Offscreen: How much do you think your films have helped shape you as a person in the 20 years that you’ve been making them, and do you think they will ever help provide solace for the biggest traumas in your life?
Maddin: I think I’ve recovered from all the traumas in my life…except for not having a girlfriend in high school. I don’t know if they’ve shaped me at all, but they’ve at least enabled me to take some pride in what I do. For the longest time, in my twenties, it just wasn’t shaping up like I was going to have a career, or even a part-time job. I was pretty depressed. So it’s nice to just have something to do and not be alienated from my labor (to speak in old Marxist terms). I am what I’m making, and I’m making what I am, and it feels pretty good. There’s got to be an audience, there’s got to be someone giving me the money to do it, but it’s just allowed me to be in the shape that I could’ve been in had I the ambition and foresight to plan a career in my teens and twenties (but I didn’t). So it’s just facilitated my entering into regular society.
I don’t think it’s changed what I potentially was, and it hasn’t shaped me in any odd way. It sounds so self-centered, but it’s enabled me to continually think of people and myself, and how I’m just regular like everyone else. It’s a pleasure to be able to think of art a lot. I guess I’m really lucky that way because a lot of people who work in other fields don’t have the time to think about that stuff, or the inclination, and they get kind of shriveled up in places as a result.
Offscreen: Your father has seemed to have the greatest formative impact upon your life. You’ve achieved some local, if not international, celebrity, not unlike him. Aside from the obvious associations that come up in your work (such as cowardice and death), how much do you either fear or desire becoming like him?
Maddin: I’m probably like him already. I tried Googling him the other day and there was virtually nothing. It saddens me, but I guess he just died in the pre-Google era and not much of his stuff has been retroactively posted. But maybe I should just devote some time to getting some crap of his on there, just so that he can exist in Googleland. It’s not like “If you post it, they will come” or anything like that, but maybe someone will accidentally chance upon things. Who knows how you stumble upon things in E-world?
But I think about him often. I usually compare myself to him at whatever age I’m at. I remember when I turned 38, I was cutting the lawn and saying to myself, “This is how old he was when I was born.” And when I was 45, I said, “This is how old he was when he lost his son.” And right now I’m at the age he was when he had his first heart attack and things pretty much declined very rapidly from there. I’m still not sure about his life. One day a woman and a girl from Germany arrived at our door, rang the doorbell, and I realized later that I was probably staring at an illegitimate half-sister. And now I sort of have to add, “And this is the age my dad was when he fathered a child in Germany”! Sometimes I can say, “Jeez, I’m doing better than my dad right now. I’m getting out more.” But then again my dad maybe fathered this kid in Germany and I’ve got my work cut out for me there.
I just want to be happier than he was, because temperamentally I feel like I’m the same person, with a deadly strain of my mother mixed in (which I’d like to get rid of completely). Not a happy strain. And I’m not picking sides; she’s just not always happy, and when I’m unhappy, it’s in a way that my mom’s unhappy and I don’t like that. But I kind of like walking around as the embodiment of him. It feels healthier than what I did until I was about 20. I walked around as the living ambassador of my dead brother, as this living ambassador of suicide, and that wasn’t always a good feeling. So this one at least feels more warm and more like an ongoing tribute…kind of nice. And I’m not as crazed as Hamlet or anything. It’s just a quiet unhealthiness that, except for the fact that I talk about it like this every now and then, no one would ever know about. That and I make movies about it!
David Church is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, and the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009). He has also contributed to Disability Studies Quarterly, Senses of Cinema and several other publications.