In April, Canyon Cinema invited Guy Maddin to curate an evening of films from our collection for the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival. Maddin presented The Great Blondino and Other Delights, featuring work by Robert Nelson and William Wiley, Abigail Child, Daina Krumins, and Gary Goldberg. Though he was not able to attend in person, we used ritual magick to summon his spirit for an interview that is now available to read here.
Antonella Bonfanti: The centerpiece of this evening’s program is The Great Blondino (1967), a collaborative work between artists William T Wiley and Robert Nelson, both of whom were central figures in the art, film and performance communities in the Bay Area throughout the 1960s and beyond. Tomorrow evening you will be premiering The Green Fog, an assemblage remake of Hitchcock’s Vertigo using footage from a variety of sources (Studio classics, ‘50s noir, and ‘70s prime-time TV), which is also a collaboration with your filmmaking partners Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, as well as composer Jacob Garchik, and Kronos Quartet. You have worked with a number of collaborators throughout your career – either as co-writers (George Toles) or directors (Evan and Galen) – could you please speak to how you choose your creative partners?
Guy Maddin: Bless you, Antonella, for speaking with me on this occasion. It’s a beautiful night. Where I am the ectoplasm hangs light as cotton candy stalactites around me. Great fluffy banks of ecto-fog tuck me in snugly on either side. I’m in a fluffy haunted canyon and all is good.
When I think of my own happy collaborations I think of William T Wiley and Robert Nelson, of the great spasmodic trance in which they must have made The Great Blondino. The film is such a convulsion of spontaneity, I feel they must have been guided by impulse and confidence. When that feeling envelops a partnership, the time is right to work. That’s the feeling I get working with Galen and Evan, the feeling that flashes of darkness make flashes of light, and there is no longer a gulf between here and there.
Bonfanti: When I was a projectionist at the University of Toronto back in the mid 2000s, 2nd year work study student Daniel Neuhaus was working in the booth with me. My colleague Brian Nugent introduced young Daniel to your films and he became so completely enthralled. He was so desperate to learn from you that he contacted you and asked for an internship of sorts. We all thought he was nuts and that certainly “big time” filmmaker Guy Maddin would never accept or even respond. Low and behold you did and Daniel joined you on the set of My Winnipeg for two weeks that March. I love this story, because it taught me two life lessons – 1) don’t be afraid to ask for something, no matter how out of reach it may seem, the worst thing that can happen is you’ll be told “no”, and 2) sometimes talented and accomplished artists are generous people who are excited to share their knowledge and skills. Do you have examples from your own filmmaking history where you were supported by your community and/or the people you looked up to and what that meant?
Maddin: Well, I never have been able to say no to anyone, not even now in my current state. That yessing myself to death was a sadness in my life, but at this distance I like to think my weakness created some happiness too, and that by yessing myself to death I opened up the world for myself, both my former world and this one. And of course I was always grateful when other artists were generous with me. The poet John Ashbery has been an important and giving benefactor. The filmmaker George Kuchar was endlessly generous with correspondence and the spirit of his presence, the Brothers Quay were the first filmmakers to take me into their homes and mesmerize me with their example. In each case I was as a quaking boy whenever I was in the company of these titans, and when I was alone again I was always left with the compulsion to make movies.
The films in this evening’s program are each the product of the singular visions of their makers – all who are liberated from the desire prescribe to “traditional forms of filmmaking” and are actively rejecting mainstream and commercial cinema. How has experimental or avant-garde film be an influence to you? Are there any particular films or filmmakers that are of particularly importance?
The first experimental film I saw was Castro Street by Bruce Baillie. I didn’t even know films like Castro Street existed, so that was a lightning bolt moment. Then George Kuchar’s feature The Devil’s Cleavage came along and ripped off my eyelids. I saw this sleazy epic as a young man, then set off far into your realm to seek everything else by this visionary. Marlon Riggs is a pole star in the heavens – I thrill when I think of him. Abigail Child quickens the dead. All of the filmmakers in the program tonight.
Absurdity (or absurd comedy) is as a common thread throughout the films in this program, we see this especially in Gary Goldberg’s Mesmer and The Great Blondino, this is of course also often an element in your films as well – The Forbidden Room is described as a romantic mystery comedy-drama – could you talk about comedy in your work?
Just as I could never so no, and will never say no so long as there is eternity, I can never take myself seriously. Well, I certainly take myself seriously, I’m doing it right now, but frequently doubts about myself visit, and my footing is shaken a moment. And so I stretch beneath myself great goofy safety nets that might break a fall from my lofty heights if ever I should slip – heaven forbid. And so it came to pass that I had it both ways during my time on earth, that I was serious, yet apparently also risible, a kind of laughing stock. It’s OK, I’ll take a laugh wherever I can get one. It helped that Evan and Galen are extremely funny. Oh how we laughed together while hatching our plots.
Bonfanti: You recently completed a project for the National Film Board of Canada along with your The Green Fog collaborators Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson called Seance. It is a web-based work described as an indefatigable film-generating machine that deliberately creates films only to destroy them after their one and only viewing. This is an innovative and experimental media arts project that brings into focus ideas around ephemerality and the fragility of memory. How did this project come to being and can you tell us why it was important for you to make this departure from the traditional cinema or gallery exhibition environments?
Maddin: Films have spirits too, and in the case of lost films they’re sad spirits, doomed forever to wander the limbo landscape of cinema history, unable to project themselves for those who might enjoy them. I wanted to create a way for living film lovers to make contact with lost film narrative through Seances, thus the name of our site. Anyone online can summon the spirits of lost films, awaken them for a few moments and invite them to come down and clamour for attention with whoever sits down in front of their screen. The seances are non sequitur-addled, and sad, but they give one a glimpse of what the movie afterlife is like. Cinema is a haunted medium. And from what is lost all is lost again. For a cheery sample please visit our website at seances.nfb.ca
Death, spirits and hauntings are recurring motifs in your movies and Guy, in the 1997 documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight directed by Noam Gonick, you say that a cold you got from a cousin resulted in a neurological infection and the permanent, persistent sensation of feeling like you are constantly being touched by ghosts all over your body. Do you feel the presence of spirits now?
That neurological infection was the best thing that ever came into my body, a lifelong companion that almost never steered me wrong, and that abides with me to this day. It hasn’t yet taught me how to say no, but that’s fine, because in some roundabout way inability brought me to where I am tonight, and, through this guy here, to you in this room, and that’s a good thing. Bless you all and enjoy. A special thank you to William T Wiley and Robert Nelson’s kids Steven and Oona. Good night. Good night… Good night….