Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Heart of the World: A Backstory Conjecture

Proud to participate in “The Maddin-est Blogathon in the World!” (September 19 - 23), a tribute to Guy Maddin courtesy of the folks at Fandor.

Maddin blogging, essay 1 of 3:

Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000) may look timeless but a close viewing reveals that it’s a movie grounded in a specific time and place.  Through meticulous examination of the evidence, supported by a set of reasonable assumptions, we may be able to learn something of the story behind this mysterious film.

The Evidence
The background sounds (crowd noises, sputtering sprockets, whip lashes, beating hearts) of The Heart of the World are typical of the great years of synchronized silent cinema, 1926-1929.  After synchronized recordings were attached to film, beginning with Don Juan in 1926, theaters realized they could make a one-time investment in the new projectors and drop the ongoing costs of orchestras or piano players.  Music and background sound effects became a permanent part of film, replacing the old-fashioned and ephemeral live performances of musicians in the pit below the stage.

Expressionist shadows in The Heart of the World.

The composition of individual shots in The Heart of the World might peg this as a German expressionist silent film—even if it weren’t for the direct references to at least half a dozen German films from 1919 to 1927.  This style traveled to Hollywood in movies like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and the popular Universal horror films of the 1930s, but even the visually strongest of these movies (The Black Cat and The Bride of Frankenstein) look fairly muted next to authentic first-generation German expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.

But while some of the imagery may look German, the editing of The Heart of the World is classic Soviet montage, brutally fast like 1920s Eisenstein or Vertov.  Some of the compositions are Soviet-style as well.  And one of the characters is a stock Soviet favorite—the grossly caricatured capitalist villain, a character right out of Eisenstein’s Strike.

The Hypothesis
So let me try to fit these pieces together and hazard a guess about the backstory of this fascinating artifact of another time and place.

Guy Maddin, the mysterious director of this poorly preserved film, must have been a German emigrant to the Soviet Union, perhaps a cinematographer working at Germany’s UFA Studios in the 1920s, frustrated by his inability to advance to the director’s chair.  Intoxicated by the montage rhythms of the new-style Soviet films, Maddin must have turned his back on the decadent capitalism of the Weimar Republic, striking out across eastern Europe for the Soviet border.  But the life he found there was hardly a workers’ paradise.  Unable to insinuate himself into the graces of the Gorky Film Studio, Maddin probably found himself sharing a bare Moscow apartment with a factory worker, Nikolai, and his beautiful wife Liudmila.  With their help, he may have found a job at the local babushka factory, mechanically inserting dolls into dolls while his dreams of becoming a genuine auteur slowly faded.

Then one night, sitting on a
Typical American capitalist.
snowy park bench nursing a quart of vodka, Maddin met a corpulent, wealthy American millionaire traveling through the Soviet Union on a mission to purchase masterpieces on the cheap from the Hermitage in return for needed American capital.  Unable to convince the capitalist to finance an actual full-length feature film, Maddin pleaded for at least sufficient funds to make a six-minute short—a love story sure to have universal appeal.   Moved by the pathos of the story that Maddin pantomimed that night against the backdrop of the Moskva River, the weeping capitalist agreed to write a small check in exchange for a producer’s credit and a supporting role.

The actor playing Christ,
seen through a glass darkly.
I think Maddin must have cast himself as the actor playing Christ in the passion play (yes, I’m sure that MUST be Maddin), his roommate Nikolai played Nikolai the mortician, and the capitalist appeared in a brief cameo role as Akmatov the Industrialist.  Maddin’s secretly beloved Liudmila became the brilliant scientist who sacrifices herself to heal the world.  Filmed in a 24-hour passionate blaze of activity and then fussed over in the editing for a couple of years, Maddin finally completed his masterpiece—but the world wasn’t ready.  In its one known screening, it was booed off a Leningrad screen by an angry crowd expecting a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Things turned even worse when MGM purchased the rights to the movie, suppressing the original for decades and then finally losing their one copy in a ferocious nitrate archive fire.  Its loss went unnoticed;  the film had been entirely forgotten.   Then, in 2000, a miraculously intact copy was found in a musty New Zealand archive, mistakenly shelved among the works of Colin McKenzie.

That’s my reconstruction, based solely on the evidence of the film itself.

I can’t vouch for the facts but I can vouch for the spirit.

© 2011 Lee Price

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