Strange Balloons Mounting Towards Infinity: The Short Films of Guy Maddin

There may be no greater romance nowadays for the hardcore cinephile – the moviehead for whom cinema-ness is not merely a cultural obsession but a way of seeing life – than with the corpus of Guy Maddin, Winnipeg’s almighty retro-meta-ironist and smoke-&-mirrors reinventor of movies’ melodramatic soul. Every Maddin film, no matter how short, has the nimbus of a Magi gift, offered in a droughted age when mainstream movie drama entails more staring than talking, visual style is judged by its achievement as consumerist distraction, and film history is a forgotten (and largely unbroadcast) cellar vault of effluvia. Maddin, bless his Cornellian soul, adores the effluvia, and knows the grain of old film like a boy knows his treehouse.

More than anything, he is a twisted curator of what you could call paleokino, an obsessive fabulist who creates his own antique roadshow from obsolete filmic vocabularies (early sound primitivism, Teutonic “mountain” films, silent-Soviet propaganda, seminal-stage Dada, etc., plus traces of cinematic traditions only Maddin seems to know about), inhabited by deadpan anti-acting and physically stressed to resemble a run-down 16mm TV print that somebody, somewhere, watched the crap out of.

Or, starting in the early 2000s, when he went digital, a grainy, jump-edited dream-movie ricocheting around in a rubber-room skull, remembering and imagining and evoking like the world is going to end tomorrow. Pulpily grave yet hilariously deadpan, intensely emotional yet absurd, comprised of little more than shadow and cardboard yet vividly visual, incestuously and farcically spliced with antique film modes and yet unmistakably the contemporary work of one man, Maddin’s films are sui generis, from the lost-talkie Soviet somnambulism of Archangel, and the Franckophile-Alpine papier-mache Walser-world of Careful, to the Pixie-stick netherland of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the Gothic ballet camp of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, and the twisted autobio silent-psychodrama of Brand Upon the Brain!, Cowards Bend the Knee and My Winnipeg.

And, not incidentally, the world-beloved cinematic seizure known as The Heart of the World, a six-minute, cinema-centennial splooge that wowed the Toronto International Film Festival upon its debut in 2000:

In 25 years Maddin’s also made almost thirty shorts, and no unique voice at play in the fields of the medium has made him or herself as comfortable in the short form. Used to be, shorts had an integral and functional service to perform, back when they were produced en masse, in every popular mode, for theatrical filler. Today, in the YouTube era, a short film whose burrs expect to catch our brain pleats requires something altogether different – a conjurement, a visual pioneer epiphany, a daring real-life interface, a formal alien-ness. Maddin has the waterfront covered; anyone with eyes is helplessly subject to The Heart of the World’s brio and movie-movie cha-cha.

As you can kinda tell, Maddin’s films resist analysis – or, they subjugate its possibility, or stall its opportunistic engines. There is no corpus of academic Maddin scholarship, no theory applicable to the films’ postmod explication, no seasoned egghead who “knows” how to dissect the filmography into tenure-securing pseudo-scientific terms. Often, we can only kvell. You cast your coldest eye upon something like Odilon Redon, or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1995), and the simple fact that it is a commissioned work homaging a famous artist – what could be simpler, or duller? – does not give us any kind of baedeker as to the film’s dazzling, irrational force or its contrived, idiosyncratic world. You look at Redon’s art after this subterranean ode to sexual anxiety – I think – and you suffer a kind of sensory deprivation. In five catapulting minutes, two-dimensional ideas taken second-hand explode into a mythopoetic blast of experience.


Equally, you could visit a Canadian beach, or you could do one step better with 2007’s fascinating Odin’s Shield Maiden, a conscientious return to the avant-garde mythmaking of Maya Deren and Gregory Markopoulos, but as an absolutely sincere and impassioned self-parody. Or not.

You do not come at Maddin’s films with the calculated desires of the consumer. Dug up from the common dream pit and basted in self-conscious, sardonic plasticity, Maddin’s films are trials that put your love of cinema to the test: if you don’t have room for them in your personal emporium, you probably harbor more escapist tolerance for movies, for their capacity to service your ephemeral entertainment needs, than outright love. Love is what’s at stake. Beginning with The Dead Father (1986), Maddin’s obsessions were in place, and prone to slippage. A delirious tale about a suburban family plagued by the recently deceased patriarch who won’t quite stay dead, the movie begins with a cameo-image credits roll a la early talkies (Maddin appears, smiling in a captain’s hat), and then lapses into ‘50s-style amateurishness (complete with no ambient sound and heavy-handed narration), with spurts of ‘30s Gothic farce and the scratch of old records on the soundtrack. Cultural history is a rummage drawer, and here Maddin, using everything he can think of, resurrects the midcentury world of movies-made-by-dead-people like Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, but resurrected with a zombie’s stumbling gait, foggy brain and sense of lostness in time.


Of course it’s intended to be funny. I do think Maddin might be an artist incapable of embracing an authentically modern trope, and because of that I will always be a devotee. The now is so brief and spare, after all, while the past – the 115-plus years of cinema certainly – is fantastically rich, secret, semi-forgotten, far better designed, and filled with feeling.

At the same time, Maddin has been evolving, and his films, while remaining strangely antiquey and adrift in a bygone ether, no longer explicitly recall old formal textures. His approach now, best seen in My Winnipeg, is closer to a maddened, timeless montage fury, grainy and gritty and otherwordly, but not pinnable to the familiar touchstones of past eras. Beyond its iris halo, no one can nail down the historical ambience of Hospital Fragment (2000), a tidbit either inspired by or script-edited out of Maddin’s debut feature Tales of the Gimli Hospital (1989) that’s overtly hermetic, mustering another misty psychosexual love triangle (Maddin’s favorite narrative polygon) as the frantic memories hidden inside a fat man’s giant sutured wound.


By the time we get to the utterly crazy Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair (2009) – an Isabella Rossellini-starring torrent of angst involving executions, swooning ardor and tap dancing that was intended to be projected on a building as part of a program at the Rotterdam Film Festival – you’re not anywhere near antique cinema anymore, but in a very particular present, fraught with absurdist invention, boiling desire, and a cluttered past that just will not disappear or die.

Michael Atkinson is an American writer, poet and film critic. He  has contributed to SPiN, The Guardian, The Believer, the Village Voice, Moving Image Source, Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Interview and numerous other publications.


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