Forget Your Desire:
The Cinema of Guy Maddin

Ken White

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

Out-of-synch audio, incongruous lines of sight and awkward match-on-action editing undermine the structuring melodramatic narrative of Guy Maddin's cinema. Dialogue is rerecorded in every picture, Vaseline is smeared on the camera lens for distortion, and Maddin regularly utilizes—or replicates the effect of—Super 8 and two-strip Technicolor film stock. At once imbuing a singular emotional sincerity and narrative propulsion in his films, Maddin freely appropriates iconic images and plot devices of classic cinema, parading their dated sexual politics and social mores. Maddin constructs a film history canon uniquely his own, cut and pasted from the exemplar films of German Expressionism, Russian Constructivism, and early American melodrama and avant-garde. In his 1992 picture Careful1 the result is a self-conscious amalgamation of incomplete early cinema references, self-conscious Freudian symbolism, and postmodern irony that implicates our cognitive experience of cinematic illusion in its revisionist critique.

Maddin began making films in the late 1980s, but none of his films' narratives take place after 1930. While utilizing actual events as points of departure, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1900 in the Icelandic community of Gimli, Manitoba (Tales from the Gimli Hospital),2 or the post-World War One collective amnesia of Archangel, Russia (Archangel),3 Maddin manipulates the conventions of naturalist-realist narrative development and abandons accurate documentation of the historical event for a playful dissection of audiences' suspension of belief. In recent works, Maddin's application of digital technology heightens the immersive qualities of his worlds while continually reminding the viewer of its artificiality, of his directorial hand. Maddin states that, "I want [the audience] to be aware they're watching a movie, I'm not trying to hide that fact ... Everything is artificial in the world of ... film and melodrama."4 He does not simply acknowledge but fully celebrates their artifice, disrupting nearly every established tool used to garner investment in the naturalist-realist, melodramatic, and romantic structures of his inspirations.

Maddin fills in the gaps of his incomplete recollection with referents outside of history, creating a nostalgia for a past that does not exist. Using contemporary tinting processes, digital video, and nonlinear editing in combination with 35mm, 16mm, and Super 8 film formats, he remakes a past borne by the future. Maddin simultaneously builds a baroque diegesis and dismantles it through incomplete revisionist homage, infusing a Freudian narrative vocabulary with contrived historical hyperreality. He effectively occupies multiple levels of what Jean Baudrillard calls the "precession of simulacra," mirroring a subjective and fractional film canon, while conflating the illusion inherent of all cinema. In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard writes, "Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible ... All ... energy of representation [has] vanished in a hallucinatory resemblance ... of the real to itself."5 History and illusion implode. Reality is signified only by perverse simulation. Maddin extrapolates the hyperreal echo chamber into an all-inclusive project in which every vestige of its signification points to its unraveling, on every level of representation.

Careful was Maddin's first color film. In it we are introduced to Tolzbad, a fictitious 19th-century Alpine town where oedipal drives and sibling rivalry plague the inhabitants, compounded by perpetual fear of impending avalanches. Seemingly dazed by the over-saturation of their own images, they stumble through a world of both baroque artifice and the strictest code of whispered repression and self-restraint. At home in their fabricated surroundings and utterly out of time and place, they are lost in mismatched thoughts and desires. The deadpan reading by the actors, Maddin's wooden script, the contrived sets, and dust-accented soundtrack, create an ironic distance between the viewer and the film.  We witness a narrative fraught with paternal nucleation, eroticized mothers, and free-roaming ids. Maddin simultaneously dates his explorations and extends their lifespan through sincere investment in the psychological subtexts of his referents, most notably Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari.6 His irony pushes us out to pull us in even further.

Early in Careful, Klara's father Herr Trotta delivers an ominous reflection on the danger of sound in Tolzbad. His words are illuminating in several respects. The power of the spoken word in an environment of strictly enforced silence is evident—voices not only have greater value aurally (for they hold the utmost physical danger), but also reach deeper into the latent desires of those whom the sounds reach; Herr Trotta's words foreshadow the jealousy of Johann's brother, Grigorss (Kyle McCollough), whose rage will culminate in the murder of his mother and her lover Count Knotkers (Paul Cox) by way of avalanche. Like all of Maddin's dialogue, Herr Trotta's words are rerecorded, undermining their attachment to the filmed moment and location, and flagging the whole experience as undemanding of genuine emotional investment. This is neither a recreation of an actual event, nor specific to the moment of inception; we are viewing images and sounds from multiple stages in the production process. Voices carry for miles in Tolzbad, but they are not of that world.

Herr Trotta and Sigleinde's posture in this sequence is also informative. Johann and Klara are seen in the far background, their features—particularly their mouths—are slightly blurred by thick colored gels while we hear their words whispered close. Herr Trotta and Sigleinde sit motionless in the foreground, the former looking to screen left and the latter at her father, away from both the viewer and Johann and Klara. His self-conscious passivity and her attentiveness do not immediately signal eavesdropping nor action of any sort. At first one is confused, a dead space of listening for dialogue that eventually comes from outside the diegesis. Not until Herr Trotta responds to Johann's words—which noticeably fade out in deferment much too quickly—does the viewer understand the relation of their positions.

Johann's desire for his mother Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska) quickly overtakes his socially-sanctioned attraction to Klara. Enrolled with Grigorss in Tolzbad Butler Academy where they are taught to "always be obedient, rigid, and to never gamble with life," Johann is bound on all sides by repression. Though at first seemingly delivered by his relationship with Klara, he is instead drawn deeper into incestuous, pathological order of the super-ego community.

Dreaming of Zenaida and his dead, blind father (Michael O'Sullivan), Johann is distracted from his future wedding by their calling. Dangling from a cliff ledge, Klara yells to him for help. Johann enters the frame from screen left, from what we understand is empty space. He comes to her aid but instead rips back her dress. Their positions switch within the edit, and they are disconnected from any figure-ground correlation. Klara frees Johann from his clothing, they kiss, and Klara becomes Zenaida, Johann's mother.

More than simply a visual strategy signaling a dream-space (for all of Tolzbad reads like a dream-space) what we encounter is Johann distracted by his parents from a "normal" romantic relationship with Klara. The tension Johann feels between action and feeling is underscored by his question to Zenaida ("Are you ill, mother?"), and in the final moment of the scene when obedient Grigorss locks their mother in the house before leaving for Butler Academy: "Don't talk to strangers," she warns them—the psychosexual repression imposed on the young people of Tolzbad is successful. Their amorous attentions are redirected to the home, quiet and safe.

Preoccupied by his dreams, Johann shuns Klara to spy on his mother. He crawls upside-down the chimney to peer through a brick opening while we hear Herr Trotta in voice-over warning of "mountain fever." Johann pulls out a crude speculum in order to improve his view of his bathing mother. Key psychoanalytic tropes are here—mirrored phallic probe, the chimney as vaginal shaft leading back to the comfort and security of the womb—all delivered with Maddin's tongue-in-cheek dressings. However the cut-away shots to Grigorss and Klara, seated in the snow, listening to Herr Trotta's foreboding words, are equally telling.

The three sit motionless. Herr Trotta, positioned in the middle, looks out into the billowing faux snow with lantern aloft. Maddin cuts to close-ups of Grigorss and Klara, drawing attention to their dazed and leaden faces. They have the appearance less of engaged listeners and more of passive viewers gazing into emptiness, theirs not unlike our own viewing expressions.. Herr Trotta's lamp illuminates the snow immediately in front of them; darkness surrounds them further out. In Careful Maddin creates a string of natal enclaves—primal scenes that continually envelop his characters in cinematic contrivance, at once smothering the viewer and waking them up, seducing and warning us at the same time.

In 1981 Baudrillard wrote that today classic cinema is remade as:

Marvelous artifacts, without weaknesses, pleasing simulacra that lack only the imaginary, and the hallucination inherent in cinema ... All the toxic radiation has been filtered, all the ingredients are there, in precise doses, not a single error.7

Maddin approaches this perfection tentatively, rooting his cinema in postmodern irony within a canonical framework. He finds delight in over-saturating his pictures in the toxic radiation of convention, bouncing through the empty referents of the hyperreal searching for sincere representation in the vacuum of his melodramas. Maddin's most recent works have explicitly embraced the generative possibilities of digital technology to inject greater progressive vigor into his favorite films. The Heart of the World8 and Cowards Bend the Knee9display a more personal cinema and are open to more explicit critique via the trans-political nature of digital identity. In The Heart of the World he reinvigorates Soviet propaganda as a rallying cry for the transformative powers of cinema. Cowards Bend the Knee explores the follies of hockey-player Guy as he passively endures the repercussions of his apathetic amnesia. A partially autobiographical peep-hole Super 8 film installation then a digi-beta single-channel feature, Cowards is a cautionary tale with the visual seductiveness of Careful and the emotional impact of utterly sincere personal investment.

Baudrillard asserted: "Today cinema can place all its talent, all its technology in the service of reanimating what it itself contributed to liquidating. It only resurrects ghosts, and it itself is lost therein."10 Maddin celebrates these ghosts in his revisionist evocations. He reminds us of both the magic of cinema and the dangers of unengaged absorption. With Maddin we discover new worlds that are as incomplete—and fertile—as our own.


1. ^ Guy Maddin, Careful. Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada, 1992, 100 minutes, 35mm/16mm/Super 8/digital video, color, sound. Zeitgeist Films DVD 2000.

2. ^ Guy Maddin, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Canada, 1988, 72 minutes, 35mm/16mm/Super 8/digital video, black and white, sound.

3. ^ Guy Maddin, Archangel, Canada, 1990, 83 minutes, 35mm/16mm/Super 8/digital video, black and white, sound.

4. ^ Interview with Robert Ehrit, Canada Broadcasting Company, 2002. Included on the Zeitgeist Films, New York, DVD of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, Winnipeg, Alberta, Canada, 2003, 75 minutes, 35mm/16mm/Super 8/digital video, black and white/color, silent with music and English intertitles.

5. ^ Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Originally published in French by Editions Galilee, 1981, Pp 19-23.

6. ^ Robert Weine, Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"), Germany, 1920, 71 minutes, 35mm, tinted black and white, silent with intertitles.

7. ^ Baudrillard, pp 45-46.

8. ^Guy Maddin, The Heart of the World, Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Toronto Festival of Festivals/The Toronto International Film Festival, 2000, 6 minutes, 35mm/Super 8/digital video, black and white, sound with intertitles. Zeitgeist Films DVD.

9. ^Guy Maddin, Cowards Bend the Knee, Toronto, Canada: The Power Plant, 2003 (peep-hole Super 8 installation)/2004 (single-channel digi-beta feature), 64 minutes, tinted black and white, silent with intertitles/sound with intertitles.

10. ^ Baudrillard, pp 48.