“This is a good one; I like this parking lot.” Matthew Rankin is calling via FaceTime in a perfectly square parking lot of the Sussex House apartments in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village. It’s 12:30 a.m., and his dying iPhone is plugged into an external outlet that allows Winnipeggers to jump-start their cars in the winter. He’s been driving all day, having just wrapped a shoot in Grasslands National Park, where he filmed buffalo and a mysterious cloud shaped like Donald Trump for his contract position making experimental films for the National Parks Department of Canada.
In less than three weeks, his first film, The Twentieth Century, a biopic of sorts about Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness program.
The film is the product of years of hard work and mental and physical exhaustion: a laborious, partially hand-animated and meticulously designed feature that uses King as an avatar for Rankin’s own personal anxieties about duty and honour, shame and sex.
To paraphrase a 1962 essay by the film critic Manny Farber, it is termite art: a cult classic determined to burrow insidiously into the foundation of Canadian cinema, eating its own boundaries and leaving nothing in its path.
"I feel so delirious,” Rankin says, his face framed by a glowing imprint of an apartment building once occupied by his late father Laird Rankin, a Winnipeg historian and arts writer who was the founding executive director of Canada’s National History Society. He died unexpectedly in 2017, a few months after Matthew’s short film, The Tesla World Light Project, premiered at Cannes.
“There’s this thing where [your film gets into TIFF] and you sort of want to crow about that. It’s the work of not only you, but lots of other people, and you want to congratulate and celebrate them. But in the age of social media, everyone compares themselves to each other and a lot of times, it’s all so artificial. So now I’m in this weird vortex, where I have all of these publicity and distribution and PR and media outreach people who want to help strategize how to get my propaganda out there, and I just want to show how petty and pathetic my life is,” Rankin says.
Rankin has a made a great film about Canada (which has already secured U.S. distribution by Oscilloscope Films), and an even greater one about the kinds of subjects somewhat contraband in our home and native land: unbridled romantic longing, living in fear of one’s own mother, a perverse desire to masturbate with a dirty work boot, political ambition, and shame. An all-you-can-gorge Mandarin Buffet’s worth of shame, the kind that bristles with ego and maudlin self-pity when sensitive young beta males sacrifice everything for a cause they’re not even sure they believe in.
In The Twentieth Century’s case, it’s the formation of Canada itself, both as a country and an ideology, which validates WASP repression as the ultimate morality. Torn between trying to fulfill the dreams of his demanding mother (played by Louis Negin, a mainstay of Guy Maddin films) who has a vision of her son leading the country as prime minister and marrying the stately daughter (Catherine St-Laurent) of the Canadian Governor-General, and his own latent desire to defy her to abscond to Quebec City to marry a kindly Québécois nurse (Sarianne Cormier), the miserable King (Daniel Beirne) enters politics in Toronto at the turn of the century. The film is a sorely-needed satire of Canadian identity, where punchlines like, “You will do more than your duty and expect less than your right!” and “Mother needs her puffin cream!” rightly smart. For Rankin, who doesn’t consider himself patriotic, making satiric CanCon about a former Canadian prime minister is his civic duty.
“I think of Canada as a WASP fantasy that is essentially fictitious," says Rankin, who straddles his identity between his native Winnipeg and his Francophone lifestyle in Montreal. “There’s a lot of complacency in the way people think about Canada, as if it’s some naturalistic, absolute entity, not just something we’ve imagined that might be just a total bedtime story. The extent of Canadian satire at this point is only Rick Mercer paintballing with Jann Arden.”
“I’m also interested in the moment that history transforms into myth,” the 41-year-old filmmaker adds. “How our chronological passage through time becomes an ecstatic lie that we tell ourselves is true.”
After his short films, also focusing on doomed historical figures – Mynarski Death Plummet and The Tesla World Light Project played TIFF, Sundance, and Cannes – Rankin became known for the artifice, stylization and theatricality of his work. The Twentieth Century melts the transcendental style of Eraserhead, classical Hollywood and Duck Soup’s physical comedy into one rancid puddle of Rankin’s Old-style Canadian Maple Walnut Ice Cream Cinema. A bombastic score by Peter Venne aches with Vertigo’s primordial strings, the Vaseline-lensed 16mm framing by Vincent Biron features weird canted angles and frenzied zooms. And then there’s the hand-animated backgrounds of the Toronto subway line and the forests of Vancouver, which are torn straight from the pages of a demented children’s picture book. It’s Canadian expressionism at its wildest and most beautiful.
“Matthew’s got his own vision, and I have to applaud him; he started off way earlier than I did with his organized assault on the great traps of un-mythologized territory in Canada,” fellow Winnipegger Maddin says. As a teen, Rankin joined the Winnipeg Film Group, where he volunteered as a labourer on Maddin’s films such as Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Although they’ve never explicitly acknowledged it, Maddin says he passed Rankin the torch a long time ago.
“His subject matter just seems to tacitly understand that some truths can be improved upon with fiction, and I don’t mean made more entertaining. I mean made more true, more felt, more memorable," Maddin says. “Plus, he’s committed to a visual arsenal that typically other Canadian filmmakers aren’t. I recognize the same ardent fire in him that burns in my own beating chest.”
When Rankin was a history student at McGill University, a chance encounter with King’s diaries led to the genesis of his first feature. As he writes on his film’s Instagram page, “Reading King’s journal in university overwhelmed me with the feeling that I was not alone. Finally! Someone who was very nearly as maudlin, repressed, congenitally lonesome, Oedipus-demolished and pathologically self-pitying as me.”
“I felt really connected to his worst qualities," says Rankin, who has kept a diary since age 12. “He can be very vain, and he can be very petty and very self pitying and very self important. He has these very maudlin outbursts about romance and virtue and righteousness. He strives for purity and he lives with a lot of shame, like deep, deep shame, wells of shame, bottomless shame.
"Ultimately, he achieved so many great things, yet he still lives with shame and torment. I feel like any story I could tell is kind of the same.”
Beirne, who stars as King and is the film’s comic soul, was about to move to Los Angeles when his agent sent him Rankin’s script. By the third page, he knew he’d drop everything to be involved.
“It just didn’t stop being inventive and creative and funny and wild and exciting,” Beirne says. “Matthew has created this world in which he is a perversion, but in the real world, he isn’t at alI. It’s something I aspire to, the ability to talk openly and entertainingly about shame.”
While some Canadian filmmakers at this year’s TIFF might hide behind sedate docudramas or conventional kitchen-sink narratives as a way to obfuscate their feelings, The Twentieth Century plunges into artifice to reveal some of the country’s funniest, pettiest, and most toxic emotions. For Rankin, this is his emancipation.
“That’s something I noticed in the Mackenzie King diaries,” he says. “A lot of the stuff he obsesses over and is ashamed about is a fiction, but fiction is how we make sense of the world. If I could just verbalize it, I wouldn’t even need to make the movie. I need an encounter of image and sound and the emotions only they can provoke – only. Only and together.”
The Twentieth Century premieres at TIFF Sept. 10, 11:59 p.m. (Ryerson), with additional screenings Sept. 12, 9:45 p.m. (Scotiabank), and Sept. 14, 1:30 p.m. (Scotiabank)