Guy Maddin’s History of Cinema

By Fergal Byrne

footlight-parade-lloyd-bacon.jpgFootlight Parade, 1933

A particularly personal trawl

Guy Maddin is one of contemporary cinema’s most provocative and idiosyncratic talents. A self-declared cinematic ‘primitivist’, Maddin’s five features and numerous shorts, including the award-winning Heart of the World, ‘the world’s first subliminal melodrama’, resurrect the images and codes of the silent era, early Russian cinema and Hollywood melodrama. Maddin’s tales of amnesia, repression, and death are shot through with a surreal kitsch sensibility, part Monty Python, part David Lynch, yet uniquely Guy Maddin. His most recent film, The Saddest Music in the World, starred Isabella Rossellini as the legless matriarch of a Depression-ridden Winnipeg brewery who holds a contest to see who can create the world’s most melancholy music.  

Here Maddin selects and talks about five films that mark out the contours of a personal history of cinema.

Footlight Parade, Lloyd Bacon, 1933

Footlight Parade is the third and the greatest of the big Warner Brothers depression era musical extravaganzas. It reminds me of a western, except the land has been turned into women, as far as the eye can see. The way they photograph women in these musicals – it’s literally a cattlecall. And there are things to be taken in the same spirit as the pioneers in westerns: “it’s mine because I took it.”  

The Warner Brothers musicals are always down and dirty; you feel like you have to wash your hands after watching one – and this is particularly true with Footlight Parade. The art direction is always interested in breaking scenes down – people are already broken down, you can literally feel the desperation in the depression era. You can feel that the film is full of poor women desperate for stardom. There is something deeply disturbing, something very white slave trade, about this film.

Footlight Parade is the zenith of the Busby Berkeley cycle and the musical. From here on it’s all downhill, you can start to feel the exhaustion and overstraining for ideas in the musicals. Although the budgets were massive in the 1950s musicals, the Beatlemania of it all was in its last stages. But in these early depression musicals the sense of discovery is palpable, like a first love.

The Face Behind the Mask, Robert Florey, 1941

The Face Behind the Mask is a strange, haunting disfigurement parable starring Peter Lorre as a happy-go-lucky immigrant to America. It represents the best combination of elements in the poetic allegory fairy tale film, best done in silent films with actors like Lon Chaney. It feels like a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale photographed as a film noir, which gives its really poetic and painful heart and soul. You really feel you have whiffed the poetry of a life.

The film is a singular expression of the multi-genre B movie. It’s a disfigurement melodrama, a pure gangster film that becomes a revenge film. It’s a tearjerker, a fairy story and there’s even a love story with a doggie, yet it never lingers on any one genre. It keeps on turning corners and ending up in unexpected places. It stands astride these genres in a balancing act that makes it a work of art – and it shows how liberating how low budget movies can be.

The Chase, Arthur Ripley, 1946

Arthur Ripley’s wondrously delirious Chase shows, perhaps more than any other film, the extraordinary potential of films as dreams. It’s full of wonderful set pieces that lead in a strange and dreamlike non-sequitur fashion into one another. It’s an amazingly Wagnerian story showing how love can win through war, and shellshock, and even wakefulness, and how ultimately love’s roots are in dreams.  

The logic of The Chase is like the free flowing logic of a piece of music. And it achieves what all filmmakers are trying to do no matter whatever the genre – it totally creates its own world. At one level, it’s a B movie in which plot elements are a bit inexplicable, nothing seems to makes sense. But if you give over to it, it’s as inexplicable as a dream, and the plot twists feel exactly the same.  

The Chase goes to the heart of the dream state, releasing little narcotic trickles into the body, yet it doesn’t try to state its thesis is dreams. And it’s an inspiration to see someone working with primitive means able to create such a masterpiece.

Possessed, Curtis Bernhardt, 1947

is an expressionist melodrama, with ancestry in Greek tragedy, and at the same time a star vehicle for Joan Crawford, the all time queen of melodrama. The film is about the extraordinary highs and lows we all experience in any romance. Crawford really knows how to suffer – how to do these primary emotions we all experience when we are really stripped naked by sleep.

Possessed is one of the first films in Hollywood’s love affair with psychoanalysis. The psychoanalysis functions like the Greek chorus in Euripides, as you get to cover huge acres of story in a few medically explanatory stories. It is great storytelling.

Possessed really seizes upon the emotion of jealousy and hyperbolizes it, sends you on an emotional rollercoaster before concluding with a cathartic blast of steam. You can really feel the furies emanating from it. At the same time it is packaged as a thriller with all the loose ends neatly tied together, a nice Hollywood star vehicle, for a mass audience.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo GarciaSam Peckinpah, 1974

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
is one of the great films about male sexual rivalry – everyone seems to be bristling with their own erect gun barrel throughout this film. This is a solipsistic trek into a jealousy fever, that takes you into a state of mind that is timeless, whether it’s 25 or 2500 years ago – and shows how immortal jealousy is.

It’s a revenge picture loosely framed as a western, embedded in a sweaty immoral and abysmal Mexican landscape. It brilliantly portrays the strange obsessive relationship between the two male rivals and shows how the cuckold desperately needs to try and recover his honor, but also the utter hopelessness of this ambition. Yet it’s not at all comic book  it’s not like the Death Wish revenge films. It touches on the specific feelings that everyone goes through.

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is the zenith of what you might call the ‘mad cuckold’ genre, which usually needs to piggyback on a host genre, normally a gangster movie or a musical, but in this film it stands alone – it’s as if it has finally learned to walk on its on own two feet.