The Toronto Star called his first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the closest thing to an international cult classic ever to come from Canada (always excluding the immortal Moosehead beer). The elite American National Society of Film Critics voted Archangel the Best Experimental Film of 1991.
Maddin isn't altogether unknown in Britain - both those films featured recently in a season of surrealist cinema at the ICA. They now return (in repertory), but Careful, his new work, was made on a comparatively high budget, is relatively accessible, a lot more fun and by a wide margin Maddin's most accomplished piece yet. It could finally push him, blinking, out of the underground.
Everyone compares him to David Lynch although, in interview, his flat monotone inflections and comic melancholy seem more reminiscent of Emo Philips. His early life was notable for two auguries: he was named by his older brother after Guy Madison, a B-movie cowboy. And, when he was five, his family went to Hollywood where Bing Crosby gave him a piggy-back ride, leaving him the piquant memory of those famous ears pressed against his thighs.
Despite these vocational pointers, he plunged into one of the most boring professions (bank clerk) in Winnipeg, the most boring city in Canada (and so possibly the world). 'It's very flat - there's only one hill, a garbage dump grassed over and named after a mayor.' (Careful is set on the steepest of mountains.) 'It's the coldest city in the world in winter. And it's very isolated - the nearest big city is 500 miles away.
'But I think that, culturally, the isolation helps because during the long, cold winter nights you're actually working, instead of out contracting a venereal disease or something. And there aren't enough open-air cafes where young artists can chat away their best ideas to the night breezes.'
Out of the sub-zero winters evolved a little clique of film-makers called the Winnipeg Group, or, more pretentiously, the Prairie Post-Modernists. Maddin (thankfully) hates that tag: 'It's such a flaccid term, it's 'one size fits all', you can stretch it over anything. It's a mantle that I guess I've worn in some articles about me, but I couldn't give a darn about the prairies. I love the Romantics. I really do think in terms of having a breast or a bosom in which my heart beats, rather than a chest.'
It's the mix of this homely, God-darn, Mid West folksiness combined with a decidedly weird sensibility which prompts that pesky Lynch connection, but, unlike Lynch, Maddin has 'no interest in small-town America. Everyone's made fun of poor old suburbia enough already, and it's really not funny anymore.
'The baby boomers are just laughing at their own echoes of laughter now, and it's really getting tiresome. I like things that are a little more timeless.'
His spiritual centre of gravity is several thousand miles east of white picket fence country, in Iceland (the cultural, if not geographical setting of Gimli Hospital), Russia (Archangel) and Switzerland (Careful). In Gimli, two patients hospitalised during a smallpox epidemic trade wild and improbable tales of Norse folklore. 'It was a way of getting back at my family and ragging on my culture,' says Maddin, whose grandmother comes from Iceland.
Archangel, a war melodrama shot in cod-Eisenstein style, was inspired by what he calls 'the story-book quality of World War One. I know in reality it was disastrous, but it also seemed to me like all those soldiers were toy soldiers.' For Careful (reviewed opposite) he wanted 'the feeling of the dialogue to be that of a turn-of-the-century Scandinavian play.
'We went so far as to ask some of the elder poets in my mother's seniors' home to translate some lines into Icelandic, and then have another person translate them back into English. So there was a stagey, stilted, 19th-century feel to the lines, genuinely so, since they were translated by nonagenarians.'
It's difficult to know whether Maddin's fortunes are finally waxing. This year his films have been invited to Reykjavik (where he looks forward to scaling fish and 'throwing cool blubber lumps into the Atlantic') and to the Sarajevo Film Festival (yes, it exists). 'They've invited Bertolucci, and Wim Wenders is sending extracts from his new movie which he is dedicating to Sarajevo (I don't know who he thinks he is).
'So I'm very flattered. Maybe I'll even issue a dedication that can trump Wim Wenders.' And he had a letter from Leni Riefenstahl - whom Careful reminded of her own Nazi mountain films - to visit her this summer.
On the other hand his next project, based on E T A Hoffman's The Dykemaster, fell through. 'I've been wandering around in a sort of catatonic trance, clutching my temples and getting gloomy and Sturm und Drang-y. In my breast, Hell sings a paean of triumph.'
Meanwhile he has been amusing himself by writing a Seven Point Manifesto for Better Movies ('Phrenology should be a prime consideration in the casting of actors. Head bumps have long been ignored in the industry') and by trying to raise a child from the dead. 'I shouted 'Stand] Stand and walk]' I was hoping that, maybe, the parents would be appreciative.' Did it work? He sighs. 'No. It was a moment when I realised I have to get a grip. But I've confessed, to you at least, and to Mother England.
'I might move to California, set up a place outside Hollywood, somewhere that's too unhabitable, even for Californians. If there's a piece of un-groovy turf there in the state, I'll find it. Things in the movie industry are changing so quickly I might have to digitalise myself in order to survive.'
Guy Maddin's films are playing at the ICA, SW1 (071-930 3647).
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