For many years now, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has been haunted by the lost films of silent cinema. According to a recent report from the Library of Congress, only 14% of the 10,919 silent films released by major studios is known to still exist. The surreal, dream-like gestures of Maddin’s filmography owes much to this black and white era, but also to his complicated Winnipeg upbringing: the semi-autobiography cine-essay My Winnipeg, or the magic realist-meets-oddball bent of The Saddest Music of the World, which re-imagines a Great Depression-era Winnipeg as “the world capitol of sorrow”.
Since 2010, Maddin has worked on Seances, a sprawling film project that has involved cinephile faves like Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, and Udo Kier – not to mention marathon shoots in Paris, New York, and Montreal – in re-imaging the forgotten 75% of these photoplays. Currently being screened daily at the Drake Hotel as part of our current winter exhibition, assistant art curator Rea McNamara got in touch with Maddin for an email conversation regarding the concept of loss in cinema, Seances's ultimate fate, and where his relationship with his storied hometown currently stands. (In his own words, "The end is near for me and Winnipeg.")
Rea McNamara: Part of the interesting process for Seances has been its commitment to re-imagining in a canonical and not-so-canonical way these lost silent films. Is it true that you sometimes only have a title and director to work with? There must be something really sad about that, in terms of film preservation, but also creatively inspiring, with the freedom you and your actors have.
Guy Maddin: It's very haunting. Sometimes there is a lot of material left behind by the missing film -- surviving fragments, trailers, scripts, plays, novels, soundtracks, production stills, lobby cards, Variety reviews, anecdotal evidence, diary entries, rumours. But sometimes there is next to nothing -- just an evocative title, or an uncanny reason for the loss. There have been directors murdered by the Khmer Rouge or Stalin, and their films destroyed at the same time; there have been films intentionally dumped in the ocean of burnt in conflagrations set by studios in dire need of shelf space for more recent film product; sometimes a loss can be traced to a specific accident, one last print simply being left on a street car. Digging around for an idea of what the movie might have been like is always fascinating. Often I feel like a forensic detective, a character, say, on CSI George Eastman House. And I really get obsessive about seeing these films, but like any detective I can get territorial, even ghoulish. It's getting so I don't want anyone else to find out stuff about the titles that intrigue me most, sometimes I don't even want the films to be found because I've come to think of their lost-ness as something I own. I've been working on this too long, I'm turning into a Kafka character -- I'm not sure which one, but something like the Village Schoolmaster. Or a Poe character. Submerging one’s self in loss, even if it's just filmic loss, is not healthy.
RM: Is Seances still a work-in-progress? It’s amazing how sprawling the project has been so far: it was an installation project/film shoot at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and PHI Centre in Montreal, and all the films will eventually sit on an interactive National Film Board of Canada website. Where is the project at right now?
GM: Well, we've shot one movie per day (they're about 15 minutes each) for 9 weeks in various cities, including a few weeks in Winnipeg way back in 2010. We're tired of shooting and since we're a small team we are now concentrating on editing. Phew! The hours of screen time are adding up! If everything turns out the way we want it to we'll have this crazy website where anyone can visit and hold a private seance with the spirits of lost cinema, in other words, watch a bunch of these poor haunted souls, these old ghost movies, breaking up into wispy shreds of narrative, hanging themselves in the air like so many streaks of light, interacting with each other for a while, confused and sometimes confusing, an addled and trippy experience for those vulnerable to psychic visitations or show biz! There will also be a feature film version of the accursed films we've dragged back to our time for their brief visits. Everything, the NFB site and feature, should be ready during the darkest, frostiest, unholiest days of early 2015.
RM: You’ve described the project as a para-normal cinematic experiment. Have any particularly spooky moments happen on set that have confirmed that you truly channelled the unhappy spirits of these lost films?
GM: Nah, I don't really believe in that crap.
RM: You recently presented a lecture at UW-Madison on the concept of loss in cinema. How do you feel this theme has had an impact on your filmmaking, but also film viewing? I read somewhere that you apparently had scrawled a note on the PHI Centre Seances set noting that almost every director in the first half-century of film history – Hitchcock, Lang, Murnau, etc. – has experienced losing at least one film to fate. Seems like a baffling experience in the digital age of back-ups, copying, etc. (Or not?)
GM: In most cases I'm not sure when the films went missing. Kind of like when you've lost the car keys or remote, you can narrow it down, but if you really knew the moment you could probably solve the mystery. I bet most of Murnau's were lost after his premature death in 1931. But Hitchcock and Lang lived far enough into the 20th century to know their movies were gone, though there remains hope they'll be found. Hitchcock's The Mountain Eagle, his first film, tops the most wanted list among cinephiles yearning enough to make such longing lists.I think Ed Wood and Oscar Micheaux lost a lot of films because personal privation pushed them off-focus about their accumulated work. Cash-strapped and mostly forgotten Buster Keaton simply left his films behind when he moved out of his Hollywood mansion. Luckily he had sold the house to actor James Mason, who recognized the treasure thus abandoned. A huge Keaton revival, which Keaton lived to enjoy, was launched on account of this telling and touching incident. Had he sold that house to anyone else... well, I don't even want to think about it.
Films take up a lot of space and it's tempting for non-cinephiles to chuck them out. It probably even feels good to destroy such things. There is a sense that nothing gets lost anymore, but it will, and we'll all be more haunted and richer for the experience. Ugh, who wants to live a life without loss? We need beginnings and ends. That's why a lot of digital art is now starting to work with the idea of digital loss. Let's toss our laptops and hard drives, kids!
RM: You’re known as the great Winnipeg surrealist. What’s your relationship with the city these days?
GM: Grim, as always. But less and less co-dependently so. The end is near for me and Winnipeg. I have my memories, but I've sucked almost all the flavour out of them by adapting them to film. I've always been wired to live as firmly in the past as the present, but making movies unwires you somehow. There is less of a tangle in my head. I can hear some echoes, but they don't mean anything to me. Zzzzzzt! Gone!
RM: Do you have anything upcoming that you’re excited about?
GM: I've been living in this project for so long I just want to take a year off and read books when I'm done, recharge my noodle, but I've also learned a lot about narrative while working on all these movies. And genres! I feel like I could make one feature representing each of the 137 major genres and sub-genres before I'm done. That's more than twice the total Hitchcock completed in his long career. I'm the same age he was when he finished Vertigo, so I can hardly wait to finish all them books and get to it.
Guy Maddin's Seances can be seen daily projected in the back lobby of the Drake Hotel. On Sunday April 27 at 7:30PM, a dedicated screening of the films will occur in the Drake Underground, with live improvised musical accompaniment by Marker Starling. Cover is $15, $10 with student ID. Click here for the event listing.