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January 27, 2004

A Photographer's Filmmaker -- Guy Maddin

I just finished watching the DVD of Guy Maddin's 1993 film Careful, and it's one of the funniest and most poetic of art films available for those with a cultish bent. Maddin is a Canadian filmmaker with a style derived from old silent films and a bizarre sense of humor, whose movies have historically had a tough time cracking even the smaller art-houses and film festivals.

To be honest, on the evidence of films like Careful, Archangel, and Heart of the World, I'm not sure what it is that makes Maddin so inaccessible. His campy sense of theatrics would seem to have broad appeal to a whole generation of ironists, and he has a beautiful way with light and gets the most out of the simplest of sets, and a modest array of actors. His movies have a distinctly low-budget feel, and the way he uses sound, bare bones sets, expressionist lighting and lurid two-strip technicolor in something like Careful, while mining Freudian themes broadly and hilariously, makes for a weird and totally engaging experience.

Even if people had a tough time digesting all the weirdnesses and surrealism Maddin brings to the table, it would be hard to imagine a more visually inventive filmmaker with such modest resources...comparisons to David Lynch's early films (particularly Eraserhead) are apt, except Maddin seems more sincere and a bit less self-indulgent and willful than Lynch.

From a photography standpoint, I can't imagine all the Holga, Lomo and pinhole camera users out there not being thrilled with Maddin's use of sets, composition, and light...he makes something as simple as getting a glass of milk for your mother seem like the most cracked yet poetic of experiences, and I know it's filmmakers like Maddin, Lynch and Cronenberg I look to when I really want to be inspired to try something different visually in a more "underground" way (as opposed to the lighting methods of glossier mainstream Hollywood productions). Careful makes amazing use of color...it starts out all red, and then (according to Maddin on the DVD voiceover commentary) he maintains a two-color palette throughout most of the rest of the film, alternating between various highly saturated and odd color combinations.

Apparently, Maddin is starting to grow beyond his cult, thanks to the release of DVD versions of his earlier films, and his recent Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary actually got a good amount of press coverage, including (horrors) an interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He has a sympathetic and very good independent distributor in the US in Zeitgeist Films, (sort of a counterpart to Steidl Books in the photography world in representing quality non-mainstream artists); Zeitgeist maintains a good amount of information about Maddin on their website.

I highly recommend the DVDs of Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (which includes "Archangel" and "The Heart of the World"). Here are some recent barebones experiments, inspired by Maddin.


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