Monday 15 February 2021

The man who was King: "The Twentieth Century"

In my review of the new Guy Maddin short Stump the Guesser last week, I noted it was astonishingly perverse that anyone should be making such self-consciously niche, throwback cinema - reclaiming all those formal tics and thematic quirks the movies might otherwise have outgrown - this deep into the 21st century. Guess what? Turns out there are actual Maddin copyists out there. The Twentieth Century, writer-director Matthew Rankin's gloriously rum account of the rise to power of Canada's longest-serving prime minister Mackenzie King, updates the Maddin template somewhat. Rather than the stylised silents of the 1910s and 1920s that his predecessor evidently gorged on at a formative moment in his cinematic education, Rankin has modelled his feature debut on those light-and-Technicolor-saturated propagandistic melodramas churned out, in various countries to varying degrees of political and commercial success, through the 1930s and into the 1940s. Essentially, Rankin has overdone the poutine while watching The History Channel, and dreamt up the kind of dubious flagwaver the Canadian film industry might have been pressured to produce under a mid-20th century dictatorship, rather than following the woolly liberal guidance that emanated from the King administration. Still, the net result is no less reliant for its effects on the viewer recognising and responding to a decidedly antiquated series of visual cues. What on earth is going on up there with these Canadians? Is it not time for the UN to consider some form of intervention?

Granted, you may not need a Chomsky-level grounding in the finer points of cinematic propaganda to decode the scene in which an especially phallic-looking cactus spurts its juices all over the young King's family home. As with Maddin, Rankin appears expressly keen to assault any residual notion of Canadian national politesse. His King (Dan Beirne) is a boyishly upright do-gooder, first introduced outlining his vision for the country to a tubercular sanatorium orphan, then observed being schooled in such essential statecraft as ribbon-cutting, waiting in line and baby sealclubbing. After dark, however, this young stick-in-the-mud and fogey-in-waiting is exposed as an enthusiastic shoe fetishist, apparently willing to pay well over the odds for used boots; he will eventually be obliged to submit to puffin-milk enemas, and be fitted with an alarm bell-rigged chastity belt, so as to maintain the bland purity of that vision. History here is both fluid and innately silly; you half-expect Graham Chapman's Colonel to turn up and halt production at any moment. Many of those representing Rankin's establishment (including the Quebecois separatist Joseph-Israël Tarte) are embodied by actresses sporting fulsome stick-on moustaches, while King's bed-bound, migraine-plagued mother is played by the actor Louis Negin in drag.

Believe it or not, there are proven facts somewhere amid all this pantomime - you may, as I did, feel compelled to hit pause and refer to Wikipedia from time to time, just to reassure yourself the wool isn't being totally pulled over your eyes - but they're sent up, doodled over, and in certain cases improved upon. Hard to top the inspired inanity of the mock-newsreel announcing Canada's involvement in the Boer War, which insists on depicting the Boers as half-man, half-elephant, complete with pendulous trunk-noses; although it's also somehow perfectly Canadian that the retelling of this particular story should draw to its conclusion with a frenzied skate-off between rival progressive forces. I can't sell the whole to you as anything other than an acquired taste, but it's committed in its styling and playing - arguably more committed than Maddin's own perversity has been in recent years, and certainly committed enough to slap a smile on your face, be that amused or merely bemused. Let me just add this: it's bracing watching The Twentieth Century at a moment when we here in what the characters refer to as the motherland have become rather po-faced and unyielding in our approach to history. (That's when there isn't some vast collective sense-of-humour failure.) In Rankinland, the past is no more than a collection of disappointments, wrong turns and odd hang-ups, endlessly malleable bunk, something to be remoulded, like putty or Play-Doh. It seems a far healthier place to spend some time in, all told.

The Twentieth Century is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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