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By Josh Cabrita
William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s tenth and longest-serving prime minister, is an emblem of our nation’s repressed, ineffectual masculinity. A staunch centrist and bureaucrat, Mackenzie King accomplished little during his 22 years in office: his main contributions were his ability to win elections despite his apparent lack of charisma, and his power to maintain “Canadian unity” through “liberal corporatism,” the sort of waffling, lukewarm sentiment that continues to define Canada’s political consensus. But underneath Mackenzie King’s veneer of cold professionalism and unwavering rationality, there was a strange, disturbed, petulant soul; his nickname, the result of inconvenient posthumous revelations, fits him well: “Wacky Willy.” It is likely this duality that attracted Winnipeg’s Matthew Rankin, whose feature debut The Twentieth Century (which won the Best First Canadian Feature award at TIFF) presents its Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) as a power-hungry, momma-loving bachelor, a bickering, self-absorbed mercenary, and an ignoramus blindly guided by divine revelations and libidinal anxieties.
This is also a much younger Mackenzie King than the one that dominates Canadian textbooks. Set around the turn of the century, about 20 years before he became prime minister for the first time (not that historical accuracy matters much in Rankin’s fabulist concoction), The Twentieth Century imagines a nightmarish counterhistory based on Canadian stereotypes, stranger-than-fiction details, and outright invention. The film’s portrayal of Canadian politics derives from a comic misconception about what constitutes a constitutional monarchy: here, the Governor General (Seán Cullen), taking direct orders from the Queen of England, rules the nation with an iron fist while the prime minister is nothing more than a figurehead. Our country’s now second-highest office is determined not through elections, but through a series of contests in which the candidates are tested for their skills in leg wrestling, endurance tickling, and baby seal clubbing, with the results diligently tallied on a chalkboard. In a universe such as this, it only makes sense that Canada is engaged in a civil war between free-loving Québécois nationalists and an authoritarian federalist army (a duel between absolute good and absolute evil), that the principal objects of Mackenzie King’s carnal fixations (his mother and the daughter of the Governor General) are played by men in drag, and that each region has been reduced to precisely what it fears: Vancouver a wasteland of clearcut trees, Québec City a sanctuary of religious fanatics, and Winnipeg (oh, poor Winnipeg) a derelict hellhole of sexual fetishists.
As with the films of Rankin’s fellow Winnipegger Guy Maddin, The Twentieth Century is a work of devotion and madness whose primary subject is pretty much those very things. In his 2017 short film The Tesla World Light (covered in Cinema Scope 71), Rankin used 15,000 sparklers to achieve the effect of dense, shimmering light that represented the eponymous inventor’s dream of a self-perpetuating energy-making machine. This method of economical maximalism—creating the most with the least—is also the driving (libidinal?) force behind The Twentieth Century, whose palpable sense of unease and genuine sense of hysteria emerge from a phantasmagoria of repressed personal and national desires. And what better way to illustrate this national nightmare than with the seeming naiveté of silent-cinema aesthetics, which have always possessed an ability to bypass the logos in favour of pure, irreducible symbols of expression?In the same way that the skewed corridors of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) externalized the crumbling psyche of a nation devastated by war and branded a villain before the world, Rankin’s 16mm tableaux, which are flat, two-dimensional, and barely resemble the real world, express something deeply nestled in the Canadian unconscious: a self-deprecating attitude towards our history, our desires, and our very being.
While it is strange to call a film as flagrantly fictional as The Twentieth Century a good-faith adaptation of an important historical document, that is perhaps the film’s crowning irony: Rankin drew much of his material from the hand of the historical Mackenzie King himself, whose diaries (which were made available online in 2002) span 57 years and nearly 30,000 pages, containing his observation on subjects ranging from quotidian banalities, to issues of national import, to strange personal fascinations. (Chief among the latter, and curiously absent from Rankin’s film, is Mackenzie King’s interest in spiritualism: he claims to have convened with the ghosts of his mother, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his pet dog Pat.) In the wake of these revelations, traditionalist historians have taken pains to argue that King’s assorted eccentricities—including his lifelong bachelorhood, his fixation on his mother, and his obsessive-compulsive tendencies—had no bearing on his life as a statesman; according to the apologists, his cold, balanced, tactful approach to policy-making was not tainted by these private proclivities. Conversely, by reducing the political arena to a play between the fundamental drives of the unconscious, Rankin posits that the public Mackenzie King and the private Wacky Willy cannot be so easily partitioned, and that the latter cannot so easily be sublimated to the former. Furthermore, he suggests that lurking underneath our country’s penchant for self-abasement and its radical commitment to being unradical, a confluence of primal, irrational forces is at work: an Oedipal relationship to Mother England, and a castration anxiety predicated on a history of inadequacy.
If The Twentieth Century used these personal and national embarrassments for the sole purpose of eliciting derisive laughter, the film would be both largely unfunny and woefully overlong, even at 90 minutes. And while it’s understandable that some might struggle with the film’s overtly comedic elements (the numerous comments about “upstanding manhood” are, well, low-hanging fruit), I find it hard not to be attracted, even moved by, its skewed sentimentality, which immediately differentiates itself from the burlesque of a comparable (and admittedly more accomplished) work like Maddin and Evan Johnson’s The Forbidden Room (2015). In Rankin’s depiction of Mackenzie King (and, by extension, of our national anxieties), there is a double irony, a self-negating irony that ceases to be irony at all. At its best, the film pushes the character’s embarrassment to the utmost extreme (e.g., his sentient, ejaculating cactus, which climaxes whenever King does) while also evincing a certain tenderness towards, and understanding of, his strange predilections.
The scene that most fully expresses this feeling is the one where Mackenzie King, under pressure from a sinister doctor, is reprimanded for his fetish, “public indecency,” and strapped to a variety of steampunk-looking machines that suck his testicles dry. This image, while outlandish, conjures visceral associations with how sexual deviance has been socially repressed and its eradication sought through medical means, and captures Mackenzie King at the height of his closeted and castrated paralysis. In viewing this strange man’s peculiarities with such a tender eye, Rankin asks that we consider, without a shred of irony, what would happen if he (and we) could overcome taboo, embarrassment, and self-abasement, and instead wield the full force of our potentially revolutionary desires.