"I don't believe in ghosts," says Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, "but when ghosts appear in film or literature, they are the positive record of something missing, a loss."
The Winnipeg native, whose films include The Saddest Music in the World (2003) and Keyhole (2011), both featuring Isabella Rossellini, will elaborate on the concept of loss in cinema in a series of free public events organized by the UW Cinematheque and the Material Culture program. He'll present a lecture titled "Loss in the Cinema" at the Chazen Museum of Art on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m. Then on Friday, Feb. 21, he'll screen two films in 4070 Vilas Hall: his feature My Winnipeg (2008) at 2 p.m., followed by a personal favorite of his, James Whale's Remember Last Night? (1935), at 7 p.m.
Maddin says the theme of loss has had a profound effect on his own film-viewing experiences.
"Movies that have mattered to me in the last few years have been built around a loss of some sort," he explains. "Stretching the definition of the word, you could say all films derive from loss. I consider looking in the rearview mirror, driving away from something, a kind of loss. But whenever there's a loss there's also a gain, so I see it as a positive thing."
Loss informs Maddin's own films both thematically and stylistically, but melancholy is often overcome by his cinematic playfulness. He borrows from the visual vocabulary of silent film -- intertitles, iris mattes and stylized performances -- in a way that laments its loss and celebrates its legacy. His renowned short film The Heart of the World (2000), commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the Toronto Film Festival, is a hyperkinetic pastiche of Soviet Montage, German Expressionism and silent-era techniques. Cinema literally saves the world in this film, but in a way, this happy ending is also sad because the film's hero is not the same cinema we have today.
In the short film My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005), he again collaborates with Rossellini, who engages with her late father Roberto's cinematic legacy by arguing with him as she plays various figures in cinema history (Hitchcock, Fellini and Chaplin, among others). Maddin seems to enjoy the intersection of memory and imagination.
A surrealistic underworld
One of the most visible members of the Winnipeg Film Group, an artist-run organization committed to independent film production, distribution and exhibition, Maddin alternates between feature and short filmmaking. In addition to working with notable actors such as Rossellini and Shelley Duvall, he has shot features entirely on Super 8 film (Cowards Bend the Knee, 2003). Critic J. Hoberman described him as "the most eccentric of mainstream filmmakers (or the most accessible of the avant-gardists)."
Maddin's feature film debut, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989), was a cult hit in the waning days of the midnight-movie circuit. It centers on two hospital patients competing for the attention of the nurses. His second feature, Archangel (1991), set during the Bolshevik Revolution, was voted best experimental film by the National Society of Film Critics. Careful (1992), his third feature, debuted at the New York Film Festival. It takes place in an unusual town where strong emotions can set off avalanches.
Maddin has also ventured into the realm of film as performance. His 2006 feature, Brand Upon the Brain!, was initially presented at the Toronto International Film Festival with a live orchestra, foley artists and narrator. The film then toured North America in a similar presentation with guest narrators such as Crispin Glover. Late critic Roger Ebert was a fan of this film, and Maddin's work in general.
"You will enjoy Brand Upon The Brain! most if you are an experienced moviegoer who understands (somehow) what Maddin is doing or a naive filmgoer who doesn't understand that he is doing anything," Ebert wrote on his website in 2007. "Maddin seems to penetrate to the hidden layers beneath the surface of the movies, revealing a surrealistic underworld of fears, fantasies and obsessions."
An unconventional trip down memory lane
In My Winnipeg, Maddin's interest in loss takes a more personal turn.
"I hope it still stands as a trip down everyone's hometown memory lane," he says. "I don't think of myself as nostalgic, but I've always been concerned [with] ingesting the past by way of understanding my place in the present."
Even in this personal essay film, which is closer to a conventional documentary than My Dad Is 100 Years Old, Maddin finds ways to apply his stylistic touches. The central recurring character is "Guy Maddin" (played by Darcy Fehr), who sleeps restlessly on a train while trying to return to -- or escape from -- Winnipeg. The real-life Maddin serves as the narrator, guiding the audience through Winnipeg's history and legends. There's no attempt to conceal the artifice of the rear projection outside the train window, so the images become a kind of thought balloon featuring sights in and around the city. Conventional archival footage is mixed with highly stylized re-creations, all of which are punctuated by silent-movie-style intertitles that comment on the action.
To examine his early domestic memories, Maddin combines home movies and family photos with sequences that are uniquely his own. He claims to have sublet the house where he grew up for one month to re-create family memories with hired actors, but that claim also seems to be part of the artifice. His mother objects when he decides to exclude his father from the reenactments, so he compromises with her, pretending that his father has been exhumed and reburied in the living room. Ann Savage, the actress who plays Maddin's mother, seems to have been hired for her Felliniesque facial expressions, which give her scenes a surreal flair. Her acting credits date back to 1940s films like Detour and Klondike Kate. Once again, Maddin's cinephilia enters the picture.
My Winnipeg's style changes somewhat from section to section. A more conventional section examines the destruction of the Winnipeg Arena, former home of the NHL team the Winnipeg Jets. Maddin has some axes to grind. First, the new arena was built on the ashes of Eaton's Department Store, which had been an anchor to downtown Winnipeg. Second, the new arena (an "architectural lie," as Maddin calls it) was too small to lure an NHL hockey team after the Jets left for Phoenix. (This problem was resolved four years after the completion of the film, when the Atlanta Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets.) But worst of all was the destruction of the original arena, a cathedral to hockey where Maddin connected with his masculinity as a child. Maddin claims to have been born in the dressing room in the middle of a Winnipeg Maroons game. (His father was the team's general manager.) This sequence's impact depends less on visual style and more on Maddin's voice and language.
A more abstract section of My Winnipeg examines the psychic tendencies in the city by telling the stories of physician and politician Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, who held elaborately documented séances in his home the 1920s, and medium Gweneth Lloyd, who was a choreographer for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in the late 1930s. The movie's re-creation of a Lloyd séance could work on its own as a short film and recalls Maddin's 2002 feature Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, which adapted a Royal Winnipeg Ballet performance. Instead of sharing the messages from the spirits verbally, Lloyd danced them out. Maddin used this detail as an opportunity to indulge all of his signature cinematic tendencies.
Though it can be hard to tell what's going on at times, that doesn't obscure the truths Maddin wants to explore about his hometown. You can take Maddin out of Winnipeg, but you can't take Winnipeg out of Maddin. Despite all the reasons a successful filmmaker might leave, he remains.
"No matter what city I show the film in -- Jerusalem, Sydney, Johannesburg -- someone from Winnipeg is in the crowd," Maddin says. "They're usually the most ornery. 'You don't seem to like Winnipeg very much,' they say. 'Why do you make it look so bad?' But I'm the one who still lives there, not some warm place like them."
The big picture
The final component of Maddin's visit lets him indulge his own cinephilia.
"When I'm invited to screen my films, I also just want to share a movie that surprised and pleased me," Maddin explains. "People know James Whale from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, and maybe they know he did The Invisible Man and Showboat. Then he did these other films. Remember Last Night? isn't a horror movie. It's sort of a bon vivant movie with great style."
Maddin cherishes the opportunity to share films at places like Vilas Hall because his own film-viewing history is mostly limited to the small screen.
"Up until a few years ago, I had never really seen more than 10 vintage films on the big screen. I had always seen them on VHS or DVD," he explains. "Then I started hanging out in Los Angeles more, where I could see these films the way they were originally intended to be seen."
Maddin says showing films on a big screen immerses viewers in details they might otherwise miss.
"You just see and understand better how the sets were put together. You see facial expressions on secondary characters. You're more captive to the flow of the film. It's nice to see the film grain and the emulsion, and there's an ambient hum coming out of the speakers that reminds you [of what] was also heard by audiences in the 1930s."