Guy Maddin, the Canadian director, makes discomfiting films steeped in the cinematic grammar of the 1930s, delivered with wildly theatrical art direction and arch dialogue. His cinematic world is an old-timey place that nevertheless exists in the here and now. His features include Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Careful (1992), Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters (2006), and a quasi-nonfictional look at his hometown, My Winnipeg (2007). He is also the author of a collection of essays and fragments called From the Atelier Tovar and books to accompany Cowards Bend the Knee and My Winnipeg.
On first viewing, these films appear like archival treasures of an auteur, once forgotten and rediscovered. Maddin reaches forward, technically and thematically, to suggest new possibilities for the medium. He plants his lo-fi sensibility squarely in the twenty-first century, running 8 mm and 16 mm film through contemporary mixing and editing software. But Maddin isn’t content for his work simply to exist on a screen. He approaches distribution as an extension of the creative product. Screenings of Brand Upon the Brain! featured the accompaniment of Foley artists and guest narrators including John Ashbery and Isabella Rossellini; Cowards Bend the Knee originally appeared as an installation in which segments of the film could be viewed through keyholes, and the book My Winnipeg elaborates upon that film’s digressions and themes.
I spoke to Maddin over the phone. He was in Toronto, I was in Seattle, and I didn’t have a proper tape recorder, so I recorded our conversation on videotape. There now exists a two-hour shot of my iPhone and my hand occasionally lifting a coffee cup, with the voice of the charming, gentlemanly Guy Maddin holding forth on such topics as Canadian television, hairless boners, and women’s rear ends.
The Believer: On one hand you rejected this feeling of Canadian film and TV, but now do you find you’ve internalized any of it and are using it in your own films?
Guy Maddin: I’ve actually been astonished lately. I’ve started to reflect upon what I’ve been doing, especially with my most recent feature, My Winnipeg, which is an autobiographical portrait of my hometown. At one point very early on in my filmmaking endeavors, I vowed never to make any reference to Canada, but by the time I was making my second movie I was setting it in a very specific Canadian place, so I guess I’ve gone from wanting to completely reject not only Canadian film but my country, too, but then I realized it was more fun to take my country and just be—not proud of it or patriotic—but just see what it looked like if I put it through the same myth processors that all other countries put their historical figures and events through. I just feel that film and television should have the same freedom to be as unreal as fairy tales.
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