GUY MADDIN: SETTLE FOR A FACSIMILE OF EMPATHY
Illustration by Steven Fiche
L.A. RECORD has recently discovered that questions in this interview by Lainna Fader were plagiarised from Arthur magazine. We have contacted Arthur and will proceed from there. We will be reviewing and removing all Lainna Fader material while we investigate it for further plagiarism as well.
Director Guy Maddin’s latest project is a “film-to-be” adaptation of a musical originally written for Swedish National Radio by brothers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks, in which a live cast—including Maddin and the Maels, appearing in supporting roles—will perform on stage the story of Ingmar Bergman, who is mysteriously transported from his native Sweden to Hollywood during the height of the studio system in the 1950s. Maddin will direct the on-stage world premiere of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman at this year’s L.A. Film Festival and hopes to make the story into a film in the future. He speaks now from his home in Winnipeg.
Why are you working with Sparks on a musical about Ingmar Bergman?
I’m a longtime fan of the boys—the Maels. It never occurred to me that I’d ever do anything like this. I’d been researching them as film forces for a lost film project that I’m in the middle of right now—lost, aborted and unrealized films, I should say. I know at one point they were slated to make a picture with Jacques Tati back in the 70s and I was really intrigued by that. I think I discovered them in 1974 when they were just a few albums old. I’d kept in touch with them because I liked the fact that they’re really hard-working and kept evolving but still kept what I’d loved about them in the first place. I’d heard from a mutual friend—Michael Silverblatt, the guy that runs KCRW’s Bookworm—that they were aware of my movies and liked them OK or whatever so he arranged for some kind of introduction so that we could just kind of sheepishly glance at each other through splayed fingers and blushes, things like that. I find that they and I have very similar temperaments and as I got to know them a little bit more I learned to love these guys. When they asked me if I’d be interested in working on this I just said, ‘Absolutely. Sounds like fun.’ I’ve always been interested in the occult way in which music and image work together. No one can ever figure it out, I don’t think. There’s no formula. It’s not quantifiable. There’s no function that can be written down. It’s just very mysterious and so I thought, ‘Well, why not try to make it happen with this project?’ Which was already pretty cinematic. After all, it had its premiere in a theater with a blank screen and so people were listening to The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and sitting in their seats looking at blankness—so they were obviously seeing things through the music.
How does the Maels’ relationship with Tati feed into their characterization of Bergman?
I don’t know. I’d kill to get my hands on the original Tati script for Confusion—the film they were going to do. I know Bergman is endlessly complicated and the more you watch him, the deeper he gets. What’s strange about the Maels’ music is that it seems remarkably simple—at times even as simple as a kind of a Dr. Seuss-y kind of a bounce—but the more you listen to that, the more you appreciate what’s going on in it. It rewards constant re-listening. I think maybe at first glance the opera—or whatever this is—is so simple. Bergman goes into a Swedish theater showing an American film and ends up literally in Hollywood—not just imaginatively—and has himself a little panic attack, which ends by the Santa Monica pier. And he runs out of North America to flee from Hollywood and then just his sort of fevered brow … You know, us Scandinavians—I’m Icelandic—us Scandinavians aren’t used to having brows with temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, so when his brow is soothed by Greta Garbo, a successful Swedish émigré to Hollywood, he feels he can safely return to the dour, cold breast of Stockholm. I just liked the simplicity of it. And yet Bergman himself brings so much complication. It’s almost like you’re just getting a character transplant. A lot can be done in a short amount of time with the movie.
How exactly will Greta Garbo rescue Ingmar Bergman in the film?
I don’t know. I had my own encounter with Greta Garbo once—slightly more mystical than Bergman’s. In 1992 I went to Stockholm and saw the dress she wore in her first film, Gösta Berlings Saga. It was locked in a glass case at the Stockholm Cinematheque and I asked the curator there if he could please, please, please unlock it just so I could climb inside the glass chamber just so I could be inside the same space as the dress and he actually did so. I couldn’t believe it. I had to flirt with him a lot to get him to do it. He even locked the door so it was locked in there with me and once the door closed I was surrounded on all four sides by clear glass, like a perfectly transparent phone booth with the Gösta Berling dress—which I was very familiar with, I’d watched it over and over again—just on some kind of body mannequin. My head started to swim and I couldn’t help it. I licked it. I licked it right on the breast and with my big soggy tongue, dug into the fabric, which was 72 years old or something. I don’t remember exactly, but it was old and I tore a hole in it. I tore a hole about the size of a quarter in it and whatever formaldehyde spritzes were being used to preserve the fabric scorched all the taste buds off my tongue and I couldn’t taste anything for a year after that but I was so proud that I didn’t care. I couldn’t taste food. It was a tasteless act, I suppose, on some sacred object but I felt like it was mine. It was mine to do with what I wanted and it was a bit of a gesture of mad love. I know I do have a cold temperament like so many other Scandinavians but … I don’t know, I was just overcome by madness. I’ve just always felt a lot closer to Greta since then. So when I encountered this episode that they’d written in, I just thought it was another great intersection between Sparks and me. That they would choose someone as all-powerful as Greta Garbo—because that was the face of a century, after all—to loom out of the sky, to loom out of the luminosity and just restore things to a monochromatic cool and everything would be fine …
Why do you think Russell is suited to play a studio executive and a police officer and Ron is suited to playing a limo driver and a Hollywood tour guide?
They only have so many singing parts and things in the movie, and I guess maybe Ron just didn’t want to play Ingmar Bergman. I guess he just doesn’t look enough like him. It’s a big fever dream so it makes sense that the creators of the opera themselves actually serve as sort of footmen—that they’re at every level of the hierarchy of this thing. They’re chauffeurs and executives and composers and performers as well. I like the fact that they’re interlarded with the project from top to bottom. They’re kind of smaller parts, but they’re very lovely and they just keep reminding everybody that even though there are other performers and bigger parts—Bergman, Garbo—the Maels are involved top to bottom. It’s a nice way of knitting the composers right into the performance by actors and singers. I think I’d really love that to happen in the movie as well, if it ever gets made.
The Maels have said that they aren’t interested in revealing their own personalities in their music. How do you relate to them?
I think it’s another place where we agree or where we have similar approaches. A lot of people think my movies are really strange or bizarre or something but I’ve always been a folklorist—a fairytale buff. The Maels and I are always entering the world of music and literature and film through the fairy tale door, finding ourselves in there somewhere and then trying to figure out ways of representing ourselves in those terms—in heightened terms, in uninhibited terms, exaggerated terms if you have to. I like the idea of calling it ‘uninhibited’ terms because when you’re uninhibited, you’re telling the truth and the truth that’s on your mind is free to be blurted out. It might seem exaggerated or too loud or inappropriate or bizarre but it’s still true. When you’re exaggerating what’s on your mind, you tend to distort things. I think what they do is they take the truth and figure out a really stylish or boppy or fun way of uninhibiting it and revealing it to people in disguised forms—forms that are more fun or melancholy even, or boppy or catchy, whatever atmospheres or flavors they’ve chosen for songs.
What fairy tale meant a lot to you as a kid?
I really liked Journey to the Center of the Earth which was more of a movie I remember seeing when I was very young, maybe 3. Maybe just ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ which I never took to heart. I’m still building things out of straw. I became a housepainter and instead of replacing rotten boards, I’d just put three coats of paint on top of them. I kind of make films that way too. Their surfaces are always moldering and flaking off and things like that but I do try to have at least a strong framework underneath—but I’ve still got lots of rotten straw around there. Maybe somebody should have explained the fairy tale to me.
Memories from growing up are obviously a big part of your films—do you think memories enhance or impede our ability to enjoy the present?
Our memories are the present, you know? I can only paraphrase something Faulkner wrote. I think that we all live in the past and the present simultaneously. When you think of it in the most simplistic terms … you see a glowing red-hot stove element and you go to put your hand on it because it’s attractive but then you remember. There’s a very complicated matrix of memories that inform every moment and whenever we smell something, it subconsciously or even consciously reminds us of something. We’re just constantly wading through a sensory world of memory that’s being stirred up constantly by the present.
What do you think the difference is between nostalgia, melancholy and grief?
It’s tempting to be glib and say they’re all the same thing. They’re all sort of component parts of … yeah, I don’t know. Luckily I don’t feel grief very often. Nostalgia and melancholy are often overlapping—like carpet and underlay, you know? They’re hard to distinguish and sometimes they do feel synonymous. I like the feelings. I like a melancholic stroll. For some reason, walking is just a thousand times better for producing memories and creative solutions to problems than, say, driving or jogging or bike riding or laying on the couch or even just writing and trying to solve things. For some reason, just going on a stroll and thinking … it’s like everything settles in while your most recent meal is settling in. All the years that you’ve lived before start settling in, kind of like collating pages and shuffling them and squaring them until they’re in a nice, neat stack and things start to make sense. You start to remember how far back some things are and place them and they make some sort of emotional sense—how emotionally far back some things are and literally how chronologically far back some things are. For some reason I like those feelings. I guess I’ll just refuse to answer your question. I won’t distinguish between those two things. I like them both. It’s kind of like whether to get a chocolate shake or a chocolate malted. They’re both exquisitely melancholy.
In your published journals, you describe sex and amnesia as two different anesthetics for the pain of loss. What kind of loss is best treated with sex? What kind of loss is best treated with amnesia?
Amnesia is a far better anesthetic than sex, I’d imagine. We all need forgetfulness just to get through the day. There is a Borges story, ‘Funes, the Memorious,’ about a guy who remembers everything so well that he’s basically paralyzed. You’re remembering everything and ultimately nothing. Starting there, you need some amnesia just to create some continuity in your life. Then, you need to be able to move on and forgive yourself so you need to forget some of your most heinous acts of thoughtlessness or cruelty. You also need to forget those that have been committed against you. You need to forget some of your fears. Sometimes it’s helpful to forget your responsibilities and duties. You need to forget that it hurts to fall off a bicycle or a horse or you wouldn’t ride a horse or a bicycle. You know, those sorts of things. Some people forget their marriage vows and things like that and that’s a good thing for them. All that stuff makes the world go ’round but it’s obviously not good for everybody to do that—or to forget their parents. But I think sometimes it’s great to forget grief. To forget a big injury is part of the healing process so if someone you really love terribly has left you, it’s best to be allowed to forget that now and then. So forgetting sounds like a negative thing when you first think of it, but it’s very liberating. Sex? Oh geez, I don’t know what that anesthetizes. That’s more like scratching an itch—sometimes an itch big enough to literally revolve the moon around the Earth and the Earth around the sun but sometimes it’s just whatever. I don’t know what I was thinking of with sex as an anesthetic. I might have been thinking about how my genitals had no feeling in them anymore.
You’ve said most filmmakers don’t have the nerve to be really cruel to their characters, to give them what they deserve and what the audience secretly wants, even if they don’t know it. What are they afraid of?
I must have said that a few years ago. I was probably just bullshitting. No, I think I was probably complaining that a lot of directors are afraid of melodrama and that in melodrama, just like in the Old Testament, people get what they deserve—in melodramatic terms anyway. I’m not calling for a crackdown on crime or anything like that. I actually believe in rehabilitation instead of punishment. I’m one of those people. However, once I’m holding a camera or watching a story, I think we all become punishers—or people trying to understand the world—but you can’t help but give yourself over emotionally rather than just rationally, or judicially or fairly. Who needs to be fair when they’re watching a movie? So I think a lot of movies wimp out. They’re afraid and they get bogus in the third act and give people the ending they feel they should rather than give people the ending that seems psychologically right.
Do you think people—either consciously or subconsciously—tend to enjoy seeing other people suffer?
Absolutely. Not always. Sometimes witnessing such things creates permanent trauma. It’s almost as horrifying as the other’s suffering. But let’s face it—that term schadenfreude exists for a reason. Almost everybody has it at one time or another for sure. I’m not so cynical as to think that it’s all the time. I’ve actually worked hard at trying to be more empathetic. I think I was a sociopath when I was a teenager and a young man. I recognized that at least. I think I read a definition of a sociopath and secretly gasped and realized I was one. I’ve been working a lot harder on being less of a sociopath and I think you can actually make some progress that way.
How do you do that? How do you work to be less sociopathic?
How did I do it? I think it was just an exercise of trying to constantly put myself in other people’s shoes and maybe I just accumulated enough years on the planet and actually experienced some miserable things and realized how little the old me would have cared about how the new me would have felt and I was kind of appalled and felt lonely. I’d also had some huge regrets about how I hadn’t sent off some elderly relatives very well and I really don’t want to make that mistake now that some more elderly relatives are ready to go. They’re on the launch pad. Some of it’s selfish. I want to be more empathetic so I’m less haunted by the send-offs. I’m not sure that’s complete empathy, but if all I can get is a facsimile of empathy, I’ll settle for it.
THE SEDUCTION OF INGMAR BERGMAN ON SAT, JUNE 25, AT THE FORD AMPITHEATRE, 2580 CAHUENGA BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 8:30 PM / $18 / ALL AGES. ALLSPARKS.COM OR LAFILMFEST.COM.