LIGHT GLYPHS 1: GUY MADDIN
To be able to begin the ‘Light Glyph’ series of interviews with Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is a real privilege. There exists no better inauguration than to dive into the ideas and perambulations of one of modern cinema’s most inventive, entertaining and consistently original practitioners. His films itch and explode with the busy extravagance of Von Sternberg, yearn with the aching melodramas of Douglas Sirk and libidinously exhume the spirit of early Buñuel. Adopting the orphaned and outmoded in cinema’s history, as digested by his own humour and obsessions, Maddin quarries a lovingly warped archaeology of film with which to ferment and reinvent personal mythologies. The near-occult dynamics of family and the primacy of childhood become points of ritual, never far from troubled or vulnerable desire and, as all else in Maddin’s foggy cartography, encountered most frequently in and as memory.
Though his filmography demonstrates recurrent themes and visual preferences, he has nevertheless accumulated a diverse body of work: from the midnight-movie, cult success of Tales from Gimli Hospital (1988), a film that had critics equivocating between allusions to Eraserhead, Man Ray and John Waters, to the labyrinthine ambition of his latest feature The Forbidden Room (2015). The Forbidden Room is a propulsive, vast and hallucinatory feat of of narrative contortion; like a Russian-doll raconteur evoking the writing of Raymond Roussel, it features an ‘outer-onion’ framing device scripted by the American poet John Ashbery. Ashbery has often cited Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World (2003) as a favourite film, and, in addition to admiring each others work, they also shared a recent collage exhibition (2015) at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, New York.
In this interview I wanted to ask Maddin about aspects of this poetic collaboration and to hear more about his own relationship with poetry. It was also a chance to consider the visual manipulation, newly explored with co-director Evan Johnson, in digital form; outside of its own innovation in digital film, The Forbidden Room was also accompanied by a pioneering online incarnation, Séances (2015). Séances is an interactive project based on a method of ‘algorithmic storytelling’, allowing viewers to ‘conjure’ filmic episodes (some of which appear in The Forbidden Room) whereby each viewing witnesses a uniquely sequenced and un-repeatable composition. An emphasis on cinema as the medium for ghostly collision suggests Maddin’s often innately poetic interest in movements between presence and absence in film, each constantly haunted by the other. It is also through exploring the unexpected, in combinations of chance, that Séances reveals an impulse to collage. For Maddin, a poetics of collage becomes central not only to film but to the articulation and experience of everyday perception.
David Spittle: I know Michael Silverblatt introduced you to John Ashbery but I wondered whether there were ever any other poetic discoveries that have become comparably important for you? In the tradition of George Toles and Michael’s chaperoned book guides (and like the loving and solemn ritual of a mixtape between friends) if you were to compose a list of poetry recommendations, what might be on it?
Guy Maddin: Well, I like the prose poetry, if that’s what it is, of De Chirico’s Hebdomeros. And I like Jules Laforgue’s Moralités légendaires (1887), which contains prose poetry biographies of Hamlet, Salome, Perseus and Andromeda, and Lohengrin. I love the prose too of Osip Mandelstam – his Egyptian Stamp is the best. Maybe it’s just prose, not even prose poetry -- who can tell, because now I’m thinking of how much I love Pasternak’s Safe Conduct, which is just prose, though redolent of poesy! Gimme the prose of Nerval and Mallarmé, -- did Mallarmé even write any prose? -- and, um, Frederick Seidel. He’s a poet! I guess I love prose that yanks the rug out from under my feet and leaves me floating somewhere. For that reason, I also love Ezra Pound’s apparent complete rewrite-within-a-translation of Paul Morand’s Open All Night. I know these don’t all add up to Ashbery, but I love them all and Ashbery too. Silverblatt and Toles both guided me through the first decades of my reading. The stories Michael recommended that most affected me were the Beckett novels and Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds. I love this latter book so much it hurts. I can’t believe it took me thirty years to read O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, which might be one of my top five favourite books of all time. Or top fifty, now that I think of it, but top, way up there – so dreamy-dream-dreamy!
The shared Tibor de Nagy exhibition of your collages with Ashbery’s seemed like such a natural and exciting match, at what point did you start sharing your collages with Ashbery?
I can’t remember if I ever showed him any. I was a longtime fan of his, and I must have show him something because he suggested I approach the Tibor with my stuff – but I never did! Wait, no, I did! I ran some of my stuff in the Sienese Shredder, a fantastic arts annual put out by Ashbery friends Brice Brown and Trevor Winkfield. I was so proud to be included among the artists who peopled its pages. There was stuff by Ron Padgett, James Schuyler, Jasper Johns – and me! Ridiculous! Then one day I just got an invitation from the director of Tibor asking me – no, telling me – I had a joint show with Ashbery at the gallery if I wished. Just send in some collage, Guy! I didn’t have any left, so I had to host a few collage parties to get some made. I know Ashbery always works on his scissoring and gluing alone, but I always do it in social situations. I get lonely easily and nothing comes! So I bought some wine and cheese, and some new LPs, and soon I was happily crafting the crap out of some old magazines until I had my share for the show done.
Your collages from around the period of Keyhole, like the film itself, seemed darker and more psychosexual than your later collages in the Tibor exhibition. How much was the change in style a reaction to the different tone of The Forbidden Room and Séances, and how much was influenced by Ashbery’s collages and the nature of your collaboration?
Ashbery had a huge influence on me. I love how his collage work is often the result of just one move, just one image combined with another to form a new visual meaning or some kind of delight. He made me simplify my collage. Also, with Keyhole in the past, my mood brightened considerably. In recent months my collages are almost exclusively in colour. I hate to supply reductive reasons but my life seems happier and more stable now, plus I decided to challenge myself with the formidable task of contriving palettes for the work. I went to the paint store and asked for one of their “colour complement” wheels and made the new work with that wheel by my side all the time, for handy complement double-checking.
I’m now hooked on colour, and making things pretty, and putting one thing on top of another. The whole world is a collage, or so it seems now, and everyone in it is Ashberian, or everyone is a part of speech in Ashbery’s singular vernacular! Now I see everything that delights me in terms of the component parts of a collage, the unlikely collision of two things, sounds, events, flavours. I’m especially into the titles randomly generated by the program running Séances – at the end of each viewing experience a film cemetery of titles created and lost by this site is listed. If you sit through a movie and take screen-captures you’ll find a fairly high batting average of near-Ashberian charm. It’s up to the reader to impose his own Ashberian qualities onto these things, but I swear they’re there! Also, I love what-if collages involving one musician, a long-dead one, doing a cover of a song written since their death. I can go on forever with this one. I really want to hear Leadbelly covering ScHoolboy Q’s “Big Body.” I want Nat King Cole to sing “King Kunta”! You know, it can’t happen, it never will, but it MUST!
Could you say a bit about Ashbery’s script for his collage-play, The Inn of the Guardian Angel (according to the questionable omnipotence of Wikipidea, this was given to you by Ashbery, and is collaged from New York Times obituaries and Hollywood fanzines…it sounds amazing!)
The play is an incredible piece of writing. Not to mention typewriting! It’s 83-pages long, typed, single-spaced, and it’s all Ashbery. I think wiki got it as right as I did. I think I’m even the source for that wiki entry – how often do you find someone willing to admit he’s the source for a wiki entry? From what I recall John told me he collaged the play together from obituaries and fanzines, but my memory is terrible, and who knows how much he was spoon-feeding me with his explanation – I’m only a filmmaker, I spend all my time stressing to John how much of an outsider I am when it comes to poetry. John generously included the rights to film The Inn of the Guardian Angel along with our legal document giving me the right to shoot his adaptation of the lost Dwain Esper film How to Take a Bath, which we shot way back in the summer of 2010 and then later included as the framing structure that held , sort of held, together our 2015 feature film The Forbidden Room. Esper was a sexploitationist who also shot Reefer Madness and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. He also took over the distribution of Tod Browning’s Freaks when the film was banned. So in 1937 he made a film with the titillating tile How to take a Bath. It apparently compared how married and unmarried women bathed – that’s when the word spinster was still used on driver’s licenses to describe the unmarried. Anyway, I think the married bathed with much more lubricity, while the spinsters’ soapsuds lacked the nacre. I picture the whole thing in split screen, a great excuse for Esper’s art department to pile suds just so high on the chest of an actress. John’s adaption is a total rewrite. I love it so, and I’m so proud to have his words in our feature. Wow. I wish John wrote screenplays more often. I love his plays, which are hard to get – what’s that one of his adapted from a Rin-Tin-Tin movie, but with humans playing and speaking the roles of the digs? So dreamy! I have it somewhere in my apartment, or one of my subletters took it. Things are always disappearing around here! I begged John, shamelessly, to write more screenplays for me, but to get rid of me he sent me this Inn of the Guardian Angel. Every day during the 2010 production of my feature Keyhole I had actors read aloud from the Inn while I video-recorded them. It was so difficult for the actors to understand the play, to give the lines any welcoming sense they were understood. Mind you, some of these actors were having trouble with their normal lines, and most of them enjoyed it far too much whenever I read the morning paper out loud to them during hair and make-up.
Starting with Keyhole and certainly continuing in The Forbidden Room and in the Seances project, it seems like more horror inflected elements are entering the Maddin universe…would you agree? Obviously we’re not talking unequivocal ‘genre’ horror, but I feel with some of the new visual techniques you’re exploring and alongside a constant interest in hauntings, and altered, delirious, trance-like or frenzied states, more eerie moments are appearing…
I wish I were working in genres. I’d be doing myself a favour, from the funding point of view anyway. Man, I was always so proud of being described as sui generis, genre-free, but I was proud of something that was screwing me over completely. I might as well have been proud of being the most financially unsuccessful, or the most impossible to sell, filmmaker of them all. What a maroon! But I am delirious, always delirious, obsessed with my own amnesias. I connected with amnesia plots in melodrama and soap operas even in childhood, and believe me I wasn’t thinking in analytic terms back then. They just hit me. I guess I’ve always had the kind of dreams while sleeping that stayed with me long into the day, the feelings they produced anyway, and for as long as I can remember I’ve dreamt about things I missed the most. I’d dream about my dead brother come alive, my dead Chihuahua come alive, my dead grandmother, dad and Aunt Lil. All of them got regularly restored to me in my sleep. The cottage at the lake, which I was only taken to in the summer would be restored to me all winter long, and the happy feelings they produced in me would stay with me well into the day, past lunchtime sometimes. I saw these dreams as a forgetting. I’d forgotten all the funerals, the deaths. I’d forgotten it was no longer summer, at least while I was sleeping. I’d forgotten people were dead, and the feelings of seeing them again, that’s what I remembered. In a way, forgetting is not just the flip side of remembering, but an important part of remembering. I’d forget one thing, the absence, and that would permit me dream access the memories of things long removed from me. It was like getting handed a telescope in my sleep, so I could see and feel things up close I would never be able to conjure up as simple daytime memories, not without the vividness of dreams. Conversely, by day I’ve always been a stupefied cotton-headed groper through waking life, always forgetting the most serious problems pressing, really pressing, for real, in on me. I’d forget to do homework, forget to do chores around the house, forget the time as it passed in front of the TV. I’d forget as a young man I was a father, and fall short in my duties there. As a young father I’d frequently forget my wedding vows, forget to file taxes, forget my manners. Mix all that up with my bumper crop of dream amnesias and I was one confused person, I don’t know how I got across the street, so befuddled was I, and remain to this day, so frequently getting my feet tangled up in memories, always flipping back and forth between past and present, never involving the future in my intoxicated reveries. Yes, I was drunk on such reveries, obsessions with the past, almost a sublime connoisseur of the past’s flavours as they mingle with the present’s. I learned later Falkner believed the past and the present exist simultaneously, “the past ain’t even past” or something like that he said. I was chilled and giddy when I read his words on the subject. In short, amnesia, the forgetting of the past and the present to bring me closer to one and remove me more from the other, has been my constant state for emotions my whole life. I can remember thinking that way back to my earliest memories. Not sure why, I’ve often mentioned I was brought home from the hospital the same day the family got its first TV, which had only started broadcasting in Winnipeg 2 years before my birth. Reception was all rabbit ears and very snowy. Together we, the TV and I, learned to communicate with each other. And there were only two channels. But on some mornings, before the Winnipeg channels went on the air, I could see distant snowy transmissions from North Dakota or Minnesota come and go in blizzards of evanescent images, the sound roaring up into an unstable clarity for a few seconds, sometimes a few minutes even, before being suddenly yanked from me, as suddenly as waking from a dream, or as sudden as a death. The experience of watching TV was every bit as dream-addled, every bit as intoxicating as the amnesias in which I accepted myself as immersed. These broadcast interventions alloyed themselves to the melodramas of the soaps, sitcoms and night-time dramas I watched obsessively, and like the leopards in Kafka’s famous parable, the leopards that interrupted a sacred ceremony so often they were finally just incorporated into the ceremony, these broadcast interruptions, and my memory interruptions, just became an accepted part of every TV story and my reactions to it. I feel lucky, I got an enriched version of all the programming that probably just bored everyone else. So when as an adult I started to watch noir – and I think it was film writer Lee Server who once called amnesia noir’s version of the common cold, I had no trouble as seeing – I didn’t even need to “interpret it” – amnesia as the natural state of mind for these post-war PTSD protagonists. The old trope gave me a swift understanding of these doomed chumps. In “women’s pictures” I understood better than the average normal kid the tortures and sublimities of Joan Crawford or Ronald Coleman when forgetfulness descended on them. When it came time to make my own movies I turned to trusty old amnesia to help me figure out the human condition. In my earliest most primitive days as screenwriter and director I knew I could never create rich characters, more like the types Buñuel used in Un Chien andalou and L’Age d’Or, but if I spritzed everyone with amnesia I felt I could give them something like the real human condition, cheaply and quickly. Little did I realize I was giving them my own human condition, which is sold only in novelty shops, not the condition Renoir or Flaubert peddled in their work. Anyway, I think it’s an especially cinematic because one is already almost completely forgetting the real world when settling into seats inside a dark movie theatre, or in front of a TV screen.
Like the Brothers Quay you have often cited the novels of Robert Walser and the stories of Bruno Shulz as an influence, your films are very different but often speak to comparable concepts. Is there any further literary common ground between you? Is it interesting to see how differently your films seem to digest and communicate these influences? Arguably this link (with the Quays) could be interesting in light of considering the darker or ‘horror-inflected’ elements in your films.
Yes I adore Walser, and I had been reading his butler fiction – Tobold and Jakob von Gunten, just as we were writing the script for Careful (1992). Walser is so gentle, so delicate, so crazy, it seemed butlering was the perfect profession for Careful because butlers had to be careful always, and quiet, and gentle and small and almost non-existent, a quiet existence of near zero presence. The voice of Walser got into my head and I thought I could profit from such a possession, so I borrowed his tone a lot. Bruno Schulz gets the way I think. I can’t think like him, but he knows how I go about the process of feeling something and then reporting that feeling to myself. He does that reporting for me because I’m no good at it, and since I discovered him I don’t need to worry about the job of feeling. I just read him. That sounds glib, I know, but it sounds honest to me because I’ve never fallen so hard nor so fast for a writer’s voice and methods as when I first encountered Schulz. So powerful was the effect that I am now misremembering my first encounter with Schulz as contemporaneous with my earliest childhood memory, and I know that can’t be true.
Ever since the muffled soundscapes of Archangel (1990); the discovery of your brother Cameron’s old radio recordings; flitting between stations and distant crackle; and the superb ambient soundtracks of Jason Staczek – the passage between coherent and incoherent, whether in memory, vision or sound, seems to haunt your films. With the online nature of Séances does this have further implications? You seem to evoke a kind of Youtube glitch effect at times, one that suggests decay as not only the territory of celluloid, or a cinematic past, but as a continuing and now digital possibility.
I love digital. I completely understand, after decades of marriage to celluloid emulsions, the loyalty Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson feel to film, to 70mm film at that, but they can afford it. I’ve always been a man forced by low budgets to work the margins of the film industry, the margins of civilization even, and what I’ve discovered over here on the margin is there’s great freedom in low budgets, fewer people, if any, to consult. And there is even greater freedom in the so-called “poor image.” Through their lower resolutions lower gauge films like 16mm and super8 conceal as much as they reveal, they can turn glaringly jerry-built worlds into enchanted worlds, just by blurring and graining up the sets and costumes. We’re in the middle of a great digital explosion now where the “poor image” is precious to us all. Unstable and murky cell phone images of tragedies have moved a nation to action, no one seems to care if these clips streaming down to us through twitter have high resolution or not. Now everyone is a potential Zapruder, or Arbus, and the textures of digital images are precious to us, they are no longer undesirable simply for reasons of low resolution. There is sublime beauty in all resolutions, and not just for news stories or evidence in a case, but for narrative effects as well. I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment in film history. This moment in history is nightmarish, but this moment in film history is euphoria inducing. Never have I seen so much potential in moviemaking – thanks to digital. Hybrid genres are proliferating, docufantasias, docudramas, the cine-essay, the essayistic fiction film, every possible permutation, all thanks to the democratization of cameras. I love what digital has done for me, for the work Evan and I made. He was able to massage each of our adapted lost films into its own world of palette and texture. The Forbidden Room is a bit like an archaeological dig because with every narrative layer comes a different kind of emulsive loam, a new narrative stratum. One is forced to acknowledge the medium from which the film is fashioned. And I, who have always been inspired most by fairy tales and bedtime stories, love it when the viewer is simultaneously inside a story and aware of its telling. During a bedtime story I was always aware of my grandmother, my sleepytime raconteur. Drowsily I judged her, felt her weight pressing against my legs, compared this night’s telling with last week’s account of the same story. I listened to her voice and through half-shut eyes beheld her comforting features, but I was also totally inside the story too. I was aware of the medium from which the magic came – my grandmother. I always vowed with my movies I would show viewers the grandmother! The proliferation of artefacts in low budget digital filmmaking allows me to show a grandmother resplendent in raiment’s of a glorious poverty, the kind made famous by Mike & George Kuchar, Jack Smith, James Bidgood and John Waters. There is so much heart-breaking beauty to be produced in these little, almost secret studios of the heart. Digital gave me the freedom to spend my money on things other than film processing, and gave me instant feedback on performances. It also gave me images so hideous, on account of my lack of experience with the medium, that we were forced to extreme film decasia to make the images interesting to the eye. But I am thrilled to report that for every tribute to film abrasion we put in the final product, there are as many digital artefacts too. We’re just showing the grandmother again! Finally, after being dead since 1970, my grandmother has gone digital!
Returning to the theme of films interacting with poetry – are there any contemporary poets whose work you enjoy? I remember you mentioning Jeremy Dobbs’ Crabwise to the Hounds, which was a collection I also really loved. What have you been reading recently?
I should have read these years ago but I am now in the midst of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and -- hey, Silverblatt! -- Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive. So great! I just finished Beckford’s Vathek, which my filmmaking partner Evan Johnson urged me to read by describing it, way better than I could, as “proto Gabriele D'Annunzio, proto-Huysmans, proto-Flaubert-of-Salammbo, occasionally Rousselian, etched in ultra-precise prose with an enormous vocabulary, but told in a kind of high irony like Mann’s The Holy Sinner.” Now as far as styles go, that’s my idea of a collage!
For more on Maddin’s collages:
For more on Maddin and Ashbery:
Maddin’s website: http://guy-maddin.com