“The Twentieth Century” tells one king’s hilarious rise to disappointment

The Twentieth Century The Twentieth Century (Oscilloscope)

Matthew Rankin’s gonzo reinterpretation of Canadian political history is as riotously funny as it is insightful about the symbolic nature of Western politics.

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Political satire tends to be a stale genre in Hollywood, frankly because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of politics in this country. In media, politics has disseminated into cultural grievances where lines are drawn on artificial principles more akin to team-sports rather than on any real material conditions suffered by the populace. Coupled with this, and more dangerous is the unwavering belief by many that these cultural lines are important and are the difference between a progressive utopia and a fascist dictator state. Enter Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, which gets at the heart of these misconceptions. 

Recounting the rise to power of former Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (played wonderfully by Dan Beirne), The Twentieth Century is uniquely fascinating in its imaginative and immersive visual canvass, coupled with its erudite humor. King is a confident but clumsy candidate, not quite as good looking as the dashing Henry Albert Harper (Mikhail Ahooja), nor as imposing and masculine as the brutish Arthur Meighan (Brent Skagford).

King competes against the other two for the nomination for Prime Minister in a series of seemingly extraneous and arbitrary contests like leg-wrestling, seal clubbing, and behaving appropriately passive-aggressively when someone cuts them in line. These have nothing to do with being a good leader, but rather, the ability to appear like a good one. They are cultural markers that uncover a reality about many democratic countries’ political offices – namely, that the presidency or prime ministership are essentially mascot positions.

The Twentieth Century
The Twentieth Century (Oscilloscope)

It’s perhaps well-worn by now to tie everything to the current moment of American culture and politics in the era of Trump (which isn’t going away, by the way) but I can’t think of another movie that gets at the heart of what has gone wrong over the last four years than this film. Rankin’s movie, while distilled through a portrait of William King, makes its case as a masterpiece in its acknowledgment of our treatment of politics as culture. Or more directly, that identity, behavior and arbitrary sloganeering and reinforcement of personal beliefs and grievances determine whether a politician is ‘good’ or not, rather than what they believe.

This is most hilariously represented in King’s shoe-fetish, forcibly programmed out of him by Dr. Wakefield, a Mengele-type figure specializing in the extraction of ‘immoral’ thoughts that are bad for the image of Canada. 

The idea of politicians as rote, professional, and upstanding individuals is a matter of cultural conflation of politics rather than direct policy and has become a norm in American politics. It doesn’t matter what a particular politician believes, it matters how he expresses those beliefs — what he chooses to say out loud and what he chooses to keep hidden behind. King kept quite a lot from the Canadian public under this same arbitrary censorship campaign.

Rankin’s visual style fully embraces artificiality and surrealism, with much influence from German Expressionist cinema and his fellow Canadian artist Guy Maddin.

In addition to being a soft-spoken intellectual, King was strangely sexual, fairly eccentric, and interested in the occult as noted by his real-life diary entries of which this film references frequently – a set of written works which one scholar remarked as “the single most important political documents of twentieth-century Canada”. Rankin brilliantly manifests all of these in his depiction of King’s sexuality as having powerful metaphysical energy – when he masturbates while sniffing a shoe, lights flicker, the ground shakes, and a large cactus plant behind him ejaculates white nectar. 

Rankin’s visual style fully embraces artificiality and surrealism, with much influence from German Expressionist cinema and his fellow Canadian artist Guy Maddin. He turns King’s political journey into a disorienting puzzle of self-realization and nefarious characters scheming against each other for power and influence. King’s rise to power comes in at a crevasse between two warring political factions – The Fury ruled by Lord Muto (Seán Cullen in the film’s best performance), and the Tendresse Nationale lead by J. Israel Tarte (Annie Saint-Pierre). Between the two, King meekly tries to hold up what, in his words, is a “moderate and inoffensive” position.

Rankin warps real-life figures like Lord Minto and Joseph-Israel Tarte into caricatures and ciphers for grander political movements – the former a burly fiery man, the latter a dainty woman with a mustache. These cinematic liberties make the case for the film’s political commentary as experienced through media rather than through reality. 

The Twentieth Century
The Twentieth Century (Oscilloscope)

Rankin creates a stark distinction in his frames between the exterior and interior worlds. The former is displayed as cheap, barren, expressionist cardboard cutouts with angled shapes and high contrast lighting, harkening The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while the insides of hotels, houses, and towers are decorated lavishly with a Wes Anderson-esque tapestry. His idea of Canada is as a compartmentalized country with a clear distinctive line between provinces, class, and the general population to those with political power. Instead of a sense of solidarity among the people themselves, they behave like sports-team fans, always shown as large crowds and groups cheering on their political idols and heckling opposing sides.

The use of propagandist imagery, montage, and symbolic colors – red and black for the fascist state, green and white for the Tendresse Nationale – add to the notion of cultural symbols as being the driving force for influence and change, where politics is completely ground into a dichotomy of good vs. evil. 

King is portrayed as a cipher for centrism’s idealistic belief in a unified cultural victory that is void of an ideology. He doesn’t seem to know for what reason he even wants to be Prime Minister other than the fact that his mother (played by Louis Negin in drag, one of many refreshingly gender-blind castings) has premonitions about him doing so. The fact is that King is the ‘status-quo’ candidate and his legacy is one of waffling policy-making, some good (establishment of the Canadian welfare state) and some bad (passing of the Chinese Immigration Act).

His salute and embrace of Canada’s flag, labeled in the country as “The Disappointment”, and his soulful recitations of the motto “may The Disappointment keep us safe from foolish aspirations and unreasonable longing” are but a few of the jabs Rankin throws in towards what can be considered a tepid political legacy of King. The Twentieth Century however is anything but tepid or disappointing – it’s the best political satire of the 21st century.

The Twentieth Century is currently playing in select theaters via Oscilloscope.

The Twentieth Century Trailer:

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