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September 25 – November 14, 2015

The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin

Amnesia: the process by which certain memories prior to a defining trauma become compromised or, in some cases, irretrievable. Has there ever been a filmmaker who more completely invokes this peculiar malady cinematically than Guy Maddin? It is hard to think of a Maddin film that doesn’t feature at least one amnesiac amongst its colorful ensemble, or at least one character with an undiagnosed pattern of forgetfulness. As a viewer, it is hard not to feel like an amnesiac just days or even hours after encountering one of his films, so convoluted and dreamlike are the sequences of events that comprise their unstable plots. And as a body of work, Maddin’s films comprise an attempt to formalize what amnesia might mean in a film-historical sense: the cinematic medium as a fluid form offering peculiar eccentricities from decade to decade, but one whose time-stamped specificities cannot be adequately appropriated by subsequent generations of practitioners without some fundamental shift in the DNA of the work. Once-fashionable stylistic approaches may prevail, and stories might be recycled in clumsy fashion, but deterioration—of materials, of styles and of collective memory of those approaches—nonetheless lies at the heart of this young art form.

By affectionately breathing life back into old mannerisms of the medium, Maddin’s eleven features to date attempt to work against this truth. At the same time, they affirm it by proving that, through cinema, memories thought lost to amnesia can be retrievable, but only in warped, degraded form. At one point in his 2002 film Cowards Bend the Knee, there’s a silent-film intertitle with the words “What sharp amnesias!”—a paradox, of course, but one that gets right to the heart of the impulse behind Maddin’s work. His films are sharp amnesias: fetishistically detailed, meticulously pantomimed recreations of forgotten films, films that never existed, films that existed only in Maddin’s mind, in his dreams, or perhaps in the dreams of motion picture audiences. These hypothetical films are modeled after real films, but they’ve emerged from the vagaries of time, memory and trauma as something else, their components tweaked, twisted, stretched and bruised beyond recognition, though still bound closely in spirit to the original creations.

Born in 1956, Maddin grew up in the harsh, wintry environs of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and many of his artistic fixations, which can’t be reduced to just cinema, can be traced back to this upbringing. Per an interview with The Dissolve critic Scott Tobias, Maddin “can’t even remember the source of half of the stuff” that wound up in My Winnipeg, his “ecstatic truth” ode to his city of birth, but the many explicitly autobiographical details in his films suggest otherwise. Despite playing like a mind-numbing parody of a bad zombie film, Maddin’s debut short, The Dead Father (1985), is clearly a reflection on the loss of his dad at age twenty-one, a void that partially explains the many absent or ineffectual patriarchs in his body of work. Similarly, the commissioned installation short Only Dream Things (2012) explores another family death: the suicide of his older brother in 1963. Meanwhile, Maddin’s three most blatantly self-referential features—Cowards Bend the Knee, Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg—all portray characters named “Guy Maddin” as timid geeks with severe angst amidst the opposite sex, nagging Oedipal complexes, and a tendency to displace these issues with peripheral fixations: hockey, work, or, most significantly, prolonged exposure to the flickering glow of a television set at odd hours of the night. As the operatic expressiveness of his filmmaking suggests, these representations are clearly the products of self-mythology, but they are not fabrications. To the extent that the childhood Maddin represents in his films is based in fact, it is one marked by inertia, loneliness, grief and escapist fantasies—the kind of emotional spectrum that might induce something like trauma.

Maddin’s movies, then—from the rickety folk-tale creepiness of Tales from the Gimli Hospital in 1988 to his latest and most ambitious regurgitation of bygone melodrama, The Forbidden Room (a world premiere at Sundance 2015)—offer records of his will as an artist to exorcise and glorify the memories of his fractious youth, spun through the hodgepodge of televisual, phonographic and cinematic styles he witnessed as respite from those uncertain times: stiff sitcoms from the 40s and 50s, sensational radio programs, hardboiled but technically crude B movies, lavish Technicolor spectacles and many other, older oddities that might have happened across his TV screen in the far reaches of cable access. Twilight of the Ice Nymphs cannibalizes Kenneth Anger and William Shakespeare, Careful riffs on the nebulous strain of “the mountain film,” Brand Upon the Brain! sporadically evokes French experimental and impressionist cinema of the 10s and 20s, Archangel echoes Soviet war propaganda films, Keyhole touches on detective fiction and pulp noir à la Raymond Chandler, and so on and so forth.

What ties these waywardly cinephilic visions together is a constant return to the same narrative and thematic logic (part of this consistency must surely be indebted to George Toles, Maddin’s co-writer since Archangel), as well as a contradictory predilection to interrupt this logic with bizarre detours and non sequiturs. Many of Maddin’s films take off from preposterous speculations—What if a part of Russia was not informed that the Great War ended? What if the sun never set over a village? What if Dracula seduced his female victims with elegant ballet chops?—before finding ways, however tenuous, of circling back to his pet themes: memory loss, sexual awakening, heartache, nature vs. nurture. Structurally, Maddin’s narratives often invoke P. Adams Sitney’s notion, as outlined in his volume Visionary Film: The American Avant Garde, of “trance films”—that is, films loosely following a single protagonist/audience surrogate “undertak[ing] an interior quest” wherein he or she encounters “erotic and irrational imagery” that “evokes the raw quality of [a] dream itself.” But unlike the characters in the works of the trance film’s most cited specialists—avant-garde narrative filmmakers like Maya Deren, Gregory Markopoulos and Kenneth Anger—Maddin’s somnambulist heroes restlessly intervene in their own mystifying dreamscapes, all this despite so often being beset by injuries, diseases, or just chronic forgetfulness and psychological confusion.

Maddin’s body of work might best be digested in one marathon-like jumble—an opportunity this retrospective doubtless affords the adventurous viewer—because, on their own, his films can be deliriously nonsensical. Taken together, their obsessive repetitions and parallels become unmistakable, and the collision of all their film-historical touch points starts to usher the viewer closer to what Maddin’s own mind must be like: a inexorable mental factory with an impossibly vivid sense of visual and sonic memory but precious little regard for psychological and narrative continuity or neatness. That this seemingly disorderly brain also belongs to a truly prolific high-concept showman—Maddin’s eclectic working life has constituted everything from ballet choreography and live performance orchestration to peep show installation and film journalism—is one of the great delights to follow in modern cinema. Assuming the forces of amnesia have whipped his oeuvre into a muddle of amorphous hallucinations for even the most enthusiastic of Maddin acolytes, the release of the sprawling and entrancing The Forgotten Room gives audiences a chance to acquaint themselves anew with this most idiosyncratic auteur. – Carson Lund

The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to welcome Guy Maddin to both the cinematheque for a few evenings of screenings and conversation and to Harvard’s VES Department; he will be gracing the halls and classrooms of the Carpenter Center this year as a Visiting Lecturer.

Film descriptions by Carson Lund, shorts descriptions by Jeremy Rossen

Friday September 25 at 7pm

The Saddest Music in the World

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros
Canada 2003, 35mm, b/w & color, 100 min

In Depression-era Winnipeg, a legless beer baroness, played by Isabella Rossellini in a performance that evokes Sternberg’s glamorously melancholy starlets, announces a contest inviting practitioners of the saddest music from around the world to the global capital of depression to compete for a prize of $25,000. In an expressionistic theater seemingly cobbled together with leftover flats from the production of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, international teams of musicians offer up their most dejected numbers to hordes of drunken audience members, competitions ultimately decided by the bellowing of a horn and Rossellini’s conclusive thumb. Parody of capitalist infiltration in Canada abounds, though lumps in the throat routinely follow laughs; The Saddest Music in the World mines nothing less than crippling depression and alcoholism for absurdist delirium. Maria De Medeiros (joining Maddin’s ever-growing collection of amnesiacs and lost objects of desire), Mark McKinney (doing a great burlesque of a Yankee theater producer) and Ross McMillan (playing a Serbian bearing insurmountable Great War guilt) round out the colorful ensemble. Print courtesy of IFC Films

Preceded by

Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Isabella Rossellini, Darcy Fehr, Brent Neale
Canada 2009, digital video, b/w, 7 min

Initially conceived as a chapter in Maddin’s film Keyhole, here he channels early Thomas Edison films along with a nod to Renée Falconetti. Isabella Rossellini is tied to a wooden 'lectric chair as sparks and smoke fill the room, her desires and flashbacks increasing with every zap in the chair.

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Friday September 25 at 9pm

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Wei-Qiang Zhang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni
Canada 2002, 35mm, b/w, 73 min

Reframing the classic tale of Dracula’s reign of terror in nineteenth-century England and Dr. Van Helsing’s efforts to stop it, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary provides one of Maddin’s most immediately legible and coherent narratives, one almost entirely unimpeded by his usual episodic diversions. Scored in grand orchestral fashion and performed by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the film often evokes refined spectacles of theatrical dance such as The Nutcracker, but Maddin’s intentionally crude monochromatic lighting, his selective coloring effects, and the smeared patina of his grainy 16mm images perversely root the film in traditions outside high stage art, celebrating amateurishness instead. Feverish jump cuts and uninhibited camera movement replace the typical long, sweeping takes expected in filmed ballet, while a surplus of fog effects obscures whatever sparkle the sets and costumes may have offered in a more conventional production. The result is a malfunctioning ballet film, one that tries to infuse the director’s familiar gamut of onscreen action—awkward courting, impassioned lovemaking, petty fighting—into dance and succeeds in its utter Maddinness. Print courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

Preceded by

The Heart of the World

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Leslie Bais, Caelum Vatnsdal, Shaun Balbar
Canada 2000, 35mm, b/w, 6 min

The first of many collaborations with Deco Dawson, including Maddin’s next film Dracula, this short incorporates Soviet propaganda-style films and extremely rapid jump cuts to tell the story of two brothers in love with the same woman. When she discovers that the world is dying of heart failure and only has one more day remaining, drastic action is needed and taken in this intense thriller. Print courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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Saturday September 26 at 7pm

Brand Upon the Brain!

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Gretchen Krich, Sullivan Brown, Maya Lawson
Canada/US 2006, digital video, b/w, 95 min

In a few special cases during its premiere run in 2007, Brand Upon the Brain! was exhibited as the kind of grand spectacle common to regal movie palaces in the silent era: an entire orchestra performed Jason Staczek’s screeching and clashing score, a crew of Foley artists were on hand to provide sound effects, and guest celebrities served up on-the-spot narration. Shorn of these live accoutrements, it is hard to gauge the extent to which Maddin’s most elaborate act of cinematic self-mythology preserves its live impact, but what does remain is so overripe with emotion and intrigue that it would be trifling to deem it a letdown. Crowded with sensationalistic intertitles that evoke vintage movie advertising language and organized in twelve chapters (each one more mired in dream logic than the last), Maddin’s film focuses on a fictionalized version of himself returning after three decades to an abandoned island home in frigid Canadian waters, the site of traumatic childhood memories that are then revived, no thanks to the incantatory narration of Isabella Rossellini, during his troubling sojourn at the house. Consider Brand Upon the Brain! the skeleton key to Maddin’s oeuvre: it is so steeped in pubescent angst, Freudian peculiarities and ghostly allusions to the spirits of cinema past that the filmmaking—hazy, fragmentary, jump-cut to oblivion—feverishly scrambles to keep up.

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Friday October 2 at 7pm

Tales from the Gimli Hospital

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Kyle McCulloch, Michael Gottli, Angela Heck
Canada 1988, 35mm, b/w, 72 min

In his debut, Maddin’s unparalleled ability to conjure vintage dreamscapes with limited resources was already fully evident, even if many of his stylistic and storytelling signatures were not yet developed. Without making any readily discernible references to film history, Tales from the Gimli Hospital suggests a pastoral Griffith melodrama crossed with Dreyer’s Vampyrand discharged as some kind of blood-spattered, low-budget bromance with traces of both the awkward early sound era and the color-tinted silent cinema of the 1910s. After a quick prologue in a hospital in Gimli, Manitoba (an amusing glimpse of a 7-Eleven “Big Gulp” situates us in the modern era, though the rickety jazz music emitting from an old radio complicates that timeline), the film goes on to visualize a series of tales told by a creepy nurse to a pair of young siblings. In a Gimli long past, two Icelandic settlers, visibly sweating under hot production lights, suffer both lovesickness and smallpox infection and ultimately become enmeshed in a battle for the affections of a trio of lovely nurses (among other vengeful romantic entanglements). As his career progressed, Maddin would significantly finesse the stylistic roughness established here, but the fascination with extravagantly imaginary alternate histories reveals the director in pure embryonic form.

Preceded by

The Dead Father

Directed by Guy Maddin. With D.P. Snidal, Margaret Anne MacLeod, John Harvie
Canada 1985, 16mm, b/w, 26 min

A striking and powerful first film from Guy Maddin, inspired by his own recurrent and haunting dreams following the death of his father, it follows a resentful son tormented by periodic visits from the recently deceased patriarch. Print courtesy of Winnipeg Filmmakers Group

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Saturday October 2 at 9:30pm

Archangel

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Michael Gottli, David Falkenburg, Michael O’Sullivan
Canada 1990, 35mm, b/w, 90 min

“I am Lieutenant John Boles, in Archangel, fighting a war, and trying to find the woman I love!” This is how the protagonist, played by a deer-in-the-headlights Kyle McCulloch, summarizes in voiceover the basic plot of Archangel, but of course it is hardly so simple. For one, the war he is referring to is World War I, but as declared by an explanatory title early on, this war was officially over before Archangel begins; it’s just that authorities have failed to notify certain arctic regions of northern Russia. Also, the name of this lost love for whom Boles pines keeps changing in his memory between Iris and Veronkha, and she keeps subtly shape-shifting throughout the course of the narrative. Maddin’s overheated send-up of a Bolshevik Revolution combat film is more accurately an exaggerated PTSD narrative riddled more with romantic and paternal distress than large-scale battles. Utilizing intertitles in addition to dubbed, deadpan dialogue, Archangel burlesques an awkward transitional period in the medium’s history to reflect the concurrent postwar discontent of the Twenties. Print courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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Saturday October 3 at 7pm

Keyhole

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier
Canada 2012, DCP, b/w, 94 min

The first film of Maddin’s career to have been shot wholly on digital video, Keyhole emerged in 2012 without the director’s usual smudgy vignette. But the film’s rare offering of visual clarity belies a no-less-obscured plot: at a three-story mansion populated by spectral noir types wandering around with crisscrossing motivations, one man must circumnavigate the house’s forbidding alcoves and hallways to reunite with his wife on the top floor. This plot, however, gradually dissolves into nonsense, leaving in its wake a smattering of highly sexualized vignettes and a fetishistic repetition of motifs from detective serials and cut-rate horror movies. The main character’s obsession with unlocking the various doors of the house, for instance, is a consistently maddening refrain. Relatively speaking, Keyhole is Maddin’s most star-studded feature, boasting the presences of Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier and Kevin McDonald. All are tasked with reading lines like “that penis is getting dusty” under a spell of droning, arrhythmic speech. DCP courtesy of Monterey Media

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Saturday October 10 at 7pm

Careful

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville
Canada 1992, 35mm, color, 100 min

Maddin’s third film opens with a hilariously absurd, blood-tinted PSA by an ominously lit old man warning children to exercise caution in their environment, a prologue that both establishes the loony conceit of the film (in the remote mountain region of Tolzbad, people must repress all expression so as to not incite avalanches) and functions as a sustained, unswerving mockery of restrictive societies that place unfair pressure on their people. In its two-part story of fatefully interconnected dysfunctional families, Careful ultimately posits that the result of this kind of oppressive social conditioning is a particularly strange brew of psychosomatic malnourishment: profound sexual timidity, deeply offbeat interpersonal skills and incestuous hang-ups all play a key part in Careful’s narrative. Maddin’s keen understanding of the ways in which impressionable minds find unlikely respites from these toxic environments manifests itself in Tolzbad’s labyrinthine geography, within which doomed lovers find cavernous hideaways from their all-seeing parents. Scored by portentous ascending and descending melodies that suggest children’s lullabies torqued into minor keys, Careful navigates these vertiginous landscapes and fragile emotions with the verve of an early German expressionist artifact. Print courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

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Friday October 16 at 9pm

Cowards Bend the Knee

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Darcy Fehr, Melissa Dionisio, Amy Stewart
Canada 2003, digital video, b/w, 60 min

Cowards Bend the Knee takes place inside a drop of sperm, and there is no double entendre to be read into that: the movie begins with a scientist releasing a specimen of ejaculate under a microscope and peering inside, whereupon the sample proves a kind of microcinema beaming out a fragmented and perverted retelling of Maddin’s own youthful sexual angst. A histrionic autobiography that could serve as a loose companion piece to his later My Winnipeg, Maddin’s film explores in narrative form the same frazzled ambivalence toward his own roots that he tackled directly in quasi-documentary shape later on. Darcy Fehr plays Guy as the standout player on the Winnipeg Maroons (the cartoonish glories of hockey being shown for the first time by the director as a formative experience), though his idyllic role in the community starts to crumble when he becomes entangled with a Chinese beauty named Meta—a mad fixation that leads him to the macabre office of a hairdresser-cum-abortionist. Divided into ten mischievously titled chapters, Maddin’s ludicrously eroticized tale of fear and desire rings hilarity and strange pathos out of the alarming adolescent realization that the body can take control over the mind.

Preceded by

Sissy Boy Slap Party

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Noam Gonick, Caelum Vatnsdal, Simon Hughes
Canada 2004, digital video, b/w, 6 min

Made to promote The Saddest Music in the World, this short was inspired by Jack Smith and a favorite slapping game enjoyed by actor Caelum Vatnsdal. The sailor Sissy Boys take great pleasure in their island paradise while Maddin’s rhythmic editing builds to ecstatic levels.

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Guy Maddin in person
Friday November 13 at 7pm

My Winnipeg

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Darcy Fehr, Ann Savage, Louis Negin
Canada 2007, 35mm, color & b/w, 80 min

Found footage, Super 8 and shoddy digital video collide in My Winnipeg, a film made for Canada's Documentary Channel that has little-to-no interest in a straightforward presentation of factual information. Narrated like esoteric beat poetry throughout by Maddin himself, the film creates a potent dream space that reflects on his upbringing in Manitoba's cold, dreary capital through a funhouse collage of styles recycled from the kind of late-night television Maddin ingested as a child while staving off subzero temperatures. Rites of passage at the local hockey arena, sitcoms of domestic dissatisfaction, surreal accounts of Winnipegian rituals and festivities, reflections on the quasi-maternal geography of the city with its winding rivers and shadowy alleyways—all are folded into the dense sprawl of My Winnipeg, which takes larger form as Maddin’s alleged attempt to “film his way out” of the city. Cinematic autobiographies do not get more eccentric or singular than this. Print courtesy IFC Films.

Preceded by

Nude Caboose

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Darren Anderson, Jim Bell, Mike Bell
Canada 2006, digital video, color, 3 min

An extremely happy shirtless man attempts, and succeeds, in getting the party started as he leads a group of dancers in a joyful caboose frolic.

Spanky: To the Pier and Back

Directed by Guy Maddin. With Spanky
Canada 2008, video, b/w, 4 min

Inspired by the stories of W.G. Sebald and Oskar Fischinger’s film Walking From Munich to Berlin, Maddin takes his then-girlfriend’s dog Spanky (co-star in My Winnipeg) out to the pier in what turns out to be their last walk together in this endearing portrait.

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Guy Maddin in person
Saturday November 14 at 7pm

The Forbidden Room

Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson. With Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin
Canada 2015, DCP, color, 128 min

Teaming up with a co-director for the first time in fellow Winnipegian visual effects artist Evan Johnson, Maddin bursts forth with The Forbidden Room into unexplored aesthetic and structural territory even as he arrives ultimately at the rawest, most poetically Maddinesque object in a career already brimming with unfiltered discharges from the id: a film with an increasingly decaying memory of itself. Longtime Maddin regular Louis Negin materializes onscreen to hold a sermon on bathing rituals, the bubbles in the tub segue into deep ocean waters, and a nervous crew of underwater explorers idles under tons of marine pressure until suddenly a bearded jungle man emerges from a vent to divulge his story of indoctrination into a wolf-human clan—and that is only the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The Forbidden Room continues down a radioactive live wire of narrative convolution, rarely surfacing for air from its starting point, a perverse game of exquisite corpse that alternately evokes frantic channel hopping and the subterranean logic of the human subconscious. Transitions grow more and more deranged (at one point, we enter the daydream of a slain man’s moustache), protagonists swap out every few minutes, and the same actors reappear in as many as five ludicrous iterations. Most remarkably, Maddin and Johnson have cooked up a truly one-of-a-kind hybrid of high-definition digital and organic analog filmmaking, an aggressive fusion that makes their epileptic montage appear as though the surface of a boiling broth. DCP courtesy of Kino-Lorber.

Preceded by

Elms

Directed by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson
Canada 2014, digital video, color, 3 min

Guy Maddin, along with collaborator Evan Johnson, repurposes found footage to explore different themes related to Winnipeg, which in this eerie segment centers on the dying elm tree as symbol for both the rise and fall of the city.

Louis Riel for Dinner

Directed by Drew Christie. With Guy Maddin
Canada 2014, digital video, b/w, 3 min

An animated collaboration, narrated by Maddin, of a story he allegedly found outside his elementary school as a kid, this short is a tribute to the Canadian folk hero Riel, who is portrayed as an inedible duck in this surreal adaptation.

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