“Of course, we have many filmmakers who come to visit the university, but Guy Maddin is unusual,” says Kay Armatage, the professor at the Cinema Studies Institute responsible for bringing Maddin to U of T. “Filmmakers are often very shy. They prefer to let their films speak for them. It’s rare to find an artist who would be willing or capable to do what he’s doing this week.”
And what he is doing promises to be a real treat for film lovers. In a whirlwind of eight events (including receptions and a jaunt to UTM), Maddin talks about his work and the work he admires, screens films, and performs live narrations. Each offers a window into Maddin’s working mind and creative method.
“You can think of it as a kind of sprint course on Guy Maddin,” explains Armatage. “We can expect students to come away with a condensed knowledge of what he does. It’s educational, interesting, and stimulating.”
Winnipeg-born and bred, Maddin divides his time between Winnipeg and Toronto. Currently, he serves as the Distinguished Artist-in-Residence at the University of Manitoba, but is enjoying his transplant to another campus. “It’s a fun challenge to come in and get a feeling for a different campus,” he says. “I want to dip myself completely into U of T.”
Maddin, with tousled grey hair and wearing a hoodie, is as casually insouciant and unpretentious as they come when we sit down to discuss his work. Looking at the week’s agenda as a string of well-loved clip nights, Maddin approves of the lineup. “It instantly fit my temperament,” he says.
In an academic setting, the exchange between filmmaker and audience also allows for new discoveries about his own work. “The more you have to talk about yourself, the more likely you’ll chance upon something that sounds right and true,” he says. “I have managed to find out what my films are really about during a Q & A.”
Aesthetically, Maddin’s films channel the expressionistic, melodramatic qualities of early German cinema: think The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with snow and hockey thrown into the mix. He favours black and white over colour, a strong visual style, and confessional tone.
“I like what expressionism can do, where a character’s inner landscape is manifested in the outer landscape,” he says. “I place atmosphere really high on my list of priorities. I had to reinvent film without the benefit of going to film school, making really dumb mistakes that had already been dealt with in 1895 by my predecessors. My style is kind of kindergarten-primitive at times.”
That youthful crudeness extends to his influences. He lists children’s art and collage parties as major inspirations. At a collage party, he gathers groups of artists together for a night of cutting and pasting. They provide opportunities to see different perspectives and feed off the creativity.
“They’re kind of just orgies of glue and scissors and alcohol,” he laughs. “I like watching how other adult artists have re-accessed childhood. Movies are collages. They’re montages during the editing stages.”
Maddin approaches filmmaking organically, allowing for unexpected results and happy accidents. “I’ve always been the kind of filmmaker who makes films intuitively. I improvise a lot on set. There’s a power in the on-set accident to produce something really wonderful and surprising.”
My Winnipeg, his tour-de-force meditation on his home town, garnered acclaim from Toronto to Berlin.
“It was a real opportunity for me to get a lot of complaints I had about the city off my chest,” he says. “The city would hear these complaints and I could hurt its feelings for hurting mine. And it’s a wonderful, storied place. It does mythologize the city more than any other film.”
Maddin marvels at the film’s popularity, citing his amazement when 1,500 people lined up for its screening in Sydney, Australia. “People like to see other cities looking ridiculous,” he says, trying to explain its broad appeal. “Specificity muscles its way into a universality. It comes to be about everyone’s home town."
One of the hallmarks of My Winnipeg is its comic genius: a deadpan narration coupled with dark humour. Maddin points to the important aspect of entertaining and showmanship to filmmaking.
“I’ve always been a bit of a laughter slut, and I want to amuse people,” he says. “It’s a matter of knowing when too much seriousness is enough and when you’re trying too hard for a laugh. After a few minutes, I’ve learned that I can’t take myself too seriously, so I have to be ridiculous, even fatuous. That’s why I like to perform live with the narration because I can really feel the audience. If I feel they’re not involved, I can crank up the performance.”
In addition to amusement, Maddin hopes the events will enlighten students and pique their interests. “It’s a nice mini festival of me,” he says. “It might turn some people on to some cool stuff.”