Film and Television Features

Guy Maddin in Madison

On the evening of February 20, avant-garde writer-director-unabashed cinephile Guy Maddin made a quiet entrance onto the University of Wisconsin-Madison's campus stage to elaborate on the theme of "Loss in the Cinema," a fairly well-attended preliminary lecture at the Chazen Museum of Art's Elvehjem basement auditorium.  The following afternoon, his surrealist celebration (or "docu-fantasia," as he's described) of his home, My Winnipeg (2007), was presented in 35mm at Vilas Communication Hall as a precursor to an abridged analysis loosely originating from its "Poetics of Memory, Space, and Architecture."

Looking slightly disheveled but still poised and incredibly erudite, Maddin began his Thursday talk by admiring the transitional state of the Midwestern winter weather between instances of hail and rain.  "Who knows what'll happen next," he prognosticated.  Without a formal outline or traditional notes prepared, Maddin amusingly revealed a handicap- that he was basing a portion of his talk from a series of sometimes-illegible abbreviations on notecards, but he really preferred to speak extemporaneously anyway.  His honest delivery disclosed a self-deprecating humor that he later mocked further as "self-defecating."  Glancing into the empty space of the room, the acclaimed Canadian filmmaker seemed to perceive his own speech from a mirrored angle, which lent a humility and self-consciousness to the monologue, if tragically cut it short, shy of sixty minutes.

In order to properly frame the idea of loss in the cinema, Maddin recounted his own memories and tales from childhood that have influenced his own filmmaking process.  A tragic anecdote about his father's glass eye was as initially jilting as it was haunting; an unpinned broach on his grandmother's blouse poked his father's eye out in his infancy.  Driven by a maddening guilt, Maddin's grandmother consequently poked out the eyes in every piece of photographic evidence displayed in their house.  Whether the final bit of the story came out as earnest exaggeration, it made for a poignantly everlasting image.

Alluding to Derrida's hauntology term (the present exists only with respect to the past), Maddin soon segued into the belief of film as a haunted medium, because it is an evolutionary branch of photography.  From the instant a film is made, it recedes from the living actors in time.  As part of his exploratory youth in digging through obscure and popular silent cinema, he noted how an eerie relationship can be established between the modern viewer and the silent stars who have since passed away.  This continuing obsession led him to embark on this sprawling, time-consuming project to restore a part of history by remaking a hundred lost films from the time of cinema's origins.  While not detailing much of this endeavor, Maddin assured those in attendance that seventy of them have been shot (as of early 2014); but he did not disclose the number, if any, that have actually been completed.

Though he failed to illustrate a recurring cinematic contention at the summit, Maddin returned to historical matters in the closing half to insist how context paired with loss are the "two cylinders" that propel the medium.  This statement recalls the consistency of personal motivations for filmmaking and its construction and interpretation over the eras.  Maddin detailed Soviet montage theorist Lev Kuleshov's initial experiment in the 1920s in which Kuleshov demonstrated that individual shots gain their power through arrangement and context.  Recently, this has been applied by Maddin and his colleagues who have recontextualized plots from fragments of movies in order to create new meanings- "a rolling mass of cinema" of rousing possibilities.  Experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold notably spliced The Invisible Ghost (1941) with pregnant pauses, which transformed Bela Lugosi's acting performance into something less stylized through context, Maddin observed.  Arnold continued doctoring the film until it became a sort of comedic exercise of empty interior sets.

Resolving the contextual loss theme was a variation of the very concept that emerged in a Leo McCarey film, My Son John (1952).  Leading actor Robert Walker died of an lethal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs during its production, and McCarey was forced to project images of Walker from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) to complete the film.  This immediately reminded me of the one example from my years of media explorations: Nancy Marchand played Tony Soprano's mother Livia in The Sopranos (1999-2007), but she died before her character's motivations were resolved in season three of the legendary HBO series.  Her final appearance was awkwardly created through use of existing footage and computer-generated imagery as a dialogue with James Gandolfini (coincidentally, who's now also passed), proving that the dead can be technologically resurrected as ghosts that continue haunt their respective productions.

My Winnipeg began without an intervention or live narration from Maddin himself (as he's done at prior film festivals); he joined the crowd of a hundred-plus after the screening.  Having no familiarity with the director's idiosyncratic style, My Winnipeg promptly introduced itself to me as something of a forbear and sister film to Stories We Tell (2012) by fellow Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley, who recently uncovered her own history and identity through a recreation of familial memories with actors.  There's less emphasis on place in Polley's film, but Maddin's utter investment in his personal memories and dreams as well as the lore and actual history of "snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg" shines brightly.  Or at least as brightly as it can in one of the coldest, darkest cities in the Northern Hemisphere.

Maddin narrates the film with a note of sarcasm in his intensely poetic and hypnotic language.  Although it often feels scripted, in the post-screening talk he claimed that much of the narration was improvised in five-minute intervals, which lends the film a further daydreamy, enigmatic quality- that the presentation is somehow an oxymoron of prerecorded stream-of-consciousness.  The first section cycles through more generalized observations, sounds, and images of Winnipeg before easing into a more specific scenario involving Maddin himself, a disembodied off-screen voice, subletting his old house at 800 Ellis Ave and hiring actors to play his mother, brothers, and sisters.  In constructing and configuring the "white. block. house." exactly as it was in 1963, Maddin's aim was multifaceted.  He hoped to vivisect his own childhood, achieve some internal revelation to free himself of his family's power over him, and physically and psychologically disentangle himself from the forces of the town itself.

The mission statement paired with the director's unique sensibility create a wholly innovative sense that this semi-documentary of family life in the city is a Twilight Zone (1959-1964) episode, a fabled walking tour through an alternate timeline/reality.  The use of stylized black-and-white photography magnifies this distinction and association.  In lieu of The Twilight Zone's literal inclusion, a fictitious and equally absurdist television show called Ledgeman makes an appearance.  It immediately recalls the introduction of Seinfeld (1989-1998)'s Newman character (originally voiced by Larry David) in season two's "The Revenge," who repeatedly threatens to jump from the roof.  In Ledgeman's morbidly thin premise, however, a distraught man teeters on the ledge of a building after hyperbolizing a small incident into a crisis, and someone must talk him out of suicide in each and every episode.

Perhaps the most entertaining scenes in this amalgam of "personal history, civic tragedy, and mystical hypothesizing" concern the dramatizing of Maddin's own life.  In a supposedly outdoor scene with an opaque backdrop that creates a surreal mood, Maddin's mother and sister argue about damage to the front end of a car that collided with a deer.  In an hilarious bit of deduction, mother interprets the incident as a euphemism for what really interests her- not the accident but the sex act in the back seat.  "No lady stays out past ten with blood on her fender!"  The whole thing plays out like an absurdist comedy sketch, and the director's fixations only become more outrageous from this point on, detailing a hypothetical all-star ghost hockey team, The Black Tuesdays, as well as the Whittier Park fire where horses flee stables at a race track and freeze to death in the river.  That grisly sight of the latter becomes an emblematic tourist attraction and lovers spot, as people flock to see the contorted horse heads sticking out of the frozen landscape like Gothic statues.

Ultimately, My Winnipeg highlights the accessibility, distortion, application of memory.  Although it is sometimes difficult to navigate the twisted paths in Maddin's imaginative version of Winnipeg's topography, his dismantling of the town is enthralling.  The concluding sketch involving a superheroine called Citizen Girl acting as a deux ex machina or goddess hand, undoing the damage that Maddin has documented and fabricated throughout, actually brings with it a sad finality in a creative project as haunting as the vanishing ghostly montage of images.  His mother, the actress, and the actor who plays his deceased brother, lay together lovingly in an elegiac shot, as Maddin rhetorically asks, "Who's alive anymore?"

To anyone in the audience whose curiosities had been stirred by Maddin's idiosyncratic structuring, there was a resounding if silent answer to that in-film question: "We are."  As the director and University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty panel opened the discussion, Maddin briefly mined his states of dreaming (in sleep and lucidly), likening them to a sort of hypnosis therapy where he was able to recall details better than in waking life.  However, once My Winnipeg's production ended, he lost grasp of those detailed memories, "curing" himself much like the objective he literally states within the film's first half.  While the supposed topic of discussion was the "Poetics of Memory, Space, and Architecture," the conversation continued as a tangential analysis of material culture's collective sensory meanings- mainly, the house as a time capsule.  Before all was said and done, I personally came to confirm what I had suspected all along through Guy Maddin's dual, complementary appearances- that art is therapy, and the film format has allowed him to fantastically digress and harness a distinct sense of restoration in the cinema and his own life.