Guy Maddin x 5 – Shipwreck in silent cinema
Inspired by German Expressionism in film and Eisenstein’s methods of montage, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin builds intricate irreverent stories, formal experiments (like The Green Fog, where he reconstructs, in the found footage style, the Vertigo plot by editing shots from popular fiction movies, B films and series) and personal obsessions.
Maddin’s films illustrate a fetishizing space that allows the past and the present to coexist seamlessly – as David Church analyzes in Playing With Memories, the Canadian director reduces the historical distance between the present and the past, almost making it null, and turns it into a timeless fantasy – a way of bringing the dead back to life and seeing / talking to them through a fictional world. To this end, Maddin practices therapy through autofiction – either open (through actors who impersonate him), or playful-affective (recurring motives of his childhood in Winnipeg). By extension, Maddin doesn’t necessarily embrace Expressionism in a reverent way in his films, but rather builds a composition aesthetically similar to the early days of cinema (making it look like a fake found footage); still, narrative-wise, he is long before the time which he evokes. I realize now that, unconsciously, I made Maddin’s movies sound more serious than they actually are: despite my way of portraying them, in Maddin’s universe we find theatrical pranks, erotic trances and disparate memories. Inspired by French Symbolism in art, his films look like a painting by Gustave Moreau – bright, exotic and dark alike. His best known film is probably The Heart of the World (2000), an ultra-condensed 6-minute short film that imitates Soviet propaganda and the aesthetics of a film trailer. Here, two brothers (a scientist and an actor who plays Jesus) compete with all sorts of inventions for the heart of a scientist concerned with saving the world. Below, I’ve made a list of his top five films so far, which can be watched in any order one desires.
The inhabitants of the fictional town of Tozbald are living under an absurdity curse: even the slightest noise could lead to a deadly avalanche destroying their houses and everything else in its way. Thus, a very strict code of conduct is adopted, by which children play only in silence, the neighbors don’t use the ax or raise their voices, and the animals had their vocal cords removed. Under so many restrictions, most of them are even forced to repress their darkest thoughts – and the young people who just got out of school have no plans of leaving the town, they rather dream of entering the bartending school run by Count Knotkers, a Dracula-wannabe with a stuffed mother.
Careful starts with the well-known tramp of heavy steps featured in the 1920s German mountain films (which tended to romanticize the image of the mountain and its climber heroes) – but, unlike the films he relates to, Maddin’s mountains are part of a plastic stage design, where the primitive decors stand out. In this melodramatically prefabricated world, incest and duels take place at every corner, mothers lock their less-loved sons in the attic, and the ghost of a betrayed man plots against his adulterous wife. Careful is Maddin’s first major film – and probably one of the few interested in narrative coherence.
The Green Fog (dir. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2017)
Perhaps the very fact that Vertigo itself is a film about the obsession with duality, reconstitution and recomposition, makes it (at a meta level) just right for a remake. In fact, the fascination with Hitchcock’s films has lead to all sorts of unusual remake formulas, from Pierre Huyghe’s Remake (1994-1995), where he tries to make up shots from Rear Window with amateur actors in Paris, to the chastised Psycho by Gus Van Sant, who practically operated with the same idea of didactic rewriting, frame by frame. However, Maddin & Johnson restrain from shooting any takes, but rather reconstruct, based on a very diverse corpus of films, the narrative structure of Vertigo, with the second (implicit) purpose of paying homage to the city of San Francisco. Therefore, their work includes from canonized films such as The Conversation, The Lady from Shanghai, to obscure films, The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain, Take Me Away!, as well as other TV shows and B movies, thus combining Guy Maddin’s eternal passion for the midline between high art and trashy art. Although The Green Fog uses the source material, the footage is manipulated in various ways: a soporific fog begins to flood the shots, a Michael Douglas nude from Basic Instinct (1992) overlaps with one of Eadweard Muybridge’s film exercises, close-ups with Chuck Norris looking far away in the horizon are edited consecutively. In the dialogue scenes, the directors take out the characters’ lines, and the result is a kind of sustained verbal constipation. Beyond Maddin’s wonderful act of cinephilia, The Green Fog also talks about how contemporary the Kuleshov effect really is – and how you can empty out almost anything of its primary meaning, even the face of Chuck Norris or the voice of Justin Timberlake, if you edit them into an extraterrestrial context.
Seances (dir. Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2016)
In Seances, a project designed as an installation (which anyone can get a look at on the National Film Board of Canada website, here), Maddin & Johnson recreate some of the silent films that have disappeared over time or invent stories that evoke the era of silent cinema. Based on an algorithm, each time a viewer accesses their work, a unique, unrepeatable film is generated, which can be watched only once, then it “self-destructs”. Maddin sees the experience as a session of spiritism, where the ghosts of past films resurface and whip up a film for the viewer. The one I saw, Eyes and Cataracts (starring Geraldine Chaplin, Udo Kier, Adèle Haenel), is about gambling – an old woman, on her deathbed, enters a kind of realm of the dead who whisper to her the lucky number at the roulette wheel. This narrative thread is interrupted by a skeleton dance, a Prussian suicide, and so on; from time to time, Maddin creates some glitches on the image, so the film seems to be invaded by other more recent images, taken from Youtube or TV commercials.
My Winnipeg (2007)
My Winnipeg is a very special kind of mockumentary, which starts from Maddin’s own mythology about his hometown: filming in his parents’ house and casting actors in the roles of his siblings and mother (as well as an actor to play Maddin himself), the Canadian filmmaker is not interested in a concise rendering of the Winnipeg atmosphere, but in a mixture of forgotten dreams and collective memories, more or less real. While trying to “get out” of Winnipeg, he immerses himself more and more in its rail network, in the stories he used to hear about spiritism and hockey, in the history of the series that filled his childhood, in the Canadians’ general habit of sleepwalking (among others, Maddin talks about the fact that, in Winnipeg, Canadians sleepwalk ten times more than in any city in the world, and that it would be forbidden by law to deny a sleepwalker the right to stay overnight at your home if he knocks on your door). The film gives you the feeling of a false trance – where, as in a stream of consciousness, the images invade each other, creating a heterogeneous mass.
The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
Set in a 1933 fictional Winnipeg, in an era of prohibition and mass depression, The Saddest Music in the World is about Lady Port-Huntley, a sophisticated entrepreneur (played by Isabella Rossellini) – she organizes a contest in her brewery to bring the most skilled musicians capable of playing the saddest music in the world. Her ex-husband and his sons show up at the bar to give a performance, but also to remind the innkeeper of the accident that caused the loss of both of her legs. Nothing melo, however, she gets a pair of glass legs, which she fills with beer, as to offer one last dancing number. Just like in The Heart of the World and Careful, Maddin includes rivalry and incest here as well, and combines Greek tragedy and comedy in probably the most political way possible – after all, each of them is a country in smoldering conflict, and the prohibition leads to mass hysteria all over the world.