Surrealist Masterpiece “The Twentieth Century” Might Be the Best Film of 2020

Director Matthew Rankin discusses his brilliant “Heritage Minute from Hell"

November 18, 2020 8:51 am
"Twentieth Century"
This is a biopic like no other.
Oscilloscope Laboratories

The Heritage Minute has been a staple of Canadian television since the ‘90s, breaking up programming on CBC and CTV with 60-second shorts about major figures and events from the country’s history books. In one, French explorer Jacques Cartier breaks ground on the territory; in another, feminist Nellie McClung brings the fight for suffrage to Manitoba. The initiative was launched around the time of a crucial referendum on Quebec sovereignty, and promoted a patriotic, unified identity to contradict the critiques then mounted by separatists. The filmmaker Matthew Rankin describes them as “a nationalistic grab bag of ready-to-consume pride capsules,” omnipresent in his boyhood and still continued today. 

Not so long ago, he pitched the higher-ups at the Historica Canada foundation a new entry that would shed a more sobering light on their past. “In 1988, this sprinter Ben Johnson competed against Carl Lewis at the Seoul Olympics and won the gold, but they found out within 24 hours that he was totally blitzed on steroids,” Rankin tells InsideHook over the phone from his home in Winnipeg. “His medal got taken away and given to Carl, and it was a real whiplash moment for Canada. Everyone was really high on hubris, and then so suddenly ashamed and crestfallen. I always liked that incident, so I wanted to make a dance musical version of that.”

The selection committee wasn’t feeling it. “I was summarily, flatly rejected,” he chuckles. “They mostly skirt shame.”

Rankin now gets the last laugh with the U.S. release of his debut feature The Twentieth Century, billed as a “Heritage Minute from Hell.” In it, he employs a frosty surrealism to contort the formative years of World War II-era Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King into a Sisyphean series of desperate debasements and erotic torments. The writer-director has succeeded in mounting his broadside against the Great White Northern variety of jingoism, and with it, the notion of a codified national self to start with. It’s something like an anti-biopic, blithely masturbating in the general direction of the idea that a person’s life or the course of an empire can be reduced to three acts and ninety minutes. “It’s one big piss take,” he says. “I’m trying to construct a parallel Canada, and a parallel national character based entirely on self-pity and passive aggression.”

King’s diaries first caught Rankin’s interest by exposing the gooey center of weirdness within the man on the fifty-dollar bill. In private, he was obsessed with his mother and a staunch believer in the occult, two hints at a stranger interior unknown to the public. Rankin took this impression and ran with it, leaving the constraints of realism in a snowdrift behind him. With a Bible-salesman smile, Dan Beirne plays this King as god’s lowliest plaything, a beta male constantly smacked by indignity as he eagerly scales the ladder of power. Whether that squares with the factual record or not couldn’t matter less — literalism has no purchase here. King’s mother appears to us as cult actor Louis Negan in cheap drag, and Quebecois leader Joseph-Israël Tarte is assayed by one of the cast’s many mustachioed women. We may safely assume that the former PM did not possess a giant cactus that spurts milky fluid whenever he feels shame over his fetish for huffing the scent of just-worn boots. 

“I often get the question of how much of the movie is fact and how much is fiction, which I really like, because we don’t always ask ourselves that when we watch a biopic,” Rankin says. “We don’t question the credibility of the images and the authenticity of its period, and so the meaning we ascribe it is based in the fictitious process into which facts are fed. The result is a work of art, not pure history. We’re forced to interrogate it. I had a professor who gave a whole lecture about how Leonardo DiCaprio’s beautiful teeth in Titanic were anachronistic to his class in that era.”

Rankin’s every stylistic choice ensured that his captive audience wouldn’t get too comfortable, instead trapping them in a Dadaist funhouse of special effects and other trickeries. He used the French reverse technique to fit what looked like an expansive set in a pretty compact studio, rearranging pieces of scenery rather than moving the camera to create the illusion of characters standing in different parts of a large room. Forced perspective and glass matte images overlaid on the frame allowed non-CGI, in-camera landscapes that appear to stretch onward to infinity. Windows float in a dimension full of inverted triangles, Rankin’s homage to the severe geometrics of Canadian landscape painters Lawren Harris and York Wilson, as well as the odd magnificence of the Pulp and Paper Pavilion at Montreal’s 1967 World Expo. “I gotta say, every shot was a fight,” Rankin admits. “There wasn’t a single thing that was easy.”

For his labors, he was left with a film that looks and feels like no other. Its distinct visual grain comes from unorthodox 16mm photography, with one propaganda newsreel within the film shot on the even-more-lightweight Super 8 camera. (“You can run around with them!” Rankin recalls.) Cubist animated interludes nodding to Czech master Karel Zeman, silhouette cut-outs harkening back to the German silent films of Lotte Reiniger, and the occasional animatronic puppet all court a healthy distrust with their conspicuous fakery. “My analysis when I wrote the script was that I couldn’t possibly dream off attaining anything like Spielbergian gloss or period-precise accuracy,” Rankin reasons. “If I tried that, my budget would get drained like an opened artery. But I thought that if I embraced artifice, then I knew the budget could go quite a bit further. I could make an aesthetic virtue out of budgetary limitations.”

The general atmosphere of lunacy reenforces the interpretive nature of the project, closer to a cackling meditation on King’s legacy than a chronicle of his times. The script openly mocks popular perceptions of Canadian virtue, sending King and his political competitors through a Canuck gauntlet of trials including blindfolded tree-smelling, baby-seal-clubbing, and line-cutter-permitting. The true soul of the nation rests not in outdoorsmanship or the famed politeness, if Canada can be said to have a soul at all. King’s careerist aspirations did much more to shape the epoch that lends the film its title, giving way to a new era of compromised values and sold-off integrity.

“He gave a political template to every prime ministerial aspirant that followed him,” Rankin explains. “He was a very pragmatic, cautious politician. In French, he’s what’s known as a clienteliste, like clientelism; he takes a careful reading of the national mood, and then gingerly follows it. In King’s career, he often had to choose between what he knew to be right from a moral standpoint and what he knew would be politically expedient for him. He always chose to protect his own power… Hillary Clinton is a good example of Mackenzie King-style politics, as is Justin Trudeau. Clinton built a coalition that comprised both Occupy Wall Street and Wall Street. LGBTQ pride, and selling arms to Saudi Arabia. That was Mackenzie King’s genius, working both sides in an agreeable way.”

Rankin’s grand diagnostic ambitions never get in the way of his sense of humor, which lampoons its own roots in social studies class. “Canada is just one failed orgasm after another,” goes the script’s most memorable declaration, equal parts generational rallying cry and absurdist mockery of the same. The film refuses to take even its own commentary too seriously, allergic to the concept of a localized, medium-specific equivalent to the Great American Novel. To the question of what it means to be Canadian, Rankin cannot conceive of an answer untainted by loyalist bullshit. The best guess he can offer is unceasing embarrassment, a spirit of disillusionment that colors the film’s worldview. In case his subversive stance wasn’t crystal clear, Rankin’s script repeatedly refers to the maple-leaf flag as “The Great Disappointment.” There’s an exquisite and just irony in here, that the emerging filmmaking talent with the fairest claim to Canadian cinema’s new pride and joy would never return that esteem.

“Seeing Canada as an object of condescension is an international pleasure,” Rankin admits. “But the idea of ascribing a national character or symptom is preposterous. It can’t be authoritative in any way. Take Joe Biden saying, ‘This isn’t who we are’ — how can you believe that? These are little bedtime stories we tell ourselves, which can be comforting or self-loathing or tyrannical. All of those things are just part of nation-building.”

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