A Death Dream! Dizzying! Dizzying!

By Michael Brooke

saddest-music-in-the-world-guy-maddin-3.jpgThe Saddest Music in the World, 2003

Canadian maverick Guy Maddin on ice hockey, Romanticism and his remarkable renaissance

The dramatic turn-of-the-century renaissance of Winnipeg fabulist Guy Maddin has been one of the most surprising yet heartening developments in recent cinema. Those who discovered his strikingly original Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) and Archangel (1990) over a decade ago had to suffer five-year gaps between Careful (1992), Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) – so the sight of two new features, Cowards Bend the Knee and The Saddest Music in the World, receiving British premieres only a year later is cause indeed for lowering the sheepskins and donning symbolic antlers.

This spectacular revival is largely thanks to a six-minute short, initially commissioned purely as a promotional ident for the 2000 Toronto Film Festival but achieving such a disproportionate impact that many acclaimed it as the single best film on show there. An orgiastic mélange of Sergei Eisenstein, Abel Gance, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Cecil B. DeMille in particularly florid mode, The Heart of the World distilled the essence of cinema’s first three decades into a single headlong rush, a perfectly-timed reminder of the singular talent of a filmmaker who seemed to have lost his way over much of the previous decade.

There’s no sign of that now – with Dracula, he took one of the hoariest and most-filmed of literary sources and thrillingly reinvented it from top to bottom. Although drawn from numerous wellsprings (Bram Stoker’s novel, Marc Godden’s ballet, Gustav Mahler’s music), it’s a Maddin film through and through, with ultra-grainy black-and-white imagery, manic cross-cutting and demented intertitles (“Vampyr harem! FLESHPOTS!!!”) indelibly stamping his personality onto every frame.

dracula-guy-maddin.jpgDracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, 2002

Even better, despite a seven-figure budget, a Kazuo Ishiguro screenplay and a cast headlined by Isabella Rossellini, The Saddest Music in the World gives no quarter whatsoever to convention: it’s a Depression-era musical that looks as though it was made back then, the print rotting in a badly-maintained archive until its recent disinterment. If some find this disconcerting (one Toronto premiere attendee told the Internet Movie Database that she was ashamed it was representing her country) those more attuned to Maddin’s singular sensibility will be in seventh heaven – though rather broader minds are required for the hilarious but unnervingly twisted Cowards Bend the Knee, a ten-part peepshow installation subsequently repackaged as an hour-long silent feature blending substantial chunks of autobiography with startlingly graphic sex scenes and lurid limb-lopping horror inspired by The Hands of Orlac and The Mystery of the Wax Museum.

Although Maddin’s work is still patchily distributed here (no British video releases to date, just two late-night terrestrial TV outings, and theatrical releases are usually single-print affairs), three director-approved DVDs on the New York-based Kino and Zeitgeist labels collectively contain the first four features, the shorts The Dead Father, Hospital Fragment and The Heart of the World, and Noam Gonick’s feature-length documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, many of which also have Maddin commentaries that are worth the import duties on their own (the one for Careful is a particular joy). And obsessive completists can also pick up Short 2: Dreams, a DVD compilation that includes The Eye Like A Strange Balloon (Maddin’s homage to Odilon Redon), as well as the recently-published book From the Atelier Tovar (Coach House Press, Toronto), a collection of diaries and journalism over the last fifteen years that reveals Maddin’s prose to be every bit as idiosyncratic as his imagery – as the following interview amply demonstrates.

Michael Brooke: Your current involvement in art installations reminded me of the recent exhibition entitled Hitchcock et l’Art: Coincidences Fatales, which presented Hitchcock’s films alongside work by the artists who’d influenced him (Pre-Raphaelites, Expressionists, Surrealists) and incorporated a darkened room containing fifty-odd spotlit glass cabinets, each containing a red satin cushion bearing an item representing a single film. Some objects were obvious (scissors for Dial M For Murder), others intriguingly off-kilter (Eva Marie Saint’s tiny razor from North By Northwest). How would you envisage a similar exhibition devoted to your own work?

Guy Maddin: What a charming question! I’ve seen that wonderful exhibit. Of course Hitchcock made a real narrative strategy out of concentrating viewer attention on specific objects, whereas I haven’t really made a strategy of anything. But I’m up for this fun little game – I’d better ignore all my shorts and stick to my seven feature films.

cowards-bend-the-knee-guy-maddin.jpgCowards Bend the Knee, 2003

One of the little fish cut out of birch bark would be a good object from Gimli Hospital – the characters come to understand they are connected through necrophilia over this little piece of piscine craftwork. I would insist on sharing wall space only with Icelander Carmen Snidal’s “sweaters knitted from the hair of family pets” – very moving, and itchy I bet.

For Archangel, maybe the urn containing the missing woman’s ashes, or the whiskey bottle it turns into. To go with it, one piece that won’t take up a lot of space is Hagop Kevorkian (any relation to Dr. Kevorkian?) ‘s microscopic drawings etched onto a grain of rice – his eastern European heritage might jive well with the Slavic fevers I tried to induce with that movie.

For Careful, I’d like to see on that display case pillow the floating thermometer Gosia Dobrowolska uses to check her bathwater while her panting son spies on her, and I’d settle for nothing less than Casper David Friedrich or Überkitschmeister Franz Stuck on the walls.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs should be represented by an emerald ostrich egg set upon a plumped cushion in mauve silk, and a Gustave Moreau hanging behind it.

I will personally put ballerina CindyMarie Small’s torn panties into the Dracula case, and sheepishly request that any one of Bruno Schulz’s great photo plate etchings of pussy-whipped men be allowed to hang at a deferential distance.

For The Saddest Music in the World, I’d like to put out the little cylinder record of Roderick playing the cello at his son’s funeral. Either that, or the beer-filled glass prosthetic legs that Isabella Rossellini walks around in, but you’d have to replace the lager often or it’d go flat. The trannie self-portraits of the sexily gammed sexagenarian Pierre Molinier would look good alongside.

And for my perhaps-overly-montaged Cowards Bend the Knee I must place a hockey stick crossed with a hairbrush in front of the collage work of German Kurt Schwitters – a fave!

saddest-music-in-the-world-guy-maddin.jpgThe Saddest Music in the World, 2003

MB: Despite your films’ global (or at least northern hemispheral) sweep, from the shores of Lake Gimli via the fleshpots of Transylvania and the avalanche-imperiled heights of Alpine Tolzbad towards Archangel and Murmansk atop the very roof of the world, it seems that all these diverse pleasure-spots are as nothing compared to your Aunt Lil’s beauty parlour and the Winnipeg Arena, jointly exuding a heady whiff of perfume and manly sweat. Why are these locations so deeply embedded in your psyche, and is Winnipeg the true heart of the world?

GM: The surprising answer is, Yes! Winnipeg is the very centre of this narcissist’s universe. Only now, at the noon of my adult life, have I come to recognize genuine sensate presences in other cities. I guess I know, without really, really believing, that these foreign cities, even the famous ones, aren’t just coruscating and whirling distant star-clusters, but are populated communities much like my own, complete with individually lived lives – and worried, angered and desirous people living them. But I was worried, angered and desirous first! And jealous, nostalgic and terrified, too, as I’ve always been. I’d long ago mapped out all these tremble-inducing states on the vast unlit city streets, cramped blind alleys and ink-black parklands of my gothic Winnipeg. I knew where every emotional district was, knew the short cuts to every serene or hysterical address. At home I could always access the most lavish transports with the skill of an old cabdriver, and I could whip through the avenues with dizzying haste, recombining stale and dimly felt feelings into exciting itineraries that miraculously changed the very order of my streets – that made life here new again, and endlessly so! Why would I need other cities? I’ve only located my narratives abroad to make my movies seem more like, er, movies. I think Von Sternberg, working from his “home” in a falsely remembered Vienna, does the same thing when he reconfigures the Strasses around the Prater into his Morocco, Shanghai or Russia of the mind.

MB: Cowards Bend the Knee opens with a globule of sperm placed under amicroscope, but through the lens we see an aerial view of ice-hockey players chasing a solitary puck: a more potent metaphor for the game as life itself can scarcely be imagined. Similarly, the attentive viewer (or one cribbing with the DVD commentary) will observe that the Alpine peaks in Careful are named after giants of the rink. What is it about the sport that merits such hyperbolic metaphors?

GM: I’m a late bloomer. Almost everything that’s mattered to me in my life I’ve come to far after my peers. Reading, skating, driving – all learned late. Even my childhood passions were never tasted until I was grown. Sports heroes of my youth had to be retroactively acquired through arduous adult research. Thus, I learned to love, long after they’d retired, the hockey titans who had excited my nation when I should have been paying attention, but was too slow to do so. I learned to love ghosts – hockey ghosts – some of them still living but, more accurately, haunting the aged carcasses their former bodies had become, torturing the current inhabitants with thunderous memories.

dracula-guy-maddin-2.jpgDracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, 2002

I’m always sad when I hear of the death of one of these old players – I just don’t know where the ghost goes once it leaves the old body. At least while the old vet is still alive, the former player, still young, lives on in him somehow, and within reach, but not after the host is dead and gone. Then all that’s left are the stats. These players, their stats inscribed on bibs they wear across their shirtfronts, stroll the streets of my town like an army of sleepwalkers. Never have to go too far to bump into one, and he reads from his bib of his exploits, and those retroactive years which I never quite experienced the first time around all come raging back to me – a cataract of false nostalgias. A death dream! Dizzying! Dizzying! And very narcotic! And narcotic is what I’ve always wanted film to be! Especially my own stuff.

MB: Most film historians regard the transitional period between silence and sound in the late 1920s as an aesthetic trough, where technological restrictions fought artistic aspirations mano-a-mano and usually triumphed. But practically all your films pay homage to this era to such a degree that they even resemble prints that have somehow survived decades of decay and maltreatment. Was this a deliberate strategy from the start, or merely an expedient means of concealing your own budgetary and technical limitations?

GM: Both. Film has always been both art form and industry. In its industrial haste film has always discarded perfectly good tropes and vocabulary devices long before their potential uses had been exhausted. Talkies weren’t invented because there were no more silents to be made. Talkies had actually been invented decades before The Jazz Singer, but introduced only when economic conditions made it profitable for theatres to be wired for sound – only then a lot of money could be made, not before. I’ve always felt that I could just pick up all these great second-hand tropes strewn by modernity along the roadside of film history, dust them off and use them again. Why not pile everything onto your artist’s palette and have the freedom to use mime, hand-tinting, silence, 3-D, Smell-O-Vision, Cinerama, whatever?!

tales-of-gimli-hospital-guy-maddin.jpgTales from the Gimli Hospital, 1989

After all, painters get to use any size of brush or canvas they like, and poets get to use any word from any language or even make one up. Why can’t filmmakers do the same? I find this cusp period of the late twenties/early thirties bears up the biggest mother-load of abandoned devices, all still in perfect working order. I take them and use them in the service of my stories. And I use them with all my heart! That’s why it wounds me deeply if viewers perceive their use as an act of pastiche.

MB: The virtual indistinguishability of Careful and The Remains of the Day, the most butler-fixated films since talkies were introduced, made a collaboration with Kazuo Ishiguro inevitable. But one assumes that the initial draft of The Saddest Music in the World was not set in Winnipeg, and that several of the more outré moments were similarly added at a later stage. How much Ishiguro survives in the final version, and does he like the film?

GM: Ish worked as my script editor after George Toles and I eviscerated his original scenario, so there is much of him that remains in the scene-by-scene crafting of the project – something very important – but not many specific things. His very strong premise, the existence of a sad music contest which acts to show how every nation or every person has a song of sorrowful need to sing, remains from his original.

But the first thing we did was switch the setting from London, Ish’s hometown, to Winnipeg, mine. We worked together, George and Ish and I, until we were all happy with the story. And I do believe this great novelist and gracious man likes the movie a lot. He was a very active, if seemingly unlikely, partner in the whole affair.

MB: The typical Maddin protagonist is taciturn, shyly repressed but sexually tormented, scarred by past tragedy and almost certainly doomed (usually to the point of either death or the loss of a limb, frequently self-inflicted). Since the most notable exemplar of all these characteristics is ‘Guy Maddin’ in Cowards Bend the Knee, how much of this approach to characterisation in your work is drawn from life?

saddest-music-in-the-world-guy-maddin-2.jpgThe Saddest Music in the World, 2003

GM: Cowards Bend the Knee was my only overt attempt at autobiography, but each picture has a lot of me in it. Mostly stuff about myself I can’t stand. Every character I shoot has to traipse across the screen in parabolas of humiliating abjection, almost always aping an episode from my diaries. I hate what I’ve done, and the people I’ve hurt most are irretrievably dead, so there is no apologising. Just masochistic re-enactments. They are the most poetically and psychologically true moments in my filmography, and the most cathartic. Judging from audience reactions to my own failures – my greed, lust and cowardice – they are also the most entertaining.

MB: You have drawn extensively on Romantic literature both in terms of direct literary inspiration (Dracula, Maldoror) and general ambience (melodrama, purple prose): what is it about this period that particularly appeals to you? And do you still urge teenagers to favour Ruskin over rock’n’roll?

GM: I feel like giving a Baz Luhrmann answer, something to the effect that Romantic literature is just the punk rock of the 19th century. I actually kind of feel that way. The writing of the Romantics (and some syphilitic Victorians) has an immediate effect on me, physically. It makes me want to fling torn turf to the tumult, and shredded flowers to the gale. I want to rend my own breast with my crippled claw, and swear at God from the smouldering riven adamant. The writing makes so much musical sense, and therefore emotional sense, for music can bypass reason on its way to making an irrefutable point. And insanity only makes it better. That’s why I recommend Ruskin, slight paedophile that he is, especially if you’re getting a little tired of your alt-rock collection.

Michael Brooke is Content Developer for the BFI’s recently-launched website Screenonline.