A Constellation of Narratives: Dreaming the History of Lost Cinema

A Constellation of Narratives
Dreaming the History of Lost Cinema
an interview with Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin has embarked on the most ambitious film project of his already celebrated career. He is in the process of shooting some 136 lost or unrealized films by a collection of filmmakers spanning the rich and varied history of cinema. Called the Séances project, it began in Paris at the Centre Pompidou over a three-week period in February and March of 2012 and will continue in Winnipeg and New York before wrapping up sometime in 2013. Each of the films is shot in only one day with actors drawn from the city in which he is shooting and augmented by a few Maddin regulars, including Udo Kier and Louis Negin. The films are shot digitally and live-streamed, making Séances as much an Internet project as a cinematic one.

Maddin’s approach to the films he has decided to make is characteristically flexible. “These things are so old they’re like scripture,” he says in the following interview, “so I thought, why not treat a lost movie like a Biblical text that you’re free to adapt and make your own version of?” Applying this model, he is involved in a radical exegesis, in which the originating films, or ideas for films, emerge as metaphoric approximations. The finished films will be like dream sequences, a realm that suits the director’s sensibility. The dream world is “the place where emotion is served up unrepressed,” and the Séance films are uncompromisingly irrepressible. As Aunt Chance says in The Dream Woman, his remake of Alice Guy-Blaché’s film from 1914, “Dreams are mysterious things.”

His explanation suggests scripture as one way of thinking about his lost films, but he hastens to add, so is apocrypha. On the basis of what he has written and shot so far, the negotiable framework of apocrypha seems a more apt description than the canonical tradition of scripture. Lilith wins out over Eve in his garden of filmy delights, or, more accurately, Guy’s Aunt Lil does. Maddin’s personality is all over these films, as are his preoccupations. He realized, in making Keyhole, his 2011 film about a gangster named Ulysses who returns to his childhood home and begins a room-by-room odyssey, that he was making a deadbeat-dad film, which brought him full circle to his first film, The Dead Father, made 30 years earlier. Similarly, in making the lost films he is revisiting ideas that have been at the heart of his cinema throughout that same three-decade period.

The Séances project is complicated because, since a number of the films don’t actually exist, he needs to create the film rather than reprise it, and to do so under rather particular and limiting conditions. He is in equal parts aficionado, archeologist, forensic scientist and inventor, while the form itself is a hybrid: a cross between cinema, performance and installation art. But whether the films exist as fragments, or whether they are lost and must be remade from research ideas, Maddin appears to be finding a way to make the act of homage the art of autobiography. That direction is evident in the language of the scripts (his version of Lignes de la main, an unrealized Jean Vigo film, includes the line, “fingers writhing over top one another resembles a throbbing flesh meteor fresh landed”), a piece of empurpled prose that could only have issued from the pen of Maddin himself. “We all know it comes down to a choice of words,” he says, and he praises John Ashbery, who was instrumental in generating the Séances project, for his “real ear for failed and deformed language.” The praise could properly be regarded as self-description.

If the language is Maddinesque, so are the narratives. The Strength of a Moustache, a 1931 film by Mikio Naruse, tells the story of a blind mother and a deadbeat father who surreptitiously returns home to pick up a handful of forgotten items–shoe trees and shaving cream–that he needs in his new life. He has provided his son with a moustache similar to his own, as well as a surrogate gramophone with stock responses that the son plays in order to convince his mother that her husband is still in the home. The deception, as it turns out, is less a problem than the creepy moments when the non-seeing mother strokes the surrogate moustache worn by her masquerading son. Incest and paternal abandonment are as common as amnesia and sleepwalking in Maddin’s world, so Naruse’s film is just one example of the doubling embodied in the lost film project.

There is another layer to his declaration that words count a great deal. I am hardly the first writer to notice that Maddin is a compelling and irresistible conversationalist; his interviews are brilliant, full of information, hilarious, often outrageous and inventively phrased. As well, they are often full of reversals and contradictions. Maddin is one of the few artists I know to whom you needn’t worry about posing questions he has been asked before because, in all likelihood, he will give a different answer, or add another layer to one he has already given. This is less a function of perversity and willful deception than evidence of a creative engagement. It’s not a question of complete improvisation as much as a process of rehearsal. He will try different responses until, through repetition and a sense of what is most appealing, he comes up with a satisfactory answer.

Has Maddin pushed the interview to the level of art? I don’t know about that, but it is clear that he uses this form of conversation in the same way that he makes art; it is a field of possibility in which ideas get explored and things get tried out. Filmmaking, as is the interview, is an engagement with the possible, even as it moves away from the probable.

“All films are an inventory of mistakes,” Maddin tells us. If we return to the scriptural metaphor with which he began his lost film project, what has transpired after being tossed out of the garden is that we are searching for a way to make that story into a film. For Maddin, as a filmmaker, and for all of us–cinephiles, actors and critics–it has turned out to be a very fortunate fall. As the French would say, “And so it began.”

This interview was conducted in Guy Maddin’s home on June 25, 2012. The Séances project will resume on September 29th at the Winnipeg Art Gallery as part of “Winnipeg Now,” a group exhibition celebrating the gallery’s hundredth anniversary.

border crossings: Stephen Dedalus makes the comment in Ulysses that history is the nightmare from which he wants to escape. It occurs to me that for you personal history is the nightmare from which you escape into sleep or dreams.

guy maddin: It started with my very first movie where I was trying to shoot a recurring dream. My Dad died in 1977. I had feared his death for a long time, like with a terror, and I developed an elaborate process of superstitions to keep him alive. He had a bad heart condition and I would often check to see if he was still alive while having his afternoon nap. Sometimes, if I couldn’t see that he was breathing, I would wake him up. I would go into the room, avoiding every squeaky board, and then back out–it was important to back out–and I’d turn away before the moment when I would have the last possible view of him. I didn’t like the idea of a door jamb eclipsing him. I would watch him drive away and it was the same thing; I had to turn away before his car disappeared. Turning away was what kept him alive. I made coffee and used photocopying machines standing on one foot.

And this was a system of protections that you invented?
They evolved the way superstitions do. They work so you keep them and you discard the ones that didn’t seem to work. Like, if I stayed out late one night, I was around 21 years old, and all the lights were on in the house, that usually meant my Dad was in the hospital. So I would make sure all the lights were out just before going out. But then my Mum drove home the notion that it was my going out that was killing him, so I would learn to stay in. That was part of the superstition. The point is I feared his death to the point where I wasn’t even living with my Dad, or loving, or relating, or talking to him; I was just keeping him alive with a series of superstitions. When he finally did die I wasn’t devastated the way I thought I would be. There was practically no feeling at all and I realize now, years later, that all the circuit breakers went. I grieved on an installment plan where I dealt with his death in dreams. They started about five years after he died. I would forget that he had died; I would forget the funeral; I would forget all those things. Amnesia is an important part of dreaming as well. In dreams you remember things you can’t remember, but you also forget things that are convenient to forget. In the dreams he hadn’t died; he had abandoned our family. He had gone to Minneapolis to live with a better family and was just coming home on a brief errand to pick up a razor, or a glass eye, or some aftershave he had forgotten. I had roughly one minute to convince him that we were a good family and that he should stay with us. I always failed and the dreams ended in paternal abandonment. But during that time I got to hear his voice, a voice I could no longer remember during my waking hours. In the dreams, I heard it perfectly.

You have talked about a pathological number of dreams.**
Well, I had them nightly for 30 years. After 25 years they slowed down and my Aunt Lil started sharing centre stage with him two or three years after she died in 1986. Those dreams were a little bit different. I felt that in both cases my Dad and my Aunt Lil died because I got girlfriends.

There was a direct cause and effect?
Well, you tell me. I made Jill’s mother pregnant and she came over one night to tell me she was expecting. I spent the rest of the night worrying about what I was going to do and by five in the morning my Dad was dead. My Aunt Lil died while I was dating someone who was a handful and it was all I could do to pitch woo and deflect her boots from my genitals. The next thing I knew my aunt had died. She lived with me and was like a second mother. I already knew that sex could kill because of my grandmother who also lived with me in 1970. She fell down the stairs and was pronounced fit to leave the hospital the next day, so I decided to go and visit her. But in the next bed there was a naked girl hooked up to a catheter with amber tubing and a bag and I spent the entire time looking at her instead of talking to my grandmother and my grandmother died the next morning. So these aren’t superstitions; they are directly connected. In cahoots with women, I killed three loved ones.

So did the making of The Dead Father in any way alter the visitations?
No. I tried to replicate the dreams and failed but I made something else: thus began a career of trying to do one thing, doing something else and having films as a result.

But you said that The Dead Father contained nothing of your father. Did the movie end up being a personal disappointment?**
You have many concerns when you’re making a movie and one of them was to get my dreams up on the screen exactly as they were and, hopefully, smoke out the people who had had similar experiences. I’ve smoked out zero people on that one. Then you want to be a good filmmaker and I felt that the film, at 30 minutes, was probably 18 minutes too long. But I forgave myself. In those days, I hated Canadian film and I was determined to learn nothing from other filmmakers in the country. I’d rather make the kind of mistakes filmmakers
were making in 1898 than learn the mistakes that were entrenched in the Canadian system.

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