“It’s just not in my nature to master naturalistic storytelling,” says cult Canadian auteur Guy Maddin. You can say that again, replies TARA BRADY
‘AS ECCENTRIC AS my work might seem, I don’t go around on a penny farthing,” Guy Maddin assures us.
We’ll take him at his word, although we’re secretly disappointed. When it comes to this most extraordinary Canadian film-maker, we’re inclined to believe that anything – up to and including travel by antiquated velocipede – is possible. For more than 20 years, Maddins phantasmagoric, psychosexual tales of Soviet supermen, unrequited love, cannibalism, arctic tundra, amnesia and ice hockey have enlivened festivals and arthouses. A best-kept secret among cinephiles, Maddin’s oeuvre sounds out around the movieverse like Arthur Russell’s cello or Daniel Johnson’s ditties.
His films draw from fragments of dreams – sometimes his own, sometimes his daughter’s – to form wild, triply fantasias. Tales From the Gimli Hospital transforms the rivalries between two psychiatric patients into an Icelandic saga; Cowards Bend the Knee turns an iconic silent era keyhole lens on peep-show tales of abortion and sports; The Saddest Music in the World sees a glass-legged Baroness preside over a beersponsored event to find the eponymous evocative composition.
Maddin’s latest film, Keyhole, refashions Homer into a ghostly gangster picture that sees Jason Patric’s Ulysses rendezvous with his cohorts at a house where his estranged wife (Maddin regular Isabella Rossellini) keeps her naked father chained to a bed. A half-drowned girl, who hovers between life and death like Schrodinger’s cat, plays oracle and guide as our hero attempts to negotiate a structure with unreliable dimensions and an indeterminate number of chambers.
“I’ve always been a dilettante about the classics,” says Maddin. “But in recent years, while looking for plots to steal, I realised while reading Euripides that Greek mythology was just like Archie comics. They’re both wonderful and gorgeous and easy to read and you can find yourself in them. All those lusts for Betty and Veronica are right there on the page – but more homicidally. I also liked the fact that plays that were written 2,500 years ago were about the relationships from which you just barely escape with your life.”
Archie Comics? Really?
“I love Archie Comics,” he says. “I’d love to do a film adaptation. I’ve read a million hours of comics, but unfortunately I have trouble talking to comic-book people because I never really read DC or Marvel. I liked Classics Illustrated and Archie Comics. I can’t go to conventions. I’d get bullied by someone wearing a phaser for a belt.”
So Keyhole is a Freudian-Greek-mobster-ghost-noir-melodrama via Archie Comics?
“Yes,” agrees the film’s director, screenwriter, cinematographer and editor. “Well, I’ve often been advised by friends that I should work in a genre. So I decided to make the classic Freudian, Greek mobster family melodrama. It’s a genre that maybe exists in Mexico when certain crazed telenovelas fall into a Petri dish and go mad. I certainly feel as if I’m working in a genre that many have worked in before, but I know those feelings are the artifacts of overprescribing doctors and a mildew addiction I developed as a child. It’s just not in my nature to master naturalistic storytelling and naturalistic direction of actors.”
In a film defined by wacky humour (“This kind of weather stirs me up: Man’s weather,” notes Ulysses as he stares through a noir-friendly window) and freaky happenstance, the setting is Keyhole’s most discombobulating feature. In common with Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Robert Heinlein’s And He Built A Crooked House, Keyhole offers an epic, room-by-room adventure. Just how far does that rattling chain go, anyway? And how might a real-estate agent quantify the dwelling’s mysterious attributes?
“You get that a little bit in Polanski’s The Tenant, too,” notes Maddin. “Suddenly the apartment has sprouted another staircase. The psychological and literal dimensions are just not accurate. It’s a good idea, another one thats worth stealing.”
Decades before The Artist and Hugo revived the forgotten tics and techniques of early cinema, Maddin’s adherence to primitive kinds of film grammar as a way to represent memory and dreams set him apart. He did not, as he points out, actually get around to making a properly silent picture until the 2002 ballet Dracula, Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, though even fans tend to misremember a purposefully archaic back catalogue that runs to 10 features and more than 100 short films.
“The Artist and Scorsese’s Méliès picture are an interesting development, but I can’t see it delaying film history for too long,” says Maddin. “Because I employ mannered performances and a kind of technical incompetence, people remember my films as silent – even when they’re like Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, which I made in colour and with far too much dialogue. The French distributors had real trouble with that one because the subtitles required a phone book. But it’s kind of gratifying that people misremember those films as being silent. I’m an unreliable witness myself. There are a few things from the silent era that have lined up into an impermanent constellation right now. But those stars will be dispersed soon enough. And I’ll keep working in my little dead end.”
Maddin’s dead end, a cul-de-sac where he says “all are welcome”, seems to share a post code with contemporary film-makers he most admires (“Martin Arnold, TS Mueller, Paul Thomas Anderson, Terrence Malick”). But Maddin’s work equally harks back to the early Buñuelian concoctions that first inspired the Canadian to pick up a 16mm camera, in particular L’âge d’Or and Un Chien Andalou. “I loved that he worked with non-professional actors,” says Maddin. “And I loved that he willfully ignored continuity where other film- makers prize it to the detriment of creativity.”
In this spirit, Maddin’s oeuvre channels late relatives, ancient familial discontents and inaccurate historical detail into enchanting post-Expressionist shapes. The secret, he says, is tapping directly into the stream of consciousness. “Long before I picked up a camera I remember watching my then four-year-old daughter painting, and even though she’s a talented artist now, no one is a visionary artist like they are when they’re four and just doodling around. There’s a freedom and emotional honesty about the enterprise. They just happen to feel like expressing themselves. Over the years we learn to censor so we don’t make spectacles of ourselves.
“My first few movies were like that, a sort of daycare arts and crafts experience. But that was before I learned to unscrew the top of my head to pour out all the fears, selfloathings, and pathetic longings into a completely uninhibited melodramatic expressionistic mess. I always correct my students when they say that melodrama or expressionism exaggerates reality. They disinhibit reality.”
Keyhole is at the IFI, Dublin