Guy Maddin - Just by treating all this stuff as fairy tale, makes it the kind of fiction which can better produce truth

Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg (Coach House Press, 2009)

«In a new book inspired by his film My Winnipeg, Canada’s most acclaimed art-film director — Guy Maddin — investigates the not-completely-factual history of his hometown and his relationship with it, and illuminates the love-hate relationship many of us feel about the places we come from.»


«A herd of horses frozen in a river. A bargain bridge. Séances. Golden Boy pageants. A demolished hockey arena. St. Mary's Academy for Girls. Spanky the Guide Dog through Time. An epidemic of sleepwalking.
This is the Winnipeg of Guy Maddin, the world's foremost cinéaste planant, and it's not the Winnipeg you'll find in tourist brochures. When the iconoclastic auteur of The Saddest Music in the World decided to tackle the subject of his hometown, it could only have become a 'docu-fantasia,' a melange of personal history, civic tragedy and mystical hypothesizing. The result is wildly delirious, deeply personal and deliciously entertaining.
Herewith, venture deeper into the mind of Maddin with the text of his narration, wantonly annotated with an avalanche of marginal digressions, stills, outtakes, family photos, emails, essays, deoculations, animations, notebook pages and collages. There's even an X-ray of Spanky the pug and an in-depth interview with Michael Ondaatje.
'If you love movies in the very sinews of your imagination, you should experience the work of Guy Maddin... he rewrites history; when that fails, he creates it.'» - Roger Ebert

«Guy Maddin's 2008 docu-fantasia My Winnipeg was an uneasy combine of fact and fiction, autobiography and civic history — "What if I film my way out of here?" the exceptionally idiosyncratic film director asked, a bit frantically, as his camera traveled his native city's icy streets. Conceived as a remedy to the sorry lack of mythology about Maddin's somnambulant Canadian home, My Winnipeg invented new myths of its own: a long-running television sitcom, Ledge Man, in which a near-suicide is talked off the precipice daily; frozen horse heads sticking up from the ice in the Forks—"eleven knights on a vast white chessboard" where lovers come to gather. Maddin rented his old childhood residence for a month, and populated it with actors playing his mother and siblings. Traumatic family episodes interpolate with Winnipeg's own checkered history and, sometimes, as in the simultaneous undoing of Maddin's father and the various Winnipeg hockey teams for which he worked, become one and the same.
It was a Sebaldian project—one long, digressive walk across material and mental geography—and, in a nod to the film's literary affinities, Coach House Books is now bringing out My Winnipeg in book form. The tome was conceived as a physical companion to Maddin's film, complete with a heavily annotated script, collages, pages from the director's journals, and an interview between Maddin and Michael Ondaatje.
Like the film, Maddin confesses, when reached on the phone in Toronto, where he now also owns an apartment, the book is "a mixture of myths I wish had been around for decades or centuries, and facts I never ought to have blurted out." The text is dense with the latter: Maddin's PIN codes, dream diaries, a letter from a furious ex-girlfriend. New legends include the E Gang, "an elusive group of nocturnal criminals whose sole crime... was stealing the letter E from every piece of signage in the city."
"Sometimes I found that just by treating all this stuff as fairy tale," says Maddin, somewhat mischievously, "makes it the kind of fiction which can better produce truth." My Winnipeg, on the page, is an almost vertiginous experience: Scenes from the film are undermined or bolstered by Maddin's whimsical notations, which sometimes expose a distortion but, far more often, merely add another one. He cites Infinite Jest's footnotes, Wayne Koestenbaum's double-column novel Hotel Theory, and Fernando Pessoa as possible influences, but confesses, basically, to having no real model for the work or any assurance that his experiment is at all tolerable to an innocent reader.
"It's just way more time than should be spent with oneself," Maddin admits, about his experiment in overwhelming (if often misleading) self-disclosure. "And certainly with one person. It'd be different if you were reading War and Peace or something, and the three months you spent with Tolstoy felt ennobling. But I just feel like I'm going to drag someone down to the gutter and then urinate on them, you know?"» - Zach Baron

«My Winnipeg, a book that contains filmmaker Guy (The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain) Maddin's annotated script for his eponymous 2007 Documentary Channel-commissioned movie about his home town, will not get you any closer to an understanding of the city. It will, however, drop you rather precisely in the psychic locale, which is to say his Winnipeg. It's one odd place.
A vaporish melange of civic history, archival footage, bald-faced fabrication and wheedling confessional, My Winnipeg (the film) beggars the parameters of "documentary" as it crashes into the dusty corridors of something altogether new. This is a city reconfigured as dreamscape, and as such might be one of the most honest personal tours of a place ever committed to film.
In a sense, no place really exists apart from our own experience of it. Maddin's Winnipeg is at least concrete insofar as it reveals where this most determinedly eccentric of Canadian filmmakers came by his far-flung weirdness.
So what if his Winnipeg bears only the most casual resemblance to the city where Neil Young went to high school, where one of last century's defining labour disputes took place or that the Assiniboine and Red Rivers converge at a place called The Forks? All that really matters is that the latter convergence summons to Maddin's mind the crotch of his mother, and therefore the very site that gave birth to one this country's most stubbornly idiosyncratic artists.
In case you don't know, Maddin is a 53-year-old moviemaker who works in a mode you might call high delirium. Since his feature debut 21 years ago, with a micro-budget fever dream of a movie called Tales from the Gimli Hospital, this youngest son of a hairdresser mother and hockey administrator father has carved out a formidable international cult niche for himself.
Although commercial success has so far eluded him, artistic credibility has slowly come to adhere Maddin fiercely: his work, which combines excavated silent movie tropes with what feel like the nocturnal emissions from an engorged brain, is at once impenetrably murky and dreamily immediate. It only hurts if you try to figure it out. As with dreams themselves, the path to pleasure is paved by surrender. Maddin's movies are like dope for the eyes.
If you've seen the movie My Winnipeg – and it in no way diminishes the fascination of this book to suggest that it's best appreciated if you have. You shouldn't be surprised to learn that in the book, Winnipeg doesn't come into any sharper focus for being more extensively referenced and revisited in Maddin's tributary-like digressions.
WHILE YOU MIGHT be pleased to learn that "If Day," the event depicted in the movie in which Winnipeggers staged a mock, cautionary invasion by Nazi marauders in 1942, did in fact take place, you will not get the same sense of historical clarification for certain others of the movie's more provocative claims.
I'm still doubtful, for example, that a herd of horses were once frozen up to the neck in the Red River, at which point "lovers gather to sit among or even on the frozen heads for picnics or to spoon beneath the moonlit dome of our city." Verification still eludes the movie's assertion that "Winnipeg has ten times the sleepwalking rate of any other city in the world."
Meanwhile, we'll have to take whatever corroborative succour we can from the book's candid verification that Maddin did indeed once steal the hockey jersey of Soviet hockey star Anatoli Firsov in order to enjoy "a few erotically charged secret slapshots before tossing it into the Forks for fear the KGB would catch me wearing it." In this matter at least, history is served.
This handsome companion volume contains not only the movie's heavily annotated script – in some cases, the floridly articulate Maddin digresses for a full page or two on incidents and notions every bit as obsessive and impertinent as those included in the film – but also dozens of family photos, Dadaist collages, long-hand script pages, colleague testimonials, cast interviews and an extensive conversation between Maddin and an especially receptive fan named Michael Ondaatje.
A representative excerpt: MO: "Did those fragments, those technical things like photographs and footage – how much did that govern or continue to direct the story?" GM: "I can't remember how many times I walked the dog thinking about this."
As a supplement to the movie, My Winnipeg might well be essential, but not, I should caution you, as an instrument of artistic illumination. Like the movie, the book is most fun if you just let it lead you where it wants, which is a place no map will help you find.» - Geoff Pevere

«Prior to the introduction more than a decade ago of annotated DVDs (notes and interviews with director, descriptions of scenes), the concept of a book consisting of an annotated script, notes and interview with director, especially of a documentary, for general public perusal, would have been laughed out of the building by publishers.
With the possible exception of rare major works of unquestionable popularity, such documentation was created only for film students and archives.
So much for changing tastes and breadth of interests. Guy Maddin's new book, My Winnipeg, features the annotated script of his eponymous film and “a cornucopia of illuminating arcana” (some of which are included with this review in the form of photographs). It is very much for the modern reader, who needn't have lived in, glimpsed or even heard of Winnipeg.
Furthermore, the reader need not have seen Guy Maddin's documentary film My Winnipeg (though you should) in order to laugh and cry through this unusual saga-like epic poem, replete with Maddin's personal details of every stripe, and nary a reliable nod as to which bits of arcana contain a smidgen of truth and which bits are unequivocal historical facts.
The text is the voice-over of Maddin's film, a brilliant depiction of the universal place from which we come: the snow-shrouded memories of the first stab in the back, the cruelty one visited upon a friend, the distant mother, the brutal cold, the persistent potential for one's tongue to attach to a school fence through the molecular chemistry of ice formation (especially on a dare), the glimpses of naked bodies at a neighbour's house, the unexpected midday presence of a fox near a drugstore, a dead bird with its unborn babies exposed splashed midway across a howling intersection... Well, these are a few of my own, but they seem to marry harmoniously with Maddin's fabulous and absurdist imagery because reading the film's poem/text inevitably invokes one's own long-lost diary.
Maddin claims to have written the script/made the film in an attempt finally to escape Winnipeg/his mother:
Winnipeg./ Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg.
Here the text indicates a side note:

A resident of Winnipeg is a Winnipegger, or' Pegger. Significantly, peggered, the Winnipeg bastardization of the Yiddish past participle gepeygert, which means dropped dead, suggests by working backwards to the infinitive, that to pegger means to die...
My home for my entire life.
In a side note, the author remembers Grace Hospital, where Canada's first candy stripers were introduced... and a location to which Maddin would return, half a century later, looking for solace at the demise of a relationship.
My entire life.
I must leave it.
I must leave it.
I must leave it now.
We are not only in Maddin's fog-enshrouded dream world, we are eavesdropping with Maddin on his own extended psychoanalytic session, Maddin playing both analyst and analysand. (If this sounds familiar, revisit Woody Allen.) But while Maddin is fabulist, he is also historian. He likes to cite his sources. When he describes the various sports and civic heroes and leaders and villains, the reader doesn't have to take his word for it.
He provides elaborate documentation authenticating his recollections.
The endless game he plays starts with a small personal event that swells with a newspaper reference, then spirals into a catastrophic disaster: It's Maddin's riff on a historical fact taken to unruly extremes. The effect on the reader is to make her laugh and gasp at the twists and turns of imaginative whorls and dashes Maddin creates. All this appears on the screen in the film, and is devilishly documented in the pages of the book.
For Winnipeg has always forbidden the shantytowns and hobo villages that typically pop up in other cities. Still on the books here is a law that keeps our homeless out of sight up on the rooftops of our city, above us, an Aboriginal Happyland.
In the clouds Aboriginal Happyland.
Forgotten Happyland
Forgotten people, Happyland.
Happyland.
Then, in the side notes:
There was also another large shanty village in Winnipeg, an earthbound one called Rooster Town, a squatter settlement comprised of shacks with no running water, sewer or other services... on the current site of the Grant Park Shopping Centre, for which the flimsy little squat was razed in the late fifties. According to census polls, there seem to have been no babies born in Rooster Town who grew up to be professionals.
The watchful reader might take careful note as to when Maddin's tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. Maddin has created a text we might all like to have written. Fortunately for us, he actually did it. His intelligence, curiosity and imagination work magic by drawing us into his very personal world and giving us a mirror, maybe a distorting mirror from the Red River Ex, but nonetheless a mirror, through which to see ourselves, critically, tenderly, writ large.» - Gail Singer

«Film director Guy Maddin came to international recognition in 1988 with Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Six feature films and over twenty-five shorts later, his latest, My Winnipeg, is a docudrama of his hometown. Coach House Books recently published a book of the same title as a companion to the film: the book includes an annotated script, a conversation between Maddin and Michael Ondaatje, collages, photographs from the production, notebook excerpts, and other ephemera. Maddin’s first book, From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings (which includes journals, journalism, and film treatments) was also published by Coach House in 2003.
Maddin’s films, often in black and white, sometimes silent, tremble with a libidinal enmity for technical sophistication. Their imagery abrades the etiquette of photographic realism: grainy nocturnal terrors dissolve into the texture of the screen as if overcome with hallucinatory fever, sinking below the surface with the dignity of the Titanic orchestra. Melodramatic confessions, desirous for their own telling, mock the grotesque posturing of repressive morality. Although aesthetically enamored of the past, Maddin’s films are specifically contemporary, saturated in a mischievousness that answers social and technological progress as they once again up the corporeal ante.
Your book My Winnipeg is in large part an annotated script of your film of the same title, and reads like an illuminated manuscript with marginalia. Did the commentary tradition or history of Romantic marginalia influence your annotations?
- It’s not like I’ve read a lot of famous marginalia. I’ve read my John Ruskin and my David Foster Wallace. I guess Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire might have been the first book I read that had a lot of marginalia. I remember once seeing Anthony Burgess’s annotated Finnegan’s Wake, and it sure seemed like a headache. I can’t remember who said it, but some famous author compared acknowledging the existence of a footnote to running downstairs to answer the doorbell while on your honeymoon. But these are more than just annotations; they are wild digressions and in some cases a mere piling on of stuff I meant to include in the movie. I really wanted to give Winnipeg the marginalia it deserves. It’s already got the marginalized status it deserves. I also wanted to give the world the Winnipeg marginalia it deserves. When I was approached about doing this book, I said yes, even though I really didn’t have the time, because I had accumulated so many anecdotes I was really broken-hearted had not gotten into the picture. It’s also a chance to vivisect the movie in a way.
Reading your annotations and digressions felt like browsing through Wikipedia late at night stumbling upon entries that haven’t been edited by their sanctioned editors, tagged with “citation needed.”
- Well, like the movie, it’s all spiritually true. There might even be members of my family that would disagree with what I’ve written; that doesn’t mean they’re right, but they’re allowed to protest. I found myself mythologizing less with the book than I did with the movie. For some reason, I thought the book was a chance to get more facts down. A lot of people came forth with anecdotes after I finished the movie. In addition to the stuff in my notebook, I got a chance to include a few of those. I made very brief mention of the E Gang: these guys I used to hang around a bit in the eighties who stole the letter E from signage. The CBC did a spot on them complete with concealed identities. Apparently they struck a deal with the police; I only found this out after my book was published. In exchange for returning most of the Es, the police agreed to drop charges against them. The history of Winnipeg is continuing to write itself. At least it’s alive now. It seemed to have no pulse for the longest time. The history of so many cities, so many hometowns, seemed to be dwarfed by other mythologies. It feels really good to get our history out there.
Both the film and annotated script, are “at heart... walking reveries.” The book reminds me even more of a walk, with its layout on the page, its boulevards leading to asides.
- Yeah, you can cross the street for a while and come back or slip down a back lane for one block, but you are still on track. The main thoroughfare of the narration is keeping you pointed in the right direction.
You’ve mentioned W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn as inspiration.
- I just love its tones. It’s a literary masterpiece. Somehow he seemed to be walking with every word he laid on the page. There’s just something relaxed and loose about it, even though he is a very disciplined writer. He seemed to be able to keep adding. The anecdotal freedom of it gave me the courage to proceed like a stroller allowing my memory to meander. I still don’t know how history will judge the pile of stuff I’ve made. I like to daydream every now and then, and it still seems possible that someone will remember it very fondly or confuse it for something really good or even great someday.
Did you read any additional walking literature in preparation?
- No, not in preparation. But I really enjoyed Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which has a long stroll in it as a recollection. I’ve also read, with great pleasure, the stories of Robert Walser. Walking, besides writing and cracking up, was his favorite thing to do. One of his great short stories is called "The Walk." That too had unbelievably interesting digressions but still had a directionless direction it was determined to go in. It felt like about the right distance and amount of ground covered when it was all over. I felt thoroughly satisfied and spent. That was the kind of feeling I was hoping to create with My Winnipeg.
Are you familiar with Charles Baudelaire on the flâneur or Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project?
- I have read those too. A lot of people have said that I should just use the word flâneur, but I always think of it as more urban. Mine are really night walks. Even though I wrote almost everything in the movie while walking around the city, there is just something about the minus-forty degree temperatures I was strolling around in that didn’t remind me of Benjamin or Baudelaire. I guess I was thinking of Walser, because he died in the snow while on a walk. But all that stuff is wonderful.
Have you read any of Guy Debord’s writings on psychogeography or the dérive?
- No. What I did read specifically for the movie was Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach. It is a 19th-century decadent novel about a guy wondering around this haunted ghost town in Belgium: Bruges. It’s a Vertigo kind of story. He walks around and sees his dead girlfriend and stuff like that. While walking you’re more inclined to tip your thoughts in the melancholy side of things than if you’re driving, when you can get to a place in a hurry. Your thoughts get a little more time obsessed for some reason. Ghosts inevitably start popping up and strolling along your side. I was also thinking of Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, that great Mexican novel. It’s takes place in a ghost town in which every character is a ghost, I think even the protagonist.
The middle section of your book is an interview conducted by Michael Ondaatje. How did you come to be interviewed by him?
- I took a train from Windsor, Ontario after only ten minutes sleep. I had an extreme hangover, or maybe I was still drunk. I was cursing my stupidity because I knew it was an important interview. We had been keeping in touch a bit, and I was making sure he got tickets to my movies over the last few years. He was very kind to say some nice things about my pictures. Coach House Books asked him if he would be interested in interviewing me. He really did his homework, and he came up with some really nice questions. It seemed to go okay in spite of the fact that I was holding my splitting head together with my cupped hands during the interview.
Which of his texts have interested you?
- I just read Divisadero with great pleasure and of course Anil's Ghost, which was really beautiful. Coming Through Slaughter is one I read long before I met him, so I revisited that recently. It really held up nicely. He is so versatile, doing New Orleans jazz and stuff like that among all the other things he does.
I thought it was a good interview pairing since many of his books are solidly place based. For instance, In the Skin of a Lion is set in Toronto.
- And also he had a really nice conversation with Walter Murch, the film editor, in a published book [The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film]. That is a real fun book for anyone who likes to read or watch movies. Murch was the editor of The English Patient, so they got to know each other on that project.
Before making films, you wanted to be a writer. . .
- Well, I was realistic about it. I came late to reading, the same way I learned how to skate when I was eighteen. No one read in our house. I had dyslexia as a kid, and I didn’t like reading at school. I was really good at math and all those left brained things, so I just stayed away from all the courses that required essays. When I was about twenty-four I fell in with a bunch of English, film, and theater people, and I discovered I’d been using the wrong hemisphere all these years. I also tried writing but realized I was starting too late. No matter how effective it might be someday, it would always be a bit strange just like my skating style. I’m one of the fastest skaters I’ve encountered playing hockey, but I still have a really weird come-to-the-ice-too-late style. I stood too erect and was always vulnerable to the big hit. I just had too many holes in my game. I figured that as a writer I probably had way too many holes in my game as well. The more I thought of it the more I discovered I liked primitive painters and musicians. Then I discovered primitive filmmakers that were really exciting to me, like Luis Buñuel and Kenneth Anger. I thought, maybe I’ll try my luck in another art form because I don’t really like primitive writers. They’re just boring to me, but there is something about the primitive in other art forms that is really exciting.
You said that, “quickly [you] became a good enough reader to know that [you] could never be a good enough writer.” Do you recall any details of when you become a “good enough reader” to know this? Was it while reading a specific book, author, or genre?
- I started reading Nabokov right away. The first book I read was Bend Sinister, a book I just found in the cottage and decided that I better start reading. Then, I read Lolita, Pale Fire and worked my way through all the rest, then through Franz Kafka. Like so many people who encounter Nabokov, I tried imitating him. It’s not as easy as it seems. I realized that great writing is a bit of a miracle. In 2000 I was broke. I used my C celebrity status as a filmmaker to get a job as a film reviewer at The Village Voice and at Film Comment. I started dabbling a bit in writing, and I really kind of enjoyed it. Plus, I had been keeping a diary. I really admired the diaries of John Cheever. As cruel as they might have been to his children, he left them an unbelievably honest portrait of himself. I started writing something for my daughter in the late Nineties. Then after I had been writing a bit, Jason McBride, an editor at the time at Coach House, asked me if I had anything that I would consider writing. I said, “no, I could never be a writer, but I have these diaries.” So he published them [as From the Atelier Tovar, 2003]. Since then I’ve learned that I can write, now and then, in short stretches. I’m no aphorist, but I can summon the inspiration for a short breathless sprint. That’s what this book is. Besides, I’m writing about myself; I’m not really creating fiction, so it’s a little bit different. It’s just a matter of getting enough style down to engage and then just letting my taste, whatever that is, dictate what the reader is exposed to.
What does being a “good enough writer” entail?
- When I first said that, I probably thought you had to write like Nabokov. I’ve since discovered that there are a million-and-one other kinds of writers. Sometimes even a species of journalism can be great or collage writing, if it is combined in the right way. I haven’t read enough William Burroughs or Brian Gysin to pass judgment on that, but I do a lot of art collage. I’ve listened to enough musical collage, soundscapes and things like that to know that the oddest juxtaposition sometimes can work wonders. But collage writing has to be read in really small dosages. Since I said that many years ago, I would have to change my opinion now. It’s not that I’m any better at writing than I was then, but I just know more about what writing can be. In other words, I guess I am good enough to put something out; at least I’ve done it anyway, whether I am or not.
You’ve often said that George Toles, your friend and collaborator, taught you how to read. What did you mean by that comment? Were you referencing something more than him providing you with a reading list?
- My high school teachers, god bless them—they were probably burnt out by rotten students—really didn’t make reading a very enjoyable experience for me. They were always asking me to decode symbols. I remember George saying that you shouldn’t have to decode symbols. If you decode a symbol it’s like solving a crossword puzzle, you know you’re not ever going to redo a crossword puzzle. A great book should be a mystery at all times; it should be entertaining and get better each time you read it. He just reassured me that I wasn’t missing as much as I thought I was, or if I was, things could be read anyway. And since then I’ve become friends with John Ashbery. His way of approaching a poem is to read it quickly without stopping the first time through, without worrying about whether he assimilates anything, just to see how it feels and not to be so intimidated. If they teach you anything in high school it’s that you’re dumb, and writers are smarter than you. So there’s not much to be enjoyed. George gave me the courage to find things I liked. And he did make suggestions. After I told him I liked Nabokov he suggested Flannery O’Connor and things like that. I also got a great list from Michael Silverblatt, the host of NPR’s Bookworm, whom I happened to meet in 1980. He gave me a list with At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, the novels of Beckett, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel by François Rabelais. These were books of tremendous fun, books that I didn’t realize the likes of which could possibly exist, like Beckett’s Molloy with the pebble sucking scene that lasts pages and pages. George would read things out loud all the time, something no one had ever done for me, especially as an adult in adult company. It was fun discovering the love of words without him being a pretentious shit about it. There was nothing tweedy or stuffy about him, he just loved the books. I’m at the point where I’ve seen him bump into just about everything you could bump into on the sidewalk while reading; he’ll go to the ballet and take a book and read it. He just loves reading. I hear his voice reading out loud whenever I’m reading, and I guess I always will.
I have that same experience with poets. After I’ve heard them, it’s impossible not to hear their reading voice.
- Once George and I were really mad at each other for about a year. It was destroying reading for me because I could only hear his voice, this guy I was pissed off at. Thank god we buried the hatchet.
My Winnipeg, both the film and book, seem to be indebted to the literary works of magic realism more than any other of your works: it incorporates the phantasmagoric with descriptive reportage and looks to the fantasy world within our own rather than creating a fictional setting.
- It’s strange. I really didn’t have to make up the magic realism part. It’s just a way of looking at the world. A lot of people say, “Geez, a lot of strange things happened to you.” Then, they’ll tell me about their lives, and a bunch of strange things have happened to them, but they just don’t see them that way; they don’t see the magic in them or an interconnectedness among the various components that seem to be telling a story, other than their own dull life story.
Michael Silverblatt was telling me the other day that he had always been one of those guys that went to petting zoos and the animals always ignored him, the cute little goats and bunnies always went to other people. He’s since developed Type 2 Diabetes, which means he not only urinates more sugar than the average person, but he also sweats it. Now, thinking of Magic Realism, he’s had a few instances recently walking down the street in L.A. where a million butterflies, I guess smelling the sugar coming out of his pores, have completely encrusted him in fluttering wings. It’s one of those true-life moments as described by Gabriel García Márquez, or something like that. I guess he literally is just a sweeter person now than he was before. But one of those odd coincidences is that he is now beleaguered by gorgeous butterflies wherever he goes. These kinds of things just happen in Winnipeg, and they all just sort of line up because, I don’t know, I live here, and because I’m looking at them and thinking about them.
Another literary affinity that I have never heard you mention, although you did mention Burroughs a few moments ago, is Beat literature, with its confessional autobiography and Romantic mysticism.
- I like the idea of the Beats. When rap started getting popular, like thirty years ago, I thought maybe these guys will be the new Beats: they sing autobiographical stuff and they’re living on the edge. But they’ve turned out to be something different altogether. I wish I knew more Burroughs. I have Interzone on my night table ready to go soon. There are a few places I’m told are Interzone-like places here in Winnipeg, little underground places of unreal depravity. But my favorite Beat writer is Neal Cassady. I like Jack Kerouac, but Cassady’s The First Third is an amazing book. The part he wrote about his prehistory, the stuff about his family before he was born, is really beautiful. You can tell he was well read.
Your latest film project is a collaboration with John Ashbery. In what capacity is the collaboration taking place?
- If I don’t hurry up John will never speak to me again. I want to make a feature film that’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure internet movie labyrinth, but I also want to have a lot of satellite short movies that are orbiting around this main feature, moons of the main story. I’ve collected the plot summaries of a bunch of lost silent films and unrealized projects by the great canonical directors. If you read their biographies there are usually big appendices featuring the unrealized projects. I started making the unrealized projects of other filmmakers myself. My short film Heart of the World is actually my own version of Abel Gance’s Fin du Monde. I thought I would just assign a bunch of these to John and he could add his own embellishments, completely rip them to shreds, or reconfigure them as much or as little as he wanted to; then, I would shoot them. But I’ve been really fucking up, and I haven’t gotten them to him yet. The success of My Winnipeg derailed me for about a year and made me travel extensively. I haven’t had a chance to work on these things as much as I want, but I’m really close now. If I can just apologize enough to John for taking so long. Last time I talked to him he still wanted to do it, but that was a few months ago.
He was one of the live narrators for your film Brand Upon the Brain; is that how you met him?
- Yeah, he did a Mother’s Day special in New York. He did a wonderful job. He was wondering how to narrate it because he likes to read his own poetry with little affect. He had just finished watching an Ed Wood movie earlier in the day and decided to channel The Amazing Criswell, Ed Wood’s narrator. I’m really glad he did. It’s not just an impersonation of Criswell, but there is something of Criswell in it. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Plus, just having John’s DNA all over the project was pretty thrilling.
Your film Careful begins with a Rudyard Kipling poem, and you’ve mentioned Rainer Maria Rilke as an author “that really got through to you.” Do you read much poetry?
- I wish I read more. The latest thing I’ve read is Crabwise to the Hounds by Jeramy Dodds, a book that I think just won the Griffin in Canada. I really enjoyed that. Ashbery speaks to me more readily than almost anyone else. I also like Anne Carson, the Canadian poet who translates Euripides and things like that. Of course, I have read Homer and Fernando Pessoa. My list isn’t going to be very outré. I haven’t had a special tour guide into poetry. John Ashbery translated Pierre Reverdy’s Haunted House, and I really enjoyed that.
Actually, my connection to Winnipeg is a great poet who recently moved back there.
- Who’s that?
Colin Smith.
- Yeah, I’ve heard of him, but I don’t know him. I know a couple poets as well, and I stuck a few little things of theirs into the book. This guy Michael Lista wrote the poem Louis Slotin You Will Not Turn Forty, which I think is coming out from University of Toronto press this year. I’ve read the manuscript and it’s really great.
The My Winnipeg script is full of poetic repetition. In the interview, Ondaatje compares it to the exaggerated gestures of silent film.
- Yeah it really is. But that wasn’t a conscious attempt. I guess the verbal gestures just didn’t feel grand enough. I felt ready to impart my drama to the proceedings once I’d repeated things enough.
Did that come out of the rhythm of the walking at all?
- That’s interesting. It probably did. Quite often I’d go walking with a video camera, so the footsteps are right there. And I had the images in my head when I was in the recording studio improvising the narration. I never did write it. I promised myself I would never stop talking to really think through a sentence. That resulted in me bluffing a lot and repeating. Sometimes I would repeat a sentence five or six times till I got it right, but I never stopped talking. So it ended up with a somnolent energy and a repetitive drone. I don’t know whether the material out of which each sentence was fashioned was lyrical or not, but the mere repetition of that material seemed to puff it up into an ersatz lyricism. So it probably did come from those snow-squeaky footsteps that started it all.
You already said that you didn’t like primitive writers, but I was curious if you could articulate what it is about film or music that literature doesn’t have, which makes for exciting primitivism.
- For some reason I love rock bands that can barely play their instruments, that just get some feeling out. There’s something charming and horny about the youth of it all. It reminds me of people not really knowing what they’re doing sexually, just grouping away, and it really excites everybody. There’s accesses to emotion, and a species of honesty, that really depends on not having technical mastery over anything. Not knowing how to write but writing anyway makes for a more tiresome read, whereas, I could listen to The Ramones forever. Thank god they were smart enough never to learn how to play their instruments. I just prefer writers who actually can write. I like primitive and sophisticated music but I prefer primitive. If it’s sophisticatedly composed and performed, I like it to be primitively recorded. I like my old 78 records. There’s just some sort of magic in it. The closest I’ve come is primitively printed or stored books. Mildewy books are more fun to read than new paperbacks, but that’s as far as I’ll go. I like my John Ruskin, but no one would accuse him of being a primitive. The Ruskin books I read have so much mildew in them that it makes me sneeze constantly. I don’t like reading the modern Penguin reprints of Ruskin when I have these original octavos.
Speaking of groping sexuality, Henry Darger comes to mind as a kind of a garage author.
- You know I’ve never read the book, or even excerpts from it, but I do love the collages and tracings he did. He’s a hero of mine. Is his book even available?
There’s an abridged version.
- Is it pretty tough slogging? It must be.
I’ve only read excerpts, but yeah, it is.
- His drawings are incredible. I don’t know if it’s fair to describe him as a crazy person. I’ve had some friends with mental illness and the first thing to go was the sense of humor, especially with medication; it’s really sad. The writers I read can be a little crazy, but I want the sense of humor or at least some really romantic sense of doom. When Walser got too crazy he couldn’t write anymore. Believe me, if someone said, “I’ve discovered this primitive writer you’ve got to check out; he’ll make you feel like you’re listening to The Ramones,” I’d be all over it. Maybe there are plenty of them out there and I just haven’t found any yet.
The images and sound in your films are, for the most part, murky, or rather distorted. How does the distortion play into this idea of primitive excitement?
- There’s a sense of discovery that’s evoked in me by the sounds of audio palimpsests. When I was really young, I inherited my dead brother’s short wave radio. I would listen to these remote American stations at night when stations would trade places with each other on the dial, swap frequency strengths, and exchange dominance over each other. It became kind of enchanting. And then there would be a neighboring station where just the percussion was pushing through into the broadcast. So percussion from one city would be scoring the broadcast from another. It constructed an acoustical portrait of America for me. And then I discovered, when I was much older, a bunch of reel-to-reel tapes my dead brother had made where he’d recorded these radio broadcasts exactly like the kind I’d listened to, things intentionally off-dial. He’d been deeply mystified by these things evidently. Now you encounter lots of ambient music artists who use the same strategies in creating soundscapes. It’s all been legitimized, but these things were tremendous adventures for me as a kid. And I’m not claiming I was an artist, anything but, I was very passive. The most I would do was turn the dial if things were boring me a bit too much until I found just the right rich textures. I have this car, and the left speaker wires have been detached, plus the left channel is missing. I can drive around listening to FM radio and sometimes two stations overlap. I can get these one-of-a-kind mash-ups of fragment of songs. I’m just driving in and out of nodes and wave frequencies that are strong and then weak and then absent. It just seems to be a big primeval bog of sounds rolling away and producing beautiful art at all times. I’ve had some really trippy drives out to the lake listening to this stuff, and I just don’t want the car ride to end. And it’s almost unbearably heartbreaking that no one else is noticing it. I’ve always been intrigued by that, and when I’m making my own soundtracks I just feel better when I’m making something reminiscent of that.
Some characterize the distortion in your films as decadent. But, in addition to being boring, isn’t clarity the contrivance, duping us into thinking that that is how we really see and hear?
- Yeah, it’s very misleading in its narrow mindedness and its earth bound thinking. Besides, decadent always suggests the very end of something, sort of bonking your head up against the end of the cul-de-sac with mauve bruises on your forehead. To me all that stuff just seems to be the beginning of something exciting right now. Although, the word decadence has so many great connotations that you sort of want your stuff to be smeared with decadence, with opium resins and things like that.
I also want to talk about the relationship of technology to primitivist filmmaking. You filmed your short Nude Caboose with cell phone cameras. But doesn’t this effortless technology fail to impose the kinds of hindrances that you said, “often produce nifty inventions?”
- Well, I guess I just like how crummy new technologies are when they first come out, especially compared to how excited everyone is about them. The cell phone camera I used was a few years old, and they’ve improved a lot since then. These things are just like 4mm film cameras. Nude Caboose didn’t really deserve more than 1mm gauge film. The plot seemed a bit thin for 4mm even. I’m scared of video, and yet I shot so much of My Winnipeg in video hoping that this would be the movie that would drag me over into the video sphere. But I chickened out at the last second when I realized the script wasn’t a video script, it was still a film script. So I transferred almost all of it over to film by projecting it onto my fridge and re-shooting it. One thing I’ve noticed is that film and my writing aesthetic seem to really line up. If you’re not careful you can make so many mistakes with the film camera, nothing is automatic, you have to focus it and you have to take a light meter reading. I’m always screwing up, but my strength is that I know when to keep the accidents. But with video, everything is set on automatic. Every time I shoot something it looks exactly like everyone else’s videos, it looks like something off of America’s Funniest Home Videos. I guess I could just simply put the aperture and focus on automatic and just wait for the accidents to happen, but there’s just something about video accidents that don’t seem as charming as film ones, not yet anyway. They haven’t got a social context, nor will they ever probably, whereas there is so much social context for overexposed and blurry film. It seems to take on a meaning that no one can quite fathom. I haven’t quite caught up with the technology in that I haven’t figured out how to be inept at it yet. Well, I am inept in that I’m a banal videographer. I just have to learn how to make better mistakes.
In a previous interview you said, “after 2000 I just unlearned how to play all my instruments and I became a garage band again...” How did you set about to unlearn your skills as a filmmaker?
- I threw away the tripod and I started moving around, and I refused to storyboard anymore. I used to plan all my shots and then place the tripod. It really reduced the chances of unexpected things happening. With Cowards Bend the Knee in 2002 I had so much to film I didn’t know how to schedule it, so I just told all the actors to show up every day in costume and be ready. I’d put them on the appropriate set, then, with my Super 8 camera, which is about the size of a Dustbuster, I would start vacuuming up all the imagery the way you start vacuuming up a room full of pine needles or something. Sometime I went vertically, sometimes horizontally. I would switch pan from one character’s face to another, then back down to the first character’s hands, then over to the second character’s hands, then back up to the second character’s face, and then push in. I would be going in and out of focus, and sometimes the lights would flare up or be overexposed or underexposed. There was a heterogeneous quality to all the images, and it created a great sloppy array of cut-rate imagistic scraps, like in a big bargain bin sitting there. When it came time to edit them it had a primitive energy I liked, and it was unlike anything I’d ever done before. I got kinda hooked on that. Perhaps I’ve ridden that strategy of shooting as far as it can go. But it really helped me understand the relationship between my subject matter and my shooting style a lot better, and it actually encouraged me to open up and make some wilder stories that fit this shooting style with a kind of carelessness quotient.
How did you unlearn without loosing confidence in yourself as a filmmaker? When your confidence is shattered, how do you prevent yourself from leaning on your skills as a substitute for confidence?
- If I had a strength it was that I was aware of all my weaknesses, so if I was leaning on anything I was leaning on that. I just wanted to flirt with my weaknesses at all times. I have been skating in that very narrow margin between my strengths and my weaknesses, being careful not to go too far into either territory. That’s where all the fun lies for me.
You also said that you “want to unlearn how to watch movies...” How do you watch movies, and what is it you want to unlearn?
- I may just have been being glib. I don’t know where I said that, but I vaguely recall saying it and thinking it was pretty clever. I probably have learned to watch movies a little bit more each year, and I have broadened my taste a lot. Movies are made for a million different reasons and I’ve learned to recognize more and more of those reasons each time. I probably haven’t unlearned how to watch movies, but I don’t think I have even vestiges of the kind of attitude that regular viewers have towards continuity and plot plausibility. Plots have to be psychologically plausible not superficially plausible. I couldn’t care less about whether James Bond’s cuts and bruises heal over from one scene to another.» - Interview with by Jacob Eichert
Guy Maddin, From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings of Guy Maddin (Coach House Press, 2003)

«Guy Maddin is one of Canada's most celebrated and original filmmakers, however, he is just as gifted as a writer, and his resolutely prose, as eccentric and enchanting as his film work, is a true delight. From The Atelier Tovar gathers, in one volume, the best of Maddin's writing: his journalism, unpublished short stories and film treatments, and selections, both lurid and illuminating, from the filmmaker's personal journals. Here are Maddin's feverish musings on hockey, the Osmonds, divas of the Italian silent cinema, Bollywood, his own twisted biography, and much, much more. What emerges finally is both a fragrant potpourri and a treasure trove, a singular portrait of this very unique artist.»

"Maddin, meticulous forger of ready-decayed cinematic artifacts, is no day-tripper in the realms of literature. He writes with an ornate elegance, humor, and (reportedly, disgustingly) ease that makes this one of the happiest book events of the year.» - The Village Voice

«From the Atelier Tovar is director Guy Maddin’s first collection of writings. It may not be as eccentric as his films, but it remains an odd enough structural blend that includes real and pseudo autobiography, journal entry form, essayistic and conventional film criticism, film treatments, and artistic doodling.
What becomes evident while reading the collection is the importance to his later filmmaking of a) his early immersion into film history and b) family and geographical place. Two formative influences on Guy Maddin were University of Manitoba film professors George Toles and Steve Snyder, the latter whose access to the university’s 16mm print archive was fully exploited by Maddin. This baptism by fire introduction to cinema history, nurtured by the long, frigid North Canadian winter months and the scholarly guidance of Toles and Snyder, would help shape Maddin’s unique retro-reflexive cinematic sensibility.
His journals include several instances of early tragedy in his life. These include his older brother committing a shotgun suicide on his fiancée’s tomb; the story of how his father became blind in one eye because his mother would constantly cradle him up against her breast, and one time accidentally punctured his eye with a broach; and his father dying of a heart attack when Maddin was relatively young. There are other bizarre family events, but it is up to the reader to decide on their veracity.
Similarly, it is sometimes impossible to judge the seriousness of his journalistic writing, such as the extended entry on his set visit to an Osmond Family biopic being filmed in Winnipeg, “Inside the Osmonds” (for the ABC network). Maddin spends considerable time recounting his curiously touching friendship with the actor playing the young Donny Osmond, Thomas Dekker, and the mounting drama behind the climactic on-stage meeting between the real Osmond’s and their TV counterparts. It is difficult to gauge Maddin’s apparent excitement over this event: “Never have I felt so much excitement on a set in Winnipeg. My head burns, and little crisping shivers run across my clammy skin.” Maddin also refers to a “hidden secret,” being his incognito filming of the event with a super 8 camera, perhaps as future film fodder? Is this excitement honest or ironic? After all this is the Mormon pop band Osmond’s we are talking about!
In the same breath is the playful and knowing homoeroticism peppered throughout the book, which is also present across his films. For example, his infatuation with the young actor playing Donny Osmond, Thomas Dekker; his assessment of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, “The movie’s not sexy, even though Vince Vaughn is quite nice”; his description of time spent in the Winnipeg Jets hockey team dressing room, in particular when team trainer Bill Bozak described Swedish player Ulf Nilsson’s body as being “more womanly… than Zsa Zsa Gabor,” which prompted Maddin to check Nilsson’s body out for himself, leading to the following description: “He had such a slender, beautiful midriff and wide, childbearing hips, and a near total absence of body hair.” Maddin’s father Chas Maddin worked as manager of the senior hockey league’s team the Winnipeg Maroons, which meant that most of the young Guy’s time was split between hanging out in his Aunt Lil’s beauty salon and in Winnipeg hockey arenas. Only a true Canadian would reap such poetic inspiration from that “vast mildewed cathedral”: “Whenever I aim my camera at something… the same mists that filled the old rinks steam up my lenses, the same rancid eroticisms arrange themselves like rotting Rodins behind those mists.”
Maddin uses a good portion of his journal entries to vent, lament, and complain: about Canada’s inhospitable support of its artists; the harmful, noxious producer interferences suffered with Ritchard Findlay over Twilight of the Ice Nympths; his financial and health woes, and, to the point of obsession, his unproductive time wasting (he claims, “35 years of 40 wasted”). However, some of his forays into his self-professed laziness and artistic sloth ness, and his clever, self-deluding procrastination tactics are hilarious. Such as his many ‘wish lists’ to self-betterment (which he coins his “Gatsby lists”). At times these introspective musings reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s self-tormented thoughts from his diaries, Time Within Time. All which make one wonder, are these asides examples of this condition, or counter-examples? But these downcast moments are counterbalanced by some humorous anecdotes, like the one where he and Chicago Underground Film Festival employee Nicole Berger were ‘kidnapped’ by a shady man named “Dogg” and taken into a bar where Dogg and his associates attempted to seduce, taunt and intimidate them until they managed a narrow escape.
The book’s design is enhanced by some choice family photo album photographs (although they are strangely uncaptioned), and several reproductions of his hand written journal pages, including an intriguing list (Maddin is quite the list maker) of “actors with distinct voices” which gives us a clue into the keen attention to sound in his films. Along with the book’s attractive design, the book is a joy to read for two reasons: Maddin’s prose style is both disarmingly stylish and witty. As an example of the former is the Proustian description of his kitchen during the warm summer months: “The breeze from the fan smells a bit like root-cellar earth: clean and dark and cool. The fan is also blowing in microscopic insects, sucking them in through the screen and speckling my face with them. This page, too.” For evidence of his wit, just read his funny account of failing to stay awake for the umpteenth time during Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Unlike other directors, especially North American, Maddin makes frequent forays into film criticism, with a writing style that blends the personal essay form with astute historical and critical observation. The subject matter he chooses to write on is also a telling insight into his aesthetic preferences as a filmmaker. For example, in a recent review of the Canadian film Bollywood/Hollywood (Deepa Mehta, 2002) Maddin uses Bollywood to champion his favorite genre, melodrama. We can see why his films, never easy to pigeonhole in any one genre (horror? art film? comedy? fantasy? musical?) embrace the melodrama as their over-riding form; simply because the melodrama, from Maddin favorites Douglas Sirk and Frank Borzage, to the soap opera, has the greatest latitude for misstep. In melodrama the same text can be treated and received as realist emotional drama, overwrought hyperbole, or ironic camp. Err too much on the side of one or the other and you still fall within acceptable aesthetic norms (i.e. Douglas Sirk’s Hollywood films, Mildred Pierce, The Letter From an Unknown Woman, and other women’s films of the forties, R.W. Fassbinder, Bollywood, the Italian peplums, etc.).
Maddin’s aesthetic tastes as a filmmaker can also be glimpsed in his appreciation of the Italian diva film of the teens. Maddin offers an astute analysis of the diva film’s decline in the following synoptic assessment: “While the cult of the diva grew within the Italian populace, Mussolini could perceive the fevers of degeneracy in this great film genre. Preferring more subservient women for his country’s ideal, he especially disapproved of an art form that celebrated the fearsome power and savage suffering of the feminine. After his rise to power, the diva film went into eclipse.” Given the heavy reliance on autobiography, one can also speculate that the earlier noted first hand encounters with tragedy early in his life, whether true or exaggerated, may have instilled in him the penchant for high melodrama so evident in his films.» - Donato Totaro


An excerpt from My Winnipeg:


«Always winter.
Always winter.
Always sleeping.
Winnipeg. Winnipeg. Winnipeg.

The train tracks cross the streetcar tracks
and in turn cross the streets and the alleyways,
everything beneath thin layers
of time, asphalt and snow.
Are these arteries still here today?
Are they dug out every night
and reconcealed every dawn?
We Winnipeggers are so stupeed with
nostalgia we’re actually never quite sure.
I never really know anything for sure –
except that after a lifetime of trying
and many botched attempts,
this time I’m leaving for good.
Again.

Back in Winnipeg’s earliest years,
the Canadian Pacic Railway
used to sponsor an annual treasure hunt.
This contest required our citizens
to wander the city in a day-long combing
of our streets and neighbourhoods.

First prize was a one-way ticket
on the next train out of town.
The idea being that once someone had spent
a full day looking this closely at his own
hometown he would never want to leave.
That the real treasure was right here
all along.
And you know what?
Not one treasure-hunt winner ever
got on that train and left.
Not one, not in a hundred years.
Well, I don’t need a treasure hunt.
I’ve got my own ticket.
I just have to make my way through town,
through everything I’ve ever seen and lived,
everything I’ve loved and forgotten.
Through the thick furry frost
and out to the city limits.
Then I’m on my way.
Out of here.
Out from the heart
of the heart of the continent.

The woolly, furry, frosty lap.
The Forks!
The animals, hunters, boatways,
trains and Mother.
These are the reasons we’re here.
These are these reasons we’ve stayed.
These are the reasons I’m leaving.

These are the very things that are going to
help me get out of here.
The forks, the lap, the fur.
The forks, the lap, the fur.

Mother appears occasionally on the train
to check on the passengers.
My mother. A force as strong
as all the trains in Manitoba.
As perennial as the winter.
As ancient as the bison.
As supernatural as the Forks themselves.
Her lap, a magnetic pole,
a direction from which I can’t turn for long.

It must be the sleepiness
that keeps Winnipeggers here.
If only I can stay awake,
pay attention to where I’m going, where I’ve been,
and get out of here.
Stay awake. Stay awake.
Stay awake, Winnipegger!

We sleep as we walk. Walk as we dream.
Winnipeg has 10 times the sleepwalking
rate of any other city in the world.
And because we dream of where we walk
and walk to where we dream,
we are always lost, befuddled.

Asleep on foot,
the Winnipegger is a citizen of the night.
The Winnipeg night.
Why is this so?
Why are we so sleepy?
Why can’t we just open our eyes?
Is it the mystically paired river forks,
the bio-magnetic inuence of our bison?
The powerful northern lights?
We don’t know.
We sleep.
We sleepwalk.
We sleepwalk.

We show up on old doorsteps…
old homes… our old homes…
those of our old sweethearts…
and we are allowed by civic law to carry
the keys of these old dreamy domiciles.
Of these old dreamy addresses.[s]
And those who live at the old homes
must always take in a lost sleepwalker.
Must let the confused one stay till he wakes.
In Winnipeg, it’s the law.

These old dreamy addresses, keys, keys.

Winnipeg.

Home.»

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