'The Twentieth Century' Director Matthew Rankin on Making One of the Strangest "Biopics" You'll Ever See [TIFF 2019 Interview]

Matthew Raskin’s film The Twentieth Century is a fever dream of a biopic, using geometric sets and oblique references to historical facts to tell a curiously dehistorical tale about William Lyon Mackenzie, first Prime Minister of Canada. Joining a long list of weird and wonderful films to emerge from Winnipeg, Raskin’s film is an audacious and unapologetically odd film. His feature debut follows on a number of shorts that also displayed an oblique view of the past, making for a surreal and engaging work that will likely enthrall and confound in equal measure. 

/Film spoke to Matthew prior to the film’s World Premiere as part of the Midnight Madness slate at TIFF 2019.

It’s fair to say your film is historically nebulous. Can you talk about what the inspiration was and how you took this tack on Canadian history?

That’s a great question and I have a lot of explaining to do! It began with the diary of Mackenzie King. I read it as a university student and I was really affected by it. I felt personally connected to his most extreme outpourings. I was really amazed by how maudlin, how hypersensitive and confused and bewildered and panic-stricken the diary was. It reminded me of my own! I felt this connection to this very vulnerable, very private space. 

Your biographical film is quite bold in an almost violent refusal to adhere to historical record.

Well, yeah, you could say this. I would say a diary as a historical document is not an authoritative, factual chronology. I think of it as a parallel consciousness, somewhere between a dream and a highly subjective processing of the chaos of your life. It’s an effort to organize that chaos. History is like that too, but a diary is not a scientific, factual account. It’s a very personal, very private ordering of information that cannot represent in any sort of authoritative way. So I really wanted the movie to feel like this. I describe it as kind of a nightmare that King would have had in 1899. The people and events of his life are re-processed into this surreal order, much like when we dream. The film is trying to get into what’s beneath the surface of Canada – What sort of perverse, toxic, petty, self-pitying, maudlin, frustrated underpinnings pollute our subconscious. 

One thing that the film twists on is this whole notion of despair and acceptance of mediocrity. I’m wondering as somebody who themselves is trying to create, for lack of a better word, art, how you balance between the ease of mediocrity and the failure to achieve something excellent. 

Speaking as someone who aspires to mediocrity. . . [laughs] I feel like it’s a complex thing. My thinking about Mackenzie King is that yes, perhaps his record is a disappointing one. He’s this beige, middle of the road, very cautious, ultimately somewhat obedient kind of figure. A more generous analysis of him might have been that he navigated extremities of the 20th century and which really arrived at this place in the middle. Though I would never have voted for him, in a bizarre kind of way I feel there’s a certain kind of wisdom to that which is increasingly absent in our present day political discourse. Again, this is not how I vote, but it is something I think about as I look at the way politics is going.

Well, beige, by definition is a bland, non-colour.

There’s a certain triumph to be contrived out of beige. As far as art is concerned, that’s tricky. I always do try to court disaster as much as possible. Every film that I make I try to relaunch the Hindenburg and hope that it won’t explode. I often I fail, but I find my vocation is energized by really courting disaster. If things become too easy or too beige, then I sort of go to sleep and I might as well be in a government sarcophagus behind a cubicle or something

There’s clearly something in the drinking water in Winnipeg. You have an obvious artistic connection with somebody like a Guy Madden.

I think Winnipeg is a very ironic place. It’s hard to have a coherent relationship with it because everything that can be affirmed about Winnipeg can be completely negated as well. Winnipeg exists between this contradictory state at all times. Broadly speaking there’s a deep longing to be normal. They live in this isolated place that is to a very large extent excluded from mainstream ideas of success in North America, and there’s a great longing to affirm that they too are just as normal and just as good as everybody else. The idea of making art in Winnipeg is already strange, but I think artists have been really energized by sort of an anti-establishment impulse. Guy Maddin is of course a great influence on me. I learned most him how to approach the epic form of cinema with a dollar-store budget. Low-budget usually ends up in one room with non-actors and austere minimalism. 

Do you have a connection with the Astron Six group? 

I’m a big admirer of their work, and they too, in their own way, by sort of re-processing the language of exploitation, grindhouse, b-movies, science fiction, that kind of stuff. They too have created an aesthetic virtue out of the strangeness they’re able to produce on a low-budget scale.

Can you talk about making the leap to doing your first feature and making sure to your point that it was coherent enough, and stable enough, but still weird enough, but not so weird that it becomes “anti-audience”?

Do you think it is not anti-audience?

I think there’s certainly an audience for it. The challenge of a film like yours is not to overstay its welcome, to get the shtick and then find that there’s nothing else save for form. Can you talk about the challenge of ensuring that you have not just an experiment, but a feature film?

Well, it’s a combination of things. You can’t really control how people are going to react to things, so if you get carried away thinking about that you can start making really weird decisions. I feel that lots of times when you do something that you find really interesting, there’s a good chance it’ll be interesting to somebody else.

Can you talk about the challenge of letting people in that might not be as gifted with knowledge about who this Prime Minister is and his personal history?

It’s a danger. It could just be that when we watch it, in two weeks, everyone will just be awash in the light of Wikipedia. There’s a burrowing into the edifice of Canadian identity to expose the rot. That’s something that maybe only Canadians will get, to a large degree. I spent the last 10 years of my life in Quebec, and I’m really inspired by a lot of the Quebec Nationalist films. I don’t think of myself as a patriot in any way, but I think there’s a value in focusing in on stories that might perhaps run the risk of being understood only by one group of people. I think that’s actually why Quebec has been such a powerful cinematic force and why it’s one of the great filmmaking cultures of the world. There was this concerted effort to really focus in on Quebec stories, and in so doing, they did manage to touch upon something international and universal. In English-Canada, we haven’t really done that so much, it’s been sort of an effort to skirt Canadian subjects outside of a very overtly nation-building, patriotic kind of art, like the Heritage Minutes. I think that if you break down Mackenzie King’s story to sort of its fundamental composite parts, really it’s a story of love and longing and frustration and self-reproach, and these are all universal feelings. 

Do you see this as a celebration or an excoriation of the Canadian experiment?

I definitely see this as a satire.

But is it a family joke? When you refer to rot, is it something that is fundamentally wrong with the Canada?

I consider myself to be a critical citizen. There’s a lot about how Canada represents itself that annoys me and that I find obnoxious and meaningless. I don’t think there’s any shortage of films and promotional materials and propaganda and songs and art that is telling you how great Canada is. I’m trying to perhaps suggest that Canada might be just kind of a bedtime story that we tell to ourselves, that might not have any meaning and might even be something kind of toxic and kind of sinister. 

But is that toxicity worse here than elsewhere?

I would leave that up to people watching the movie to conclude. It certainly is poking fun, and it certainly is trying to challenge and trying to subvert image systems. I don’t know if the film is really making an analysis of whether Canada’s worse or better than some other place, but I think it is certainly taking aim at our image-making. I think those images too are worth reevaluating.

Do you do so out of nihilism or hope?

I consider myself an optimistic and hopeful person. I think it’s important to question in order to move forward. I think that part of engaged citizenship and part of art-making is to challenge and question established modes of representation and norms. 

Were there specific paintings, artwork, aesthetic devices that you looked to?

I was really kind of inspired by a lot of mid-century abstractionists. Lawren Harris was an influence, but also York Wilson, a painter from Toronto. He had this very geometric, very architectural depiction of the natural world. Expo 67 was a big aesthetic influence on the design of the film, and Lotte Reiniger, the German silhouette animator who did The Adventures of Prince Achmed was a big influence. I’d say Robert Wilson, the American dramaturge was also a big influence. 

Any filmmakers?

I would say Monty Python, I would say Josef von Sternberg, I would say Guy, obviously. Elaine May, she found her way into the thing to some degree.

Where do you see Elaine May in your film? 

It’s more the character of Nurse Lapointe played by Thierry-Anne Cormier who reminds me of A New Leaf. It’s an amazing movie, a strange romance, it’s comic, but it’s full of very uncomfortable feelings as well. Elaine May’s humour I find to be so absurd and it’s very cerebral and very conceptual. Fellini’s Casanova‘s a big influence. Lars von Trier’s Europa, or the Ken Russell biopics. Ken Russell made a bunch of biopics. David Cronenberg and Steven Soderbergh, in the same year, released Naked Lunch and Kafka and I really liked those two because they both integrated factual elements from the lives of the authors into the fictional world they created. I think my film is most directly emulating that approach to biopic, with Mackenzie King fed through the prism of his own imaginative subconscious. 

Some will connect with the film, and I’m guessing some will not. What will you learn from more for your next project?

I always feel you learn more from where you mess things up rather than where you get them right. When you get something right, it’s nice and stuff, but when you feel you’ve done something wrong, I think typically you learn more from that. That’s true of everything we do.

 So are you excited to learn from your film?

Oh yeah, completely. I know a lot of people are not going to get this thing – my family certainly won’t! – But that’s great. If you’re trying to make something that’s going to please everybody, you might as well just be working for the government. You’ve got to take some risks.

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