The final day of the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival opened with Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century (2019), a fictionalized portrait of Canada’s weirdest, longest-serving, and middlest-of-the-road Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. The film side-steps Mackenzie King’s secret spiritualism and instead creates a broader, stranger fantasy of Canada at the dawn of a new era. Rankin’s prerecorded introduction for the film described it as “nightmarishly Canadian” and his words were apt. The Twentieth Century is an Eraserhead/Isle of Dogs-esque imagining of Canadian history and culture, one obsessed with maple walnut ice cream, the scent of fresh timber, passive-aggressive manners, Indian leg wrestling, and medicinal “puffin cream.” Inspiration was taken from the Prime Minister to-be’s personal diary and Rankin connected with Mackenzie King’s tendencies toward vanity, repression, self-righteousness, and self-pity. Played by Dan Beirne with petulant primness, Mackenzie King struggles to achieve his maternally prophesied political and romantic aims (and sublimate his dominating shoe fetish), and the film traces his misadventures through the brutalist interiors of Rideau Hall, the frozen utopia of Quebec, a sunny and freshly logged, new age Vancouver, and a baseless and fetid Winnipeg.
A former Winnipegger himself, Rankin carries on the prairie post-modernism of Guy Maddin and John Paizs, and like his predecessors, Rankin finds ways to make a hard earned dime look like an eccentrically spent dollar (or loonie). Hand-painted and animated in sections by Rankin himself and utilizing a palette that evokes the colours of Canadian banknotes, The Twentieth Century’s stunning production design recalls earlier film eras with its intertitle chapter cards while it also embraces the fresh Canadianness established in the aesthetics of Group of Seven painters like Lawren Harris and York Wilson and the modernist designs of Expo ’67. Rankin even loads his historical subject with a gleeful perversity and a shameless phallocentricism that would do Ken Russell proud – watch out for that ejaculating cactus and that narwhal horn! The Twentieth Century is an acid trip-take on peace, order, and good government and it is staunchly glorious.
Oscilloscope Laboratories has picked up the rights to Rankin’s brilliant film and we can only hope that its eventual hard media release will not only include The Twentieth Century but also many (if not all) of Rankin’s short films including Negativipeg (2010), the most Winnipeg-ish thing I’ve ever seen committed to film.
After packing in 200 or so people for the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival’s second annual Saturday Morning All You Can Eat Cereal Cartoon Party, Day 5 was all about director Joe Dante, actress Belinda Balaski, and a trio of features film celebrating their work. Screenings of The ‘Burbs (1989), Gremlins (1984), and The Howling (1981) were each introduced by Dante and followed by a Q&A session. All three films looked great on the big screen and Dante and Balaski were open and affable with the SFFF audience, answering questions and recounting stories. Dante discussed working as a consultant to an upcoming animated Gremlins prequel and briefly acknowledged that his long desired project about Roger Corman, The Man with Kaleidoscope Eyes, was being produced by SpectreVision and should see production in 2020. Balaski recounted a popular story about how the designers of Gremlins’ Gizmo obtained Steven Spielberg’s elusive approval of the creature when she recommended that they take inspiration from the King Charles Cavalier Spaniels Spielberg had recently acquired. When asked which of their films they felt deep-diving fans should explore, Balaski cited Mark L. Lester’s youth culture/crime drama movie Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976) while Dante nodded at his under-seen (and unfortunately prescient) political satire The Second Civil War (1997). The pair were generous with their time, even sitting down on the Broadway Theatre’s stage floor to sign programs and badges for remaining diehards, and they proved to be excellent guests for the SFFF’s landmark 10th year.
The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival’s final day was even more massive than expected. With a packed program and an extra short film (moved from the previous day due to a technical issue), there was little downtime between screenings and the Festival’s final midnight show started late and wrapped well past 2:30 a.m. Those that saw the marathon day of screenings to its bleary end enjoyed without question the SFFF’s best block of films (plus some welcome giveaways for lucky attendees).
Rein Raamat’s Hell (1983) adapts the engravings of Estonian graphic artist Eduard Wiiralt into a surreal, grotesque, and heavily sexual animated short. Wiiralt’s three source works, “The Preacher,” “Cabaret,” and “Hell,” date back to the early 1930s and portray a cacophony of bacchanalia, hysteria, and violence in the final years of Estonian independence amid the unrest of the Great Depression and European instability. Raamat’s Hell (Põrgu) was created in the comparably uncertain time of Soviet dismantling and collapse. The short is unsettling in its physical fluidity, like an Eastern European, art film prediction of the climax to Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989).