It Started as a Noble Exercise in Masochism: Methods and Motives in Guy Maddin’s Art
Note from the interviewer, associate nonfiction editor Cory Ferrer: For thirty years, Guy Maddin has been thrilling art-house cinephiles at festivals around the world with daring and original work. His films have been called “feverish,” “hilarious,” “bizarrely touching,” and “crazily, passionately alive.” His signature styles include black and white silent films fragmented into rapid-fire montage, campy melodramas which risk genuine catharsis, and lacerating autobiographical confessions rendered through daft, self-deprecating humor. His award winning documentary, My Winnipeg, manages to remix fact, urban legend, and personal history into a mischievous and ambivalent love song to the city he’s always called home. In a career that spans 11 feature films, 30 shorts, and 5 video installations for museums and galleries, Maddin has won an Emmy with a ballet remake of Dracula, received the Telluride Medal for lifetime achievement in film, and landed a feature in the prestigious Criterion Collection, one whose plot involves a workaholic father’s return from the dead, a cross dressing teen detective, and the process of harvesting “nectar” from orphan brains.
When he’s not working in cinema, Maddin lends his creative alchemy to the medium of photo-collage. Passages North is proud to feature a series of 16 of these singular visual works in our new, blue issue. Like much of Maddin’s films, these images re-discover history through uncanny juxtaposition. They read like illustrations of a half-remembered dream, speaking to us from a sepia-toned past made intimate, mysterious, and droll. To shed some light on his arresting work in both collage and cinema, I had the privilege of picking Guy Maddin’s brain with a phone call to Winnipeg, and he was generous enough to reveal a few of the forces that power his weird, irreplaceable art.
It Started as a Noble Exercise in Masochism: Methods and Motives in Guy Maddin’s Art
Since you’re best known for your work as a film director, I’m curious, what initially drew you to photo-collage?
When I find myself thinking too literal mindedly, I love switching over to collage. I’d do it at collage parties where I’d be working with painters and sculptors. I saw people just picking up discarded scraps of paper that had fallen on top of each other in collisions of images and ideas, and gluing them together the way they had found them. I had a very nice stack of old World War One photo albums, and some great 80’s porn; the two seemed to go really well together. I learned a certain degree of carelessness that’s required, or playfulness. I had to, you know, drink some bourbon, and there’s a Guy Lafleur Disco album I listen to that makes me giddy. So it’s more like the way people take a hot yoga class. We’re all in the same state of mind, we’re all pulling together. I find that if I’m in the company of people who think even more literal mindedly than I do, I can’t make a damn thing. I’ve had a collage block lately because I haven’t been able to just loosen up and embrace the accidents, and the collages [I make now] are just terrible. So I’ve retired from making collages. I think the stuff you have are the last ones I made.
Do you feel the same way when directing a film? Are you able to be careless and playful when you’re responsible for a budget and a crew, or is collage an escape from these constraints?
I’ve never had the attention span to take a very formal approach, and it takes a while to make films, so some days you just feel like being mischievous and subverting your own motives. You just need to fuck yourself over, pull the rug out from under your feet and then spend the next few days trying to recover. I always shoot quickly and keep the actors guessing. When your number one promise to yourself is just to keep plunging ahead and see what happens, a lot of times you just get accidents. I probably screwed up my career doing that, but it feels necessary. When a set turns out to be way too small, like Stonehenge style from Spinal Tap, you just go with it. When actors show up with amnesia, with degenerated minds, you just go with it. When a ballet dancer can’t dance, you go with it. Robert Altman gambled on accidents supplying most of the greatness in his movies. I had a nice long conversation with George Segal, the star of California Split, and the screenwriter and producer, and they were just talking about how much of a gambler Altman was. He just set things up to get more accidents to choose from. His eight microphones, his famous eight track sound system, was another way of guaranteeing that he’d capture more accidents than the average director. That’s what makes his films rich. It was exhilarating to hear, because these are conclusions I’d reached on my own. I’ve kept it simple by insisting that almost all the accidents, all the footage that didn’t turn out, are happy accidents. Sometimes you really do feel that you’re handicapping yourself, but the solutions are often really liberating, no matter how much of a horrible, scary corner you get yourself into. I guess I’m not really subverting myself when I know I’m actually enriching my chances of shooting something. That’s a call-out on my own bullshit.
What about when you’re piecing together an essay film, like My Winnipeg? Without a set narrative sequence in mind, do you find yourself gambling in post-production?
I guess My Winnipeg is kind of an essay film. After I shot all the footage, when I sat down to write the narration, I found myself too daunted. I never did end up writing it. Instead I went into a recording studio with very short episodes, maybe five minutes. I went in with a blank mind and just promised myself I would never stop talking. I went to a microphone every day, for like two consecutive weeks, and just riffed for five or ten minutes about whatever came to mind. Just: “Winnipeg… Winnipeg… Winnipeg.” I just kept repeating myself until I thought of the next sentence. “Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg… My home for my entire life.” I couldn’t think of anything else. Then it was cut and pieced together in a radio play version of the movie, and pictures were cut to that radio play. So I never did sit down and write an essay film, but I guess I made an essay. Tomorrow I’m starting a “making of” movie on an Iranian military drama, shot up here in Manitoba, called Hyena Road. But it’s not going to be just a “making of,” it’s going to be an essay film. Even though I’ve done virtually no prep, I’m ready to go shoot tomorrow, because I feel free now to just discover what the subject of the film will be by just showing up with my camera. The material treats the Canadian armed forces involvement in Afghanistan. I have mixed feelings about it. The essay film is the perfect platform for mixed feelings because the really interesting ones make paranoiac connections on disparate subjects; they make odd little leaps of faith that are poetic and provoke little thought collisions, and by the end you’re not necessarily closer to an answer, but you feel like you’ve taken by the hand through corridors of understanding and then maybe even abandoned, just as puzzled as you were before the film started, but at least you feel like you’ve been somewhere. So, I’m prepared to start a project like that tomorrow. It’s liberating because I’d be shitting my pants, showing up without a script. I can basically postpone all the hard work until later.
So do you think ambivalence is important to your creative process? Are you drawn to projects where you have mixed feelings on the subject?
It’s just more honest. Authentic. Sometimes I find a lump forming in my throat, and tears welling up in my eyes when I’m touched by something, and then I start questioning the source of those tears, and I realize that at least some of my motivation for having a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes is pride. I’m actually proud of being sensitive. So I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding my motivations for weeping. It’s not just that I’m touched or sad or empathetic, it’s that I’m fucking proud. That may sound monstrous to other people. Maybe other people just weep out of pure motives, pure empathy, pure sympathy or grief, but I’ve identified something less noble in my own emotions. Once you start peeling back the layers of seemingly simple emotions, every effect in the world can be vivisected, and good art makes that vivisection interesting, and reductive art, simple. Now, there’s also a place for that. Fairy tales have simple emotional responses, but they’re complex and wise somehow that makes them timelessly retellable.
I find a lot of sadness and pathos, in your films, but they’re also really funny. Is there a link then between tragedy and comedy that you’re trying to vivisect?
There’s something in having one’s feeling and flipping it over. I know of a number of affairs that have started at funerals. I’ve also laughed at funerals. We’ve all, you know? What makes you laugh? Often there’s an element of surprise. I’ll laugh at something that’s horribly bleak, because it takes me by surprise. It’s a dark laugh, and I quickly apologize to whomever I’m with, but it’s some kind of a fresh astonishment. The more opposite two things happening simultaneously, the fresher the snap of the towel, the more it smarts. Whether it’s a release of nervous energy or a ghastly self-recognition, it’s hilarious. The ideal audience is one that’s laughing and crying at the same time. I can’t even get more than two or three people to laugh at the same time. So I’m a far way from creating the ultimate audience myself, but that’s what I keep in mind.
That reminds me of your film, The Saddest Music in the World, where we have this strange, comical tournament in which every country is competing to see whose music is the saddest. Was there a particular snap of the towel you were going for in that combination?
At the time I just was dealing in very broad cultural generalization.Americans tend to vary their sadness with either hostility or exuberant celebration, and other cultures seem more of the lugubrious, more in touch with their sadness. And then Canadians are kind of neither. The national musics of various countries were standing in for broad cultural forms of sadness and how it’s repressed or put on show. It was a contest that’s very similar to the kind of highly competitive world in which genuinely down and out panhandlers operate. Where they take their sad state of affairs—they’re broke—and exaggerate their plight even more by having to put on some razzle dazzle to get the pocket change from pedestrians rather than have it go to someone else with better shtick. And so it adds an indignity on top of an already horrible state of affairs. You not only have to be badly off, but have to treat yourself as even worse off, creatively somehow. Instead of spending all your energy helping yourself, you find yourself involved in a full time job just being more pathetic. It’s not true of everybody, but those forces can push people and whole countries and cultures into that kind of thing. It’s really bizarre, and it’s kind of bracingly refreshing to find out that these odd and unlikely dynamics are in place and have been for millennia. Like I said earlier, sometimes you’re weeping out of pride, and then sometimes you realize that you’re genuinely unhappy, and you find yourself faking tears on top of it.
A lot of artists, when dealing with really emotional, autobiographical material, will try to disguise it somehow through fiction or allegory. Your work takes the opposite approach, by getting so explicit that three of your protagonists have actually been named “Guy Maddin.” Could you talk about the role of self-disclosure in your films?
I guess it could be kind sickening, sort of a “me trilogy.” The first one I did that was wall to wall autobiographical was Cowards Bend the Knee. For the longest time I had made up names for all the characters. But while I was shooting, it really made me feel more mischievous, and way more honest, if I used my own name. Especially for sexually humiliating episodes. It just felt more lacerating and eviscerating. I could harder on everybody, if I was hardest of all on myself. So it was a way of just getting one or two more layers closer to honesty, peeling away layers of skin and just getting down to the raw nerves. It just felt like I was getting closer by using my own name. And then I’d just watch what came up, and hope that it didn’t come off as too self-pitying, because that’s not interesting or attractive. I’ve had some people, you know, blow the big referee’s whistle on me. I’ve had to sit in the penalty box for self-pity. And then I did Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg. There I was less self-lacerating, and I actually dragged a few family members down with me, and thoughtlessly so. It started off as a very noble exercise in masochism, and then it became kind of cruel or thoughtless and self-centered. And uh, I’m kind of embarrassed to think about it. I’m still working on making it up to my family. They’ve sort of forgiven me, at least outwardly. But, you know, they probably wouldn’t be surprised if I did it again. Also, since making Cowards Bend the Knee way back in 2002, there’s been a social media psychosis, and the first person singular and the possessive have just like run amok in social rhetoric. Everyone’s become a “like” slut, you know? It’s not an uninhibited version of real life, it’s like prying the lids off of everyone’s heads, and it’s made people boring. Now I sound old and crusty. If my films get lumped in with all that “me” shit of the past decade, that’s just the way it goes. I can’t change that. I’m not going to go back and change the narration to “you.” Frankly, you know what, I’d happily sacrifice those movies. I’d throw them in the ocean if that’d make people quit talking about themselves. But um, I’m not that deluded. I know if I threw them in the ocean no one would care.
Do you see your own work as being lumped in with all the “me” shit? I think some of those films really got down to a raw nerve, like you said, especially Brand Upon the Brain.
Actually, I’m proud of those movies. They got me going again. I had no—I couldn’t think of a reason to make movies. And then all of a sudden, I was able to find myself in the movies just by naming each character after myself. So now I can leave the trick behind, because I’ve learned a lot. I would never make another autobiographical picture like that. I hope the movies still get watched someday, but if you make something, it’s going to be a different movie every year. I like the ghost metaphor. No sooner has someone filmed with the camera, than the object filmed, and the film itself start separating themselves in time. The body keeps aging. You might, within minutes of just being photographed, receive terrible news, things that make you very unhappy, meanwhile the filmed version of yourself stays in the same state of mind. So you’re looking at the film’s object through a medium, like a paranormal medium, and the filmed object is like a ghost. It no longer exists. I see movies as hauntings.
Would you apply that metaphor to your collages? Is there something haunting about taking these images that have had a life and cutting them up and combining them?
Yeah, maybe it’s a Frankensteining. Those images, long after they’re photographed, long after they’re ripped out of books and put on a table at a collage party, they’re something else altogether. The context is altered so much, they’re kind of homeless. They inhabit some sort of spiritual limbo. They’re just bodies in unmarked graves. Once you start repurposing them to create something new, there is something haunting about the various body parts that make up the image. Sometimes you’re delighted and surprised, but it creates a kind of feeling that maybe the kind of taxidermy that makes Jackalopes creates. They all seem a little bit tasteless, no matter how clever, and a little bit morbid, but that’s what gives them a poignancy. There’s no permission being granted in collage. You know that that rabbit had antelope horns grafted onto its head; neither animal gave permission for repurposing, and you know, they’d probably rather not suffer that indignity.