Some artists are so special and crazy that the world doesn’t quite know what to make of them. Detractors find their popularity baffling and annoying; admiring audiences can’t get enough of them; fellow artists who wish to pay them tribute risk being written off as mere imitators.
I’m talking not just about Americans like David Lynch, the Coen brothers, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam, Julie Taymor, Frederick Wiseman and the folks at Pixar, but David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan in Canada, Takashi Miike, Taro Rin and "Beat" Takeshi in Japan, Abbas Kiarostami in Iran, Jean-Pierre Jeunet in France, Mike Leigh and Peter Greenaway in England, Lars von Trier in Denmark, Guillermo Toro in Mexico, puppeteer-animators the Brothers Quay in London and Jan Svankmajer, who makes his nightmarish fables in the Czech Republic.
Stylistically, these moviemakers have little in common save for one key quality: They’re 100 percent committed to their own rather cracked vision. Surely they’re grateful when audiences respond, but they do not seem to be making movies solely, or even partly, for the audience’s benefit. Even when they make an outwardly "commercial" picture, they’re still spilling their subconscious onto the screen, to make sense of it, or just to please themselves. A novelist friend calls this sort of expression "puking on the page," and he means it as the ultimate compliment.
Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin–whose Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, opens this week at Film Forum–belongs on the list. Basically, the man makes silent films. Even when they’re not literally silent–when they have dialogue and semi-realistic sound–they look and feel like silent movies; or perhaps I should say the best silent movies, the ones made in the late 20s, right before the arrival of sound, when moviemakers were discovering, beyond all doubt, that this still-young means of expression could (and ought to) do things that were impossible in other media.
Maddin, whose filmography includes Tales from Gimli Hospital and Careful, generates quicksilver streams of sharp, dreamy, compacted images, each composed and lit for maximum force, and chock-full of allusions to the history of Western art, cinema especially. Yet his movies are never snooty or academic. They’re like flip books with actors, and anybody who’s ever made a flip book knows that’s the highest compliment I can pay to a filmmaker. Like a 12-year-old scribbling a superhero cartoon in the margins of a history textbook, Maddin seems to be directly in touch with the sources of his talent–an imagination unloosed. Maddin directs like a man who’s getting away with something for years and can’t believe no one’s stopped him yet.
Dracula is a demented movie–delightfully so. Maddin’s first feature in five years, it rethinks Bram Stoker’s legendary horror novel as a nearly trancelike musical, shot in black-and-white film (8mm and 16mm) and tinted like an old silent picture (sometimes aortal red, but more often midnight blue or Marianas Trench green). It’s a free adaptation of a work by the Royal Winnepeg Ballet, set to the mournful, spiraling music of Gustav Mahler (who never sounded more rakish and tuneful) but it’s no stagebound musical. Dancers rush through opulent rooms, pirouetting through shadows, gliding past torchlit walls, leaping through smogged-out shafts of sunlight. (The dancing was overseen by the ballet’s original choreographer, Mark Godden; he and Maddin collaborate like Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise in West Side Story, respecting dance’s theatrical elegance while re-framing it for cinema.) Like Maddin’s The Heart of the World, the Metropolis-inspired 2000 short film that heralded his return to feature filmmaking after a five-year hiatus, Dracula is a thoroughly modern (or even postmodern) work that shoplifts elements from the late silent era (including its performance style, which, like Christopher Walken’s performance as the razor-toothed headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow, is exaggerated to near-Kabuki extremes). There is not a word of synchronized, spoken dialogue–only title cards–and the entire thing runs just 75 minutes. Yet Dracula is so thick with sensations, ideas, motifs and themes that it feels as dense as a Pynchon novel. (It might wear out certain viewers; anyone who doesn’t love his style might feel as though they’re trapped on a cross-country bus ride sitting next to a crazy man who won’t stop talking about how the moon landing was faked.)
Maddin’s formal intelligence animates Dracula’s themes and comments on them at the same time. Have you heard that the novel is about Victorian England’s fear of the swarthy, immigrant Other and the Victorian man’s need to protect his sexual primacy by keeping women in social slavery? Maddin’s read that stuff, too. But he introduces the notion so bluntly that he almost seems to be preemptively making fun of people who (like me) might think it’s all very important. "Immigrants! … Others!" scream title cards in the opening sequence, a jagged montage of ships, coffins, sea-foam and maps dotted with helpful arrows; Dracula is played, sensually and with bare-fanged relish, by a dancer-actor of Asian descent, Zhang Wei-Qiang.
The juxtaposition of knowingness and cheerful showmanship is bracing, sensual and very funny. Maddin plays with point of view; he really plays. When virginal Lucy Westerna contemplates her three suitors, she’s pictured on a high swing, arcing toward the camera; when she gets within closeup distance, Maddin cuts to her perspective, staring at a suitor’s face in closeup just before her backswing jerks her away and makes the man recede into nothingness. The vampire hunter Van Helsing (a hard, haunting performance by Olivier-lookalike David Moroni) is a period-accurate medical know-nothing, prescribing blood transfusions from brave men as a cure for Lucy’s vampire infection. When Van Helsing and his men go hunting for vampires armed with hand-cranked flashlights, they might be a posse of videographers trolling for perps on COPS.
Like Gilliam, Burton, the Coens, Svankmajer and the Brothers Quay, Maddin has an animator/illustrator’s sensibility, thinking out every nuance of a story in visual terms and expressing himself with the glee of a little kid handed a sheaf of blank paper and a fresh box of crayons. Yet there’s a free-flowing, seemingly improvised freedom to his work, as meticulous as it is. He prefers to work with multiple cameras, and he and his editor, deco dawson, clip the shots just as fast as they can. (Maddin’s work represents an hypocrisy test for film critics who habitually decry fast cutting. His work zips from one shot to the next with a speed that makes Moulin Rouge and Chicago feel like a Jim Jarmusch picture, obliterating any notion of fixed perspective–a 12-car pileup on the eyeline expressway.)
A.O. Scott of the Times memorably described Maddin’s work as "‘a 20th century cocktail’ of allusions and influences–if, that is, the 20th century had ended in 1925." But the allusions never become the show. Of all major directors with a deep sense of film history, Maddin has the lightest touch. When Todd Haynes rethought Douglas Sirk in Far from Heaven, the result felt (to me, at least) entombed in its own knowingness–a pop-culture butterfly trapped in the amber of a film-history degree. But unlike Haynes in Heaven–or Francis Ford Coppola, whose own exhausting Dracula mixed trashy, please-the-teenagers "showmanship" with professor-flattering silent movie devices (miniatures, stagey sets)–Maddin doesn’t italicize an obviously artificial world to trick critics into congratulating him for being so smart. He just dreams, and puts those dreams onscreen. He won’t take any bows for being a genius; he’s too busy having fun.
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
Directed by Guy Maddin