“I thought I would use these clips to sort of support an answer to a question I get every now and then: ‘Why do you make movies that look and feel the way they do?’” This is how Guy Maddin began his lecture/presentation May I Blow My Bugle Now? My Life In Clips, which he delivered Tuesday night to a standing-room-only crowd at Innis Town Hall. This isn’t the only question Maddin regularly receives. He continues, “Or, ‘Have you ever considered making a regular Hollywood movie?’…or, ‘Have you ever considered alternating–like, making a good, moneymaking Hollywood movie…and then making one of yours?’”
“Well…I can’t. Had I been able to, I probably would have quit making my own movies a long time ago.”
“I’m just a primitive,” Maddin explains afterward. “I’m a technophobe, and I’m technologically clumsy, and that’s sorta what I’m going to be talking about tonight.”
Primitive? Maybe, but the all-around Canadian national treasure and director of My Winnipeg (2007) and The Saddest Music in the World (2003) is the only working director whose films are genuinely otherworldly. His low-budget oddities, filmed on musty soundstages with 8mm black-and-white film stock and equally inspired by surrealist and silent movie aesthetics, are so bizarre and unhinged in tone and spirit that they look like messages from an alternate reality.
Maddin opened a weeklong series of events at Innis College with a collection of clips from films that share kinship with his own films’ heightened realities.
“I knew I just would never be technically proficient—that I would be the filmic equivalent of my daughter at arts and crafts hour—and I thought I would start watching movies that were equally primitive. So I found myself drawn again and again to films that weren’t trying to set up a dramatic illusion, but kind of brazenly showed off their artifice, brazenly showed off the very mechanisms of film.”
Clips ranged from well-known classics (King Vidor’s glossy melodrama Duel in the Sun, Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) to underground film (George Kuchar’s The Devil’s Cleavage, Luis Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or) to more experimental work, like a version of the Bela Lugosi potboiler The Invisible Ghost with certain dialogue and characters erased, or a sex-free post-apocalyptic drama commissioned from a porn company (“I swear there’s no porn in it! It’s the actors’ default mode: ‘I’ve got this egg…I’d better lick it!’”).
“I became a young father at 21,” Maddin says. “Within a couple years my daughter was making drawings, and I was astonished at how beautiful they were in those days before she knew ‘the rules’–lines, vanishing points, all about perspective. I love the stuff as much for what it excluded–a missing body now and then, a missing nose–as what it included.”
“One of my favourite ones was, she said she was drawing a shoe, but it was a shoe [with] a man in the shoe driving a car with his own shoes underneath, and then she just glued…she didn’t really glue it, she just put some Alphaghetti noodles on top and they just sorta dried there. And it was so beautiful for some reason, and there was no real logical explanation for it, but I was really moved by it.”
Maddin’s films, with their outsized emotions and eccentric mise-en-scènes, take melodrama to the point of absurdity—and indeed melodrama was a concept Maddin spent much time defending. “Good melodrama is like a dream. In your dreams, if you’re lucky, you get to possess the person, or punch the person, or cry your eyes out, or flee someone you fear rather than stick it out in dread, because there’s a species of honesty that gets distorted and is trying to express itself. So, in good melodrama the truth is simply uninhibited. People who lust after each other do something about it; people who hate each other do something about it; there’s all sorts of crazy coincidences that facilitate the consummation of all these desires.”
“There’s something about all these clips that have always inspired me to continue as a filmmaker, because I was always scared that since I had no experience in theatre and I wouldn’t be very good at directing actors, what if I got an actor that was just out-of-control hammy? I sorta decided, Well, if I put something that’s melodramatically true on the page and then I couldn’t control the actor, then they would just be un-inhibiting the truth.”
“When you’re expressing the truth, over-the-top isn’t too much.”
Guy Maddin’s week-long residency at Innis College concludes today with a screening of My Winnipeg at Innis Town Hall at 7 p.m., and tomorrow with a roundtable and screening of Brand Upon the Brain. For more information, visit humanities.utoronto.ca.