Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin

by Donato Totaro Volume 16, Issue 6 / June 2012 18 minutes (4257 words)

Film scholar and frequent Offscreen contributor David Church is to be applauded for his editing of the recent collection of essays on Canada’s irreverent retro-genius Guy Maddin, Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin. Maddin has been a frequent subject on Offscreen so it is nice to see his work receive a collection of varied approaches to his work that can serve several functions: an appreciation of his unique style; a one-stop introduction to his films, and a primer for more seasoned viewers and scholars of his films. Like all readers, there will always be some repetition between pieces and a variance in quality (which can also be a question of one’s preference for methodological approach rather than writing quality) but over-all this is a highly readable and welcome addition to the study and research of Guy Maddin.

The collection includes fifteen essays and an interview with Guy Maddin that concludes the book; followed by a Filmography, a useful Bibliography and Contributor bios. Of the 16 total pieces eight are original, and eight were previously published, usually in slightly altered version. Discounting the interview, there is a good balance between essays with a general approach (nine) and those that look closely at one or two films (six). Up first is Church’s excellent overview and introduction “Bark Fish Appreciation: An Introduction.” In it Church provides a good, clear chronological account of the filmmaker, mixing autobiographical meaning (his strained relationship to his father, or ambivalent one, the father who shirks his responsibilities, the close relationship to his mother, the sexual ambivalence of his male heroes, the ‘natural spaces of Canada as a reflection of the ‘garrison mentality’) with broader film specific allusions (Sirk, melodrama, German expressionism, Soviet cinema, silent cinema), pop psychological references (Freud), theoretical touchstones (postmodernism manifested through camp aesthetic and pastiche form), his film style as a fusion of thematic (death, the return of the dead/the inanimate) and form (his reappropriation of old, ‘dead’ film forms and genres, images of filmic ‘decay’ as pointers toward social and personal decay), the contradictory impulse in Maddin’s work of extreme emotionalism and distanced irony, his odd position as being at once mainstream/avant-garde, popular/elitist, and his strained link to government funding. He then quickly sets up the series of essays to follow.

First to follow editor Church’s valuable introduction is “My Brother’s Keeper: Fraternal Relations in the Films of Guy Maddin and George Toles,” by Donald Masterson, which explores the relationship between Maddin and his mentor and collaborator George Toles. Church does well to place this essay early in the proceedings, because it addresses in plain language many of the conceptual ideas which are addressed in some of the other essays that use more rigorous theoretical terminology. An example is the passage where he quotes Toles lamenting the many critics who seem to miss the single most important part of Maddin’s work when they refer to them using any one of the many postmodernist contexts (satire/irony/parody/irony/kitsch/pastiche), or what Toles sums up as “postmodern parasitism on earlier forms of cinema” (34). Tole argues that “such approaches miss the issue that most matters”….that “feeling is central to the whole enterprise” (34). For example, one of the most difficult essays in the reader, the one by Saige Walton, uses the theory of the Baroque because “extreme states of feeling” are so central to Baroque art. Toles uses another theoretical term to get at a similar point: Maddin employs the defamiliarization effect to force viewers to think about the layers subtext/text/meaning behind the deep emotionalism.

Geoff Pevere, who writes the foreword and contributes “Guy Maddin: True to Form,” is no stranger to Canadian popular culture. For starters he co-wrote (with Greig Dymond) an analysis of Canadian pop culture, Mondo Canuck (1996), and the same light, free-flowing writing style of that best-seller is in evident in this piece. His central idea is that Maddin’s characters are in deep states of alienation and this in turn is a common theme in English-Canadian cinema (contributor Will Straw responds to this point in the following essay). Pevere reiterates a point that appears throughout the reader: the vexing nature of Maddin’s ‘distancing’ aesthetic (Carl Matheson devotes an entire essay to this subject). According to Pevere, Maddin’s form acts as another layer to distance the viewer emotionally; and that form is the subject (“style is the subject,” 53), though not as a signifier of auteurist style (as per Egoyan or Cronenberg), but as a filter to it, hiding it in layers of pastness. While these points may not be highly original observations, his piece serves as a good primer to his films. As an aside: Pevere mentions Tarkovsky as one of the filmmakers that Maddin evokes, but –as a scholar of Tarkovsky myself– I don’t really see that, nor have I ever read Maddin make reference to Tarkovsky.

“Reinhabiting Lost Languages: Guy Maddin’s Careful” by Will Straw is one of the stronger entries in the book. Church does well to place Straw straight after the Pevere essay, because of the dialogue between the two essays. Straw (convincingly) argues against Pevere’s central point of seeing Maddin’s films as allegories of Canadian identity. Straw feels that this reading – the depiction of radical alienation or loss of identity/amnesia as a metaphor of Canadianness or Canadian identity– does not sufficiently take into account the limitations of the generic traditions involved, or that Maddin’s detailed referencings are to forms that are as marginal as Canadian cinema. Maddin, Straw claims, is in love with all forms of marginal cinema/identity (mountain films [Bergfilm], Dreyer, silent cinema, Soviet Montage, etc.), which are as marginal as Canadian cinema…but not Canadian cinema. With respect to Pevere’s point, Straw argues that they do not aspire to notions of full and complete identity because “they all unfold within styles and generic traditions which offer little room for psychological depth or for narrative trajectories leading to complex self-knowledge” (64).

Straw makes an interesting separation of Maddin’s reflexivity from the usual young auteurist who emulate noir or fannish cult movies, a la New Wave/Tarantino. Maddin’s references are far more obscure and detailed, anal even. Straw’s titular “Lost Languages” is the language of old and archaic forms which most people are not familiar with, or have never seen, which allows Maddin to venture from faithful recreation to fanciful re-representations. As an incidental note: Straw quotes screenwriter/collaborator George Toles’ surprise that no critic was willing to deal with the central and most obvious themes of the film: repression and incest. The observation comes in a personal letter to the author dated 1997. Toles might be interested to know that I did address this in my own piece on the film from a book dated 2001, where I write: “The muted lifestyle in Tolzbad is an obvious metaphor for social and sexual repression. The film’s ingenuity rests in a visual style which serves the theme of repression well, and also engages in a fascinating, synchronic patchwork of film history” Guide to the Cinema(s) of Canada, Peter Harry Rist, ed., 31.

One of the central points made by Steve Shaviro in “Fire and Ice: The Films of Guy Maddin,” shared by Straw and made by William Beard in the concluding interview, regards Maddin’s contrary nature: the way he wants his emotions to be taken seriously but makes the narrative and actions so incredulous that most viewers feel a sense of distance/irony that works against the seriousness. This is one of the key points that comes out of the reader collectively, with each author taking a different approach and coming to a different conclusion. For example, Shaviro relates it to the issue of tense in Maddin’s films and his appropriation of earlier forms. Shaviro’s is a fine essay, but one thing I could not understand was the decision to structure the essay in point form. Shaviro does not state why he structures the essay this way, and I see nothing gained by it (or lost).

Another candidate for the best essay in this collection is William Beard’s “Maddin and Melodrama.” Beard begins by noting an important element of Maddin’s films that is often overlooked by critics, the “element of unironic seriousness” (80). One who has and that Beard acknowledges is Shaviro in the previous essay, who “identifies this dimension as one of beauty” (80). Quoting Shaviro, this element is described as a tension between “romantic excess” and “absurdist humor,” or a “contradiction between gorgeousness and camp, or between the beautiful…and the ridiculous” (80). Beard likens this sense of ‘excess’ whether in acting, style, irony, or emotions, to the theory of melodrama which sees such excess as a reflection of “psychological symptoms of social and personal confusion.” Yet Maddin’s films do not operate at the same narrative level as earlier melodrama but at a more ironic distance which Beard sees a result of postmodernism, the ultimate harbinger of all things ironic. But why silent era melodrama, he wonders? What is there in silent era melodrama that is not in regular melodrama, or post-melodrama? Beard posits the unabashed “ecstasies and terrors of silent melodrama” (though I would add that Maddin’s love of silent and early sound horror adds to the ecstasies, or compounds them). Maddin’s style of melodrama adds a heavy dose of the personal, “confessional” Beard calls it, and of course even heavier doses of Freudianism (repression, Oedipal desires), I would add, almost as a form of structure to his personal memories and machinations.

As Beard notes, Maddin’s own life was chock-full of melodramatic events (his 18 year old brother’s suicide on his girlfriend’s grave –she had died in a car crash, when he was 7; his friend’s accidental death by hanging a few years later, his dad’s death when he was 21, etc.). The adage reality can be stranger than fiction applies here, hence perhaps Maddin felt it necessary to heighten these personal memories through stylization to make them ‘art’ and make them distanced enough for him to be able to deal with. Beard suggests that in today’s post-postmodern cultural climate it is impossible to do straight melodrama in Hollywood, so hence even there stylization occurs (Far from Heaven, Twin Peaks, Magnolia). Maddin’s melodramatic excesses are a symptom of a cultural sickness, not ideological, one where the expression of certain emotions, yearning, desire, innocence, pathos, is not possible; hence Maddin’s return to childhood, even if unconsciously, is a return of these repressed emotions. “In Maddin’s cinema, rooted in the unconscious and childhood perceptions, and assaulted by an adult sensibility of rationality and ironic disbelief, the repressed also returns” (89). Perhaps his is a “Canadian melodrama” –weak male heroes, unhappy endings, guarded patriotism, self-criticism, these are all Canadian traits (90-91)…a “pastiche of impossible earlier idealisms….”(92).

David L. Pike’s essay “Thoroughly Modern Maddin” is in the more journalistic mold of Geoff Pevere’s earlier essay, filled with Maddin quotes and autobiographical meanings. This essays includes one excellent insight: relating Maddin’s ‘amateur’ persona to the 1920s modernists’ movement, and away from the technically advanced/refined artists; artists who lacked –seemingly– the sheer technical skills of earlier painters. Hence positing Maddin as a ‘modernist’ rather than postmodernist (camp, kitsch), because of how he too distances himself from the slick products of Hollywood or museum avant-garde. Though downplayed critically, high modernism was very much associated with particular cities (London, Paris, Berlin, New York) and personal experience; likewise with Maddin, and his Winnipeg. The essay gets a bit ‘busy’ near the end, whipping itself into a writing frenzy of riffs on the idea of Maddin’s vast, eclectic reservoir of referentialism, a ‘retro-modernism’, an unabashed melting down of Hollywood, silent cinema, Soviet Cinema, avant-garde, and cheesy melodrama. His Hollywood is his ‘candy store’ which he absorbs as he sees fit.

The eight essay in the collection is Stephen Snyder’s “Sexuality and Self in the Guy Maddin Vision,” which fits the aforementioned generalised approach (Pevere). Snyder relies on plot discussion supported by Freudian/psychoanalytical/Lacanian concepts (repression, phallic symbols, the Other), with touches of gender analysis –surprisingly one of the few essays dealing with gender in the reader– while invoking the surrealism of Luis Buñuel.

The reader’s common theme of “alienation/distanciation” becomes the central focus in Carl Matheson’s “The Heart of His World: Emotional Immediacy and Distance in the Films of Guy Maddin.” Matheson breaks viewers up into those who do not ‘get’ Maddin and those who do. The former, he argues, “suffer” with Maddin (i.e. they remain emotionally distanced) because they approach his films as standard narratives; to appreciate and find Maddin’s films compelling the viewer must treat the films as dreams or nightmares. It is quite evident that there is far more to Maddin’s films than plot. But how can you train a viewer to shift from one mode to another? It certainly is not as easy as telling someone to “view the film as if it were a dream.” Matheson then cocoons himself from having to really deal with this conundrum by admitting that he has jettisoned any scholarly approaches to the films in lieu of “a deeply personal love letter to a dear friend whose work I have been closely following ever since the release of Tales from Gimli Hospital” (134). But he still wants to convince or seduce people into loving Maddin as he does, and uses more spectator traps to achieve this, such as flipping from viewing the films as “dreams” to viewing them as “fairy tales” or “something like fairytales.” He then reverts back to the dream argument, “Instead, I think the films should be viewed as documentaries of recurring dreams…” (140). He then refines the method by saying we should regard the films as “nightmares of obsession.” The essay is a frustrating blend of clever insights on narrative and gender (the latter a particular highlight), including the idea that the “more silent” the Maddin film, the better (which is why he downgrades the dialogue heavy Twilight of the Ice Nymphs and The Saddest Music in the World) and ultimately inconclusive attempts to rationalize a proper mindset for watching Maddin’s films. In the end, he admits that everything he argued about in terms of the distanced dreamscape of Maddin’s best works comes to a halt with his latest film, My Winnipeg, which does not fit his model, because it is “his most accessible and intimate film” (143).

The reader assumes an “insider’s” perspective with the contribution of long-time Maddin mentor, collaborator and friend, George Toles, in the tenth essay, “From Archangel to Mandragora in Your Own Backyard: Collaborating with Guy Maddin.” Although an academic, Toles forces himself to step back from his podium (“I have been warned –by myself as well as others– not to sound too academic as I try to discuss my work a scriptwriter. My goal seems to be to impersonate a non-academic for this one occasion” (144). Although he renounces the scholarly wand, he cannot conceal his excellent writing skills, and this essay is a pleasure to read, far more literary than the others. In fact Toles relies on several references to literature (Shakespeare, baroque, the fairy tale, Beckett, Shelley) to help describe Maddin’s ambivalent textures in the broadest strokes possible. It is mainly an attempt to discuss where his own ideas come from in his collaborations with Maddin, and how they nestle within Maddin’s own personal world view.

In “Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Virgins, Vampires, and the “Theatre Film” Milan Pribisc offers an excellent discussion of the titular film as a “theatre film” as opposed to filmed theatre. Pribisc makes good use of textual and comparative analysis (play, novel, film).

Appropriately placed well into the collection come, in sequence, the three most theoretically dense essays, Dana Cooley’s “Demented Enchantments: Maddin’s Dis-eased Heart,” Darrell Varga’s “Desire in Bondage: Guy Maddin’s Careful,” and Saige Walton’s “Hit with a Wrecking Ball, Tickled with a Feather: Gesture, Deixis, and the Baroque Cinema of Guy Maddin.” Readers who are averse to the rigors of academic writing (or are ‘untrained’) may find these essays a tough haul, given the range of external citations (Walter Benjamin, Fredrich Nietzsche, Baroque theatre, Sigmund Freud, Gilles Deleuze, Tom Gunning, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Erwin Panofsky, Heinrich Wölfflin, Norman Klein, Jean-François Lyotard, the Sublime, theories of melodrama, etc.). As a reflection of this, not surprisingly, the footnote per essay average of these three essays is 54, compared to 19 for the other 13 essays in the collection. At worse, this form of writing comes off as “concept-dropping” for all the wrong reasons, but thankfully this is less often the case here. Cooley’s citing of the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin at the outset of his essay seems as much a plea for intellectual justification as an honest illumination of the subject (Maddin). However, Cooley then goes on to make an enticing comparison between Maddin and a 17th /18th century German popular theatre form, the ‘sorrow play’ (Trauerspiel) based on the tenuous thread that the Trauerspiel, like Maddin’s films, works in the allegorical model (the context of the Baroque is used to a greater extent by Saige Walton, see below). More problematic is the author’s reason for using this anachronistic comparative analysis: to switch the touchstone of much of Maddin’s meaning-making form from Freudian psychoanalytical case studies to fairy tales. This, Cooley feels, will bring the films in closer contact with the real social world. “I would like to propose an alternate reading to Maddin’s Trauerspiels, one that positions these films as closer to fairy tales…than to psychoanalytical case studies” (178). However, the author then goes on, a few paragraphs later, to use the theory of the Other (as a feminized, outsider body) and the Double to explain Archangel (which is “imbued with this disconcerting femininity” 179)! The Other and the Double (and another term he later invokes, the uncanny, or unheimlich) are some of the most often used concepts within psychoanalytical criticism!!! At some level he acknowledges this contradiction: “although I am not interested in pursuing a Freudian reading of Maddin’s films, I find the idea of the uncanny a productive one….(179). So while he is quick to abandon Freud, he remains committed to psychoanalysis in its many post-Freudian guises (Benjamin, John Berger, Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Jeffery Mehlman, etc.).

From this point on Cooley goes on to analyze Archangel and Cowards Bend at the Knee but there is no mention of fairy tales in general. Cooley tries to get around this by likening the uncanny to allegory, but then this becomes psychoanalysis in disguise. I also don’t understand how the author can refer to Archangel as an “allegory” for memory, loss, and grieving” (184), when the film’s subject is clearly about those things. Explicit meaning cannot be allegory. All in all this is an essay with some strong and original ideas on Maddin’s films, marred only by some conceptual inconsistencies.

Darrell Varga’s “Desire in Bondage: Guy Maddin’s Careful” begins with a plot synopsis of Careful and then in the next paragraph shifts to an application of the German philosopher Nietzsche to Maddin, essentially on the basis of a mutual reception experience between readers of Nietzsche and viewers of Maddin’s films. Reading Nietzsche “throw[s] us into a labyrinth from which no one emerges unscathed” (p. 190). The reader gets an interpretation of Careful vis-a-vis Nietzsche, but whether such a reading is wanted, needed, helpful, or necessary is assumed. After a long quote from Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy Varga states, and the reader must accept, “It is this shifting engagement with rapture and lethargy that is Careful (191). Hence his Nietzschean interpretation, as stimulating as it often is, requires a certain suspension of disbelief in the reader because it relies on tangential affinities between his description of the films and the many Nietzsche quotes. The essay gains its ‘originality’ by matching subjects that are far removed historical or intellectually. Minus Neitzsche, Varga’s points echo those of others in the reader (Freudian repression, Unheimlich, evoking of the cinematic past, etc.).

The above reservations aside, I think there are a few points in the essay lacking in basic clarity:

1. Varga refers to “the instrumentalist” style of Canadian cinema, but what does this mean? (192) I have never heard this term used in the context of Canadian cinema.

2. In a fanciful passage that exemplifies the previously noted “suspension of disbelief” necessary to Varga’s Nietzschean interpretations he writes, “The interlaced sculptural and music-like [my emphasis] images in his films suggest the Apollonian and Dionysian duality upon which art depends, according to Nietzsche –the dream world in which we may glimpse the gods and face the depths of intoxication, of forgetfulness, of forgetting the self” (192). I accept the general use of Nietzsche, but what are “music-like images” (251)?

3. Varga writes, “Careful, like all of Maddin’s oeuvre, is bubbling over with excess and incommensurability, with a disorder of bliss and regret” (194). What does Varga mean by “incommensurability”? Assuming a film theory context, what might come to mind is Gilles Deleuze and his notion of the ‘incommensurable’ interval between shots in a ‘time-image’ film (an ellipsis in which time/space is hard to describe with any certainty). I think this was Varga’s intent, since he goes on to relate this to “narrative threads.” However, since he says this in relation to all of Maddin’s films, it would stand to reason that such a point be made clear.

Saige Walton’s essay “Hit with a Wrecking Ball, Tickled with a Feather: Gesture, Deixis, and the Baroque Cinema of Guy Maddin” brings us back to the 17th century context of Varga’s essay, employing Baroque theory, phenomenology and deixis (“a ‘pointing’ via words or form, Church, 22) to unravel Maddin’s two biographical films, Cowards Bend the Knee (2006) and Branded Upon the Brain! (2006). The discomfort many feel toward Maddin’s “surface (bodily) and (emotive) depth” is normally worked out by referring to them through a secondary distancing filter, such as camp, kitsch, parody, etc. Walton argues instead for the value of the straight ahead “gesture, motion, and physicality” as the source of meaning: the feelings are right there in/on the body (our surface). He then uses the philosophy of phenomenology to study these surfaces. “Through corporal display (gesture, movement, telltale looks, facial aspects), the baroque communicates the subjectively “invisible” or “abstract” interiority of feeling to its beholder” (213). Though a slow read because of the numerous external citations across philosophy, film, and art history, the rewards are rich when Walton gets to the films.

The consensus with many of the essays in this reader is that there is a distantiation at many levels operating in Maddin’s films (stylistic/aesthetic being the primary, couching it often in older forms which contemporary audiences are unfamiliar with); at times this is at conflict with the flagrant emotionalism at play in the subject, acting, and narrative. Walton’s analysis points to some of these same dynamics, but couches it in a baroque sensibility which foregrounds deep emotions (“extreme states of feeling”) which, if they get through to the viewer, establish it at a ‘sensuous’ level. The surface (of our body, the body of others, and even the film itself, 212) becomes ‘expressive’ of these meanings which may appear at times suppressed by distanciation mechanisms.

After the conceptually broad ranging nature of the previous three essays, the collection concludes with two more relaxing reads, “I’m Not an American, I’m a Nymphomaniac”: Perverting the Nation in Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World” by Lee Easton and Kelly Hewson and the concluding Maddin interview conducted by William Beard. The Easton and Hewson essay is an interesting analysis of the film and the “connections among nations, sexuality and gender,” and is perhaps a candidate for one of those cases where an analysis is more interesting than the film! In the end, the authors argue that Maddin’s incorporation of melodrama, a feminine genre, with the Hollywood musical form, helps to both be nationalist while criticizing the conventions and clichés that go with Canadian identity, such as normative sexuality (patriarchy), capitalism, heroism, etc. The Easton and Hewson co-authored essay is intelligent without ever becoming dependent on an external theoretical lynch pin. Theorists and external ideas are brought in but always in relation to a reading of a scene or passage in the film.

Beard’s “Conversations with Guy Maddin” is an excellent resolution to the collection. William Beard’s extensive knowledge of Maddin (he wrote an excellent book on Maddin, Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin (University of Toronto Press, 2010) allows him the luxury of a free form style of questioning in which he covers most of Maddin’s films, his influences, his cultural tastes, and pertinent biographical detail. One of Beard’s questions cuts to the chase of Maddin’s style: “It seems to me that you’re trying to do something very complicated in your films, and that is to hold ridicule and serious feelings right next to each other” (245). Editor David Church has succeeded in his own complicated task of compiling an intoxicating blend of heady, illuminating, intellectually vibrant and (at times frustratingly) tasking group of essays on a filmmaker who can be as equally heady, illuminating, vibrant….and tasking!

Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

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