2020 Milwaukee Film Festival: “THE TWENTIETH CENTURY”
I hope that no one that watches the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival looks down on the Cinema Hooligante program as a lesser program. Many times, the boldest, most stylish, and flat out experimental films will be part of the wild offerings of the program. Which brings us to THE TWENTIETH CENTURY which takes a wild stab at the political bio-pic.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is ostensibly about the political rise to power of Canadian politician William Lyon Mackenzie King at the turn of the 20th Century. And ostensibly is the operative word, as the film bears no resemblance to actual history, even as a satire. Instead, it’s a phantasmagoria of expressionist sets, 1940s Technicolor melodrama, puppets, cross-dressing, masturbation jokes, and just general silliness (the competition for Prime Minister involves a series of contests including ribbon cutting, leg wrestling, and baby seal clubbing). Guy Maddin is an obvious comparison, but the absurdity of Monty Python and Terry Gilliam feels like an influence too. As it’s a Canadian film, it comes across as self deprecating instead of mean spirited. Matthew Rankin is to be congratulated for creating one of the most distinct films of the year, let alone of the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival.
The satirical stylization is assisted considerably by a committed performance from Dan Beirne as William Lyon Mackenzie King. It would be very easy to go cynical or to try to match the insanity around him, but Beirne projects a sincere earnestness to his performance. Perhaps he only wants to be Prime Minister to please his mother, but he’s a contrast to the Machiavellian war mongering and hungering for power around him. Even when King is a really silly character, with a footwear fetish, there’s something human about him amidst all of the artifice. Never does the film suggest King is a great leader in the making, but it does suggest that his goal of being “moderate and indecisive” is an improvement compared to the rest of the politics around him.
That’s probably as deep as THE TWENTIETH CENTURY gets. It’s disregard for history isn’t a route to deeper truths, but simply a route to more gags. It’s art for art’s sake. Or perhaps artifice for artifice’s sake. Alas, after a bracing first half, I felt like the inspiration started to flag and with it some of my enjoyment. I really never found the cross-dressing funny or engaging as I felt that the female dressed characters were all treated as gross and that doesn’t really play. The gag of MONTY PYTHON was that the cross-dressing were usually for characters who were supposed to be normal. Fortunately, THE TWENTIETH CENTURY has a climax that recaptures a lot of the early inspiration and sends you home on a relative high.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY is streaming throughout the 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival which runs from October 15 to 29, 2020. Tickets to individual films and passes to the festival as a whole can be purchased via Milwaukee Film.