ponedjeljak, 4. lipnja 2012.

Guy Maddin - Najtužnija sreća na svijetu

Dok iščekujemo novi Maddinov film Keyhole, zgrnimo njegova jutjub jaja i žonglirajmo njima dok letimo iznad zemljopisnog medvjeda zvanog Winnie the Peg.

Guy Maddin talks about Keyhole and “the haunted house of cinema.”

In an age when much of what passes for original is just clever recycling, there’s no mistaking Guy Maddin’s movies for anyone else’s. He draws much of his visual inspiration from the silent era, before the uncharted terrain of moviemaking had been colonized, but his influences are too chaotic to be easily classified. His new feature, Keyhole, is as close as he’s come in years to a straightforward story, if your definition of “straightforward” encompasses a gangster named Ulysses (Jason Patric) who holes up in a crumbling, ghost-ridden house, where his wife (Isabella Rossellini) keeps her father chained, naked, to her bed. He’s also at work on Spiritismes, a projected series of 100 short films reviving the ghosts of cinema’s past, which recently found him filming at Paris’ Centre Pompoidou with Udo Kier and scheduling an upcoming shoot at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Just before meeting with MOMA to hash out the details, Maddin sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about stealing from The Odyssey, meeting a miniature Brian DePalma, and his love of Sucker Punch.

The A.V. Club: You’ve talked about Keyhole being in some ways the biography of a house rather than a character. 
Guy Maddin: I have this weird thing that happens to me all the time where almost all my memories of things that happened more than three or four years ago are placed in that house, like where I first heard the news of someone’s death or 9/11 or something. It’s all in my childhood home, but I haven’t been there for a long time. It’s a weird neurological thing maybe, or it’s just my nostalgic need to go there. I read in this neurology book—I always wanted to make a movie about this, but you could see how the plot might get a bit constipated—there are these people who live in a constant state of déjà vu where if you tell them something, like, “Your husband just died,” they go, “I know that.” These people were first discovered when the Titanic sank. “The Titanic sank.” “I know.” But the same thing would happen with 9/11, so what happens is, they never get to grieve properly. They always feel like they’ve already grieved. So there’s this horrible buildup and then they find themselves grieving in weird ways.
I think that’s what’s happened to me. I don’t think I have that ailment. I know I don’t, but I have its reverse maybe. Whatever it is I have wrong with me has enabled me to make a film career. It started with the death of my father when I was 21 and I refused to grieve. I so feared his death. He hadn’t been well, so when it finally happened I was prepared for the most horrible grief and unbearable grief, and then nothing happened. I think I blew a breaker switch somewhere and then what happened was I started grieving on the installment plan. Tiny installments every night in dreams for many years where my father would come back—like Ulysses, as it turns out, although I wasn’t aware of The Odyssey. Like Ulysses, he would come back, but he would come back just for a few minutes, because it turns out he hadn’t died. I’d always forget the funeral in my dreams. Turns out he hadn’t died at all. He had just gone to live with a better family. He abandoned us, and he was just coming back to pick up his shaving lotion or his glass eye that he’d forgotten or a tie or just something long enough for him to stay a minute, and during that minute every night in the dream I had a chance to tell him I loved him or just to impress him and hope he would stay and then every night he went away again. I spent every morning for over a decade sort of feeling kind of happy that I just had an encounter with my dad. They were so realistic. I can remember his voice only in my dreams and his every gesture. Your memories store practically everything, but you can’t access it, but my dreams for some reason, these visits, liberated my memories.
But then I also felt abandoned, so that’s when I finally encountered The Odyssey, which wasn’t until about three years ago. It was a Wikipedia reading. I realized that Homer had been through the same thing. He had either had a father die on him or abandon him that he’d written the ultimate deadbeat dad story. Telemachus, who is the son of Odysseus, was just dreaming probably, just dreaming the return of his father against all odds. He didn’t know whether his father was dead or alive or waylaid. It turns out he was on an island getting his brains fucked out by a nymph named Calypso. It was the same sort of dream I was having, that my father just found a better place to live, and I realized, holy shit, I’d had the same dream that Homer had. He wrote about his 3,000 years ago, and it’s been the most durable piece of fiction. So many movies have acknowledged structuring themselves on his things. So I thought, why not start with that? It’s a durable enough structure. Not even I could screw it up. Well, of course I completely buried it, and I did sort of screw it up, but I don’t care. My objective wasn’t to make an adaption of The Odyssey. I stole The Odyssey as a sturdy structure to embolden me to set off my ways, but I did find that the rhyme with Homer’s dream and my own is really interesting, and then there’s another weird rhyme that came up. Sorry, I’m just blabbing.
AVC: No, go ahead.
GM: It’s the first time I’ve talked to anyone in a few days. Working with Jason Patric was really interesting. I wanted an alpha male, an all-American alpha male to be a Ulysses figure, a deadbeat dad, but it turns out he might be the only actor as in touch with his own hauntings as I am. Not that many people realize it, his father was Jason Miller, Father Damien in The Exorcist, and 1973 was a big year for him because he wrote That Championship Season, a play that won the Pulitzer Prize. He was in The Exorcist. Little Jason Patric was 7 years old on the set of The Exorcist all the time getting freaked out. And then Jason Miller, his father, just left his family, abandoned him like Ulysses. It was a time of great haunting for him. His father just told him, “You’re the man of the house now.” And I think he took it literally, and he’s been a man ever since the age of 7, looking after his mom and his aunts, his grandmother, locking the windows every night and the doors. I think he still had some serious unfinished business with his dad even at the time of his death. So I think it’s still going on, and when he remounted that play his father wrote last year here on Broadway, he made sure he had his father’s ashes in an urn, so he’s constantly paying tribute to his father and it’s kind of a Homeric rhyme with me as well. I don’t know, if Jason were here to talk about the movie, he might just say he doesn’t get it, or, “Guy Maddin’s a crazy fucker.” Something like that. But when we were talking about it the night he came to Winnipeg, he was telling me about all this stuff, and I realized, holy smokes, it’s basically just me but really way more handsome and muscular and just as haunted, and this is the guy for this project. Really kind of cool.

AVC: So you shot it in Winnipeg?
GM: I did, yeah, and in one of my usual spots, a sort of asbestos and pesticide warehouse that I’ve been using for 20 years, so we shot it quickly. Shot it with highly portable little digital [Canon] 5Ds that just looked like cameras used to take Christmas snapshots with. Jason was very suspicious. “When are the real cameras coming out,” you know? It did look odd. Looked like I was just taking snapshots of people the whole time, but my DOP and I just sort of sucked up imagery with these little Dustbusters for 15 days.
AVC: This is the first feature you’ve shot on the 5D?
GM: I shot a lot of My Winnipeg digitally and then had this weird philosophical second thought, which I regret. I was sort of thinking “This thing should be embedded in film emulsion,” so I reshot a projection of the digital final edit of the movie off my fridge on film, just to give it some film emulsion. Turns out I didn’t have to do that expensive step. You can just put on a film grain filter, but I just chickened out and didn’t tell anybody and just paid for the film transfer myself. So I’d been dying for a nudge into the digital realm. I know a lot of people who follow me probably figured I’d be the last person in the world to switch to digital, and that I also sort of ride a penny-farthing with a bowler hat, but I don’t. I want to be a normal guy. I’m just an artist trying to make stuff that matters to me.
It’s a real arbitrary marriage between film emulsion and memory, let’s face it. Memories and feelings and hauntings and deadbeat dads and love of home and all that stuff predate by millennia the invention of photography in 1827. So we should be able to express our feelings about that in any medium. I copped out a little bit. I just made digital reminiscent of film. Shot in black and white, and transferred it to 35mm, although there’s versions that go straight from the hard drive to the screen. I’m fine with it, it’s cool. You actually see a lot of detail. Normally in my movies I shunned large-gauge formats, and even 35mm for the longest time, always shooting Super 8 and 16 because I didn’t have a large-gauge art department. I had some cheap sets and props and shadows. There was no point shooting that in 35mm. I would just reveal how shabby and charmless I am.
AVC: You’ve talked about shooting with a single light bulb early on.
GM: Yeah, where the big wall-to-wall shadow was the only prop I had sometimes. So I finally had a movie about a living space, about the emotions of space. Well, who knows what my movie’s about. What I set out to make it about and what it’s about is always two different things. What I often find out through the weird therapy of talking to journalists, what I’m really just starting to realize, I think it’ll probably be another couple of years before I figure out what I’ve actually made, but I set out over-ambitiously to make a movie that was about, well, the ghosts we all converse with constantly and who in our absence even converse amongst themselves. And then I wanted—and this is where I fell short, I think—but I wanted to really make a movie about our living space and the way we all feel about certain rooms and the way certain rooms when a living space is negotiated from room to room. If there’s more than one room in your living space, you can create an almost symphonic array of feelings in yourself and things like that. I don’t think I achieved that with this movie, but I think it’s always interesting to set really lofty goals for yourself and then fail better, as Beckett said.
AVC: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
GM: Yeah. So I set out with all sorts of really complicated things. I also had some autobiographical feelings that I really wanted to get out. I’ve been asked to downplay the autobiographical elements, because I made so many movies in which they were so blatantly autobiographical. They even had characters named Guy Maddin, things like that. I don’t know, I’ve been operating in the same way for so long, so whether there’s a character with my name or not makes no difference.
AVC: When you say “asked,” you mean by the distributor?
GM: Yeah, it’s just better to downplay it, but the fact that there’s no character “Guy Maddin” in there is enough. I don’t have to pretend I wasn’t litmusing myself. I’m sure all artists do anyway, except ones that don’t interest me.
AVC: It seems like a work of art is always more personal than anyone but the maker would know, but rarely in the obvious ways we might suspect. 
GM: I know. Maybe it was the mood I was in. I was watching Sucker Punch about a year ago, and I thought, “Maybe Zack Snyder is onto something here.” I kinda liked the movie. When I watched it again, I found it hard to defend against all the charges people were making, but I somehow felt like he made something personal there. I don’t know.
AVC: It’s kind of the most expensive film maudit ever made.
GM: Good to hear. That’s a nice way of putting it. Plus I don’t know if there are bonuses on the DVD or not. There are musical numbers excised from it. Are they available anywhere?
AVC: There’s a torch song Carla Gugino sings.
GM: And that’s available as a bonus?
AVC: Yes.
GM: Okay, I’ll check that one out. I kinda like that movie in spite of itself.
AVC: That’s the only way to like it.
GM: Plus it had Vanessa Hudgens in it. [Laughs.] It’s a dreamy picture. One thing I do often, I watch a movie, and I pretend Luis Buñuel is sitting beside me, or Giorgio de Chirico or something like that. What movie did I watch recently that I think Buñuel would approve of wholeheartedly? Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. I think Buñuel would love this. It’s kind of like a really stoked-up Feuillade with lots of effects. Stunts that made no sense. Buñuel would have been on his fourth martini 10 minutes in on that movie. He would have approved.
AVC: It’s a little odd how you’ve been turned into the go-to commentator on silent film. People keep asking you what you think of The Artist
GM: I still haven’t seen it. I watched about 15 minutes of it that looked charming enough on the airplane just on a neighbor’s screen. That’s how I watch all airplane movies. I refuse to put my own on. I just watch sort of a sea of movies all at once, so they’re all silent. That sort of makes the movies slightly more interesting, but in The Artist’s case, I go, “Wait a minute, it really is silent already.” So I watched it for a while and it seemed likable enough, but it’s unfair to go by a 20-minute excerpt. I didn’t feel like it was anything more than superficial. I shouldn’t say that. I didn’t see it properly. I did not see it properly yet. I will stand by what I’ve always said: I want to hate it, I’m scared I’ll love it. But I haven’t seen it yet.
AVC: It’s a very ingratiating tribute to silent-film acting that has almost nothing do with silent filmmaking.
GM: Plus it won Best Picture, didn’t it?
AVC: Yes.
GM: Just not a good sign, period.
AVC: You mentioned the personal connections you’ve had to various spaces, and the idea of your father coming back to you in dreams, and how that plays into Keyhole. How much of that do you know when you’re working on it, and how much only becomes apparent once people start asking you questions?
GM: I tried a method with this movie that I had tried earlier with my real silent movie, Cowards Bend The Knee. I took pure autobiography, or in some cases took aspects of it, and did a 180 on it. Like, I had an aunt Lil who was a virginal sweet old lady, my mother’s older sister. She and my mother, they ran this beauty salon, and she had this thoroughly chaste existence as far as I know and was like a mother to me. I had two mothers. She wasn’t a prude, but you would never dream of swearing in front of her or anything like that, just a wonderful woman. I felt—she had just died—I’m going to give her in this movie kind of a Bizarro universe existence. I’m going to make her a Clytemnestra figure, just a whore and a criminal and a back-alley abortionist and I’m just going to make her the opposite of what she is, a thoughtless, heartless woman.
AVC: Was Lil short for Lily? The character in the movie is named Hyacinth.
GM: Yeah, Lily. I sort of did all these inverse things. I took the beauty salon where I grew up, which was just this nurturing gynocracy, and I made it kind of a horrible den of iniquity, and I found just by flipping everything into its, not absolute value, into its negation, it somehow all kind of added up to an autobiographical truth anyway. As long as I was working with the same material, it didn’t really seem to matter if I flipped it around any which direction when you put it all together. It was like looking at a reflection of my life but in a shattered mirror. So it was kind of traumatizing, but it was all there and I found it interesting that you could actually, as long as you were working with the truth, you could flip it around. It shouldn’t work, but maybe it’s like cubist melodrama or something. I don’t know. It was a weird thing I tried to do.
I always hired diarists to work on films, and I hired a really crotchety diarist way back in 1991 to work on my movie Careful, and he never even left the green room. So he just went by rumors that came in from the set, and often you’d hear people complaining, just their side of the story, about me, and so he wrote this diary, which was just one nonstop vitriolic vent from one person after another about the director, about me, and when I read it, I was like “That’s not true, that’s not true, that’s not true.” But by the end of reading the diary, 15 years later, I had the entire experience exactly as I remembered it somehow, even though I was on the wrong end of every story. Maybe it was true. [Laughs.] It seemed to me like even falsehoods about a place add up to a mythic truth somehow—just the way American history is perceived from a series of myths and lies and falsehoods but it all sort of boils down to an identity. It all came back to me as a picture-perfect identity. So I thought I would try something like that with Cowards Bend The Knee, and I liked the results, because it felt true and it made my life seem more interesting and more grotesque than it really was.
My life’s been very dull, but there have been a lot of melodramatic events spread out over many decades, and I kind of crammed them into 60 minutes, so for this one I tried the same thing. I grew up in a family with three other siblings. One of them died. I immediately did the reverse. I had three of them dead and had one living. I had a dead father but had him living. I don’t believe in ghosts at all, or séances or any of that stuff, except when I’m holding a movie camera or writing a script and then of course it becomes very convenient to believe in those things. Just like Hamlet’s father on the ramparts, just a memory of his father, but perceived by bystanders instead of Hamlet himself. Just sort of willed into existence. It’s just kind of convenient to think of ghosts as memories. We all, as Faulkner famously said, live in the past and present simultaneously. We’re always communing with our ghosts or memories of hot elements. You don’t put your hand on the hot element twice, and we all live in the past and present simultaneously, and so ghosts are simply the people we love and pay tribute to or have chosen to repress or whatever, but they always show through the cracks one way or the other and at strange times. Or are memories not of people but of the way we understood the world to work when we were really young.
Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer, he’s one of my favorites. His narrator actually says as a child that mother started hanging the laundry outside instead of inside and that brought the warm weather. He reversed cause and effect. That’s been a very important sentence for me, that sentence in Schulz, because I realized that as children, we all build and then destroy and then rebuild models of the universe. We just build each successive model on the ruins of the other, but I don’t think we ever forget those crushed models. Whenever we have a trauma or an emotional meltdown, we’re on pretty wobbly footing, because I think we revert to those first earliest emotional models of the world, and that we believe that mom actually still brought spring. Or whatever they are in each personal case. So I think those are ghosts, too. We just live in a space that’s just thronged with ghosts and I honestly think I’m even a ghost sometimes. I often wonder if when I die, and I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I’m going to haunt any place, it’s that childhood home that I keep falsely remembering. In my dreams now I very rarely dream of people. I just dream of that space. I’m walking around and I’m the only person in it. I’m actually haunting in the future, in my dreams anyway.
AVC: How do these thoughts about memory and place factor into Spiritismes, which are your recreations of early films that have since been lost, filmed at various museums around the world.
GM:I was going to originally do these spiritismes—séances, as they’re known in English. Séances in French just means movie screening. Seating, actually. That’s what a séance is. I like the fact that it’s a movie screening in Paris. I was going to shoot them all the same time as Keyhole, the way the Spanish Dracula was shot on the sites of the Bela Lugosi Dracula at night. There were practical problems and they couldn’t be done, but I did shoot about 20 or 30 lost films while shooting Keyhole. It was a bit too crazy though, and I suspended it for the time being and restarted the project recently. I think of these lost films as movies with no known final resting place, which immediately reminds you of the words you often use to describe unhappy ghosts. They’re just unhappy spirits consigned, doomed to wander the landscape of filmic history, unable to project themselves for the people who might love them, for all the millions of people that once loved them. Waiting to be discovered, probably never will be. I had this idea that I could gather a bunch of actors, put them into a trance. Actors are easily duped into trances anyway, they’re always going into them. They’re self-indulgent, trance-wise. I think all actors go into various forms of trans-acting just to get the job done anyway.
AVC: Werner Herzog did that for Heart Of Glass.
GM: It wasn’t a far reach for Herzog, although there’s a bullshitter I admire. Man, he’s the best. He’s the best. And then just invite the unhappy spirit of this long-forgotten film to possess us and compel us to act out its essence of the lineaments of its synopses or some confused, garbled false message that you sometimes get in séances. I love the fact that I’m the medium and spirit photographer and I don’t believe in that stuff, because basically filmmakers and mediums are charlatans and their dupes want to believe it. People who go to movies want to believe it for at least for the two hours they’re there, and then if they don’t believe it, actually they’re kind of pissed off. I just decided they’re the same thing. With Keyhole, which is my personal house, not literally, but what I thought of it, I wanted to make that the haunted house of cinema as well and that the two would tie in together and the projects could be released simultaneously. But the Spiritismes project is far too immense. It would have taken years. It’s going to take me a couple years to finish.
Keyhole shouldn’t wait for that long. I’m pleased with the way Keyhole turned out. I originally thought I could make it a far more audience-friendly film, and I probably could have with one more audience-friendly pass of the script. I probably could have kept everyone in the know as to exactly where Ulysses was, and his progress. I could have had more sort of Robert McKee setbacks. I’m not saying that disdainfully. I probably should have read McKee years ago and then probably could have kept the audience involved and then still could have draped all my dream-like obsessions over everything and it would have been fine.
AVC: It sees as if Keyhole might have that kind of classical structure. You start out with all the characters in a room, explicitly stating their objectives...
GM: … and then the ghosts just started talking to each other so much and I just I had to just let my ghosts take over. I don’t know. Once you plant a sodomized cleaning lady in the first act, she’s gotta blow up in the final act. But I don’t know. That was Kevin McDonald’s girlfriend by the way, I think a piece of casting she insisted on.
AVC: As you mentioned, you grew up in Winnipeg, one of the only places in the world, except for Paris, where Brian De Palma’s The Phantom Of The Paradise was a hit. 
GM: Paul Williams [who starred and wrote the songs] is a god in Winnipeg. An ex-girlfriend of mine stalked him to his hotel room. That was a strange relationship. But anyway.
AVC: Were you a Phantom fan?
GM: Saw it once. Listened to the soundtrack album a million times playing pool as an 18-year-old. Thought it was one of the iconic great films for so many years, because as a Winnipeger, it was so huge in the local zeitgeist, the civic-geist. I couldn’t believe when I later found that among De Palma buffs, it’s ranked like the 40th-best of his films. Because I was thinking, “Well okay, there’s Phantom Of Paradise, then there’s Dressed To Kill.” I thought it was like discussing Capra and going, “... It’s A Wonderful Life, which isn’t even a movie.” I’ve ridden in an elevator three times with Brian De Palma over the years. You’re in the same hotel and you’re just—“It’s Brian De Palma, I just gotta fucking…” The first time I saw him he was 6-foot-7, literally. The last time I saw him, he’s like whatever his real height is, or maybe much shorter, like 4-foot-2 or something. I don’t know, but every time I feel like throwing myself at his feet and thanking him for Phantom Of Paradise.
I didn’t even get into Phantom Of Paradise in My Winnipeg. It was too big of a subject. It’s a strange place. All I can say is, it’s one of the last isolated big cities, 700,000 people. The same size as Austin, the capital of Texas. It’s got no hinterland. There’s no one living within an eight-hour drive of the place, maybe a couple of really dinky towns. It’s just the biggest isolated city in North America; it’s right in the center, and it’s Siberia cold, so that isolation produces some quirky results. It’s a Petri dish no one sneezes on. We’re just breathing our own sneezes all the time.
AVC: It’s kind of the opposite of New York and Philadelphia, which might be the only two cities of comparable size located so close to each other. 
GM: Without becoming subsumed in anyway. Such tribal rivalries. We could talk forever. It’s become banal, these sports metaphors, but I just I felt what might save me from becoming a complete wanker as a quasi-surrealist filmmaker is that fact that I just love sports so much. That keeps you pretty grounded, because there’s so many bad metaphors in sports. Even the best sports journalists are so terrible. You always just wish it could be saved somehow. I’ve sprinkled sports into my films, but I’ve never made it center, so Slap Shot’s still the best.
AVC: There’s always hockey.
GM: I made an interesting move. I got married about a year and a half ago to an all-American woman [critic and filmmaker Kim Morgan]. She’s such a country music fan and an Americana fan. I fell in love with her movies before I even knew her. I loved her little one-minute long portraits of Americana. No one movie is much more than a miniature, often featuring herself, and so a lot of people dismiss her as a narcissist, but they add up to a profile in Americana. I’ve ruined it all by bringing her up to Canada now, and now she’s watering down her portraits of America with portraits of Gimli and Paris and things like that, so I’ve got to get her back to Los Angeles where she can just do her Los Angeles things, because they’re really good. I like the fact she never writes a pan. She only writes about stuff she loves, and so it’s really opened a new area of obsession for me. As I make a movie about an obsession, each time I use up the obsession. It becomes boring. You suck all the flavor out of it and throw away something that was once really precious to you. I haven’t used up—I know I didn’t do it right. I didn’t quite nail it with Keyhole. I nailed the dreams. Those feel exactly like my dreams and they’re very melancholy. Maybe this movie isn’t quite as funny as it could have been, but whatever.
AVC: You’ve done a service to teenage boys everywhere by prompting them to yell “Double Yahtzee!” the next time they get caught masturbating.
GM: It helps. It helps. Jason Patric came up with that. That was incredible. He was so uneasy on the set all the time, and my homoerotic sprinklings throughout the whole thing just kind of, I don’t know… He was role-playing his alpha male so much that he was just in character all the time as a paternal homophobe. And let’s face, it that little boy wanking under the stairs is me. Whenever he saw that boy it was just like, “Yahtzee!” So when the Franklin Pangborn-esque interior designer discovers him a second time, he just said “Double Yahtzee!” and I realized I had to have the voice of the house shout that out at that point. It was unbelievable. Jason is a terrifying presence on set.
AVC: He’s such an imposing physical presence in After Dark, My Sweet.
GM: It’s terrifying. Just like that. I love that movie. On set, he’s fucking terrifying, but I found myself laughing 10 months later at things he said. He knows how to take a line that’s almost impossible to say—he’s a born naturalist. The dialogue George [Toles] and I write isn’t naturalism, but he knows how to give it a reading that makes it adhere to a character. If no one likes the movie, they should at least watch Jason, just to see how he’s taken lines that would be impossible to read naturalistically and how he puts them into his processor and spews them out. It’s kind of amazing. I’ve often just had types in my movies. I’ve always directed them to go for the melodrama, to pretend there’s a proscenium arch just above the frame and to go for that. He just refused to, and I don’t blame him, because that’s not his shtick.
But it was really interesting to force it. It was just forcing like NTSC into PAL or something, or metric into imperial. But he did the conversion and then some. There’s a really interesting conversion going on there that I don’t think I’ve seen in any movie before, because no one’s tried it. The Hollywood studios made melodramas and you delivered the lines as a melodrama, but we’ve written a surrealist melodrama that’s then performed naturalistically. It’s really strange. But full of gangster tropes and stuff like that. It’s a really odd performance for him. Some people have said it’s a bit clenched, but I think that’s important. He’s clenched. He has to be clenched. He’s like a guy who has pinched off the fact that he’s dead. So I like the way it’s turned out. I’ve always been Von Sternberg-y in that I like combining 17 different styles of acting in one movie. The Scarlet Empress being the best example of that, a symphony of accents. It’s like a weird meal at some sort of food festival, when you’re mixing Tibetan stuff with Thai. So I’ve always liked that. I’ve liked mixing actors I’ve found on the street with theater actors with film actors, with varying degrees of ability. I’ve never been able to get anything other than that anyway, but to have someone that—he told me he just wanted to yoke himself into this project and haul it all by himself across the finish line.
AVC: Visconti mixed acting styles as well.
GM: He’s got Burt Lancaster being dubbed.
AVC: Or Vincente Minnelli, putting Shirley MacLaine with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in Some Came Running
GM: It’s like saying, “This is artifice. Enjoy it for what it is.” I’ve never bought that cliché that you should never take people out of the narrative, take people out of that dramatic illusion. I’m more of a person who loves his grandmother. I’m thinking when a grandmother sits at the foot of your bed and tells you a bedtime story, you get absorbed into the story, you notice her style of telling a story. Some parts you should tell badly, other parts charmingly. You’re totally sucked into the story. You’ve been scared, moved, engaged, and then every now and then you notice your grandmother has a dental whistle or a nose hair or that she’s getting pretty wrinkly and that she’s sitting on your foot, and then you go back into the story. I’m one of those filmmakers that likes to show the grandmother.
So’s Minnelli. Visconti. I don’t mean to put myself in such prestigious company. George Kuchar. So are all my favorite filmmakers. You feel the textures. You feel the edits like speed bumps sometime. I like reel changes in a crummy theater. For the longest time, I think until I was 25, I didn’t know what those reel changes were. I just knew that every now and then something flashed on the screen and then you’d hear a loud thump. It reminds me of that Kafka parable, which I can only paraphrase, about leopards breaking into the temple and upsetting the wine goblets and finally the leopards were just incorporated into the ceremony. The reel changes were just the leopards. Whatever they were was a luscious part of the film experience, which we don’t get anymore. But I insist on getting it because I just like feeling... I just put in cuts now just for the sake of them. You’ve gotta be primitive. The great Picasso, the great titan of the 20th century, everyone knows he could really draw if he wanted, but it was how he forgot that made him really important. You have to always forget. I got myself out of the biggest slump ever in the late ’90s. I just didn’t have a story to tell or a reason to say anything and it felt like my next step would be to go to 35mm and try to get conventional actors. And then I switched over to Super 8.
AVC: This was after Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs?
GM: Yeah. It wasn’t until after I made The Heart Of The World. I always hired diarists, as I told you, but I hired a Super 8 diarist this time, a guy named Deco Dawson. I always said he had to stay out of my way to shoot, so he chose different angles to shoot the same stuff I was shooting. I got his footage and I liked his footage way better than I liked mine. So with his permission, we just blew it up to 16 millimeter and edited the two gauges together and then I started shooting in Super 8, thanks to him. I fell in love with filmmaking again, because it just felt more primitive. It felt like I had been demoted to kindergarten, like I’d always wanted to be. I threw away my light meter. I had a wide-angle lens. I quit focusing, to super-deleterious results sometimes, but then those are always happy.
AVC: You made that your style.
GM: Absolutely. The less I knew. I just forgot everything I learned. I just learned a bunch of technical shit anyway. So I just went back to kindergarten and felt happy again. And I’ve been a child ever since, even though the man before you is starting to resemble Burl Ives’ brother-in-law. I feel pretty lucky to have this job, a job, maybe the only job where you remain a child until the day you die of old age."

Guy Maddin Talks! Part 4: A Climactic Nexus of Ballet, Hockey and Horror

By Jonathan Marlow

Bat Ballet: "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary"
This is the fourth of a five-part interview with Canadian film director Guy Maddin, conducted by filmmaker (and now Fandor executive) Jonathan Marlow. Read Part OnePart Two and Part Three.
Keyframe: Was it always the case that you were going to exclusively use Mahler for Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary?
Maddin: I came to the ballet after it had already been staged [by Mark Godden] three years earlier and it had been choreographed to Mahler. I was stuck with the Mahler. I didn’t love it at first but I learned to like most of it a lot.
Keyframe: I think that it’s used effectively and, at times, it sounds like it’s played off of an old 78 rpm turntable, which suits the imagery. That sets a whole other story in the development of this style of shooting in many different formats and using multiple cameras, moving all over the stage.
Maddin: I had to cover that one almost like a hockey game.
Keyframe: In a sense, you’re treating ballet as a sporting event.
Maddin: The ballet dancers struck me more as athletes than as artists. I think that they think of themselves more as athletes. They don’t go into a method actors trance in between stints on stage. As a matter of fact, I went to a number of ballets and watched from the wings. As I got to know the ballet dancers, they would come running off of the stage and they’d go, “Hey, Guy. What did you do on the weekend?” And I’d go, “You know, I got too drunk,” or whatever. I’d go, “How about you?” “Oh, I went fishing… just a minute.” And they’d run out and have a love scene and then come back, literally like talking to a hockey player between line changes or something like that. They are so athletic and they perform as a team.
They do act with their faces but it’s that uninhibited magnified melodrama, like in silent movies. They’re just silent movie actors that don’t know it. It was neat working with them and I’ve used them since. One of the female leads [Tara Birtwhistle] from Dracula I used in Cowards Bend the Knee but in a cheap wig.
Keyframe: Which part did she play?
Maddin: She’s the mother of Meta who gets strangled. She’s unrecognizable in that cheap wig.
Keyframe: I didn’t make the connection at all. I also didn’t realize until recently that your mother [Herdis Maddin] appears in the film.
Maddin: [Laughs] Where her ballet training came in handy was when she was being strangled. She could really make it seem like she’s going through a lot of pain and she’s being tossed around when in fact she’s leading. The actor is supposed to be strangling her with a hair net when in fact he’s just following her around while she’s leading with her throat. Dragging herself but making it appear that she’s being dragged underneath the hairdryer and having her head rammed underneath while putting her hand on the helmet of the hairdryer as if to try to resist it when, in fact, she’s pushing it down. She sort of does everything in reverse. She knows how to die since she’s died a million deaths on stage – stab wounds, stakes through the heart, poisonings, broken hearts and all sorts of other things that a ballerina has to die from. That one really paid off.

"Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary"
Keyframe: This would be similar to when a number of early silent filmmakers used opera performers to bring that level of experience to the screen. Have you ever thought about directing an opera?
Maddin: I’ve had a few offers recently.
Keyframe: I think that your talents would suit the stage rather well. Watching West of Zanzibar the other day [one of Maddin's selections for "Director's Choice"], I thought that it was a perfect story, this tale of misplaced revenge, for an opera.
Maddin: Maybe you’re right. Maybe it should just be sung. Maybe I’ll send you a case of champagne for that idea if I ever do it! The first opera that I was offered was Janacek’s From the House of the Dead but I got fired. It would have been nice but it didn’t work out. I’m still not sure why. Perhaps because over coffee with the maestro I told him that I actually enjoyed Gounod’s Faust. About three people started spitting up their coffee at that point and one of them announced that it was the most loathsome opera ever written. The next thing you know, none of my calls were being returned.
Keyframe: Just for a simple comment?
Maddin: The other theories are more litigious sounding so I’ll just stick with that one.
Keyframe: Many opera companies rely heavily on directors with a significant theater background but these directors seem better suited for a smaller stage. They generally spend much of the performance moving the singers and supernumeraries around in circles. Of course, they’re often dealing in those types of productions with singers who simply are not great actors.
Maddin: Right, and they often can’t get them to sing and act at the same time either.
Keyframe: Were there special difficulties in starting with a movie entitled The Saddest Music in the World with writing or finding music that would be perceived by audiences to be the saddest music? One person’s “saddest” is definitely not another’s.
Maddin: I just sort of believe that there is no way for there to be a “saddest music in the world.” It’s different for everybody. George was really pushing a while for “Happy Birthday.” I was up for it because I told him that in my personal experience, “Happy Birthday” is the saddest, not because it marks another year passed, another year older. Actually, it’s been sad for me since I was about five years old. I could always sense that around birthday time I was going to getting a lot of presents that would be kind of useless and disappoint me. I always had to feign happiness. I could always tell that my loved ones – my parents, my aunt, my grandmother – could tell that maybe I was faking and then they were trying to conceal their disappointments. Then there were all of these mutual reassurances that everyone loved the presents and, even if we didn’t, we still loved each other anyway. It just became an annual occasion for a lot of deception, discomfort and pressure to please.

"The Saddest Music in the World"
As the years went on, these memories accumulated into a highly concentrated unpleasant feeling. The music for me is awful. Plus, I have a girlfriend who demands an orgy of celebrations every year for her birthday. Whenever her birthday rolls around, I feel like I’m in the pennant race but without any pitchers. Every year, it’s awful. I start out the spring with the buds on the trees, feeling like the New York Yankees, and I end by feeling like the Montreal Expos. To me, it’s just the saddest music in the world but I knew that it wouldn’t necessarily be so for everyone. For my girlfriend, for instance, it’s the happiest music in the world. In the first draft of the script, we decided on climaxing the movie, after the contest, having Mark McKinney/Chester Kent’s mother come to the piano and everyone would be laid to waste again by the devastating effect of the song. But it’s too abstract and it couldn’t be accomplished through a montage. Besides, the rights to that song are notoriously expensive!
Maddin: Right away, I discarded that notion [of using "Happy Birthday" as the saddest music]. Remembering how musicals worked, old Hollywood musicals set up a piece of music in one context and then replayed it throughout the movie in different contexts and then, hopefully, that sets the viewer up for the ultimate proper context that is the exact flipside of the original idea. It starts off being a happy piece of music and then it gains some demonic associations when it’s played finally. That was something that I thought that I’d try to do. It was just a matter of picking a piece of music that was versatile enough.
Keyframe: Then whereabouts would you approach… how could I say this nicely? How did you select a composer that is mostly associated with writing the happiest pop music in the world, Christopher Dedrick of The Free Design, to write the score for your film?
Maddin: You know of The Free Design? “Kites are Fun”! He was up for it and I think that he did a pretty good job.
Keyframe: He does a great job.
Maddin: Yeah, he’s really proud of his work and he should be. He’s won some Canadian movie awards for it. I wasn’t that familiar with “Kites are Fun” at the time. I don’t know how I missed that because I was a real pop music buff in the late 60s when “Kites are Fun” was a hit.
Keyframe: You weren’t the only one that missed it. The song, along with much of their work, is largely forgotten now, despite its relative popularity at the time.
Maddin: He’s a real sort of charmed, levelheaded figure. He seems to have a harmonic way of playing through life but he’s really professional and hard-working. I wasn’t quaking in my boots with the realization that I might have to swing this guy around. He was willing to turn the dial darker. It was just a matter of saying, “More Wagner, more Herrmann.” I had this Jerome Kern song that seemed to be the most versatile song ever. The lyrics to it seemed to apply to almost any situation that the human heart can get itself into, “The Song is You” [words by Oscar Hammerstein]:
I hear music when I look at you,
A beautiful theme of ev’ry dream I ever knew.
Down deep in my heart, I hear it play,
I feel it start then melt away.
I hear music when I touch your hand,
A beautiful melody from some enchanted land,
Down deep in my heart, I hear it say
Is this the day?
I alone have heard this lovely strain,
I alone have heard this glad refrain,
Must it be forever in side of me
Why can’t I let it go?
Why can’t I let you know?
Why can’t I let you know the song my heart would sing?
That beautiful rhapsody of love and youth and spring,
The music is sweet the words are true,
The song is you.
So I decided to make that the firepole that ran the length of the movie. Chris [Dedrick] could sort of slide up and down that thing to get to various “darknesses” or lighter than air.
Keyframe: Such as the “flapper-esque” version.

"The Saddest Music in the World"
Maddin: Yeah, there’s a foxtrot, a dirge. All along, I knew that wanted to take one song and keep it as a motif. It thought that it was worth it to pay for the rights to this Jerome Kern classic. It’s a song that, at one point, he was best-known for but it seems to have been forgotten by so many people. So, it felt good to partially exhume it and recycle it. Then it was just a matter of finding incidental music and I was really worried about that. I just held auditions in Winnipeg and, it turns out, among its many immigrants are tons of musical groups. We held auditions and we also told them to bring their own costumes and their own instruments and play two of the saddest songs their ethnicity could muster. They were allowed five minutes each and we just picked people that had their own costumes to save some money.
Keyframe: IFC stepped up to the film after it was finished, right?
Maddin: After seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival.
Keyframe: How did you finance the film initially?
Maddin: I have no idea. I know that I didn’t have to pitch the movie once, which felt good. I guess my producers did the pitching this time. In the past, I’ve had to pitch my movies a little bit. It’s kind of strange to make a movie now without even pitching it.
Keyframe: That’s where you’re at now!
Maddin: Pitching it afterwards.
Keyframe: With MGM releasing it on video, it will probably be seen by more people than any of your other films.
Maddin: I hope that they release it in the proper aspect ratio [the Canadian release, evidently, was full-frame; the U.S. release is 1.85:1].
Keyframe: Did you create a commentary track for the film?
Maddin: I did some commentary in Canada, Mark McKinney and me. Maybe they’re buying the commentary. [They didn't - the US release contains two featurettes and three short films instead].
Keyframe: Was Mark always your first choice for the film? Did you write it with him in mind?
Maddin: No, we didn’t write it with him in mind but we didn’t have anyone else in mind either. I guess he was my first choice. He was the only choice. We thought of some other people, briefly, but I have no regrets. I think that it was really the way to go.
Keyframe: There is a real chemistry between Mark and Isabella [Rossellini].
Maddin: Isabella was in our minds all along. I’d given brief thought to my friend Alice Krige, with whom I’d worked on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. I’d cast her and even bought her a plane ticket for Cowards Bend the Knee but she got quite sick so I replaced her with that ballerina at the last second. Then we shot Saddest Music in the World instantly after – you know, I shot those movies back-to-back. I shot Cowards during the pre-production of Saddest Music in the World.

"Cowards Bend the Knee"
Keyframe: I told you this before but I’ll mention it again – Cowards is my favorite of your films. It used to be Careful.
Maddin: I think that it might be my favorite, too. It was my favorite experience.
Keyframe: To exorcise those demons, in a way?
Maddin: It felt really good. Plus it was so easy to make. I had a friend [Shawna Connor] that needed a job and so I paid her some money to be the production designer. I found a studio, an abandoned snowplow garage in Winnipeg, so I gave her some money to build some sets. I basically just gave her the script and I just let her do it herself. I only showed up on set maybe twice before shooting, to make sure that things were going along nicely. She took so much pride in her work; she had so many volunteers working for her. I had really nothing to do with it. I just made sure that it looked good to me. So I just showed up on the first day of shooting with a bunch of actors.
Keyframe: She was your Cedric Gibbons, in a way.
Maddin: Yep, I just let her go and she does great work! I gave her a salary, too, and she spent her whole salary on materials as well. She was living in complete poverty, sleeping in her car. The costume designer, Meg McMillan, was the same thing. She also did the costumes for The Saddest Music in the World. She was sleeping in her car with her two Scottie dogs. People were pouring their own salaries into the movies. I owe them a lot of gratitude.
So, I just showed up with these actors. I guess that I had cast the actors myself. That was slightly time consuming but they were all hand-picked from people that I knew. Meg put them in costumes and I put them in the sets that Shawna built. Then I pointed a Super-8 camera at them and started filming them. I sort of snuck five days away from Saddest Music in the World into this snowplow garage.
Keyframe: It was only a five-day shoot?
Maddin: Yeah. Five pretty short days, too, because I had to check in at the other place first thing in the morning and then report back in at lunchtime.
Keyframe: Sounds like an Edgar Ulmer schedule.
Maddin: Yeah. We’d shoot from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon everyday with a ninety-minute lunch break while I would drive across town to the other studio. It was fun shooting a secret movie in a parallel universe. The only thing that would have made it better was if I was shooting at the same time on both sets, but that would’ve been impossible. I actually tried that once. It doesn’t work. A producer for a rock video hired me once to be the director of the video but he secretly really wanted to direct it himself. So he scheduled it, rather craftily, at the same time while I was scheduled to shoot another short movie of mine. For a while, I was literally riding my bike back and forth between the two locations. This was back in 1994 when I was making the Odilon Redon short. The video was for a group called Grand Theft Canoe. I ended up finally giving up after about three bike rides and just letting him take over. It was clear that he was going to do it anyway.
Keyframe: This chaotic shooting schedule seems to suit you. “Odilon Redon” is an amazing film as well.
Maddin: I like the imposition of outside restrictions somehow. You wouldn’t think you’d want that but I kind of like it. I like working with producers that make it clear to me what they want. The producer of Dracula really made it clear that she [Vonnie von Helmolt] wanted it in HD-TV color.
Keyframe: Although it is neither of those things – HD or color.

"Cowards Bend the Knee"
Maddin: When I fought with her over it being in black-and-white and on film, Super-8 film even, I finally had to make a strong case. You sort of find out which of your arguments are good and which ones you don’t even believe yourself. As long as you’re dealing with a reasonable person who isn’t just using their veto power, it’s pretty productive actually. It was like that with the producer of Saddest Music in the World, Niv Fichman, with whom I argued constantly. He had this sort of rule, which is very sweet – once an argument is settled, it’s never brought up again in the form of sour grapes or whatever. And consensus – once the two of you have decided on a path, you back each other on it. Quickly, amnesia sets in and you don’t remember which side of the argument you were on, whether you lost or won.
Keyframe: Because you had agreement.
Maddin: Yeah. It was pretty good, actually. There was never any, “Ah, shit! I knew I should’ve shot it in color.” Or something like that. “Why did I let you talk me into it?” There was none of that, ever. I beat myself up over some second guesses, though.
Keyframe: Why did she want to shoot Dracula in HD?
Maddin: Well, it was her project right from the start. She approached me as a gun for hire. She just knew that she wanted it for TV and she loved the production that she’d seen on stage. She wanted it to be on cutting-edge technology, thinking that it would improve its export chances for Europe and American television.
Keyframe: Was she wrong?
Maddin: I don’t know. I think, for me, she was. It wasn’t a good fit for me because I like to murk things up. I don’t really like watching ballet films. A lot of times, you’re not seeing enough because the camera is too far away from the human face. Then, when they do go in for a close-up, you’re seeing too much. You’re seeing bad stage make-up or a person whose face isn’t mysterious enough. I thought that HD would be the worst possible approach.
Keyframe: It seems that your technique, which you were perfecting on Dracula, accurately represents the way that the human eye perceives things. Shifting the focus, picking up different details.
Maddin: Yeah, there is a time to reveal something and a time not to. In writing, in painting, in photography, in drama and storytelling. It’s not like I’m the only person doing stuff like that. You see it in commercials all the time, in advertising where the smartest people are, the most manipulative at least. That’s where I get daily inspiration. I buy the big, thick fashion magazines and flip through them. I sort of wish that I could be a fashion writer, as a matter of fact. There is a particular flavor to the kind of spun candy that appears in those pages.
Keyframe: Did you ever want to be a sports writer at all?
Maddin: That would be fun, too! A dream that I held, quite seriously, was to be a hockey color commentator. I knew that I couldn’t be a broadcast play-by-play man because I just don’t have the voice for it. I don’t even have the voice for his companion in the booth, either. That was a dream that I had for a long time, and I’m meaning, recently. In my late 30s, I was still sort of planning on it.
Keyframe: The whole film thing is a sideline.
Maddin: They get paid like $30,000 a year but it was what I wanted to do.
Keyframe: Dreams have nothing to do with money.
Maddin: Of course, that’s about $20,000 more a year than I get paid now!"

Guy Maddin Talks! Part 3: Finest Shorts and Saddest Music

By Jonathan Marlow

Six Minutes of Miraculous Cinema: "The Heart of the World"
This is the third of a five-part interview with Canadian film director Guy Maddin, conducted by filmmaker (and now Fandor executive) Jonathan MarlowRead Part One and Part Two.
Keyframe: Closing the 1990s is what I believe to be one of the finest short films ever made, Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity. I think a lot of the folks that were heaping words of praise upon the wonderful Heart of the World apparently had never seen Odilon Redon because your incredible abilities were readily visible there.
Maddin: It doesn’t get seen that much, I don’t think.
Keyframe: I guess not. That’s unfortunate because it’s fantastic. Something that you mentioned in Kino Delirium was an attempt with Odilon Redon to remake Abel Gance’s La Roue without ever actually seeing it. What other films would you like to remake that are lost or that you’ve only read about? Would you want to tackle [Tod] Browning’s London After Midnight or [F.W] Murnau’s Four Devils? Would that ever interest you?
Maddin: Precisely those titles. I made a little list of lost films that I thought would be fun to make into four-minute productions. Those two were there. I’ve since seen a reconstruction of London After Midnight on that Lon Chaney DVD that’s just come out. It doesn’t interest me that much anymore [ed. besides, Browning himself remade this film as Mark of the Vampire]. Four Devils I would love to make, although shooting trapeze artists would be very tough. I would like to slowly make them, something to do between big projects to fill in the gaps. Almost every major director has at least one lost film. It was really fun and liberating to make La Roue without having seen it. I’ve since seen it; I own it on videotape now. It’s kind of fun to watch a two-and-a-half hour version. And I’m a huge fan of Gance.

Keyframe: As am I. Now we’re up to Twilight of the Ice Nymphs – “very lush and full of ostriches!” Like Paul Cox in Careful, Frank Gorshin wasn’t your first choice. The film wasn’t really your first choice, either. You were going to make The Dikemaster’s Daughter. Will you ever get back to that project or is it one that will stay on the shelf?
Maddin: I was lucky that one fell through. I wasn’t ready to make that one. The script wasn’t quite ready there. We were into pre-production and we had some people cast already but it just… it was going to be a big mess. That’s one of the reasons it folded. When financing was cut in half by the government, we did have the choice of continuing or not. We could have restructured and gone non-union and made it for less money than we’d made the previous film, Careful. I was already starting to have doubts about this project anyway. When everyone was so devastated by getting 50 percent of what we thought we were getting from Telefilm Canada to make the film, I just used that as an excuse to bail on it, in a way. It wasn’t just that. It was a terrific slap in the face, I felt; a terrific display of a lack of confidence in me and aptly so [laughs]. I think the funders read the script and felt the same kind of concerns that I did. It was a good first draft but it wasn’t ready to go. They didn’t say that, though. They just said, “No!” Then they gave me a figure. I think we wanted to make it for $1.8 million and we were going to be forced to make it for $900K [Canadian]. In 2004 dollars, that would be like making the movie for $2 million; that wouldn’t be so bad. I just thought, “Nah, I better get out of this picture that I don’t really want to make.” It needed to be rewritten. I wasn’t ready to shoot a musical, either. I was barely ready to shoot the musical that The Saddest Music in the World is when I shot it. A lot of work goes into those things. I hadn’t done any of it and we were just a few weeks from shooting. It was going to be like that Nick Nolte musical [I'll Do Anything] that was shot a few years ago where they finally just cut out all of the musical numbers and released it as a drama. That would have been its fate for sure.
I remember feeling, just as I was finishing Careful, that for almost ten years, since I picked up a camera for the first time, I had already been messing around with making these old-looking movies. I really felt like I’d done it once too often, even. I just needed to spend a few years drifting around until I found some enthusiasm for the pictures again. Unfortunately, I made a movie right in the middle of this period where I had no enthusiasm for making pictures…
Keyframe: …and that’s Ice Nymphs?

"Twilight of the Ice Nymphs"
Maddin:  Yeah. I feel that good directors have got to be able to get through that anyway and just work; to put failure behind them and just keep moving. I shouldn’t have lulled around so much, but I just didn’t feel a burning need to make a picture. I didn’t know what kind of visual language to use, which is why there is sort of a different visual language going on in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Sort of a determined Ouija-style by unknown forces at work on the set. Different people determining different things. Some very loyal pals helping me out that were doing imitations of me in the décors. Every now and then I would work up the energy to supervise really nice “Guy backdrops.” I like those in the movie. It was a learning experience, but I shouldn’t have let the film’s sort of cursed existence get me down so much. I should have just reminded myself that even Hitchcock laid a rotten egg now and then.
Keyframe: Quite a few of them, even. If you had a checklist of film techniques that you were crossing off as you make these features, you covered Orson Welles’s classic trick of redubbing someone (although you didn’t do the voice yourself).
Maddin: Exactly. I’m not in love with my voice. But I do love Ross MacMillan’s voice, so he could be my “vocal Orson” any time. There’s only so much an actor in Ross’s position can do. He understands the music of George [Toles's] writing and he could put the “George” back in the George lines. Nigel [Whitmey, star of Twilight] had no sense of irony or playfulness. He was a bit of an imposter. He was from RADA [Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts], this distinguished academy in London but, I don’t know, it just seemed like he was from Calgary to me. Strangely enough, when we were finishing Saddest Music in the World and we had some preview screenings, there were some suggestions that we replace Ross MacMillan’s voice [Ross portrays Roderick, the "sad Serbian"]. [laughs] I couldn’t believe it. His voice was almost replaced. It would have been the strangest irony that I hired him to replace someone’s voice in one movie and then hired him again only to have his voice replaced. Whatever.
Keyframe: This was the producers of the film that wanted you to do it?
Maddin: I’d better not say who it was.
Keyframe: Let’s forget it then.
Maddin: It was some people up there that luckily didn’t have any sort of veto power or anything. It was some bigwigs…
Keyframe: You took this period after Ice Nymphs to finish off some shorts that you had shot earlier but hadn’t finished…
Maddin: A lot of them are sort of stillborn and it may be a while before they see the light of day. I’ve shown them to friends. I have about four shorts that were financed by my aunt Lil who died and then left her entire estate to her nephew. Not me, a different nephew. Now he claims ownership of them. One of them is Sissy Boy Slap Party, so I’ve re-shot it just recently. That will be released as a remake. He can have the first one and I have the second one. The second one’s better anyway.
Keyframe: We screened Hospital Fragment at the Grand Illusion in Seattle. It seemed to be an outtake from Gimli. I don’t believe that it really was; perhaps it was only inspired by…
Maddin: I shot it many years later. Mike Gottli, the fat guy from Gimli, had been in a horrible car accident. He hit a moose with his Austin Mini and went into a coma for about a year. When he came out of it, he needed speech therapy. He can’t talk, actually. He lost about five years worth of memories, including making the movies with me [Gottli also stars in Archangel]. He needed to walk with a walker. His health has since failed even worse and he’s doing really badly. He’s had a stroke. He’s only 35 years old and he’s in horrible shape. Before he had his stroke, I thought it might be nice to have him come and do a little scene, just for something to do. So, on the day that JFK Jr. went down in an airplane, I just called up Angela Heck and Brent Neale [from Careful] and I got them all together in my bedroom and we just shot this thing. It was done in 1999, a full twelve years later than Gimli Hospital.
Keyframe: It wasn’t sure if the footage was shot earlier and then assembled in 1999. I suppose, if I compared them side-by-side, it would be rather obvious. Wasn’t Maldoror: Tigers shot earlier and finished, I think, in 1999?
Maddin: It was shot when Kyle was heavier, I know that.
Keyframe: From the lone still that I’ve seen, it was clearly photographed after Careful but I can’t tell when.
Maddin: It was shot around 1997.
Keyframe:Now we’re into the big guns. You had this fallow period and now you can’t be stopped.
Maddin: [laughs]
Keyframe: The Heart of the World, of course – the shot heard ’round the world. Nearly everyone’s seen it. It’s on disc, fortunately, so folks that have only heard about it now have the chance to see it as well. In only six minutes, you’re able to pack more story than nearly every feature film released in 2000.
Maddin: [laughs] Yeah, it felt pretty good. It’s the only film that I’ve ever made that turned out exactly the way I had hoped.
Keyframe: Plus, I’d wished that when people were talking about The Passion of the Christ and rattling off all of the great cinematic Christs that they would mention Caelum [Vatnsdal] but they didn’t! I don’t know why…
Maddin: He’s a pretty good one. I was pretty lucky there. I’ve always been lucky in my career. Lucky to get way more mileage out of my talent than I deserve. I felt like everything that could go wrong went wrong on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. The spell I like to work in was gone. All of the sudden, I felt lucky again. Caelum lives just a few blocks away from me. I phoned him up and said, “Do you mind if I just come over and look at you?” So I rode over on my bicycle and I was there within ninety seconds. He opened his door and I just said, “Heal me!” He’s got these long, skinny, boney fingers and he became a German Expressionist Christ there on the spot. I cast him. I just felt so lucky. He’d never really done much acting but I thought he was perfect for it. I had audition even, where I had these people showing up and they’d memorized chunks of the Bible, giving me Christ monologues. None of them were as good as the non-actor Caelum.
Keyframe: He has that great Ivan the Terrible beard.
Maddin: Yeah, and since I wanted to make a Soviet agitprop thing, I thought he looked quite sinister. Christianity really is the sinister opiate of the masses.
Keyframe: That free style that you use on Heart of the World seems to surface again in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. This all-over Super-8 shooting style, assembled in a way that really doesn’t resemble anyone else’s film.
Maddin: I just started getting more and more confident with my “primitivity.” Just deciding that the more I intentionally, aggressively, got primitive, the more it embraced mistakes and made them into strengths. I really started to hit my stride right around Dracula that way. I just felt good and it’s been kind of a strategy I’ve been using lately.
Keyframe: The same style goes into The Hands of Orlac, which I thought was really clever…
Maddin: I loved the premise of The Hands of Orlac and it never seems to get told properly. I’m not saying that I’ve done it properly either but, like in Mad Love, it always becomes bogus about two thirds of the way through. That’s a wonderful movie. I love Peter Lorre, it looks great, but the script sort of fell apart. I thought I’d try my hand it. It’s been shot six times at least. I had all of these other stories sort of simmering in my head, and The Hands of Orlac as well. I was really worried that, by fusing too many metaphors together, I’d just make a big dog’s breakfast. I feel that it worked out okay.
Keyframe: Well, more than okay. Obviously, conceived as an installation, I think that the single-channel film is really exceptional.
Maddin: I sort of let down the Power Plant [Contemporary Art] Gallery [in Toronto] that commissioned it because I made a film not an installation. I feel badly about it. They’ve been kind enough to let me show it as a film from now on.
Keyframe: IFC Films picked up Saddest Music and Zeitgeist is distributing Cowards?
Maddin: Yeah.
Keyframe: I’m pleased that people will have a chance to see it.
Maddin: It is going to open at the Film Forum in New York in August with a Quay brothers? film [The Phantom Museum] and probably with Sissy Boy Slap Party.
Keyframe: How did this idea of coming to the Pacific Film Archive come about? Did Edith [Kramer] approach you?
Maddin: Edith made a phone call to me. I was quite excited to talk to Edith – I hadn’t talked to her in a few years.
Keyframe: Since 1993, right?
Maddin: Yeah, but she’s one of those people whose opinion really matters to me. Whenever I made a movie, I used to send a tape of it for her to watch and then wait for her response. Sometimes you could tell if she was busy and hadn’t had a chance to see it properly. She’d say, “Congratulations,” and then she would cite something that she liked about it, usually something that happened in the first few minutes. I was beginning to get frightened that I had fallen off of her radar altogether. To get a call way back whenever it was, last February maybe, about coming here when I was already getting sick of traveling. I had sort of sworn off all trips but I accepted this offer in a second.
The chance to do a retrospective plus the carte blanche [to show the sidebar, "Director's Choice"] was a tasty piece of bait. It was fun to pick other movies. It was great talking with Edith and then she quickly delegated it out to Steve Seid. He’s really an amazing programmer. He really knows his stuff. A lot of people say that he’s maybe the best programmer in the country and things like that. It was really nice to work with him. He’s really funny. He’s kind of a merciless kidder as well. There’s not even a molecule of obsequiousness in him or anything. I feel like he’s a friend already, somehow, although we probably won’t ever speak to each other ever again! At least not for a couple of years.
Keyframe: You’ve definitely had a flurry of productivity over these last few years.
Maddin: Maybe I can be back here eventually or soon or something.

"The Saddest Music in the World"
Keyframe: When Saddest Music screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, the staff were apologetic that you weren’t present to introduce it.
Maddin: I’d had it. I’d had it with travel. I think it was happening during the school year and I was teaching, for one thing. I had just traveled so much and I’d talked about the movie so much that I didn’t think I was capable. Now it’s getting a French release so I’m going to have to go there. French film press. Staggeringly huge. I’ll have to do a lot of interviews. I’m just going to have to gird myself for another blitzkrieg. Maybe I should think up a new mythology for the movie or something.
Keyframe: Perhaps you can try some of those ideas out now?
Maddin: Yeah, I’m dry I think.
Keyframe: Is that the hardest part? After you’ve worked so hard on the film, to have to go around and explain it to these people who probably don’t have a clue.
Maddin: Sometimes it was kind of fun. When I made Archangel, a movie which, while I was making it, I was very hubristic, I thought that I was making something wonderful. Then, when it came out, I realized with a very painful blow to the skull administered by the public that the movie was incomprehensible. I had a lot of fun talking about it and trying to make it more accessible to people, trying to literally hide in these interviews explanations and enlightenments and ways into the movie and things like that. That was kind of a fun challenge. I never got tired of that because I liked the movie enough. It was just this little movie of mine walking around on leg braces. I gave it all the special attention it needed.
Keyframe: Were you giving conflicting explanations for the film?
Maddin: I was giving any explanation.
Keyframe: You were trying to provide any detail that could provide a gateway into the story?
Maddin: Yeah, whereas with Saddest Music in the World it’s somehow a movie that can stand more on its own. I quickly found myself running out of things to say. Maybe this came with age but I felt less mischievous; I found myself less interested in lying. Not very playful. The biggest challenge was Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, where I had to talk about how, since it was a movie set in the forest, I was going for a “deciduous” acting style. Trying anything to help people into what few sylvan charms were in there. But Saddest Music in the World seemed to stand well enough on its own. I really preferred reading or hearing what writers had to say about it rather than hearing me myself saying it. I wanted to give myself the pleasure of reading some takes on it or hearing about it, you know? But then you’re standing there with a microphone or a blank piece of paper and you’ve got to say or write something. I found myself using up all the material that I have. When you’re a director and you are talking about your movie, you’re pretending to be a viewer and talking about the viewing experience.
Keyframe: How did you and George [Toles] approach the story? Were there any special challenges in taking the story and adapting it into a film?
Maddin: One of my favorite stages of filmmaking is the writing of the screenplay – my other favorite part is the sound edit. The treatment was really fun. The screenplay was kicking around since 1985, I think, and it was something that Ish [Kazuo Ishiguro] had written before he was a famous novelist. We were told, not by Ish but by our producer, that we could do whatever we wanted to make it “live” as long as we kept the basic premise and the title and Ishiguro’s name on there as a pedigree. One of the first things we did… George and I have almost never collaborated in person. We just talk on the phone. Our friendship was formed over the phone. He’s a person that has a phone-shaped dent in the side of his head from 1968. You can put a phone in there and you can just hang it up.
Keyframe: He does his best thinking through this device?

"The Saddest Music in the World"
Maddin: Yes, and he’s really strangely articulate. He speaks in these long, complicated sentences but with correct punctuation – dashes, colons, semi-colons, exclamation points, periods, pauses… and then, just when you think the whole thing is going to topple over in some dramatically incorrect mountain of participles, he just finishes it up in a couple of words and the whole thing stands there, shimmering. He’s a real Nabokovian that way. He’s fun just to listen to, so we’ve always just collaborated by editing out all other things except for the sounds of our voices over the phone. The more excited we get – I don’t know about George but, judging by the dent in his head, he is probably the same as me – I start pressing the phone further into my ear and by the end of the conversation I usually can’t straighten my arm up, my tendons are close to snapping, my head hurts – but we peeled away all the things in Ish’s script that didn’t thrill us and added some personal obsessions of our own. We came up with a structure that we felt could support all of the throughlines in a clear, audience-friendly way without sabotaging any of our concerns.
We were quite excited after just one ten- or fifteen-minute conversation. Then it was a matter of having one more conversation like that. Even though it was a short conversation, I still remember my head hurting, so I guess that I was excited. Then, my job is always to write it out in purpled prose to get right away to the tone of the movie. At least that’s what I like to do. I’m sure that people in the industry don’t want to read that and I’ve probably done myself no favors by writing in that way. Trying to write in the style of the last decade of the 19th century or something like that; trying to get some flavor of decadence into the project, something frightening to the producers but something that gets my mouth watering for the project. I wrote a 29-page treatment just based on our conversations.
Keyframe: Were there certain things that you found in the original script that seemed to suggest the typical obsessions that would appear in your films or did you feel that it was open enough to add those items in here or there? It doesn’t seem greatly different from Careful or Tales from the Gimli Hospital. It’s definitely a “Guy Maddin/George Toles” concept.
Maddin: There were some things that we’ve been working towards. There was a project that we didn’t make, this Thomas Edison bio-pic [Edison and Neemo] – it’s being shot but not by me; George sold the script to an animator and it’s being made into a cartoon [by Perfect Circle Productions in Vancouver, B.C.] – but I had sort of sworn that I would have a proactive protagonist in my films from now on. With Thomas Edison, you had the ultimate American proactive protagonist – a guy that just sort of grabbed and stole and took a lot of credit and things like that.
Right away, we switched around Ishiguro’s script into something that was more of what we had become recently. The competition in Ishiguro’s script didn’t even involve Americans. They were in there but only in a tertiary role. We just thought, “No, it has to be about America and this proactive character.” Since we’re Canadian, there has to be a Canadian character, and they might as well be brothers. There had to be an old world way. Then, we quickly developed this way of speaking over each other’s lines and finishing each other’s sentences. We talked about how America always repressed its sadness in music and pop culture and how Europe always seemed to embrace sadness and present it to the world without any guise, especially its music. Think of all those Tin Pan Alley songs of the Great Depression that came out ofAmerica, like “We’re in the Money” or “Happy Days are Here Again” and a million others. Only a couple of Tin Pan Alley hits of the 1930s acknowledged the Depression – “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” is the most famous one, I guess. The rest are highly polished songs concentrating on romance.
Keyframe: In Hollywood, they rarely wanted to address the Depression in any cinematic dramatic way, except for a handful – Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road, for instance.
Maddin: Yeah, there’s a few. The Warner Bros. stuff was kind of gritty and there’s something tawdry about everything Busby Berkeley does but, for the most part…
Keyframe: They knew that audiences were seeking some kind of escape.
Maddin: Audiences didn’t want to see a movie about shacks because they were living in them.
Keyframe: We’re kind of in that period again. Making shallow entertainment that denies our situation.
Maddin: The new opiate of the masses. Anyway, we thought it would be fun to make a movie that would be full of music. This was something that I had been working towards for a long time anyway and something that I was able to do with my ballet, Dracula – a melodrama that’s wall-to-wall music."

Guy Maddin Talks! Part 2: Making Movies Louder than a Whisper

By Jonathan Marlow

Back to the Future: Maddin's retro-garde "Archangel" won the National Society of Film Critics' Best Experimental Film Award
This is the second of a five-part interview with Canadian film director Guy Maddin, conducted by filmmaker (and now Fandor executive) Jonathan Marlow. Read Part One.
Keyframe: Archangel followed Tales from the Gimli Hospital. It was given the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Experimental Film. Here you have this “part-talkie,” a beast which really only existed between 1927 and 1930, but you had to make one and there it is. Inter-titles, occasional dialogue, voiceover – everything all in one big picture. How was your experience on that film?
Guy Maddin: I loved making that movie. I really thought right up until the day I had it finished that I’d made a masterpiece. I watched it for the first time during a process of the sound mix. It used to be called the interlock, where you’d put up all these magnetic soundtracks all at once really for the first time. Normally, when you’re editing on a Steinbeck, you can only hear two tracks at once. I think I only had three or four tracks on the movie, but I finally heard them all at once. I really felt like I’d made a dream, a perfect dream of a movie.
It wasn’t. I had no objectivity on it. I didn’t even realize until I watched it with an audience and then… it was very crushing. I didn’t have a test audience on the film in those days. I didn’t trust them. I didn’t realize that I’d made a film that was incomprensble to everybody else. It wasn’t so much “dream-like” as “sleep-inducing.” But I feel that the completely self-deluding experience I had when I first watched Archangel might be one of the best film viewing experiences ever. I was very proud of myself when I watched it with Greg Klymkiw, who was my producer at the time, and we were just so thrilled at how beautifully it turned out. We both fooled ourselves. We just drove around all night going, “Wow, that is so incredible.” You know, we got our comeuppance.
Keyframe: I think that it has a first in the history of cinema, though – the intestinal strangulation scene. I was quite surprised by that.
Maddin: I was proud of that. It felt like a first. If I stole it from anyone, it was definitely a subconscious plagarism.
Keyframe: It’s played seriously, which I think helps considerably. It’s a very strange sequence, though.
Maddin: [laughs] Thank you.

Keyframe: I think this whole technique was pretty much fully formed by the time you get to Careful, where you’re making your first color film. I watched it again last night and I felt it to be a Freudian fever-dream. Until very recently, it was my favorite of your films.
Maddin: I feel Freud has been discredited. No one takes him seriously anymore. I thought it would be kind of fun to just embrace the good old days, when there was that great mania for Freud in the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood. There were so many films with shrinks; sort of the Greek chorus. I thought it would be fun. I didn’t know much about Freud. I read the first chapter of his Interpretation of Dreams. It was really just fun to play around with these obvious symbols. I was forced to do it in color by the distributor, but I was really glad I was forced because it would have taken me a long time to get around to it otherwise. I was so respectful of the power of color, its mystical power. I started to try to harness it and control it as much as possible. I remember, I thought, “How could they force me to shoot color? Don’t they realise how difficult color is?” Think of Don’t Look Now where that red raincoat is worn only by a homicidal dwarf and a drowned girl. If you don’t control every color in the frame, you might accidently shoot a fire hydrant and the fire hydrant will take on all the same importance as the homicidal dwarf and a drowned girl. I didn’t want to have fire hydrants all over the place so I determined I would have to control the color of absolutely everything in the movie and make it only two colors at a time.
Keyframe: That’s why you shot it exclusively indoors?
Maddin: Yeah, because if I shot outdoors I would have to pull an Antonioni and paint the golf course or whatever it was.
Keyframe: Did you think, when you were making a mountain film, that it had to be black-and-white and then…
Maddin: I felt like it had to be black-and-white because mountains seem like black-and-white things – although I guess Heidi would look good in color. I had never seen a Leni Riefenstahl picture prior to writing Careful but I saw Tiefland shortly before shooting. Tiefland was in black-and-white and I thought, “Yes, mountains, black-and-white’s the way to go,” but I’m really glad I was forced to go color. I like the color in about three quarters of the scenes.
Keyframe: I suspect that you were familiar with Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten?
Maddin: Very familiar. I read it. I had read it but I didn’t have a library card. I couldn’t take it out of the library, so I read it in the library once. I read it way too quickly because you can’t read Walser quickly. I like the butler stuff. It was actually George Toles, my writing partner, that suggested we stick a butler academy up in the mountains. I just wanted to make a mountain picture and I had some other plots in mind but George had read another Walser in the “Masquerade” collection. There’s some butler hijinks in that story. I got all the Walser attitude that I needed from that short story.
At the time, I didn’t realise that the Brothers Quay were working on their own adaptation. I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Quay and they’d already beaten me to doing a Bruno Schultz adaptation when they did Street of Crocodiles. When I found that they were doing Institute Benjamenta, it just sort of confirmed that these were people I had to meet someday. I’ve since become really good friends with them. I really admire them and I visit them whenever I go to England.
Keyframe: How is the Quay Brothers’ latest feature [The Mechanical Infanta aka The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes] coming along? Have you heard much about it?
Maddin: I think it’s still sort of in delivery throes right now. No one has quite given them the go-ahead to start. I think it’s in that state where everyone is waiting around hoping that they’ll get the word.
Keyframe: You finally met Steven and Timothy [Quay] at the Olympia Film Festival, the same time that we were introduced. There’s a reference in the Atelier Tovar to “dinner with tons of wine before the Twilight screening,” which was a dinner that we all had together. You also mention showing up at Scarecrow Video, a company that I worked for at the time [note: Jonathan Marlow operated a movie theatre on the second floor of the store in the mid-1990s].
Maddin: I liked that video store. It was great.

Keyframe: It’s still quite a place. Can you talk a bit about casting Paul Cox as Count Knotkers? Because, as I understand it, Martin Scorsese was at one point going to do it and then Bobby Hull…
Maddin: That’s right, yes. I received a lot of encouragement about Scorsese from his vice-president [of operations] at the time, Melanie Friesen. She’s a Manitoban, actually, my home province, and she now works for the Vancouver International Film Festival. She used to phone me up every now and then to request a tape or a print from me because Marty was interested, and I talked to her. Naturally, being self-centered like all filmmakers, I tried to turn this to my advantage somehow. I wanted to get Marty in this part, you know, and I tried. She finally just said, “No, he’s too busy.” [Scorsese was editing Cape Fear at the time.] By then, I became determined to get a celebrity, so I thought along the lines of celebrity athletes for some reason. O.J. Simpson hadn’t killed anyone at that point yet. I was thinking of Jim Brown, the former football player who had, I think, thrown a woman out of a window or something. No one talks about his unbelievably homicidal tendencies, but he struck me as a great sports hero turned rotten. I knew Bobby Hull was charged a few times for slapping his wife around and things like that, so I thought, “This is great, he’s Canada’s – and especially Winnipeg’s – huge hockey legend. Plus he’ll have this echo, a sort of after-career echo that’s really rotten and that will be my own private joke.” I think he smelled a rat or he was too busy bashing someone, but he was interested in theory for only a couple of weeks. And then, I just got it into my head that I needed a hockey player, so my producer [Greg Klymkiw], whose dad [Julian Klymkiw] used to play in the NHL in the 1950s, knew Maurice Richard [of the Montreal Canadians] and so I wanted to get Maurice. He did a lot of Grecian Formula hair ads in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s but apparently he was getting too old, even in the early 1990s, to be considered. I don’t remember all the other people we thought of.
Finally, Greg had become friends with Paul Cox at a film festival. Paul is a great drinker and he just likes hanging out with other filmmakers. He’s sort of a grassroots kind of guy, which Greg really liked. Paul made Golden Braid with Gosia Dobrowolska and eventually married her. When we cast Gosia as Zenaida in Careful, Greg just thought it might be handy to ask Paul, her husband, as well. Paul and Kyle McCulloch had this strange rivalry over Gosia. They had been working together for a few weeks before Paul even arrived in town and Paul sniffed something was up. I choreographed their fight after Leni Riefenstahl’s Tiefland knife scene. I’d watched it the night before and basically lifted the storyboard panel-for-panel from that because I didn’t know how to do a knife fight. It sort of encouraged me; incompetence rendered it unrecognizable, but it was a nice starting point. There are a lot of shots in that scene, two hundred or maybe 150. I don’t know if they all made it into the movie, but I shot a lot of setups. Paul and Kyle were using these fake knives but even those were kind of sharp and they were genuinely stabbing each other. Just stabbing away all day long. They truly hated each other. They were pretending not to, but you could tell that there was some sort of sexual rivalry going on there. Anyway, the marriage is over and the rivalry’s over. Everything’s over.
Keyframe: Seeing the film again last night, I was surprised at the duration of that sequence. It’s very difficult to block action scenes and make them seem believable. The rest of the film is so loose – to shift into a compelling fight sequence right at the end is a bit of a surprise.
Maddin: You know, I was very proud of that because I edited it myself. I edited the whole movie myself. I’m pretty proud of the movie, but I wish it were about fifteen minutes shorter. I think I allowed my girlfriend at the time to talk me into putting her in the movie and…
Keyframe: What part did she play?
Maddin:  She’s that girl chained to a rock. An unnecessary detour in the movie. I had to create a lot of stuff around the rock to make it a justifiable piece. If I went back and cut it out, I could just fix that movie up, but you’re not allowed to cut out things from our lives, so…

Keyframe: Well, it seems that everyone else is doing it these days. Imagine, a Director’s Cut of Careful – other folks put missing scenes back in, but you’d be taking existing footage out.
Maddin: I’m very sad to report that the guy who narrates the introductions to both Careful and Archangel, Victor Cowie, just died yesterday.
Keyframe: Oh, no.
Maddin: Yeah, I was very close to him. He was very sweet. He had a small part in The Saddest Music in the World and it fit. I had given him a tape [of the movie] a couple of weeks ago because he was dying of cancer. His wife phoned me today to tell me two things: That he’d died and that he liked the movie. She was so sweet. He was a perfect gentleman and always made a point of follow-up calls. It would be so unlike him to die without passing on word that he thought he had done okay. It really is a touching gesture from this woman who had just lost her husband. She was sort of acting as a “gentleman of proxy” or something like that.
Keyframe: This is the actor that portrayed the father?
Maddin: [Herr Trotta], the father of the girl.
Keyframe: He’s so fantastic in Careful.
Maddin: They go down in the little avalanche in the end. I really loved Victor Cowie.
Keyframe: That’s such a shame. The score in the film is your first non-cobbled together composition, I guess. John McCulloch, he is related to…
Maddin: Kyle’s brother.
Keyframe: That’s what I figured. Even though it’s his score, there are a handful of quotes from other pieces. For instance, there are a few bars from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in one sequence. Did you influence him in that way or is that something he simply wanted to do for the film?
Maddin: You know, I’m not even aware of that quote, because I don’t even know The Rite of Spring that well, but I know that we spoke in those terms quite often about [Bernard] Herrmann or [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold and things like that.
Keyframe: …like a classic Hollywood score.
Maddin: Yes, I just sort of wanted it to feel like certain things. He lives in Vancouver and I live in Winnipeg, so there was a time difference. We would sort of collaborate on the score over the phone. He’d play me little things, and I’d say, “Oh, that sounds good.” When it was all orchestrated, there were little things in there and sometimes I would ask him to put in paraphrases of things. I can’t remember specifically right now what they were, but I liked it when things sounded Bernard Herrmann-esque, even if Herrmann belonged to a entirely different era than the one the movie seems to evoke. I don’t really care because I didn’t really want to just make an imitation of any specific time period anyway.

Keyframe: I remember when I saw the film in a theater, shortly after it was released, and all of the added of surface noise, like old run-out grooves of records, I just thought was fantastic.
Maddin: It really broke John McCulloch’s heart because he was begging me to let the sound be full Dolby Stereo Surround, ’cause he’d really written a nice score, I thought. It was my belief that all other movies had full Dolby Surround scores and I just didn’t want to sound like other movies. He’d written a great score I thought and it sounded great in mono. I later took his advice but one film too late.
Keyframe: It would seem inappropriate for that film to have it in stereo…
Maddin: I thought so, but I know it broke his heart, ’cause he really did beg me. He’s a very insistent person, very persuasive, and it’s the only time I ever really dug in my heels with him. When one of my producers, Greg [Klymkiw]‘s partner, Tracy [Traeger], just assumed we were doing Dolby Surround so that the avalanches could really kick ass, I was thinking, “You fool, did King Kong need Dolby? What are you even talking about, you preposterous nincompoop?” So I was literally, completely insulted when someone mentioned the word Dolby around me. Perhaps I was a little bit of an arrogant mother.
Keyframe: There is another oddity that I noticed in Careful. Sarah Neville appeared in Archangel and Careful and then she seemingly disappeared, but Katya Gardner, whose first role was in Careful as Klara’s sister Sigleinde, has gone on to do a lot of television and other feature films as well. How did you find Katya for the film?
Maddin: Katya was my very first casting agent find. I really was having trouble finding that part. I was thinking of using Angela Heck, who was the blond girl in Gimli Hospital, but Angela was going through some sort of “earth mother” phase and she was intentionally making herself look tired. She looks great now. I think she was sick, frankly. I don’t know what it was… I realize now, she told me a few years ago, that she got so mad when I didn’t cast her. That’s right, she told me she had cancer. That’s what it was. She didn’t look so hot and, without realizing that she was sick, I just thought that she was… I remember now, it’s all coming back. I’m piecing these two halves together now. I thought that there was something about this “back to the land” look that she was adopting that made her look like she was literally lying with her toadstool collection at night or something. It didn’t look healthy and sort of disappointed me, so I did know whom to cast. Katya was suggested to me by a local casting agent. She’s in Winnipeg and she came and I talked to her and she sort of reminded me of Angela a little bit. She’s sort of Winnipeg’s Charlize Theron. She was always sort of seriously disappearing from the set to testify in court at the murder trial of her stepfather or something like that. Someone came to the door and killed him. Sarah Neville works in Toronto as well and both Katya and Sarah live in Toronto. I see Sarah in Ivory Snow commercials and she does some theater and things.
Keyframe: So, Careful seems to mark an end of an era, filled with all these little cinematic treasures and a number of shorts that I’m still dying to see…"

Guy Maddin Talks! Part 1: The Early Years
By Jonathan Marlow
Reviewing Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World for the Village Voice, J Hoberman succinctly nails what’s most unique about one of the most enigmatic living filmmakers: “Like everything in Maddin’s ouevre… [it] is a contribution to the imaginary history of our times.”
Maddin’s Music screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2004, prompting a long and leisurely conversation (by telephone) with filmmaker (and now Fandor executive) Jonathan Marlow about his work.
This interview will appear in its entirety over daily segments on Keyframe all this week, with a newly added follow-up conversation over Maddin’s new film Keyhole, which premiered that this month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Keyframe: When I was in Vancouver in October, I bought your diary From the Atelier Tovar and I was a little curious. We actually talked about this at Sundance briefly – what prompted you to get around to publishing them?
Maddin: A perverse caprice. I happened to have them on me in Toronto one day. I don’t live in Toronto but I was staying there for a few months, this past summer to edit, and I go there every now and then.
Keyframe: You edited Saddest Music there?
Maddin: Yes, The Saddest Music in the World. So I guess I was having coffee or something with a friend of mine during one of my business trips and I had my diary and a friend of my friend joined us. It turned out to be Jason McBride of Coach House Books and he was talking about diaries for some reason – because I had them on me I guess – and he said, “Would you ever consider having your diaries published?” And I thought, “Maybe someday, when I rewrite them.” Because I just thought, “Maybe as a memoir,” you know? Ah, but he said, “Would you mind if I took a look at them?” And I said “No, here.” I found myself giving my diaries to a total stranger. Maybe not a perverse caprice but a moronic caprice. Then he just sort of charmed me or persuaded me into publishing. He said, “Would you allow me to publish them?” And I said “Eh, whatever.”
Keyframe: Is it only published in Canada or is there a distributor in the US?
Maddin: I don’t know how the distribution works anymore. So many things are available on the Internet anyway. When I was in New York recently, a bunch of people came up to me with copies to autograph, so they’re getting a hold of them somehow. I’ve sold about a thousand copies so far. I don’t know if that’s good or bad or what.
Keyframe: Was the jacket design yours or was it something that they came up with?
Maddin: I like the jacket design on that.
Keyframe: It’s beautiful, yes.
Maddin: Some guy named Darren Wershler-Henry. He’s one of the employees at Coach House Books. He did a good job, I thought.
Keyframe: It looks like something that would… Well, obviously there’s one part that is from a film of yours, but the actual design seems to evoke…
Maddin: Yeah, they’re very thoughtful people there and I’d like to do something else someday and actually take some time to write it. You know, I was so harried when that diary was put together, which is just as well anyway because I would have been tempted to do so many revisions that it would have lost all “diary-ness.” I still haven’t read it, anyway. I haven’t even read my diaries. I intended to read them many years from now and I have this odd thing where I have a book out that I myself haven’t even read.
Keyframe: There are people out there like myself that know more about your past than you remember.
Maddin: Than I would at least know; I’ve probably forgotten many things I wrote. I definitely don’t know what aspects of me you know because it was edited and the diaries are very long. Those are just a selection. From what I’ve been able to understand, it sounds like it’s mostly… Half of my diaries are little fictional miniatures and I think those are not selected, so it’s mostly the diary-ish things that are in there. A lot of the self-loathing and the self-pity.
Keyframe: Yes, that’s what surprised me.
Maddin: Name-dropping, you know.
Keyframe: The amount of self-loathing that permeates the book is somewhat overwhelming.
Maddin: When you’re writing a diary, you don’t really feel the need to balance anything, so it’s not like I hate myself all the time. A diary isn’t a perfect reflection of what you’re up to. The days in which my life’s really humming along and I’m busy and happy, I don’t have time to write in my diary. It’s those days with lengthy stretches of “down time” that you have all the time in the world to write in a diary. Those days that you don’t really feel so good about how your life’s unfurling. The shitty days tend to get the lion’s share of the print, you know. There’s some kind of weird natural selection that goes on, that weeds out the strong days and keeps the weak.
Keyframe: That definitely puts things in perspective.
Maddin: Yeah, but having said that, I am a loathsome person.
Keyframe: Your films tend to mirror the history of cinema. In fact, in Caelum Vatnsdal’s book (Kino Delirium), you say that you’re bent on rewriting Hollywood history. As such, the early films seem like this quasi-silent period and then your first color film is almost a mirror of the two-strip Technicolor period. Now, with Saddest Music, you’re almost in this period of the early-1930s musical. Except, mixed in with this chronology, you have The Heart of the World, Dracula and Cowards Bend the Knee, which are almost even “earlier” than your earliest films because they are almost pure silent films.
Maddin: I’ve gotten off the straight-and-narrow path, shooting through the decades of the twentieth century. I’m sort of tackling all sorts of branching lines, loops and blind alleys. I’m traveling a pretty ramified path up through the reconfiguration of film history. It’s whatever capriciously seizes hold of my interest for a while. Each project has its own slightly different demands, although I’m sure they all look the same to a casual observer. They all look like old movies. They do have minor distinctions.
Keyframe: I think they’re pretty significant distinctions. Take The Dead Father, for instance. You mention it was influenced by Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. I don’t know if there is any special thing that continues to recreate itself around your relationship with your father, but there’s obviously this root that forms around all of your films. There is also some kind of core inspiration and, in this case, it was [Bruno] Schultz’s writing. How did you come about putting The Dead Father together?
Maddin: I thought, from the very first, that it was always the subject of the first film I was going to do. In a way, my reasons for making a film and how I made it all sort of intersected at one point and that was with the dead father. I knew I would never be able to make a very sophisticated looking movie, like more young aspiring filmmakers try to make. They try to make an exact replica of their favorite movie or something like that, like those kids that reshot storyboard panel for panel Raiders of the Lost Ark starting at age ten and finishing at age seventeen or whatever. I knew that I just didn’t have the technical expertise to make anything that would have any sort of continuity or sort of “Sean Penn style.” I would never be an actor’s director at that stage of my career anyway, probably never will be.
Having seen Luis Buñuel’s early films enough times (Un chien andalou and L’Age d’or), I was very impressed with the effect Buñuel and Salvador Dali could get while being film novices… primitives, actually. I knew that was the route I had to take. The kind of accidents you have when you’re a clutzy novice filmmaker lend themselves to surrealism. L’Age d’or, their second film, is more narrative than their first, or more recognizably narrative – it’s a love story with some surreal trimmings. I knew that I could probably have a narrative that was as continuous as that and as discontinuous as that and maybe, I would hope, as effective as that. It isn’t, because L’Age d’or is a great movie, and The Dead Father was sort of an interesting learning experience. I knew that I wanted to make something that wasn’t just a piece of wank, so I wanted to make something autobiographical. I also had this burning desire to just put down on celluloid what Bruno Schultz managed to get on paper, these dreams that people have about return visits of dead loved ones that leave you with such a strong feeling afterwards. A really strange recipe of feelings. I just thought that I would try to put these autobiographical reveries down in some kind of artificial structure, some sort of narrative order, in the freewheeling style of Bruno Schultz’s writing.
Keyframe: Were you familiar at the time with David Lynch’s The Grandmother? Had you seen that at all?
Maddin: No, I hadn’t, but Eraserhead really hit me hard. I was really impressed. It was a big influence. When I discovered that Lynch’s first major short film was the same length as The Dead Father and was about his grandmother, it just really seemed like he’d felt the same need. He’s exactly ten years older than I am and I know he’s felt the same need to go autobiographical all the time. As soon as I saw Eraserhead, I knew he, like I, had experienced unplanned pregnancy and taken all those feelings of delirium and disorientation that comes when all the terrain you’re standing on is suddenly pulled up from under you. You find yourself standing in a completely new domestic situation. Especially in the middle of the night when you just can’t believe what’s really happened to you. On those trips to the bathroom where you go, “I’m in the bathroom in my wife’s apartment, the one I share with her, and I have a child,” you kind of dream these odd moments and realize where you really are in the world.
Keyframe: Surrealism is a natural tendency out of that.
Maddin: Yes, it is. There are many different ways of getting at the truth. There’s melodrama, there’s surrealism, there’s naturalism. When it’s done well, surrealism is as good as anything at getting at those irrational moments, those certain fears. It’s a unique species of feelings that David Lynch fits in to Eraserhead. It always impressed me and emboldened me to just go after a story in a non-linear way. I felt it was important to be true to the feelings I had and to get them up on the screen. Now, I failed. Nowhere do I see in The Dead Father the feelings that I get from my dreams. But it was an interesting experiment. I found some things worked better than I thought they would. Other things just never worked, even if I went back and re-edited it. About halfway through shooting, I discovered a visual style that I would stay with for quite a while. So it was really valuable.

"Crime Wave"
Keyframe: I don’t want to dwell too long on your first film, but John Paizs was something of an inspiration as well? I’m quite a fan of Crime Wave, although I may be only one of a few dozen folks in this country that’s actually seen it.
Maddin: I like that film a lot, too. John and I were friends. I introduced myself to him – much the way you introduced yourself to me – after seeing one of his films. He made a series of pretty great half-hour films; he must have made six or seven thirty-minute films. It’s an unique length. I think I’d seen his third one one day – he brought it to a class and screened it – and I came up to him afterwards and talked to him. We hit it off pretty well. You know, we never became best friends, but we came close enough that we hung out together for the next three years or so. It never even occurred to me that films of such accomplishment could be made by people my age, in my mid-20s. When I met him, I think I was 24 and he was 23. I don’t know if you’ve seen his other films, but his half-hour films are already as accomplished as Crime Wave. His style’s there. They were a real inspiration to me and I knew right then that I wanted to make one someday. It took me a few years to get up off my ass and go at it myself.
Keyframe: And you have a part in one of them, The Internationals?
Maddin: Yeah, I do. I’m a terrible actor, though. I actually didn’t even realize I wanted to be an actor. John just casts friends in parts, he didn’t bother [to cast things the usual way]. I don’t think ’til Crime Wave did he even bother casting people he’d never met before. We all hung out and watched movies together at a friend’s place. Almost every night of the week he made this movie, or he was in preproduction on it, and he cast all of my friends except me. I couldn’t believe that I actually found myself saying, “Well, can’t I have a part?” I honestly had never wanted to be an actor and can’t imagine why anyone would want to be one, but I found myself saying this. I think it was just because I was the only one who wasn’t [cast] and he said the only part he had left was a woman, a woman’s part. I said, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it!” I can’t believe it. I guess you’re just never too far away from becoming a shameless actor. I did it, but holy smokes, I never got comfortable performing and that had nothing to do with the drag. I just can’t get comfortable in front of a movie camera, especially with the slate and all those things that get said before “Action.” Maybe if they just suddenly said “Action,” I could do it.
Keyframe: You seem relatively comfortable in Waiting for Twilight, but then you’re just appearing as yourself, I guess.
Maddin: Yes, but I also knew that I would never watch it. I promised the director [Noam Gonick] I would never watch the movie, so he could feel free to cut it any way he wanted to and I could be free to do whatever I wanted.
Keyframe: It seems to be a reasonable agreement.
Maddin: Yes.

"Tales from the Gimli Hospital"
Keyframe: With your first feature, Tales From the Gimli Hospital, with that one effort, you became Winnipeg’s most famous director. Is that too bold of me to say?
Maddin: Actually, it depends on what you mean by “famous.” There’s a number of Winnipeg filmmakers that up until very recently were more well-known than I was locally. You know, they work on Movies of the Week all the time and they get a lot more regular work than I. One of them, Norma Bailey, is from Gimli, where I spend summers. This resort town, an hour’s drive [from Winnipeg]. I wasn’t even the most famous director from Gimli! And then Neil Young is from Winnipeg. He’s made a Super-8 feature, Greendale. I think he would have to qualify as the most famous.
Keyframe: Yeah, except that he didn’t make it under his own name.
Maddin: No, that’s true. It’s “Shakey-something” [Bernard Shakey], and I guess he’s not famous for filmmaking.
Keyframe: No, not exactly.
Maddin: But he’d be the most famous filmmaker from Winnipeg.
Keyframe: Yeah, now…
Maddin: Unless Monty Hall made a film, somewhere…
Keyframe: Did he?
Maddin: I don’t know.
Keyframe: He might have. [He didn't]. It seems in Gimli that you were able to strike on another Maddin hallmark, one that doesn’t appear in The Dead Father, exemplified in this case by the “Angels of Mercy.” You have this knack for finding the most beautiful women to appear in your films. I don’t know how it’s possible, but they’re always there. You have this thing for faces…
Maddin: Yes, and they have to be anachronistic faces. They have to seem somehow that they belong to another time or place. I was a little beyond my years already. I’d already adopted that forty-something habit of hanging out in cafes alone with a notebook. That sort of “foreign legion of the middle-aged men” who are just sort of always scouring and scouting the world’s surface for faces. Male or female or whatever, and if you get a few with acting ability, it’s sort of a bonus. They look good. Some of them. I filled up most of the cast after that movie with thirteen-year-old girls, actually. I have this theory that girls could look a lot older on film than they really do if they wear makeup. I noticed that during Halloween. It’s from the six-year-olds that look like badly-used thirty-year-olds. Because, what do you dress up as if you’re a little girl on Halloween? A hooker. So I see a lot of the coal-eyed treatment. Paid a heavy price for it, though. Showbiz parents hanging around all the time, who don’t really love their children but are doing something sick [to their kids]. Whatever it was that I was doing wrong, they were doing far worse, so I retired a few of the thirteen-year-olds and replaced them with twenty-year-olds and things like that because it just wasn’t worth the trouble. Parents that are willing to step on their children to get closer to the director. It was really strange. A really strange scene.
Keyframe: This is your first collaboration with Kyle McCulloch. He appeared in the first three pictures.
Maddin: John Paizs discovered him somewhere. He was a good little Mormon boy at the age of eighteen when Paisz put him in a movie. Next thing you know, Kyle was smoking and drinking – things a good little Mormon boy should do. He disappeared for about a year and a half. He was a Neil Cassidy kind of guy in real life, despite being alone. Kind of a charasmatic to the ladies, kind of a drifter, and he just hopped on a boxcar one day and disappeared. All sorts of rumors drifted back to Winnipeg. That he had died or that he had won the lottery – I remember those two were the two most common. And then finally he just came back to Winnipeg. He had neither died nor won the lottery. He’d just gone boxcar-hopping for a year and a half. He came back just in time, ’cause I’d had him in mind while I was writing this thing.

Kyle McCulloch in "Tales from the Gimli Hospital"
I didn’t know many actors, I only knew the few that John Paisz had used. John decided he hated Kyle McCulloch by that point and he didn’t want to use him anymore. I was happy to use him. Kyle and I became very close filmmaking buddies. We hung out mostly while working on films together and then only occasionally during other things because he… I can’t stand not having a roof over my head and he doesn’t mind just sleeping on a pile of cardboard. It’s not so true now. He’s married and he lives in a beautiful home in Los Angeles with his wife. He’s got this job as a writer for South Park. But when he was younger, he was one of those guys that could just sort of go play pinball all afternoon and then fall asleep on the sidewalk. I always needed to be home for dinner at 5 pm even though there was no one home to make it for me. I had to be home or my imaginary parents would get mad at me or something. Even when I was an adult. He was sort of like the fox in Pinocchio. He wasn’t into method acting or anything. He takes his acting seriously but I could just tell him to do something. I could just show it to him and he would imitate me perfectly and then improve on it. He’s really funny; he’d do improv and stuff. He is “Mr. Expressionism,” you know. He’s where a person’s inner landscape is reflected in the outer landscape and he augments it with all sorts of great sort of miming. He sort of had that set of false modesty gestures that I use all the time down pat.
Keyframe: It isn’t likely that you’ll ever work together again?
Maddin: I’d love to work with him. I don’t know if it’s likely, you know, ’cause he’s busy on his writing job. A year and a half ago, I called him up to offer him a part in this movie Cowards Bend the Knee, playing me. I thought of him first. He’s maybe seven years younger than I am. We’re both about the same size and he’s always been sort of a reflection of me because he does a good impersonation. But he was busy working on South Park and there were scheduling difficulties so I asked a new slimmer, younger me to come on and take my place."

"Over the course of a career that has spanned nearly two decades and 25 films, both short and feature, filmmaker Guy Maddin has provided his viewers with more than their fair share of unique, cinematic moments. To provide just one example, in Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), his first feature film, the audience is allowed to watch as one of the director’s many eccentric characters, a male who is attempting to make himself more attractive to the ladies relaxing on a nearby beach, disappears behind a dilapidated building, troubled that his hair is dry and in such a mess. At this point, the audience may expect that some grooming is in order, but most first time viewers could never predict how such a grooming process will eventually unfold. Out of sight from the women, the character manages to find a shiny, dead fish, which he then squeezes frantically over his head, until its guts are wretched open, spilling fish oil all over the man’s hair. The character soon reemerges, hair slicked back and full of fish oil. He is now ready to properly swoon the ladies still lying on the sands of Gimli beach.
Keeping such a distinct image of a fish in mind, it may be appropriate to consider the career of Maddin in relation to the old cliché about the size of a fish as being relative to the size of the pond that it lives in. In the pond of the Manitoba film industry, he is easily the biggest fish there is. Since making his first short in 1986, titled The Dead Father, Maddin’s reputation has, for the most part, only continued to grow with each subsequent project. The fact that he has remained a resident of his hometown, the provincial capital of Winnipeg, throughout his entire life, has only added to his recognition as a Manitoba filmmaker.
Within the pond that is the Canadian film industry, Maddin as fish becomes a bit smaller, having to make room for bigger fish that arrived before him, such as David Cronenberg as well as filmmakers that emerged on the scene at around the same time as Maddin, but have perhaps managed to achieve more far reaching success, at least in their attempts to capture both an international audience, as well as international, critical recognition. Atom Egoyan would be the most obvious example of a successful contemporary director who lives and works in Canada, but whose recognition extends well beyond Canada’s borders.
The Heart of the World
That said, Maddin’s exposure has grown considerably in the past few years. In 2000, as part of the Toronto Film Festival’s twentieth anniversary celebration, 20 Canadian filmmakers, including Maddin, Cronenberg, and Egoyan, were each commissioned to make a short film. The resulting twenty shorts randomly played before feature films throughout the entire festival. By the festival’s conclusion, Maddin’s short, titled The Heart of the World, a six minute, furiously edited, black-and-white masterpiece, was considered by many festival goers and critics to have been not only the best short to play at that year’s festival, but to have been the best film of any length to play during the entire festival run. Since the release of The Heart of the World, he has continued to work steadily, completing several short films, as well as a pair of feature films, one of which is to be released later this year. Co-written by Maddin’s long-time writing partner, George Toles, as well as Kazuo Ishiguro, Booker Prize winning author of The Remains of the Day, The Saddest Music in the World (2003), may well turn out to be the film that shows the world what many Manitobans and Canadians, as well as several cinephiles and professional film critics from around the world, have already known for years: that Guy Maddin is one of the most original, important filmmakers working today, regardless of geography or genre.
Born in 1956, Maddin seemed destined to live a life that would breed uniqueness and eccentricity at every turn. His father was a prominent hockey coach, as well as the business manager of Canada’s national team, while his mother ran a beauty salon named Lil’s Beauty Shop. And so, Maddin would spend many of his childhood days at either the Winnipeg Arena, seeing some of hockey’s all-time greats both in practice and behind-the-scenes, or else he could be found playing with his older brother and friends at his mother’s beauty salon. Even the way that Maddin tells stories about himself and his family, from receiving a piggy-back ride from Bing Crosby, to getting a cold from a cousin that resulted in a neurological infection and the permanent, persistent sensation of feeling like he is constantly being touched by ghosts all over his body, to finding out that his father was blinded in one eye as a child, because his father’s mother had attempted to hold her son against her breast, but had accidentally poked his eye out with the pin from an open broach, indicates that Maddin either possesses an especially keen eye for life’s little oddities, or else he has genuinely experienced what many people would consider an existence filled with extreme unusualness. (1)
When Maddin was still a young boy, his older brother committed suicide, and while he does not often talk about it, suicide has certainly become a prominent theme that runs throughout his body of work. For that matter, fathers with missing eyes also frequently appear as characters in Maddin’s films, and so, no matter how fictional and exotic the director’s landscapes may seem, they are often fused with pieces of his own autobiographical history.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital
After graduating with a degree in economics from the University of Winnipeg, Maddin worked as both a bank teller, as well as a house painter, while meeting people whose friendships would serve him well, especially in terms of being able to eventually get his first films made and distributed. As fellow Winnipeg filmmaker, John Paizs, tells it, Maddin and himself would spend entire weekends at the house of fellow friend Steve Snyder, before any sort of formal film school existed in Winnipeg, and would watch hours upon hours of films on videotape and 16mm projection. (2) Eventually, Paizs would go on to make several excellent short and feature films of his own (Springtime in Greenland [1981], Crimewave [1985]), while Snyder would go on to teach film studies as a professor in what would eventually become the University of Manitoba’s film studies department.
Even as Maddin was watching his friends make and teach about films, he had yet to make any sort of film on his own. However, in 1985, with the creation of a cable access television show, titled Survival!, in which Maddin played a character named “Concerned Citizen Stan”, while acting alongside his eventual producing partner, roommate, and friend, Greg Klymkiw, the seeds of his creativity began to show some definite signs of life. That same year, Steve Snyder, after screening several shorts that he had made while attending a filmmaking school in San Francisco, California, told Maddin that with the right equipment, he too could make a film just like the ones he had just seen. And so, Maddin finally decided that it was time to write and direct a film that he could call his very own.
The resulting film, a 26 minute short, titled The Dead Father, is by far Maddin’s clunkiest work, in terms of both technical prowess and narrative smoothness, and yet, at the same time, the film does not come across as the work of someone who had never written a screenplay or touched a camera before making it. In fact, with his first film, he managed to lay down the framework for so much of what would become his later, consistent style. In The Dead Father, he reveals an obsession with black-and-white cinematography, an interest in opening his films with a series of constantly moving shots—a technique that he has continued to employ in several of his subsequent works—as well as the use of only a singular light source to illuminate his shots. Maddin has actually said that the rationale behind many of these choices is quite simple. By repeatedly opening his films with a moving camera, he easily gets the viewer’s attention from the first shot of the film. As far as lighting is concerned, Maddin has admitted that while he tried to use the traditional three-key lighting set-up that so many first time filmmakers read about in technical handbooks, while making his first film, all that he would end up with were three shadows of one nose on each actor’s face. (3) Since then, he has employed a single light source technique in most of his films, or at least the illusion of a single light source.
Maddin’s interest in allowing obvious mistakes, such as errors in continuity or film equipment appearing in the background of a shot, made its way into The Dead Father, but has since become just another element of his films’ overall aesthetics. One could argue that such errors in The Dead Father are nothing more than the sign of an amateur filmmaker who didn’t know any better than to exclude such mistakes, and while this argument may be valid, one cannot deny that Maddin has fully embraced the artifice of film in his many works since, by choosing to intentionally include obvious mistakes within his finished films, merging abandoned light stands and motionless props that move whenever a cut occurs, with an overall presentation that is both polished and professional. That said, the mistakes in Maddin’s first film do not seem to be built in, or intentional. Instead, The Dead Father straddles the line between extreme, raw originality, and a lack of experience that makes the film inconsistent in pace, and unfocused in attempting to clearly convey what Maddin’s obvious, original intentions had been for his first ever project.
The film’s general narrative centers around a father who has died in the physical sense, but just won’t stop haunting the daydreams and nightmares of his still-living son. In Maddin’s own words, the film’s premiere was a nerve-wracking affair, and yet was also entirely worth it, because it ended up garnering what would eventually become one of the most important relationships of his professional career, when a gushing amount of praise for the film emerged from the man who would eventually become his permanent screenwriting partner.
I remember the very first screening was for the cast and relatives of the cast. It was screened in a board room at a hospital, courtesy of Dr. Snidal (the man who plays the title character in the film). There were about twenty-five people there, and I knew each and every one of them very, very well. I remember being incredibly nervous and shy and tongue-tied. Too shy to speak in front of my own daughter, for crying out loud. I just remember looking at my shoes and blushing, but I felt an introduction was necessary to put people in the proper frame of mind…Then the movie went by and no one seemed to like it at all or get anything out of it. A couple of people mentioned that the sound was bad, because I’d added intentionally bad ambient hums and things. But George Toles was very supportive, and gushed encouragingly, and we celebrated by going out on that very rainy Friday night to see Rocky IV. (4)
Maddin’s follow-up to The Dead Father would be his first feature film, and would eventually be titled Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Maddin and Toles would co-write the screenplay, and by Maddin’s own account, Toles would become a sort of guru to Maddin, gently guiding the young filmmaker in directions that would make the most of his originality, while allowing him to properly evolve past the narrative confines that so many filmmakers encounter when facing the prospect of making their first feature film. Toles even convinced Maddin that the film’s original title, “Gimli Saga”, was not a very good one, which eventually led to the film being titled what it was. (5)
Wisely, Maddin took his time while making Tales from the Gimli Hospital. More than 18 months passed between the writing of the film, the shooting of the film, and the eventual post-production and distribution on the film, but by all accounts, the resulting work made it worth it. With his first feature, not only did Maddin realize his goal of standing out as a unique voice within the Manitoba film industry, as well as an especially unique member of The Winnipeg Film Group, an arts co-operative that had gotten Paizs’ career started a few years before Maddin’s, but he also managed to find an enthusiastic audience waiting in New York’s underground film scene, thanks in large part to the help of Greg Klymkiw, who immediately saw cult potential for the film. And so, Tales from the Gimli Hospital would play for years in New York City, as pockets of cinephiles anticipated what Maddin would do next.
Two years later, Maddin would release his second feature film, Archangel (1990), but already at this point in Maddin’s career, it was clear that the filmmaker was as interested in the short film form as in making feature films. Unlike many other filmmakers, who use short films or music videos as a stepping stone, or proving ground, before making the permanent leap into feature filmmaking, Maddin has constantly worked in both mediums, and since 1986, he has averaged one short film per year, despite having long since moved into the realm of feature filmmaking. Maddin’s only documentary to date, titled BBB (1990) centers around the question of why certain hairstyles appeal to middle-aged, middle class women, and to seemingly no one else. The film is only 12 minutes long, but in those 12 minutes, Maddin manages to satisfy his craving for decayed film footage, by using worn-out home movies within the film.
Archangel is the melodramatic story of a love triangle, set in Russia during World War I. The film’s title refers to a place in which the film’s one-legged soldier, Lt. John Boles, finds himself, as he attempts to aid the White Russians in the Arctic, while being dragged further and further into a love nest of mistaken identities and broken hearts. With this film, Maddin solidified his obsession with merging melodramatic, silent cinema of the 1920s with the several ways in which these films have aged in the many decades since. By intentionally incorporating crackling soundtracks and loops of audio hum, as well as unnatural breaks in the film’s action—achieved by removing pieces of film from a completed shot, and then splicing the remaining film back together—Maddin’s film appears at once a genuine relic of the 1920s, having survived countless screenings over several decades, and yet at the same time, he infuses an ironic, late-twentieth century sensibility into the presentation of narrative, as well as the film’s intentional signs of aging, in a way that constantly reminds the viewer that what they are watching fully belongs in neither the past nor the present, but seems to exist in a sort of limbo state, as a hybrid of elements, a decaying past made unnaturally fresh again. In terms of artificiality, perhaps the most ironic element of Maddin’s work is that in order for a film to become physically aged, with splices and a decaying soundtrack revealing such wear and tear, the film has to play over and over again, to crowds of people that just can’t get enough of it, and for years. By Maddin’s own admission, his films have never been designed for mass appeal, and so, one cannot help but wonder if the artificial signs of aging that he builds into his film will ever be joined by many actual signs of aging, from having been screened repeatedly in the decades to come.
With the release of Careful (1992), Maddin managed to impressively release his third feature in just six years. Careful is the story of an alpine village called Tolzbad, in which the villagers must forever speak quietly, out of fear that a loud voice might cause an avalanche and crush the entire village. In the film, several dominant themes that were already so much a part of Maddin’s earlier work, continue to emerge. The obvious theme of an unsettled paternal relationship between fathers and sons is a dominant theme yet again, as is the presence of a one-eyed father figure. Of course, a one-eyed man could be considered to be as much an element of Maddin’s own autobiography as it is a metaphor for a moviemaker himself. A film director is constantly looking through his lens, in an attempt to see the world in the same way that a camera sees the world and projector presents a finished film to the world: two-dimensionally. As well, the theme of a split existing between masculine and feminine, to the point of males and females being outright terrified of one another, also makes its way into the plot of Careful, and one cannot help but wonder how the masculine/feminine split, so present in Maddin’s upbringing, would affect his eventual work. Having a father who coaches a hockey team, constantly surrounded by manly men doing manly things while at the arena, is about as masculine a scenario as one could expect to find oneself in. The contrast of having a mother who runs a beauty salon, and being surrounded by hair products and women having their hair, nails, and faces done up to look as womanly as possible, could only have creating a sexual counterpoint, which emphasized the contrast between the hyper-male and hyper-female worlds that Maddin grew up in.
In terms of locating the emotional content within Maddin’s films, an impatient viewer may be inclined to conclude that these works are frequently devoid of emotion, or at least, that any genuine emotional content is hidden so deep beneath elements of irony, pastiche, visual style, and eccentricity, that a viewer may be wasting their time in attempting to locate emotion at all. However, while the link may not seem immediately obvious, I would be inclined to argue that Maddin’s work shares a great deal with Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), especially in terms of locating emotion within each director’s primary characters. Like The Royal Tenenbaums, Careful begins with an extended prologue, in order to set the tone of the story, as well as to explain who is who within the ensemble cast of players. As well, both films embrace the use of hyper-stylized settings and costumes, which critics of both films have criticized as being an exploitive device, designed to conceal the potential emotional content of each film. However, if a viewer is willing to show some patience with both the work of Maddin, as well as with Anderson’s latest work, then they will eventually be rewarded with not only a subtle release of emotion by character, but they will also be exposed to a rarity in many contemporary films: an exploration of how emotions become so often improperly expressed, or outright blocked, whenever human situations become seemingly too complicated to handle.
While both Archangel and Careful would play at a number of prominent film festivals and win several major critical awards, culminating with Maddin becoming the youngest recipient ever of the Telluride Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, the director has maintained that his biggest honour to date has been Careful‘s screening in Paris as part of the hundredth anniversary celebration of the birth of cinema, which also took place in 1995. And while Maddin seemed to be on a roll in the mid-’90s, especially after the release of Careful, the remainder of the decade proved to be a frustrating creative period for the director, to the point that he was ready to quit filmmaking at several different points, and could just not seem to get the kind of films he wanted to make off of the ground.
Maddin and Toles completed a script titled The Dikemaster’s Daughter, which was to be set in nineteenth century Holland, or a fictitious Winnipeg, depending on which source material you read. The story revolves around a community comprising of dike builders, who must co-exist with the members of an opera company. The Dikemaster’s Daughter was to be Maddin’s follow-up to Careful, and would have been his fourth feature film, overall. At any rate, the project was in pre-production when one of the film’s major sources of funding decided that they did not want to be a part of the film, and pulled out of the project, taking nearly half of the budget with them. (6) As a result, Maddin was left empty handed, with no prospects on the horizons. It wouldn’t be until nearly five years later, in 1997, that he would complete another feature film, despite having continued to refine his filmmaking skills by making a number of short films in the five year hiatus.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) was to be Maddin’s triumphant return to feature filmmaking. The script was ready, he had a cast of actors more well-known than any actors he had worked with before (Shelley Duvall, of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Altman’s Popeye (1980), as well as Frank Gorshin, of camp fame from playing The Riddler on the 1960s Batman television series), and all with a larger budget than he had ever known before. The plot revolves again around a love story, and a man returning home to a land where the sun never stops shining, and yet, while the film contains several elements that are pure Maddin, it just cannot sustain itself for its 90 minute length. In many ways, the film feels compromised, an indication that Maddin’s fervent imagination and creative independence were not a match made in heaven to distributors handing over a great deal of money to him, with the expectation that at least a semi-marketable movie would result. Through compromise, neither party ended up being satisfied, and the resulting work was Maddin’s least satisfying feature film to date.
Of note, one of the most positive elements of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is the picture’s use of colour, a sort of photocopied pastel look that is no doubt an influence of having grown up in a beauty salon. One cannot help but be reminded of the gawdy surroundings that make up the typical salon, especially from the 1950s and 1960s, when Maddin would have grown up. If Maddin’s father’s poked out eye provided the lifelong metaphor of a filmmaker constantly seeing the world through one eye, then his mother surely provided her son with a taste what goes on in the preparation for making a film, with little Guy Maddin constantly seeing women in costume, being made up for the world to see.
Another positive element that emerged from the making of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, is that it was at this point in Maddin’s career that he began embracing the new generation of filmmakers emerging in Manitoba, in the hopes of assuring that the prairie province’s legacy as a fertile moviemaker breeding ground would continue on for years to come. A young Manitoba filmmaker named Noam Gonick, who would eventually go on to write and direct the cult hit, Hey, Happy! (2001), was allowed onto the set of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, as well as into Maddin’s personal life. The resulting documentary, titled Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, provides an almost uncomfortable view inside the process of a filmmaker who knows that his film is doomed to fail, even as he is still shooting it. At one point in the film, Maddin is so discouraged, that he even states, “This is my last film, ever.”
Thankfully, Maddin did manage to emerge from the pits of the Twilight experience. While he ended up taking a few years off to teach filmmaking at The University of Manitoba, all the while pondering whether or not he was actually finished with filmmaking for good, he would eventually be inspired and reinvigorated by the work of a young, talented filmmaker named deco dawson, who happened to take Maddin’s filmmaking class, without ever having made a film before, and impressed Maddin so much with his first-time efforts, that he actually struck up a friendship with him outside of class. (7) Dawson, only in his early twenties, would become obsessed with Maddin’s filmmaking style, making films of his own that were at once homages to what Maddin had already accomplished, while being totally original, black-and-white, 8mm works that stood up completely on their own. In the years since having taken the filmmaking class with Maddin, dawson has gone on to become a sort of filmmaking partner/pupil to Maddin, having co-edited The Heart of the World, while aiding in the shooting and editing of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2001), Maddin’s first feature film since Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary
With Maddin back on track with The Heart of the World, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary was his official return to feature filmmaking. The Bram Stoker character, which has been used on film to the point of overuse, was given new life, as the director recruited the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, in order to tell the story of Dracula in the way that he imagined it should be told. In the film, various grainy types of film are frequently mixed together with beautiful, sparse lighting, creating extraordinary results. If Dracula verifies anything about the Maddin aesthetic, it is that he is especially fond of taking something that he loves, whether it be a story that has been told so many times before, as is the case with Dracula, or even an actor that he loved as a child, such as Frank Gorshin, and then repackaging it completely, in order to point out the decay that naturally takes place to everything, over time. That Gorshin was once a young star, but is much older and forgotten now, or that Maddin continues to employ intentional splices and audio crackles into his films, as if they belong side by side with the decaying prints of original prints from the 1920s, indicates that he is as interested in how we can learn to love how things and people fade, as much as we love the things and people themselves.
Up to this point, most pieces written on Maddin seem to have built into them the subtext that while very few people have heard of him, more people need to hear about him. Indeed, after several failed attempts at making the feature film that will catapult him, if not to stardom, then at least to the next level of success in the world of experimental and independent film, The Saddest Music in the World may finally be the film to do it. Maddin’s casting of this film is more accessible than ever before (Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney, of Kids in the Hall fame, star), as is, perhaps, the plot. The film surrounds a competition in which all of the countries of the world have a musical competition, in order to determine which country’s music is the saddest, and therefore, which country has the right to claim the saddest history of any nation. With his latest film, Maddin will most certainly continue to explore his interest in music and sound, which has always been present in the ambient sound mix on the soundtrack to his films, as well as within the narratives of several of his works, most obviously Careful, with the townspeople that must barely make a sound when they speak, so as not to cause an avalanche, as well as the never realized The Dikemaster’s Daughter, which would have involved a major subplot involving the members of an opera company.
Coming off the back-to-back-to-back success of The Heart of the World, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, as well as Cowards Bend The Knee (2003), a film/art instillation that has played to rave reviews around the world, Maddin’s yet to be released latest project promises to at least satisfy existing fans of his work, while recruiting some new fans along the way (8). Most importantly of all, The Saddest Music in the World promises to demonstrate a filmmaker working at his peak, and will hopefully continue to push the borders of a genre that Maddin invented himself, a genre that is at once beyond definition, and yet all too familiar to those already familiar with the director’s past works." - Senses of Cinema

Keyhole (2011, Guy Maddin)

“I’m only a ghost, but a ghost isn’t nothing.”
Always great to see a new Maddin work, and this exceeded expectations. Exciting yet familiar, new with firmly recognizable bits of the old, and filmed in a different medium than usual (digital!), like Maddin’s Moonrise Kingdom. “I know a lot of people who follow me probably figured I’d be the last person in the world to switch to digital, and that I also sort of ride a penny-farthing with a bowler hat, but I don’t. I want to be a normal guy. I’m just an artist trying to make stuff that matters to me.” (AV Club)
In this post I quoted Maddin saying that his next feature would have footage from his shorts, “a Frankenstein feature film built together from a bunch of dead short commissions,” and there are two shorts since My Winnipeg that resurface in Keyhole: Glorious (Louis Negin as a ghost, penises growing through walls) and Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair (Isabella and a homemade electric chair).
Nice, clear images, with relatively restrained editing, apparently because Guy could afford an art department so didn’t have to hide the cheapness of his sets. Great, unusual, moody music, and crazy amounts of lightning flashing from outside. But it’s not Maddin Lite by any means – he hasn’t grown up and made a normal movie. He and George Toles have come up with a haunted-house gangster flick/family psychodrama (it’s like The Six Hundredth Sense) full of enough insane details to rival any previous Maddin feature.

Ulysses (Jason Patric of Sleepers, The Lost Boys) appears late to the party, after his men have shot their way into a house surrounded by the cops. The movie pronounces its disdain for reality from the start, when he lines all the men against the wall, telling the still-living ones to face him, then sends the others outside. “Cops’ll make sure you get to the morgue.” There’s no glowing aura or translucency – the dead look and behave like the rest of us.
B/W Rossellini behind a colored curtain:

Ulysses seeks his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who is locked in her bedroom at the top of the house with a lover named Chang, while her father Louis Negin is chained to her bed. Negin also acts as part-time narrator: “I am a part of the house you’re looking at. It would be misleading to say I LIVE here.” As Ulysses stalks the house, he gradually unlocks doors and begins to regain his memories.
“Something’s wrong. I can’t hear my own thoughts.”

The Men: Big Ed was in charge of the group before Ulysses arrives, wants to be in charge again, Heatly is Ulysses’ adopted son, sometimes-nude Rochelle (Ulysses’ mistress) only speaks French, Denton (Brent Neale, Renfield in Maddin’s Dracula) wears a hat, Milo has a scarf, Belview (Claude Dorge of The Saddest Music) is a deliciously overacting dapper dude in a tie, Denny is a wet drowned girl, and Ogilbe is Kevin McDonald.
Ulysses, who keeps changing the clocks in the house, warns everyone to stay away from the ghosts, but Kevin McDonald attempts sex with a floor-scrubbing woman in the hallway, sparks fly, and he continues riding her in death, whipped by Negin from behind, as she appears not to notice him.

Ulysses gathers all the guns and drops ‘em down the trash chute, but when they’re heated by the furnace, one shoots Heatly dead. Someone drowns in the house’s indoor bottomless bog, and Big Ed fries in the makeshift bicycle-powered electric chair he built to trap Ulysses. “You can’t electrocute a man twice,” says Ulysses as he turns the tables, so perhaps he’s returned from death row. Meanwhile, the cops are still outside…
Big Ed strapped into his own invention:

Ulysses attends to Heatly:

Ulysses is sad when Heatly dies, but doesn’t seem to recognize that the hostage he drags all around the house is his real son Manners, supposedly his only surviving child, though we see the others in the house, Ulysses not recognizing any of them at first. Ned (Darcy Fehr, star of Cowards Bend the Knee) is drinking milk, the head of daughter Lota is in a flowerpot, and youngest son Brucie is masturbating (“playing Yahtzee”) under the stairs.

Also, Udo Kier gets one scene (not enough!) as a doctor paying a housecall to examine the drowned Denny, despite the fact that his own child died that night in the hospital. Lots of family death in this movie.

More details of the house: furniture placement is important (Ulysses makes his men undo their arrangement alterations), and there’s a stuffed wolverine named Crispy and a pneumatic tube delivery system in the walls. Manners, who has fallen for Denny, is finally released, as is Louis Negin. Ulysses makes it to his wife’s chambers and shoots Chang, and at dawn all ghosts and signs of the police shootout quietly vanish.
Young lovers, one of them dead:

Like his Homeric namesake Ulysses is seeking a way back to his wife, though there is not much evidence of love or loyalty between them. Nor is Keyhole, narratively speaking, a reimagined Odyssey any more than it is a ’30s crime drama. It’s more like a dusty attic full of battered, evocative cultural references.

Maddin again:
We just live in a space that’s just thronged with ghosts and I honestly think I’m even a ghost sometimes. I often wonder if when I die, and I don’t believe in ghosts, but if I’m going to haunt any place, it’s that childhood home that I keep falsely remembering. In my dreams now I very rarely dream of people. I just dream of that space. I’m walking around and I’m the only person in it. I’m actually haunting in the future, in my dreams anyway.

The dialogue George [Toles] and I write isn’t naturalism, but [Patric] knows how to give it a reading that makes it adhere to a character. If no one likes the movie, they should at least watch Jason, just to see how he’s taken lines that would be impossible to read naturalistically and how he puts them into his processor and spews them out. It’s kind of amazing. - Brandon's movie memory

 Transplant, Consumption, Death, Or: Disease, pathology and decay in Guy Maddin’s cinema
Roberto Curti

“It’s so liberating to be self-destructive, at times!” (Guy Maddin)
“I’m a gentle, quiet director who seeks viewer involvement. I’m working towards beauty, placidity and exquisite strangeness.[1] (Guy Maddin) 

The latter quote seems nothing short of an understatement for a director whose work has been compared to that of David Lynch (a comparison Maddin is quick to question: “the only thing we have in common is we’ve both made a couple of monochrome picture[2], Cocteau, Buñuel, Eisenstein, and Tim Burton. It’s a hard-to-swallow premise as well, given that Maddin’s films look like genuine decaying prints that have survived innumerable screenings over many years, yet they constantly remind the viewer that “what they are watching fully belongs in neither the past nor the present, but seems to exist in a sort of limbo state, as a hybrid of elements, a decaying past made unnaturally fresh again.[3] The first reaction is of uneasiness and perturbation; and it’s tempting to give up and label the whole output of the Winnipeg-based director as a sterile, formalistic and cerebral divertissement. Yet, under an elaborate aesthetic/scenographic display which exhumes and reinvents themes, techniques and clichés that belonged to primitive moviemaking, there is a warmth and an empathy that the vast majority of today’s mainstream cinema lacks.
Maddin slashes and stains his films with filters, as well as visual and aural trick [4] (scratches, jumps and creaking sound) that are tangible signs of consumption of an art whose unending change (or perhaps mutation?) threatens to slip out of our hands. But they are also tricks to have us face the ineluctability of time, as well as the sad necessity of getting old and finally fading out, in a world whose main aim seems to be the complete dismissal of the idea of mortality itself.
There are many signs of death and disease across Maddin’s body of work: his films are full of solitary people marked by traumas and wounds, sores and mutilations, and subject to violent bouts of self-destruction. Maddin’s characters look and act as if they have stepped out of an old expressionist film, yet are made of flesh and blood, and their corrupt, mutilated and suffering bodies exude an outstanding physical quality. His characters are celluloid prisoners: just like Pedro P., the protagonist of Iván Zulueta’s Arrebato (1979), who ended up being sucked in by his own camera, disappearing from the material world, only to become an image impressed on film. Trapped in a bi-dimensional universe, deadened and obtuse, made of black and white or unreal pastel colours, these characters bear every kind of vexation and humiliation, yet maintain their dignity. Maddin is on their side: he lets them live their own obsessions and shortcomings, and follows their steps with amazement, combined with a tender, sympathetic irony.  
Maddin’s heroes have so many common passions and idiosyncrasies, that they actually seem like variations on a single character, who more or less directly recall the director himself. The autobiographical theme, which was latent from Maddin’s first short The Dead Father to 2003’s The Saddest Music in the World (which is set in the director’s hometown Winnipeg), becomes central in Cowards Bend the Knee[5], originally a gallery installation which is nothing but a sardonic auto-da-fé in which Maddin goes for excess, but is disarmingly sincere about himself. “Given my past history as a little boy who drilled holes in things and looked through them, creating a chance for the spied-upon world to get revenge by looking in on me might be a great way to masochistically even the score![6]
The main character is Maddin himself (played by Darcy Fehr), and Cowards is a mad imaginary autobiography whose chapters recall a variety of old movie classics, from Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927) to Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935). That’s because Maddin still believes in cinema as a mythopoetic apparatus: in Tales from the Gimli Hospital the image of a blind man groping in the dark like the Frankenstein monster is less a reference to Whale’s film than to the essence of suffering and solitude that the Karloff character embodies within the director’s own imaginary – and ours as well.
Maddin adopts the form of melodrama, but a peculiar one, corrupted and genetically altered with horrific and fantastic elements: “One of my life’s ambitions is to redeem the name of melodrama, which remains the most enduringly popular cinematic art form all over the rest of the non-English-speaking world, though we treat it as somewhat of a cheesy bastard stepchild.[7] Maddin’s exploration of human emotions (often “improperly expressed or outright blocked,” as one critic noted.[8]) assumes absurdist tones and demands fairy-like scenarios. As in Tales from the Gimli Hospital, whose framing story adopts a device similar to that of a fairytale: in the titular hospital, two children standing at the bedside of their dying mother are being told a story by their old maid of love, death and jealousy that took place years earlier[9] and the principal tale contains others, in Chinese box fashion.  Tales from the Gimli Hospital features the first of Maddin’s leper houses of the soul: the snowy papier-mâché Russia of Archangel, the isolated Alpine village of Tolzbad in Careful, the isle of Mandragora, where the sun never sets in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and eventually the Depression-era Winnipeg in The Saddest Music in the World. In a sense, Saddest Music is a sort of homecoming to where everything had started: a town swept by the icy winds of the North, a self-restrained universe that has influenced Maddin’s cinematic no man’s lands.
“Perhaps the boy has mountain fever. It begins innocently enough, with dreams of mountains: a peak round as a plump knee, or a crest like a frosted bosom, white as goat’s milk. Who could resist the temptation to climb?” (Careful)
Maddin’s characters live love like a pathological condition: a feverish perturbation, an upsetting and destructive conflict between the senses and reason. Terrorized by the opposite sex, they simply cannot live a normal love relationship. In Tales, what really distresses Gunnar (Michael Gottli) and Einar (Kyle McCulloch), the two inmates occupying adjoining beds in Gimli hospital during the smallpox plague, is actually love. Jealously, fear and possessiveness make Gunnar lose his beloved Snjófridur, whereas Einar “the lonely” is an unforgettable Keatonesque clown whose autistic clumsiness leads him to incommunicability towards women: in order to groom his hair and make himself attractive for the local girls sunbathing on the beach near the shack where he smokes fish, Einar frantically squeezes a dead salmon over his head, until its guts are wretched open, spilling fish oil all over his hair as if it was grease. But he just can not manage getting in touch with a woman; even the nurses at the hospital systematically ignore him, as if he were dumb or just plain invisible.[10]
In Archangel, everybody loves the wrong person, in a tragicomic ronde of amnesias and agnitions that rivals Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time for sheer complexity. Not only do lovers incessantly seek and lose each other, they also plagiarize and hypnotize the object of their desire, only to be left alone or in mismatched couplings. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs revolves around the same basic plot, in a magic setting that is half A Midsummer’s Night Dream and half Aubrey Beardsley. In Twilight, Maddin has a mesmerist, Dr. Solti (R. H. Thompson), manipulate other character’s feelings; and like in Merimée’s La Venus d’Ille, an unearthed statue projects its influence on people.
The form of a moral tale returns in Careful, a tragedy told as if it was an absurdist comedy, or vice versa (scriptwriter George Toles refers to it as a “pro-incest” movie), that is strongly influenced by Melville’s Pierre or the ambiguities. “It’s about people who love each other but who can’t express their affection.” Maddin explains, “this over-caution insidiously infects every part of their lives. It’s partly autobiographical. My family are infuriatingly cautious – like the whole of Canada.”[11] In the opening sequence, elderly herr Trotta (Victor Cowie) tells rules in the form of parables to an audience of young boys: the fathers’ constrictions – to repress emotions, and keep everything inside – affect sons. And this is splendidly expressed through the use of the chromatic palette (most sequences consist of bi-chromatic compositions, while others feature colours so saturated that they appear to drip off the screen).
In the village of Tolzbad – where, for fear of snow slides, animals have their vocal chords slit and humans speak in whispers – young Johann (Brent Neale) dreams of making love with his mother, while his fiancée Karla (Sarah Neville) lusts over her father, who in turn is attracted to his other daughter. Unsatisfied desire deflagrates like a disease, a “mountain fever”. In other Maddin films it assumes other pathological forms, like somnambulism, which is the case with Einar in Tales, or in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, where Peter (Nigel Whitmey[12]) goes “sleep hunting”. At times, the end result is necrophilia. For example, in Tales Einar violates the body of Gunnar’s wife[13]; in Careful, Johann has his mom drink a glass of milk spiced with drug, in order to make love to the woman as she is sleeping. While in Twilight the result of the repression is sheer madness, with Amelia (Shelley Duvall) turning into a pyromaniac and a murderess in the film’s bitter climax. Likewise, acts of love lead to tragic consequences: Gunnar contaminates Snjófridur, who keeps growing scars all over her body and eventually dies on their wedding night; while post-coitum is unbearable: as in Twilight, where Peter shoots a bullet into his own feet after being abandoned; and Archangel, where lieutenant Boles [Kyle McCulloch] undergoes a cure with a machinery that looks like a horror-movie version of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone machine, and ends up a bleeding and dazed zombie; and in Careful, where Johann uses drastic means to punish his incestuous impulses. As one might expect, in Maddin’s universe there is no room for happy endings. In Twilight, Zephyr (Alice Krige) is crushed by the statue of Venus, while Peter is left alone on Mandragora with his sister Amelia. In the film’s last image, Amelia, now completely mad, desperately begs to be kissed.  
In Maddin’s films hysteria and parody co-exist, but the latter does not undermine the melodramatic element. Take as an example Archangel’s opening boat sequence, where Boles’ grieving farewell to his beloved Iris (whose ashes are kept in a bottle) is ruined by the ship’s commander, who mistakes the urn for a bottle of liquor and throws it off board, thus inadvertently celebrating a form of funeral at sea. Boles leaves, hopping on his only leg in a dignified manner, then returns to take the artificial limb he had forgotten behind. The effect is irresistibly funny, yet Maddin does not invite us to laugh at Boles, but rather at the absurd events set in motion by the capricious hand of Fate.
“We each bear many scars” (Archangel)
In Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the signs of smallpox on the faces of Einar and Gunnar are accompanied by the scars of their memory, and the sores that mark their bodies are rather a psychosomatic manifestation of their craving for love. Tales deals with pustules and purulent wounds, surgery without anaesthetics and lovemaking scenes in which scars are exposed and caressed with an enthusiasm that predates Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). In Archangel, faces are slashed, disfigured and covered with blood, while bodies suffer from apoplectic fits, are exposed to the effects of mustard gas, and eventually die in painful agony.[14] Maddin sporadically relies on over-the-top gore effects, a proceeding that breaks the unwritten rules on what can and can not be shown within a context that openly recalls silent movies; at the same time, the director literally reinvents gore, giving it a symbolic meaning that makes it perfectly pertinent and even more powerful. When the fat, cowardly Jannings (Michael Gottli) is pierced in the belly by the Bolsheviks, his guts burst out of the wound; in a desperate act of heroism, he puts his innards back into his belly and throws himself over to the enemy, dispatching them with his bare hands and even strangling them with his own intestines. On paper, this sounds like something that would not be out of place in a Aristide Massaccesi film (Anthropophagus’ clamorous ending has Luigi Montefiori greedily biting his own guts) or in some nasty Hong Kong Category III flick.[15] The stylized and primitive shoestring budget gore effects are accompanied by title cards that border on the grotesque (“Strangled by an intestine!”).[16] Yet the scene becomes poignant and pathetic when the man’s young son, unaware of his father’s sacrifices, insults his memory (“We just buried a coward”).
One of Maddin’s obsessions is the theme of physical mutilation. In Archangel Lt. Boles has only one leg, like Dr. Solti in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs; while in The Saddest Music in the World Lady Port-Hunley (Isabella Rossellini) is missing both legs, and has them replaced by glass prosthetics filled with beer. The loss of a limb recalls the loss of a loved one: it is impossible to replace them, even with an imperfect surrogate. At times, these mutilations are self-inflicted, and become a form of retaliation, as happens in Careful, where Johann punishes his own incestuous excesses by scalding the mouth that kissed his mother’s breasts with a red-hot stone, then cuts the fingers that caressed it with a pair of shears.
But most of all, Maddin’s characters suffer from the absence of a paternal figure. In Maddin’s first short, The Dead Father, we find a father who is physically dead, but whose image keeps obsessing his son. Careful is full of absent, incestuous or blind fathers.[17] Oedipal conflicts end with ritual parricide, or even cannibalism: in The Dead Father the main character dreams he is eating spoonfuls of flesh from his dead father’s body.
“Good ghosts wander in battlefields at night, guiding soldiers out of danger.” (Archangel)
In Noam Gonick’s 1997 documentary Guy Maddin – Waiting for Twilight, Maddin tells how after a bad cold which degenerated into a neurological infection, he developed the feeling of being touched by invisible hands all over the body, and jokes about following their instructions when it came to deciding where to place the camera. As a matter of fact, his films are filled with ghosts. Death is a permeable state: the living see the dead, and the dead come back to the living (coffins opening in The Heart of the World, the apparitions in The Dead Father), or simply pass before our very eyes, as the enigmatic procession of veiled dames that separates Careful’s part one and two. Often the results are astonishingly touching: the image of the three little girls’ coffins carried away by the river -“Were they dead, or were they merely sleeping in the quiet boxes borne along by the water of the sad Icelandic river?”- and the bizarre sequence of the Indian funeral in Tales from the Gimli Hospital; or the dead boy’s soul coming out of his body and joining his father in Archangel; and the angels assisting the living in the opening and closing sequence of  Tales from the Gimli Hospital.
On Earth we are doomed to suffer. Maddin is well aware of our ephemeral nature, yet he still cultivates a hope of immortality. Perhaps it is because of a sense of modesty and unconscious self-defense, that the ineffability of death often turns into ridicule. Like in Careful, where the dead father’s ghost appears just like Polonius in Hamlet… complaining that his new condition did not make him get his sight back.
“Will angels put us back together again like bits of a broken statue, or will we look as we did when we were young and healthy, before we were sick or fat or old?” asks Shelley Duvall in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, adding: “There must be a place where all our bodies have a chance to be loved.” A loving attention for the human body exudes from the whole of Maddin’s work: a case in point is the sequence of the youngsters waking up and dressing in Tales from the Gimli Hospital, where the skin’s whiteness literally lightens the frame. Movies collect and put aside these moments of casual and frail beauty, preserving them from decay and putrefaction. Maddin shows an unshakeable faith in the thaumaturgical power of the Seventh Art: the most outstanding example is The Heart of the World, an amazing six minute short that shows how our planet’s dying heart is literally healed by the epiphany of cinema, whilst paying homage to Aelita (1924, Yakov Protazanov) and Abel Gance’s La fin du monde, with the accompaniment of Georgy Sviridov’s thundering notes. A sincere and passionate promise of immortality.

[1] Alan Jones, Far from the Maddin Crowd. Guy Maddin Interviewed, Shock Xpress 1, p.147.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Jason Woloski, Guy Maddin, in Great directors – A critical database, Senses of Cinema (www.sensesofcinema.com).
[4] Maddin’s statement (in the audio commentary of the Careful dvd) that he resisted the temptation to digitally alter the film’s chromatic palette for the dvd release is quite significant, in an era of special editions and director’s cuts.
[5] The installation was originally divided into ten chapters, each 6 minutes long, that had to be viewed through peepholes.
[6] Jason Anderson, Far From the Maddin Crowd – Guy Maddin installs himself in Toronto, Eye Weekly, 20.3.2003.
[7] Gemma Files, Guy Maddin’s Groovy Skull, Eye Weekly, 9.18.1997.
[8] Woloski, Guy Maddin cit.
[9] Maddin takes inspiration from a historical occurrence: the smallpox plague that spread over the Gimli community in 1876.
[10] In the film Kyle McCulloch, his face painted black as in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, also plays a minstrel, who’s sort of Einar’s double. It’s the minstrel’s death that deprives Einar (who is about to tell the nurses a tale of his childhood in order to rival Gunnar’s storytelling skills) of his only chance to be at the center of the nurses’ attention. “And the story was left untold,” the narrator concludes: the untold story becomes a metaphor of Einar’s erotic frustration.  
[11] Jones, Far From the Maddin Crowd cit., p. 147.
[12] The name of English-born Whitmey does not appear in the credits, though, because of his disagreements with the director over the finished film: during post-production, his voice was dubbed by Canadian actor Ross McMillan.
[13] While recounting the necrophiliac act, Einar justifies his feverish excitement with the influence of the new moon (“My head was very dizzy with the ebony moonbeams of that black night.”).
[14] “Dispatched by wounds innumerable,” is the line inscribed on the wreath that pops up several times in the film, in a neat biblical reference.
[15] The image of a man who strangles his adversary by using his own intestines can also be found in Nam Nai Choi’s Story of Ricky, as well as in Zhang Che’s Shoalin Martial Arts, where the overall effect is closer to the spirit of Maddin’s film.
[16] “I had hired a make-up effects guy to sculpt an intestinal panel. He wanted to charge $1,500 and I could tell he’d be a problem. Shit, I said, let’s get a pack of sausages and do it ourselves. We untied the links, smoothed them off and it cost $30.” Jones, Far from the Maddin Crowd cit., p.146.
[17] In one of the film’s opening vignettes, we see how Grigorss’ and Johann’s father had lost an eye at an early age because his mother held him to her chest and accidentally pierced his eye with the pin of her broach (an episode apparently inspired by an incident that happened to Maddin’sfather, and which is also referred to in Archangel).

Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin

By Donato Totaro

Film scholar and frequent Offscreen contributor David Church is to be applauded for his editing of the recent collection of essays on Canada’s irreverent retro-genius Guy Maddin, Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin. Maddin has been a frequent subject on Offscreen so it is nice to see his work receive a collection of varied approaches to his work that can serve several functions: an appreciation of his unique style; a one-stop introduction to his films, and a primer for more seasoned viewers and scholars of his films. Like all readers, there will always be some repetition between pieces and a variance in quality (which can also be a question of one’s preference for methodological approach rather than writing quality) but over-all this is a highly readable and welcome addition to the study and research of Guy Maddin.
The collection includes fifteen essays and an interview with Guy Maddin that concludes the book; followed by a Filmography, a useful Bibliography and Contributor bios. Of the 16 total pieces eight are original, and eight were previously published, usually in slightly altered version. Discounting the interview, there is a good balance between essays with a general approach (nine) and those that look closely at one or two films (six). Up first is Church’s excellent overview and introduction “Bark Fish Appreciation: An Introduction.” In it Church provides a good, clear chronological account of the filmmaker, mixing autobiographical meaning (his strained relationship to his father, or ambivalent one, the father who shirks his responsibilities, the close relationship to his mother, the sexual ambivalence of his male heroes, the ‘natural spaces of Canada as a reflection of the ‘garrison mentality’) with broader film specific allusions (Sirk, melodrama, German expressionism, Soviet cinema, silent cinema), pop psychological references (Freud), theoretical touchstones (postmodernism manifested through camp aesthetic and pastiche form), his film style as a fusion of thematic (death, the return of the dead/the inanimate) and form (his reappropriation of old, ‘dead’ film forms and genres, images of filmic ‘decay’ as pointers toward social and personal decay), the contradictory impulse in Maddin’s work of extreme emotionalism and distanced irony, his odd position as being at once mainstream/avant-garde, popular/elitist, and his strained link to government funding. He then quickly sets up the series of essays to follow.
First to follow editor Church’s valuable introduction is “My Brother’s Keeper: Fraternal Relations in the Films of Guy Maddin and George Toles,” by Donald Masterson, which explores the relationship between Maddin and his mentor and collaborator George Toles. Church does well to place this essay early in the proceedings, because it addresses in plain language many of the conceptual ideas which are addressed in some of the other essays that use more rigorous theoretical terminology. An example is the passage where he quotes Toles lamenting the many critics who seem to miss the single most important part of Maddin’s work when they refer to them using any one of the many postmodernist contexts (satire/irony/parody/irony/kitsch/pastiche), or what Toles sums up as “postmodern parasitism on earlier forms of cinema” (34). Tole argues that “such approaches miss the issue that most matters”….that “feeling is central to the whole enterprise” (34). For example, one of the most difficult essays in the reader, the one by Saige Walton, uses the theory of the Baroque because “extreme states of feeling” are so central to Baroque art. Toles uses another theoretical term to get at a similar point: Maddin employs the defamiliarization effect to force viewers to think about the layers subtext/text/meaning behind the deep emotionalism.
Geoff Pevere, who writes the foreword and contributes “Guy Maddin: True to Form,” is no stranger to Canadian popular culture. For starters he co-wrote (with Greig Dymond) an analysis of Canadian pop culture, Mondo Canuck (1996), and the same light, free-flowing writing style of that best-seller is in evident in this piece. His central idea is that Maddin’s characters are in deep states of alienation and this in turn is a common theme in English-Canadian cinema (contributor Will Straw responds to this point in the following essay). Pevere reiterates a point that appears throughout the reader: the vexing nature of Maddin’s ‘distancing’ aesthetic (Carl Matheson devotes an entire essay to this subject). According to Pevere, Maddin’s form acts as another layer to distance the viewer emotionally; and that form is the subject (“style is the subject,” 53), though not as a signifier of auteurist style (as per Egoyan or Cronenberg), but as a filter to it, hiding it in layers of pastness. While these points may not be highly original observations, his piece serves as a good primer to his films. As an aside: Pevere mentions Tarkovsky as one of the filmmakers that Maddin evokes, but –as a scholar of Tarkovsky myself– I don’t really see that, nor have I ever read Maddin make reference to Tarkovsky.
“Reinhabiting Lost Languages: Guy Maddin’s Careful” by Will Straw is one of the stronger entries in the book. Church does well to place Straw straight after the Pevere essay, because of the dialogue between the two essays. Straw (convincingly) argues against Pevere’s central point of seeing Maddin’s films as allegories of Canadian identity. Straw feels that this reading – the depiction of radical alienation or loss of identity/amnesia as a metaphor of Canadianness or Canadian identity– does not sufficiently take into account the limitations of the generic traditions involved, or that Maddin’s detailed referencings are to forms that are as marginal as Canadian cinema. Maddin, Straw claims, is in love with all forms of marginal cinema/identity (mountain films [Bergfilm], Dreyer, silent cinema, Soviet Montage, etc.), which are as marginal as Canadian cinema…but not Canadian cinema. With respect to Pevere’s point, Straw argues that they do not aspire to notions of full and complete identity because “they all unfold within styles and generic traditions which offer little room for psychological depth or for narrative trajectories leading to complex self-knowledge” (64).
Straw makes an interesting separation of Maddin’s reflexivity from the usual young auteurist who emulate noir or fannish cult movies, a la New Wave/Tarantino. Maddin’s references are far more obscure and detailed, anal even. Straw’s titular “Lost Languages” is the language of old and archaic forms which most people are not familiar with, or have never seen, which allows Maddin to venture from faithful recreation to fanciful re-representations. As an incidental note: Straw quotes screenwriter/collaborator George Toles’ surprise that no critic was willing to deal with the central and most obvious themes of the film: repression and incest. The observation comes in a personal letter to the author dated 1997. Toles might be interested to know that I did address this in my own piece on the film from a book dated 2001, where I write: “The muted lifestyle in Tolzbad is an obvious metaphor for social and sexual repression. The film’s ingenuity rests in a visual style which serves the theme of repression well, and also engages in a fascinating, synchronic patchwork of film history” Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada, Peter Harry Rist, ed., 31.
One of the central points made by Steve Shaviro in “Fire and Ice: The Films of Guy Maddin,” shared by Straw and made by William Beard in the concluding interview, regards Maddin’s contrary nature: the way he wants his emotions to be taken seriously but makes the narrative and actions so incredulous that most viewers feel a sense of distance/irony that works against the seriousness. This is one of the key points that comes out of the reader collectively, with each author taking a different approach and coming to a different conclusion. For example, Shaviro relates it to the issue of tense in Maddin’s films and his appropriation of earlier forms. Shaviro’s is a fine essay, but one thing I could not understand was the decision to structure the essay in point form. Shaviro does not state why he structures the essay this way, and I see nothing gained by it (or lost).
Another candidate for the best essay in this collection is William Beard’s “Maddin and Melodrama.” Beard begins by noting an important element of Maddin’s films that is often overlooked by critics, the “element of unironic seriousness” (80). One who has and that Beard acknowledges is Shaviro in the previous essay, who “identifies this dimension as one of beauty” (80). Quoting Shaviro, this element is described as a tension between “romantic excess” and “absurdist humor,” or a “contradiction between gorgeousness and camp, or between the beautiful…and the ridiculous” (80). Beard likens this sense of ‘excess’ whether in acting, style, irony, or emotions, to the theory of melodrama which sees such excess as a reflection of “psychological symptoms of social and personal confusion.” Yet Maddin’s films do not operate at the same narrative level as earlier melodrama but at a more ironic distance which Beard sees a result of postmodernism, the ultimate harbinger of all things ironic. But why silent era melodrama, he wonders? What is there in silent era melodrama that is not in regular melodrama, or post-melodrama? Beard posits the unabashed “ecstasies and terrors of silent melodrama” (though I would add that Maddin’s love of silent and early sound horror adds to the ecstasies, or compounds them). Maddin’s style of melodrama adds a heavy dose of the personal, “confessional” Beard calls it, and of course even heavier doses of Freudianism (repression, Oedipal desires), I would add, almost as a form of structure to his personal memories and machinations.
As Beard notes, Maddin’s own life was chock-full of melodramatic events (his 18 year old brother’s suicide on his girlfriend’s grave –she had died in a car crash, when he was 7; his friend’s accidental death by hanging a few years later, his dad’s death when he was 21, etc.). The adage reality can be stranger than fiction applies here, hence perhaps Maddin felt it necessary to heighten these personal memories through stylization to make them ‘art’ and make them distanced enough for him to be able to deal with. Beard suggests that in today’s post-postmodern cultural climate it is impossible to do straight melodrama in Hollywood, so hence even there stylization occurs (Far from Heaven, Twin Peaks, Magnolia). Maddin’s melodramatic excesses are a symptom of a cultural sickness, not ideological, one where the expression of certain emotions, yearning, desire, innocence, pathos, is not possible; hence Maddin’s return to childhood, even if unconsciously, is a return of these repressed emotions. “In Maddin’s cinema, rooted in the unconscious and childhood perceptions, and assaulted by an adult sensibility of rationality and ironic disbelief, the repressed also returns” (89). Perhaps his is a “Canadian melodrama” –weak male heroes, unhappy endings, guarded patriotism, self-criticism, these are all Canadian traits (90-91)…a “pastiche of impossible earlier idealisms….”(92).
David L. Pike’s essay “Thoroughly Modern Maddin” is in the more journalistic mold of Geoff Pevere’s earlier essay, filled with Maddin quotes and autobiographical meanings. This essays includes one excellent insight: relating Maddin’s ‘amateur’ persona to the 1920s modernists’ movement, and away from the technically advanced/refined artists; artists who lacked –seemingly– the sheer technical skills of earlier painters. Hence positing Maddin as a ‘modernist’ rather than postmodernist (camp, kitsch), because of how he too distances himself from the slick products of Hollywood or museum avant-garde. Though downplayed critically, high modernism was very much associated with particular cities (London, Paris, Berlin, New York) and personal experience; likewise with Maddin, and his Winnipeg. The essay gets a bit ‘busy’ near the end, whipping itself into a writing frenzy of riffs on the idea of Maddin’s vast, eclectic reservoir of referentialism, a ‘retro-modernism’, an unabashed melting down of Hollywood, silent cinema, Soviet Cinema, avant-garde, and cheesy melodrama. His Hollywood is his ‘candy store’ which he absorbs as he sees fit.
The eight essay in the collection is Stephen Snyder’s “Sexuality and Self in the Guy Maddin Vision,” which fits the aforementioned generalised approach (Pevere). Snyder relies on plot discussion supported by Freudian/psychoanalytical/Lacanian concepts (repression, phallic symbols, the Other), with touches of gender analysis –surprisingly one of the few essays dealing with gender in the reader– while invoking the surrealism of Luis Buñuel.
The reader’s common theme of “alienation/distanciation” becomes the central focus in Carl Matheson’s “The Heart of His World: Emotional Immediacy and Distance in the Films of Guy Maddin.” Matheson breaks viewers up into those who do not ‘get’ Maddin and those who do. The former, he argues, “suffer” with Maddin (i.e. they remain emotionally distanced) because they approach his films as standard narratives; to appreciate and find Maddin’s films compelling the viewer must treat the films as dreams or nightmares. It is quite evident that there is far more to Maddin’s films than plot. But how can you train a viewer to shift from one mode to another? It certainly is not as easy as telling someone to “view the film as if it were a dream.” Matheson then cocoons himself from having to really deal with this conundrum by admitting that he has jettisoned any scholarly approaches to the films in lieu of “a deeply personal love letter to a dear friend whose work I have been closely following ever since the release of Tales from Gimli Hospital” (134). But he still wants to convince or seduce people into loving Maddin as he does, and uses more spectator traps to achieve this, such as flipping from viewing the films as “dreams” to viewing them as “fairy tales” or “something like fairytales.” He then reverts back to the dream argument, “Instead, I think the films should be viewed as documentaries of recurring dreams…” (140). He then refines the method by saying we should regard the films as “nightmares of obsession.” The essay is a frustrating blend of clever insights on narrative and gender (the latter a particular highlight), including the idea that the “more silent” the Maddin film, the better (which is why he downgrades the dialogue heavy Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and The Saddest Music in the World) and ultimately inconclusive attempts to rationalize a proper mindset for watching Maddin’s films. In the end, he admits that everything he argued about in terms of the distanced dreamscape of Maddin’s best works comes to a halt with his latest film, My Winnipeg, which does not fit his model, because it is “his most accessible and intimate film” (143).
The reader assumes an “insider’s” perspective with the contribution of long-time Maddin mentor, collaborator and friend, George Toles, in the tenth essay, “From Archangel to Mandragora in Your Own Backyard: Collaborating with Guy Maddin.” Although an academic, Toles forces himself to step back from his podium (“I have been warned –by myself as well as others– not to sound too academic as I try to discuss my work a scriptwriter. My goal seems to be to impersonate a non-academic for this one occasion” (144). Although he renounces the scholarly wand, he cannot conceal his excellent writing skills, and this essay is a pleasure to read, far more literary than the others. In fact Toles relies on several references to literature (Shakespeare, baroque, the fairy tale, Beckett, Shelley) to help describe Maddin’s ambivalent textures in the broadest strokes possible. It is mainly an attempt to discuss where his own ideas come from in his collaborations with Maddin, and how they nestle within Maddin’s own personal world view.
In “Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Virgins, Vampires, and the “Theatre Film” Milan Pribisc offers an excellent discussion of the titular film as a “theatre film” as opposed to filmed theatre. Pribisc makes good use of textual and comparative analysis (play, novel, film).
Appropriately placed well into the collection come, in sequence, the three most theoretically dense essays, Dana Cooley’s “Demented Enchantments: Maddin’s Dis-eased Heart,” Darrell Varga’s “Desire in Bondage: Guy Maddin’s Careful,” and Saige Walton’s “Hit with a Wrecking Ball, Tickled with a Feather: Gesture, Deixis, and the Baroque Cinema of Guy Maddin.” Readers who are averse to the rigors of academic writing (or are ‘untrained’) may find these essays a tough haul, given the range of external citations (Walter Benjamin, Fredrich Nietzsche, Baroque theatre, Sigmund Freud, Gilles Deleuze, Tom Gunning, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Erwin Panofsky, Heinrich Wölfflin, Norman Klein, Jean-François Lyotard, the Sublime, theories of melodrama, etc.). As a reflection of this, not surprisingly, the footnote per essay average of these three essays is 54, compared to 19 for the other 13 essays in the collection. At worse, this form of writing comes off as “concept-dropping” for all the wrong reasons, but thankfully this is less often the case here. Cooley’s citing of the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin at the outset of his essay seems as much a plea for intellectual justification as an honest illumination of the subject (Maddin). However, Cooley then goes on to make an enticing comparison between Maddin and a 17th /18th century German popular theatre form, the ‘sorrow play’ (Trauerspiel) based on the tenuous thread that the Trauerspiel, like Maddin’s films, works in the allegorical model (the context of the Baroque is used to a greater extent by Saige Walton, see below). More problematic is the author’s reason for using this anachronistic comparative analysis: to switch the touchstone of much of Maddin’s meaning-making form from Freudian psychoanalytical case studies to fairy tales. This, Cooley feels, will bring the films in closer contact with the real social world. “I would like to propose an alternate reading to Maddin’s Trauerspiels, one that positions these films as closer to fairy tales…than to psychoanalytical case studies” (178). However, the author then goes on, a few paragraphs later, to use the theory of the Other (as a feminized, outsider body) and the Double to explain Archangel (which is “imbued with this disconcerting femininity” 179)! The Other and the Double (and another term he later invokes, the uncanny, or unheimlich) are some of the most often used concepts within psychoanalytical criticism!!! At some level he acknowledges this contradiction: “although I am not interested in pursuing a Freudian reading of Maddin’s films, I find the idea of the uncanny a productive one….(179). So while he is quick to abandon Freud, he remains committed to psychoanalysis in its many post-Freudian guises (Benjamin, John Berger, Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Jeffery Mehlman, etc.).
From this point on Cooley goes on to analyze Archangel and Cowards Bend at the Knee but there is no mention of fairy tales in general. Cooley tries to get around this by likening the uncanny to allegory, but then this becomes psychoanalysis in disguise. I also don’t understand how the author can refer to Archangel as an “allegory” for memory, loss, and grieving” (184), when the film’s subject is clearly about those things. Explicit meaning cannot be allegory. All in all this is an essay with some strong and original ideas on Maddin’s films, marred only by some conceptual inconsistencies.
Darrell Varga’s “Desire in Bondage: Guy Maddin’s Careful” begins with a plot synopsis of Careful and then in the next paragraph shifts to an application of the German philosopher Nietzsche to Maddin, essentially on the basis of a mutual reception experience between readers of Nietzsche and viewers of Maddin’s films. Reading Nietzsche “throw[s] us into a labyrinth from which no one emerges unscathed” (p. 190). The reader gets an interpretation of Careful vis-a-vis Nietzsche, but whether such a reading is wanted, needed, helpful, or necessary is assumed. After a long quote from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Varga states, and the reader must accept, “It is this shifting engagement with rapture and lethargy that is Careful (191). Hence his Nietzschean interpretation, as stimulating as it often is, requires a certain suspension of disbelief in the reader because it relies on tangential affinities between his description of the films and the many Nietzsche quotes. The essay gains its ‘originality’ by matching subjects that are far removed historical or intellectually. Minus Neitzsche, Varga’s points echo those of others in the reader (Freudian repression, Unheimlich, evoking of the cinematic past, etc.).
The above reservations aside, I think there are a few points in the essay lacking in basic clarity:
1. Varga refers to “the instrumentalist” style of Canadian cinema, but what does this mean? (192) I have never heard this term used in the context of Canadian cinema.
2. In a fanciful passage that exemplifies the previously noted “suspension of disbelief” necessary to Varga’s Nietzschean interpretations he writes, “The interlaced sculptural and music-like [my emphasis] images in his films suggest the Apollonian and Dionysian duality upon which art depends, according to Nietzsche –the dream world in which we may glimpse the gods and face the depths of intoxication, of forgetfulness, of forgetting the self” (192). I accept the general use of Nietzsche, but what are “music-like images” (251)?
3. Varga writes, “Careful, like all of Maddin’s oeuvre, is bubbling over with excess and incommensurability, with a disorder of bliss and regret” (194). What does Varga mean by “incommensurability”? Assuming a film theory context, what might come to mind is Gilles Deleuze and his notion of the ‘incommensurable’ interval between shots in a ‘time-image’ film (an ellipsis in which time/space is hard to describe with any certainty). I think this was Varga’s intent, since he goes on to relate this to “narrative threads.” However, since he says this in relation to all of Maddin’s films, it would stand to reason that such a point be made clear.
Saige Walton’s essay “Hit with a Wrecking Ball, Tickled with a Feather: Gesture, Deixis, and the Baroque Cinema of Guy Maddin” brings us back to the 17th century context of Varga’s essay, employing Baroque theory, phenomenology and deixis (“a ‘pointing’ via words or form, Church, 22) to unravel Maddin’s two biographical films, Cowards Bend the Knee (2006) and Branded Upon the Brain! (2006). The discomfort many feel toward Maddin’s “surface (bodily) and (emotive) depth” is normally worked out by referring to them through a secondary distancing filter, such as camp, kitsch, parody, etc. Walton argues instead for the value of the straight ahead “gesture, motion, and physicality” as the source of meaning: the feelings are right there in/on the body (our surface). He then uses the philosophy of phenomenology to study these surfaces. “Through corporal display (gesture, movement, telltale looks, facial aspects), the baroque communicates the subjectively “invisible” or “abstract” interiority of feeling to its beholder” (213). Though a slow read because of the numerous external citations across philosophy, film, and art history, the rewards are rich when Walton gets to the films.
The consensus with many of the essays in this reader is that there is a distantiation at many levels operating in Maddin’s films (stylistic/aesthetic being the primary, couching it often in older forms which contemporary audiences are unfamiliar with); at times this is at conflict with the flagrant emotionalism at play in the subject, acting, and narrative. Walton’s analysis points to some of these same dynamics, but couches it in a baroque sensibility which foregrounds deep emotions (“extreme states of feeling”) which, if they get through to the viewer, establish it at a ‘sensuous’ level. The surface (of our body, the body of others, and even the film itself, 212) becomes ‘expressive’ of these meanings which may appear at times suppressed by distanciation mechanisms.
After the conceptually broad ranging nature of the previous three essays, the collection concludes with two more relaxing reads, “I’m Not an American, I’m a Nymphomaniac”: Perverting the Nation in Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World” by Lee Easton and Kelly Hewson and the concluding Maddin interview conducted by William Beard. The Easton and Hewson essay is an interesting analysis of the film and the “connections among nations, sexuality and gender,” and is perhaps a candidate for one of those cases where an analysis is more interesting than the film! In the end, the authors argue that Maddin’s incorporation of melodrama, a feminine genre, with the Hollywood musical form, helps to both be nationalist while criticizing the conventions and clichés that go with Canadian identity, such as normative sexuality (patriarchy), capitalism, heroism, etc. The Easton and Hewson co-authored essay is intelligent without ever becoming dependent on an external theoretical lynch pin. Theorists and external ideas are brought in but always in relation to a reading of a scene or passage in the film.
Beard’s “Conversations with Guy Maddin” is an excellent resolution to the collection. William Beard’s extensive knowledge of Maddin (he wrote an excellent book on Maddin, Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin (University of Toronto Press, 2010) allows him the luxury of a free form style of questioning in which he covers most of Maddin’s films, his influences, his cultural tastes, and pertinent biographical detail. One of Beard’s questions cuts to the chase of Maddin’s style: “It seems to me that you’re trying to do something very complicated in your films, and that is to hold ridicule and serious feelings right next to each other” (245). Editor David Church has succeeded in his own complicated task of compiling an intoxicating blend of heady, illuminating, intellectually vibrant and (at times frustratingly) tasking group of essays on a filmmaker who can be as equally heady, illuminating, vibrant….and tasking!
 An Interview with Guy Maddin By David Church

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