This week, all true movie lovers will rush to see a violent and fantastic special-effects thriller, in which a character endowed with uncanny powers rips through the veil of illusion that is normal life. The movie I refer to, of course, is Guy Maddin’s new, mostly black-and-white silent film, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, starring Zhang Wei-Qiang. A similar-sounding picture, The Matrix Reloaded, happens to have opened simultaneously, but I will withhold comment on it until next week. I’d rather focus for now on the more daring and visionary film.
Imagine a pale virgin lifting forward in bed, tilting from supine to upright with her head, torso and outstretched arms fixed in entranced unison. This is how poor, flighty Lucy Westernra ought to float toward her demon lover–as if she were already severed from earthly ties. This is how she drifts up somnambulistically in Maddin’s Dracula, an effect that’s all the more startling for being achieved without wires or camera tricks. Like most of the film’s characters, Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) is played by a dancer from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, whose evening-length production of Dracula, choreographed by Mark Godden, is the egg in Maddin’s cinematic soufflé. The dancers rise as if weightless, and so does the movie.
Escaping the pull of narrative gravity from the very first shots, this Dracula begins in the middle of the story and within no defined space. The plague ship is already nearing its English harbor; Lucy is already flying beyond her suitors, toward death’s embrace; and mad Renfield is already rattling the bars of his cell, crying out to his master, “I hear you coming!” Of course, since this is a silent film, he’s wrong–he hears only the soundtrack music, by Gustav Mahler. But Renfield’s delirium is general in the film, which cuts agitatedly among disparate views and unexplained events, glimpsed in the flashes given off from an unseen lighthouse. The focus is gauzy, the contrast between light and dark exaggerated, the field of vision often contracted by an iris to give the effect of a dream picture; and it’s a dream with the obsessiveness of fever, which sends jitters through the rhythm and calls up images again and again.
At this point, you might guess that Maddin has excused himself from the burden of exposition, knowing that everyone is familiar with the story of Dracula–and you would be half right. Maddin wants to transport you immediately to the edge of your seat, as if you, too, were Lucy, rapt in the dark. And yet, although he cuts away the connections that would help make sense of events, Maddin also spells out explanations, and does so to a fault. Intertitles printed in screaming capitals announce the presumed cause for anxiety: immigrants! others! from the east! The invaders are from so far in the east, in this case, that Dracula is Chinese.
Even if these intertitles looked less alarming, you might guess that their explanations had gone too far. “Others” is the decisive tip-off. Only a present-day viewer would think of using the word. It suggests a sense of superiority toward Bram Stoker and his late-Victorian readers. It makes you wonder: Can we keep Dracula at a safe distance by historicizing him? The question, implicitly flung out amid the first storm of montage, goes to the core of Maddin’s art.
Put it this way: To what degree does Maddin laugh at a now-obsolete cinema, with its peculiar atmosphere, assumptions and style, and to what degree does he adore it? When he first broke into the art house circuit with Tales From the Gimli Hospital, the answer seemed obvious, since the year was 1988 and everything modern had supposedly become post. According to all the best gasbags, only the antiquated could seem new anymore, and then on condition that it not be taken seriously–so Maddin was typed as an ironist, who joked about a past era in order to mock his own. But by 1992, when he came out with Careful (his incest-haunted mountaineering film, made in imitation of early sound and early color pictures), it was becoming clear that bygone cinema really moved him, as a fetish moves a true believer. He found gorgeous possibilities in old films–so gorgeous that the lovingly engineered hisses on the soundtrack, the smeared colors, the dopey acting, the grotesquely overstated moralism, could all be felt as a confession of his work’s inadequacy before its model, rather than an exposure of an earlier cinema’s failings. Careful is ridiculous not because people back then were stupid and clumsy but because we can’t live up to their dreams. (Neither could they.)