Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind

4 July 2012 | 6:59 am | Anthony Carew

Guy Maddin’s “most shameful secrets and cowardices” are on display in a new retrospective of the Canadian filmmaker showing at ACMI, writes Anthony Carew.

“I have this theory about autobiography,” says Guy Maddin. “Sometimes, if you put the absolute opposite of a fact up there, it has the same mathematical value; as if a number's positive and negative values are equal. The feelings have the same strength and the same impact, it's just the opposite feeling. Therefore, I feel as if I can represent autobiography however I want. If I make an old spinster aunt a promiscuous harlot, or the gentlest person a homicidal maniac, to me that's just a technicality.”

Maddin is one of the world's great filmmakers; he's a singular stylist who borrows the grainy, frantically-edited, black-and-white form of '20s silent-film – his heroes are Eisenstein, von Sternberg and Buñuel – and uses it to (melo)dramatic ends satirical, surreal and confessional. Across his ten features and 30 short films, the 56-year-old Canadian has sustained his super-8-aided shtick with ardent devotion.

“I've pretty much monomaniacally repeated my own obsessive themes,” Maddin admits. “You probably can just consider [my work] like one big ribbon on a spool. Some of the ribbon may be a bit old and faded at one end, and it may not've unspooled in the most elegant manner, but it's all part of the one long, unsavoury continuum.”

After his “mischievous” early days – 1989's Tales From The Gimli was made explicitly to “annoy my Icelandic family”; 1990's Arcangel was a “pro-war movie”; 1992's Careful was a “pro-incest movie” – Maddin had a fallow period before erupting in 2002, delivering Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, Cowards Bend The Knee, and The Saddest Music In The World within one frenetic 18-month span.

“In the new millennium I got my swagger back, mostly in the form of just naming characters after myself,” Maddin says. “I turned my gaze inwards, towards confessions I could use in autobiographical vivisections, and other such narcissistic procedures that allowed me to find stuff to put on screen… I thought that would allow me to masochistically spill all these hideous and deranged confessions all over the place. At first it felt good just to take myself down, but then when I expanded my narratives I started to take friends and family down, too. So it was a combination of feeling mischievous and masochistic, and then just being a thoughtless jerk.”

Exploring tales from his life – the childhood suicide of his elder brother, the early death of his father, his experiences as ice-hockey stick boy – Maddin's films are “one big diary” running repressed real-world emotions “through the disinhibition of melodrama”. Meaning, basically, they're true stories filled liberally with lies, his family not minding because, the filmmaker says, “we've got our repression mechanisms in good working order”.

“There's so much repression and inhibition in every day life, you're just as likely to get to the truth by taking a fact and flipping it on its ass,” Maddin says. This goes for his folkloric, cockeyed 'portrait' of his hometown, My Winnipeg, or for Cowards Bend The Knee, where 'Guy Maddin' is a murderous hockey star. “I can't be committed for the crimes I'm confessing to, because I made them all up,” he laughs. “But some of my most shameful secrets and cowardices, they're in there, too. Some of it so ineptly expressed that it's almost hidden in that ineptitude, but a lot of it is just pretty raw and out there.”

Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema Of Guy Maddin opens on Thursday 5 July, ACMI Cinemas.