Matthew Rankin’s first feature film is an electrifying, transgressive expression of cinema, history and crisis, surreally compressing a war-torn century of power and perversion that set our planet on fire.
“I think that art must always resist binaries and absolutes,” the singular Rankin told me of his dizzying debut, The Twentieth Century, a hand-made, visually ambitious experiment in analog animation and historical deconstruction. “Nonetheless, this film is definitely a piss-take-cum-curb-stomping of Canada as Potemkin Village living in denial, Canada as self-pleasuring organism, Canada as WASP fantasy artificially grafted upon the earth.”
Anchored in the actual life and journals of the technocratic political centrist, William Lyon Mackenzie King — Canada’s longest serving prime minister, who led the nation after World War I and through World War II — The Twentieth Century is nevertheless a fantastic psychoanalysis of the brutality and opportunism that created an artificial, unsustainable North America out of fear and desire.
Those all-consuming forces and flows, across all of the so-called Americas, have led us directly into our more depressing dystopia.
“I kind of see all of this as 21st Century malaise reaching its snapping point,” Rankin explained. “The beginning of the last century saw the rise of innumerable idealistic movements. All of them, over the course of 100 years, either got snuffed out, transformed into nightmares, or, like my beloved Esperanto, just withered into a deep puddle of disappointment. This traumatized, disappointed world is the one we have inherited, and it’s really hard to be an idealist now.”
Like the ambitious, impressive short films Rankin has made so far — from the rapid-fire madcap of Cattle Call, to the anti-capitalist fever dream of The Tesla World Light, which Rankin and I spoke about in 2017, The Twentieth Century is a masterpiece of meticulous cinema and acid satire that would make both Monty Python and David Lynch proud.
I spoke (again, thankfully) with Rankin about his bizarre blurring of cinema, history, colonialism, centrism, climate and crisis, as The Twentieth Century — which premiered in Canada late last year, in what feels like another century — arrived in American theaters emptied by fascism and pandemic.
You’re a scholar of history, and its shame. How does your film express your perspective on Canadian history? Specifically, the colonialism that informs its national character, and what can be done to reconcile its past with our globally warmed future?
Such a softball question! [Laughs] I don’t really think of this film as a polemical one. Ideology is a method we use to organize the world into coherent absolutes, but I think with art we get the chance to dig into the complexity, the poetry, the irony of things. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in activism. But I think that art must always resist binaries and absolutes.
Nonetheless, this film is definitely a piss-take-cum-curb-stomping of Canada as Potemkin Village living in denial, Canada as self-pleasuring organism, Canada as ‘WASP fantasy’ grafted artificially upon the earth. Look at the Manitoba Legislative building, for example. It opened in 1920 but its cunning architecture would have you believe that it has stood in that spot since Greek antiquity.
The artifices of Nation can tyrannize us just as much as they can set us free. In this respect, I think The Twentieth Century does lend itself to postcolonial readings and perhaps even, to some degree, environmental history.
But I wouldn’t dare to instruct anybody on how they should live. My life is a complete disaster.
We’re in a climate crisis anchored in biodiversity extinction, resource exploitation and Indigenous erasure. How do we come to terms with all of that, and pull back from the brink?
I see all of this as 21st Century malaise reaching its snapping point. The beginning of the last century saw the rise of innumerable idealistic movements. All of them, over the course of 100 years, either got snuffed out, transformed into nightmares, or like my beloved Esperanto, just withered into a deep puddle of disappointment. This traumatized, disappointed world is the one we have inherited, and it’s really hard to be an idealist now.
From the Black Lives Matter uprisings to the Land Back and Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movements, the streets are filling with descendants of our extinction and erasure. As the child of radicals, as well as a filmmaker who academically pursued history, how does that make you feel about the future?
I think all of the movements you describe as fights for basic safety and survival, rather than optimistic visions of the future. “I Call BS” is about as much idealism as we are now able to summon. And of course, on the other end of the spectrum, an irredeemably toxic counter-idealism has been gestating. My movie is about the center of this ever-stretching elastic.
Mackenzie King is what might be termed a “radical centrist.” Throughout his career he gingerly walked an extremely cautious line between the Utopia and Armageddon of his time. Generously, we might think of the center as a democratic space, a willingness to listen, a concern for togetherness and fairplay. More critically, we could view the center as an opportunistic position which, at best, compromises what’s most sacred to us or, at worst, cunningly enables the most insidious gerrymandering.
These questions are still with us, and will hover insistently over Joseph R. Biden Jr. as we learn about what he means. Joe is a little bit like Mackenzie King: He may not be the best we’re capable of, but we sure know he isn’t the worst.
How do you think the public should experience your film in this socially distanced era? Americans are finally getting a chance to see your work, but a widescreen experience is more complicated than before.
Well, our lives have indeed become very digital in the last year, haven’t they? I have done so many Q&As over Zoom, and video intros, and they always just feel a little clinical and awkward. There’s something about the energy in a room that Zoom can never simulate.
Digital is here to stay, of course, and I am by no means an analog purist. But I hope the World’s Curse will lead us into a renewed yearning for the collective experience of art. Every experience is better when you share it with other people.
We spoke last time about your surreal short about Nikola Tesla’s love of a prophetic pigeon that promised free power. Like The Tesla World Light, The Twentieth Century is rooted in actual history, and an actual historical document, and yet is nearly beyond belief.
Christopher Dummitt, Canada’s leading Mackenzie King scholar, has sternly reprimanded me for making this movie. But that’s what academic historians are supposed to do, really. We need them to be pedants. The power of cinema is so irresistible that an historical film can feel more real than reality itself.
It’s why I always say that Steven Spielberg really is the greatest living American historian. Way more of us have encountered the American past through Spielberg films than we have from reading Howard Zinn or Gil Troy. And therein lies the danger: People might walk away from Spielberg thinking, “Ah! So that’s what happened!”
Usually, when filmmakers tamper with the historical record, their manipulations and embellishments are so cunningly realized that only academics can detect their ruse. As such, historians are right to issue these reprimands.
What do you think this flux between fact and fiction explains about our academic and popular comprehensions of history?
With all due respect to Professor Dummitt (whose work I admire), nobody would ever walk out of my movie thinking it was any kind of factual biopic. My film is so blatant about its fictions; literally every frame is reminding you it’s fake. I’ve always described this film as a nightmare Mackenzie King might have had, circa 1901. It’s about his subconscious, not his waking life.
Just like in our dreams, The Twentieth Century feeds real people, events, feelings, and tensions through an oneiric prism. And of course, all of this material is drawn from Mackenzie King’s own diary. Anyone who keeps a diary (as I do) knows that it could scarcely be thought of as an objective account. It’s much more like a parallel consciousness.
All of this leads to the question I get most of all: How much of this is fact, and how much of this is fiction? I actually think that’s a great tension to feel when we watch an historical film. It’s one that should even reassure my scholarly masters.
But just to confirm: There was no ejaculating cactus.
Finally, what’s next? Can you even plan ahead, given what’s happening?
I’m working on a kid’s show, if you can believe it.
I’m still not sure the world is ready.
I have also been mapping out a sprawling, gigantic opus about Louis Riel, which I will never, ever feel sufficiently qualified to direct. I’m inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s intensely imagined, but never realized, film about Napoleon. I too wish to hop aboard exactly such a doomed ghost ship!