“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