The Mouthwash of the Past

Winnipeg, Senior Hockey, Melodrama, Monkeys, Revenge, Abel Gance, Euripides, Vampire Ballet, Nostalgic Film-making, Mouthwash, A Violent Monkey, Freundian Psychosexuality, Films With Words, Films With Songs

The Mouthwash of the Past

Mark Peranson
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I. Westin Harbor Castle Hotel, Toronto, Ontario, February 2002

Can you feel it? Genie buzz is in the air!1 Winnipeg’s own Guy Maddin is eligible for Best Short Film for The Heart of the World (2000), only his second-ever nomination for Canada’s top film awards; the first was for the screenplay of his debut feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), the script of which was scribbled on a handful of Post-it notes. (The next day, to nobody’s surprise, he will win it.) A little more than a year later, as the token Canadian in the house, I will be on a stage in some Dutch seaport accepting an award on behalf of the director for his first installation, Cowards Bend the Knee, and alluding to a story about a monkey that may or may not be true. But back in the Canadian winter chill, Maddin and I were leaving the hotel after having conversed for an hour about his black-and-white filmed vampire ballet, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2001), which aired on CBC the following week. This was the first time he had put his thoughts on his film-for-hire into words, and he was already apologizing for what he perceived to be a tirade at the incalcitrance of unionized craftsman, his producers, and the Canadian film industry as a whole—when he did no such thing. Maddin, though, had yet to amalgamate his experiences on the film into fabricated thoughts, tall tales, the stuff that myths are made of. He turned to me and added one final anecdote. “There was this certain point in the editing room where I said, much to my own surprise, ‘We’ve done it. We’ve made a watchable dance film.’” He paused. “Don’t print that.”


The unexpected upswing of the Guy Maddin rollercoaster coincides with a veritable cluster-bombing of North America with Maddinalia, as if the Furies had conspired with the cultural gatekeepers to ensure that the once-obscure visionary who would rather sit in his living room watching The Match Game and eating applesauce has cultural currency again. It all began in 2000 with the cataclysmic rupture of cinema known as The Heart of the World, an addictive six-minute masterpiece that condenses an entire sci-fi apocalyptic melodrama into 800 Soviet-style, rapid-fire cuts. In the past year or so, Guy Maddin Industries has diversified, with a full retrospective at the Rotterdam film festival (immediately followed by another one in Toronto); his first gallery installation, Cowards (with accompanying lavishly illustrated publication featuring the film’s immensely readable screenplay); and excellent lengthy Artforum and New York Times features. In September, a comprehensive collection of his writings (including a salty selection from his diaries), From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings of Guy Maddin, will be unleashed on an unsuspecting public, along with another feature film; the cock-and-bull market for Maddin may soon reach the point of oversaturation. By then there will be three substantial Maddin feature-length films in wide circulation, each made through a different means of production, but each of equal merit: Dracula was produced for Canada’s CBC television network, the hour-long Cowards was designed as a ten-peephole art installation for Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, and, completing the hat trick, the Isabella Rossellini-starring The Saddest Music in the World is Maddin’s first “proper” feature since 1997. (The latter two are also Maddin’s first films set in his home town of Winnipeg.) In certain circles, this is the hoped-for breakthough, the film to make John Ashbery’s favorite filmmaker into a Household Name.2 Taken as a whole, it’s an astonishing cinematic output with few equals—it puts the slapdash Miike Takeshi to shame—and is the film equivalent of the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the mid-eighties. And like Guy Maddin, it took the Oilers twelve years—seven in the WHA, and then five in the NHL—before they won their first Stanley Cup. This is all that much more impressive if you know the extent of Maddin’s innate laziness.3

Legend has it that Guy Maddin was born on February 28, 1956, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to a working-class family of Icelandic heritage. He was raised above his Aunt Lil’s beauty salon and at Winnipeg’s hockey arena, where his father, Chas, worked as manager of the senior league’s Winnipeg Maroons, winners of the Allan Cup in 1963 (and thus, for that year, Canada’s national amateur champions). Maddin’s stern childhood on the chilly prairies was one of slothdom, craning his ears to the ambient crackling of late-night radio signals. Along with glorious memories of vacations north in Gimli and of scrubbing the backs of unibrowed Soviet hockey players, there was private tragedy: While Maddin was young, his older brother, Cameron, killed himself at the age of eighteen after his girlfriend died in a car accident; in fact, he shot himself lying on top of his girlfriend’s fresh grave. Also, Maddin’s father died before his time. Indeed, tragedy lurks behind the gestating hysteria of his future films like a child peeking out of the safety of the womb. While slacking off during his teens and early twenties, Maddin home-schooled himself in classic cinema, borrowing from the public library 16mm noirs, melodramas, silents, and half-talkies; remnants of these 1,001 nights speckle his own movies like fairy dust. Galloping through the Leni Riefenstahl-meets-Caligari mountain movie Careful (1992), there are moments from or allusions to directors as diverse as Von Sternberg, Hitchcock, Whale, Keaton, Ophuls, Mèlies, Lubitsch, and Clair presented as if slapped together purposefully by Victor Frankenstein.4

For a man who never met an amnesiac love triangle he didn’t like, Maddin’s films are surprisingly antithetical to the dominant tradition of narrative filmmaking, whether it’s in Canada, the U.S., or anywhere else they make motion pictures. His delirious genre-crossbreeds exist in an alternate universe. Maddin now finds himself in a similar place as in the early 1990s, when he burst on the scene in a fashionable industry as the curio from the closet, the pseudo-silent filmmaker who said he’d spent more time obsessing over the twenties than the time the twenties existed—the Return of the Repressed. Maddin’s nonsensical, self-hating Icelandic debut, the deadpan tone poem Tales from the Gimli Hospital, came out of nowhere. Transpiring during a smallpox outbreak in the idyllic Manitoba town of Gimli sometime in the nineteenth century, this early work of a fetishist in training was promoted by midnight-movie impresario Ben Barenholtz, who also “discovered” Eraserhead (1977); Gimli packed houses for a year in Greenwich Village after being rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival, whose literal-minded programmers thought its crackling sound to be unintentionally amateurish.

Even more alienating, yet involving, the wildly opaque half-talkie Archangel (1990) is inhabited by a phalanx of forgetters—plagued by obsession, mustard gas apoplexia, or both. The circular narrative revolves around John Boles, a displaced soldier at the end of the Great War steeped in loss: for his country (Canada), his girl (Iris), and his leg (the right one). Arriving in Archangel—not coincidentally, the place where Victor Frankenstein winds up at the end of Mary Shelley’s novel—a Russian outpost still fighting the war, Boles falls madly in love with Iris’ double, Veronkha, who has forgotten she’s married to a brain-injured war vet. A post-traumatic fever dream directed by an amnesiac who had forgotten he was living in the early nineties, Archangel was awarded Best Experimental Film from the U.S. National Society of Film Critics. Despite these successes, Maddin’s “art films,” criticized for their incoherence and elitism, had been bombing at the box office: Returning home after Careful’s sold-out debut at the New York Film Festival, Maddin was informed of the film’s dire opening weekend in Toronto; when it played in New York, it apparently closed before the end of the first week.

Though Maddin became the youngest director to receive Telluride’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, he was submerged in a career funk. For a Canadian cinéaste, it’s only necessary to impress one entity: the government. Telefilm Canada had decided to withhold funds from the in-production The Dykemaster’s Daughter, deeming it a “lateral move.” This failure would haunt the troubled 1997 production of the hermetic and flawed film blanc, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Maddin’s only picture shot on that clunky, light-dependent process known as 35mm; interviewed on set, a morose Maddin vowed he’d never make another feature. Plagued by difficulties, including a lead (Nigel Whitmey) who had to be redubbed under pressure from the producers and who demanded anonymity, Maddin now says the end result “came out of the birth canal stillborn” and archly stylized—some (including the director) would say inert.5 Maddin’s characters might have remained spineless, but the director, it seemed, was tired of even himself. In his diary, dated April 13, 1998, he wrote:

Touring with Twilight of the Ice Nymphs has become unbearable; to most, the movie is simply not very interesting. It may not be “pretentious” but it is “tedious.” “Your new movie is not funny, yet your other movies are funny. Could you explain?” My own Stardust Memories. Just one more trip, Missouri, lessons from the lash for now, I think. No, no, and no more festivals, please no more, just turn them down, places like New Zealand and Australia, just turn them down. I’ve nothing to say about the picture, and I’m giving really bad interviews precisely at the time Alliance can get plenty of them for me. What a squandered opportunity.

Three years and six minutes later, he was reborn as a filmmaker for both the silent film iconoclasts, experimental eggheads, and, perhaps, the MTV generation.

Wedding his sometimes-silent visions to micro-montage and musical accompaniment, Maddin’s fertile second coming sees the filmmaker assembling, at a frenetic pace, playful works that continue to laugh at traditional storytelling, or, in Dracula, using Stoker’s Gothic narrative as a launching pad for aesthetic overload (and taking on the Victorian view of sexuality-breeds-psychosis that he has spent an entire career parodying). Described on paper, Dracula sounds like one of those SCTV teasers for a TV movie of the week, hosted by Count Floyd, that never actually shows come 9 p.m. on Thursdays—an all-dancing version of the sexy story of the Prince of Darkness, starring a man of Chinese ancestry, set to the music of Mahler, and edited to look like some bastard child of Baz Luhrmann and Carl Dreyer. More than a “dance film,” it’s actually a bona fide silent feature where those pesky actors just happen to be dancing. The film, it almost goes without saying, is fantastic, and delivers a stake to the heart for what passes as contemporary cinema.6

II. Pathe 1 Theatre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, January 2003

Guy Maddin often shines in public appearances, if only because his reaction to attention is to revert, like a stand-up comedian at someone else’s birthday party, to telling anything to get a laugh. At the highlight of the Maddin retrospective, a showing of Dracula in what has to be the largest theatre in Holland—Super 8 has never been so super—a menacing viewer of indeterminate gender rises from the 800-person audience at the start of the Q-and-A and berates the director for daring to make the worst ballet picture ever, filming horrible choreography and embarrassing the poor dancers. He even dared to “show the preparations.” Maddin hears out the heckler and responds courteously: “Well, uh, madam, perhaps we should have had someone like you there to point that out to us… and I could respond to your charge of ‘showing the preparations’ if I had any idea what that means.” At this point a crazed, touqued, exiled Canadian filmmaker who had been stalking Maddin for his two days in Holland walks up to the front of the room and makes some helpful suggestion, something along the lines of, “Tell her you don’t dance.” Afterward, I look concerned. “Don’t worry,” Maddin says. “I don’t mind those kinds of comments. At least they’re different. In Canada, nobody would ever dare to be that hostile to my face.”


For critics who don’t despise what they see as smug, kitschy, or hermetic academism, Maddin’s funhouse films are irresistible to write about, especially compared with the drudgery that occupies most of their time. This is so much the case that discussion of his filmmaking often spirals into a subjective, effusive miasma of words piled upon words, active and passive adjectives outweighing well-argued analytics; this is encouraged by the director’s own predilection to spin his own tall tales in interviews. (Here is a man who has offered up for public consumption five different stories of his own birth.) Their attractiveness surely spurs from the fact that they sound unlike anything else around, today at least. Maddin’s primitivism is a factor of the limited means of his early days in Winnipeg as a member of the bountifully creative yet financially strapped Winnipeg Film Group—using handheld cameras, black-and-white film stock, and vaseline (on the lenses), he proved the most valuable tool is a pliable imagination. Much of his latest work is still shot on a trusty, rusty Swiss Bolex camera from the sixties.

Underexamined, also, is how this new phase in Maddin’s career is unimaginable without digital technology.7 Though he continues to shoot on monochrome film stock, often mixing 16mm and Super 8—Cowards was shot all on Super 8—the difference between this stage and Maddin’s earlier films is the editing style, encouraged to ward off that most unwanted of moviegoing experiences: boredom. To paraphrase Maddin’s extremely detailed Cowards screenplay—a line written when the lead character abandons his girlfriend, as she sits spread-eagled at an abortion clinic, for another woman—watching Maddin’s films are tantamount to “the joy, joy, joy of meeting someone new.” In Maddin’s films, viewers are met by the constant changing of perspective, close-ups and long shots, the alternations of iris shots, occasional bursts into color, the rapid-fire micro-montages, all seemingly approached four sheets to the wind, with a shooting and editing approach more based on intuition than storyboarding. (The low-budget, small-crew Cowards was shot in five days, with as many as 150 camera set-ups a day.)

With a main character named Guy Maddin, and its primary setting in the two locations known to have had the most impact on Maddin’s childhood, Cowards sounds like it might be the filmed equivalent of a memoir; Maddin has the life to back it up, like something out of an old Hollywood scandal sheet: His father, who haunts his films almost as much as does Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), not only died young, but before that—shades of Oedipus—lost an eye (in an accident replicated in an early scene in Careful); and we’ve already mentioned his older brother. But the delirious noir melodrama Cowards, while concerned with the crazy things people do when they are in love,8 is more faked autobiography, with similar names and emotional occurrences. Still, it takes on all the characteristics of Maddin’s rich fantasy life.

Nothing beats a good story. If fiction is sometimes barely disguised autobiography, Cowards is its mirror image, twisted and poisoned wish-fulfillment: the mythomaniacal Maddin casts “himself” as a hockey sniper made lily-livered by femmes fatales, mother Liliom, and preciously named daughter Meta, and resurrects his father as the team’s radio broadcaster and his own romantic antagonist. Set in a shadow-suffused hockey arena in 1930s Winnipeg, the site of murder and a Mabuse-like beauty salon-slash-abortion clinic lined with two-way mirrors, the plot drips with the Grecian formula, as sordid family secrets spawn unintentional murder most foul. Veering into penny dreadful territory with the introduction of a vengeful ghost and uncontrollable extremities as windows into the unconscious, Maddin fixates on his characters’ groping and fisting expressionist paws, bathing them in ethereal light and chopping them into dazzling, iris-heavy micro-montages. Room to pant is provided by slo-mo replays, alternately poignant and explosive: lurid, frenzied moments of impulsive violence and carnivorous sexuality lend this bewitchingly onanistic work—easily devoured in one voyeuristic standing—the sublime naughtiness of an antique hand-cranked skin flick. It all takes place, after all, within a drop of sperm.

Doubles, characters with similar names, and brothers in competition all are habitual to Maddin’s films. As Freud argues in his discussion of the uncanny, what’s most strange and eerie comes not from what is far away from our experience and feelings (the exotic, the foreign, the utterly new and alien) but from what is close to home, the private and the familiar that have been rendered secret through repression, but then return (whether as Dracula or as the ghost of a girlfriend who has died on an operating table—herself, arguably, the reappearance of a similarly named character from a previous film—or of a father, thought to be dead).9 To step back into the personal, Maddin deals upfront with issues that are typically repressed—it’s often written about Maddin that one of the attributes that makes his sexually asphyxiating films unique is their lack of subtext—those familial scandals that he keeps revisiting, his obsessions are the ones that others would wish kept in the closet. The way Maddin tells it, it’s as if it’s impossible for him to live in a melodrama-less state, and it’s hard to argue, really, that Cowards is less “truthful” than the more conventional autobiographies.

III. Cinematheque Ontario Carte Blanche, Toronto, March 2003

For two weeks in Toronto, immediately after Maddin had finished shooting The Saddest Music in the World, the Cinematheque feted the filmmaker with an almost-complete retrospective and a carte blanche. In the audience every night was Darcy Fehr, who has a cameo as manservant Mute Teddy in The Saddest Music and played the role of Guy Maddin in Cowards—he claimed to be doing research, seemingly unconcerned that Cowards had already been filmed, edited, and premiered. As bombs were falling on Baghdad, Maddin showed up to introduce a double-bill, his own Archangel—his first masterpiece, still his personal favorite, and the film most resembling the manic Maddin works of the present—a film obsessed with propaganda of the Great War; and another film chosen by Maddin as part of the carte blanche program. The film that was originally scheduled, Arthur Ripley’s cult noir, The Chase (1946), had to be replaced because the wrong print had arrived—that of Arthur Penn’s Marlon Brando-starring The Chase (1966). Presented with a number of options, Maddin chose John Stahl’s seminal 1932 melodrama, Back Street.10 In the introduction, he discusses both the history of melodrama—Back Street was remade starring Susan Heyward, produced by Ross Hunter, Douglas Sirk’s producer, and Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945) was a major influence on Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven—as well as one of the stars of Back Street, the notoriously wooden actor John Boles, whom Maddin and his co-writer, University of Manitoba film professor George Toles, admire so much they have given the amnesiac lead of Archangel his name.

After a five-minute introduction, the film begins, and—it is Back Street, but it’s neither the original, nor the 1961 remake, but the version from 1941 starring Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan. (After the film, Maddin suggested that few audience members would have noticed if it wasn’t for my guffaw upon seeing the title card.) Sullavan was perhaps best known for The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart. In Back Street, Boyer and Sullavan meet early in life, but circumstances prevent them from marrying; ten years later, Boyer is married, and he runs into Sullavan on the streets of New York. They have a lengthy affair, and he sets her up in an apartment on the “back streets” of Greenwich Village, where she suffers as Boyer refuses to leave his family or to tell his wife about her. After the film, discussion turns to Sullavan—in particular, how the film, in a way, mirrored her own life at the time: She was rumored to have been involved with Stewart, even though she was married at the time to agent/producer Leland Hayward (her third marriage, after ones to Stewart’s good friend Henry Fonda and to director William Wyler). All of her marriages were stormy affairs, but her greatest love may have been for Stewart, the one she never married. She became deaf late in her life and committed suicide in 1960, overdosing on sleeping pills.11


Perhaps the time is right for Maddin’s type of filmmaking. Nostalgia and romancing the past are currently as de rigueur as the glorification of kitsch. But although Maddin wholeheartedly embraces primitivism, he despises continuity and complicates nostalgia. He juggles his numerous references, in a way, based on forgetfulness—both his audience’s and his own. After bringing up one reference, he quickly moves along, never allowing another filmmaker to cohabit his space for too long, never permitting viewers to dwell on the twisted narrative. Moreover, Maddin’s films are culturally toxic, and the past that he presents is one that we would never want to live in, like the pro-incest, pro-repression Tolzbad of Careful, or the smallpox-laden town of Gimli. These are examples of what Maddin calls “the sand in the oyster.” But it’s also useful to unpack the term “cinephilia,” and suggest that the term is often used to describe attitudes toward film that aren’t so similar. The most extreme kind, which is often practiced by members of my profession, as well as by numerous squinty-eyed practitioners on the Internet, is an ossified type—it enshrines films of the past in the museums of one’s own mind and holds them up as Platonic ideals that all filmmakers must aspire to recreate.12 This is physically enacted at the end of Cowards. After the vengeful Meta, confronted by the return of her dead father, plunges Kim Novak-style down a catwalk onto the arena’s icy surface, the ruined-by-cowardice, self-deluded Guy Maddin finds himself uncannily frozen as a wax sculpture in the Maroons hall of fame. This hall of shame is one of ossified cowardice, the place where Meta’s father, supposedly dead, has been hiding for the last ten years, afraid of returning to the responsibilities of fatherhood—as opposed to Maddin, whose grown-up and married daughter, Jilian, occupies a significant role in his diaries (and, I trust, his life).

Playing Spot the Reference  is a mug’s game when it comes to Maddin; his cinephilia has more in common with that of Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold (whose films are a strong influence on the editing style of Cowards) or, indeed, with the Electra complex itself. One of Maddin’s ongoing projects is remaking lost films, movies that he has never even seen. The Heart of the World reimagines Abel Gance’s 1931 apocalyptic science-fiction film La fin du monde, which only exists in a butchered version as The End of the World; other possible films in the project include Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s Four Devils (1928).13 These films, as well as those that inspire his other work (whether we’re talking about noirs, melodramas, or silents) have, in a way, been murdered by history, remakes, and ossification, and Maddin takes revenge. But in doing so, he also admits to possessing a certain amount of guilt and shame, a result from having to resort to a type of mimicry to bring them back to life. Yet he staunchly avoids remakes by a multifold process: (a) a greater rapidity of the image, a stylistic innovation; (b) the absurdification of the narrative, the extreme complication of the plot (which, to be frank, sound as absurd as some of the early-period films he references); (c) the hyper-hyperstylization of sets and dialogue; and (d) the injection of autobiography, which, in the case of Maddin, is melodrama through and through and is almost inseparable from cinematic experiences.

A good analogy capturing Maddin’s relationship to cinema’s past might be that of a gulp of mouthwash. Gargling, you feel invigorated; your breath is fresh and sometimes, if you’ve chosen the right mouthwash, you’ve warded away the odd cavity. At any rate, you’re ready to start a new day. Similarly, the entire history of cinema has use—it’s part of an ongoing narrative, one that is simultaneously linear (due to technological advances) and circular, with the reappearance of themes, faces, stories—but you’ve got to spit it out at the end before you swallow the toxic substance. The more that I immerse myself in Maddin’s seemingly outrageous films, rewatching them over the year as means of preparing for writing essays on and delivering introductions of the director, and the more that I read his writing (or, for shame, talk to him), the more intensely personal his films appear. His diaries, strewn with passages of self-doubt amid the director’s amorous exploits, make it painfully clear: For Maddin, filmmaking is a way of coping.

IV. Rotterdam, January 2003

Just off the airplane, fresh out of two film introductions, Maddin and I subjected a less-than-healthy crowd of critics, programmers, and the odd member of the general public who wandered into the room accidentally to an hour-long conversation about his career. The discussion soon spiralled into sit-down comedy and homespun Maddinisms (the day peaked with a live talk-show interview at two in the morning, where Maddin was asked about the first time he had sex). After an hour, the director began to take questions from the audience, a situation fraught with all kinds of opportunities—especially when your stalker is sitting in the front row. One curious individual asked Maddin: “What events from your life, your childhood, did you want to include in Cowards, but for whatever reason didn’t?” Without hesitation, he began  a story that I had never heard before, one which left the audience in stitches. It is a high point.

I am paraphrasing:

At his third birthday party, Guy’s father hires a performing monkey, who happens to be living in Winnipeg (he retired from Hollywood), to entertain the young filmmaker-to-be. The monkey arrives dressed as a cowboy, wearing a small Stetson, a brass star, a pair of six-shooters on his hips, the whole deal, and starts to play the piano. Young Guymo, ecstatic, sits down beside the monkey  with glee, and starts to tickle the ivories alongside him. All of Maddin Sr.’s players, swigging beers in the background, watch as well. The monkey turns his head to look at Guy, who is pounding away with little aptitude for the instrument; the monkey looks peeved. Sure enough, seconds later, the monkey reaches for his waist, withdraws one of his pistols from the  holster, and proceeds to pound young Guy furiously over the head. As everyone in the room stands in shock, the monkey leaps onto the table and jumps up and down on Guy’s cake, gulps down a pitcher of chocolate milk, and resumes pounding Guy with the gun. Well, the hockey team has had enough, and soon  they are forcibly ripping our closest genetic relative off the young Maddin, weeping and pained, who sits heartbroken by the failed fantasy of his birthday surprise.

“So why didn’t you put it in the movie?” came the necessary follow-up.

“We just didn’t have money for the monkey in the budget,” Guy replied, adding the tongue-in-cheek fighting words of a man constantly at battle with his demons: “I also wasn’t sure that I could recreate the scene with the necessary ferocity.”

Immediately following the end of the session, a few of the diehards in the audience approached the director, wanting—no, demanding—to know the relative truth of this story (Was there a monkey? Did he attack you? Did you have a third birthday party? Are you really from Winnipeg?), and Guy, looking far more insistently honest than I had seen him previously that day, shook his head repeatedly and said, “I swear to you, every word of that is true, every word,” before he paused for a second, and raised a finger. “OK, I exaggerated one thing: the monkey only hit me with the pistol once.


Four months later, because I have nothing better to do, I am leafing (rather, “windowing”) through the collected writings of Guy Maddin, soon to be released by Coach House Books, a small press in Toronto. I am drawn to a forty-page story that is an earlier form of Maddin’s autobiography, charmingly titled The Child Without Qualities. Maddin has written that he wanted to be a writer before becoming a filmmaker, and literature is as influential on his work as the cinéastes earlier mentioned: Knut Hamsun, John Ruskin, Herman Melville, Bruno Schulz, and, in Cowards, Marcel Proust, Euripides, and, of course, Robert Musil. The anecdotal Child Without Qualities casts the young Guy Maddin as a Musil-like observer in the often tragic events of his past. Set squarely in the 1960s, when Winnipeg was a “hockey hotbed,” The Child Without Qualities is in fact one of those thinly embellished childhood fictions, written like a confessional-slash-major motion picture treatment. Purportedly a realistic capturing of Maddin’s childhood, including an emotional evocation of Maddin’s own reaction to his brother’s suicide, I come across the following:

One day, CHAS and the rest of the Maroons have a birthday party for THE CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES. It was hard to tell just exactly how old the birthday boy was; nobody seemed to care. The party started in the dressing room, but soon billowed, bellowed, and tinkled its way into the rest of the deserted, half lit, seating area. Countless legs hung down from a low ceiling of smoke; THE CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES was bestowed the honour of pouring out punch into the tallest of highball glasses for the scarred faces which emerged from the clouds above. Even a chimpanzee, dressed as a cowboy and toting a pair of six-guns, attended the party. It was said he retired from making Tarzan movies, and was now brought here specially to play with the young birthday boy. This delighted the child, but all attempts to befriend the ape were met with ruthlessness and stupidity. Surely it was the power of the team’s celebrity that attracted the former celebrity from the animal world, but no deference was paid out by the chimp. It drank down at one draught all of the child’s chocolate milk between its huge black lips and gulped down every drop while the party guests howled. Later, while the simian sat at the giant pipe organ and slammed away moronically on the keyboard with its rash, elongated paws, the CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES sat tentatively beside him on the bench in hopes of making a crowd-pleasing duet. But no duet was to take place: the former celebrity swung round, growled fiercely, knocked off his own cowboy hat, and dealt the CHILD WITHOUT QUALITIES a vicious punch to the face, toppling him to the cement of the organist’s aerie.

From The Child Without Qualities, written in 1992 and suffused with recognizable sadness and loss, to Cowards Bend the Knee, the detached, passive observer—the Maddin who lay in bed, listening to the radio late at night, or spent hours upon hours as a teen plopped on his couch watching sitcoms and game shows—has become the new Maddin hero, The Man Who Loved and Left Women. This movement has been occurring naturally in his films; though the characters remain just as cowardly, they have become more active (even if the murderous Guy Maddin in Cowards is fully guided by his unconscious). Reading The Child Without Qualities, it’s also clear why Maddin has never made a film set in his own lifetime. In comparing the two texts we also have the development of the mythomaniacal Maddin literary style, seen in Cowards as well as in his articles on movies from the The Village Voice, Film Comment, Cinema Scope (which I happen to edit), and other publications, reprinted in the Coach House book (for which I happen to be writing the introduction): excessive hyperbole, often finding its punctuational equivalent in an overdose of exclamation marks; purple prose (surely the influence of, among others, frequent script collaborator George Toles); and a mixing of personal mythology with actual mythology, oftentimes Greek, plentytimes Hollywood.


V. Sample Maddin writing, from the Village Voice, June 12-18, 2002

“Anthology’s Halogen Canticles program presents a rare chance to see three staggeringly unstable movies—chlorotic, tumescent features made in all good faith by clammy journeymen gone mad in high fevers—and, programmed alongside each, the landmark short films derived from them by back-alley emulsion doctors with secret, sadistic needs of their own…. The ninety-six–minute Road to Salina features a Murderer’s Row cast of Robert Walker Jr. (the skittish look-alike ghost of his own father, remembered from Strangers on a Train), Rita Hayworth (a confused ghost of herself wandering around in another woman’s body, only the voice consistently recognizable from when she lived in Gilda), and mealy-faced über-Borgnine Ed Begley. Its groovy film vocabulary defining the era, this is a picture Spike Jonze might have studied compulsively. An orgy of zooms!! Brazen dubbing—even the cars seem to rumble out of sync in a foreign language!! Hardcore spaghetti-psychedelic score!! Free love, with your sister!! Rita Hayworth smokes a joint and boogaloos with Begley!! (Fred Astaire always said Hayworth was his best partner. Perhaps already suffering undiagnosed from the Alzheimer’s that killed her, Hayworth is rumored to have preferred Begley.) A spectacular vintage car wreck of a movie.”


One of the primary texts in the case of Cowards (which is subtitled The Blue Hands) is The Hands of Orlac, whose transformation over eighty-plus years, in a way, typifies a number of trends in filmmaking.14 The Hands of Orlac was first filmed in 1924 by Robert Wiene (best known as director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), starring the irrepressible Conrad Veidt as a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident and then has them replaced by the hands of a murderer. In 1935, Karl Freund—possibly the best cinematographer-turned-director, for those who are interested in such party games—remade the film as the more psychologically lurid Mad Love, starring Maddin fave Peter Lorre as the insane Dr. Gogol, a surgeon whose obsession with an actress leads him to replace her husband’s wounded hands with those of a knife-throwing murderer. (Already, it’s beginning to sound more Maddinesque.) In 1960, The Hands of Orlac was remade anon, with Mel Ferrer and Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, and a plot more like the original. Early films, in other words, have become the standards, the “All the Things You Are,” the “Isn’t It Romantic.” The other, of course, is Electra, to which Maddin says, in the Cowards interview book: “Perhaps what makes those Euripidean tragedies so durable is that the original structures seem to be my autobiography as well… Those are ingenious plots that describe everyone’s life at one time or the other, so once I slipped away what little remained of Euripides, what was left was some core sample of me.”

How does Maddin personalize the film? As to be expected, his twist of the story is even more psychosexual than Freund’s—and more tragic. Rather than the hands of a dead murderer, it’s those of a murdered individual—Meta’s father, Chas, reborn from The Child Without Qualities—but, we later figure out, Chas never even died in the first place (and, in fact, the hands aren’t even switched at all). Guy Maddin is compelled by Meta to kill, but imagine the shame and humiliation when he discovers that the responsibility ultimately lies with him: Merely painted blue, they were his own hands after all. And therein lie the roots of tragedy. Cowards is a way of Maddin distracting himself from the more painful memories, or, indeed, a way of having the memories but subverting them. Maddin is clearly taking control of the cowardice of his youth, and, in doing so, he makes The Hands of Orlac his own: The film is a generous act toward his loved ones, his dead father reborn as a virile competitor of the director (and now possessing the full capacity for sight, an Oedipus in reverse), and his spinster aunt Lil becoming the Clytemnestra character, a femme fatale murderess, just as strong and potent as Guy Maddin Sr. (The film is dedicated to them both.) Veronica, the ghost, is played by the niece of his brother’s dead girlfriend (her resemblance to the dead girlfriend, Maddin says, is uncanny—in this most uncanny of films).15 Maddin has said, in an interview in the book with Robert Enright, that the character he identifies with most is Meta, the Electra-like figure, who carries with her the burden of a disappeared father, named… Chas.16 Moreover, if we are to take Maddin’s words at face value, both in the Cowards volume interview and in the numerous diary entries that discuss his family, Guy Maddin’s true fear has to do with his most loved one, his daughter. The abortion at the heart of Cowards is the abortion that never happened.17

VI. Maddin Diaries, August 23, 1988

“What an overwhelming and simple pleasure it is to live with Jilian… Jill and I have actually stayed in two nights running. Last night we watched The Philadelphia Story, and tonight we channel-surfed until we started, too late for our sleepy heads, to watch Strangers on a Train. (Got halfway through.) We swam for 30 minutes today, with Steve, at Sargent Park. Yesterday, we swam at Pan Am pool for thirty-seven minutes; the day before that Jill and I swam for 60 minutes. I’ve learned how to love people while I’m with them; nostalgia for the present, George would call it. My eyes tear up when I think how much I love my daughter. She roller blades alongside my wobbly old bike (from Uncle Laurence) up Arbuthnot and down Scotland on our way to swim. In the water I watch her as she swims beside me. Once, when we were both ‘Australian crawling,’ I loved her with my eyes, and my eyes swelled up and throbbed like a proud and lovesick heart. Jill’s stay has been full and great and strength-giving. We even wrote in our journals together. And she took an interest in Sei Shonogon’s Pillow Book, reading a few passages aloud. I gave her this book, bought in Edmonton originally to give to Sabrina, but it is Jill’s now and perhaps it will be a tuning fork for her journal-writing tone from now on. We’ve had wine together, watched The Balloonatic together, looked at my old photos. Jill wants some copied, including my pig-slaughtering pics and one of Phil Silvers. She found photos of Chas with Fran Huck that she wanted, and requests a copy of Cameron’s obituary.”


Though Cowards was made as a gallery-specific installation, it works perfectly as a big-screen projection, as those who saw the film at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival will attest. The film is a major Maddin work, occupying a central role in his filmography, despite the director’s own uneasiness toward it. And much of the film’s success can surely be traced to its mode of production, the complete freedom afforded by the ability to make a film produced by an art gallery. (In Ice Nymphs, Frank Gorshin’s Cain Ball proclaims: “A man with no independence has little to call his own!”) The film world (including Maddin) has been trained to see something like Cowards as a minor work—not a “feature film” because its budget is ridiculously low, its crew is barely paid, its presentation as an installation odd—in ten peepholes, no less, to be seen by a couple of hundred gallery-goers in each city stop, as its mode of presentation is being controlled, for now, by the gallery that produced it. But give it time, my friends: Cowards Bend the Knee may be the future of filmmaking.

VII. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Filming The Saddest Music in the World, March 2003

Watching Guy Maddin work brings to mind Orson Welles’s famous line about a film set being “the biggest train set any boy ever had.” Besides being a place for fun, good cheer, and numerous camera operators, it’s also really cold, especially in the middle of a Winnipeg winter, when the producers can’t afford to heat a warehouse. It’s actually colder inside the set than outside—so it makes perfect sense that a large portion of the set is, in fact, passing for the outside—with temperatures hovering around thirty-below. Playing Lady Port-Huntley, the beer baron who lost her legs in a car accident, Isabella Rossellini has been dolled up in a blond wig; she has yet to don her glass legs, filled with beer. In the previous scene, which required a long shot of Isabella being carried across the set, Maddin had ordered the senior-citizen, double-amputee war vet who answered an open call in the local paper—the crew all called him “Stumpy Joe”—to the set, and, in front of Stumpy Joe’s bawling son, proceeded to dunk the old man in a frigid pool of water. Now McKinney and Rossellini are engaged in a debate over how to play an earlier scene. After two takes, Maddin, who harbors a slight distrust of actors but is as excessively polite giving directions as he is in his day-to-day life, says somewhat hesitantly to the very game Rossellini, who sits freezing her ass off, even with her fur underwear, “Uh, Isabella, could you try doing this one like your mother in Notorious?”


The million-dollar question is, What will The Saddest Music in the World look like? Rephrase: How can Maddin integrate his recent style in the strict structure of the feature film industry and sustain it during a ninety-minute narrative—a film with dialogue, no less, and songs, glorious songs?

Set in 1933 Winnipeg, a town that has accumulated “a glistening wealth of unhappiness,” Saddest Music has the Maddin touch, for sure. A Canadian-born Broadway “producer of musical spectaculars,” Mark McKinney returns home to Winnipeg, penniless, and comes to represent the United States in a saddest music contest alongside caterwauling nationals worldwide. Each round of the contest itself culminates with both representatives playing their music at the same time, literalizing Maddin’s predilection for combining source material with autobiography. The film features brothers battling over the same nymphomaniac amnesiac woman (Narcissa, played by Maria de Medeiros), father and son as romantic rivals (this time over Isabella, who lost her legs in a Murnau-like car accident), and two forms of cowardice: McKinney’s crass Chester Kent (named after Jimmy Cagney’s character in 1933’s Footlight Parade), the extrovert, the new active Maddin protagonist; and his brother, Roderick (played in an inspired silent film-with-dialogue turn by Ross McMillan, who voices the lead in Ice Nymphs), who has been reborn as Gavrilo the Great, a Serbian cellist mourning for his dead son—whose heart he carries in his pocket, preserved in his own tears—and for his missing wife. Veiled, timid, and self-hating, Roderick is the classic Maddin character. He’s even saddled with sensitive skin, causing him to shirk when his recovering alcoholic, war-vet, doctor-inventor father (David Fox) attempts to hug him.

All of the film’s characters are parts seeking to be wholes, their personal losses taking place on the most public stage. A full-fledged, linear talkie—a musical, no less—Saddest Music is Maddin at his most audience-friendly, even if it’s his most political film yet. Though entirely shot on Super 8 and 16mm on tinkertoy-like sets in two locations, primarily inside of a Winnipeg warehouse—where all exteriors were filmed (par for the course for Maddin, who shot the mountain movie Careful indoors)—it’s his least hermetic film to date, in many ways the opposite of Ice Nymphs. But Saddest Music is politics fused with autobiography: This film is no sea change, merely refinement, and one can say that although it alludes heavily to the Broadway Melodies of Busby Berkeley and the paraplegic revenge melodramas of Lon Chaney, the musical standard that links the film on a sonic and emotional level is Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.”18 The Kern number appears numerous times; in a flashback as the song the brothers were playing when their mother died, on an old cylinder spun by Roderick as he returns home in a smashing rear-projection train sequence, sung by amnesiac nymphomaniac de Medeiros, and even as the backdrop for a Love Me Tonight-style town song-and-dance routine. Yes, the grist for the mill this time is Maddin’s artistic career, with the obligatory conflict, as usual, between art and commerce.19

Now that we’ve dispensed with the myth of the subtext-free Maddin, let me point out that his mini-masterpiece, The Heart of the World—itself a kind of fantastic Chester Kent “prologue”—lends itself to a curiously political reading. More than just a blenderized sci-fi melodrama, the superlative short was made for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival as part of a series of shorts designed to honor the festival’s twenty-fifth anniversary; its title, surely, also refers to Toronto, a city that for a week and a half considers itself to be the heart of the film world (And, to a Winnipeger, surely considers itself the heart of Canada for the rest of the year). Maddin’s first thought upon being “ordered” to praise the festival was to compose a manifesto of agitprop. Maddin’s seemingly disposable entertainment, made for the same festival that rejected Gimli, ends with the self-sacrifice of its heroine, who, after choking the evil cigar-chomping industrialist Akmatov (played by Maddin’s former producer, Greg Klymkiw), descends to the earth’s heart, saving the world and “creating” film. In La fin du monde, Gance himself played Jean Novalic, the son of the astronomer who discovers the approaching comet. Jean becomes a would-be messiah, denouncing the ribald excesses of humanity and getting himself crucified. How Maddin, his congested career at the time in a semi-constant state of torment with regard to filming and funding, would identify is obvious. The size of this baggage also explains why he would make the kind of film that he did—audacious, challenging, and unrelenting—when given free rein and a plentiful bounty, where other directors who directed film festival preludes played it safe. The Heart of the World’s mirrored shards provide a mournful legacy of Gance’s loss; the way Maddin shifts the thrust of the narrative alters history. And his inspired replacement of an external cause (meteor crashing) with an internal one (heart failure) is a direct precursor to Cowards’s similarly tragic shift in causation.

On the other hand, Saddest Music presents it all upfront for everyone to see, and seems even more political in the current climate.20 It encourages a reading as the most predominant statement to date on American cultural imperialism made in the country that has suffered the most from it, due to border proximity (e.g., the highest-rated Friends). The saddest music contest itself is a scheme hatched by Lady Port-Huntley to promote the brewery’s peaty wares south of the border, with the impending end of Prohibition. Chester’s own cigar-chomping bluster, desiring to put on a show that’s “vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks… you know, sadness, but with sass and pizzazz”—makes him sound like he could be the media consultant for the Pentagon.21 It shouldn’t scuttle the film’s prospects, though Maddin, as always, is considerably nervous. As the music contest comes to a typically dramatic end, after the father, who represents Canada with an absurd nationalist ditty (“Red Maple Leaves”), it comes down to brother versus brother. “You have turned our most private grief into a carnival peep show… with my brother, the pimp, selling tickets!” Roderick says to Narcissa, when he hears her singing their song in public. Chester, meanwhile, has been buying off the other bands, so that the last American performance enacts the melting pot as, instead, a voracious Venus flytrap. The beautiful “The Song Is You” is left for Roderick’s solo cello rendition to bring the house down.22 Chester, instead, produces and directs Indians dressed as Eskimos spearing fish, Swiss pan flautists, sitar players, and banjo pickers in an inspired, mongrelized version of a song sure to cockle the hearts of many an aspiring Hollywoodian—“California, Here I Come.” As always furiously independent, Maddin is daring us to admit that the saddest music in the world very well might be the sound that change makes when it jingles around in the pocket of someone who has sold out.

Postscript: The Power Plant, Toronto, Opening of the Cowards Bend the Knee, March 2003

Entering the packed show, I hear that when the ten peepholes were drilled into the wall an hour earlier, dirty, mote-filled gusts of wind began to stream outward into the unsuspecting viewers’ eyes, making the endurance test of an hour on foot that much less tempting; yet the line into the nondescript installation snakes around the corner. Near the entrance, I run into Maddin, who tells me he has steadily watched a stream of futile observers leave, holding their eyes and threatening to sue him, though luckily the gallery bears all legal responsibility. To his right, he sees someone and waves, then turns to me. “Hey, my brother Ross is here. He was there at my birthday party. You can ask him about the monkey story.” As if Ross would own up to the truth, whatever the truth might be. Ross turns the corner and snakes outside to get a beer. Rather than follow him, I’m content to let the myth stand. Instead, I enter the crowded room to press my eye to a wall and catch a glimpse of the past, a slo-mo replay moment of a fedoraed father shaking the hand of his completely naked son, who’s just led his team to victory in the prestigious Allan Cup finals.


1. The Genies are Canada’s corrupt version of the Oscars, given annually to films from Quebec nobody has ever seen.
2. The challenge is that there’s only one filmmaker in the visionary category who is now a Household Name—David Lynch (to whom Maddin is sometimes compared). But Lynch’s Household Namestate has more to do with his television work than with his film “breakthrough,” the Isabella Rossellini-starring Blue Velvet.
3. Maddin’s diary, dated June 2, 1998: “I’m 42 years old and I’m as lazy as my first report card said I was.”
4. Those wanting a more extensive biography of Maddin are advised to seek out the interview book Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin (Arbeiter Ring Publishing), penned by Caelum Vatnsdal, who plays the actor playing Jesus in the Passion Play in The Heart of the World (and is currently co-directing a documentary on Saddest Music).
5. The making of the film has been enshrined in Noam Gonick’s documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight (1997), which paints the suffering director as passive-aggressive and self-pitying, often swearing it would be the last feature he would ever make. He also reveals that he suffers from a mysterious neurological ailment where he has the sensation of invisible fingers brushing over his body that guide him as to where to place the camera. He is also seen living in fear that his actors—all of whom gush about their brilliant director—might snatch away his movie. Gonick’s film is also full of useful background material, often in the form of mythomaniacal bluster offered up by Maddin’s Winnipeg coterie.
6. Lest anyone think Canadian television is all of this quality, or that anyone in Canada watches it, Dracula was soundly romped in its time slot, finishing far behind the two winners: a rerun of Friends, and the semifinals of the Scott Tournament of Hearts women’s national curling championship.
7. A popular misconception directed toward Dracula and Cowards (and soon, surely, to Saddest Music) is that Maddin shoots some of his work on digital video; Dracula, in fact, showed up in the New York Video Festival (at least it was projected on video, though the version now traveling in theatres is a 35mm print made from a video transfer of the Super 8 and 16mm). The best explanation for this misconception is Maddin’s new montage-heavy editing style, and its association in the minds of many people with music videos. And it’s true—watching the most innovative new DV features, such as the ones shot by British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (especially his recent film for Danny Boyle, 28 Days Later), I am reminded of Maddin’s work; even though Mantle often plays with focus, there is always something new to look at with the change of each camera set-up and, like Maddin, there seems to be no underlying point of view.
8. In what is probably his most honest comment summarizing his filmmaking, Maddin has admitted, “The only real themes that matter to me are how humans love each other or hate each other or are envious of each other. All the timeless stuff,” Maddin says to Vatnsdal, and each cuckold-friendly film also finds two lovers isolated, in a honeymoon suite or a bedroom of some kind, experiencing an idyllic moment soon soured by the injection of a third point in the love triangle.
9. The motif of the missing or deceased father who often returns is itself recurring in the Maddin canon, and is the subject of his first short, The Dead Father, made in 1985—the year the Winnipeg Jets won their first NHL playoff series.
10. For the carte blanche, Maddin presented a mix of his favorites, including a classic Lon Chaney film (Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar), a number of film noirs (Lang’s Scarlet Street; the sublime Peter Lorre starrer The Face Behind the Mask, directed by facial mutilation impresario Robert Florey), an insane Joan Crawford B-movie (Berserk!), a pastiche, avant-garde rarity (George Kuchar’s The Devil’s Cleavage), a thirties musical (Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight), and a silent musical (the original Moulin Rouge, which was restored without anyone knowing, so it played an hour longer that one had assumed).
11. That the actual facts of the life of Margaret Sullavan contradict these coincidences should, I suppose, be noted. By all accounts, Stewart was likely in love with Sullavan, which was the reason it took him a long time to wed. However, they never had an affair, to anyone’s knowledge.
12. The advent of DVDs makes it possible for a physical manifestation of this enshrinement, for a museum of the mind literally existing in one’s own living room.
13. Though Gance’s La Roue, which provides the inspiration for Maddin’s surrealist 1995 short The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (a.k.a., Odilon Redon), is very much extant, it’s curious that before he made the short, Maddin had never seen it. The same is true with the character of Liliom—when he wrote the screenplay for Cowards, he had not seen the rare Fritz Lang film of the same name.
14. Just like the fate of the Winnipeg hockey team, one can say, typifies what has happened to Canada’s national sport. With NHL expansion, the Maroons begat the Winnipeg Jets, who moved out of Winnipeg to the hockey-ripe locale of Phoenix in 1996 due to financial mismanagement, anemic attendance, the incompetence of various levels of government bureaucracy, and the faltering Canadian dollar. And the Jets, in that way, begat the Manitoba Moose, the minor-league shinny practitioners who now dress in the room that Maddin used to chortle about in while a preteen, squeezing oranges into the mouths of half-dressed gladiators.
15. Maddin’s mother Herdis also appears in the film as Liliom’s mother. The film’s lurid sex scene—the raunchiest in the Maddin catalog—was shot right in front of her eyes, but to this date Maddin swears she is in the dark, as she was wearing sunglasses painted black, and he shone klieg lights directly in her face as the two leads groped in silence less than five feet away.
16. The Boswell to Maddin’s Johnson, Border Crossings editor Enright was also the official diarist on the set of Saddest Music, and is currently compiling a book on the making of the film, which should be out, along with a set of Guy Maddin action figures, sometime in 2004.
17. Other hypotheses to be investigated by future Maddin scholars: the relationship of Ice Nymphs to Knut Hamsun’s Pan; Careful to Melville’s Pierre.
18. One particular alteration that can be mined for meaning is the division of the vengeful character into two—Roderick, whose anger towards Chester leads to two fistfights in a ten-minute stretch, and, of course, the legless Lady Port-Huntley, who does harbour some anger at Chester for having caused her accident, but will still sleep with him.
19. Saddest Music not only sees the return of dialogue to the Maddin oeuvre, it embraces it with two ham-handed fists; for all the excitement of Maddin’s last three silent films, one forgets the importance of George Toles’s words to the Maddin experience.
20. Just as the defiantly apolitical Archangel, when seen during the recent Gulf War, damn well appears to be an anti-war film.
21. This political text is an acknowledged leftover from the film’s very different first draft, written by tea-sipping novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (“Ish”, Maddin calls him in his diaries). More Maddin madness: so little remains of Ishiguro’s first draft, which was set in Berlin after the fall of the Wall, that Saddest Music might be the only film with the credit “From an Original Screenplay by…” 22 Even if there are still two more renditions of “The Song Is You” to come in the film’s climactic three minutes.
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