Bad-tripping through Canadian history

Matthew Rankin on his new film, a Canadiana nightmare about William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Fresh off a Best Canadian First Feature Award at TIFF, Matthew Rankin has a lot to look forward to. The Twentieth Century is his first feature, but despite Canada’s underfunded film industry, it likely won’t be his last. With an inked deal with Oscilloscope Laboratories, a leading independent U.S. film distributor, Rankin’s satire of Canadian nationalism will reach an international audience. 

When asked about the film’s reception he says that “people are engaging in two ways: either as a visceral mind trip, where they’re really engaging with the humour of it and the viscera of it. It’s this interesting demographic of cult people who are watching it and they are probably stoned. Then there have been other people who have wanted to engage with it very deeply.” And as for the negative press, he cheekily says: “I haven’t met any angry Alberta taxpayers yet, but I’m sure they’ve got their hatred ready to go at a moment’s notice.” Despite The Twentieth Century’s geo-political specificity, its provocative ideas on nationalism and leadership are sure to resonate world-wide. Even if viewers don’t catch, as Rankin puts it, the “little narcotic candies” that Canadians will easily identify, one of the pleasures of the film is its vivid and inspired internal world. “I’m a big fan of what I like to call fun formalism where you might have experiences that are purely formalist, but it’s fun at some level and it engages your perspective,” he says. 

Drawing from diverse cinematic inspirations such as Fellini, Monty Python, and Lars Von Trier’s Europa, one of the threads that connects these influences together is their use of artifice. Though fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin is a clear influence, the late production designer Eiko Ishioka, most famous for her work on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and whom Rankin considers the true author of the film, is a visible inspiration for the The Twentieth Century’s theatrical and playful sets. When discussing the political resonance of artifice, Rankins says that he “wanted to sort of present Canada as this completely unnatural, kind of fake Dollarama-based fantasy.  The thing I wanted to do this movie was question that. This Kevin Sullivan entertainment, “Heritage Minute,” Murdoch Mystery based representation of Canada. And suggest that perhaps these structures, these stories have something more sinister behind them and something more ridiculous. And to really underscore that that they are fake. There is a man behind the curtain.” Though the production design, recalling Expo ‘67’s Pulp and Paper Pavilion, is abstract, there are distinctive historical markers. “Everything about the immediate encounter, their costumes and their props, I wanted those to be period specific, but the world around them to be completely artificial.” 

The discussion of William Lyon Mackenzie King as a paragon of Canadian liberalism is necessarily connected to maintaining the status quo as a symptom of anodyne Canadian leadership. “The 20th century is a 100-year period that begins with great utopian visions of the future, moves through unspeakable nightmare and ends with a very grey, deep feeling of cynicism about the future, which is now beginning to transform back into horrible binaries. How do we walk between elephants?” Rankin asks. “On one level you could think of looking between such binaries as a willingness to listen to the other, a willingness to accept many legitimate options in a democratic world. But on another level, and I think this is probably more than likely with Mackenzie King, it’s a way of just protecting your power through total immobility. Avoiding doing what’s wrong without ever actually saying what’s right. I feel like that’s sort of the methods which Canada has navigated its destiny and there’s a lot of problems with.”

Naturally, contemporary Canadian politics come to the fore, making the parallels between King and Trudeau all the more apparent: “I feel like everyone knows what to do about climate change. Everyone knows what to do about that kind of urgency, but we seek to protect our power instead and that’s a pattern I notice in Mackenzie’s life. Whenever he was confronted by the choice between protecting his own power and doing what he knew to be right, fundamentally he chose to protect his power.” 

Montreal viewers familiar with the improv scene will recognize a few funny faces. I asked him about casting improvisers despite the script not being improvised. A fan of Canadian webseries The Bitter End, Rankin first noticed actors Dan Beirne, who plays King, and Brent Skaford, who plays Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, which led him to discover the Montreal Improv scene. “There were a bunch of little small roles in the script where I needed really gifted comic actors. You can’t just get anybody. You need someone who’s really in control of comic timing and understands what’s funny. It’s a melodramatic tone, but it walks a fine line. It’s not making fun of melodrama, but it’s also not first degree. It’s embracing melodrama. So I needed actors who could get into that,” he says. 

The humour and production design are two of the many ways that Rankin rebuffs traditional biopics’ sacrosanct dedication to historical accuracy. “Anytime you transform someone’s life, there’s the artistic translation that takes place. And a lot of times where you’re really fooled by that. Werner Herzog makes this distinction between  the ecstatic truth of cinema and the truth of accountants. And that truth is not cinematic in nature. Cinema requires a filmmaker to transform these into an ecstatic truth. And you can get a truth that way. A truth that is more true than the truth. There’s an aphorism: History begins with truth and becomes a lie. Myth begins with a lie and then becomes the truth.”  ■

The Twentieth Century opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 13. Watch the trailer here: