven Shaviro likens the progress of the film to a
movement that jerks this way and that in response to the raw power of
an underlying unconscious scenario: ‘There is therefore no real narra-
tive progression, but only a series of peripeteias, punctuating passages
of dread, suspense, and anticipation. Brand upon the Brain! has a feel to
it of lurching seasickness, and of nightmarish repetitions from which we
(like the protagonist) are unable to awaken or escape.’18 As basically true
as this assessment is, there is at least a degree more direction to the film
than Shaviro implies. For the rawness and unprocessedness needs to be
workable, it needs some structure and a plot, however rickety, to shape
the stream-of-unconsciousness, because Maddin wants Brand to be not
just an avant-garde dreamscape but a narrative film. Hence the orphan-
age, the nectar harvest, the Lightbulb Kids. But these elements are not,
I think, really connected with the project of memory. Their function
always seems on the one hand like a mechanical tool to be employed to
move things on and provide some kind of connective material between
the sites of memory, and, on the other like something deliberately quaint
and charming, period kitsch, essentially decorative and weightless. The
idea of a ‘mom and pop orphanage’ causes a snort of laughter (or ought
to), but really what relation has it to the picture of family life that the film
is driven to rediscover and present? The discovery of a monstrous paren-
tal plot and its highly consequential aftermath – what does this translate
into in the family dynamic? That the subject’s mother and father were
engaged in actually or even metaphorically criminal behaviour of some
kind? (Surely not.) Similarly the Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew / Fantômas
elements are delightful in themselves, and in their invitation to curio-
shop frolicking of the kind Maddin has always had such a particular af-
282 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

finity for. Moreover the opportunities they offer for gender-bending and
cross-dressing provide an avenue for Maddin to get to more substantial
issues of sexual desire as it floats free of gender boundaries and overlaps
with same-sex desire. But they seem somehow less connected to the un-
derlying questions of lesbianism, sibling-desire, gender confusion, and
all the inchoateness of sexual awakening in a not-even-adolescent boy
than, for example, the powerful symbols of maternal desire and surveil-
lance or paternal work-absorption are to their underlying questions of
child-parent relations. And in general they do not perform the kind of
central function that the similarly toylike period elements of Archangel
or Careful do in expressing an innocent, or pathological-innocent, world-
view that has something to do with the film’s basic ambitions: they are
not usefully parodic.
The sectional and episodic nature of this dramatization of events in
the child’s psyche is often very visible (and is abetted by the chapter-
division strategy that is continued from Cowards). Wendy appears on the
island out of nowhere, Sis and Chance are suddenly getting married,
Mother is ejected from the island, Guy is given up for adoption, Father
is burned by former victims, Mother returns – none of these is given any
preparation or more than a cursory explanation. And in fact the whole
structure of the film, after what looks like a solid and orderly beginning,
is something that becomes less solid the longer the film goes on, and
the more one looks at it. (From this perspective, the film is as Shaviro
describes it.) Cowards Bend the Knee, notwithstanding the slightly ad hoc
impression its epilogue gives, is much more tightly knit in its organiza-
tion of disparate plot strands and elements of memory, and in its inte-
gration of genre criminal activities in the story. But then Cowards is very
rigorously boiled down, and at 64 minutes very fleet of foot. Maddin
expresses regret that he could not reach his target length of 80 minutes
for Brand (it emerged fifteen minutes longer than that, already reduced
from the 99-minute first cut),19 and a certain looseness and undulating
repetitiveness are features of the final version. This sense of an utterance
not quite under control, or even quite finished, is also a feature of some
of the verbal presentation: repetitions of ‘the past! the past!’ or ‘secrets!
secrets!’ create the impression that Maddin has resorted to a kind of un-
processed inarticulate directness in his attempt to put his finger on the
ineffable. (And it surely is Maddin himself, for this is just the opposite of
the ornate and precise rhetoric of George Toles.)
But how much does any of this matter? Brand upon the Brain! succeeds
beyond any other Maddin film in opening an unobstructed pipeline to
Brand upon the Brain 283

what seem like primal emotions in its creator’s imagination. Maddin’s

cinema has always had some difficulty with just this process, has needed
to struggle mightily to reach the unregulated, unironic flow of emo-
tional utterance in Archangel, in Careful, in Saddest Music, and has avoided
or short-circuited it in Gimli Hospital, Twilight, Dracula, and the short
films. (Of course he has also produced a fascinating and unique body
of work in the process of that negotiation or wrestling match.) Brand
represents a notable breakthrough in this sphere, establishing from the
very outset the unfettered access to deepest memory and the condition
of desire and loss, and an uncomplicated willingness simply to insist on
them as a starting point. Brand begins, in other words, in almost exactly
the same space that Saddest Music has reached at its end, as if the clear-
ing away of disavowal and distraction which was its predecessor’s mighty
and destructive, but foreshortened, final victory had simply persisted,
and provided a landscape of psychic freedom for the present film to
move into. And if Cowards Bend the Knee had showed how fertile the ac-
tual, not transposed, territory of Maddin’s personal history could be, its
principal emotional projects were those of ritualized humiliation and
scornful self-accusation, and its emotional temperature (as Maddin says)
was cold instead of warm. In its revisitation of that terrain, Brand adds
the feelings of nostalgia and family love to the mixture. Mother and Sis
may be figures who give rise to contradictory emotions in the protago-
nist – they are often spiky and dangerous and never simply warm and
fuzzy. But in comparison with the mother and sister figures of Cowards
(principally Liliom and Meta), the fact that they inspire substantial at-
traction and admiration (Sis) and fundamental love (Mother) renders
this Guy’s family ties deeper and more wrenching. Equally important
is the fact that the principal missing person in Cowards is now present:
the child Guy himself. The character played by Darcy Fehr in Cowards20
can stand in for a young-adult Guy, but the child-Guy who is the source
for those pungent memories of beauty parlour and hockey arena is not
actually there. Whereas in Brand he is very much there, and in Sullivan
Brown’s person and performance he shimmers productively between
the cusp of adolescence and earlier stages of childhood, so as to contain
and broadcast from every pulsating node of the boy’s experience over
time. It helps a lot to have the protagonist actually in his own drama,
and to be presented as the unquenchable sponge of all these memories,
these desires and losses.
Maddin describes the way his hurried scriptwriting process gave rise to
a certain looseness of structure:
284 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

I never really thought about any one thing for more than a second really.
I was acting very impulsively and just grabbing things and writing things
down and just trying to find a place for them. So even the finished script,
which was about forty-five pages long of prose, with little episodes sort of
separated by double spaces or something like that, they never really had a
proper order. I would sort of cut and paste on my computer, try to get them
into an order, but there were repetitions and repetitions, and I basically
just shot it the way it was, with endless repetitions. It’s not the most efficient
storytelling, but it sort of came out in one piece and there was only one cut
to the movie [...] It was kind of sprawling, rolling around, it’s like a bag of
marbles, marble-like memories just rolling around. It kind of reminds me
of air traffic, in a holding pattern, you know – a lot of that boredom of the
island that I experienced as a child comes back and puts the story in a hold-
ing pattern for a while. But at least it’s honest.21

And yet, even the disconnectedness and irrationality of the plot ele-
ments can be recuperated as reflections of the disorder of memory and
unconscious processes, so that structural cracks really are covered over
in this way, and apparently random repetition reflects a mental state.
At some deeper level, the surreal intensity of the memory field makes
the sleepwalking story construction, the arbitrary scene juxtaposition,
and the repetition not only untroubling but actually appropriate. In this
dimension, the child’s confused emotional state, and the yet-more-dis-
connected recollection of that state in the temporally distant adult, are
made more vivid and present even as they disrupt the legibility of the
story and obscure all wider horizons. And that is a defensible trade-off,
even if elements such as the Lightbulb Kids continue to seem as if they
belong in some other Maddin movie.

The horror, the horror

If the orphanage and Hardy Boys genre-related elements do not seem

really connected to the film’s central action, then the horror movie ele-
ments often do. Father’s mad-scientist laboratory, entirely redolent of
something in a 1930s Universal horror movie, may seem like just more
period decoration, but its deployment carries a more potent sting. First,
the activities of Father are entirely mysterious to begin with (he is ‘in-
venting many things’), and then almost unthinkably monstrous as they
are partly discovered. Moreover their monstrosity is directly connected
to the secret central energies of family life: parental sexuality and Oedi-
Brand upon the Brain 285

pal currents of an alarming strength. The ‘family signet ring’ is a de-

vice that is lifted very recognizably from the 1960 horror movie The Leech
Woman.22 There, a similarly barbed ring is plunged into the base of the
skull, and the fluid that is then dripped off the ring into a container
forms part of a compound that will restore youth to older women – just
as in Maddin’s film. An addiction to this serum causes poor Coleen Gray,
a cast-off middle-aged wife with a drinking problem, to claim more and
more victims, and this together with the terrible effects of her reversions
to old age make her a real horror movie monster – and of course this is
a position that Mother’s addiction to nectar also at least momentarily de-
posits her in as she cannibalizes Neddie. The reanimation of Father pro-
claims a different horror movie lineage: most notably from the original
Frankenstein (1931) and its many descendents. Of all the scenes in Brand
upon the Brain!, this is the one that most completely recaptures the manic
Maddin of patriphagia, plague scars, disembowelment, self-mutilation,
and amputation – all of them presented with at least a degree of wild
comedy and a gleeful nod towards the excesses of horror cinema. Crude
bunk beds, the corpse still wrapped in its dripping-wet winding sheet,
a vaudeville-sketch hypodermic needle, the bawdy vulgarity of ‘a jolt ...
just south of Rumania,’ jumper cables that bring Father back to life from
cold death just like any other dead Winnipeg engine in the frozen win-
ter, electrified arcings and shakings and clouds of steam, an audience
of white-nightshirted orphans like some surreal Anglican choir, and
young-again Mother’s mad grin of exhilaration – all of these elements
conspire in an exuberant tour de force of comic energy, and the sudden-
ness of the scene’s arrival and the shuddering dynamism of its execution
produce a grand effect. But it has real content as well: it expresses the
boundless power of Mother’s determination; and its end result, as Father
staggers naked back to his workbench, is on the one hand to finish the
joke while on the other invoking an authentic horror movie dread in the
prospect of a death-in-life whose resemblance to actual family dysfunc-
tion is all too clear. Such a connection of cheap genre elements with the
actual psychic condition of the film, with its fundamental subject, seems
closer than in any of Maddin’s films before Cowards, more in tune with
Brand’s search for plainer speech and more direct depiction, and there-
fore at the highest pinnacle of the director’s repeated attempts to weld
together farcical exaggerations drawn from obsolete cultural forms and
some kind of emotional truth.
Drawing vital juices from the brains of victims in a secret mad-science
project, achieving youth and life at the expense of these victims, leaving
286 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

them with the scar of sucking penetration on their bodies but no other
memory or outward effect of this occult visitation connects the whole
activity pretty clearly to vampirism in addition to B-grade science fiction
movies. But this genre affinity seems to me less productive, or at least
more problematic. The orphanage and nectar-harvest elements of the
plots again get in the way of the fundamental psychic dredging opera-
tion. ‘My parents were vampires and I was their victim!’ is one thing, and
‘My parents were vampires and, I dunno, neighbourhood kids were their
victims!’ is another. It is quite easy to imagine the film translating the
regime of the parents in this family into a form of vampiric control of the
children – that is, something that felt like vampiric control to the child
doing the remembering and imagining. But Guy is at no point a victim
of this horrifying process, only a witness, and the actual orphan victims
don’t seem to suffer any very bad effects other than, perhaps, being regi-
mented into mass marching compliance like the workers in Metropolis,
and that’s something that any quasi-Dickensian orphanage tyrant like
Mother could manage without extracting brain juices. The only point
at which the idea of vampirism hits a vein is in the utilization of nectar
harvest by Mother to control Sis’s independence and by Father to – well,
for potentially far more sinister aims that we’ll come to in a moment.
‘My parents were vampires and my sister was their victim!’ resonates in
the proper way, even if the film presents Sis’s insertion into the nectar
harvest as almost a mere offshoot of the main factorylike activity. It is
unclear just what Guy is accusing his parents of here. Maybe that is a
reflection of his uncertainty as child or adult about exactly what was go-
ing on. But, with divided focus and uncertainty of effects, the vampire
plot isn’t able to fulfil its sensational potential, and its culmination, in
Mother’s frenzied nocturnal feasting on the body of Neddie, seems to
come out of nowhere.

The phantasmatic mother

Of all the characters in Brand upon the Brain! whose presence in his mind
house painter Guy is trying to come to terms with, Mother is the most
powerful. She appears in a repeating set of powerful but strongly vari-
egated forms: the surveilling and order-giving parent, the self-dramatiz-
ing emotional blackmailer, the extravagantly affectionate caregiver, the
woman driven to hysterical excess. The first we encounter is Mother the
invigilator, sitting behind her telescope in her revolving chair attached
to the powerful searchlight of the lighthouse. (This beam, by the way,
Brand upon the Brain 287

seems to have no lighthouse function at all, since it is constantly being

trained at will by Mother on fugitive children, and the only shipping we
ever see or hear is a single rowboat.) The clanking of the gears of this
surveillance platform, loud and crudely industrial, is my nomination for
Best Foley Effect in the film, since it conveys the inhuman power of the
device, the relentless mechanical biting together of massive iron gears
that metaphorizes the intimidating size and strength of the weapons the
parent can bring to bear upon the child. The turning searchlight, also
blindingly strong, and cutting massively through the black night sky, is
its visual counterpart. Mother’s constant seat at the helm of this mon-
strous Foucauldian panopticon is a sight to overawe the child in every
viewer. It is one of those strokes of dazzling inspiration that populate
the film in some profusion and demonstrate how direct and concrete
Maddin’s surrealist imagination can be, and how immediately it can
communicate. Here, in a fantastically literalized way, is the supernatural
Mother who can ‘read into her children’s hearts,’ and whose omnipo-
tent seat of power and daunting tools of enforcement are a mere tran-
scription of her gigantic size in the mind of her little son. An equally
pointed realization is provided by the aerophone, the device invented
by Guy’s father that ‘allows two people who love each other to com-
municate over great distances.’ The eldritch squawks emanating from
this machine are a strange manifestation of loving communication, yet
the embodiment of parental concern in screeching cacophony again
perfectly encapsulates that double sense of Mother as grating intimida-
tor and caring protector at one and the same time, and in one and the
same way.
Yet the all-powerful mother is also a creature of emotional quirks and
strategies whose self-serving emotional idiosyncrasies are quite visible to
Guy. He notes her ready use of threats to back up her commands (‘I can
sell this place if you don’t enjoy it’), her plate-hurling tantrums, her self-
pitying outbursts (‘Nobody loves me!’) and her door-slamming retreats
to her room. Even the orphans get this treatment (‘Mother used suicide
threats as a primary teaching aid,’ says the narrator). She can be tricked
and evaded for a while, and a substantial part of the boy’s relationship
with his sister consists of conspiracies to sneak out at night, to engage
in forbidden activities, to avoid detection. But then there is Mother’s
other side: her lavishly bestowed love, which is expressed directly but
is also dimly seen by the boy as the reason behind the searchlight and
the aerophone and the other instruments of rule. She feeds muffins
and tarts from her own mouth to his, like a mother bird; he lies with
288 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

his head in her lap while she brushes his teeth; her kisses and cuddles
which can escalate alarmingly into a frenzied smooching of his naked
bottom (‘Mother’s little tushy!’). The lurching oscillations between tyr-
anny and immoderate affection – recognizable again as literalizations of
the feelings of many a small child with respect to the parent that is both
loved and feared – place taxing demands on little Guy’s ability to make
sense of things. His reaction is often a sullen muteness, most explicitly
presented in the mealtime scenes, where he sits scowling at his plate
with cheeks puffed out as we repeatedly read the title: ‘Dinner as usual.
Grim.’ In all these arenas of family conflict, and in the pitched battle be-
tween Mother and Sis, the child’s fundamental inability to take an actual
position is rendered with fine psychological acuity. He can tag along with
Sis, he can drop everything in instant obedience to the summons of the
aerophone, he can witness his mother’s neurotic self-dramatizations and
actings-out, he can hopelessly fail to juggle all these things with his own
wishes and desires, but he can never really take his own stand: he is just
too young. When actual war breaks out between his mother and sister,
he is helpless – indeed everything in his situation has reduced him to
bedridden brain fever.
Mother’s base position is that of a puritanical hatred and fear of sex.
Her costume, that of an austere sixteenth-century northern European
Lutheran, emphasizes this fact with a sublime indifference to period
appropriateness that is just one more signal of the film’s willingness to
live in a fantasy neverland even as it is supposedly recapitulating events
of a real history. Her children become a battleground in her own neu-
rotic struggles, though their sexual policing is simply seen by Mother as
a plain duty. ‘Mother demanded vows of chastity so strict she would have
the children ignorant of the differences between men and women,’ the
titles tell us. Her unceasing, militant vigilance lest Sis’s hair stray down
over her forehead has the exaggerated force of a War on Evil. And yet
of course she must submit to sexuality herself as a feature of marriage.
She prepares for Father’s fearful night-time visits by vigorously scrub-
bing herself down in a bath of turpentine ‘to wash the sin away,’ and as
she lies in her nightgown, her grey hair voluminously spread upon the
pillow, her face wears an expression of dread in the anticipation of a
nocturnal encounter so horrifying that (as its lighting overtly suggests) it
might be a visitation from the predatory somnambulist of The Cabinet of
Dr Caligari. The description of this nightly meeting as an ‘appointment
with Nectar Harvest!’ does nothing at all to disguise its sexual nature,
merely suggesting instead the sexual properties of nectarite. And yet
Brand upon the Brain 289

these encounters leave Mother literally, miraculously rejuvenated and

wearing the stereotypical broad smile of sexual satisfaction. The film re-
ally presents Mother – and also nectarite – in a dual and contradictory
light here. She is both smiling complicitously after an encounter with
nectarite and using its youth-bringing properties to regress back before
puberty in order to escape sexuality altogether. She wants to use this
means to escape sinful bodily desire, indeed to escape any kind of re-
sponsible subjectivity whatever by regressing all the way to infancy; and
yet she develops a druglike addiction to it that suggests that it is a bodily
pleasure – an addiction that drives her all the way to cannibalism, the
grossest of all appetites.
And yet the contradictions of Mother’s sexual life, like the inexplica-
bility of certain plot developments, can be understood as effects in the
psyche of the boy who is confusedly apprehending them. They repre-
sent a darkness that cannot be penetrated, only imagined in an obscure
yet lurid way from fragments of evidence, part of the child’s attempt to
piece together what the parents are up to. They are contingent with the
tushy-kissing mother who progresses to inviting the boy into her bed
for intimate cuddling – but whose bed, as she throws back the covers
to admit him, is revealed to contain an array of butcher knives. This
devouring/castrating mother is the perfect consort to the giant-penised
father in Cowards Bend the Knee, a pair of phantasmatic monster-parents
who are astoundingly explicit literalizations of Oedipal anxieties.23 All by
itself, this threatening prospect would be ‘too much for Guy,’ but such
frightening projections of shadowy and illimitable psychic fears need
also to be integrated with mother-love that broadcasts itself with equal
power, as exemplified above all in the two scenes of separation from the
mother; and this is a task whose obvious impossibility reflects the emo-
tional dilemma of everyone who has ever tried to reconcile the haunt-
ing inner contradictions of feelings towards a parent. The return of an
older mother to an older Guy is a lucid staging of the way that parents
lose some of their powers but not others, as both they and their children
advance in age. Some kind of reconciliation after so much metaphorical
bloodshed, some kind of distance or tinge of maturer wisdom, and at the
same time some kind of bleak recognition of how it is actual death and
total absence that is going to write the conclusion to this story, is where
the film can jump to in its final chapter, after arbitrarily skipping over
an intervening thirty years. Guy can finally love his mother in a relatively
unambiguous and direct way in these circumstances, even if he feels him-
self unworthy to do so really properly.
290 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Mother extends an invitation into her bed with knives.

A comparison of Mother in Brand upon the Brain! with all the earlier
mothers in Maddin’s cinema emphasizes how this figure, like the film
as a whole, has carried a set of persistent themes and imaginings to
some kind of much fuller realization. The mother in The Dead Father
who serves her children peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a dinner
table that also bears the father’s corpse, or who climbs into bed every
night next to that same corpse, is clearly a forebear of the mother who
reanimates her husband in this film. And the forcefulness of Zenaida in
Careful and Liliom in Cowards seem also like earlier avatars of the furious
energies of this mother, although both of them are allowed a more forth-
right and less conflicted sexuality. At the same time the sexual overtones
of Mother’s Guy-cuddling are related to the full-blown Oedipal desires
embodied in those two predecessors. And the other side of Mother –
her pathos-laden expressions of love, her exile, blindness, and death –
are prefigured in the dying mothers of Gimli Hospital and Cowards, and
the blind and exiled-to-the-basement Gramma in the latter film as well.
There are odd single flashes of connection, too. As Mother employs sui-
cide threats as a learning tool, she yanks a rope around her own neck by
way of illustration, and we recall that Zenaida hangs herself in Careful.
Mother’s simultaneous mailed-fist domestic rule and smotherings with
Brand upon the Brain 291

sweet tarts shed light on the otherwise baffling line of Liliom in Cowards:
‘No sugar before pie!’ What is most striking about Mother is the absence
of fragmentation (though not contradiction) in her character, the way
that she can combine the cartoonlike qualities of a Liliom with some of
the recognizable actual mother-features of a Zenaida. And in backdating
the age of the son through whose eyes we see her to a stage of childhood
rather than post-puberty, the film can endow her with the phantasmatic
powers of the psyche’s fundamental mother, a process that in turn is
enabled by the film’s gravitation to a more surreal and literally dream-
like narrative method. The end result is that this is the most fully realized
of all Maddin’s mothers.

The undead father

It’s interesting, too, to put Father through a similar exercise of compari-

son. Like Maddin’s very first filmic father, the Dead one, Brand’s father is
reanimated in a dreamlike shape that finds him performing his habitual
actions even after death, reflecting, probably, the continued presence of
the dead father in Maddin’s imagination and frequently in his dreams.
It is remarkable, in fact, how many of the director’s fathers return from
death: in addition to these two, we have Jannings in Archangel, the Swan-
Feeder in Careful, Chas in Cowards Bend the Knee, and three of these four
are the victims of homicide. So many of Maddin’s paternal figures have an
element of melancholy or futility about them, corresponding no doubt
to the director’s sense of pity towards his own parent: ‘my dad, my poor
father, was a cornered victim of … life grinding him down.’24 The list of
fathers who are impotent, marginalized, scorned, and shamed is rather
substantial (to the candidates above we can add Fyodor from Saddest Mu-
sic). And in one dimension, Father in this movie is as shockingly vivid a
representation of this position as Mother is of hers: unsmiling, doggedly
chained to his workbench, hardly even part of the family except when he
is dragged in to administer punishment to Sis or make his rote nightly
visits to Mother, humiliation after humiliation heaped upon his naked
corpse, buried and dug up, jump-started like a dead battery, his zombie-
life pointedly hardly any diminishment of his actual one because the ac-
tual one was so limited, packed around in a harp case, at last stuffed head
first into a trash barrel and set on fire, and his place taken by a hamster
on a wheel. Often only his back is seen, or, hauntingly, his hand beckon-
ing to or stopping those approaching his workbench; sometimes he is not
seen at all, only his footsteps heard as he moves from his lab to his bed-
292 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

room. During the later parts of the film he works naked, stripped even of
his lab-coat uniform. The titles refer to his conjugal duties as ‘midnight
exertions’ – a phrase that recalls Zenaida’s humiliating description of her
husband’s comparable activities as ‘blind and clumsy labourings.’
But there is another dimension to Father. He has an occult power
that is forever beyond the grasp of a Swan-Feeder or a Fyodor. Perhaps
that power can be found in the original Dead Father, who is still a com-
manding figure invested with primeval authority by his son; and it is
certainly found in Cowards’ Maddin Sr, who has achieved the stature of
castrating superego (moreover a superego with a large penis). Father’s
‘many inventions,’ his mastery of the arcana of brain nectar, his isolation
and secrecy, his inflexible grimness of visage, all mark him as having a
share of the phantasmatic parental powers of which Mother has such a
large measure. One of the severely restricted spectrum of shots of him
is a repeated menacing close-up of his eye looking through a magnify-
ing glass at his victims. Even more startlingly than Mother, Father is a
fusing of antithetical opposites whose expression in the lurid terms of
cheap sci-fi, horror, and primitive surrealism is one more example of
the film’s triumphant wielding of these tools in the service of something
really basic. Most troubling of all is the suggestion of parental sexual
abuse as practised by Father upon Sis. Visits to Father are the cure for
her unruly post-pubertal desires. Their explicit aim is to desexualize her,
but there is definitely something sexual about this penetration of her by
her father’s instrument, and equally about the bordello-wear that she
is strangely costumed in for her last visit. Even the air of secrecy, the
clouds of vapour that wrap her enterings into the lab, add to this sense.
When Guy, spying from the ventilation ducts, finally does witness the
mysterious ritual – like Johann in Careful spying from the chimney on
his mother’s nakedness – what he sees is the awful spectacle of his father
enacting some liquid interchange with his sister, one that is allowed by
her zombified state and that causes her body to jerk and tremble despite
her numbness and catatonia, one that is vampirelike in its excessive and
insatiable appetite (‘Never enough!’), and that finally causes a murder-
ous striking back that seems just as unconnected to conscious awareness
as the ‘operation’ itself. Is there anything here that cannot be read as
part of a scene of sexual abuse? Not to mention the fact that ‘nectar’
– presumably included that drawn from Sis – is the transmitted liquid
of Father’s night-time visits, and that this seems to set up some kind of
intrafamilial economy of secret sexualities in which Sis’s inclusion must
constitute some kind of dreadfulness.
Brand upon the Brain 293

But there is something indeterminate about all of this. If Father really

is a sexual monster, this is the biggest thing in the whole family dynamic,
but it is not presented in this way. Why is Mother the whistle-blower who
initiates these sessions, and why with the explicit aim of desexualization?
Any kind of sexual appetite in Father would sit in puzzling juxtaposition
with the ponderously automatic nature of his behaviour in general, as
even his nightly visits to Mother attest. There, though the shadow of his
fingers falls horrifyingly over her face like the black hand of Nosferatu
in Murnau’s film, nothing changes his slow, affectless deliberation, his
seeming imperviousness to feeling of any kind. Can it really be that Fa-
ther’s sexual appetite feeds monstrously on both wife and daughter? Or
is this rather a representation of the boy’s blind imaginings about an
only very vaguely understood parental sexuality, and of the tangled mess
of occluded apprehensions about his sister’s sexuality, and his own? This
at least is consistent with that deepest and most vital conduit of the film
which seems to channel unconscious sensings and connections into a
spectacular flowering of surreal metaphors. It would be highly consist-
ent with the son’s Oedipal instinct to read any kind of sexual power in
the father as threatening. As Steven Shaviro writes, the entire film seems
constructed on an Oedipal template:

It involves a basic Oedipal configuration – the smothering and control-

ling mother, the distant, detached, yet ultimately sadistic (and even more
ultimately, dead or living-dead) father, the brother and sister with their
incestuous desires [...] It is as if all conceivable variations on the Oedipal
triangle, and the androgynous-love triangle as well, had to be played out at
some point in the course of the movie.25

In this quasi-unconscious creative activity which is something between a

free-for-all and an exercise in geometry, then, the Father must be given
his moment to play the part of ‘sadistic father,’ even if on other parts of
the map he is a pitiable victim. He is doubled, like the father Chas + Mad-
din Sr in Cowards, but the stark contrast of these two personae is centrally
grounded in Guy’s unconscious sensibility, which is no more account-
able to rational criteria than is anyone else’s unconscious.

The liberated sister

The vital, charismatic figure of Sis almost steals the show in Brand upon the
Brain! – especially in Maya Lawson’s energetic and committed perform-
294 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

ance, one of the best in any Maddin film. It is an idiosyncratic reproduc-

tion of Maddin’s own childhood that omits his two older brothers, but
gives a dominating place to his sister. Whatever the reasons behind that,
it is evident that in Brand Sis is a kind of gateway and enabler for twelve-
year-old Guy’s sexual awakenings, both personally and in her own teen-
age erotic attachments. Her same-sex adventures with Chance/Wendy
are really no different in their heedless strayings across the conventional
boundaries of gender behaviour than are Guy’s own in his successive girl
and boy crushes or indeed the indeterminate stirrings of a sexual desire
that receives some kind of stimulus from an attractive sibling. Such is the
centring of everything in the film in Guy’s perception and memory, and
specifically in the unconscious brew from which those emerge, that any
and all transgressions and scandals are best interpreted as effects of that
phantasmagoric place, events whose larger than life qualities are abso-
lutely unverifiable in any more objective realm. At the same time, Sis’s
place is that of the pioneer who strikes out across the border to auton-
omy and sexual endeavour, a figure whom the little Guy cannot but look
upon with considerable admiration, a slightly awed recognition of her
pursuit of powers and pleasures that he cannot hope to reach. But he
remains essentially a child, not at all ready to leave the parental nest, and
too young to join his sister against his mother even if he truly wanted to.
Sis has something in common with the sexually powerful and chaos-
creating young women with parental issues who appear in other Maddin
films – specifically Klara in Careful and Meta in Cowards Bend the Knee
– not only in her irrepressible moxie but by a process whereby her pred-
ecessors too may be seen as types of a female sibling in what, especially
in retrospect, can be read as an ongoing secondary reflection of Mad-
din’s childhood sense of family and the world. Of course it would be
folly to try too simply to read Klara and Meta as equivalents to Sis, and to
separate them from the role of more conventional erotic object to the
male protagonists who are closest to Maddin’s stand-in in each film. But
it is at least odd in this context that like those two, Sis appears somehow
in thrall to her father in Brand, and that the Electral configuration of
father fixation should keep popping up in Maddin’s cinema. It is cer-
tainly telling that even if Sis has a fuzzy status as object of Guy’s sexual
interest, she can at any rate make a direct sexual appeal to viewers. The
multitude of depictions of her in frilly underwear, transparent bodices,
or topless nudity leave no doubt of the movie’s intentions in this regard,
and her zestful and provocative assumption of the role of sexual-games
player more or less puts her in charge of the film’s erotic energies. (It
Brand upon the Brain 295

may be argued that Wendy/Chance is the prime sexual mover in their

relationship, but it is Sis’s enthusiastic exposition of the map of Rumania
that sets everything going.) But then, what is the consequence of making
the sister so central to the film’s erotic interest? To create, by virtue of its
identification with Guy’s viewpoint and in syllogistic fashion, the Q.E.D.
that Guy is erotically stimulated by his sister.
As to the lesbian proclivities of Sis and Wendy/Chance, these move ef-
fortlessly from being a potential problem to just being an exceptionally
imaginative form of girl-on-girl action. Their delicious transgressions are
those of sexuality itself, and the entire handling of the drama of gender
deception and revelation captures the uncertainties and excitements of
erotic interchange not with any flavour of jaded kinkiness, but rather in
a lovely spirit of innocence and almost Shakespearean magical romance.
Wendy, indeed, is in a position that rather recalls Viola’s in Twelfth Night;
but Sis, it turns out, just doesn’t care what sex her lover is. In any event
we are far, here, from the Inferno-esque sexual predations and tortures
of Cowards Bend the Knee.

The object of desire

The personage of Wendy/Chance is certainly the film’s most important

character outside the family circle. The first thing to note is what a pro-
tean figure she is. Not only is she female and male and female by turns,
she is the object of desire for both Guy and Sis, the essential manager
of Sis’s same-sex adventure, and the detective who unravels the mystery
of ‘The Face in the Lighthouse’ (in the last two avatars she is simultane-
ously devoted to concealing underlying truths in one area while expos-
ing them in another). By the end of the film she is inhabiting her last
remaining role, as ghost in the mind of the adult Guy. In truth she was
always ‘phantom Wendy,’ never anything else but a projection and a sym-
bol. When she is announced as Wendy Hale, sister half of the Lightbulb
Kids, ‘the harp-playing teen detectives,’ she is established from the out-
set in a position of impossibility, as an absurdly naïve fiction and fantasy.
Such narrative flatness, however, is no barrier to her becoming the lode-
stone of desire. If the über-naivety of toy soldiers, outmoded belief sys-
tems, and trashy movies could attain emotional power in the filmmaker’s
imagination partly by virtue of impossibility, the connection in Brand of a
caricatured personage from long-gone youth pop fiction to some tabula
rasa where purest desire is born cannot be too surprising.
As a matter of fact Wendy has constituted herself as that site of pure
296 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

desire at Guy’s first glimpse of her: in his sensory prowlings of the island
he pulls back some long grass to reveal – her, in white dress standing
among the trees divorced from any rational explanation for her pres-
ence. (In just this way her harp-playing is didactically free from any ra-
tional possibility.) The revelation that she is the Wendy Hale is only a
spur to his desire, but that has already been formed in the initial mo-
ment. Guy’s smittenness has the engulfing power of a first crush, but it is
a phenomenon of late childhood whose evanescence is built in, and in
any event is very soon compelled to convert itself to mourning and then
transplanted into a ‘boy crush’ on Chance. His discovery that Chance is
Wendy, which occurs during a brain-fevered wander, is hardly processa-
ble as anything other than a hallucination, and its shock is quickly buried
by the spectacle of Mother’s cannibalism and both their exiles from the
island. Only at the very end are commando-Chance and topless-Wendy
united in a slow dissolve in the house painter’s imagination. But by this
point the status of Wendy/Chance as phantom has been clearly estab-
lished, her dual genders and many roles now legible as features of her
almost allegorical constitution. However real and solid little Guy’s first
crush may have seemed at the time, in the retrospection of three decades
later it has become a kind of glowing locus of the birth of desire itself, an
aching tender spot whose very cause has vanished but whose ache is only
greater with the passage of years and the disappearance of any possible
object. Such all-encompassing wounds and longings are, of course, in
the realm of psychoanalysis, and notwithstanding their category differ-
ence from his family traumas, Guy’s Wendy-desire seems right at home
sharing a landscape of Oedipal stresses and other family turbulences.
Once again the effortless combination of superficially different elements
demonstrates the film’s ability to swim freely in this subaquatic uncon-
scious world.
In addition to inspiring Sis’s desire, Wendy/Chance of course expe-
riences her own desire for Sis. At the moment this desire hits her, its
power and solemnity are incarnated in the repeated close-up wherein
her moonlike white face glows magnetically inside a black iris surround.
I have already remarked on the beauty of this shot, but I think it deserves
further comment. It is perhaps the most beautiful shot of Maddin’s en-
tire cinema, just radiating with a kind of pure, smooth, goddesslike lyri-
cal intensity. It functions as more than one shot, because it repeats, and
also shifts its framing, moving with great slowness closer and closer to this
epicentre of something. Really it receives extraordinary emphasis, far be-
yond any narrative utility, and even beyond any narcissistic indulgence
Brand upon the Brain 297

Wendy’s all-encompassing moon face of desire.

the film might be extending to its own gorgeous creation. I mentioned

a moonlike face and a goddesslike intensity, a combination that would
add up to Diana, the goddess of chastity, as a representation of the birth
of sexual desire: another of the film’s innumerable surreal meldings of
antitypes. But this profound emphasis, this repetition and persistence –
the way it lasts, and lasts, as though the film could not bear to be parted
with it – also decisively transcends its function as the expression of the
face’s own desire, of Wendy’s desire for Sis. It moves from the desire ex-
perienced by the face to the desire experienced for the face: Guy’s, Sis’s,
the film’s, ours. And in doing this it becomes the definitive image and
symbol of desire itself, and the power and solemnity of the shot become
those of the very principle of desire (not that the superfine physicality of
the shot has anything innately abstract about it). How strange and mov-
ing this transference is, from subject to object, from person to principle;
how expressive, once more, of the film’s ability to wield images and feel-
ings in a sublimely intuitive way.
This symbolic status is only confirmed by Wendy’s reappearance ex-
plicitly as a phantom. Now, years after the initial thunderbolt of feeling,
her (non) reality has progressed from that of harp-playing Lightbulb
Kid to that of sad, introspective, distracted ghost, her indifference to
298 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

the desiring subject made perfectly manifest. Indeed it is her status as a

projection of that desiring subject, and moreover a projection that no
longer has any life, that is so painful for the subject to apprehend. This
quasi-spectral form is also the one taken by Veronica in Cowards Bend the
Knee, where her lostness as object of desire is rendered as coldness, dead-
ness, ghostly absence-in-presence – qualities that do not make her any
less desirable, but only emphasize the always-already-impossible nature
of the subject’s longing for her. In Brand, the fact that the carrier and
symbol of desire, Wendy, is ultimately identified as a phantom serves in
addition to emphasize the purity of her existence in that symbolic posi-
tion: she is purged of any actual humanity which might interfere with
such an idealist role. Finally all questions about gender slippage, about
the nature of Sis’s sexuality, and even about the objective existence of
Wendy/Chance and the Lightbulb Kids and the detective investigation,
are swallowed up and rendered irrelevant by this recognition of the fig-
ure’s quality of non-existence and of its function rather as an allegorical
carrier of desire. (This has some secondary plot effects, though: all of the
melodramatic details of the island regime of Sis and Chance after the ex-
pulsion of Mother and Guy, including the death of Sis, come from a wit-
ness who is a figment of the house painter’s imagination. How can this
be constituted as actual information?) In turn the depiction of house
painter Guy, still kissing the foot of this ghostly idealization, still drinking
in her appearance even as he knows she is not there and never was, at
last indeed missing his mother’s dying moment to look again at this utter
projection, has a sadness that Maddin is entering into more directly and
wholeheartedly than in any other film.


It is an unproblematic statement to say that Brand upon the Brain! con-

sists almost entirely of the contents of its protagonist’s memory, affect,
and unconscious. There are of course two Guys, the boy and the house
painter, and the film’s principal project is to position them in an ar-
rangement whereby the latter is seeking again to enter the realm of his
earlier self, to enter it as wholly and synaesthetically as he can. His aim is
not really to understand the powerful, formative events of his past, only
to re-experience them, and the film as a whole is not analytic at all, but
sensitive, receiving the impress of memory and retransmitting it. Mad-
din himself talks about how he feels that he experienced the important
events of his past only dumbly, without comprehension or even feeling
Brand upon the Brain 299

on his own part, and about how the autobiographical reimagination of

those events allows him at last to experience them fully. So the narrative
of Brand, with its adult seeker after his own past and its mantras that ‘all
things will happen again’ and ‘everything happens twice’ is in effect a
reflexive model of its maker’s own psychic process.
The two Guys are set, as it were, side by side with no interaction. Lit-
tle Guy sees and does all that he sees and does in a kind of immediate
and automatic way. He is submerged in events to the point of being un-
able to process them, brain-fevered to the point of numbness, a kind of
helpless observer or child-subaltern ‘running to please’ or appended to
games and schemes run by older children. Even when he is nominally
taking part in events – Savage Tom’s blood rituals, ‘spin the bottle’ with
Sis, Chance, and Neddie, grim dinner times, misdirection schemes to
aid Sis, spying schemes to aid Chance, attendance at his mother’s suicide
bed or his father’s resurrection – it is essentially as witness rather than
participant. So that everything in the flashback that is the main body
of the film might almost be described as ‘what I saw in my childhood.’
‘What I felt in my childhood,’ too, of course; but that feeling seems not
to have the necessary channels and outlets compared with the flood tide
of the remembering house painter (and the film itself). This is reflected
in the rather stunted nature of the boy’s reactions to things as they can
be read in his face and body language. One of the most charming things
in the film is its quasi-comic representation of Guy’s sullen resentfulness
when watching Neddie get all Wendy’s kisses at ‘spin the bottle,’ when
asked to turn around and not look at Sis’s and Chance’s necking, when
suffering his mother’s overaffectionate embraces – and all the related
moments in the context of grim dinners and maternal complaints and
threats. But this expression, and possibly this feeling, is all that is avail-
able to the child when confronting also the biggest traumas of parental
crime, volcanic sexual discovery, even the traumas of death and separa-
tion. There is a narrow continuum, in other words, between the trivial
and the grand, wherein there doesn’t seem actually much difference
between them emotionally to little Guy. It is tempting to place this in
the context of Maddin’s recollections of the trivial manifestations of big
actual traumas in his real childhood, such as being told at the age of
seven that your brother has killed himself and that now you would be
getting his room. In fact that petulant expression of the face of Brand’s
child protagonist is almost exactly the same as the one on the face of
the twenty-something hero of The Dead Father as he is frowned at and
upbraided by his dead father for not adequately performing his duties as
300 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

a son. Again, the emotional reservoir available for situations of trauma is

just not deep enough to produce a ‘proper’ emotional response, and the
subject just has to use the same old trivial responses that he would to any
little childhood oppressions. Only the remembering adult can have this
‘proper’ response, while reimagining and re-experiencing the traumatic
events. Even the boy’s most dramatic responses – swooning and brain
fever – are escapes from, rather than immersions in, a full experience.
Too much for little Guy, but not too much for the adult he grows into.
That adult is now able to drain the bittersweet cup to its dregs.
Shaviro states baldly that ‘the only way to describe Brand upon the Brain!
is with a Freudian account of trauma and Nachträglichkeit.’25 Nachträglich-
keit (‘afterwardness’) is a term used by Freud to describe a condition in
which the true significance of certain important early experiences will
be deferred, to be brought back by some circumstance later in life, and
only then properly understood or felt. This does describe the way that
the phantasmatic events of Guy’s remembered childhood are explod-
ing in these waves of emotion triggered by his revisitation of the places
and things of their original experience: ‘all things happen again.’ The
narration’s repeated cries of ‘the past! the past!’ have exactly this force;
and again their reduction to a kind of obsessive, insistent repetition of
the plainest word, whose explanatory powers are threadbare and inad-
equate, indicates how profound are the depths to which it refers, and
how uncapturable in language. The house painter’s return to the island
is also a return to his past, to his childhood. Concomitantly, the trau-
matic regime change that results first in the exile of the parents and
then of little Guy is a kind of figure for the end of childhood. It is curious
and telling that the film imagines this transition out of childhood not
as a growing up, or growing away, but as an exile from the place of fun-
damental authentic experience. The boy is forcibly separated from his
parents, forcibly banished from his home. The narrative says it was Sis’s
new regime that imposed this exile, but this seems like a kind of alibi or
convenient mechanism for dramatizing the end of a situation. Conceiv-
ably Sis’s act in successfully growing up herself, successfully insisting on
her own independence, can be seen as constituting a dethronement of
the Mother principle and hence an end to everybody’s childhood. But
in fact the film is not thinking too clearly at this point.26 Indeed, it is not
thinking at all, only feeling. And what it feels is that childhood ended,
and Guy was sent to live somewhere else, where the parents weren’t re-
ally the parents and home wasn’t really home. Perhaps he remained a
child, but his childhood deserted him. Wherever he may go after this, it
Brand upon the Brain 301

will not be home, because home is childhood, and nothing will ever be
as important or big as what occurred there. The fact that his parents are
‘criminals’ and that his mother is a terrifying and unmanageable person
is not even relevant, and his separation from these troubling circum-
stances is certainly not experienced as any kind of liberation. Rather it is
as though everything that happened later in his life is the truly ghostly,
unreal condition, and only memory and the past is reality.
And so we arrive at the present. It is a place that is literally empty, a set
of mnemonic locations and props where the phantoms of long-vanished
people of immense importance to Guy appear and disappear in his adult
mind. It can’t be brought truly to life; the only thing to do is to slap a coat
of white paint on it. But now, near the end of the film, Mother does actu-
ally arrive in this place. She is only a shadow of her earlier mad-queenly
self, old and frail if still showing clear traces of her old habits. After all
these years, the adult Guy can tell her, in a heartfelt way at least somewhat
extricated from childhood confusion, ‘I love you, mother,’ and she can
still reply, with the old Mother moxie, ‘No you don’t.’ Essentially, though,
her power is almost gone, and like any aged parent she now needs to
be looked after by her child. This reversal of roles is always disorienting
for both parties, and so it is here, additionally so because it expresses so
unmistakably how diminished the psychic landscape has become. The
passionate exchanges of ‘I love you!’s at Mother’s deathbed are deeply
felt, but there is a sense that they are marooned somewhere far away from
the authentic landscape of meaning, just a kind of trailing edge of ‘the
past!’ Mother dies, and Guy commits one last filial dereliction of duty by
being distracted from her final moment by a phantom-topless-Wendy, in
another guilty reworking of the moment in Cowards Bend the Knee where
Guy looked away and abandoned someone in her death-throes to pursue
an erotic interest. After this, all his phantoms disappear, one after an-
other, and he is left ‘utterly alone!’ to stand naked on the suicide’s ledge.
It is an extraordinary moment of despairing self-pity, but the film’s final
response is to cruelly mock any emotional indulgence (‘Cry, baby, cry’),
and to leave Brand like almost every other Maddin movie torn between
pain and ridicule – but now more than ever before explicit and direct in
its expression, and entirely stripped of anything comic.

96.518 per cent true

Maddin continues to have fun with numerical estimates of the autobi-

ographical content of his films. Evidently the proportion has gone up
302 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

since Cowards, whose absolute-truth content he pegged at 95 per cent.

With Brand, it has fluctuated somewhat: to Dennis Lim in the New York
Times he said it was 96 per cent,27 but it had gone up a notch to ‘97 per
cent true’ in the DVD documentary of that title. (I believe Maddin has
missed an opportunity in not, so far, describing My Winnipeg as ‘114 per
cent true.’) These grossly inflated yet precise numbers serve a double
function: épater les critiques, and at the same time point emphatically to
overwhelming importance of autobiographical elements in a story where
otherwise they might be undervalued. So, since Maddin was not actually
brought up in a lighthouse where his father sucked brain juice from or-
phans and siblings, we might speculate about what actually is true about
the characters and events of the film, or, more usefully, what underlying
truths have been metaphorized into those characters and events.
Here is part of a conversation I had with Maddin in 2007 that gives
some insight into the process of transmission and mutation:

gm: The years I spent at Gimli – and the movie really is just Gimli
– I fell in love with Gimli because it always held a promise for
romance. And well past the age when all other kids, like at age fif-
teen or sixteen, started hanging out in Winnipeg in the summers
and skipping the lake, I just kept holding out that Gimli, unlike
Winnipeg, would deliver to me, as if from out of a bush or some-
thing, the perfect romantic pay-off, and man, I was hooked just the
way someone who won a jackpot once on a slot machine just goes
back and I just kept going back to the same patterns of searching
around Loney Beach for someone.
wb: This was on the basis of having hit the jackpot once?
gm: Yeah, once or twice, they were just little thrilling, little brushes
with – meeting a girl named Wendy, who’s the Canadian actress
Wendy Crewson (now she grew up, she played the First Lady in
Air Force One, opposite Harrison Ford). Anyway, she came down to
Gimli when we were all about fifteen and tortured us all, tore the
tops of our heads off and stomped on our hearts.
wb: No, that was what you were doing to yourself.
gm: Yeah. That’s right, we allowed her to do it, we used her to – she
was like a human can opener. So I thought that the movie will just
be this big, haunted, lonely landscape.

Here, then, is the origin of Wendy,28 and a key to decode back to Mad-
din’s history the wanderings of both Guys through the island in search
Brand upon the Brain 303

of that first image of desire. But we note that whereas the actual Guy and
the actual Wendy were the same age (both born in 1956), the movie’s
Wendy is an older girl, and its Guy is definitely more of a child. This slip-
page in both directions across the boundary of puberty is, of course, also
a characteristic of Cowards Bend the Knee, where the story of Guy and his
girlfriends is immersed in the landscape of earlier childhood (the salon,
the arena). That Brand is ‘just Gimli’ is no qualification of the fact that
the Gimli experience extends all the way back to Maddin’s early child-
hood as well as encompassing his later girl-hunting teenage days. And
it is of the utmost importance for the film to include the child and his
parents as well. Because what it seeks to address is not just the protago-
nist’s girl-wanderings through a ‘haunted, lonely landscape,’ but that
landscape and that activity as the essential expression for the totality of
his past experience and his present psychic state. So the Gimli memories
of house painter Guy, although they take place in the narrative in a rela-
tively condensed time period, in fact comprehend his whole childhood
and adolescence, which are presented as if they were simultaneous. And
this simultaneity, however chaotic as history, makes compelling sense
psychologically, since all aspects of our pasts are present at once in our
minds. Brand demonstrates once again, and probably in the most power-
ful way yet, just how malleable and permeable Maddin’s psychic hoard
of experience is, how easy it is for him to create a fantasy melding of ele-
ments that has both a surrealist force and a truth-to-feeling.
Another specific moment in Maddin’s history that comes back point-
edly in Brand is his mother’s fierce struggle with his sister. It’s a topic that
this film retrospectively allows us to see happening also in Cowards in Li-
liom’s treatment of Meta, and it will get another extended, and explicit,
rehearsal in My Winnipeg. It is impossible to say how traumatic these hos-
tilities were for the actual participants, but they evidently made a deep
impression on the young witness Guy, who now describes them as ‘a ti-
tanic internecine battle.’29 The little observer’s sense that something big
was going on may be ultimately responsible for the fact that Brand shows
Sis having her brain sucked out by her parents. It also shows that these
malefactions seemed not to interfere substantially with Sis’s independ-
ent spirit, and it is very clear that it is she who finally won the war. Sis’s
moth-death after her abandonment by Chance, in contrast, is impossible
to situate in this way, and seems just another of the plot detonations
(revolution, expulsion) that separate the era of childhood from all later
times and clear the table of earlier plot elements in preparation for the
present-day epilogue. As for the gender transgressions of Sis’s romantic
304 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

life, it is hardly necessary to read them literally in the circumstances,

especially when they are so closely connected with Guy’s own multisex
crushes. Other specific scenes have specific historical origins. The most
startling, perhaps, is the stripping and preparation for burial of Father’s
dead body and its waterlogged interment – a series of actions that, if we
are to believe Maddin’s testimony,30 is a fairly exact copy of the events
following his grandfather’s death as lived through by his grandmother
and his mother. Like the story in Careful of the infant Swan-Feeder’s
loss of an eye because of his mother’s brooch, this surreal and from one
angle comical development looks like any of the movie’s other fantastic
representations but turns out to be pretty much factual. On the other
hand, the basic characterological representations of Mother and Fa-
ther obviously involve transformations of an altogether more swingeing
sort. Mother as an omniscient discipline-and-punish surveillor or tushy-
smooching maniac is a figure from some deeper and more phantasmic
level of the unconscious than anything in the Sis and Chance realm (or
the more literally recognizable Neddie and Savage Tom realm). And
Maddin’s representation of his father’s physical absence, grinding work
demands, impassive mask of desiccated persistence, and domain of se-
cret power is quite astonishing – especially as it manages to present si-
multaneously a little son’s view of his father’s occult omnipotence and
an older one’s recognition of him as beaten down by life. If these parents
are 97 per cent true, it is because they are that much true to their child’s
psychic sense of them.


If genre influences from Grand Guignol to the Hardy Boys to cheap

horror movies are evident in various aspects of the narrative, the actual
visual realization of Brand upon the Brain! relies as heavily upon the lan-
guage of silent cinema as any Maddin film. The presence of the voice-
over narrator perhaps disguises this to a degree, but in this respect what
is noteworthy is how much that voice-over simply duplicates or under-
lines what is already in the intertitles (and vice versa, of course). In fact
subtracting the voice-over and adding a couple of intertitles would leave
the essence of the film substantially intact. The narration’s effect, argu-
ably, is to rescue the film from the panic/aversion responses of viewers
who become disoriented by the absence of the human voice while at the
same time preserving in its entirety the apparatus of silent cinema. Of
the other elements of the soundtrack, musical accompaniment is already
Brand upon the Brain 305

proper to silent cinema, and sound effects without speech – a relic of the
earliest forms of sound cinema – also function to soothe away viewers’
silence anxieties. The most important fact is the absence of dialogue,
and in this respect Brand is as pure a silent film as Dracula, Cowards, or
the shorts. It is functionally a silent film, and once again the director can
draw on the priceless treasure chest of tools of the form that, seemingly,
cannot survive the added realism of direct sound and so have been effec-
tively dead since the 1920s. There is a synergy among these tools, and the
mere presence of techniques such as intertitles, irising/vignetting, and
multiple exposure creates a generalized flavour of ‘silent cinema’ that is
distinct from whatever actual work those devices are doing – and this is
the first (and unfortunately sometimes the last) thing that viewers notice
about Maddin’s ‘evocation’ of the form.
As usual, Maddin uses intertitles (and voice-over) in the characteris-
tic silent film way to conduct a compressed and short-cutting style of
narration, one that throws the attention of viewers more concentratedly
on the images, which are then parsed in a way significantly different
from those of most sound film. In particular, close-ups must bear a much
greater burden, and here the framing by means of irises and vignettes
has the amplifying effect of removing the images yet further from a quo-
tidian prosaic status into a more poetic realm of visual rhetoric. The
Everest of all these close-ups, of course, is the magnetic, positively sing-
ing one of Wendy as she succumbs to Sis’s charms, singled out glowingly
from an idealizing surround-frame of black iris. But essentially the same
treatment is extended to every character in the film in a multitude of sit-
uations, so that the viewer’s apprehension of each of them occurs much
more in a realm of elevated reception. Characters, in other words, are
pushed onto a more fabular and lyrical level of existence by their ‘silent’
visualization, and indeed this operation extends to locations and settings
as well (think of all the black-surrounded shots of the lighthouse beam at
night), and finally to the narrative as a whole. As cinematographer Ben
Kasulke points out, the lighting is stretched between the two poles of
shadow-filled Expressionism and what he calls ‘this great sort of Marlene
Dietrich lighting,’ a softer light that also extends to producing ‘beautiful
ghostly haloes of light around people’s faces.’31 Much of the photogra-
phy especially in the latter style is ravishingly beautiful, the apotheosis of
a practice that Maddin has been pursuing successfully in his black and
white films ever since Archangel with its fabulous close-ups of Boles and
Veronkha. Both the Expressionist mode and this specific portrait mode,
of course, have firm roots in silent cinema.
306 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Even more striking is the utilization of what I think of as a Murnau-

vian technique (though in fact it dates back to the earliest years of cin-
ema) of photographing mental events by means of double exposure.
Maddin has instinctively used this device ever since Gimli Hospital, and
one could adduce dozens of examples from his later cinema. We saw in
Saddest Music, for example, how powerfully the Murnau-like appearance
of the dead child or the lost wife could be presented in the thoughts
of the bereft ones, and on the screen. In Brand upon the Brain!, the most
common use of the form is in the repeated appearances and disappear-
ances of the character’s from Guy’s past who dissolve into and out of the
point of view of the house painter, as literal realizations of the events
of memory and the imagination. As used here, the device is beautifully
simple and intuitive: there is nothing as showy as the great moments
from Sunrise or even those just mentioned from Saddest Music (Narcissa
appearing inside a frozen tear on a rain-streaked window, for instance).
Instead, the very simplicity of these embodied shadows from Guy’s mind
conveys their concrete importance in his imagination, the simple force
of their presentness, and then of their absence. And this brings out how
peculiarly appropriate, within Maddin’s body of work, the device is in
this film so completely devoted to, indeed constituted by, memory and
imagination. In high silent cinema this kind of visualization was applied
not only to elevated, ‘arty’ narratives, but even to the most homespun
kinds of stories. But rarely then could it be applied to so frankly mental
a landscape as it is here, and so there is even a sense that Brand upon
the Brain! actually represents a certain kind of apotheosis of silent film
‘photographed thought.’ Certainly at the end of the film the appear-
ance and disappearance of the important figures from the drama that
has been enacted, and especially the last double superimposition and
then disappearance of Wendy/Chance, have a simple and poignant elo-
quence that realizes the power of this very plain old device in a kind of
ultimate way.32
Maddin’s description of the multiple conjunctions that made Brand a
silent film project certainly confirms all this:

I realized it would have to be a silent film, because there’d be no way

there’d be time to write dialogue for a feature in such a short time [...]
I thought maybe I’ll get to make one more silent film, great, you know,
because no private investor in his right mind would ever give you money to
make a silent film. So I thought, well, here’s my chance to make one more,
and then that’ll probably be it. And I thought, there are still some things
Brand upon the Brain 307

silent movies do best and a childhood recollection might be one of them,

because everything is so – [...] I think everyone’s a poet when he or she is
in the act of remembering his or her own childhood. You just immediately
go back into the reasoning you used and you immediately enter into the
faultily constructed model of the world that you make for yourself each
day and then throw away as you have to correct it until you get basically the
same world view as every other boring adult. But when you’re a kid, you’re
the creator of spectacular mistakes that actually produce intoxicating re-
sults when you flip cause and effect and you confuse things and you don’t
know what’s going on and you forever link the memories of, you weld to-
gether memories of smells, incidents that were contemporaneous with cer-
tain phenomena and it’s mythic times, you know, so it’s very lyrical, silent
movie stuff.33

A marriage made in heaven, then.

Shooting outside Manitoba, and with a group of actors and techni-
cians previously entirely unknown to Maddin certainly gives special
qualities to the film. There hasn’t been this much location shooting in
a Maddin feature since we had all those people stumbling around in the
woods at night in Tales from the Gimli Hospital. The beach has a different
look from the one at Gimli – stonier, more windswept – and the forest
is most of the time just a few thin little stands of trees. But that outdoors
landscape, bright grey and chilly, creates a beautifully Nordic look (espe-
cially in the great images of Sis wielding her harpoon in wide-angle slash-
vignetted shots). The lighthouse, too – above all its castlelike curving
stone and brick stairwell – has a solidity that is far from the pasteboard
qualities Maddin has often actively sought in the past. Partly because of
these things, the all-Super-8mm cinematography, by Ben Kasulke and
Maddin himself, has a freshness that is quite different in tone from the
sepiaed claustrophobia of Cowards Bend the Knee, and scenes such as Fa-
ther’s burial or Mother’s suicide attempt have a grander quality (aided
by the chorus of orphans costumed somewhere between altar boys and
the nocturnal denizens of Maddin’s favourite Zéro de conduite). The pres-
ence of a completely new cast also makes things look fresh, and with
one or two minor exceptions, the actors are truly excellent. I confess to
wondering what putting Darcy Fehr into the ‘Guy Maddin’ role he plays
in Cowards and My Winnipeg would have done to the film, but there’s
nothing at all wrong with Erik Steffen Maahs’ melancholy performance,
and the Big Four of Sis (Maya Lawson), Wendy (Katherine Scharhon),
Mother (Gretchen Krich), and little Guy (Sullivan Brown) are all quite
308 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

splendid, with even smaller roles like Neddie (Kellan Larson) and Sav-
age Tom (Andrew Loviska) beautifully taken.
John Gurdebeke’s editing is almost as interventionist here as in Cow-
ards Bend the Knee. In this, the most explicitly and straightforwardly mem-
ory-centred of his projects, Maddin’s sense of the ‘scrolling’ or ‘cubist’
process of digital editing as a reflection of the feel of memory gets its
most extended workout. The entire editing style seems more settled and
under control, and less excitable, than it did in the heady days of its first
discovery in Cowards. At the same time, we see the continued fruitfulness
of the marriage of highly flexible shooting practice and equally flexible
editing technique that can be traced back to Dracula. With multiple Su-
per-8 cameras shooting very close, and in a wild hand-held fashion, the
scrolling method is capable of capturing and mixing that raw material
in a blending – or sometimes blenderizing – fashion. Altogether it is a
synergistic method, as Maddin explains: ‘It’s something that gives me
the courage to just go on the set without any storyboards, without any re-
hearsals, and just start shouting audibles from the line, no huddle at all,
no telling people what to do, just knowing that the whole thing will be
full of captured moments that can then be stretched, shortened, elimi-
nated, or created out of the blue.’34 And in the editing process proper,
not just energy but also lyricism and reflection can be produced through
the finely manipulated control of tempo: when to slow things down and
when to speed them up, in both macro (shot length) and micro (shot
speed) dimensions. The film plays over these tempi and rhythms like
music. As for music proper, Jason Staczek’s score is undoubtedly the best
ever composed for a Maddin feature film. He really seems alive to every
mood of Maddin’s film, and his ability to navigate the perilous chan-
nels from charm to desolation with all the stops in between is wholly
admirable. It is a beautiful, eloquent, enlivening score, at its most crucial
moments deeply felt and simply moving (and with never the smallest
hint of a parodic rendering of these qualities, as in Careful). It is fascinat-
ing to compare the effect of this fine music track with that of the more
primitive but equally powerful ‘found’ score for the partner-project Cow-
ards Bend the Knee: leaving aside the impact of live musicians in the per-
formance version of the film, the modern score acts in the same way
as the voice-over narration to distance Brand from some of the more
‘degraded’ aspects of the silent film model – whereas the scratchy 78s of
Cowards have precisely the opposite effect, coming at us in vivid fashion
through the long tunnel of historical culture and bearing all the scars of
their long passage.
Brand upon the Brain 309

All things will happen again

It is very striking that in Brand upon the Brain! Maddin has moved all the
way to the opposite pole from his earlier insistence on amnesia as a cen-
tral subject. The Dead Father takes place in ‘the dominion of forgetfulness,’
Archangel is a festival of amnesia, and in more recent years both Cowards
and Saddest Music are still dealing with this intractable issue. (George
Toles could even say in 2001 that ‘to Guy Maddin, every contemporary
story that feels true is at bottom an amnesia story.’35) As we saw, in the
case of Cowards this may simply be a matter of talking about any kind of
disavowal or item of bad conscience that has been pushed to the side as a
forgetting. But Saddest Music certainly does bring back the psychic condi-
tion of avoidance of big and painful memories, and moreover stipulates
quite plainly that it is a condition that must be fought and overcome:
again, the conclusion of that film may be described as the defeat of amne-
sia. In Brand, however, there is no struggle: the war is over and memory
has won. The result is not only radically to warm up the film’s tempera-
ture (as Maddin observes in the epigraph to this chapter), but to connect
with all the ‘warmer,’ emotionally fervid, moments in his earlier cinema
– the endings of Archangel and Careful, for example – validate them ret-
rospectively, and show what a strong subcurrent of feeling has always run
through his work by bringing it to the surface. At the same time the fu-
tureless, quasi-suicidal position of the ending revisits some of the things
Maddin has been doing in his two preceding movies, but with a very
different emphasis. The hero of Brand, like the hero of Saddest Music, is,
as it were, killed by memory, killed by the successful arrival of hitherto re-
pressed memory. That process is already beginning at the start of Brand,
whereas in Saddest Music it only happens suddenly at the end. Chester at
last finds his sadness, and this sadness equates to his death, metaphori-
cally the end of his old life, literally the end of his actual life. The future!
the future! is non-existent for him, even though it may have some value
for others like Roderick and Narcissa. But in that film, does Maddin find
his true sadness? No, he only finds the idea of finding it, as it were, an
intellectual recognition that it is a necessary thing. The actual moment
of rediscovery, of true memory which is true sadness, cannot even now
escape from its own thinness and ridiculousness (Mother collapsing over
the piano). In Cowards Bend the Knee, Maddin has found something true,
but it’s not so much sadness as guilt, self-contempt, weakness in every di-
mension, an anguished but cold inner centre of horror. And despite all
the markers of absurdity at the end of that film, there is nothing in it that
310 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

is really artificial or held at arm’s length – it is entirely serious and felt. In

any event this memory process, this anti-amnesia, leaves behind a bleak,
futureless prospect. In Brand upon the Brain! the pattern is the same: Guy
plunges right into his memories, not deflecting anything about them,
and in doing this he discovers his sadness and pain. At the end of the
process he is left with a life that seems to have no future, a life that is in
fact seen to have been utterly constituted of the past. His sadness is pre-
cisely that the past is the past, that what is most essential to him does not
exist any more except as memory and imagination, and when at the end
of the film those final visions disappear for the last time it is his life that is
disappearing with them. If this facing up at last to his inner condition is
a healthy overcoming of disavowal and blockage, its therapeutic benefits
are to say the least hard to discern in the bleak endings of all three of
these films. Artistically, of course, it is another matter, and the benefits
there are immediate and obvious.
The victory of memory and feeling also weakens what had always been
the other side of the equation: mockery, derision, silliness. It is not, cer-
tainly, that the zany Maddin humour has disappeared from the film, but
now its iterations have a less destructive effect upon the seriousness of
the drama. Mother gets no hairballs in her throat; instead, she feeds her
child from her own mouth, washes away her sin in a turpentine bath, and
comes out with passionate operatic utterances like: ‘Soon I shall sleep
in the earth on the mainland, and when you die, many years from now,
you can be buried on top of me.’ Jannings’ guts on the floor and Cain
Ball’s nail in the head have turned into Father’s nectar extraction and
Mother’s knives in the bed – or, to take a beautiful concentrated exam-
ple, the naked feet of Father sticking straight up from his trash-barrel
immolation in an image that is both ridiculous and powerful. In all of
these cases the risible or absurd features do not pull the rug out from un-
der the emotional events they are features of. Rather, the effect is to fuse
their absurdity with their authority and unironic force. It is important to
acknowledge the persistence of a corrosive fierceness that has not at all
disappeared from Brand upon the Brain! The occult and scary aspects of
parental power, Sis’s jerking hands, Father’s rigor-mortised corpse and
torched extinction – these are all as disturbing as the most exaggerated
violences of Maddin’s earlier films. But they are not stamped so implac-
ably with the imprint of Pythonesque ridiculousness. Perhaps none of
them is quite such a spectacular example as the perfect bipolar vertigo
of the severed hands in Cowards, but they carry the same sense of a syn-
thesis of antithetical elements that Maddin would previously have had to
Brand upon the Brain 311

present as vibrating opposites. And they are accompanied by elements

of sweetness and delight that also have their predecessors in Maddin’s
work, but never in quite so crystallized a form. The charm and elegance of
harp-playing Wendy, of Fantômas Chance and commando Chance, of
Sis in frilly underwear, of the Kissing Gloves and the mock wedding, of
the orphan choir, represent a realm of the movie in which silliness and
affection can unite as triumphantly as absurdity and awe do in the darker
One could simply call all of these things subsets of a particularly suc-
cessful outing of Maddin’s surrealist imagination, or even a kind of
breakthrough revision of Maddin’s surrealist method. It seems to me
that these achievements are fundamentally enabled by the filmmaker’s
breakthrough on another level – the level of memory and untrammelled
feeling. It just seems as though some kind of blockage has been removed,
and now everything flows more smoothly: not just the attainment of a
goal of emotional expression, but all these integrations of opposites as
well. Everything occurs under the sign of Guy’s sad-sweet immersion in
the font of meaning, in early experience, and the psychic landscape that
then effortlessly opens up, vast and fertile, and makes all things possible.
What was the dominion of forgetfulness has now become the domin-
ion of remembering, and the numbed sleepwalker of Maddin’s earlier
films has become a quivering sensibility in direct synaesthetic contact
with every fleck of childhood experience, a soul riven with sorrow who
sees with utter fullness and clarity ‘the past, the past’ with all its ‘secrets,
secrets’ – to such an extent, indeed, that the experience blots out the
present and leaves ‘the future, the future’ as a kind of hysterical empti-
ness. The memorious condition is so overwhelming that it is the Brand
upon the Brain.
What a distance Maddin has come from cold films like Dead Father and
Gimli Hospital through blocked films like Archangel and Careful, through
the detour from Twilight to Dracula to the ‘heartless’ but anguished Cow-
ards, and now to something like the Sacred Heart of Guy in Brand. Of
course it was Cowards that took the crucial new step, but its mythological
method was quite different. I will offer a ridiculous comparison: Cowards
is Maddin’s Iliad, all savage conflict between merciless combatants in the
grip of primal drives, and Brand is his Sorrows of Young Werther, all throb-
bing sensitivity seeking to put its finger on the very centre of feeling. The
tidal-wave moments of Brand upon the Brain! are truly something new in
Maddin’s cinema. As the rememberer is being swept away in them, the
intertitles cry out ‘all things will happen again!’ ‘and again!’ ‘and again!’
312 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

‘and again!’ ‘and again!’ – an exclamation that captures the condition of

memory itself and seems to exemplify some space of utter, primal truth
for Maddin. In the DVD documentary 97 Per Cent True, he says:

As a child, I always had this feeling that everything would happen again.
Somehow I always felt that my emotional responses to things were inad-
equate to them. You know, if someone died in the family, or if a baby was
born, or someone got married, I kind of flatlined for some reason, I had a
little circuit-breaker that always went off, and I failed to deliver the proper
emotional response. I could sometimes fake it, but I never felt it. And I
would often tell myself, for some reason – this is from earliest childhood,
like when I was pretending to be thrilled by a birthday gift that I really was
thrilled at receiving, but somehow still faking my exhilaration – that next
time this happened, next time, you know, my Uncle Herb died – it wasn’t
next time an uncle died, it was next time my Uncle Herb died – I would
have the proper response. Something very early on taught me not to have
an uninhibited response, and that was a good thing, for some reason. It ena-
bled me to sort of go through life anaesthetized, but sort of accumulate a
stockpile, a massive inventory, of memories to be experienced properly, with
proper emotions, later. And I started to wonder if that second time would
just be when I’d die, I’m falling off a building or something and my life’s
flashing before me, that then in an explosive orgy of emotions I would final-
ly get to experience everything properly, before splattering myself onto the
sidewalk. But then I realized the second time is actually to myself personally
when I’m making these movies, and I’m finally beginning to understand
what it was I went through.

From this perspective we can understand that sensation we may have

when looking at Brand upon the Brain! that it is reaching a new level of
expression for the filmmaker, a kind of goal long approached but never
fully attained. And we can see it, too, as a reflexive film, a work that con-
tains within itself the model of its own working, and in fact the model
of Maddin’s whole cinema, where the past, in every sense of that term,
comes back again and again.

My Winnipeg (2007)

I wanted to portray Winnipeg the way American cities are portrayed in Hol-
lywood mythology. I wanted to give Winnipeg a profile of mythic propor-
tions. That’s all. I didn’t want it to be as famous or glorious as New York,
Los Angeles or Chicago, but I wanted it to exist like Cleveland, Kansas City
or some of those second-drawer American cities do. People who haven’t
visited them still have a vague idea what they’re like. I wanted the world to
have the same vague idea what Winnipeg is like.
– Guy Maddin1

A feature-length documentary film certainly represented something of

a departure for Maddin, even given the fact that he had not long be-
fore directed the quarter-hour documentary My Dad Is 100 Years Old for
Isabella Rossellini. Michael Burns, president of the Documentary Chan-
nel in Canada, commissioned Maddin to make a movie about his home
town, enjoining him to ‘make it your Winnipeg, enchant me.’2 Maddin
says that his first concept was like a combination of ‘[W.G.] Sebald’s
Rings of Saturn and I Vitelloni set in the Winnipeg of Italy.’3 The film
was scripted in a fairly detailed fashion, and George Toles was asked
to write all the dialogue for the family re-enactments. The project was
quite firmly shaped going in, then, even though the project underwent
some alterations and additions during shooting. The voice-over narra-
tion was written and delivered personally by the director. The budget
was $500,000 and shooting occurred over a ten-day period, in a bewil-
dering variety of media: Super-16mm film, 16mm film, Super-8mm film,
miniDV video, HD video, and cell phone, in addition to archival foot-
age formats.4 Oddly, although there were high-profile festival and then
314 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

theatrical screenings across North America and the United Kingdom,

and an avalanche of positive reviews in major outlets, the film was late
getting a Canadian television screening, owing to the vaporization of
the Documentary Channel by its owner, the CBC.5 Maddin describes the
completed 80-minute film as a ‘docu-fantasia,’ which seems like an ap-
propriate term given that it is a mixture of civic and personal history all
of which is presented as true even though much of it is certainly not.6
The film’s organizing structure and procedural logic are as unusual as
anything in Maddin’s cinema, but they have not prevented it from be-
ing probably his most popular feature film, in the sense that it reaches
audiences in demographics that would normally never go near his work,
especially older people.7 This popularity is in itself a surprising and in-
triguing phenomenon. One reason may be that the film’s project of tak-
ing the unremarkable and isolated city of Winnipeg and revealing its
history as more complex and bizarre than you might think, with a deeper
set of symptoms of and resonances with its inhabitants and their memo-
ries and personalities, can easily prompt viewers into reflections of how
their own locales have a similar status – and the nostalgic and grieving-
for-the-past elements of the film can speak to older viewers particularly.
Another reason may simply be the personal directness and confessional
loquacity of the filmmaker’s narrative voice.
A very high proportion of My Winnipeg is black and white, with the
remainder consisting of a bit of colour period material and some con-
temporary video footage. There are some sequences in ‘tinted’ mono-
chrome of silhouette cutout-animation à la Lotte Reiniger. The black
and white material, as already indicated, is from a variety of sources, but
some of the newly shot material bears the marks of Maddin’s habitual
‘degradation’ of his images – especially the scenes of residential areas
at night, where flaring streetlights and blurred edges are the compan-
ions of restricted resolution and exaggerated contrast – although Mad-
din’s usual methods of creating heavy grain and introducing dirt and
scratches are not as widespread. There is much use of back projection
and multiple exposure to combine historical materials with new restag-
ings. Other than the scenes of family re-enactment, there is no dialogue
and very little live sound, only voice-over narration and multitudes of
intertitles, with a soundtrack enlivened by effects and music. The com-
bination of narration, intertitles, sound effects, and music is exactly the
modus of Brand upon the Brain!, so that much of My Winnipeg can be
called with at least a degree of accuracy a silent film. But at the same
time, this combination (except for intertitles) is quite common among
My Winnipeg 315

historical documentaries by filmmakers who have no thought of recap-

turing the aesthetic of silent cinema, so My Winnipeg definitely feels like
less of a silent film than its two predecessors do.

To begin

The first thing we see is a scene of Ann Savage (in the role of Maddin’s
mother) running through the lines of the dramatized confrontation
with her daughter that we will see in full later in the film, prompted from
offscreen by Maddin’s own voice giving line readings. It is a rote and un-
convincing performance, and, by including it and featuring it so strongly
to begin, the film seems to want to indicate a gulf between intention and
execution. We move then to a montage of archival and contemporary
footage of city, accompanied by a truly dreadful boosterist song from, as
it were, the 1940s or 1950s, ‘Wonderful Winnipeg,’ rendered by a deep
baritone voice, and this serves to introduce the credits.
As the film proper begins, we are in a primitive-looking railway passen-
ger compartment inhabited by a handful of sleeping and almost-sleeping
men. They are dressed in cold-weather apparel: winter jackets, toques,
gloves. Half-empty bottles grasped in semi-unconscious hands testify to a
substantial alcohol consumption, and a large, partially consumed roll of
cold sausage hangs from a string affixed to the roof of the compartment,
so that the atmosphere begins to resemble something from an Eastern
European railway car of a century ago. (One wonders if this could be
a remnant of Maddin’s little I Vitelloni band of brothers.) Through the
window we see snow-covered landscapes, though, as we look more care-
fully, not landscapes that you would see from a train – rather streets and
buildings that you would see from a car driving through Winnipeg on
a winter night. The principal personage in this compartment is ‘Guy
Maddin’ (played by Darcy Fehr, who has already performed the role
once in Cowards Bend the Knee), lolling in sleep or doziness, struggling
for consciousness as ‘his’ voice on the soundtrack (the actual Guy Mad-
din’s voice) talks about how he has to finally leave Winnipeg, has to wake
up in order to leave Winnipeg, has to wake up and stop dreaming and
sleepwalking as goals that seem identical to leaving Winnipeg. ‘What if?’
repeatedly ask both the narrator’s voice and the intertitles: what if I were
really able to leave, what if I really did leave? This scene is the film’s nar-
rative locus, to which it returns with great regularity throughout its en-
tirety, accompanied often by insistent close-ups of a train’s steam whistle
screaming madly. It is from this state of desperate somnolence that all
316 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

of the subsequent episodes illustrating the city’s past and present, and
the filmmaker’s, are imagined or remembered or projected. Right from
the beginning My Winnipeg is overtly reflexive, since the narrating voice
expresses this last big push to get out of town as an effort to ‘film my way
out.’ And now we begin the movie’s succession of discrete sections, each
illustrating a particular event of history or point being made by the film.

The Forks, the lap, the fur

Winnipeg is described as a lap, because in aerial or map view it is cen-

tred on a groinlike Y formed by the junction of the Red and Assiniboine
rivers. This junction, known as the Forks, is associated by card-carrying
Surrealist Maddin with the zone of female reproduction: the Forks are
the generating lap that gives birth to the city of Winnipeg. And mov-
ing, as he always does in the film, easily across the boundary between
personal and social history, he also associates it with the lap of his own
mother, who of course gave birth to him. Images of the riverine Y and
the Y of a naked female lap are superimposed to accomplish this fusion
of private and public. It also accomplishes the fusion of a poetic but still
rational geographic and biological account of things with some other,
occult, sphere of explanation. The Aboriginal First Nations people
speak of a subterranean river system duplicating the visible one and run-
ning directly beneath it, and impute great and mystical powers to this
hidden and secret river-juncture.8 These are then ‘the Forks beneath
the Forks,’ and are, as a title tells us, ‘Magnetic!’ The narrator’s voice
evokes the forces surrounding the city’s origins – the Native peoples,
the animals, the hunters and fur traders, the geography of ‘the Forks
and the Forks beneath the Forks’ – and sinks into a formulation of these
foundational elements, and his own, in the repeated mantric phrase,
‘the Forks, the lap, the fur.’ Again, this phrase combines the external
world of geographic and historical Winnipeg with his own world, since
the lap belongs both to the river junction and to his mother, and the fur
belongs both to the animals, hunters, and traders and to his mother’s
lap: ‘the woolly lap, the hunted lap.’ And by this point in the film we
have already discovered to what an extent the narration will utilize the
simple, hypnotic repetition of words and phrases as a poetic tool. It is
the technique of ‘the past! the past!’ from Brand upon the Brain!, now
variegated and extended, and attempting to call up the occult realm of
fundamental hidden feelings and truths. Another biological metaphor
is introduced, too: Winnipeg, as a pulsating retro-animated map shows
My Winnipeg 317

us, is geographically at the very centre of the North American continent,

and is ‘the Heart of the Heart.’

Treasure hunt

The film digs up a trivia nugget from the past of ‘always winter’ Winni-
peg. As we look at period footage from the decades before World War II,
the narrator tells us:

Back in Winnipeg’s earliest years, the Canadian Pacific Railway used to

sponsor an annual treasure hunt. This contest required our citizens to wan-
der our city in a day-long combing of our streets and neighbourhoods. First
prize was a one-way ticket on the next train out of town. The idea being that
once someone had spent an entire day looking this closely at his own home
town, he would never want to leave. The real treasure was right here all
along. And you know what? Not one treasure hunt winner ever got on that
train and left. Not one. Not in a hundred years.

Who can say how much of this concoction is historical fact? Anything
at all? No? Here is an evocation of a boosterist civic pride from a more
naïve earlier time where, who knows, perhaps one of its manifestations
was as bizarre as this – as bizarre as the song ‘Wonderful Winnipeg,’
whose heartfelt schlock salesmanship is cringe-making but recognizable.
Maddin’s astonishment at, understanding, and, ultimately, envy of the
impossibly innocent social beliefs and subject positions of an earlier era
has been a feature of his filmic world ever since Tales from the Gimli Hospi-
tal (another local story) and Archangel, and here it links up with the film’s
organizing metaphor to present the spectacle of a century of Winnipeg-
gers who, like Maddin, never left home either, but made the decision
on the basis of careful inspection rather than slug-headed inertia. As we
look at the cheerful citizens of earlier eras going about their business in
the period footage, we can feel Maddin simultaneously thinking ‘what’s
wrong with them?’ and ‘why aren’t I like them?’ – and also ‘maybe they
could be like that back then, but we can’t any more.’

Sleepwalking in Winnipeg

Already in the film Maddin has emphasized the theme of ‘sleepiness’ as

his more or less permanent condition, and now he goes on to impute the
characteristic to the entire city. ‘Why don’t I leave Winnipeg?’ becomes
318 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

an unspoken ‘why don’t all Winnipeggers leave?’ It is because of their

sleepiness, their unwillingness or inability to wake up. ‘Why can’t we just
open our eyes? Is it the mystically paired river forms? The biomagnetic
influence of our bison? The powerful northern lights? We dunno. We
sleep.’ Winnipeg, the narrator tells us, ‘has ten times the sleepwalking
rate of any other city in the world.’ Its citizen carry the keys to all their
former houses and apartments in case they should return to them while
asleep, and a city by-law compels the new owners to let them in and allow
them to sleep if off in their old premises.9 These fantastic animadversions
and assertions take place to the visual accompaniment of blurred black
and white small-format footage of snow-covered Winnipeg streets and
residential areas by night, the quality, and even the content, somewhat
reminiscent of Canadian community television broadcasts of the 1970s.
These stark, empty landscapes take on simultaneous qualities of boring
everydayness and existential dread, the freezing darkness illuminated by
streetlights just as cold. Through composite shots of them, in zombie-
movie or film-noir manner, sleepwalk the silhouettes of Winnipeggers.
Back in the railway car carrying the dozing Darcy Fehr, mother’s head
appears gigantic in the compartment window, a supernaturally potent
figure who recalls the enormous nagging Jewish mother in the sky over
Manhattan in ‘Oedipus Wrecks,’ the Woody Allen episode of New York
Stories, only without the humour. Her omniscient, all-penetrating image
– a kind of variation on the surveilling mother of Brand upon the Brain!
– is like a silent command for the film to move closer to her primary do-
main, the filmmaker’s childhood.

My home

And so the topic of former domiciles segues into the subject of Maddin’s
own childhood home, the combination beauty salon and living spaces at
800 Ellice Avenue. This building, formerly Lil’s Beauty Salon, long since
sold and now occupied by Tam’s Custom Tailor, will already be familiar
to Maddin-watchers on account of its appearance in Cowards Bend the
Knee and in many of his printed and verbal reminiscences. Old Mad-
din family photos and home movies begin to appear, as the film draws
us now into the particular life of the filmmaker’s childhood. The nar-
rating voice forsakes its trancelike gloom and becomes almost chipper
as it identifies his parents, his sister and two brothers, his ‘long dead’
pet chihuahua Toby. His own self is there, too – a dome-headed little
guy seven years younger than the next youngest sibling, posed in family
My Winnipeg 319

Mother knows all, sees all, Part II. The angry surveilling head of Mother at the
train window. A multiple exposure.

photos, running around in a pint-sized derby hat, spraying the side of

his house with a hose, playing with toys. Then the salon is sumptuously
evoked, with a barrage of old photos and the narration moving back to
incantatory poetic conjurations of perfumes, clouds of hairspray, ‘the
smells of female vanity and desperation,’ sights of ranked hairdryers and
other paraphernalia, hair sweepings and chutes, period coiffures hailed
as ‘Helmets!’ These memories are so much warmer and more alive than
the streets we have been looking at, and the people, of course, so much
less anonymous. (But the narrator does remark somewhat less happily
that ‘at school I reeked of hair product’ as well as of corn plasters, bar-
bicide, girdles, and talc.) The building itself is next up, reduced to an
abstract shape – ’White. Block. House.’ – and related impressionistically
to other house and building shapes in the surrounding streets and else-
where in the town. ‘I can’t stop dreaming of this home,’ the narrator
says. ‘But the waking is bitter. Bitter. Bitter.’ Not for the first or last time,
320 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

one wonders just what the sleep state and the waking states are. If the
dream is so sweet – ’I love this shop’ – why is it so important to wake up,
to leave? What is the relation between the warm, sweet dream and the
cold, oppressive streets? Are they opposite sides of the same coin? Is it
the condition of an intoxicating inner life of dreaming the past together
with a hostile and meaning-poor external life through which the subject
has been disavowingly sleepwalking for decades?

Cold is good

A little section next on the joys of Winnipeg winter. Period photos of

people having a grand old time skating and cross-country skiing, family
photos of little Guy and his toboggan, these seem to say that even though
Winnipeg is a ‘frozen hellhole’10 it’s a fun frozen hellhole. In a fine ex-
ample of the negative boosterism that pervades the film, the narrator
briskly claims: ‘We’re the coldest city in the world.’ This is a dubious
claim,11 but no one outside the high north would argue too much with
the proposition that Winnipeg winters are seriously cold. What is note-
worthy is the reversal of normal categories whereby everything oppres-
sive is embraced and anything less miserable is ignored (we see very little
of the seven months of perfectly acceptable weather that Winnipeg gets
every year, and hear nothing about its higher than average ratio of sun-
light). Anyway, ‘I like winter,’ Maddin has often been heard to explain
– for example, when describing the killing temperatures during the Sad-
dest Music shoot. And My Winnipeg makes even stronger statements, the
narrator trumpeting: ‘Happiness! Dazzling outdoor happiness for any-
one who cares to put on a pair of mitts and embrace it!’ But how does
this winter of joyful activity tally with the lifeless winter nights we have
already seen in this film, with their sense of a dead, cold, zombielike, or
sleepwalking soul? If the Winnipeggers sleepwalking through these fro-
zen nights to their old homes are asleep because of the winter desolation,
are the winter revellers of this part of the film awake, or asleep?


The difficult idea of happiness, and the (for this film) counterintuitive
notion of happy Winnipeggers, lead to a reminiscence of ‘Winnipeg’s
own Luna Park,’ the large Happyland amusement facility, which opened
in 1906. It was a fun-filled fairground of rides and amusements of every
kind, illustrated here with advertisements and souvenir colour postcards,
My Winnipeg 321

and photographs of happy visitors. There is something didactic about

the film’s conception and disposition of this entity. The narrator ex-
claims: ‘Wind-chilled Ferris wheels and roller coasters enveloped them-
selves in frost – half the year. A happyland for us wintry Winnipeggers.
Happyland. Keeping us happy.’ And an intertitle chimes in: ‘Happiness!’
This place and the idea it embodies is posited, almost like an algebraic
symbol, as a locus of civic happiness: there was a time when Winnipeg
was happy, and Happyland, as it were, proves it. If it is not a mathemat-
ical truth, it is at least a mathematical proposition. But the actual happy
life of Happyland was brief, its subsequent history pathetic. It closed
after three years, and its slowly decaying remains became the site of ever-
more-inglorious attractions before being destroyed in the early 1920s.
The essence of Happyland – and the essence of happiness for both Win-
nipeg and Maddin – is that it was brief, long past, and irrecoverable.

Re-enactment I

The idea of a once-experienced happiness that may perhaps be re-at-

tained produces the next development. Spurring himself again with the
commandment to ‘wake up’ so he can leave, the narrator has the idea
that ‘maybe I can film my way out.’ So arrives the first of the movie’s
re-enactments of scenes from Maddin’s domestic childhood. ‘I need to
make my own Happyland – back at 800 Ellice,’ he says, and explains how
he has rented the old house for a month, hired actors to play his siblings,
and convinced his mother to play herself. What does it mean for the
film’s Maddin to make his own Happyland? Happiness in the middle of
freezing desolation becomes then a description not just of Happyland,
but of Maddin’s childhood, and the winter of his discontent is then eve-
rything that has happened to him since the passing of that happy time.
To reconstruct this personal Happyland will then be to actualize and
demystify it, and thus to free him of its grip. But is this so wise? Will it
not leave him exactly where the protagonist of Brand upon the Brain! is
left, with ghosts who have finally been recognized as ghosts, a past which
is exorcized of its haunting power through the process of acting out its
own extinction, and at last ‘Guy – utterly alone’? This may resolve itself
into the question of what actually is outside Winnipeg. Clearly that will
be ‘the future! the future!’ but in Brand that turned out to be a harrow-
ing prospect.
Still, it is odd to say the least that the specific reconstructions from this
personal Happyland should range from the irritating to the traumatic,
322 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

and that incomparably the most powerful figure in it should be repre-

sented as a personage with a more than passing resemblance to a harpy.
The radically unstable truth-status of the film is embodied nowhere
more succinctly than in the narrator’s bland assertion that the woman we
are looking at is his actual mother, when she is obviously not his actual
mother but the B-movie hard-boiled femme-fatale legend Ann Savage,
eighty-six years old at the time of My Winnipeg. Savage (nomen est omen) is
known almost exclusively for her appearance in Edgar G. Ulmer’s ultra-
cheap film noir Detour (1946), the most universally celebrated B-movie in
Hollywood history. There, she plays a memorably venom-spitting hitch-
hiker picked up by the hapless Tom Neal, whom she blackmails into
a criminal conspiracy before he accidentally strangles her from an ad-
joining room with a telephone cord. In his voice-over narration, Neal
says of his first impression of her, ‘Man, she looked like she’d just been
thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world,’ and she herself is
a fountain of poisonous wisecracks, such as her imputation that Neal
has bludgeoned to death his former travelling companion: ‘What’d ya
do, kiss him with a wrench?’ Savage has become a little fetish-object for
Detour’s legions of cult admirers, but Maddin was able to coax her out
of retirement because this role was age-appropriate and seemed to of-
fer something different from the stereotype she had been caught in for
sixty years.12 But of course Maddin too is only interested in her because
she was once ‘the most ferocious femme fatale in film noir history,’13 be-
cause those heroic powers of aggression are just what the doctor ordered
for a depiction of the phantasmagoric mother of his psychic landscape.
Still, this mythic and terrifying figure is immediately put to specific
work in a posture of comic incongruity. For the first reconstruction is
‘Experiment 1a – the Hallway Runner,’ which features this quasi-super-
natural gorgon supervising the straightening of a carpet. This activity,
says the narrator, was

something we did every exasperating day of my childhood. An unbeliev-

able source of frustration for everyone. For the rug could actually never be
straightened out, no matter how much anyone pulled from either end. And
mother always nagged from the sidelines.

The radical discrepancy between mythic power and absurdly mundane

pettiness was a maternal feature already fully explored in Brand upon the
Brain! (with pre-echoes as far back as Zenaida’s strictures in Careful), but
its fascination is something that age cannot wither nor custom stale. Its
My Winnipeg 323

position at the exact intersection between unconscious and conscious,

emotion and reason, childhood and grown-up-ness hits the very centre
of Maddin’s creative project. How to reconcile the utterly incompatible
forces of fathomless unconscious feeling and ironic hyperawareness of
limitation and triviality? It is a question even more relevant to the quasi-
historical project of My Winnipeg if it is put in its corollary form: how to
reconcile rich and fertile memory with the despoiled, deflated, and op-
pressively meaningless condition of the self and the city as they are felt
to be now?
From this perspective it is easy to understand why the film – the nar-
ration, the editing, the musical soundtrack – perk up so noticeably once
the game of childhood-reconstruction begins. Partly it is because we are
now, as it were, in the past, the place where everything real and vivid
exists, the place that sleepwalking is trying to get to. And partly it is the
game-playing activity itself: the dress-up and make-believe with lots of
room for mischievous fun, the opportunity to convert inchoate desires
and fears into a toylike fetish object as a way of fending off anxiety – an
activity that Maddin has revelled in not only from the absolute begin-
ning of his career, but doubtless all the way back into his childhood
itself. Maybe tobogganing in the winter is declaimed to be fun, but this
is really fun. In this context mother’s awesome and frightening power
really is best put to use tyrannizing over the straightening of the hall
runner, and even annoyances and frustrations can be welcomed back
An indication of more traumatic forces that might also be present
occurs as the family assembles in the living room to watch television.
The first thing to observe here is that the family group assembled for
this reconstruction is missing two fundamental participants. Guy’s dead
brother Cameron (Brendan Cade) is there, along with his other two sib-
lings, Ross (Wesley Cade) and Janet (Amy Stewart), and his mother –
and also the lady who is subletting the premises to the film and refuses to
leave – but he himself is not, and neither is his father, except in symbolic
form. Why is Guy not present? Well, he is present on the soundtrack and
behind the camera, is even heard giving directions – and his alter ego is
in that railway compartment – but his childhood self is not part of the
reconstruction. In this realm My Winnipeg reproduces the autobiographi-
cal landscape of Cowards Bend the Knee, where the child Guy who actually
experienced the salon and the Arena is missing also. But Brand upon the
Brain! had presented the child Guy, and with great effect. Perhaps Mad-
din couldn’t find the right actor, or perhaps he felt that in order to be
324 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

able to observe the scene properly he had to be definitively outside it.

But it is a striking omission.
The narrator wants to exclude his father from this domestic scene,
a fact that he just states baldly: ‘The scope of this experiment excludes
my father, and I decide to keep him out of the formula.’ He offers no
further explanation. Perhaps father was not a feature of the TV-watching
ritual. Perhaps he was away at work. Indeed, when we recall that Mad-
din’s father held a full-time paying job14 in addition to all his work for
Winnipeg hockey teams, it would make sense that there couldn’t have
been too many hours left in the day for him to spend at home; and we
may then remember Father from Brand upon the Brain!, ‘always working!’
and never present for mealtimes or other daily domestic activities. But,
says the narrator:

My mother, missing him terribly since his death some thirty years ago, lob-
bies strongly for his inclusion. We settle on a compromise, and pretend
we’ve had him exhumed and reburied in the living room, beneath a mound
of earth concealed by the area rug. This seems to buy her off.

This is outrageous and funny, especially when Mother is not actually part
of any of these deliberations at all, except as an imaginary viewpoint in
the filmmaker’s head. If she were being consulted, the film seems to say,
she would insist on Chas’ presence, and the persistence and perceived
grotesqueness of her devotion to her late husband’s memory – somehow
a denial of his death and absence – can be most vividly captured in an ex-
humation scenario that continues the literal return-from-death scenar-
ios of Maddin’s fathers all the way back to The Dead Father. Most recently,
in Brand upon the Brain!, the father was exhumed and Frankensteinianly
electrified back to undeadness by the mother, and then carried around
with her on all her travels packed in a harp case. In My Winnipeg the
mother is not really there (although the narrator is pretending that she
is) and the father not really exhumed, either, but just represented by
a human-shaped lump of dirt wrapped in a carpet that sits in front of
the television set, serving as a convenient backrest for the children. The
scene is one more casually, brilliantly surreal Maddin rendering of the
sense that the family incorporates every absurdity and horror into an un-
troubled daily routine. Meanwhile, Chas’ actual absence from this and
all other re-enactments remains an important one: he inhabits another
part of the film, another part of the psyche, one in which it is the mother
who is missing.
My Winnipeg 325


That show the family watches is a local production called LedgeMan, ‘the
only television drama ever produced in Winnipeg.’ The narrator tells us:

Every day – the show runs at noon – the same oversensitive man takes some-
thing said the wrong way, climbs out on a window ledge, and threatens to
jump. And every day, his mother appears at the nearest window and tells
him to remember all the reasons for living. By the end of each episode the
son is convinced to come in to safety. But the next day he is back out there

But while mother Ann Savage is sitting placidly in front of the televi-
sion show, she is also appearing in the show. The narrator spells out
the mise en abyme: on the one hand, ‘my mother’s been the female lead
in this show since 1956’ (the year of Maddin’s birth), and on the other,
‘Mother has never missed a day [of viewing] in the 50 years the show
has been broadcast.’ Meanwhile LedgeMan himself is being played by
Darcy Fehr, so that Guy is, in a sense, on television even if he isn’t in
the family. The episode we see is shot in low-def monochrome video
and viewed on rounded-corners TV screen – again a nice reproduction
of fifty-year-old television. The whole concept is wonderful. The daily
broadcast of an identical dramatic situation simultaneously captures
the clichéd repetitions of daytime soap opera and the obsessive return
of scenarios playing themselves out in the unconscious. Meanwhile the
principal subjects of the drama are at once participants and observers in
a fashion that precisely stages the action of memory, and their trauma is
both wrenching and cheesily banal. The tinny musical accompaniment
is a splendid example of the menacing cheap expressionism of B-pro-
duction scores of the 1940s and 1950s, and the dialogue has a similarly
off-the-shelf hysterical intensity. (‘Don’t try to sweet-talk me! Talk, talk,
talk! All you do is talk! I’m going to do it for real this time!’) Other dia-
logue content, though, takes on the delightful yet horrifying contours
of a more personal ritual repetition. Mother’s first position is nagging
attack and vengeful self-pity: ‘Don’t think that they don’t know you’re a
coward and a baby who has to get his own way all the time,’ and ‘You’re
looking pretty cocky now that you’ve given me shingles.’ But then it met-
amorphoses into gestures of reconciliation and love that nevertheless
retain the flavour of narcissism: ‘In spite of what you think, you have
never been a disappointment to me. Why, when you were a child model
326 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

for Hudson Bay, I was so full of pride I could hardly breathe. That little
check suit! And not a hair out of place!’
It ends, like Guy’s similar reunion with Mother in Brand, with ‘I love
you, mom.’ Of course the position of the Fehr/Maddin LedgeMan every
day at noon, on the brink and ready to jump, exactly duplicates the last
posture of ‘Guy Maddin’ in that film – a disturbing suicidal note ap-
pearing now in Maddin’s last two features. We may also note a reversal
of the suicide-threat-as-family-negotiation scenario from the one present
in that film, where it was Mother who was threatening to kill herself in
response to any domestic difficulty.15 Together, these representations of
the Maddin family landscape as filtered through the consciousness of its
littlest member and his play-acting activities as a grown-up filmmaker are
boiled down to exchanges of : ‘I’ll kill myself!’ and ‘No, I’ll kill myself!’
The excesses of melodramatic histrionics have become comically tick-
ling even as they bear the shadow of a condition that is not funny at all.

The Wolesley Elm

Next comes the brief episode of the Wolesley Elm, a large old tree grow-
ing in a small grassy island in the middle of residential Wolesley Avenue.
This tiny item was, the narrator tells us, listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not
as ‘the world’s smallest park.’ In 1957 the city slated it for destruction,
and it was defended by outraged local residents, notably a squad of white-
haired old ladies, who (as we see in period photos) surrounded the tree
with linked arms to prevent city crews from getting to it. Police wagons
arrived to take them away, and the demonstration escalated as more and
more citizens came on the scene until the mayor himself told the crews
to go home. A victory! But ‘later that week, vandals, obviously working for
the city, blew up the tree with dynamite.’ And so the episode ends, with
the narrator’s mournful question: ‘What if City Hall ever listened to the
wishes of the people?’ What is this little item doing in the film? The quirky
aspects of old ‘biddies’ fiercely defending the neighbourhood are clearly
a crucial attraction – there is not very much in this film that doesn’t have
a faintly surreal touch – but the narrative here clearly fits into one of the
film’s major themes: that, in Winnipeg, everything good comes to an end,
that all efforts to stop the destructive tide of time are futile.

The General Strike

From the trivial to the genuinely important. The minuscule drama of

the Wolesley Elm is succeeded by the biggest event in Winnipeg’s history
My Winnipeg 327

– the General Strike of 1919. This six-week struggle is featured in every

Canadian history survey textbook, and maintains an honourable place in
school curricula even amid the rightward inch of national politics over
the past couple of decades. Indeed, it has an international significance
as well, being the first important general strike in the anglophone world,
a potential flashpoint in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the
long struggles for workers’ rights in the United States, and a harbinger
of the 1926 General Strike in Britain. Arising spontaneously from the
combustible mixture of high inflation and low wages, it spread through-
out every city union including the police, and eventually brought out on
strike over 30,000 people in a city of 175,000. It was met by a coalition
of owners and social elites, backed by the provincial and federal gov-
ernments, finally put down violently by specially hired constables and
the Northwest Mounted Police (on ‘Bloody Saturday’), and followed by
emergency amendments to existing legislation to deport or imprison the
Strike Committee leadership. Those workers who were allowed to return
to employment did so at the old wages, and in the short term the General
Strike may be said to have been a complete failure. But its profoundly
disturbing example was such that in a longer term it contributed materi-
ally to better working conditions and more favourable labour legislation,
as well as to more effective political organization on the left (including
the foundation of a Canadian social democratic political party, the Co-
operative Commonwealth Federation – now the New Democratic Party).
Altogether it is a proud badge in the history of a city that has maintained
an allegiance to labour.
Maddin’s treatment begins with historical photographs, agitprop in-
tertitles, and a cutout-animation section illustrating a key moment in
which a streetcar piloted by strike-breakers was overturned by demon-
strators, precipitating the mounted police charge and volley. Maddin
appears to get some facts wrong, as when he aligns returning soldiers
with the strike-breakers rather than the demonstrators, but in any event
the political and social analysis is fairly cursory, and the ‘up the workers’
rhetoric rather generic. What is remarkable, and totally characteristic,
is the way this section very soon veers wildly off the main road onto the
bizarre side street of the role in the 1919 strike of Saint Mary’s Academy
for Girls, a nun-run Catholic school for the daughters of the bourgeoisie.
The workers’ struggle is all very well, but the hysteria on everybody’s part
– nuns, parents, and not least Guy Maddin – at the prospect of barely
pre-pubescent girls threatened by early ravishment is pure catnip to
the filmmaker. With vile Bolshevik workers probably from the shtetls of
Eastern Europe prowling the streets in front of the school, barbed-wire
328 Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin

barricades are erected and manned by priests and the fat-cat fathers of
the pupils. In back-projection and double-exposure shots, the defence of
this line is shown, together with idealized images of praying virginal girls,
nuns juxtaposed with rifles, circles of flame representing the feared on-
slaught of rapists, and Reiniger animations of nuns scarifying the pupils
with bulging-crotched demons. (Some of this seems like a reversion all
the way to the vocabulary of the ‘LOVE’ section of Archangel.) Maddin
makes an explicit connection between the bourgeois property owners’
fear that workers will take control of society and the bourgeois fathers’
fear that unlicensed animalistic males will sexualize their daughters. This
linkage of political and sexual repression might be placed in a line of
descent from sub-Freudian political thinkers like Wilhelm Reich or Nor-
man O. Brown, but probably owes its DNA, rather, to Luis Buñuel –
both the Buñuel of L’Âge d’or with its outraged and outrageous bourgeois
caricatures and the Buñuel of Viridiana with its religious perversities
and movie-long assault on the virginity of a nun. A contemporary (say,
Žižekian) psychoanalytic/political analysis would have no difficulty in
simply explaining that patriarchy’s fear of losing political and economic
power and its fear of losing gender and family power are fundamentally
the same anyway, but Maddin is far from such a discourse. It is some-
what startling nevertheless to find him characterizing capitalists’ anger
at the prospect of losing ownership and fathers’ anger at the prospect of
their twelve-year-old daughters being raped in the same intertitle phrase:
‘Fears of the Inevitable.’
The film’s own subversive appetites emerge completely from behind
the bushes in the extension of this historical moment to the present,
when the narrator first reminisces about being surrounded by girls from
S.M.A.G. as a little boy, fussed over and petted by them, and then about
seeing them sometimes even now leaning against trees in the snow-cov-
ered grounds of the school taking cigarette breaks. The camera looks
at some of these smoking Lolitas longingly, and for a moment the nar-
rator seems to take on the persona of a stalker. The idea of ‘delinquent
girls’ inflames his eternally adolescent imagination, and he caresses the
phrase as if savouring its delicious taste. It all culminates in the retro-
pop-culture intertitle: ‘Academy of the Ultravixens.’ This is hardly the
first time that twelve-year-old girls have set Maddin’s heart beating (he
was drafting girls of about that age to play nurses already in Tales from the
Gimli Hospital), and the same erotic undercurrents will be found again
later in My Winnipeg.
My Winnipeg 329

Re-enactment II

Pivoting on the recollection that ‘nothing stokes my mother’s engines

more’ than ‘delinquent girls,’ the film heads back to the family living
quarters for another restaging session. The delightful earlier re-enact-
ment was probably too delightful, for this second one self-consciously
girds itself to enter more frightening territory. The narrator introduces
it like this: ‘One scene I’m really anxious to get at is the recreation of
the time my sister hit a deer on the highway coming back from Kenora. I
felt at the time my mother really overreacted. I need to view this episode
again.’ The scene – very straightforwardly shot and edited throughout –
begins with Janet’s arrival in great distress, and consists basically of her
mother’s astounding reaction to her story and to the spectacle of the
automobile dented and disfigured by animal blood and fur. Immedi-
ately the mother converts Janet’s account into a cover-up for some fur-
tive sexual encounter between her daughter and either the motorist or
some male on the track team: ‘I wasn’t born yesterday, dearie. Where did
it happen? In the back seat? ... Did he pin you down, or did you just lie
down and let nature take its course?’ This is the scene that we saw being
rehearsed at the very beginning of the film, and viewers of Brand upon
the Brain! will also recognize a return to the wars waged there between
Mother and Sis. Here, although the terrain of the battleground is less
extensive, the participants have their own na