Ignorant about most things Canadian, I was recently chastised by a friend north of the border for knowing next to nothing about the peculiar brilliance of Guy Maddin, the Winnipeg-based experimental filmmaker whose whimsically dark creations have earned him a sizeable cult reputation. This summer I was given a chance to redeem myself via the New York Video Festival, where Maddin's new feature-length, black and white silent film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002), had its American debut as the centrepiece of the festival's opening night. Any initial wariness regarding the prospect of a CBC-commissioned adaptation of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of Dracula soon dissolved, however, when it became clear that the film is anything but a conventional documentation of a staged work. In fact, it doesn't much resemble a performance film at all. Instead, it oddly approximates what you might achieve should you manage to trap Thomas Edison, Joseph Cornell, Sergei Eisenstein, Isadora Duncan and pre-Elephant Man David Lynch in a murky room with a Super 8 handheld camera.
When the CBC first approached him with the idea of a movie version of choreographer Mark Godden's Dracula and offered a budget of $1.6 million no one could have been more surprised than Maddin himself. After all, he is noted for the somewhat inscrutable nature of his wildly ambitious, handcrafted gems, which include four features and over 17 short films. The six-minute micro-epic The Heart of the World (2000), for example, is a whirlwind of filmic impatience, improbably synthesizing everything from Edwardian sci-fi to a capitalist critique filtered through Medieval passion plays and the hyperactive jump-cutting of early Soviet cinema.
Frenzied, passionate, camp and sincere, Maddin's eccentric brand of Victorian surrealism turns out to be ideally suited to Bram Stoker's original novel, whose subtexts of xenophobic hysteria, sexual repression, hypochondria and sublimated wish-fulfilment are the frequently overlooked hooks upon which Maddin has contentedly hung the overcoat of his own obsessions. Leapfrogging backwards over a century of Hollywood vampires, Maddin returned to Stoker's text, written in the form of diary entries and private letters between the various characters, putting the reader in the indiscreet position of a voyeur. It is a distinctly Victorian type of guilty and vicarious pleasure not lost on Maddin, and may account for why so many scenes appear to have been shot on the sly - through keyholes, curtains, windows and spyglasses - old cinematic techniques which indicate to an audience a privileged point of view.
Maddin is fond of saying that Stoker's novel is 'black and white and red all over', but the hackneyed pun accurately describes his topsy-turvy take on Godden's ballet. Maddin is a film buff who revels in poetically arcane cinematic textures - including painted backdrops and expositional inter-titles - approaching the challenge of filming movement and light with the same experimental spirit of the first celluloid pioneers. Shot in grainy black and white Super 8 and 16 mm, the film is highlighted with occasional judiciously targeted computer-generated dashes of red - a rosy blush on a young maiden's cheek, the smouldering glow of the vampire's eyes, or most often, a scarlet trickle of blood - that deliberately mimic the hand-tinting tricks of early silent films, which still had one foot in the era of magic lanterns and Punch and Judy shows.
Maddin suspects Stoker 'must have gone through some very bad dating spells' while writing Dracula (1897). He might be right, considering the crosscurrents of fear, repression and obsession he has uncovered between the 'heroic' male characters, who behave less than honourably, and the female 'victims,' who are in effect punished and pathologized by their protectors for displaying sexual desires. In fact, the figure of Dracula is less central to Maddin's film than the ways in which he - as the unknown foreigner - inflames the passions, prejudices and anxieties of the other characters. One scene, involving the twice-bitten, nearly-undead young Lucy receiving a fiercely competitive group blood transfusion from her three male suitors, is like a mechanically sublimated gang rape - the men vying not only with each other for sexual dominion, but against the 'tainted' alien blood running through her veins. With their ecstatic pumpings ultimately thwarted, the construct is not unlike the dance of automatons found in Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Even) (1915-23).
The fact that Maddin, by his own admission, initially knew nothing about dance or the conventions of filming it, seems to have played in his favour. While respecting Godden's choreography, Maddin's outsider status allowed him to see that ballet dancers, with their physical discipline and expressive talent for theatrical pantomime, are in fact natural silent movie stars. Like dancer David Moroni's paternally prurient and vainly prudish Dr Von Helsing - the vampire killer whom Maddin has described as 'the biggest virgin of them all' - they seem to have patiently waited all their balletic lives for just one good close-up.