Minneapolis, Minn. — Guy Maddin's career took off in the late eighties, but you may not have noticed if you didn't attend film festivals or made it to art house cinemas. He made a niche for himself creating over-wrought silent movies, complete with soft-focussed close-up of goggle-eyed heroines and dialogue presented in large dramatic type.
Film critic John Anderson of Newsday says the movies are not merely an homage to the expressionist silent era:
"They have an antique quality," Anderson says. "But it's almost like an unknown cinema, like something you dreamt. He wants to capture a sepia sensibility."
Then in the late nineties Maddin lost his creative spark. He says he laid on the couch for five years. In 2001, some people from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called with an offer. "Would you like to make a TV show of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's version of Dracula?" they asked.
There was just one problem. Maddin didn't like ballet.
"I had been a few times," he admits. "I took my daughter a couple times and I always felt ennobled when I went. I mean, you get that ennobled feeling and that's probably a sure sign that you didn't like it."
Like it or not, he needed the gig to put bread on the table:
"So I considered it a 'just for hire' job, but it was a great way to kick myself out of the doldrums," he admits
His first task was to figure out how to get ballet onto film. Most filmed ballets are long shots of the stage. No close-ups. Nothing to make it a film. It's just a recording of a stage performance. Even the dancers at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet all said they hated those movies. So Maddin took a video camera, got on stage and let the choreographer guide him around the stage using a hand on the nape of his neck.
"Whenever I nosed in with my camera too close and a leg kick, part of the choreography would have torn my head off, he would yank me out of the way," he says. "It's more of an athletic than an artistic event. It's like being a referee at a hockey game. There's all sorts of great chaos."
Converted to ballet-lover, Maddin now needed to find fresh blood in the Dracula story. He found the inspiration he needed in Bram Stoker's novel. Maddin thought the story had a lot to say about contemporary fears of losing our position in the global economy. It was about xenophobia:
"It really feels like there's this eastern European guy and they're really concerned that he is not only taking their women, but taking their British pounds sterling home with him. And he flees back to Transylvania. 'Those vampires are taking our jobs!'"
Maddin presents the vampires story as a cross between a seduction of his victim Lucy, and a corporate takeover, complete with charts and maps.
Newsday's John Anderson calls Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary an extraordinary movie and and yes, while it's about immigration...it appeals on an emotional level:
"It's also extremely romantic. You know, Dracula as a liberating sexual force for Lucy: they could be quite a happy couple, except for all these meddling people who don't seem to want her to become the undead. It's not Bela Lugosi by any stretch."
John Anderson put the movie on his list of the top films of 2003, as did many other critics. More importantly for Maddin, the movie gave new life to his creative drive. He's filmed three features in the last 18 months. And just last week finished three short films.