Canada’s deepest pathologies
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is my first feature. As with all my shorts, directing this film Like a rutting salmon hurtling itself ridiculously upstream, yearning to actually die in the moment of its most creative outpouring, the images I’m always trying to achieve are so difficult that they might well exceed my capacity for representation. The resultant film is an unbridled surrealist epic, an insurgent attack upon the biopic form and a lament for 21st century nihilism. It is also an encyclopaedic effort to annoy my fellow Canadians.
The film takes as its subject the youthful obsessions of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King (1874-1950). In reading the young politician’s diary I was struck by how much it resembled my own diary: blistering with psychosexual confusion, fulminating with melodramatic leakage, and smugly beaming with mother-worship. I felt I could see my own demolished upbringing in this man, like I was witnessing my own wasted, obedient youth in Mackenzie King’s ancient confessions. And, looking deeper into his Freudian turmoil, I felt I could see directly into the deepest pathologies of Canada itself.
I describe THE TWENTIETH CENTURY as a nightmare Mackenzie King might have had in 1899 rather than a strictly fact-based biopic. Real characters and events from King’s factual life are fed through an oneiric prism and emerge in the film completely transformed; much as our anguished, sleeping minds reprocess the minutiae of our waking lives. Some historical films seek to hide their manipulations, but I believe that even the most rigorous of “based-on-true-events” biopics will always be more dream than reality. My cinematic nervous system is deeply connected to a long succession of stylists – Lang, Fellini, Zeman, Maddin, Waters, Terry Jones – who gleefully embrace and appropriate the artifices of cinema. The blatantly artificial nature of THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is also part of its historical argument. I wanted the viewer to be relentlessly confronted by the fakeness of nationhood under construction.
I don’t think of the film as a political movie, but it is nonetheless preoccupied by the exercise of power. More than any other politician I can name – and much like the nation he would lead – Mackenzie King incarnates the meaningless conviction of the political centre. Between the utopia and slapstick, between the tenderness and fury of the 20th century, between good and evil, Mackenzie King walked a very cautious line right down the middle. His legacy will be celebrated wherever we celebrate the most compromised version of ourselves. But in an age such as ours, which is every day more fanatical, more binary, more politically extreme, I find myself preoccupied by the idea of the political centre – its wisdom, its absurdity, as well as the insidious danger it can represent. THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is my way of exploring these ideas as the world stretches to its snapping point. (Matthew Rankin)
A downward spiral of self-pity
This hilariously strange, proudly unreliable biopic of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King is a surprisingly kinky, eye-popping cinematic marvel. Canadian filmmaker Matthew Rankin’s provocative debut focuses its lens on the story of Canada’s tenth Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. (…) When his hopes of victory are foiled by an unexpected rival, he descends into a downward spiral of self-pity and illicit shoe sniffing. One needn’t have a firm background (or any background) in turn-of-the-century Canadian political history to appreciate the absurdist humour or off-kilter visual beauty of THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. Rankin’s fondness for analogue filmmaking techniques and appreciation for obscure historical detail – reminiscent of fellow Canadian Guy Maddin – are evident in every freakish, impeccably crafted frame.