Arts and Culture

Filmmaker Guy Maddin on cinematic séances and the Brakhage Symposium

Filmmaker Guy Maddin says that watching a movie has more in common with a paranormal séance than meets the eye; he remembers the first time he realized that the French word for a movie screening is "séance," which translates into "a sitting." Both activities take place in the dark; both are enchanting; both evoke spirits from the past who have been separated from their physical bodies. Attempting to resurrect lost movies -- films improperly stored and turned to vinegar, destroyed to make room for new stock or abandoned in closets (in 1981, the original cut of Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc was found in a janitor's closet in a mental hospital in Oslo Maddin says) -- the filmmaker holds public séances where he puts actors into a trance and shoots his own adaptations of missing films. He sees himself as a spirit guide summoning the sad souls of lost movies. "I've been shooting one film in public per day. I did three weeks in Paris, two in Montreal, and I'm always looking to shoot more. I wanted to shoot a hundred films for one hundred days, but it looks like it's going to be more like seventy," says Maddin, who will be performing a séance and participating in the Brakhage Symposium at the University of Colorado Boulder this weekend.

See also: The Weirdest Movie in the World: Nobody does nostalgic melodrama like Guy Maddin

"I remember when I first discovered I couldn't go see all the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because his first film, The Mountain Eagle, was lost. It's not like I can go to the library, where they have interlibrary loan, and read everything written by some author. These films are just lost. I glibly said to myself that the only way I would ever see some of these lost titles is if I were to make them myself," Maddin recalls.

While Maddin has a long list of feature films to his name, the séances are different. It takes him an hour to shoot a twenty-minute movie. He edits a short from the footage, and he uploads those shorts into a computer program that will allow viewers to have their own cinematic séance, via the Internet. The program uses an algorithm that recombines the movies into new films, which disappear as soon as they are created.

The process is filled with happy accidents and magical collisions, Maddin says: "Once you get a hundred films that have six different scores for each one and five different color timings and alternate contextualizing intertitles, you quickly get up to something like 500 trillion different possible combinations. That's why I can afford to lose them as soon as I make them.

"You know when you watch a séance in an old movie, and some grieving couple killed in the Great War wants to visit their son, but their aunt comes instead, until her spirit is pushed away?" he asks. "Then Queen Victoria comes, but her signal is too strong. Then maybe a dead pet from the past comes in, for a while, and then all of a sudden, a very crummy facsimile of the couple's son, just good enough to fool someone who really wants to believe, comes briefly, very torturously but briefly. It occurred to me that if these film spirits pushed and competed with each other like that, they could form sometimes delightful, sometimes uninteresting and sometimes extremely rewarding combinations with each other.

"They combine, recombine and fragment themselves," Maddin continues. "Sometimes they forget that their stories are about husbands and wives, and they become about brothers and sisters instead, but there is still a sexual attraction there. Or sometimes, a father and daughter become romantically involved instead. By confusing the intertitle cortex of the brain of the lost film spirits, you can change relationships. Every time you see a film, some of the variables are different: The music is different each time and so is the color timing; sometimes they're in full color; sometimes they're in black and white; sometimes they're all in a different color, and they have a different score, different relationships and different fragments each time. It's like having a recurring dream that changes a little bit, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot."

Maddin acknowledges that both paranormal and cinematic séances involve a degree of chicanery: "In both cases, there's a medium, and in both cases there are charlatans and frauds. Even a documentary filmmaker is trying to coax an audience around to his or her point of view. Even when seemingly striving to be disinterested, you can't help but use your own methods of persuasion."

Maddin will be participating in the Brakhage Symposium, which runs March 7-8 at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For more information and a schedule go to the Brakhage Center website or call 303-735-1021.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris