I have a strange obsession with this man’s movies—his “pictures,” as he calls them. I’ve literally watched some of them over a hundred times. Maybe I have some kind of crush on him, I don’t know. I do know that I tore into From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings and read it cover to cover with the groiny tingles of a teenage boy who’s just laid hold of a cheerleader’s diary, feverish for candor and perfumed secrets.
Maddin’s newest feature, The Saddest Music in the World, is adapted from an unpublished script by Kazuo Ishiguro about a competition held in Depression-era Winnipeg with a hefty cash prize for the country or ethnicity with the saddest song. I haven’t seen that one yet, but pretty soon here it will be five years since I first saw Careful, the Maddin Picture That Changed My Life. Broke my mind. Didn’t just break it, but packed the pieces away in a musty stage illusionist’s steamer trunk to bounce around in a horse-drawn wagon for the next five years between performances for ostrich farmers, smallpox victims, amnesiac counterrevolutionaries and the sexually-repressed villagers of an Alpine hamlet threatened year-round by fatal avalanches.
It’s gotten a little easier, in that interval, to articulate my Maddin fixation when the subject of “good movies” comes up, now that more people have heard of him. Thanks to a profile heightened considerably by appearances on National Public Radio, Maddin has become, if not a household name, then at least somebody or something familiar to NPR junkies in an “All Things Considered” kind of way. I don’t have to go into my pre-recorded song-and-dance number about “This Canadian guy who makes really weird movies meant to look like they’re really old” as often as I did before. Now people just ask, “You mean that Canadian guy who makes movies that are supposed to look really old?”
Maddin’s pictures—chiefly Careful, Archangel, Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs—are thrilling and uncomfortable in an untimely-erection-having kind of way, pitched to ever-rising heights of hysterical repression and peopled by characters who wander forgetfully from one melodramatic development to the next. In the period melodrama Archangel, members of an expeditionary force dispatched to northern Russia keep forgetting where they are and who they’re in love with—a side-effect of mustard gas peculiar to the movie and purely the invention of Maddin and his co-scenarist, George Toles. And yes, the movies do look really old: Maddin shoots his features, mostly in black and white, on a 16mm Bolex with a bag of visual effects that goes as far back as Méliès but leaves off at Metropolis wizard Eugene Shüfftan.
Maddin once said in an interview that, as a filmmaker, he’s “hung around in the ’20s longer than the ’20s hung around in the ’20s.” Thanks to his oneiric movie amnesia, I have a whole new appreciation not just for his movies, but for this entire under-appreciated decade in mostly-silent film. The ’20s are often bemoaned as a time when cameras stopped moving and the movies got stale, but they were also an era of extravagance and upheaval. Swedish filmmakers started venturing out of doors to film even while the Germans were disavowing natural light, literally painting shadows and sunshine right on their decors.
If Maddin’s movies handed me my own set of keys to the ’20s, then his writings are kind of like the owner’s manual. From the Atelier Tovar collects articles Maddin has written for Film Comment and The Village Voice, unpublished film treatments and diary entries spanning the past 17 years (but mostly the last seven), manic and lyrical and dishy. An editor’s note after the foreword (by Mark Peranson) claims that “Maddin did not intend these diaries to be published until, at the very least, his dotage,” but a lot of the entries are penned with a self-conscious coyness that suggests the writer never suspected he’d be the only one reading them. And his frankness and self-deprecation are still charming, albeit a little disingenuous. He even has a laugh or two at the nature of diarism, particularly of the conspicuous coffee-shop kind, asking aloud, “When did I sign up for this foreign legion of forty-somethings who travel the world with paperbacks and sit in cafés where cute barristas work? Sometimes I look up and see nothing but colleagues, men of my age, all arrayed with novels and notepads around the central view. Sometimes we log long fruitless hours in trial-and-error attempts to fathom the work schedules of the loveliest. Shouldn’t these schedules just be posted on the Internet? It would save everyone a lot of time.”
I wouldn’t recommend this book to everybody, just like I’ve learned not to recommend Maddin’s movies to everybody. But it’s definitely a book for me. Any book with a passage like this one is definitely for me: “The moon is not out yet, but a single bat circles above our courtyard, passes in front of the huge white wall of the hotel making himself nature-show visible…As fathers will, I show off for my daughter by attempting to jam the bat’s sonar with a loud fart, which echoes throughout the courtyard, off the pool, off the balconies—my own sonar. A partially concealed female head in a room across the way pivots in puzzlement or disgust.”
In a book of innumerable small pleasures, the real joy is “The Child Without Qualities,” a previously unpublished autobiographical film treatment that veils significant figures and events in Maddin’s childhood—several suicides included—behind a gauzy scrim of purple prose. It’s just like his movies: comedy and tragedy so closely intertwined that you can’t tell which is which anymore.