What They Wished For

  • William Beard
    Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin. University of Toronto Press
  • Johanne Sloan
    Joyce Wieland’s ‘The Far Shore'. University of Toronto Press
  • Mark Harris (Author) and Claudia Medina (Author)
    Wild at Heart: The Films of Nettie Wild. Anvil Press
Reviewed by Seth Feldman

During the last fifty years, independent Canadian cinema has evolved from a wish to be careful what you wish for. That evolution is well reflected in these three books.

Johanne Sloan’s monograph on Joyce Wieland’s film, The Far Shore, is one of a series on important Canadian feature films. It has the distinction of discussing the least conventional and least commercially successful of those titles. Shot in 1975 and released in 1976, The Far Shore was a premature work. Canada’s nascent and insecure feature film industry and the nervous civil servants who funded it were looking for crowd pleasing, professionally polished work. Wieland’s film was neither.

Wieland, who died in 1998, had been known for her adaptation of domestic crafts to an equally home grown Centennial era nationalism. There were some popular experimental films on her resume. One of them, Reason Over Passion (1969) was composed entirely of shots taken from the window of her car driving cross-country. The words reason over passion (Pierre Trudeau’s personal motto) are flashed onscreen only to be mangled as the trip progresses.

Passion Over Reason was the derisive response of more than one critic when The Far Shore was released. Its leisurely paced melodrama was seen as more akin to the year in which it was set, 1919, than the year it was released. The plot involves the love and death of a Tom Thomson-esque figure as seen through the woman who loved him. Throughout, the characters and their entanglements appear less important than Wieland’s eye luxuriating on objects, fabrics and, an hour into the film, the Canadian wilderness, which the characters endlessly praise.

Sloan, a professor of art history at Concordia University, gives The Far Shore the contemporary re-investigation it deserves. She brings to the project her own practiced eye and theoretical knowledge of Wieland’s art and of landscape as well as the tall shoulders of scholars like Kay Armatage who have spent careers fighting for the film and for Wieland’s reputation. As a result, the reader is patiently guided into seeing the film as Wieland saw it, an intricate interplay of personal vision, feminist sensibility and Canadian nationalism that very much rewards a second look.

No such patient guidance is required in the case of Guy Maddin. Large cult audiences understand his work or like it anyway. Maddin’s films appear continually in festivals and in art houses around the world. He has launched a thousand film studies term papers.

Ironically, like The Far Shore, Maddin’s films are also created in the style of silent film melodramas (and, occasionally, early talkies). He films in a soft focused black and white that evokes the shimmer of nitrate prints. Dust and scratches appear when needed.

Even the surrealism injected into Maddin’s already twisted tales is more of a first generation surrealism, homemade special effects created before the ink was dry on the concept of the subconscious. Cinema itself is indistinguishable from the dream. Cinematic references abound. Maddin’s much celebrated five minute short, The Heart of the World (2000), looks like the coda for a lengthy retrospective of classic Soviet Cinema.

Maddin is also maddeningly prolific. Simply keeping up with his new releases, much less explicating their origins and many references requires a commitment bordering on obsession. Yet that is the task William Beard sets for himself. Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin, as systematic as Maddin is idiosyncratic, is clearly evidence of a determined superego at work.

The book begins by quoting J. Hoberman’s observation that Maddin is the most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of avant-gardists). Beard adds to that bare description what he calls Maddin’s elements. He is an autodidact; silent-film lover; cinephile, bibliophile; surrealist; avant-gardist; melodramatist; sensationalist; jokester; postmodernist; and child at play. Beard, like Maddin himself, also makes it clear that Maddin is a Winnipeger, in a sense of being shaped by a frozen prairie outpost with only one foot in life as we know it.

Moving further west, we find far more laid back (except for the occasional riot) Vancouver and one of its signature filmmakers, Nettie Wild. Wild at Heart: The Films of Nettie Wild is also rather low-key. It is composed of an interview and an essay, together weighing in at 100 small pages.

Both the interview (with Claudia Medina) and the essay (by Mark Harris) reveal Wild’s approach to the struggles she has filmed with leftist guerillas in the Philippines and Chiapas as well as with Native activists in Canada and, most recently, the hard-pressed defenders of Insite, Vancouver’s safe-injection haven for drug addicts.

. . . of course I’m concerned about those issues, Wild tells Medina. But that’s not what pulls me into making a movie . . . My fascination was the drama of people trying to gain control over their own lives and what they had run up against. Those are people who I really find intriguing. At that point when I get a really profound sense that the audience is going to be blown away by this story. It’s a slam-dunk. I’m in.

Wild’s films are very smart travelogues shot in places and with people in conflict. Committed as she is to their causes and dangerous as her position might be (she lost one crew member during a firefight in the Philippines), she avoids equating herself with her subjects. And that, in a medium that encourages unearned empathy, is an invitation to us to do the same.



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