As Guy Maddin, Errol Morris And Julian schnabel all return to curzon screens, we celebrate the month that the mavericks emerge from the Margins.
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Guy Maddin’s understated, slightly clipped accent crackles over a long-distance phone line. “I still often go out on a Friday night with my popcorn and coke and watch the opening night of a movie,” the filmmaker says, chatting from his native Canada. “And I get quite excited about it. But after I’ve brushed my teeth, in most cases I can’t remember the movie anymore.” Maddin’s sentiments aren’t an isolated case of amnesia but a growing sense of disillusion with contemporary cinema – a feeling shared by many.

The mainstream film world is an increasingly desolate landscape with only fleeting moments of creativity. The Tinsel Town machine has run out of steam thanks to a blockbuster culture promoting profit over artistic expression. Adaptations are botched and bludgeoned into submission in order to conform to Hollywood’s rules. When original ideas are scarce, ’70s remakes fill the breach. And if all else fails, throw some CGI at the audience – it’s cheaper than building sets after all.
Contemporary cinema needs leaders – mavericks and visionaries prepared to push the boundaries. It’s a tradition dating back to the earliest pioneers of celluloid. Take a journey through the history of film and numerous characters stand out: the tireless energy of Charlie Chaplin; Orson Welles; Luis Buñuel, who pushed the boundaries of the weird and wonderful; Alfred Hitchcock, who forged the suspense genre; Francis Ford Coppola, who had the vision to finish Apocalypse Now despite almost insurmountable forces acting against him.
Of course, that’s not to say that the modern day scene is devoid of such characters. Bobbing on the horizon are creative geniuses who offer us a glimmer of hope. And it’s in the documentary field that these visionary agitators seem to be making the most noise.
Guy Maddin may not be a Hollywood A-lister but he’s certainly giving North American film a muchneeded kick up the arse. His films are hyper-surreal, and although My Winnipeg is his first documentary, it’s by no means conventional. “Thank God not that many are anymore,” he says. “The kind that used to bore us crapless at school are making way for lots of interesting new forms.” His films borrow heavily from silent movies, as well as the propaganda films of the Soviet Union and Weimar Republic. He calls My Winnipeg a “docu-fantastia”, combining real footage, re-enactment and his own dramatic voice-over.
Intriguingly, it’s the limitations of the documentary that he’s interested in highlighting: “In Michael Moore documentaries everyone is always debating how reliable he is. That should be most of the fun – not a point for dismissal.” Maddin isn’t interested in playing it safe. He’s trying to reconnect with the arts, something many filmmakers have sacrificed on the altar of commerce. “My approach may not be that common in the film world but I think it’s pretty common in the written word,” he adds.
Errol Morris’ method is altogether different. He doesn’t see the drawbacks that Maddin expresses. His is a rational, investigative style that tries to get beyond misinformation via contextualisation. His latest documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, looks at the infamous Abu Ghraib torture photos taken by US military personnel. “Photography can be misleading,” the American director has said. “Without context we are forced to interpret any way we choose.” Morris’ attention to detail is something few filmmakers have the patience to attempt – soldier Janis Karpinski was interviewed for 17 hours over two days. He amassed around one and a half million words of transcript, carried out over 30 interviews, worked his way through tens of thousands of pages of documents and over 1,000 photographs. Instead of using a photo to back up historical assertion – often extremely misleading – photographs were used as a “portal into history”, a fresh and innovative approach.

Julian Schnabel, director of the recent adaptation of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is another filmmaker rewriting the rules of documentary. A former avant-garde artist on the New York scene, his broken-plate paintings gained international notoriety in the late ’70s and ’80s – he only came to movie making relatively recently. His latest work is about Velvet Underground founder Lou Reed. Together, they decided to make a film around the first concert performances of his 1973 opus, Berlin; an album about break-ups, jealousy and other dark and disparate machinations conceived while strung out on drugs. A commercial flop, Reed and Schnabel had the guts to resurrect the music despite the obvious risks to respective reputations. “It broke my heart,” Schnabel told one reporter. “I loved it. I listened to it all the time.”

What Lou Reed’s Berlin successfully shows is the way attitudes can change over time. Even the world’s greatest films weren’t always gratefully received, after all. Take risks and stick your neck out because no one is going to remember perishable bubblegum blockbusters. Maddin agrees: “It’s like when you’ve finished a crossword puzzle – you’re very unlikely to laminate it and keep it. I try to make movies that are worth keeping. That’s the idea, anyway.”