Watching the trailer for Matt Rankin’s The Twentieth Century requires more than a bit of mental gymnastics to realize what the film is actually about.
It’s an absurdist film about former Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, commonly known as Mackenzie King, vaguely styled like a low-budget art-deco dystopia, shot in 16mm Technicolor.
If you’re getting nervous, hold on — the film won the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) award for Best Canadian First Feature Film in 2019.
Matt Rankin is a Winnipeg-born and raised filmmaker now living in Montréal, Que. He describes The Twentieth Century as “like the nightmare of Mackenzie King’s youth.”
Starring Dan Beirne as Mackenzie King, he is joined by an assortment of living cartoons, both political rivals and entrancing love interests. Louis Negin cackles in a frock and curls as Mackenzie King’s mother.
Now it’s making more sense.
“First, I just felt a connection to Mackenzie King,” Rankin said. “There was a lot about him personally that interested me. He’s a lifelong diarist […] I felt great connection reading his diary. I read [his diary entries] quite deeply [from] between 1893 and 1905 and I was really struck at how maudlin, melodramatic, vain and hubristic it was.
“Mackenzie King is also a great opportunity to sort of satirize Canada, make fun of Canada and sort of look at Canada critically as a nation-building project, a nation-inventing project. Revaluate that through a critical and satirical lens.”
Both TIFF and the director have described the film as “Heritage Minutes from hell” — as if the true horror of Canada’s invented identity crawls the pit of white-washed textbooks and nostalgic commercials literally tinted with rose-coloured glasses. When comparing his work to other Canadian period pieces — such as Murdoch Mysteries, Anne of Green Gables and Passchendaele — Rankin believes “they seem to be appealing to some sense of nationhood where Canadians can feel, ‘This is a good and perfect project and any problem that might have existed, we have corrected it because we are that good’ […] my film is trying to challenge that and take the viewer into a more uncomfortable place.”
“The sort of texts that we associate with Canadian identity and Canadian nationhood might in fact be concealing more perverse and sinister meaning,” he said.
With the film’s low-budget sets, vintage 16mm, box framing and intentionally lunatic characters and story turns, Rankin is making a point about both the artificiality of historical films and Canada’s history.
“To the degree that it is factual, it’s based on [Mackenzie King’s] diary,” he said. “And I don’t really think of a diary as a factual, authoritative account of the past. I think of it as a kind of parallel consciousness, like a deeply subjective, almost surreal subconscious, processing of the facts of the past.”
The Winnipeg school
Rankin got his start and major influences from the Winnipeg Film Group and their studio work of the 1980s and ’90s.
“I went to the Winnipeg Film Group, took a basic filmmaking workshop and started making films — little animated films for Sesame Street for a while and then I went to university [in Montréal]. I studied history and got into the Québec filmmaking world. My practice has been largely based in Québec, but my approach to cinema I think of as one that is very much of the Winnipeg school.”
Rankin’s view is that Winnipeg’s filmmaking is one of Canada’s gems, with its own “obsessions and formal ticks, and sort of image systems that I really associate with Winnipeggers.” To Rankin the spirit of this school is “weird humour.”
“Making an aesthetic virtue of very primitive filmmaking materials is something I think about with Winnipeg,” he said.
“Playing with the language of cinema and its artifices is also something I associate with Winnipeggers, and an interest in Winnipeg as a subject, as a cinematic object.”
The Twentieth Century will be playing at Cinematheque from Jan. 11 to 23. Opening night will include a Q-and-A session with director Matt Rankin.