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Film Fri Nov 07 2014
Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin sat on the stage of the MCA theater Wednesday night in a black sweater, black trousers and sneakers. He looked like a perfectly normal person--and then he said his major influences as a filmmaker are David Lynch and Luis Bunuel. The Lynch-Bunuel connection made total sense of his series of mad, dream-or-nightmare films. Are they noir? Adaptations of silent films? Grainy black and white? Surrealistic? Yes, all those things and more. Are they Hollywood films? "As far from Hollywood as possible," according to Maddin.
"Guy Maddin: His Winnipeg" was part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. The event was held at the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art, moderated by Charles Coleman, film program director at Facets Multimedia. The two came on stage and sat in chairs facing each other. Before any opening by Coleman, Maddin began talking about films and talked nonstop, while Coleman occasionally guided him with a question. Throughout the conversation, a Maddin film looped on the screen behind them.
Maddin is probably best known for his films, The Saddest Music in the World (2003), a Depression-era story about a beer baroness with glass legs played by Isabella Rossellini, and My Winnipeg (2009), an homage and "surrealist mockumentary" to his hometown. He also has made many short films and creates film installations.
Is it true, Coleman asked, that your parents bought their new TV set and brought you home from the hospital on the same day in 1956? Yes, Maddin answered, and we both were on the living room floor. "That TV set became my best friend. There was no programming before noon but I loved to watch the snow. And sometimes very fuzzy programs from Grand Forks, North Dakota."
He earned a degree in economics and math at the University of Winnipeg ("without much pleasure") with no particular career goal. Then one day "I got drunk and got a girl pregnant" and "it became a David Lynch story ... but our baby girl didn't look like the Eraserhead baby." (When he first saw Lynch's Eraserhead, he said, "I knew David Lynch got me.")
He later took film classes at the University of Manitoba and worked with Professor George Toles, who was a collaborator on Maddin's films. When he started watching films at the university, he said, he saw Bunuel's films Un Chien Andalou and L'Age D'Or, both made with artist Salvador Dali. "They turned my [mathematician's] brain hemispheres around. I can't even add any more."
"I was even briefly enamored of theater," he said, "although going to plays cured me of that."
Those two Bunuel films were inspiring, Maddin said, and he thought he could be a "basement filmmaker." "Sort of like the Sex Pistols," Coleman observed. "Yes, I could be the Sid Vicious of filmmakers," Maddin agreed. "As far from Hollywood as possible."
Maddin talked about how he came to love melodrama and surrealism and gradually became a huge fan of silent films, especially of the directors whose work straddled the silent and talkie era, such as Abel Gance and Oscar Micheaux. Maddin began to think of saving or recreating "lost films," films that either were physically lost or in which there was no current interest. He described an internet project to recreate fragments of these lost films here and here.
During the discussion, Coleman introduced and played one of Maddin's famous short films, The Heart of the World, made in 2000 for the 25th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival. The style is Russian constructivism and the plot involves two brothers in love with the same woman, Anna, a "state scientist."
Later, Coleman showed another short film, Bing & Bela, inspired by the so-called woman in black who visited the grave of Rudolph Valentino once a year. In Bing & Bela, a young woman cannot decide whether she prefers Bing Crosby or Bela Lugosi, whose graves are side by side at a cemetery in Culver City, Calif. Bing & Bela was made for one of Maddin's installations.
He said he's now reading Greek tragedies, which he thought would be boring ... "but they're like Mexican comic books!" He said he also has become obsessed with Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
The Saddest Music in the World is available on DVD from IFC Films (100 minutes). The film stars Rossellini and Mark McKinney of the Kids in the Hall sketch comedy troupe. The DVD includes three 4-minute films:
• A Trip to the Orphanage, black and white, silent w/ music
• Sissy-Boy Slap-Party, black and white
• Sombra Dolorosa, color, with title cards and Spanish dialogue
Maddin's latest film is Keyhole (2009, 94 minutes), which is described as a loose adaptation of The Odyssey. In reviewing it, the late Roger Ebert said: "Narratives have a beginning, a middle and an end, and a Maddin film has a disturbing way of always seeming to exist in the present, like a dream."