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Issue 02, Volume 01

A Conversation with Guy Maddin

by Max Nelson

For over twenty years the Winnipeg-based filmmaker Guy Maddin has been crafting the sorts of films that have critics scrambling for cinematic precedents – a New York Sun blurb for his Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary describes it as “Murnau’s Nosferatu remade by Kenneth Anger, edited by Eisenstein on a cocaine binge, and produced for Masterpiece Theater.” Yet no amount of effusive comparisons can prepare the uninitiated for their first Maddin film. Maddin’s gleefully perverse tales of gender confusion, misplaced affection, parental phobias and innocence lost are shot in antiquated styles often dating back to the silent era - the history of cinema as viewed through the warped fun-house mirror of one man’s subconscious. Maddin sat down with Double Exposure for a wide-ranging conversation about his upcoming films, his relationship with literature, the pull of memory, and what it means to make a truly uninhibited film.

Could you fill in our readers about your new projects?

I finished Keyhole earlier this year and it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It just screened a couple times there in small houses. I guess it went okay — hard to tell with festival audiences anymore. There’s kind of an opioid piped into the air conditioning of all theaters at film festivals which makes people love or hate films more than they normally would.

I ’ve started preproduction on my next project already and it’s going to be a hundred short films shot in a hundred days in four different countries. The project is called Séances, and the ideal platform for séances is the Internet. It’s a website where people can come hold séances with lost films. And of course in France the word for séances is used to describe film screenings. Actually, the kind of séances we all think of in North America are called “séances de spiritisme” in France. I think the project’s actually going to be called the “Spiritisme” in France. Every day a bunch of actors gather in a sort of 1930s parlor and join hands around a table and go into a little trance. A medium makes contact with the narrative of a lost film, and when contact is successfully made - and it will be - the entranced actors start acting out the plot of these films. I’ve been experimenting with this for a while. I’m going to make contact with a hundred lost films, hopefully in New York, San Paulo and Winnipeg. When I’m done I’ll hopefully have trapped in my can the little ectoplasmic versions of these movies, some of them canonical, some of them not so canonical. They hail from every continent except Antarctica – I didn’t manage to find a lost film from Antarctica. Films made by all creeds, colors, cultures. It’s been really fascinating doing research on this. I thought I knew my lost films, but I was just a dilettante before I waded deeper into this dark and mysterious and frightening world. And I’m still just a dilettante; I can tell that to be a real scholar one would have to be very boring and very obsessed. I’m gonna stick with my vaguely spiritual commitment and just try to capture as much as I can to get the website up and running.

The Seances make explicit something that has haunted your films for a long time, the intersection between personal memory and cinematic memory. Your films are often directly about remembrance, but they’re also remembered or conjured up out of the past of cinema. I was wondering how channeling these archaic cinematic forms, in both your new projects and your past work, helps you explore your own past?

I guess I’m the medium in this case and mediums are suspicious figures. They’re forever bringing their own taste, predilections and suspected charlatan bags of tricks into the séance. In a lot of cases our researches were only able to turn up so much about a film, and as both a historically obsessed filmmaker and as a medium I have to fill in the gaps left by these missing films.

How exactly do you go about doing that? Do you use your own personal memories or do you try to be as historically accurate as possible?

There’s a lot of leeway. Everything I know about séances you probably know too, from seeing them in movies. I guess I’ve been to a few – there’s a woman in Winnipeg, a dancer that dances out séances. She’s thrown about in weird convulsions that you have to interpret. You just need to throw yourself into it, the way this dance medium does - I think she believes what she’s doing. You have to will some of these movies back into existence. You read what you can about what they were supposedly about; you can get still pictures that are still existent — still-existent stills. Sometimes you get pieces of music or some of the score survives, sometimes little fragments of the movies themselves. You get them and you try to piece together the whole thing, and since I’m the medium I don’t try to imitate the actual, literal voice of any director long-forgotten. It’d have to come through me, so all the films probably have my DNA all over them. Any sort of séance-buster, any latter-day Harry Houdini coming in would be able to tell that I shot all these things and that I filled in the lacuna in the stories with things that I prefer, but I still try to inhabit the spirit of the filmmaker without being a rich little Vegas-style impressionist or anything like that, you know?

When I made The Little Cloud that Cried [a short-film tribute to underground filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith], I was just trying to be Jack Smith. But I don’t think he ever worked with transgendered actors, or shot at Lake Winnipeg, you know? I was trying to be myself and him at the same time. In the same way, when I tell a story I try to involve the viewer in the film but I also try to show the grandmother. I always believe that when a grandmother is telling you a bedtime story as a kid you’re totally engrossed in the story but you’re well aware of your grandmother’s existence there at the side of the bed telling it to you. It’s the same sort of thing. I’ll be the medium and the filmmaker at the same time.

And do you ever feel as though playing the role of the medium helps you explore your own past? Many of your films are very explicitly autobiographical.

You definitely end up doing that. I don’t believe in ghosts, I don’t believe in séances very often, but when I’m holding a camera, I do believe in ghosts, I do believe I’ve been haunted, I do believe I am haunted, and all of a sudden I can believe in séances. So right now you catch me at a time when I’m not holding a camera but talking about holding a camera, and so I find myself sort of warping in and out of the belief even halfway through a sentence with you. It’s kind of odd; this is the first time I’ve talked about the project at length in interviews so I’ll have to come up with a side, which side of the pale I should be discussing. But even the most imaginative geniuses in the history of art can’t help but drag some autobiography into the work they’re engaged with. It’s got to come in somewhere, whether it’s the size of the penis Michelangelo gives to David or just the reaction that Lolita has to Quilty. Something is there somewhere even though Michelangelo and Nabokov are two of the great imaginative geniuses of all time.

Keyhole is being billed alternately as a gangster movie and a ghost story, and it looks like it’s going to continue your fascination with genre tropes. In your past films we’ve seen mad scientists, teen detectives, forbidden love, all these generic elements that in other films tend to subsume individual stories under very broad categories. I was wondering how you make them peacefully co-exist alongside these highly personal, idiosyncratic story-lines you develop yourself.

I don’t dare make a pure, unadulterated autobiography. I just don’t have the nerve to think anyone could care. But I’ve always used my autobiography as a starting point for stories. I know I felt a certain way when a certain thing happened and I know that an unbelievable amount of melodramatic real-life narrative ramified out of these incidents. But often I’ve been thinking about these things for decades. As my experience with literature widens I start recognizing the patterns from my own life in some timeless works. And so I recognized a lot of the scenes that have often driven my dreams, coming out of my childhood, in The Odyssey. And some of my romantic travails I recognized in Euripides’ Elektra for instance. I love retroactively plagiarizing from a work of art that I’ve already lived, or accusing it of plagiarizing me backward in time, and then working together with it to frame up a story about myself that I know is timeless because it’s been written down for millennia already.

What kinds of scenes were you thinking about in The Odyssey?

You know, there’s the Odyssey as a great anti-dad story about a father who’s been away from his wife and son for nineteen years and no one’s sure if he’s dead, or if he’s trying to come back, or if he abandoned them, or if he loved them. He’s with Calypso on some island screwing his brains out for a great deal of that time, and perhaps he could have been hurrying home a little faster. But he does make his way home eventually and whether that’s a dreamy wish-fulfillment of the child or of the widow I don’t know. I kind of like the fact that Homer probably had a deadbeat dad himself, or is at least thinking about deadbeat dads.

So you think that when we live our lives we’re in a sense re-enacting these established works?

The eternal return, yeah. I’m not well-read enough to make a statement that definitive but I do know I find it uncanny. There are only so many combinations and permutations we can live out on this planet and it’s really cool to discover your own life in some ancient text somewhere, and almost literally. That’s what great literature is. It enables you to find yourself in it. To feel safe and feel moved and feel part of time’s great flow and then feel insignificant, but feel somehow remembered by literature as well. I’m kind of just wafting hot air out at you now. All these things feel this way at one time or another.

Do you feel like film genres can have that same effect, that they can make us feel as though we’re re-enacting some eternal story?

There’s something comforting about the genre. I used to be really determined to make films that were uncategorizable or belonged to unfamiliar genres like a mountain film, a bergfilme — unfamiliar to us anyway. And I can’t really do genres anyway because I’m just not skilled enough. All my attempts at a war movie or a gangster film or a bergfilme end up being messed up with my own ineptitude and my own limitations, which are also my strengths. I like having some restrictions; they’re paradoxically liberating, most artists will tell you that. So just assigning yourself a genre is often restriction enough. It just gives you a nice set of guidelines to follow; you can make snap decisions about what to do with your film if you’ve got some artistic limitations.

This idea of limitation is really interesting, especially since your cinema deals a lot with repression. Do you ever feel as though the film medium itself has some inherent element of repression to it? It sometimes feels like in your movies, with the rapid editing and the distortion of the images, there’s a conflict between the relatively rigid constraints of genre or narrative and the wildly uninhibited and emotional subject matter.

A lot of the times there’s just a disappointingly practical reason for a lot of that. They couldn’t afford sets so they had to submerge them in darkness, or maybe the costumes don’t look right so they make sure the camera’s out of focus. But I’m glad you used the word uninhibited. To me, melodrama is all about being uninhibited, and wildly, Tourettishly spilling out the truth, no matter how embarrassing it is. It seems to me that the more uninhibited the editing is — the more neurologically compulsive it is — the better. So in a lot of these more rapidly-cut movies, especially Cowards Bend the Knee, it seems like the film has got a neurological disorder. It’s like they’re just sputtering out memories and not necessarily in the correct order, and sometimes flowing down to relish one but then involuntarily and spastically heading off towards something else again. It’s all part of some really publicly embarrassing Tourette attack or confession or something like that. I was going for something neurological there.

Do you strive for an ideal, truly uninhibited film, without any element of repression, or do you think that repression can sometimes be a positive thing?

No, repression’s good. So is amnesia. Can’t live without them! But you know, it still feels pretty good to drop your pants in public and see how long you can get away with it.

And are there any other filmmakers who you think have tried to make uninhibited cinema?

Yeah, I think Lars von Trier is really interesting. I don’t want to reduce what he does but I like the way he takes autobiographical elements and gives them to his female characters and makes them really unlikable often, or detestable. Of course he’s slammed for sexism for giving strongly written parts for women, or parts for really strong women. I mean, I like Charlie’s Angels too, so I’m not going to be snobby about it. But I prefer strongly written parts for women. He’s pretty cool because he’s willing to march all of his humiliations out there in public. He’s even willing to do it offscreen, as you see.

Of course, I loved the late George Kuchar, who was willing to film his own bowel movements. As a matter of fact, you couldn’t stop him from doing that. And he had a way of talking about things that was just so trashy but so honest. There are so many other great masochists out there. Roman Polanski was another amazing one. You know he’s probably been statutorily raped himself. And I’m not saying what he did was excusable or anything but I think he’s really interesting and the stuff he puts on screen seems to be something that a victim fascinated by his victimizer might put on screen. They’re like confessions to me.

You’ve often described your work as coming from the perspective of a child who hasn’t yet learned to repress his desires. It’s perverse in this oddly innocent way. But at the same time I feel like your films are often more wistful and reflective, like they’re coming from an older man looking over his past. I was wondering if you were thinking one of these perspectives has dominated the other one, or if they somehow reinforce each other?

For so many years I was always younger than I really was. It was a long time ago now, cause I’m fifty-five years old. But I was always getting asked for ID until I was, like, 30. And then somehow when I started making films I was tapping into childhood feelings so much, but I started hanging out with younger collaborators all the time and so I’ve always simultaneously felt much older and much younger than I am, and I still do. It’s kind of pathetic. And it’s more shocking every day I look in the mirror, how old I really am. Thanks to the process of making a few movies that have really tapped into my earliest memories, I think I’ve finally managed to cut some of the tethers to my early childhood, and I’m not entirely happy to have done so. Or maybe it’s too long ago to remember properly. Or maybe I’ve just sucked all the flavor out of those memories. I don’t know. I think you’ll see that now the films will start feeling more like the work of an older man. But I’m like a dirty old man, at least.

Speaking of cutting the tethers: Keyhole is set entirely in one place and I’ve noticed that in your past films there’s been a very strong emphasis on place. There’s almost this conflicting desire to desecrate the places from your childhood, to free yourself from the past, and this desire to revere them and to uphold them as a part of you. I was wondering how this plays itself out in Keyhole.

I really decided to try to distance myself from autobiography with Keyhole, but I couldn’t help being drawn back to the dreams I have almost every night of my childhood home. While the set that was built for me by the production designer for Keyhole doesn’t resemble my childhood home at all, I began to feel like it should. But I still dream of my childhood home a lot. In my dream I’m back in it and the nightmare of the last four decades has passed and I’m finally restored to where I should be. It feels so good; I don’t know why. It’s not that I had a great time in there or anything, but it feels like a place where I should be. I just know the sickest thing I could do if I had enough money is to buy the place back and live in it. Go die as an old man in the bed I slept in as a child. Put all the old Minnesota Twins pennants back on the wall or something.

I know it’s fruitless, but I also know that I did go back to visit around the time I was making My Winnipeg and the new owner’s really nice. He sleeps in my old bedroom even, he’s my age exactly as a matter of fact; it’s weird. I did like being in there, and I wanted to stay there. It was bad. It can’t be healthy, but it was an amazing place.

You mentioned having the set designer build a set for Keyhole that didn’t resemble your childhood home at all. Do you ever feel a conflict when you’re making your more explicitly autobiographical movies, trying to cast people or find locations for the figures from your past?

The only time I literally tried to get people who looked like my siblings was in My Winnipeg. My casting director Jim Heber found two brothers, who were exactly the same age as my two brothers were when my middle brother died, and when they got haircuts they looked exactly like them. It was pretty eerie. Then I started dressing them in the clothes handed down to me from my bothers in my childhood. We even gave them the glasses and the cutlery that we used in my childhood. It started to get really weird. I don’t remember my dead brother’s voice at all; there were just a few recordings of him, just when his voice was changing. Still it didn’t even seem to matter to me that this kid had a voice of his own. It just became my brother’s.

But mostly everything I do is in the service of the movies and trying to recreate feelings that I’ve had. I’m willing to even betray my own personal history a lot. You gotta make the movies. You gotta make them as good as possible. I’m willing to betray anything to get at that. I really love the Werner Herzog term “ecstatic truth.” It’s far more important than any old literal truth. It’s far more true. Something that’s completely uninhibited and feels right at the time is far more important to me than anything that’s literally true.


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