Tales of Guy Maddin By Mike White. Guy Maddin lives in the twenty-first century near the windswept Icelandic shores of Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg. Maddin’s films, however, live in the first few decades of the twentieth century in a mountainous land outside of Prussia...
Guy Maddin lives in the twenty-first century near the windswept Icelandic shores of Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg. Maddin’s films, however, live in the first few decades of the twentieth century in a mountainous land outside of Prussia.
Maddin’s films hearken to the primordial days of cinema. Maddin shot his first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, primarily as a silent film. Described by Maddin as “a tone poem in tribute to ambient crackle,” Gimli is a beautiful tale of rivalry and pestilence.
Maddin’s most accomplished works recall fleeting movie moments. Though made in 1990, Archangel, Maddin’s second feature, falls neatly into place with films made circa 1929 during the trepidatious transition between silent films and “talkies.” Like Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Maddin’s Archangel employs its sound subjectively. Character voices hover before their lips, aiding in the creation of a world of unreality perfectly suited to a story populated with amnesiacs.
Archangel tells the stories of Boles (Kyle McCulloch) and Danchak (Sarah Neville), war-torn lovers in the Hun-infested titular town. The characters become increasingly obsessed and forgetful in this moody movie chock full of ironic, dark humor. The inhabitants of Archangel tenuously grasp their sanity. Likewise, the film teeters between silence and sound as if the soundtrack might flutter away.
Maddin’s subsequent film straddles the crevasse between the monochromatic and harshly hued realm of colour cinema. Peppered with tinted black and white stock, Maddin shot the majority of Careful in archaic two-strip Technicolor-a process notably used in Chester M. Franklin’s 1922 work, The Toll of the Sea. Painted with a limited palette, Careful can be at once muted and garish. Sweaty, anxious faces shot through lenses smeared with petroleum jelly bare red hues that flutter about their faces.
Set in a mountain village beset with the constant peril of burial under an avalanche, everyone in Careful must be wary to not speak above a whisper. In an attempt to deter obstreperous livestock, the villagers’ animals have their vocal cords slit. Now, if only those noisy geese would go away! Living under this burden of silence, the local folk have odd aspirations. Grigorss (Maddin regular McCulloch), the hero of Careful, wants nothing more than to successfully complete “butler school” and serve under the village patriarch, Count Knotkers (Paul Cox). Meanwhile, his brother Johann (Brent Neale) flunks out and, just when it looks like he might be destined to share space in the attic with his shut-in brother Franz (Vince Rimmer), the love of his mother (Gosia Dobrowolska) “saves” Johann from Franz’s haunted fate.
Despite its incest, self-mutilation, and Melvillean dialogue, Careful ranks as Maddin’s most-accessible work that showcases his anachronistic style. Years after Careful, Maddin directed Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, a film that strayed from his venerable cinema. Shot in 35mm with a cast of familiar faces, Ice Nymphs shares Maddin’s twisted humor but moves at a sluggish pace, as if bloated by lavish craft services. Despite Maddin’s tangible unease about the project, witnessed in Noam Gonick’s behind-the-scenes documentary, Waiting for Twilight, Ice Nymphs should count among Maddin’s successes.
Beautifully filmed in a lavish soap factory-cum-movie studio, Ice Nymphs has a mood somewhere between a fairy tale and myth. Nigel Whitmey (who often resembles a poor man’s Bruce Campbell) stars as Peter, an ex-con returning to his home, an ostrich farm run by his sister, Amelia (Shelly Duvall) and the crazed handyman Cain Ball (Frank Gorshin). Along the way, he falls for the evanescent Juliana (Pascale Bussières). Upon his return, Peter longs for Juliana while bedding down with the sylvan Zephyr (Alice Krige). If Twilight of the Ice Nymphs lacks the outright experimental use of stock or sound, it shares several motifs with Maddin’s other work. More than the eccentric dialogue, lush cinematography, and infirmed characters, Ice Nymphs feels as though it comes from another era.
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs came about five years after Careful. In the meantime, Maddin shot several shorts and worked on an unrealized project, The Dikemaster’s Daughter. The aborted film, coupled with a shoot Maddin considered too “big budget,” soured the director for a while. It wouldn’t be until the end of the twentieth century that Maddin would find his filmic footing again.
Maddin was one of several Canadian filmmakers invited to participate in the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival by creating a “prelude” piece to celebrate the festival and, moreover, cinema itself. In Maddin’s case, it wasn’t so much “film” that he reveled in but “kino.” With Heart of the World, Maddin rejects all that he found distasteful about his larger-budget work. Here the plucky director returned to cinematic basics-shooting on Super 8mm Tri-X stock. The film is without spoken dialogue, relying on a handful of title cards, a driving score, and fantastic editing. Maddin found inspiration for his short in the fervent era of early Russian cinema. His five-minute piece would make Eisenstein and Kuleshov proud with its intense editing and daring cinematography. Heart of the World reintroduced Maddin to the delight of filmmaking and stood out as the most loving display of cinema in decades.
Judging by Maddin’s latest feature-length work, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the director is back on track and once again playing in the realm of silent, black and white cinema. With its manic editing style and ballet sequences, Dracula resembles Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital in terms of its technology, but displays a maturity far removed from the director’s initial cinematic efforts.
Cashiers du Cinemart:Your love of film, at least from the “primitive days” of filmmaking, is obvious. How much have you studied the early days of cinema?
Guy Maddin: My fellow drones and I found an orphaned 16mm projector-an old Pageant swaddled in newspaper and smelling as if it had soiled itself with burnt mildew or bulb-dust. There were cans of film on the floor beside the little unloved one. Among these was Erik Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. We watched this some thousand times at least, until we screamed out in agonized ennui at the over-memorized routines of Maude George, Cesare Gravina, Dale Fuller, and even “retarded, deaf and dumb” Malvina Polo as they retraced their steps ad infinitum like so many ants in a silent movie ant farm.
Long after any flavor had been sucked out of this movie, the inscrutable chirographies of these long-dead actors entrenched themselves in our brains as lucid language of imperatives. Deeply inscribed behind our sleepy pans was Stroheim’s occult Constitutionhis Moral Code! It was with his erectile gait we soon strode about the apartment, our faces rippling with Prussian sneers. Constantly pressing monocles to our eyes, we inspected each other’s habiliments, cuirasses, and plumages in an endless mutual pass and muster. Between sips and snoozes, we served deliriously as both master and adjutant in an army without ranks, without much wakefulness, without even the wherewithal to exit the apartment.
I managed a daring escape from the apartment with my life. I never really saw, or needed to see, any other movies before picking up a camera myself. I’ve since seen other titles but never more than once.
CdC:How have you managed to see these prototypical films? I know that German Mountain Movies aren’t the du jour of the local multiplex...
GM: I’ve never seen a “mountain picture” except the one I made myself. I hate research. I need my sleep. When Leni Riefenstahl sent me a fan letter, I didn’t even know who she was. I wrote back because she sounded hot to trot, a bit of a floozy. I thought, if I’m ever going to get laid, maybe this’ll be the one to do it. We arranged a meeting in her hometown, in one of those German meat-taverns, where legendary Bavarian aphrodisiacs like ox breast and deer soup are served. Since I’d never been away from home before, I sent Drone Emu in my stead. One week later, he came back from Riefenstahl shell shocked and mute. He took what happened to him to his grave.
CdC:What of other modes of cinema? What other avenues have you explored or do you enjoy? Can you turn off your brain and let the latest Joel Schumacher film wash over you?
GM: I like almost anything from Bollywood. I’m afraid I can’t abide Schumacher but I do love Adam Sandler, especially Little Nicky.
CdC:You’ve said that you’ve had a story lined up to explain the minstrel character in Gimli. Can you share this?
GM: Spike Lee said it all, and many times over, with Bamboozled, but this middle-class white Icelander is proud to boast he said it a little earlier, albeit differently.
I use an obsolete movie vocabulary. I love this vocabulary, but that doesn’t mean I want to live in the era from which it comes, the days before Banting and Best and other medical advances, the days of entrenched segregation and legislated sexism, no matter how great the music, film, and painting from the twenties. I felt it unfair to celebrate the vocabulary of this era without acknowledging other, more shameful movie conventions, the expletives of the language then in common parlance-for one, the blackface.
You’d have to be a complete fucking idiot not to find the use of blackface a heinous insensitivity. At the same time, however, (and even Spike found this) the minstrel is an instant way into the attitudes of an era, attitudes that have donned different disguises in order to survive to this day. Anytime one can be made to feel the past so readily, so slap-bracingly, one is perversely exhilarated and excited, hopefully along with being angered or moved. The sight of a burnt-cork minstrel in modern times is strange and sobering, outrageous and funny in an immensely wrong way. It belonged in my movie. Since Buñuel had already sliced open a woman’s eyeball, I had to settle for this second-best strategy for achieving all of the above-mentioned effects.
CdC:I experience a sense of malaise when watching Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. However, I can’t determine if this stems wholly from the film or if I was influenced by seeing your unhappiness with the project in Waiting for Twilight. What are your feelings about the film now and what were the critical reactions to this project?
GM: There are things I’m very proud of in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, but I was not happy with much of it (neither were most critics) and it’s all my fault.
For a couple years, I blamed my producer for falling short of my hopes, since he’s a fatuous and meddlesome moronlike having Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show produce your movie. I blamed my director of photography for keeping me away from the camera, for conspiring to shoot in 35mm just for the sake of his résumé, and for working too slowly. I blamed my miserable marriage for keeping me unfocused.
Ultimately, I must accept all blame for the malaise that made it to screen. I was indecisive about what my next movie should be likewhether it should continue in the same primitive vein as I had been, or perhaps make a movie to modernize somewhat. The people who were assigned to the project against my willI couldn’t even get my 18-year-old daughter on as a production assistant traineeall hated my movies, if they’d seen them at all. They all pushed for modernization, something I should have resisted with all my soul.
I’ve always made movies that are filmic equivalents to the music from basement bands. I’ve always averred that it’s a tragedy when a good basement band learns to play its instruments. I was surrounded by philistines who knew how to play the instruments. Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra knew how to play their instruments in much the same way. I should have had the strength to blow these people away. Then I would have made a break for it, shot the picture even more primitively than Flaming Creatures. Had I done this, I wouldn’t have done such a grave disservice to the script written for me by George Toles. I’ll never make that mistake again!
It took two years to repair my friendship with George after mangling his scenario, hurting his feelings and self-delusionally including him among the blameworthy. Now, George and I are back writing together again and it feels brilliant! I’m very optimistic. But all interlopers beware: it’s death to the philistines! Don’t tell me you love my vision and then insert your own stuff up my ass. Just tell me you love my vision, please.
CdC:How does it feel to be considered a “national treasure of Canadian cinema?” Is there a real sense of Canada having a “national cinema?”
GM: I’d like to firmly establish the notion that I’m a national treasure. Perhaps I’d earn more than 15K a year, somehow. You don’t really want me to talk about Canadian national cinema, do you?
CdC:Yes, please, go ahead!
GM: Okay, I’ll try, but I run out of gas on this one every time. Any discussion of “our national cinema”and keep in mind, we’re not exactly a politically repressed and perfervid revolutionist band of outlaws fighting for any particular cause up herealways makes me feel like I’m filling out one of those big fat grant applications. Half of the films made here are diluted approximations of the American product, with weak little myth-making impulses where you guys have rope-thick nerve. Characters in Yank pictures are always “bigger than life,” in good films and bad, in naturalistic films and in fantasies.
Somehow, Canadian characters seem “smaller than life.” We’re even scared that naturalism would be implausible. Thank God that De Sica was born in Italy; as a Canadian he’d consider a bike theft farfetched. The other films made here are reactions against American trends, but somehow, by unknowingly garbing ourselves in American film conventions, as we do, we are as rubes standing before a carnival mirror, laughing and pointing at the ugly bumpkins reflecting back to us. We indict ourselves with much slobber flying. Humiliating.
CdC:As a neighbor to the South it seems that only in the last few years has there been recognition of Canadian Cinema. Without fail, the works of Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg are lauded in conversations involving your country’s cinematic prowess. How does this make you feel?
GM: I’m proud to know David and Atom a little bit. They’re gracious and hilarious. I get a little jealous of Atom sometimes because he’s slightly younger than I am, or so he says.
CdC:I’ve been reading the book of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. Jodorosky cited von Stroheim and Keaton as “filmmakers who make poetry.” Meanwhile you’ve stated that before making your first short film, The Dead Father, that you had seen “only a handful of von Stroheim movies and some Keatons.” At face value, I can’t think of two more dissimilar filmmakers than yourself and Mr. Jodorowsky. What do you think of his work?
GM: I love Jodorowsky! And to further the coincidence, my French distributors say Jodorowsky came into their Paris office one day and bought all my movies on video. A huge thrill and honour. So did Yves St. Laurent. (In other brushes with celebrity, I sent my first movie to Irving Berlin, hoping to coax the 101-year-old out of retirement to score my next picture, but the old grouch kicked the bucket before-or even while-seeing the tape.)
CdC:Titles like Sissy Boy Slap Party and The Cock Crew sound as if some of your shorts might have some homoerotic overtones. True?
GM: No more than any Watson and Webber gem. The Cock Crew is actually an adaptation of Herman Melville’s I and My Chimney, with a little extra sperm from Moby Dick thrown in. I’ve tried for as much homo-mischief as Melville pulled offno more, no less.
CdC:Do you have any desire to try to make The Dikemaster’s Daughter in the future, or has that project’s time passed?
GM: I shot a short called Sea Beggars, which takes my favorite scenes of that ill-starred feature. I’ve no use for that sad dalliance with all things Dutch any longer.
CdC:What have you been up to lately?
GM: All I’ve been doing the last nine weeks is editing the ballet film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary. It’s Dracula as a ballet. Don’t worry, I don’t think it’s a very good idea either, but it paid me a good salary, and I got to work with non-stop music and fluid camera along the way, then cut it all up with little halting hiccup-cuts, jump-cuts, and good ol’ fashioned bad continuity. It may not be scary as a gothic tale, but the finished product seems to have scared my producer and my broadcaster. They hate the cutting style I’ve been using, and I’d like to say things are headed for a showdown, but since they have final cut approval, I might just have to Smithee the whole damn thing.
The arbiters of taste here in Winnipeg say it will revolutionize dance film. If so, that may be one revolution no one cares about.
CdC:What are you hoping to work on next?
GM: I want to remake famous lost films, but in an extremely short form. Almost every director from that generation born 1895-1910 has at least one film on his filmography that is lost forever. I want to reconstruct my own glosses on as many of them as possible. I’m also planning a hockey-hairdressing film noir called Cowards Bend the Knee.
CdC:A hockey-hairdressing film noir?
GM: It’ll combine my favorite aspects of the Greek tragedy “Electra” with some stuff from the French penny-dreadful The Hands of Orlac. To give the story authentic human psychology, I’ve made it as autobiographical as possible, setting all of the action in my two childhood homes: The Winnipeg Arena and our family-run beauty salon. I know there’s life in the old genre yet, the hockey-hairdressing noir.
Most of Guy Maddin’s features and selected shorts are available on DVD via Kino and Zeitgeist Films.
When preparing to interview Guy Maddin, I had scads of questions ready for the affable auteur, but that was before I read Kino Delirium (ISBN: 1-894037-11-1). Written by Caelum Vatnsdal, who played Nicolai in Heart of the World, Kino Delirium stands as the definitive written work on Maddin. Via delightful interviews and insightful reviews, Vatnsdal does a whiz-bang job of capturing Maddin’s talent and sense of humor.
For more of Maddin’s musings be sure to check out his From the Atelier Tovar from Coach House Books.
Article revised and available in the Impossibly Funky Collection