Canadian director Guy Maddin makes movies that look nostalgic but feel modern. Often using black and white film and techniques from Silent Cinema like intertitles, live musical accompaniment and expressionistic acting, Maddin's unusual movies have been favorites at numerous international film festivals. Now the exuberantly creative director is punching up the movie going experience to make it even more like the cinema of yesteryear, showing his most recent feature Brand Upon The Brain! (which played at last year's New York Film Festival) with a live orchestra and a live narrator describing and explaining the silent melodrama on the screen. The movie seems to be about a young boy named Guy Maddin who lives with his rebellious sister, controlling mother, absent scientist father and a whole mess of orphans in a creepy lighthouse, but in any Maddin movie you never really know what else may lurk beneath. Special screenings of Brand will be touring around the country, with a run in New York starting on Wednesday May 9 at the historic Village East Cinema on Second Avenue and going through May 15. Some of the special celebrity narrators scheduled here include Eili Wallach, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Crispin Glover, Justin Bond and Isabella Rossellini. Gothamist recently spoke with Maddin about what he's calling "Cinema Spectacle," his unique working relationship with Rossellini and the joys of drunk snacking in New York.
Your silent film aesthetic is so distinctive. Do you feel like your movie making style has been influenced by any other directors in particular?
I guess the biggest emboldener – that’s not a word -- but the director who filled me with the courage to try something like this has been Jean Vigo, who made a great childhood remembrance film in Zero de Conduit. That’s too much understatement. He made the MASTERPIECE Zero de Conduit. I love the recklessness of the continuity, the uninhibited performances and their incredible, pitch-perfect stylization. Everything he did he did primitively, and everything his collaborators like composer Maurice Jaubert did, too, really nailed the feeling we all get when we are indulging ourselves in the poetic pastime of remembering our earliest years. We think in metaphors we inadvertently coined for ourselves while trying to order our youthful thoughts. Vigo got this.
Brand Upon the Brain! obviously has some allusions to autobiographical filmmaking, whether the remembrances of your character Guy are yours or not. What led you to writing a script like that?
I just wanted to make my own contribution to the wonderful genre of the childhood reminiscence. Always did. When I got an offer to make a film from The Film Company, my Seattle-based utopian, quixotic and not-for-profit producers who offer COMPLETE artistic freedom – they don’t even want to read your script! – I thought this was my best chance to attempt such an ambitious project. I didn’t want this delicate subject to be tackled under the usual, distracting conditions that other shoots force you to endure. I had a VERY melodramatic, German Romantic and hysterical (in the Medea sense) childhood. This material is best suited to silent film for there are still many things which silent film does much better than these talkies which we are all too inclined to watch at all times, myself included. Silent film is automatically less literal-minded than synch sound pictures. Its viewers are freed of any temptation to think in naturalism. Everything makes a big lurch toward the fairy tale, the lyric, the universal. Toward the shared experience of childhood wonder and confusion, the magic (sometimes very painful) of it all.
The live Cinema Spectacular at the Village East Cinema will feature a variety of narrators. How did you choose these collaborators?
My producers and I all made up a dream list of our favorite performers. Then we sicced Jamie Hook, my uber-gregarious, vociferous and sometimes even frightening producer, on these people. Some were charmed and accepted, some turned and ran. It’s a system with many casualties, but it worked out eventually, splendidly.
What do you think a live narrator brings to the movie watching experience?
Each narrator will bring his or her own personality to the lectern, will represent yet another musical instrument to accompany those in the pit, will set a personal temperature for the film, and will also offer insurance to the viewer that they will never be lost, or not lost for long, as all viewers of silent film fear they shall be at some time or other. That’s why narrators were used in the first place way back some 90 to 100 years ago, and later in Japan, with the richly nuanced and strange Benshi tradition. Narrators enriched the films and kept them lively. I like to use my narrators to keep viewers confidant and supply yet another live element that can go disastrously wrong, to keep the event immediate. Besides, I really just wanted to meet all these cool people, and now I get to!
You’ve worked with Isabella Rossellini a number of times now. I particularly loved your work with her on her autobiographic movie, My Dad Is A Hundred Years Old, about her father director Roberto Rossellini which played recently at Film Forum. Tell me a little bit about your working relationship.
IR and I really get along. Our dads died a week apart some thirty years ago and both of them left much unfinished emotional business with their children. When I read IR’s autobiography I couldn’t believe how similarly to me she process her paternal memories, her unspent love for the man who issued us. I felt like her sibling, I felt like my dad was hers and hers mine. Then we discovered our shared love of [silent actor] Lon Chaney, and then, to cap it all off, she confessed how she was sick of glamour, her own glamour. While I wasn’t sick of hers, I was certainly sick of my own, or, more accurately, my own hopeless lack of glamour. She gave me permission to quit worrying about my regular-ness. Now I love her for this gift. I have no need for glamour or strangeness in my personal life, and I can happily keep myself out of Winnipeg’s society pages now, freeing me to work on film alone. My movies are much better as a result.
Where's your favorite place to see a movie in the city?
I haven’t been to the Village East Cinema yet, but I understand it’s sensational and they have been sweet to run my picture event. Also I’ve always loved [film programmer] Mike Maggiore and his Film Forum.
Best cheap eat in the city?
I’m usually drunk when in town, and at the mercy of other eaters, but I know I love this faux French place in Chelsea that serves great white beer and moules frites. I can only find this place or remember its name when I’ve been drinking.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
Three-way tie: Peter Scarlet [director of the Tribeca Film Festival], [poet] John Ashbery and Isabella Rossellini, for vastly differing reasons.
What's your idea of a perfect day in New York?
A stroll, some box scores with coffee, a movie and passing out in a bowl of moule frites.
[Pictured: Director Guy Maddin and Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke on the set of Maddin's Brand upon the Brain!] Advance tickets available on Moviefone.com and Movietickets.com for $30 or at the Village East box office for $40.