Lars von Trier & Guy Maddin (1998)

Pander 5 (Spring 1998)

Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, directed by Noam Gonick (Canada, 1997) / Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, directed by Stig Björkman (Sweden, 1997).

Stig Björkman, dir.: Tranceformer (1997)

In the Hans Andersen story “The Snow Queen,” the little boy Kay is hit in the eye with a shard of ice which deprives all he sees of truth, meaning, emotion. “I have a troll shard,” explains Lars von Trier, in Stig Björkman’s bio-pic about the man whom this year’s Film Festival programme proudly proclaims “the great Dane.”

Guy Maddin, the Canadian director of such offbeat efforts as Careful (1992), and this year’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, has a rare spinal affliction. This has the effect of making him feel ghostly hands touching him all over, continually but unpredictably. “I consult them on camera angles,” he confides to us halfway through Noam Gonick’s scratchy 16 mm. documentary. “Sometimes they press me on the chest as if to say ‘stop here.’”

Maddin’s story is eccentric, to match his personality. It is also (presumably) true. He could stop the feather-light touching with the right medication, but that would make him too sleepy to work, so he prefers to strike a modus vivendi with his ghost-collaborators.

Von Trier’s story, like his name, is a fiction (he was born plain Lars Trier). The troll-shard is – of course – no more than a metaphor. Interestingly, he appears to have an obsession with truth and lies. “Everything you’ve ever heard about me, everything that’s ever been written about me, is a lie,” is the first comment he makes on camera. Later he assures us: “I never lie.” “It’s true, he never lies,” confirms his long-time producer. “I tell 400 lies a day.” How do you live without telling lies? Well, it’s a little like Brecht’s Der gute Mensch von Sezuan – you hire somebody else to do the lying for you.

And my point is …? Well, Guy Maddin’s film Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is, unfortunately, well-intentioned but indubitable crap. Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom II, another instalment in his mad miniseries about a Copenhagen hospital, is very irritating, but just as indubitably good.

Can I be so categorical about it? Don’t I just mean that I like Lars von Trier and dislike Guy Maddin? Alas, not so. Guy Maddin and his Winnipeg buddies are just the kind of shiftless slackers who instinctively appeal to me. I love his camera style – the crazy over-the-top ‘twenties pastiche (close-ups of hysterical wide-eyed white faces, blatantly cardboard sets, screamingly artificial montage) of the German Expressionist Careful, Eisensteinian Archangel (1988), and, well … sui generis Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1986). They deserve to be masterpieces for sheer oddball craziness.

And yet, there’s something in them that doesn’t quite work. They’re terribly wordy. They look beautiful, but the characters talk on and on, boringly and pretentiously. What’s more, his films are basically pointless. The pastiche of silent film styles is used, for the most part, for clumsy sight-gags. Like its predecessors, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is about unrequited love and jealousy. But it’s really about its French symbolist sets, soft-focus images and Romantic archetypes (the statue of Venus, the flooded bedchamber, the magic mirror). The actors stumble about aimlessly “acting” in whatever artificial style seems best to match the inane dialogue. Guy Maddin should be the cinematographer for some other director of genius, or design opera sets for Mozart’s Zauberflöte or Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. He doesn’t have the first idea about narrative.

Lars von Trier is obviously a bastard. There are some very funny scenes in Björkman’s film where irritated collaborators tease or insult him (Emily Watson of Breaking the Waves pokes her tongue out at him). His barely suppressed fury at these failures to obey recalls the antics of the ghastly Swedish surgeon in The Kingdom (“Danske Scum!”). He has a bushel of phobias and tics. And do his films have any more in the way of an ostensible subject than Guy Maddin’s? Well, no, not on the face of it. Europa (distributed here as Zentropa, 1991) is about a young American who chooses to become a train conductor in Germany just after the Second World War; Breaking the Waves (1996) implies that boundless female self-sacrifice can achieve miraculous cures; The Kingdom (1994-97) is a mishmash of ghosts, demons, visions, and bureaucratic inefficiency. None of these scenarios (except perhaps the last) has much connection with reality …

And yet the raw intensity of these works is something impossible to convey in print. The literally “hypnotic” opening of Zentropa, as the voice of Max von Sydow counts us down into the German night, remains one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of my life. It compelled total belief. Breaking the Waves drove me almost mad with seasickness and sentiment. The Kingdom makes one, by turns, scream with laughter, gag with nausea, cry with frustration. It’s maddening, insane, endless. Something about it puts it up with those works (Hamlet, Gawain and the Green Knight) which should be failures by almost any reasonable standard – except for the unfortunate fact that they happen to be works of genius.

Tranceformer ends with the story of a UFO which the young Lars allegedly saw while riding along in the family SAAB (“It was like a skate. Do you know what a skate looks like? It’s a large, flat fish.”) The exasperated interviewer asks, finally, if anyone else in the car saw it. “No,” replies Lars triumphantly, “So it could be a complete lie!”

Learn to lie, Guy. Unfortunately, in this business (as in so many others), nice guys finish last.

Noam Gonick, dir.: Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight (1997)


Pander 5 (1998): 34-35.

[931 wds]

Pander 5 (1998)

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