By Yun-hua Chen.
After winning Canadian Best First Festure at the Toronto International Film Festival and Best Film at the Los Cabos International Film Festival, The Twentieth Century was showcased at the Forum section of the Berlinale and won the FIPRESCI Prize. In a fantastically satirical manner, the film loosely recounts the rise of the young William Lyon Mackenzie King to the Prime Minister in the Dominion of Canada in the beginning of the twentieth century. To ascend to the position as the Prime Minister, candidates need to go through a series of contests à la Monty Python, including demonstrating the skill of standing in a queue properly. Between a tyrannical mother, the governor’s daughter as his love interest, fetishistic obsession for women’s shoes, and failed anti-masturbation therapies, Mackenzie King struggles to plough on before the final epic battle. Filmed on 16 mm and Super 8, Matthew Rankin’s film creates a film world which combines German expressionist mise-en-scène made with cardboards, colors of fairy tales, Méliès-like animated images, soft focus of classical Hollywood cinema, a labyrinth of mirrors like The Lady from Shanghai (1947), theatrical performance style, melodramas, and Guy Maddin-inspired aesthetics. A very impressive debut feature which is as much about Canadian history as about the zeitgeist of our current time, it is one of few films in the film festival circuit which could make the audience laugh and think at the same time.
It is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously and with a lot of fun and humour. Is the fun factor an important part of your filmmaking?
It is. The moment it stops being fun, you have really lost everything. You can really see when a film isn’t fun, I think. In a film which is trying to be fun, you can tell if people who were making it were having fun. You could really read it. You see it right away. In this film we were all doing things we don’t usually do, like the actors, the costume people, the set, the photographer. I feel that people get into filmmaking, or people are inspired to make a film, it is because of the fun and the opportunities to make a new world. With this one we really had the opportunity to build our new world. That was really fun. Everyday there was something new and strange to feel.
From where did you start building this new world?
I like to draw. My whole life I draw. I wrote a script but I don’t really think that a script is the most useful, the most cinematic document. If you make a drama, like a straight drama, then maybe a script is ok. When you are making something, yes there is drama and everything, but the emotions that you are trying to get are cinematic emotions as opposed to the strictly narrative ones. What I find is that drawing the film is better. When I draw a film, I draw everything. I draw it like it’s a graphic novel. It’s a wonderful thing because the art department and costume people, producers and actors can look at it and see what it was in my head. And then we talk about it and lots of times we would come up with better ideas than what was in my head. We sort of figure it out together. This very visual document, very elaboorate storyboard was the starting point.
How did you base on it and elaborate your story with all the visual elements?
I come from an experimental background. My early films are really very formalist, but I was interested in how abstract formalism, particularly like the language of avantgard animation, could be mobilised for a narrative purpose. A lot of times we use that language strictly for formalism, and it is just all about the process. And it was a fun formalism, a bit more structured and you can consume, but still it’s formalism and it’s not telling you a story. But I was interested in how you can use abstract animation, abstract imagery, avantgard traditions of some cinematic language to build emotions, to develop characters, to tell a story. I think of that as cinematic emotions, in the sense that to just to tell the story is not enough. To just tell the story, you don’t need the film. If to just tell the story is enough, you don’t need to make the film. It’s the contrast of image and sound, emotion through time, rhythm, atmosphere, all these intangibles, all the great intangibles that are part of cinema conspiring to create the experience. In these early shorts, I really went deep into abstraction. This one, The Twentieth Century, was a little bit more of a narrative, of conventionally narrative, but still showed you the abstracted world. For me the whole idea is to create the merging between content and form. Like my last short, The Tesla World Light (2017), I used light animation to tell the story. For me that was when I figured out that it was about electricity and I needed a form about electricity. So, making an animated film with light is like the form incarnates the content. So here I was trying to do that as well, creating this very fake-looking world, architectural, very geometric, unnatural landscape. I wanted to confront the viewer constantly with the idea that the destination building project that they are watching is a very false one. That it is a structured, it has been crafted upon the earth by humans. And it isn’t real. There is always a kind of effort to have the form contain the content.
What attracts you the most about that particular period of Canadian history?
I felt the personal connection to him as a young person. I saw a lot of myself in him, especially in more of his more negative qualities. I didn’t really identify myself with his positive qualities, but it’s in negative expressions of him that I saw myself in. So, there’s that. And I also saw the opportunity to gaze into the pathologies of Canada itself, which I thought were also pathologies that the world has been dealing with presently. The question of the center, this idea of the center. I feel that we are living in a world that is more and more binary, more and more fanatical. It’s like the internet is responsible for it. It’s like this arms race. Like it’s constantly escalating. This elastic is constantly reaching its snapping point. The center is sort of evaporating. I found myself preoccupied with this. I have never been devoted to a political center or anything like that, but I think about what the value of this is. Generously we can think of the center as the space in which we are willing to listen to other people and to acknowledge that in the world we are all in this together. You believe in this. You believe in that. Ok. Where is the common good? You know. That would be a generous view of the center, but there is another way you could look at the center, as something purely about protecting one’s own power and creating this meaningless space and also allowing vast numbers of people to be affected by compromises that really are not in their best interests at all. At what point do we compromise so much that everything is meaningless and even destructive? So, I feel like Mackenzie King in his life he incarnates that exact value, or that complexity. It’s a question that the film is asking. I don’t have the pretense of answering it.
Do you feel that the film The Twentieth Century is also about the twenty-first century?
Yeah, I think very much so. The twentieth century began with mass utopian movements across the world and a very very deep conviction that we have the power to overcome our problems and build a better world and be together and be open-hearted. And of course, a lot of these utopias transformed into total nightmares and what we are kind of left with is a very jaded and a very cynical world. We don’t really see the future as something to aspire to. We have lost faith in our capacity. We don’t see either human effort or the technology that we have created as something that is in any way an ally to our survival, whereas we used to. We are left in this very compromised space. We have survived it, but we survived it at a great cost. We are at a critical junction now. And, of course, we are already beginning to forget all about it as the world became more fanatical again. I do think of the film as a kind of measure of the early twenty-first century.
Did your thoughts about the role of technology in our contemporary world lead you to choose 16 mm to make this film?
That’s a very interesting reflection. I would say my first thinking about film is that with film there is less information than digital. The 16 mm resolution is a little bit fuzzier, a little bit less precise, and I chose to shoot on very high-grain stock to make it even more distressed. I knew that my sets would be very artificial, and my special effects are very cheap. I felt that was very coherent with 16 mm. Whereas if it were on Spielbergian 800 K gloss, then I felt it would be too much detailed. I felt the world would not fit together. I felt that 16 mm, fake sets, fake special effects, those three things fit together. It was primarily based on that, to make all elements fit. 16 mm is part of the puzzle.
There were a lot of film references in your work, ranging from Caligari to Monty Python. Do you consider yourself a cinephilic filmmaker?
Yeah, there’s a lot of Guy Maddin of course. Fellini is also a big influence. Lars von Trier’s Europa also, probably more than other films. That had the biggest impact on my thinking about the historical form, and the artificial approaches to the historical form. The idea was of course that these references are there to create synthesis, and to work with the tradition of great masters of artifice. That’s what knits these references together, German Expressionism, Fellini, melodrama, theatre of absurd, all of these. The conceit of the films is working with that tradition and really rejecting realism.
Where do you see yourself among these great masters of artifice?
I am a person that has a very vast cinematic appetite. My past few films have all been what I would describe as maximalist. They are anti-minimalist films. They are unbridled, mutant organisms. But a lot of the films that I love are minimalist, deeply. So, the next thing that I want to do is actually a minimalist film. It would be a film that I want to shoot out in the world, not in a studio. It would be a docu-fiction. I am always trying to put myself in danger. When I am doubting my artistic competence to do a thing, that I find to be a very inspiring space. In the past few films I have given myself challenges that I felt I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Similarly, now, my next challenge is going to be something quite different, having made several films in this vein, but of course, still applying all of my knowledge.
You mentioned docu-fiction as your next project, whereas The Twentieth Century is live action with animated images. Do you like blurring the line between different ways to define films?
Yeah absolutely. I love hybridity in films. I love hybrid forms and how they could collaborate. Of course, all of my subjects are documentaries in a way. They are all sort of based on something that really happened in the world historically. They are all kind of riffing on the impossibility of representing those properly. To transform history into film necessarily requires an artistic operation that is entirely fictional and has nothing to do with facts. This is why historians hate historical films. I remember one of my professors in the university raving against the beauty of Leonardo DiCaprio’s teeth in Titanic (1997). She was saying, there is just no way that a poor person in 1912 would have such beautiful teeth. 100% his teeth would be rotten. And you know, maybe James Cameron knew that and thought, sure but my romance plot is not going to work, and it would be distracting. There is a certain cheating and betrayal involved. In fact, it’s even true of certain academic history, transforming the past as a sort of strict chronology into something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. That, too, is an artistic undertaking. My story starts here and ends there. So, a lot of times when we are representing reality on screen, we are trying to make it as credible as possible. That’s when it becomes dangerous. That’s when we start to think, DiCaprio’s teeth are in fact a massive lie. My approach has always been to really explode that and I never have the pretense of being a credible representative of the factual record. In a way, that’s truer to what you can accomplish in a biography. “History begins with truth and becomes a lie and a myth, starts with a lie and becomes a truth”. I don’t remember who said that. Some smart person said that. I am always trying to walk a fine line between the two.
Especially now when concepts of truth become very blurred…
The Twentieth Century is deeply rooted in Canadian history but also truly universal. Did you have a particular group of audience in mind when you made the film?
I did think about it, but I feel like if you think about it too much, you start to make some really weird decisions based on things you cannot control. You just cannot control how people would respond to a thing. It’s better not to try. When you start to control people, they start to die. I was really just following my conviction, what I thought was funny, what I thought was exciting, what I thought was interesting and relevant. I feel like when a filmmaker has the freedom to do that and they do that authentically, I think audiences have the tendency to form around them. On paper David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975), probably someone would read it and think, well, I am not sure what kind of audience there is for that, but an audience did form around it. It’s just filmmaker expressing themselves free. So, there is that. And then of course it’s a Canadian thing. Part of the pleasure of cinema is discovering a new world that you don’t know about, and maybe you won’t catch everything, but it doesn’t really bother me. I know a lot about Brooklyn from watching a lot of American cinema, but I don’t know everything. There is a lot that I am not going to catch, but that’s ok. I feel that it’s part of the thing about being authentic that you are witnessing. You don’t always understand everything that’s being said, but if there is a place for you that you can find, that’s really enchanting. I also think that this film, yes it is Canada, but it is also Canada on Mars, kind of on another planet. In a lot of ways Canadians would discover it along with everybody else.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.