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GUY MADDIN GETS SUPERNATURAL INSPIRATION WITH “SEANCES”

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In Montreal through July 20th, fans of Guy Maddin’s mysterious pseudo-silent films are invited to come down and witness a series of them in the act of creation, as he sets out to remake 12 “lost” films in just 13 days. 

The Canadian director first came to notoriety with 1988’s TALES FROM GIMLI HOSPITAL, and his subsequent films – including ARCHANGEL, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORD, DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY, HEART OF THE WORLD (the latter starring THEY CAME FROM WITHIN author Caelum Vatnsdal) and even early cheapo public access show SURVIVAL! – all float within the dark realms of the fantastic. Now, in a pioneering move, the shoot of Maddin’s latest transmedia project SEANCES – which will debut as an interactive series on the NFB website before being condensed into a film installation – is open to the public. In a tiny studio with only a barrier rope separating them from the action and a subtle sign reminding them to turn off cellphones, onlookers are invited to step into a miniature world of antiquated train cars and parlour rooms – lovingly detailed but necessarily modular sets that will turn over each day as Maddin endeavors to shoot 12 short films in just under two weeks.

“I had hoped that doing it in public would force me to do a better job,” says Maddin of the decision to shoot in public. “Force me to be a bit of a showman for the actors, keep things moving quickly, keep everyone awake. But one of our first visitors this morning fell sleep, actually! I got a photograph of it. But one thing I’ve found is that I completely forget that someone’s there after all. It’s something, I guess, like reality television. I realize now that people on reality shows really are being themselves. You forget the camera’s there within 20 minutes.”

Th public watching the filming of SEANCES - actress Karine Vanasse (centre)

The public watching the filming of SEANCES – actress Karine Vanasse (centre)

Set in Montreal’s newest multimedia facility the PHI Centre, and following on the format of his earlier SPIRITISMES project at Paris’ Centre Pompidou in spring of 2012, the multiple short films that comprise SEANCES are Maddin’s interpretation of lost or unfinished silent-era films that have haunted him with their transience – a transience symptomatic of the time (an estimated 75% of silent films are lost) but also frighteningly prescient in this age of conversion to digital formats (even when television switched to a tape format, tapes were frequently taped over and reused, causing entire series to be lost). Maddin himself knows the feeling of having one’s creation slip away into the ether – albeit temporarily. “My second feature, ARCHANGEL was lost for about eight years,” he explains. “It turned out to just be in the lab that cut the original negative. I was really sad, because I liked the movie and I’d had a lot of fun making it, but I was also really proud that I had a lost film!”

For those who live and breathe films, or any kind of audiovisual media, this apparent disposability threatens to erase our cultural identity. To reflect this, the interactive online version of SEANCES will allow viewers to create narratives out of the disparate short film sequences, which will then “expire” and be lost forever, marked only by a virtual tombstone. “Everyone on the internet will be able to hold their own séance with the lost film,” he says. “And the films will come at people in weird waves that converse with each other, and shuffle together and intersect with each other, in one-of-a-kind combinations. And sometimes the non-sequitur nature of the combinations will make for a really charming – I hope, that’s the plan – longer narrative that’s seen only once, and then the program destroys that combination and it will never be seen again. And that film – which will be given its own title by the program – will be entered into an obituary. So people watching will be able to see a film come back from the afterworld, and then no one will be able to watch it again. The website will be about loss as much as anything.”

Guy Maddin, being interviewed during a break on the set of SEANCES

Guy Maddin, being group-interviewed during a break on the set of SEANCES

But the concept of “lostness” isn’t just a comment on the media, it runs through the narratives of the films themselves.  “There’s something lost at the centre of every story, it seems,” says Maddin. “I’m sure originally all these stories had many narrative concerns, but for some reason in these versions where a feature film is concentrated in a ten-minute version, all the stories seem to revolve around something that’s lost.” The segment being shot on the day of my visit to set – a re-imagining of Frederick Sullivan’s 1916 film SAINT, DEVIL AND WOMAN, wherein a psychiatrist falls in love with his femme fatale patient on the fictional Berlin to Bogota Express – is, in Maddin’s words, “a mad love story” where “people have lost their minds, or they’ve lost their inhibitions, they’ve lost their way on the Bogota Express, somewhere between Berlin and South America.”

“Usually something’s found by the end of the movie too,” he adds. “It’s kind of strange. And the movie itself has been found, but since it’s shot by me, it might as well be lost again! I’m not exactly remaking it perfectly – in some cases I’ll be channeling the spirit of a lost F.W. Murnau movie, who may be the greatest filmmaker of all time. But I’m just Guy Maddin, arguably the second or third best filmmaker in Manitoba at any given time.” He smiles. “I say arguably – I’ll argue back!”

Genre films to be reimagined as part of SEANCES include DRAKULA HALALA (Karoly Lajthay, Hungary 1921), which stands as the first known onscreen appearance of Dracula; Lon Chaney-starrer THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (Allan Dwan, USA 1914); Jeckyll and Hyde adaptation DER JANUSKOPF (F.W. Murnau, Germany 1920), starring CALIGARI’s Conrad Veidt; the first Chinese detective film WOMEN SKELETONS (Guan Heifeng, China 1922) and many more.

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Maddin has spent years vetting potential films for inclusion in his obsessive catalogue of re-interpretations. “Sometimes I just google ‘lost films’,” he laughs. “And once I collected an array of films I really wanted to see, I realized they were all made by white males in either Hollywood, England, Berlin or Paris. And so I did my first wave of real research and discovered that in the first decade or two of cinema, right around the turn of the century, there was a film industry in almost every country in the world. And that almost half the directors were women. Islamic women, Jews, Christians. Crazily, eugenics was really popular at the turn of the century, so there were suffragette women who were also in favour of mandatory sterilization of poor people, making films. Really successful films. Lois Weber was maybe second to D.W. Griffith in the early days of Hollywood cinema in terms of popularity and craftsmanship. Wonderful filmmaker. With really uncomfortable political [views].”

Ultimately Maddin wanted a diverse array of films, both in terms of their narratives as well as their historical contexts. “Things where not only the film, but the filmmaker ended up getting lost. There’s lots of things where filmmakers themselves were marginalized – marginalized to death.”

However, he didn’t always have much to go on when visualizing the films that once existed. “Sometimes there’s just a title,” he shrugs. “Title, director and country. But sometimes the title is really intriguing. Then you really have to do your paranormal research!”

And a communion with the paranormal is central to Maddin’s approach to the whole process, which at times recalls the experimental methods of Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, who was known to ‘hypnotize’ his actors (and who would prove a great influence on FANGO fave Andrzej Zulawski). “We imagine each one of these films to be ‘as dreamt by’ the actors,” Maddin explains. “The actors, every morning at 8:30, sit down at a table and I put them into a trance, and invite the spirit of the lost film to possess them. And this morning Carole Laure went into a most violent trance, frothing at the mouth. And Karine [Vanasse] and Gregory [Hlady] also – mad trances. And they were utterly possessed by the film, and then we could just start our day, allowing the film’s spirit to compel them to act out its plot.”

Udo Kier in HAUNTINGS

Udo Kier in HAUNTINGS

For those who follow Maddin’s weird world, there’s another reason the concept of SEANCES may sound familiar. In summer of 2010, simultaneously with the shooting of his film KEYHOLE, Maddin was at work on HAUNTINGS, wherein – after assessing over 1000 potentially lost titles – he set out to realize a series of them as short films, with the help of a trusted stable of emerging filmmakers and utilizing some of the same cast as KEYHOLE (including the iconic Udo Kier, and tuff LA film critic Kim Morgan, who Maddin later married). The proposed HAUNTINGS were not limited to films from the silent era; they included experimental filmmaker Hollis Frampton’s CLOUDS LIKE WHITE SHEEP (1962, supposedly lost on a subway), and at one point he even considered realizing the film that French director Jacques Tati had planned to make starring the band Sparks in the late 70s, which instead morphed into Maddin’s involvement with Sparks’ radio drama-turned-stageshow THE SEDUCTION OF INGMAR BERGMAN. Ironically, HAUNTINGS itself was somewhat aborted. “I was getting no producer support on it,” he explains with a sigh. “I was making my feature KEYHOLE at the time, and I had this massive project that Evan Johnson was running with me, and for some reason everyone just pretended it didn’t exist. No one in Winnipeg could wrap their head around what I was doing. My producers didn’t give us any money, we didn’t even have a set. Not one set. We had a table – which got stolen by the art department for the feature at one point, halfway through a shot. And it was a real shame. So I just aborted it.”

HAUNTINGS was partially salvaged as an 11-channel installation for the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema in 2010, supposedly constructed out of all the films that Maddin had shot before abandoning the project. “There is a 12th that I shot,” he reveals, “called HOW TO TAKE A BATH (1937) starring Louis Negin – a lost Dwain Esper sexploitation film. But I’m saving that one for the website. Those were a little more impressionistic. They were shot very hurriedly, I was shooting three per day.”

Kim Morgan in HAUNTINGS

Kim Morgan in HAUNTINGS

But even with HAUNTINGS behind him, something was nagging at Maddin. He wasn’t finished with this idea; he was possessed by the ghosts of these unseen films, and has spent years crossing continents, trying to raise them from the dead. Even going back to 1995, his short films ODILON REDON and HEART OF THE WORLD (2000) are, in essence, re-imaginings of the Abel Gance films LA ROUE (1923) and LA FIN DU MONDE (1931), respectively. There is something compelling about the possibilities that these kinds of projects offer. “When a movie’s already being exhumed from the dead, it’s going to be a little bit delirious,” Maddin offers. “It’s not going to quite know its own story entirely… It gives me more creative freedom than I’ve ever had, and I’ve always given myself carte blanche anyway.”

While HAUNTINGS, SPIRITISMES and SEANCES may seem like reboots of the same concept, there is a noticeable distinction between the execution of HAUNTINGS and its later incarnations: Maddin’s departure from his home turf, the wintry place he mythologized in his city symphony MY WINNIPEG (2007). As a former Winnipegger myself, I can envision the panic that is gripping the frozen enclave at the thought of  their golden boy having flown the coop, wooed by the support of Quebec’s robust and monied media arts industry. “If it weren’t for Carole Vivier at Manitoba Film and Music, I think I would have left quite a long time ago,” he admits. “She’s made it very hard to leave, she’s such a wonderful supporter of the arts. But within the community I just don’t feel any support. However, a lot of that is because crew members have been ripped off in the past. Underpaid, or not paid at all – like I’m frequently not paid on these projects. I’m just promised a paycheck and it never shows up. I don’t know, it’s just time to go somewhere else.”

Here in Quebec – where the prairie filmmaker’s non-existent French is noticeable in the province’s current linguistically-charged climate  – he is directing an all-Quebecois cast of 66 actors including cross-genre goddess Carole Laure (SWEET MOVIE, STRANGE SHADOWS IN AN EMPTY ROOM), Caroline Dhavernas (who starred with Laure in Karim Hussain’s LA BELLE BETE), Karine Vanasse (POLYTECHNIQUE) Roy Dupuis (MESRINE) and counterculture film staple Louis Negin (THE ERNIE GAME, RABID, CAN HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN EVER FORGET MERCY HUMPPE AND FIND TRUE HAPPINESS?), the only one of the bunch who has a working history with Maddin. But aside from creating a bridge – consciously or otherwise – between what’s known here as ‘the two solitudes’, Maddin was drawn to Quebec for practical reasons, stemming from what he cited as “producer failure” back home.

a mini-set in waiting, SEANCES

a mini-set in waiting, SEANCES

One of the things I love about Maddin’s work is that his level of commitment to a singular vision – often centered on the aesthetic of the silent era – shows how returning to the past for inspiration is not the same as being stagnant or repetitious; on the contrary, it can be incredibly invigorating and profoundly creative. With a project like SEANCES (or HAUNTINGS or SPIRITISMES), because the mind is driven to fill in the blanks left by the kinds of technological or administrative failures that result in the loss of potential masterworks, it inevitably fashions something new. Maddin may feel that his hand is sometimes guided by the spirits of cinema’s flammable past, but the world he sets ablaze is all his own. “The way the muses visit, the way the spirits make their presence felt – imitation is the last thing that pops up anyway,” he assures. “It’s always something coming through me, ‘the medium’. I know mediums and seances are largely considered charlatans or frauds, and I consider all directors – even the greatest documentary directors – to be complete frauds at the best of times anyway, so why not be one? Just embrace it and enjoy it.”

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SEANCES is open to the public from Tuesdays through Saturdays,  July 4-20, 2013 at Montreal’s PHI CENTRE

*Note: While some of Maddin’s quotes came directly in response to my own questions, others are from a scrum-style interview session with several reporters present.

SEE A SEGMENT FROM MADDIN’S DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, THE WINNIPEG PUBLIC ACCESS SHOW SURVIVAL!, BELOW:

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About the author
Kier-La Janisse http://www.big-smash.com
Kier-La Janisse is a writer and film programmer based in Montreal, Canada. She is the Founding Director of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies and a film programmer for Fantastic Fest, POP Montreal and SF Indie. She has been a programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, founded the CineMuerte Horror Film Festival in Vancouver and co-founded Montreal's Blue Sunshine Psychotronic Film Centre. She is the author of A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi (FAB Press, 2007) and House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012).
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