Cinema of delirium 

Tapping the antiquarian dementia of director Guy Maddin

Can anything truly be called typical or predictable of a filmmaker whose four features, taken in chronological order, depict (1) a blood feud born of accidental necrophilia during a smallpox epidemic; (2) the romantic misadventures of a one-legged Canadian lieutenant battling the Germans and his own amnesia in northern Russia at the tail end of WWI; (3) dutifully-stifled urges and longings in a remote Alpine village whose inhabitants dare not make a noise louder than a whisper for fear of starting a fatal avalanche; and (4) a messy romantic scrum centered around an ostrich farm in a dreamlike land where the sun never sets?

Hardly, unless you mean to say typically and predictably fascinating. The films of Canadian director Guy Maddin are unlike anything else out there, each an epic poem of cracked ideas set to the oddly-footed meter of a film language that hasn’t been spoken for the better part of a century. Except, that is, by Maddin and his longtime collaborator George Toles, both avowed cinephiles with special preferences for the silent cinema of the ’20s and the heroic “mountain film” genre that developed in Germany between the world wars.

Maddin, whose most recent short film makes an appearance in Missoula this week, is the subject of a recent book, Kino Delirium (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2001), the title of which sums it all up nicely. Maddin’s films are indeed the cinema of delirium: gauzy tableaux of intentionally degraded images hissing and popping with ambient decay, abrupt changes of stock that, as the Utne Reader once put it, “looks like it’s been soaking in urine for 60 years,” and peopled by characters who seem to lack any sort of internal definition except a kind of collective amnesia. Maddin’s protagonists frequently fall into fevered states that cause them to seduce their mothers, attack their own bodies with pruning shears and dutifully, despondently fling themselves from rocky escarpments. The results, though not entirely unselfconscious, never lack for a recondite sense of humor that pops up in the unlikeliest places. The bark of a dog whose vocal chords have been removed to limit avalanche liability, for example. We see the dog barking, but all we hear is the sound of teeth clacking together.

Maddin’s subterranean sensibilities have made his films the object of cult worship in certain circles, and he can count among his fans such esteemed personalities as Leni Riefenstahl, Martin Scorsese and Tom Waits. They’ve hardly made him the most marketable commodity for a national film industry renowned for its aversion to risk, however, which accounts to some degree for the slim selection of Maddin titles in your local video store. Currently only his first feature, 1986’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital, and the phantasmagoric 1992 Careful have been released stateside, though DVDs of Archangel and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs are due out in the spring. And, though Maddin himself is loath to admit it, his Missoula-bound short film The Heart of the World outshone the contributions of contemporaries Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg in a showcase of Canadian shorts commissioned for last year’s Toronto Film Festival before going on to win a National Society of Film Critics (USA) award for Best Experimental Film.

Maddin recently finished work on an original adaptation of the Dracula tale with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, slated for a February broadcast on Canadian national TV. The Heart of the World is showing before the Allan Miller documentary The Turandot Project all this week at the New Crystal Theatre. We heard from the slyly self-effacing Maddin, at his home in Winnipeg, over the weekend:

You’ve talked before about going back in a time machine to chip a couple of minor films off the oeuvres of directors you admire to add them to your own. What if it were a straight-up trade with the past and you had to leave some of your films behind?

I would accept only Carl Dreyer’s bid to be the adoptive father of Gimli Hospital. And I would insist that the picture get the middle bunk between his Joan of Arc and Vampyr. He would be such a great parent, able to give my movie all the things I never had, namely spirituality, prestige and immortality. In return for this heart-breaking favor, with my little offspring I could give the dour old Lutheran helmer a much-needed heapin’ helpin’ of good old-fashioned schlock. My movie Archangel I would give only to Abel Gance. Seen as one of his pictures, perhaps crammed into his filmography right after he completed Napoleon in 1927 at the height of his megalomaniacal coke addiction, my little amnesia story would be historically viewed as a film maudit—something romantically doomed by the long plummet of a great mind. Leni Riefenstahl has already approached me about taking Careful under her maternal wing, but she got a sketchy report from Child and Welfare Services. Besides, I wanted Careful to live with English-speaking people, so I sent it off to the DeMille’s. Cecil B. is the most mellifluent of all American directors, and loaded, too!

What was the film that first gave you those spine-tingling sensations? What did you see that first made you think, “Yeah, that’s for me”?

Unquestionably Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or, which I watched some 60 times in a row when I was 26. His use of brutal continuity and intriguingly wooden celebrity non-actors culled from his famous Surrealist coterie appealed to me; I knew I too could achieve bad continuity. I also had a beginner’s arrogance that I could squeeze a wooden performance out of almost any non-actor. So off I went! In Buñuel’s picture, the effects were completely narcotic. In my first efforts, I gave the viewers only a slight numbness of the bum cheeks.

Four features and numerous short films on, your career in the compressed realm of the Canadian film industry still seems to be one of swings and roundabouts. How are you going to know when you’ve “made it,” or is there even such a thing?

I know I’ll never make it. My tastes are hardening into something fatally unmarketable. But luckily so inexpensive—for instance, I just finished shooting a feature film [Dracula—Pages from a Virgin’s Diary] on Super 8mm and it’s by far the most beautiful thing I’ve had anything to do with—that I will absolutely never ever even consider entering into anything so philistine as a 35mm project. I’d rather keep my job at the bookmobile and just shoot Super 8 one-reelers on my weekends, which are Mondays and Tuesdays.

Do you find it mildly embarrassing to have to explain yourself to actors, writers, etc. who aren’t familiar with your work?

It’s totally embarrassing introducing yourself to agents, actors, etc. over the phone. If they say they’ve heard of you, they’re lying, mistaken or polite. I’m always tempted to avoid the humiliating process by casting through my local Winnipeg phone book—random stabs of the index finger deep into the white pages!

What comes over you when the lights go down and there you are: Sitting in the audience for one of your own films?

I almost never watch my movies anymore. It’s always been torture. I’ve said it so often that every film is more an inventory of one’s mistakes than one’s accomplishments. I always feel I’m better than my just-completed project, and I must be restrained from standing up and explaining to the audience how I should have shot a scene, dressed a set, or lit an actor. I moan and blurt with Tourette-ish despair. The running time of the movie passes like broken glass through my intestines. I can’t hate any displeased audience, for they’re right to hate me. I can only reclaim some calm, some dignity, during the post-screening Q&A, when I shtick with the manic urgency of Jim Carrey, a would-be stand-up Borsht-Belter in desperate need of love.

Could you tell us a little bit about your glass eye collection?

Well, I do have a small collection of glass eyes, it’s true. About 85 or so, all left eyes. They’re from between-the-wars Germany. My dad had a glass eye, because his mom poked out his real left one with her unpinned brooch on his first birthday. She spent the rest of her days wielding a needle to prick the eyes out of all photos of herself. In those dustbowl days, my dad’s family couldn’t afford the glass replacement until his 16th birthday. Thrilled, my teenaged future dad wore his new eye for precisely one day before his sister mistakenly flushed it (and the Kleenex he wrapped it in that birthday night) down the toilet. I grew up with glass eyes all around me. My best friends were forever poking their own out, on birthdays, too—little Dick Nose punctured his while cutting parcel ribbon toward his own face with a butcher knife. And Fred Dunsmore, the captain of the team my father managed, also had an eye sliced out by a hockey stick. My other grandmother even had two glass eyes, so everywhere I looked it was light glinting off glass and into real eyes and back into the glass. So I guess I’m extremely phobic of all eye injuries, but also extremely aroused.

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