PRINT Summer 2003


“CULT” AND “COTERIE” CLING LIKE BARNACLES to the reputation of Winnipeg director Guy Maddin, a situation that may change with the release later this year of his new film, The Saddest Music in the World, starring Isabella Rossellini and scripted by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Maddin’s work—five previous features, eighteen short films, and an installation piece commissioned by Toronto’s Power Plant, where it debuted in March—is eccentric, even hermetic in its pursuit of the filmic primeval. “I work under the banner of primitivity,” Maddin has proclaimed, and for the past two decades he has invoked the codes and forms of silent cinema and early talkies, of the film noirs and color-coded melodramas of the ’40s and ’50s, in his search for the cinematic sublime. Such Maddin classics as Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), and Careful (1992) aim to look exhumed, their tales of amnesia, incest, death, and transfiguration decked out in low-rent expressionism and dime-store surrealism. Whether shot in high-contrast black and white or aggressively artificial color (as in the exquisitely tinctured Twilight of the Ice Nymphs [1997]), the films rely on such superannuated devices as the iris, the lap dissolve, and superimposition, and on the cheap, dreamy blur provided by Vaseline, store-bought fog, and fake snow. The radical anachronism of this style is wedded to empurpled dialogue, crackly, muffled sound tracks, and a playhouse aesthetic in costume and set design, in which everything looks handmade, outsize, and illogical, keyed to the (soap) operatic passions and masochistic emotions of Maddin’s bushy-browed characters. Non sequiturs and convolutions proliferate in both narrative and style, until one is left adrift in an obscure, obsessive spectacle conjured up from disinterred art forms and private compulsions. (Though Maddin is frequently compared to David Lynch and the Quay Brothers, his funny, puzzling, and often overstretched first films have surprising affinities with the early work of German director Werner Schroeter.)

Maddin insists that no matter how outlandish his films are, they are all in some way autobiographical. Born in 1956 in Winnipeg, he escaped the laconic, Lutheran culture of the prairie Icelanders by watching films in the local cinemas, on late-night television, and, later, at home after he discovered a trove of 16 mm silent films. This mock–Canuck Cinema Paradiso account of his childhood underscores the semiapocryphal nature of Maddin’s biography, whose formative events—his father’s Willy Loman life and early death, his brother’s suicide on the grave of his girlfriend, his own youth as a slacker surrounded by equally slothful male friends called “drones”—sometimes sound “heightened,” to use a favorite Maddin locution. An artist who invents the traditions that inspire him, is influenced by films he hasn’t seen, and makes versions of films that don’t exist and whose stock-in-trade is imagined memories and fake nostalgia, Maddin often rebuffs analysis, leaving the true believer in the sorry role of chump or gull. So it is with Cowards Bend the Knee, 2003, his first foray into installation art. Structured as a ten-chapter film projection viewed through sequential peepholes in a wall, it recounts the life of one Guy Maddin. The director claims, with disarming sincerity, that this lurid work about a botched abortion, a ferocious Electra complex, and transplanted murderous hands contains the “poetic truth” of his life story.

The following interview took place in Toronto as Maddin was beginning to edit the forty-four hours of footage he had shot for The Saddest Music in the World into a “penetrable” feature to be unveiled this fall on the festival circuit. Despite its stars (Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros), its “big” budget ($2.5 million), and its literary script, Music sounds, on paper, like another mad Maddin fantasia. The characters include Lady Port-Huntley, an amputee bar owner whose glass legs are filled with beer; an amnesiac nymphomaniac; and the motley bands (including a klezmer/flamenco/Afro orchestra) competing in a display of mass masochism to play—what else?—the saddest music in the world. Enjoying a brief moment of Maddin mania, with a director’s spotlight at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January; the critically acclaimed installation at the Power Plant this spring; retrospectives of his films in Vienna, Toronto, and (next fall) Washington, DC; and the release of his superb ballet film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, at New York’s Film Forum last month, the director nevertheless maintains his persona of immoderate mildness. Self-deprecating, boyishly nervous, Maddin punctuated his thoughts on cowardice, artistic influence, and the revival of melodrama with the occasional fusty Fauntleroy phrase, enough to remind us that, chez Maddin, artifice is all.

James Quandt

JAMES QUANDT: Isabella Rossellini says that your films remind her of her father’s, which is surprising since Roberto Rossellini was the father of Italian Neorealism. But his films, though it’s rarely remarked on, are full of artifice and melodrama—making them all the more moving. You’ve often said that “ultrarealism”—you cite Harmony Korine as an example—is a kind of falsity, or contrivance, and that such modes as fairy tales are often more emotionally resonant. What are your notions of melodrama and realism and how each gets at truth?

GUY MADDIN: It’s peculiar that I’m a big fan of fairy tales and melodrama yet love the Neorealists too. Melodrama, neorealism, and, of course, surrealism all get at something true by heightening, the way a dream can heighten the truth by exaggerating it into another form altogether, and making it some sort of immediate fear or terror or desire. The bedtime stories told to us as children can never be completely fathomed, but they can be felt—much the way sophisticated art for adults operates, so I make virtually no distinction.

JQ: You reject the designation of “camp” for your films and prefer “melodrama.” Both terms are slippery because they are so promiscuously used, like “noir.” Do you find them derogatory?

GM: “Melodrama,” definitely. “Camp” feels like it’s derogatory, but at least it’s fun. Somehow it implies shallowness. People have often assigned the terms “camp” or “postmodern” to my films. It’s a point of pride to elude classification, so I’m happy to occupy all those territories.

JQ: Directors like Todd Haynes and Pedro Almodóvar have moved away from campy, derisively ironic melodrama toward a form that searches for authentic emotion, even sincerity. You have always wanted your films, quite desperately, to have an emotional effect, something other than mannerism or mockery. In fact, you’ve talked about wanting to make a film that is emotionally flaying, or “filleting.” Traditionally, your kind of irony would be seen as a force opposite or inimical to sincerity.

GM: People talk about irony and melodrama as if they’re mutually exclusive, but I’m not so sure they are. When melodrama isn’t working, I crave irony. If the sweetness isn’t working, I need something savory, something very salty or something horrible, caustic to undermine it. The ironic temperament is tattooed onto all of our sensibilities. People laugh at Sirk movies but get sucked into them if they have any heart at all. No matter how delighted you are by the look, the excess, the sheer madness of a film like Imitation of Life, how could you not be absolutely wiped out by the final scene? The beautiful thing about Sirk is what he calls his “false-bottom endings.” Universal Studios demanded a happy ending, but he’s an old Euripidean. He sets them up so if you consider what will happen to the characters a few days after “The End,” you realize they’re all doomed. I can’t believe that I used to feel superior to his films. The first few times I saw Written on the Wind, I was delighted but never emotionally affected. And then I had a sneak attack by Robert Stack. I could just feel the dread he had in being Kyle Hadley for an entire lifetime. I was destroyed by the movie. You never know when a wrecking ball will come swinging out of the Technicolor rosebushes in one of these melodramas.

JQ: You recently exhorted audiences to see as much as they can of the cinemas of Joan Crawford and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Of course, you’re trying to be provocative, but do you, in all seriousness, aspire to the gravity and grandeur of Dreyer’s art? As in his Ordet, there are a lot of resurrections from the dead in your cinema.

GM: I love Ordet and Day of Wrath, and Vampyr. Maybe I have the wrong take on the first two, but I find them funny. I grew up in the Lutheran “fishbelt” of Winnipeg, and I recognize my Lutheran comedies. Just watching those old men shuffling around in Ordet and that son who thinks he’s Jesus and the pure melodrama of the plot in Day of Wrath—the son stealing his father’s bride away, and people denouncing witches—that stuff is right up there with Joan Crawford. She gets to suffer for six decades, there’s a kind of anguish there, and Joan kept rising from the dead. I’ll take your word for the resurrections in my films.

JQ: There are lots.

GM: If there are, they would be a quick shorthand for the desire to see someone again who has been removed from me, or from a character, through death or rejection. It works in Hamlet . . . and in Mexican soap operas. It works in—

JQ: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs!

GM: Well, nothing works in Ice Nymphs. But it certainly works in Dreyer’s plutonium-weighted dramas. I love the rhythms of Ordet—they’re hilarious, just the nerve it took for Dreyer to pace the movie so methodically. Watching an old man shuffle across the room to open a door just to find another door, it’s really Three’s Company slowed down.

JQ: He made comedies, actually, early in his career. He’s like Ozu—this sense of him as an austere master is just partly right.

GM: I once watched a Buster Keaton movie shown at eighteen frames per second [silent speed], and the gags took forever to unfold, like Ordet. Maybe if we watched them at nine frames per second, they’d be funny again.

JQ: Art has been an important reference and inspiration for your work—Caspar David Friedrich especially. In 1995 you made The Eye, Like a Strange Balloon, Mounts Towards Infinity, a lovely short film based on a painting by Odilon Redon. And now you’re in a major museum yourself. What was the genesis of Cowards Bend the Knee, a major new development in your career?

GM: It’s been the most fun I’ve had. Philip Monk, the curator at the Power Plant, approached me about a year and a half ago with the idea, and I told him that I hadn’t even seen enough installations to dare one myself. I likened it to a guy who’s never read a novel sitting down to write one. He suggested I construct a set. Once in my childhood, I spent a lot of time spying on people, and I thought now I’d let people spy in on me through a series of little films viewed through peepholes. I try to make all of my work psychologically or poetically plausible, autobiographical in some way. I condensed a melodramatic plot down to five minutes in Heart of the World [2000], so thought maybe this sprawling autobiographical script could be condensed to a series of short films. I went on a shooting spree, and the megalomaniac in me went for something closer to feature length. I really regret it. It’s next to impossible to view the whole installation. You’d have to be ludicrously devoted, with stalkerlike devotion, to get through all ten chapters.

JQ: Curators and critics anguish over how to present installation work that is durational or narrative so that viewers actually attend to it. Ironically, Cowards is your most linear and structured story, so, perversely, it has to be seen sequentially. In Rotterdam, somebody was always at holes one or three or eight, and if I didn’t elbow Dutch people aside, I couldn’t see it in order. It’s a very provocative and evocative title, as “bending the knee” has associations with supplication, contrition, praying, begging, even blow jobs.

GM: I wanted them to make the holes large, cock-size, so they would at least be eye friendly.

JQ: Somewhere between an iris shot and a glory hole. The title and the way the installation forces one to crouch a little to see into the peepholes implicates the audience as cowards. You’re a coward, I’m a coward . . . but cowardice is a tricky idea.

GM: It just feels like the male state of mind somehow. In the battles of the heart, men are cowards. In the battle of the sexes, women seem to have the bigger army and the chemical weapons, and the only way a man can swim upstream, almost like a lowly little sperm trying to get at the egg—maybe I’m getting into CREMASTER territory here!—men will always take the slipperiest way. “Be a man” means John Wayne, but the men I know are more like Daffy Duck or George Costanza. It feels cathartic to just say, “I’m a coward” and to let you peep at me. It’s an illicit, lurid, horrible, shameful confession, but I’ll make it. It feels good to tell the truth, and people with really tough eyeballs can check it out. Much to my surprise, the thing came out in one piece, in five effortless days of shooting, just burning through film on a Super-8 camera, as a wildly elliptical but cohesive melodrama full of feverish hyperbole.

JQ: Do you feel any affinity with Joseph Cornell? I often think of your films as little nostalgia boxes, in which you put your private mementos, your trinkets and obsessions, dreams and desires all lovingly arranged.

GM: My first encounter with Cornell was his movie Rose Hobart, with the actress he fetishized. He took the much derided jungle adventure melodrama East of Borneo, which I love, and he tore out scenes like a boy tears out pictures of his favorite actress and puts them on his bedroom wall. There’s a joyous sloppiness to the way he assembles it that is intoxicating. I like the way the records of the Brazilian sambas that are played with the images are so random. It reminded me of the way Buñuel DJed his own screenings of Un Chien Andalou and roughly scored L’Age d’or with a bit of Beethoven here, some tangos there. That’s the banner I wanted to work under. I knew I would never be a neat and tidy craftsman. It’s a thrill to be a primitivist.

JQ: Your love of the primitive seems to have no bounds—you collect 78s, for instance—and words like “musty” and “fusty” and “curio” are not pejorative to you. Ken Jacobs said what seems to be a paradox: “Advanced filmmaking leads to Muybridge.” You resurrect a lot of tropes of early cinema.

GM: I’m excited by the word “trope.” When I hear it, my pupils dilate. The most exciting movements in art in the last century and a half have been reactions against technical sophistication and have gone “backward” to find honesty and truth, the essences of things.

JQ: Amnesia and suppressed memory are constant themes in your films, from Tales from the Gimli Hospital to your latest, The Saddest Music in the World, which features a nymphomaniac with amnesia.

GM: That’s right! The ultimate amnesiac would forget any obligation to fidelity, and that’s the kind of amnesiac I’ve been at times.

JQ: “Forgetfulness was the very tenor of his existence,” you say about the groom who has had amnesia since his wedding in Archangel. This doesn’t seem to be merely a fond trope—there’s that word again!— from old melodramas but a very central theme in your work. And amnesia has been turning up a lot lately in literature and in films—Memento and Kaurismäki’s Man Without a Past. Is this pattern just coincidental, or does it say something about the times?

GM: Amnesia is a timeless storytelling device. Forgetfulness is a kind of anesthetic for the painful life we all live. We’re forced constantly to think about the shameful things we’ve done, the painful things that have happened to us. We owe most of the feelings we have, as sensate beings, to shoddy memories. The sheer erratic nature of memory keeps life a Luna Park.

JQ: You “swear to the veracity of your recollections” of your life, yet you also say, “I’ll confess that it’s self-mythologizing when I’m filming.” There’s a tension between what seems intentionally or compulsively apocryphal, a kind of manufactured biography, versus real events, sincerity, depth of feeling. Many biographical facts have turned up transmogrified in your films—several deaths and suicides, a number of rending events in your life. You also call Cowards Bend the Knee autobiographical, which is hard to countenance. What is camouflage in your work, and what is actual or sincere?

GM: The audacious fact is that I haven’t camouflaged much of anything. I just try and put things into forms that will be fun, and if anything, it feels just too good to blurt out the truth. Also, I haven’t done that much in my life.

JQ: Cowards makes it seem like you have. As I watched it, it struck me that you’re the only filmmaker who could make a connection, on every level—semiotic, poetic, etc.—between hockey and hairdressing, between a hockey net and a hair net. Those became two poles in your life as you were growing up—the world of women, signified by your Aunt Lil’s hairdressing salon, and the world of men, the hockey rink and the locker room. Your films often seem to be, like Nick Ray’s, about what it means to be a man. There’s this strange simultaneity of the rarefied and poetic and delicate, and the guyish stuff—the jealousy, competitiveness, the blustering . . . and the violence. You say Dracula is about male jealousy and men’s trouble dealing with female desire. Cowards ends almost condemning men for their fear of, inability to deal with, women, the world of women.

GM: I was condemning them too much, and I don’t like making absolute statements, so I had to give the men a museum that celebrated them: the Museum of Men, or wax men. In my dreams about my dead father, he hadn’t died but had really gone to live with another family. He couldn’t admit that he didn’t like us. I always forget his death and his funeral in my dreams, and so oneiric amnesia allows me to get that narcotic hit of visiting a beloved—my father, who turns out to be the biggest coward in the world. I realize he probably wasn’t happy, he probably was dying to get away, yearning to escape.

JQ: Dracula is a project removed from you in twenty different ways. Yet it’s 100 percent Maddin.

GM: Strangely enough, I had never read the Bram Stoker novel. I could barely get through it when I was hired to shoot it. As a child, I loved monster movies except vampire movies. I forced myself to watch the Tod Browning version but finally got into it through the Philip Glass–scored video rerelease. It’s so dreamy and slow. It’s slower than Ordet. With Glass’s incessant, nutty arpeggios urging on something that refused to move, I found it kind of nightmarish. I thought that was the real ballet, and wondered, “Why am I doing this? The damn ballet version of Dracula has already been done.” Then I realized that none of the other movies approached what made the novel so durable: Dracula, the being, is made possible by male jealousy. This is the way I see all my movies, all my stories, because I’ve gone through a horrible period of jealousy myself. I’m a jealousy war vet.

JQ: You recently said that “a really good score can save a movie’s ass.” Tales from the Gimli Hospital opens with the nurse saying to the children, “All right now, let’s let your mother rest and listen to her music.” Heart of the World in some ways functions as a music video for the Sviridov composition. There’s the pastiche of two Mahler symphonies in Dracula, the mock Prokofiev in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

GM: I love it when narratives lose logical sense and take on a musical sense, when plots and pictures work like music. Not tonal or atonal, but they take me someplace as instantly as music can. I use music to get myself out of trouble, to get out of lazy planning or poorly shot or badly acted sequences. I’m always applying giant musical Band-Aids, hoping they’ll stanch the flow of life that’s ebbing out. My latest film is a giant orgy of self-pity, where every nation of the world sends delegations of musicians to vie for the title of the “saddest music in the world.” In Kazuo Ishiguro’s script, it’s a political allegory. Like panhandlers who do some sort of limbo of pathos, the countries see who has the saddest song to sing and is therefore the neediest and most worthy of international charity. It’s a story about how Third World countries can survive only by losing all their dignity, or keep their dignity by panhandling in a very clever way. I didn’t want to make this a political satire, so we inserted a family melodrama in the foreground, in which various family members—all musicians—are also manipulating each other through self-pity, fake pathos.

JQ: To situate you or your films, critics always invoke three or four directors or movements—you know, “He’s Cocteau and Welles and Eisenstein and Buñuel, and German Expressionism and Heimatfilm and Surrealism . . .”

GM: All I’ve been doing is gathering up things, carrion basically, from a big scrap heap of old dead masters; it sure seems like these people weren’t all that well known when I first started watching them. I’ve used these “vocabulary units” from the canon—writers and directors—and used their language to tell my stories.

JQ: Citation and homage are part of your arsenal, but I can never put my finger on where your allusions come from. They often seem elusive, indirect, dredged up from some half-remembered dream. “Is this Dreyer’s Master of the House?” “Which Murnau film is this from?”

GM: Often, the references are to movies I haven’t even seen or that were never even made.

JQ: Manufactured memory, then. But some references are explicit, like Night of the Hunter in Gimli; some are insiderish, private, like the figure of Liliom in Cowards, which refers to your own Aunt Lil but surely also to the films of that name by Fritz Lang and Frank Borzage—which stars Rose Hobart! You say you haven’t seen some of the films you allude to. Your first film, The Dead Father [1986], sometimes reminds me of Ordet, but you hadn’t seen any Dreyer films before you made it.

GM: No, I hadn’t, but I read about the films. For Eye Like a Strange Balloon, I read about Abel Gance’s La Roue and thought I’d never be able to see it, so I decided to make my own version. A lot of these are partially imagined or dreamt versions for me, too. Some of them I regurgitated ineptly, so maybe that’s why they are hard to recognize. It pleases me that people can’t put their finger on it; that’s actually the most pleasurable compliment I can get.

JQ: In Lang’s Liliom, the central character goes to heaven, where he’s shown films, newsreels of his life, that reveal his transgressions, against women in particular. What newsreel of your life would they show you in heaven—would it be Cowards Bend the Knee?

GM: Pretty close, yeah. Although my life story would be something filmed in heaven by Andy Warhol, very long, sort of static. It would be called Nap.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.