Guy Maddin's career is (hopefully) far from over, but William Beard's Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin will probably stand the test of time as the definitive study of his work. An incredibly thorough exploration of Maddin's features (with an appendix in which his short films are discussed) both in terms of the process of how the films came together and in terms of the detailed analyses Beard offers on each, this is definitely a book worthy of one of the most interesting and original filmmakers working today. The more familiar you are with Maddin's work going in, the more you're likely to enjoy Into the Past, but even if you're only familiar with a few of Maddin's titles, finding out how he achieves his unique aesthetic is worth the read.
Beard starts at the beginning with 1985's The Dead Father (a short film, but afforded the same level of discussion as the features) and running right through to 2008's My Winnipeg. As he proceeds from film to film, Beard identifies common themes (both father issues and mother issues are prominent) and explores the way that Maddin's techniques have evolved over time and as experience has brought him into contact with new collaborators. Maddin's working relationship with writer George Toles is the collaboration revisited most often throughout the book, as Toles had a hand in six of the nine features written about here (Archangel, Careful, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg). Though the book is incredibly detailed in pretty much every other respect, Beard is somewhat vague when it comes to parsing out some of the subtleties of the Maddin/Toles relationship, noting Twilight of the Ice Nymphs as Maddin's least artistically satisfying work (due, primarily, to the level of interference Maddin faced from producers who tried to make it a more "commercial" product) as well as the work over which Toles had the most influence and input, but digging no deeper to explore whether there's any correlation between those two facts.
But while the book is a bit reticent when it comes to how Maddin works with others (and, in fairness to Beard, this may be a result of the limits of Maddin's cooperation in that respect), it can't be said that it leaves any stones unturned when it comes to examining the content of the films. Beard goes into great detail regarding the films (mostly silents and early sound films) that inspired the look and feel of Maddin's projects, as well as the other forms of art which would help form the germ of each film's initial idea, in order to give a full view of the style and content of Maddin's work. Beard is obviously a fan - you would have to be to dive so deeply into the work of such an eccentric and sometimes difficult filmmaker - but isn't sycophantic in his appraisal of Maddin's work. His is a critical eye that is unafraid to point out what he considers the flaws in Maddin's films, chief among them Maddin's tendency to pull back from the emotional core of his stories by introducing elements of the ridiculous or the comedic into scenes. That said, while Beard elucidates ways in which certain scenes in various films could be pushed towards pure drama and honest feeling, he's also cognizant of that fact that Maddin's bent towards the ridiculous is often what makes his films so sublime. If Maddin did not possess the strange sense of humor that he brings to his work, many of his most startling, clever and memorable moments and images would not exist.
Into the Past is a great companion piece to Maddin's films. The more familiar you are with the films, the more interesting the book will be - personally I found the back half of the book a lot more engaging than the front, but that's because I'm more familiar with Maddin's recent works than I am with his earlier stuff so I could connect Beard's writing with the images I recall from the films. Without that background some passages of the book did read as a bit dry and analytically over-stuffed, however, even so they functioned to make me want to fill in the blanks that remain in my experience of Maddin's films. Archangel and Careful, in particular, sound kind of delightful and crazy so I'm very much looking forward to seeing them and reading about them here has definitely inspired me to waste no further time in seeking them out.
Next Month: Clark Gable: Tormented Star