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The Mystery of Maddin

May 19th, 2003 (06:44 pm)
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© 2003. First posted May 19, 2003 on MilkPlus.

Ask a group of friends who Guy Maddin is. Most are liable to jump in with sports commentary; some may mention shoes. One or two may know that he's an independent director from Canada with an output unlike most anyone else (and who has quite the cult following). I'm not an expert - yet - but he seems to make tongue-in-cheek movies about absurd situations arising from social norms. (It's hard to put it into words - you really have to see for yourself). Sort of David Lynch, but not.

Maddin's current release is Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary. (Not quite fair, as this was shown last year at the New York Video Festival, and has been making the rounds ever since.) This project started as a commission to adapt the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's interpretation of Dracula for CBC Television. My guess is that the ballet itself - definitely not a traditional production - stood out as an original, ingenious performance. Maddin's contribution is to create an original, ingenious movie which goes far beyond adaptation (frankly, I forgot it was a ballet). Using his own touches, he weaves a rich tapestry of horror - I spent a good part of the film on the edge of my seat wondering how the characters would get out of the mess they were in, although I can recite the story in my sleep. For someone who spent years trying to be scared by horror movies, this is a godsend.

Maddin has an wide assortment of tools at his disposal, and he is careful to use them in pursuit of one aim: to create dread-evil-horror. His first move is to film a black and white silent on the stage; this forces the story into expression and gestures instead of dialogue - a perfect marriage with an opera. We see Mina's utter horror as the vampire kidnaps and seduces her up close, in her eyes - not from row T in the balcony. He uses Super 8, Super 16, and regular 16 mm cameras to create a dream-cum-nightmare quality, and then edits by telescoping motion from a continuous movement to a still fluid but almost cubist effect. You see Lucy Westenra move in stages.

Symbolism is very, very important to this overarching feeling of evil. The movie is black and white, but with notable exceptions - the blood of a pricked finger (not to mention a bitten neck) is luminously red; the color of stolen money is vividly, sickly green. The most successful depiction, by far, is Maddin's Dracula. He's good-looking, rich, and "from the East" - everything that your mother, not to mention "good God-fearing folk," warned you about. But the depiction is perfect - when he swirls his cape, morphs into a bat, and flies away, he does. The inherent campiness, the Hollywood props are nowhere to be seen. It's finally done right. But don't mistake this sensual Dracula for anything but an animal - his bites, unlike the slow tease of Bela's, are swift and deadly; he feeds like a leopard, not a fastidious human.

It would've been better to keep the window shut...



Photo: Bruce Monk

The sex = death equation is in full force here, as in most vampire movies, but death's definition reflects more of society's concerns. Immigration, AIDS, and feminism all equal death in some form. Dracula is Asian, and his approach literally bleeds across a map. Exchanging bodily fluids with him is deadly; exchanging with Lucy's suitors (the God-fearing acceptable "natives") is curative. And any suggestion of sexuality by women instantly arouses the vampire. Lucy as a vampire reflects the utter lust and desire that she never allowed herself while alive, while Mina's attempt to approach Harker as the vampire harem had both repulses him and brings Dracula. The opposite doesn't happen: Harker escapes the vampire harem injured but very alive, while Dr. Van Helsing quietly conceals Mina's petticoat as a souvenir. This is a big difference from all other horror films; rather than autocratically decreeing what is good/evil, right/wrong, Maddin goes straight for the primal fears that underlie the audience's own conceptions of good and evil. (Hopefully, they also think twice about the credence of their social beliefs.)

The good God-fearing natives always win in the end.



Photo: Bruce Monk


There's only one way to put it: this is a very, very good film. It's also not quite as dark as I've depicted it; Maddin has a wicked sense of humor and he's not afraid to use it. (Paraphrase: "There's nothing like the blood of a good, strong man to help a girl in trouble.") But the movie works as a horror film, period. I've started my search for more Guy Maddin (never again John or Steve) and I hope to see lots more of him in the future.