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Guy Maddin Interview

Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg opens this week. Richard von Busack got hold of the director for an interview about his new project and the vagaries of life in Canada.

By Richard von Busack

Director Guy Maddin of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the leading cinematic exponent of the aesthetics of silent film, as seen in movies from Tales From the Gimli Hospital to Brand Upon the Brain!. His specializes in a semiserious mix of fervent drama and turbulent montage, meant to combat the repression of middle-class Canadian life.

Maddin's marvelous The Saddest Music in the World satirizes the homogenizing process of the music industry—the process that took the Delta blues and turned it into ABBA. Maddin also celebrates the unique weirdness of the Busby Berkeley musical. Footlight Parade, the 1933 semiautobiographical Berkeley musical, has a moment where song-plugger and impresario Chester Kent (James Cagney) is describing off-screen "musical prologues" based on the Russian Revolution, ghosts, bullfighters and the Swiss Navy. The Saddest Music in the World (2003) features a character named Chester Kent. He is one of the competitors in an international music competition for world's saddest song, held by a nefarious crippled beer baroness (Isabelle Rossellini) for the purposes of selling more of her swill to the depressed, sobbing proletariat.

Maddin's newest movie, My Winnipeg (opening July 25 at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose), brought the director to the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, where he discussed his art and life for a spell.

METRO: I supposed what I always felt about Winnipeg was, Perhaps if I moved there, I could at last be safe.

MADDIN: (Snorting) It's terrifying! You'd get killed!

METRO: I have heard the locals steal car batteries.

MADDIN: I've had uncountable crimes committed against my car. Don't even leave a gum wrapper on your seat. They'll break the windows to get at it.

METRO: I heard you were teaching a class on melodrama at the University of Manitoba. What do you show your students?

MADDIN: I show them Lon Chaney's The Unknown, all about the cowardly nonthreatening way to win a woman's heart, something I think we've all tried at one point. Leave Her to Heaven: that's unbridled desire on parade, a manifestation of desire at its most selfish, in Leon Shamroy's most uninhibited Technicolor. It's my thankless task in school to redeem melodrama, but the students come in unconvinced and leave unconvinced.

METRO: Lately, I've been disgusted at use of the phrase "over the top" to describe a fevered performance. Who put the lid on cinema?

MADDIN: Next year, on the first day of school, I'm going to ban that phrase in my class. "Over the top," is always used negatively, and it's like a smart thing to write. When a performer performs at their best level (think of Divine, for instance) are they over the top? Every performance is stylized, except maybe the performances in front of the crime-video cameras at the convenience store ... and even those performances are probably stylized.

METRO: I'm similarly sick of the concept of camp and intend to write a manifesto against it.

MADDIN: Camp has lost its power. You can find a serious element in anything we all vaguely think of as camp: something that's politically powerful and honest.

METRO: Tell me about the narration in My Winnipeg. Why did you decide to narrate it yourself?

MADDIN: I was thinking first of getting an explicator, such as Bu˝uel describes in his autobiography, or hiring a Benshi as I did in Brand Upon the Brain! I had too much story to tell. If I had my way I would have hired [Canada's own] Lorne Greene, but there was one problem: he's dead. I wanted a patriarchal voice to counterbalance this feminine story. Eventually, I went with my own cowardly tones coming out of the speaker.

METRO: Is it true that Winnipeg suffers from an epidemic of sleepwalking?

MADDIN: Somnambulation rates are 10 times higher then any other city. It's probably stimulated by isolated Seasonal Affective Disorder. I do it myself. I always wake up in a different bed. It's like I'm trying to trade up to a better bed in my sleep. My old girlfriend's mom used to sleep-drive. She'd always drive in a trance over to the convenience store and wolf down five chocolate bars. She was always on a diet, and she never understood why she couldn't lose weight.

METRO: And is it true that Arthur Conan Doyle considered Winnipeg a locus for psychic activity?

MADDIN: Doyle came frequently. After he died suddenly. They put his picture in those cottony ectoplasmic photographs.

METRO: When lamenting the destruction of your Winnipeg, I'm wondering why you didn't mention the old movie theaters in the city, since they're usually the first ones to kiss the wrecking ball.

MADDIN: I could have, but I didn't. I liked those old theaters, but I didn't see a lot of movies growing up. It was the Arena I liked more. It was a solidly built building, which could have been reused. Saving it was beyond the vision of the narrow-minded self-interested politicians, a bunch of real estate developers from the suburbs. ... If they'd consulted their history books or got on a plane and saw some other cities they might have understood you could have preserved it. On the other hand, when I showed this film in Berlin, they didn't give me much sympathy about losing these buildings.

METRO: I guess that's a fast way to make friends when you go to Berlin: "Say, what ever happened to all your old buildings?"

MADDIN: "Don't you people have any respect for your history?"

METRO: What have they done with the space where the Winnipeg Arena stood?

MADDIN: It's a vacant lot now. They were talking about putting a water park on it. Tragic. Downtown Winnipeg is full of these donut holes where they tore down buildings; and the holes widen because more buildings go vacant and then get torn down also.

METRO: Are you planning on cutting out of Winnipeg for real?

MADDIN: I do have perfect job mobility. But they do give you advantages as a filmmaker in Manitoba, and they try to keep you. I teach half a year, so I can go to Toronto six-to-seven months a year. I can have a small holiday to get away and visit my daughter. I always wanted to get away for good, but Toronto isn't home. I've never felt comfortable there—I don't have my circle of friends. I asked myself why I had the actor playing me in My Winnipeg as a 32-year-old, and I decided that was the year I should have left Winnipeg. I guess I'm just a big overgrown infant.

METRO: Regarding the TV show Ledge Man that you recreate in My Winnipeg, was there really was local programming that prolix on western Canadian TV?

MADDIN: My mother was on local TV right from the first year we got it. She was on 15 minutes a day in a soap opera, long enough to have seven different actors play her sons. I have a few of the shows on kinescope. She's only now retired from acting because she's getting old and tired.

METRO: So your mother was a local celebrity?

MADDIN: My family was drunk on celebrity. My father was well known because of his connection to the lightly financed Canadian Nationals hockey team. My sister is in the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. Until she got some backwards coaching that slowed down her time, she was one of the three fastest 100-yard dash runners in the world. Even when my brother died, we were celebrities because it got into the newspapers. I was a child model, that got me into show business. It was when the local Hudson Bay store used to do its advertising locally instead of out of Toronto like it does now. As a boy I was standing in my underwear next to a couple of models in front of a tent pretending to be my family. I was named after Guy Madison, incidentally.

(A brief flurry of conversation follows as we try to figure out the difference between Guy Madison and Guy Williams. Guy Maddin turns out to be named after the better Guy, Argentina's debonair Guy "Zorro" Madison. The fox, so cunning and free! He makes the sign of the Z!")

METRO: What do the locals think of My Winnipeg?

MADDIN: They haven't seen it yet. I wanted to narrate it personally, like the travelogues I always loved. We'll see what they say. They're hard on their own, and they're skeptical, too. I'm like that too—I'm hard on my own stuff. So showing My Winnipeg in Winnipeg will be the acid test.

METRO: Here's a stupid question. Is the thrift shopping good in Winnipeg?

MADDIN: The thrift shops are not bad. I don't go there for clothing anymore. After my grandchild was born, I decided to clean out my apartment—it was junk shopped-full to the point of French decadence. I had to throw about 90 percent of it out.

METRO: How could you? Weren't you afraid: "I'll need this object for my next movie."

MADDIN: Stuff like that I donated to the film archives in Toronto. Got a tax break for it, which was good.

METRO: In closing, I have a couple of questions about Saddest Music. Why did you decide to name the main character after the lead in Footlight Parade?

MADDIN: Canadian personalities in films can be very passive. I was worried about the hole in the donut. And naming my character Chester Kent after James Cagney in Footlight Parade was a way of making sure he wouldn't be another one of these donut hole characters. I like characters who make things happen but also are just barely keeping afloat themselves, like Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole or Sidney Falco in The Sweet Smell of Success.

METRO: Canada's entry in the tragic-song competition, the lugubrious dead World War I soldier song "Red Maple Leaves"—was that song for real?

MADDIN: It's by Arthur Tracy, a.k.a. "The Street Singer." He was in the Steve Martin film Pennies From Heaven. In fact, that song was his hit.

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