Arts campus talk

Guy Maddin: smaller than life

Maddin takes us on a runway stream of vignettes through his beginnings in cinema to a preview of his latest project Seances

Conversation with Guy Maddin

CMS/W Colloquium Series

Guy Maddin

March 10, 2016

The room is bubbling with conversation and an easygoing vibe as I walk into 56-114, where Comparative Media Studies regularly hosts its Thursday evening Colloquium. Students get shuffled to the front by CMS’s own William Uricchio, who exclaims that “it’s going to be a conversation.” The seats end up filling up to the back anyway, and with some unruly air conditioning, we’re all getting a bit cozy before the conversation starts. Later we’ll find out that “cozy” is often what director Guy Maddin strives for in his film practice, so perhaps it’s just as well.

The conversation begins with Maddin introducing himself as “here, smaller than life.” His screensaver is being projected behind him, and we are greeted with a range of fantastic and striking images. Maddin explains that they mainly consist of frame-grabs from his favorite movies, or images with compositional ideas he wants to steal, or just things he likes to look at. As the streams of images roll past, it’s the first glimmer into Maddin’s self-described obsessive cinephilia. Like the project Maddin has come to preview, his screensaver shows his fascination with collecting and reconfiguring images through a new lens.

Maddin has an extensive back catalogue, having directed 11 feature films and dozens of shorts. Yet his new project is focused toward the web as an art installation. Before we see his project, Maddin and Uricchio discuss Maddin’s past. Maddin takes us on a meandering journey through a string of vignettes the likes of which would not be out of place in a Maddin film themselves. He explains that throughout his twenties he was an incredibly lazy person and that his “horizontal hours” were a symptom of graduating too young. So he went back to college and snuck into the backs of classes. He’d drive professors home as a way to thank them for their implicit permission to sit in the back of lectures, and eventually came to cast them in his earliest films, saying that “their bookish faces made for interesting characters.”

Combining the weird and wonderful, Maddin tells us how Leni Riefenstahl wrote him the first fan letter he ever received. In fact, he once had written a project, Dykemaster’s Daughter, which was to be an operatic musical with necrophilic underpinnings, starring both Riefenstahl and acting legend Christopher Lee. When the project fell through, Maddin spent some time trying to refocus his energies. In retrospect he admits, however, that a missed opportunity with Riefenstahl might have been a blessing in disguise. It is interesting that Dykemaster’s Daughter has come to be Maddin’s own lost film, when his current project focuses on precisely these lost phantasmagoric cinema traces.

Uricchio asks Maddin about his cinematic vocabulary, saying that he appears to be repurposing, or in conversation with, the aesthetics of silent movies. Maddin explains that when he was younger, he knew from trying to take snapshots of people in Christmas sweaters that he was not good at the camera. But his cinephilia introduced him to films that were jagged and wilfully ugly. He learned that a movie didn’t have to look super slick like a Hollywood movie. He recalls going to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead, and as people left the screening he heard them ask, “That was weird, what was that about?” but he said that “I knew it was about me.” When he first tried to make a film, he tried to do the three-light setup of silent films, but ended up using only one due to the starkness of the shadows. When the film was developed, it had a blurry feel of German Expressionism, and Maddin decided to own it.

Maddin also draws from a wide range of cinematic sources for inspiration and sometimes directly plagiarizes. His rationalization for copying old movies is that, in the industrial haste of the medium, film chucked out perfectly usable units of vocabulary and “all I had to do was find these perfectly good units and appropriate them.” He continues that “I was always safe from claims of plagiarism because I was such a lousy plagiarist.” He says his grafting is often unrecognizable, like an organ on the outside of the body, and sometimes has to be cut in editing for just not working.

His latest feature film, The Forbidden Room, features its own kind of aesthetic — a blobbing, blurring, and rippling quality that looks like the film itself buckling in the projector. Maddin explains the inspiration for this blobbiness came from the buckling of old films. Left poorly secured, the film would crumble and fill with mildew, and in projection the film would buckle and bloom with the motion, oxidizing and compressing. This quality, Maddin feels, adds to the understanding of film as a haunted medium, a container for trapping deathly projections. Film emulsion becomes an ectoplasm, harking back to the two understandings of the word “seance” as both the paranormal and his cinematic interpretation.

The Forbidden Room is actually a spin-off project of sorts from Seances, his current work with ex-student Evan Johnson.The team worked to create a series of short reimaginings of lost scripts, filming live in Paris’s Centre Pompidou. The opening story, ‘The Forbidden Room,’ originally a Western, now takes place in a submarine. ‘The Red Wolves’ was a film with absolutely no record other than an extensive description in the diary of Joseph Roth.

Maddin draws globally for his inspiration, picking up traces of the Chinese ‘Women’s Skeletons’ and the Japanese ‘Strength of a Mustache.’ When funders asked Maddin to make a feature film, he simply stuck his individually-scripted short films together. As such the film makes use of a series of novel narrative enjambments, with stories embedded and connected to other stories through urine stains, pelvis x-rays, and dreams. This structure, Maddin concedes, “gives no impression to the viewer that the film will end.”

These lost films form the basis of both The Forbidden Room and Seances. Maddin explains that something like 80 percent of old silent films were lost because they were not stored properly. Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, was cut up by French censors and a fire in Belgium destroyed the original negative. But Dreyer had (infamously) so many outtakes that he went back and reassembled the movie. The original print was discovered some years later in a janitor’s closet in a hospital. The Unknown was lost in a room full of films canned as “Unknown.” Hitchcock’s lost first film has eight surviving stills. It was a fascination with these movies as “sad spirits, consigned to oblivion, doomed to wander the landscape of film history unable to project themselves” that led him to re-create the films, creating his own kind of seance in his public filmings.

The Seances project will be available online beginning in April. The web installation will feature combinations and recombinations of the lost films, in 14-minute film collages that will only exist once for the viewer “never to be seen again.” Maddin said that he is provoked by how the project both re-creates this lost film matter, but in turn re-destroys it from the reconstitution  of the material. In the preview, we see that the stories nest like a miniature of The Forbidden Room, only the Internet itself sometimes breaks through the projection and we are greeted with a presenter doing jump splits and a woman turning to face the camera. The project is set up so that YouTube will intermittently interrupt the story. Maddin explains these fleeting intrusions were an attempt to recreate some fragility on the Internet as a medium.

As the ectoplasmic bonfire of the preview continued, Maddin’s face was the only thing lit in the darkened room, the holy fire of his Macbook bestowing a ghostly glow on his face. As I looked outside to the darkened MIT campus and saw the projection of the film reflected in the window, looking as though the rain and the night-drawn tree outside were hosting their very own seance, it struck me Maddin is the kind of director who evokes his aesthetic from his very core, with the ability to let it fill a room full of giddy fans on a damp and dingy spring-like evening.