By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
The Do It Yourself (DIY) approach to filmmaking is at the heart of how respected artist and auteur Guy Maddin makes many of his films. When he’s a first-wave post punk rocker – born in ’56 and growing up listening to the music of the Sex Pistols and Public Image – he lived and breathed everything that had to do with what that music revolution represented. When he started daydreaming about making films, the ethos of just picking up an instrument to play what you felt, or to be a brat at the time, and many of the thrills he felt from the music were in the audio textures and in the process of how they were recorded way more than in any melody.
“It just seemed to me that just by analogy people would love movies made of the same spirit,” said Maddin.
When he was watching movies with a real DIY attitude, like Salvador Dali creations and Louis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, and especially L’Age d’Or, they majorly influenced his style. According to Maddin, the surrealists of the day were the true artists who embraced such an approach in creating their work. This artistic movement embraced film much more than any other style, like Dadaism, which was precursor. When considering how damaging some of the imagery could be, such as how an eyeball gets sliced by a sharp knife, the analogies are more than penetrating. Some cinephiles call Maddin’s work avant garde.
That’s because Maddin believes that music goes straight to the heart. He says it cuts through your ears, skips our brain, invades your heart, heads down to your feet and back to your brain to create a real narcotic high.
“I gotta let that go and in many ways I have because filmmaking is pretty therapeutic,” said Maddin in reference to the death of his father, which happened when he was 21.
That passing affected this director in many ways. It helped him understand the great literary and ancient literary myth of fatherhood, which dates right back to Greek, Egyptian and First Nations myth where father figures loomed huge.
“It was my way of switching brain hemispheres, from my math and economics major over to literature through the death of my father. I became more of a jester of music, film and literature… Heaven knows there’ll be great stories about fathers, but it’s time to move on. I’ve got other concerns that obsess me anyway.”
In the movie Keyhole, Maddin tried to explore those themes but he thinks he did too much and explored too many ideas. Although he set out to make a simple haunted house story where the character of Ulysses, like the director, was a ghost haunting his own childhood home, the way the flow worked was problematical. The way the character hovered through every room rediscovering his past was laden with too much material that was personal for this director. “I really made myself into an emotional mess while making that movie. I spent a lot of time thinking about my early childhood,” revealed Maddin, “I got really personal.”
Perhaps that’s why not many viewers understood his last film. This filmmaker was not being all that honest with himself and the audiences. Although a few people might have understood, they may have faced similar tragedy when faced with the loss of their father.
At least Séances, the current project he’s working on, will be better. It will be an installation art, to be made available online. Here, all of those “lost” movies from the early days of cinema will get a chance to be found again, albeit in a ghostly form. When Variety reported that a study from the Library of Congress showed how many original films still survive, the statistics are abysmal. Film historian and archivist David Pierce wrote, “Only 14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios exist in their original 35mm or other format, according to the report, ‘The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912-1929.’ Another 11% survive in full-length foreign versions or on film formats of lesser image quality.”
Guy Maddin’s knowledge of this fact was known way before this report was released back in December ’13, and to see him offer these lost movies a chance to come back to life may well be his pièce de résistance.
“I’m very proud of how it’s shaping up but its still got a lot of way to go. I think there’s maybe the equivalent of 3 Berlin Alexanderplatz’es – a 14 part German TV miniseries – or 2 wires worth of lost films and its just been life consuming, and life destroying – the project that is,” said Maddin.
And how it may be presented may be through the use of ellipsis, a narrative technique where the action is suggested by showing the before and after, but never the action itself. Maddin says William Faulkner uses this technique to create confusion to build up a world that readers can feel and taste. There is even terror and polarity that can be felt, but even for someone trying to follow either Faulkner or Maddin’s works, they can not possibly understand every minute of it.
When he’s presenting his movies in 16mm celluloid, there’s an organic messy quality that harkens back to what some of the early punk art looked like. As an avid fan, Maddin found the album covers of the day were quite often intentionally primitive collages. “There were black and white smudged photos that looked as filthy as the wall of a washroom in a really sleazy bar and yet when it came to movies it required simple stories with a beginning, middle and end,” said Maddin, “I literally had the hubris that every young filmmaker has – to feel that I was just catching the wave of exactly the right moment.
Although he never studied art history fully when he returned to academic study, he admits to sneaking in to plenty of film study / history classes to get his education.
“My understanding of history is really buttressed by the moving image and I only really start to understand history that was written by real human beings and acted out by them once we are see them moving around,” said Maddin, “To me I’m always cross referencing these major events on of those big time charts. I make sense of time’s great flow through motion pictures knowing full well that pictures have no obligation to be realistic or to represent truth. But they still need to reflect society as long as you know to take everything with a grain of salt.”
The Victoria Film Festival’s In Conversation with Guy Maddin will no doubt be a highlight of this ten-day show. More about his DIY process can be learned when he presents Feb 9th, 11am. Varients of this uncut article will be seen in Absolute Underground TV’s website, in its magazine and featured for Vivoscene.