Where to begin with The Twentieth Century, a mad bit of nonsense that’s initially exasperating but eventually works so hard at what it’s doing that your resistance might start to crumble.
We’re in the realm of the camp pastiche right from the opening colorized 1930s-style credits. Those dispensed with, the movies settles down to tell the story of WL Mackenzie King, Canada’s most celebrated prime minister – three terms of office from the early 1920s to late 1940s.
Forget those details lifted from WLMK’s Wikipedia page. They’re only confusing. If there’s any basis of fact at all in writer/director Matthew Rankin’s film, it’s been so decorated with chintz, frills and flounces that it’s all but disappeared.
I’ll have a go at the plot. It’s 1899 and WL Mackenzie King (Dan Beirne) is setting out to become prime minister of Canada. A prime ninny with an overbearing mother, a dogsbody father, scornful bullying friends and what looks like a complete lack of authority, he competes to gain high office by taking part in several contests with the other candidates – who can piss the best, who’s best at cutting a ribbon, who can withstand tickling, and so on. Having fallen for the unattainable daughter of the governor general, WLMK satisfies his romantic urges by masturbating while sniffing one of her discarded boots. And these three strands – WLMK’s lust for glory, his lust for Ruby and the treatment he receives for the perversity of onanism – run through the rest of the film as it piles up its madnesses one on top of the other.
Meanwhile, a subplot that never quite goes anywhere features a character called J. Israel Tarte, a moustachioed woman (possibly) with pigtails who is the driving force behind a fascistic French language political movement – though the representatives of the British empire are hardly less authoritarian, and have even less of a justifiction for ruling.
There’s plenty of bad taste, which will endear it to fans of that sort of thing – I laughed out loud at a small girl using some very ripe language – but I think it was the arrival of the anti-onanism gadget, all brass and rivets, that finally broke down my remaining opposition.
Also the remarkable visual sense it has, the sheer effort it’s expended – director, DP, soundtrack, sets, costumes, actors, the entire production is hell-bent on getting a reaction, even if it’s just WT actual F.
In a tissue paper and smoke machines kind of way, with heavily filtered lighting and wonky camera angles, with men dressed as women, women as men, outlandish costumes and exaggerated acting, it’s most clearly in debt to the pantomime tradition – oh yes it is – though Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Flash Gordon (both the camp 1930s one and the kitsch 1980 retread), the films of fellow Canadian Guy Maddin (particularly The Saddest Music in the World), and even a touch of the remarkable 1936 British sci-fi film Things to Come can all be spotted by those who fancy a bit of name-checking. Most obvious comparison has to be with similarly demented pastiches by Larry Blamire, like 2001’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. And let’s not forget John Waters.
In terms of acting there’s not much to say, apart from the fact that everyone’s got the memo and they’re all pointing in the same direction. Since there’s so much cross-dressing (WLMK’s mum is a man) you could almost put anyone in any role and the effect would be the same. Though you’d lose something if Kee Chan wasn’t playing masturbation therapist Dr Milton Wakefield, since despicable orientals were all part of the package in 1930s movies, the touchstone – Flash Gordon’s foe wasn’t called Ming the Merciless for nothing.
It’s a remarkable labour of love and wouldn’t be any better if the budget were multiplied by ten. In fact its ramshackle nature is all part of the charm, the secret weapon that eventually silences even the strongest urge to resist.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020