- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A t the outset of a phone conversation from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the independent filmmaker Guy Maddin helpfully pinpoints his whereabouts as “just north of Minneapolis.” The call is timed to anticipate the recent opening at the Landmark E Street Cinema of “The Saddest Music in the World,” the eighth of the features Mr. Maddin has filmed in his birthplace.

Inventive, wacky and resourceful, but still obscure to a mass audience, Mr. Maddin’s films have gained an international cult following among moviegoers who relish their distinctive blend of humorous, antiquarian and macabre tendencies.

The professionally wayward — albeit stay-at-home — son of celebrated hockey coach Chas Maddin, who once guided Canadian national teams, Mr. Maddin remains the first and only cult director to emerge from Winnipeg. His hometown is also a fanciful setting for “Saddest Music,” in which it is envisioned as a wintry mecca for musicians during the Great Depression, attracted by a contest that offers $25,000 for a composition of supreme sadness.

Mr. Maddin explains that his new movie is “typical of the film-festival project that achieves distribution.” The difference is that “Saddest Music” seems to be poised for a more visible and systematic theatrical release.”It’s played at many pretty nifty major festivals around the world,” he says, adding that it will be rolling out to major American cities over the next two months.

Not that the film’s pretext sounds less nutty than that of Mr. Maddin’s “Careful,” which envisioned an alpine village that was morbidly phobic about avalanches, or his “Gimli Hospital,” which perceived comic possibilities in a Manitoba smallpox epidemic of 1870. Now, Mr. Maddin has some glamour to offer because Isabella Rossellini was cast as the domineering, maimed brewery heiress who initiates the contest.

“Isabella has been able to promote the film, and that’s an enormous help,” the director comments. “In fact, we did a photo shoot together at the New Yorker with Richard Avedon. Mark McKinney, the leading man, is very popular in certain circles from his days with ‘The Kids in the Hall.’ He’s doing the Conan O’Brien show, among other things.”

Mr. Maddin also has journalist gigs that come in handy. “I’m in kind of a unique situation,” he says, “because I write occasionally for the Village Voice and Film Comment. And I’ve contributed to English publications like the London Times and Sight and Sound. Some of this takes the form of production diaries, so I can enlarge on the print or broadcast interviews you do when a film is released.”

Born in 1956, Mr. Maddin grew up in a residence located on the floor above a beauty shop owned by his mother and aunt. The hockey rink and the beauty parlor were his playgrounds. He pursued a bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of Winnipeg that enabled him “to be done at noon and see as many movies as I wanted to later in the day.” Active in a film society called the Winnipeg Film Group, he progressed from insatiable study and appreciation to amateur production.

According to an early crony and partner, Greg Klymziw, who recalls these formative years in a documentary featurette called “Waiting for Twilight,” a supplement to the DVD edition of “Careful,” Winnipeg film freaks of the late 1970s and early 1980s were “all a bunch of slackers.” Inevitably, “what slacking leads to is making films.”

Mr. Maddin insists he is not averse to shooting outside Winnipeg. “Manitoba has the best, the most aggressive pro-cultural polices in all the provinces,” he says. “They make it difficult for me to leave. It’s been relatively easy to put pictures together, and it’s home, with all that means, good and bad. Much can be lost when you yank yourself out of familiar, comfy turf. Now we even have mega-examples of people working successfully out of their back yards: Robert Rodriguez in Texas, Peter Jackson in New Zealand. It gives one pause.”

Divorced and the father of a 6-year-old daughter, Mr. Maddin reflects that he might prefer to be closer to his daughter’s home in Toronto. He’s sure Canadians would remain skeptical about his reputation, whatever his base of operations.

“Canadian films in general have trouble reaching a Canadian audience,” he says. “It’s easier to impress Americans. Canadians are heavily skeptical about the state-supported films they’re always being encouraged to embrace. They distrust all the boosterism. I share that distrust most of time.”

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