Back when I was in the video business, we got a steady stream of requests for Guy Maddin movies. I think we eventually got Tales of the Gimli Hospital and The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs before we closed up shop. There was a constant and surprising demand for these movies, given that this was the pre-Internet era and given that we were not doing business in a major city. I have to admit that I didn't "get" either of those movies when I initially saw them. Which is to say, I understood what Maddin was up to, but they seemed like intellectual exercises to me. They didn't grab me by the short hairs and drag me into their delirium. I didn't come around to Maddin until sometime later.
"The Heart of the World," Maddin's 2000 short film for the Toronto Film Festival, turned out to be the Rosetta stone for me regarding Maddin's aesthetic.
"The Heart of the World," like most of Maddin's films, looks back at disused cinematic traditions that the director rescues from the dustbin of history. It's mainly inspired by Russian silent films, with an emphasis on rapid montage. It's what you might get if Eisenstein had got it on with Vertov and been unleashed on the scene dock at UFA. A staccato score that emphasizes its forward motion accompanies the rapid flow of images. The score sends an affectionate elbow into the ribs of contemporary scores for silent movies.
Maybe because it's short, or maybe because it's completely drunk on the images it packs into its six minute run time, but it sent an electric bolt through me when it showed up at the start of a Halloween showing of Ginger Snaps at my local art house. Suddenly, I got it. Maddin's aesthetic poured into my brain and watered my own film obsessions with its concentrated intoxicants. What you see in this short film is the history of the early cinema's grand follies distilled into a series of propulsive images that seem a little bit like a transmission from an alternate dimension where the silent film never died out.
That last part is the key. "The Heart of the World," suggested to me the idea that Maddin wasn't just imitating the cinematic idioms of the past, he was extrapolating upon them. He was asking: what would have happened if such and such strain of cinema had continued to develop? What if, say, the surrealists had continued making films? What if the avant-garde filmmakers had moved into feature films?
As an object unto itself, "Heart of the World" is a sensual delight. Again, I think this is because it's short and packed with images. It moves too fast to carefully examine the frame, so what might read as a forgery at a longer length reads as totally authentic as if flashes across the eyes. Importantly, Maddin's images cohere as a narrative, which sets the hook. It doesn't hurt that it's funny and absurd, too. And kind of dirty.
After "Heart of the World", I wound up appreciating Tales of the Gimli Hospital and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs more than I had before, though I don't know that I'll ever really love either movie. First impressions die hard. I DO love a couple of Maddin's subsequent films, though, particularly Dracula: Pages of a Virgin's Diary, which is among my favorite horror movies of the 2000s. Without "The Heart of the World," I might have given that film a pass and I'd be poorer for it.