Director Guy Maddin’s films are beautiful to behold and as entertaining to watch as any storyteller working today.
From Winnipeg, Manitoba, with its thriving art, music and filmmaking scene, Maddin has made a dozen features, many more short films, and is always finding new ways to exhibit his work. His latest project, the epic “Seances,” is online and interactive.
To prepare for an interview with him, I screened many of his shorts and re-watched his “Archangel” film — screening at the Byrd Theater at midnight Saturday, April 8 — for the first time since it came out in 1991.
It was the most thrilling evening of movie watching I’ve had in a while. On the one hand, you feel like you’re seeing an old black-and-white, big-budget Hollywood film classic based on some deep-plotted Russian novel. On the other, it feels like a low-budget experimental film with a script cobbled together by Maddin and his collaborators in which the dialogue and plot make little or no sense.
The imagery is breathtaking. He employs iris shots and old-fashioned title cards that recall silent cinema, while his bold use of light, shadow and fog echo the atmospherics of German expressionism or film noir. And like the German filmmakers of the 1920s, Maddin and his collaborators have complete control over the hand-made props, sets, costumes and makeup, which helps create whole, alternative but familiar universes.
“I was really feeling my way when I first started filmmaking,” Maddin says by phone. “And I’ve kept my habits. I was really scared these highly contrived worlds I was making would be disrupted in an unpleasing way if an item from the real world suddenly intruded. So I tried to, for ‘Archangel,’ almost hand make everything in the movie.”
The film takes place in Russia just after World War I and features soldiers returning from battle. Maddin bought some war medals from a coin shop, but decided they didn’t “read as artificial enough,” he says. So he had a group of friends over for an “enchanting night” of war-medal-making using cardboard, dry macaroni, glue, silver and gold spray paint.
Such a tempest of art-making is palpable in all his films, so I ask whether he’s a plastic artist whose acrylic medium is celluloid or a narrative filmmaker who uses celluloid.
“I’ll take the compliment, but all along I’ve always been a person who considers himself a narrative storyteller. I just get caught up in the processes,” he says. “I always wanted to tell stories but never wanted to spoon feed the audience. So whenever I came to a crossroads I had a decision to make whether to tell the audience something or to make them infer something. I always chose to make the audience infer.”
He shot his early movies with a 16 mm Bolex camera that “had a light leak that lightly misted all the imagery,” he says. “I think the labs had no respect for customers like me, little dinky independent filmmakers. … They wouldn’t bother changing their chemicals for me or they would eat their lunch or smoke over the film as it’s being processed in the lab, and I got all these wonderful happy accidents — stains, nicotine resins got in there and all sorts of splashes that danced like hyperactive amoebas on the frame. ... I quickly found out that every accident was a happy one.”
These productions usually feature Maddin’s friends or Winnipeg-based actors. But bigger names such as Jason Patrick, Udo Kier, Mark McKinney (“Saturday Night Live,” “Kids in the Hall”) and Maria de Medeiros have jumped on the bandwagon.
The remarkable “Forbidden” Room (Byrd Theatre, 9:30 p.m. April 7) features Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Mathhieu Amalric, while noir, B-movie queen Ann Savage is featured in perhaps his best-known work, “My Winnipeg” (Byrd, 1:30 p.m. April 8).
Isabella Rossellini is a frequent collaborator and has never been better than in the half-dozen films she’s done with him. In “The Saddest Music in the World,” she plays the one-legged, wealthy baroness of a brewing empire who wears a glass prosthetic leg filled with beer. She narrates “Brand Upon the Brain” (Byrd, 3:30 p.m. April 8).
But when she asked Maddin to direct a tribute for her father, the master director Roberto Rossellini, he says he balked.
“I couldn’t be further from her father’s temperament or sensibilities,” he says. But he recalls that she responded, “No, no. You both have the same can-do, low-budget, just-get-it-done kind of approach to filmmaking.”
You can get a taste of Maddin’s influences April 8 when he screens one of his favorite films, Jean Vigo’s “Zero For Conduct” (1931), with live musical accompaniment by Recluse Raccoon. This will be followed by his short feature, “Cowards Bend the Knee” (2003) and his celebrated short, “The Heart of the World” (2000). The program begins at 8:30 p.m. at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Grace Street Theater.
Maddin also will appear at Video Fan at 6 p.m. April 7 for an event also held by Chop Suey Books. The filmmaker will be available for DVD purchases and signings. S
Director Guy Maddin will be in Richmond April 7 and 8 as part of the 2017 James River Film Festival. For information and ticket prices, visit jamesriverfilm.org. A full festival pass is available for $46.65.