By Brian Darr
A loyal GreenCine reader hardly needs to be introduced to Guy Maddin, the director of The Heart of the World, The Saddest Music in The World and dozens of other shorts and features. The Canadian's curious conversations with Shannon Gee and with Jonathan Marlow have been collected here over the past few years. Now, following up on his neo-silent films Cowards Bend the Knee and Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin has completed his so-called "Me Trilogy" of autobiographically pitched features with My Winnipeg. Funded by the Documentary Channel, but described by Maddin as a "docu-fantasia" so as to ward off the wrath of purists, My Winnipeg records a personal and a mythic history of Manitoba's provincial capital. It also takes on the the form of a confessional for this hometown son. He re-enacts episodes from his childhood with a cast featuring Darcy Fehr reprising his role as Guy from Cowards Bend the Knee, and none other than Ann Savage playing his mother. To top it all off, Maddin himself performs the film's fevered narration, as if a James A. FitzPatrick or Lowell Thomas for our own warped age.
I spoke with Maddin this past May, after he screened My Winnipeg for appreciative San Francisco International Film Festival audiences. It was his third appearance at that festival in as many years, and it's been followed by an appearance at another local film festival just this month: the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where he introduced and recited the intertitles for a 35mm print of Tod Browning's mind-blowing Lon Chaney vehicle, The Unknown. My Winnipeg opened in New York in June and is making its way around North America this summer.
Why was Winnipeg such a fertile greenhouse for growing a filmmaker of your particular species?
When I started out, in the mid-80s, it was a perfect place for an independent filmmaker to start out. I got a grant to make a film, without having ever made a film! Shortly after, you had to have had at least one or two films before you were even eligible to apply for a grant. So it felt like the government was paying me money to make movies. Whenever I go anywhere and tell how easy it was for me to start, it doesn't seem very gracious of me because everyone gets really envious.
Not only that, but the person I became before I even considered making a movie was a direct result of Winnipeg's isolation. I'm kind of an obsessive, and as a kid I became obsessed with baseball broadcasts from very distant American AM radio stations for a while. Listening to them is like listening to secret CIA short-wave 'casts - they're very layered with interferences from other stations, or percussive signals from satellites or something. It's like listening to sound sculpture, and every now and then a pitch count, or a play-by-play announcer's voice would weave in throughout all of the layers of static and crackle and give a little bit of desperately needed information before weaving off into the distance again. Since the reinforcement was so intermittent I really got hooked on listening to this stuff in my loneliest, most virginal, deepest darkest adolescent days. I sort of constructed, in the isolation of Winnipeg, this model, almost like a blind person would, of what America looked like, based on the acoustic landscape I got from these things.
That would only happen in a city with virtually no hinterland. Once you drive out of Winnipeg, it's eight hours to Minneapolis or six hours to Regina which is just another Winnipeg. And so you're far from the places. Other artists from Winnipeg, more successful ones, often say the same thing. That unlike big cities, where there are lots of things to do and warmer weather, we don't talk our best ideas out into the cafe night air. You're stuck inside, and there's nothing to do but actually doing your stuff.
Did the near-inaccessability of these broadcasts increase their allure, then?
Those things were really something to me, and I kind of had this haunted childhood. I always felt there were some sort of ghosts. I identified a lot with my brother who died when I was seven. The day he died I was given his bedroom and his radio, and he had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that I liked to play with, that he got when he was maybe thirteen or something like that. He recorded a lot of these radio broadcasts, I discovered only three years ago. I discovered a bunch of them and they were over forty years old, so i wanted to have them digitally transfered to CD so I could listen to them properly. I was told at the lab that the tapes were so fragile that they could probably only be played once and then they would break. There's this thing you could do to strengthen them, but it would limit them to definitely one last play. You actually flash-heat them in an oven, which makes them temporarily stronger while they're warm. Then you can play it while the tape's warm, and record it digitally, and then you have to throw the tape out. It sort of melts together. It was really nervewracking because I had these precious recordings of my dead brother, a few hours worth, that he had made. I was desperate to hear them, but gambling with melting them to just the right degree was the only way of salvaging them.
We did it, and I discovered that he was making these recordings of these same acoustic landscapes. Trying to find little stations talking about interesting things of 1959 or 1961- Marilyn Monroe's sucide or American Air Force talk radio from 1961 of UFO sightings and conspiracy theories. Not much different from late-night talk radio now, but sounding so much better because it was filtered through all sorts of distant crackles. Every now and then you'd find out that something was originating from Houston or something like that. It created a world. When I listened to baseball games I imagined every game to be sold out, and full of characters from Weegee photographs, even though it was in the late 60s and early 70s and people didn't look like that. I pictured these open-air ballparks like the Polo Grounds, but it was Minnesota that I was listening to. The voices of the announcers sculpting out this world that never really existed, probably.
Were there revival cinemas in Winnipeg when you were growing up?
Well, grindhouses that would run 5-year-old movies, so they weren't "revival." If there were rep houses that showed Joan Crawford I wasn't aware of them until I was in my mid-20s. When I was growing up I went to the grindhouses and watched Corman movies and sub-Corman movies. In the summer, I would walk in just to feel the coolness of the air conditioning. I remember wearing a bathing suit - no shoes or socks or shirt, and watching as many Vincent Price movies as I could.
How did you get bit by the early-cinema bug?
I abandoned movies for a long time in favor of this radio obsession - baseball on radio. I memorized baseball stats, so that used up quite a few gigabytes of storage space - pretty much wasted years. When I was about 24, I was very unhappily working at a bank. My marriage had just broken up and that freed me from the obligation to work at this bank. I had an infant daughter, but I thought, "I'll paint houses. I don't have to do what my wife wants me to do anymore." I reacquainted myself with some old friends that I had lost track of while I was briefly married. And one of them had, in the meantime, taken up theater and film at the university, and he encouraged me to sneak into film classes with him just to pass the time watching movies. Pretty soon I made friends with all the profs. I even gave one of them, my screenwriting collaborator to this day, George Toles, who doesn't drive... I started giving him rides home. We started talking about the movies. I was far too shy to speak in class, especially since I wasn't officially auditing, but in cars we could debate and discuss. Canadians aren't debaters. They aren't confronters. But George is from New York, and I immediately got smitten by his ability to violently challenge someone on an artistic opinion. Here I was, a math and economics major using that left hemisphere all the time, where the answer is at the bottom of the page. All of a sudden, he rotated my hemispheres. I realized I didn't want to know the answer, that the questions are more interesting. That whole world of lit, and film and theater and the Eternal Mysteries, all that shit. I rotated hemispheres and started watching movies from all vintages and really loving them.
The 20s just looked cool. They still look cool to this day. It's one of the most durable decades in fashion terms and architectural design terms. There are some others that give it a good run for its money, but it's never gone completely away like some decades do now and then. So I always liked it but I never fell fully in love with 20s cinema until I started making movies myself, and I realized that when I'm putting together movies I tend to think of all books and movies as, more or less, fairy tales, the way all food tastes more or less like chicken. Everything is kinda like, relatively a fairy tale, or not so much. So my way into understanding something was to see something as a fairy tale. To be able to recognize allegories I would have to scrape away all the details, and see some archetypes briefly and see the way they related to each other. When I stripped away details and saw the way major characters were relating to each other, often I saw patterns that were repeated from Bible stories or fairy tales and things like that. When I'm constructing my own scripts I tend to do it that way. That enables you to get away with stylized performances. As a matter of fact, they're better when they're stylized. You don't want naturalism. Once you're stylizing you can level the playing field for a cast that may include really great actors and really not-so-great actors. I'm a bit of a product of natural selection. I've survived as a filmmaker because I kept adapting, using the features, the fins and feathers that stood me the best chance of surviving the environment in which I was working.
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