Photo: Berlinale
by Daniel Gorman Film

Stump the Guesser | Guy Maddin

March 3, 2020

Winnipeg madman Guy Maddin is back with another kooky, kitschy post-modern melodrama, this one called Stump the Guesser. It’s a 20 minute short that finds a carnival guesser lose his powers as he tries to find a way to marry his long lost sister. Anyone familiar with Maddin’s antics knows what to expect here, as he gallops through plot twists, frantic cutting that approximates old school Soviet montage, and wildly gesticulating, exaggerated actors. There’s a lot of inventive nonsense here, as Maddin seems dedicated to an almost constant stream of visual jokes and general lunacy (my favorite bit being a ‘guesser inspector’ who revokes the man’s guesser license and then adds a negative one point for incest). It all builds to a bizarre ending where the man must muster all his potential guessing power to pick between one of two doors, after which he’ll have to marry what’s behind his chosen door.

While not a Maddin completist, Stump the Guesser appears to me to be the director’s first work that is either entirely, or at least predominantly, shot on digital. The problem is, then, that the filmic quality of his early work is missing, the ghostly, smoky haze of small gauge 8mm and 16mm that linked Maddin to earlier generations of avant-garde filmmakers here absent. Maddin’s usual postmodernist mode of appropriating old silent techniques, a kind of meta-nostalgia, disappears in the sheen and crystal clarity of high definition. Video is decidedly present-tense, not a medium prone to historical nostalgia (or if there is, it’s only for the fuzzy, glitchy quality of early VHS tapes).  Maddin seems to be trying to do the same thing as always, not bothering to reconfigure his sensibility to this new format. It’s too crisp, and the image is left feeling flat and boring. The various graphics that pop up (meant to imitate old timey newspaper ads) are so clean and clearly delineated that they obliterate the illusion. The ephemera of film connotes a physical, tangible history the sprocket holes, scratches, and jumpy frame rates all point towards the intervention of time, history, and a human touch. Digital does none of this, robbing the short film of any materialist quality. It’s a pretty big missed opportunity for Maddin, relegating Stump the Guesser to a mere curiosity rather than a fully-formed work.

Published as part of Berlin International Film Festival 2020 | Dispatch 3.
Published as part of NYFF 2020 — Dispatch 6.