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Guy Maddin

Director, Screenwriter, Editor, Cinematographer, Actor, Sound, Producer
(b. February 28, 1956 Winnipeg, Manitoba)

Shelley Duvall, who starred in Guy Maddin’s whimsical feature Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), described Maddin as a cross between Jean Cocteau, Luis Buñuel and Orson Welles, all rolled into one childlike man. It is an entirely apt description for this most eccentric of filmmakers, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the most dimly lit crannies of cinema history would give Martin Scorsese a run for his money. Indeed, Maddin’s oeuvre – nine feature length films and more than 20 shorts to date, almost all shot in his beloved hometown of Winnipeg – is a testament to this knowledge, recuperating and resurrecting as it does the entire early history of film, veering with giddy delight from the silent era to German expressionism to part-talkies to Soviet agitprop.

The Prairie auteur was born above his Aunt Lil’s beauty salon, which was also where his mother worked. His father was general manager of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey team. The relentlessly self-deprecating Maddin described himself as a lazy kid (“I think I slept through my 20s,” he once told journalist Michael Posner), but he eventually drifted into the University of Manitoba to study economics. In 1986 he made his first film, The Dead Father, a surrealist black-and-white, 16mm short inspired by his cinéaste pals and a gentle competition with the burgeoning Winnipeg Film Group. (The core group consisted of filmmaker John Paizs, screenwriter and professor George Toles and professor Stephen Snyder, plus close friends Ian Handford, actor Kyle McCulloch and John Harvie.)

Maddin’s next film, and first feature, was the cult classic Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), written with his former professor and soon-to-become regular co-writer George Toles. Virtually silent and almost plotless, Tales from the Gimli Hospital is a hallucinatory tale of smallpox and necrophilia, scored with a scratchy blend of Jean Vigo soundtracks and Icelandic folk tunes. Maddin himself did the lighting and camerawork, his admiration for silent film and his inexperience often dictating his primitive cum postmodern aesthetic. (Maddin was also attracted to the subject matter because he relished the idea of mocking his Icelandic heritage and Icelanders’ steadfast devotion to the tragedies in their history.) The film went on to screen at numerous festivals, establishing Maddin internationally, and played the midnight slot at Greenwich Village’s Quad Cinema for a year. (It replaced David Lynch’s Eraserhead.)

Archangel (1990), his follow-up to Tales from the Gimli Hospital, was, if anything, stranger — even if it did usher Maddin into the budget-minded world of “real” filmmaking. Influenced by the brief shining moment between the silent and sound eras, Maddin set out to make a part-talkie (Buñuel’s L’age d’or was a major inspiration) that included intertitles, mime, dialogue and voice-over in a saga about love and amnesia in WWI.

In 1992, with his slender budgets inching upwards, Maddin made what might be his most successful feature to date: Careful, a fusion of Robert Walser and Leni Riefenstahl, among other influences. His first colour film, Careful told a darkly comic tale of lust, incest and repression in and around a butler school precariously nestled in the Alps. Maddin spent the next few years on a number of projects that didn’t come to fruition (including the intriguing The Dikemaster’s Daughter), a handful of shorts (including the dazzling Odilon Redon, 1995, commissioned by the BBC) and an ill-advised flirtation with Hollywood.

In 1995 Maddin became the youngest filmmaker to win the prestigious lifetime achievement award at the Telluride Film Festival. However, his 1997 film, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, failed to please either audiences or the filmmaker; the relatively big-budget melodrama spiralled out of Maddin’s control and received the worst notices of his career. (Maddin disliked the larger-scale shooting experience intensely, but the film itself is ripe for reappraisal.)

A dispirited Maddin retreated from the limelight until September 2000, when he premiered a new short commissioned by the Toronto International Film Festival for its 25th anniversary. The Heart of the World (2000) is a stunning piece of Soviet-style filmmaking, packing hundreds of shots and a typically hilarious and heartrending story of romantic rivalry and apocalypse into its five-minute montage. The film garnered international raves and won a Genie in 2001 for best short film. (That year also saw the publication of the first monograph on Maddin, Kino Delerium: The Films of Guy Maddin, written by Maddin collaborator Caelum Vatnsdal, whom played Osip, the Christ figure in The Heart of the World. Vatnsdal also wrote the 1997 documentary on Maddin, Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight.)

Buoyed by this revived recognition, Maddin threw himself into his work, adapting the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002) for the CBC and developing several new projects. He has also worked as a journalist, his resolutely purple prose turning up regularly in the pages of Cinema Scope, Montage, Film Comment and the Village Voice.

In 2002 Maddin shot his first major installation piece, entitled Cowards Bend the Knee or The Blue Hands. Essentially a silent feature designed to be seen through a variety of peepholes (some of them rather difficult to access) the piece was commissioned by Toronto’s Power Plant gallery. The first installment of what Maddin would later jokingly dubbed the “Me Trilogy” (which would include Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg), Cowards follows its hero, Guy Maddin, a hockey player for the  Winnipeg Maroons who amputates his own hands upon the request of his deranged girlfriend. (Maddin has famously claimed that the film is largely literal and ninety-nine percent autobiographical.) Cowards was proclaimed as Maddin’s masterpiece by some of his most fervent followers, including Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman. It also ushered in a new period in Maddin’s work, in which he would become increasingly interested in installation work and unique forms of presentation.

In 2003, Maddin completed the gloriously scratchy black-and-white opus The Saddest Music in the World, which boasted his best-known cast to date and was based on an idea by Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day). Isabella Rossellini stars as Lady Port-Huntley, a legless, Depression-era beer baroness who decides to boost sales by holding a contest to find the saddest music in the world. Musicians from around the world flock to Winnipeg, the world capital of sorrow, in hopes of winning the $25,000 cash prize. Caught up in the events are failed Broadway producer Chester (Mark McKinney), his permanently depressed older brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) and their guilt-ridden father Fyodor (David Fox). Roderick is a cellist bemoaning the disappearance of his wife, who bears a strange resemblance to Chester’s new paramour, Narcissa (Maria de Madeiros), while Fyodor is still mourning the accidental and unnecessary amputation of his true love’s legs. He hopes to make amends by creating a pair of glass legs filled to the brim with beer.

The film received a substantial release in Canada and the United States (where IFC distributed it) and re-united Maddin with writer George Toles and producer Jody Shapiro of Rhombus Media. Shapiro would produce much of Maddin’s subsequent output – one of the lone exceptions being his next feature-length work, the silent film Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). (Shapiro did, however, receive an executive producer credit on that film for his post-production work.) In the interim, Maddin again collaborated with Rossellini on the short film My Dad is 100 Year Old (2005), a tribute to her late father, the legendary Roberto Rossellini.

Brand Upon the Brain! was commissioned and produced by the U.S. based The Film Company and had its world premiere at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. The presentation boasted numerous live components, including an orchestra, a narrator and foley artists. Equal parts teenage detective story, Maddin family history and Expressionist horror movie, the film focuses on an orphanage on the remote island of Black Notch. The return of Guy, the son of the couple who run the orphanage, and the arrival of celebrity teen detectives Wendy and Chance Hale threaten to expose the orphanage’s mysterious and twisted past.

In 2007 Maddin delivered My Winnipeg, his most celebrated work since The Heart of the World. Characterized by Maddin as a “docu-fantasia,” My Winnipeg is a paean to Maddin’s hometown, or at least the filmmaker’s version of it. It’s far from a conventional love letter, combining actual history with elaborately constructed absurdist fantasies (though separating fantasy and truth is far from easy – Winnipeg’s history being full of outlandish tales) and a decidedly off-the-wall account of the Maddin family history. Ultra B movie actress Ann Savage (star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir classic, Detour) plays the director’s mother. My Winnipeg had its world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. The filmmaker provided live narration at the screening, a feat he would repeat at several other festivals, including the Berlinale. The film was given the Best Canadian Feature Film Award at that year’s Toronto International Film Festival, named the Best Canadian Film of that year by the Toronto Film Critics Association and received the 2008 Best Documentary Award from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. The film was named one of the Top 30 Films of the last decade in a poll of programmers and critics conducted by Cinematheque Ontario.

In 2010 Maddin created two installation pieces for the opening of the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The first, entitled Hauntings consists of eleven lost or unrealized projects by some of Maddin’s favourite directors, most of them from the silent period. The second piece, Hauntings II was projected on the back of the building throughout the 2010 Film Festival.

In the summer of 2010, Maddin began shooting his tenth feature length film, Keyhole.

In 2008, 2009 and 2010, there was a flurry of writing on Maddin including William Beard’s Into the Past: The Cinema of Guy Maddin (University of Toronto Press, 2010); Darren Wershler’s monograph on My Winnipeg (2010, co-published by University of Toronto Press and TIFF); Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin, edited by David Church (2009, University of Manitoba Press); and Guy Maddin: Interviews (2010, University Press of Mississippi, edited by D. K. Holm). Maddin has published two equally intriguing books on his own work and others: From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings of Guy Maddin (2003, Coach House Books) and My Winnipeg (2009, Coach House Books).

Film and video work includes

Oak, Ivy, and Other Dead Elms, 1982 (actor)
The International Style, 1983 (actor)
The Dead Father, 1986 (director; writer; editor; producer)
The Caretaker, 1988 (actor)
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, 1988 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; actor)
BBB, 1989 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Mauve Decade, 1989 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Archangel, 1990 (director; co-writer with George Toles; cinematographer; editor; sound; co-art direction with Jeff Solylo)
Tyro, 1990 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Indigo High-Hatters, 1991 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Careful, 1992 (director; co-writer with George Toles; cinematographer; editor; sound; production design)
The Pomps of Satan (a.k.a. Through a Man’s Eyeglass), 1993 (director; writer; editor)
Sea Beggars, 1994 (director; cinematographer; editor)
Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity, 1995 (director; writer)
The Hands of Ida, 1995 (director;)
Sissy Boy Slap Party,1995 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Imperial Orgies, 1996 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, 1997 (director)
Black as Hell, Strong as Death, Sweet as Love, 1998 (actor)
The Cock Crew, 1998 (director; co-writer with George Toles; editor)
The Hoyden, 1998 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Maldoror: Tygers, 1998 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
Hospital Fragment, 1999 (director; writer; cinematographer; producer; editor)
Fleshpots of Antiquity, 2000 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
The Heart of the World, (from Preludes) 2000 (director; writer; cinematographer; co-editor with deco dawson)
Nostradamus, 2000 (actor)
Vinyl, 2000 (appears as himself)
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, 2002 (director; TV)
Fancy, Fancy Being Rich, 2002 (director; cinematographer)
Cowards Bend the Knee or The Blue Hands, 2003 (director; writer; cinematographer)
The Saddest Music in the World, 2003 (director; co-writer with George Toles) 
Sorrowful Shadow, 2004 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
A Trip to the Orphanage, 2004 (director; writer; cinematogpraher; editor)
Sissy Boy Slap Party alternate version, 2004 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
My Dad is 100 Years Old, 2005 (director)
Brand Upon the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters, 2006 (director; co-writer with George Toles)
Nude Caboose, 2006 (director; co-writer with Ian Handford, Jody Shapiro, George Toles; co-cinematographer with Jody Shapiro)
Odin’s Shield Maiden, 2007 (director; cinematographer)
My Winnipeg, 2007 (director; co-writer with Geroge Toles; co-producer with Phyllis Laing, Jody Shapiro; narrator)
Manuelle Labor, 2007 (actor)
Footsteps, 2008 (director; co-cinematography with Jennifer Piazza, Jody Shapiro)
It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today, 2008 (director)
Spanky: To the Pier and Back, 2008 (director)
Berlin, 2008 (director)
Glorious, 2009 (director)
Night Mayor, 2009 (director; writer; cinematographer)
The Little White Cloud That Cried, 2009 (director)
Hauntings installation, 2010 (director)
Hauntings II installation, 2010 (director)
Keyhole, 2011 (director; co-writer with George Toles; co-producer with Jean Du Toit; Lindsay Hamel; Phyllis Laing, Jody Shapiro)

By: Jason McBride
Additional notes by Steve Gravestock