Conversation with Guy Maddin
By Julia Anne Leach
This conversation took place on Victoria Day Eve over the course of a few drinks in the beverage room at the Oldie Hotel in Gimli, Manitoba on May 21, 2016.
Guy Maddin: Julia, you and I have been collaging together a lot lately, quite a bit with Paul Butler's The Long Weekend collective, and even more when alone, just the two of us, cutting and pasting the swiftly passing hours away. Such a sweetly rewarding time.
Julia Anne Leach: Yes, collage – for me, thanks to you – has become a reason to get up in the morning. Just this morning I wandered out of bed and into the kitchen, poured a cold cup of coffee and made a beeline to the cutting mat, where you later joined me. We sat beside each other on the collage bench all morning – what was going on in your head?
Guy Maddin: You are always gracious about ripping things out of my hands, but I love the way you beat yourself up over this process stuff, because I beat myself up even more. It’s impossible to play with repurposing printed matter without feeling the end product is ridiculous. Yet, every now and then, with slot-machine unpredictability, after hours of trying one image with another, over and over, finally a couple things click together and some meager jackpot results – a surprising collision of content, shapes and colours that creates an almost-idea and delights the eye. The thing is, you can’t force it to happen. You have to relax – but you have to concentrate at relaxing. In short, almost nothing was going on in my head this morning. Maybe I was chastising myself for my bad habit of simply centering one image on top of a background image. For hours, days, months now, I have put one small picture smack dab in the middle of another larger picture. It angers me that I rarely try any other approach. I’m in the middle of my Middle-of-the Picture Period. I just get up in the morning and start putting small pictures in the middle of larger pictures until – click, click – I feel good for a few seconds. Then the good feeling passes and I start all over again, putting the small pictures in the middle of the larger pictures. It’s hard not to feel like a Beckett character at this point.
I do enjoy making movie storyboards in collage. For those who don’t know, storyboards are the comic book-like panels filmmakers sometimes use to plan out their day’s shooting – they’re visual to-do lists, often simple stick figures or line drawings making their way through a script one rectangle at a time. When I make storyboards in collage for a specific movie I need to be savagely ruthless with the images I find in the old books and magazines, I need to bend images completely to my will. No longer can I just stick one small picture in the middle of a larger one. I need to shred out the very contents of a frame, empty it almost entirely of its inclination to impart an image and bring it to its knees. Often this involves cutting or tearing a hole in the middle of the image till it’s almost devoid of intent. Only the setting of the central image is left, if that. Then I put a bigger picture underneath that hole so a smaller part of it is visible through the rude puncture. The result is a smaller image in the middle of a larger one. But this time the smaller image, usually located in the middle of the larger one, is underneath and not on top the larger one. Anyway, these things help me make movies. I get to the film set and just one look at these storyboards in collage and I know what my workday will be like!
JL: We often find ourselves dead in the middle of many real-life collages. You know, whenever something fucked-up around us is happening and the palette is good – like the time we were driving through Ohio and saw a Bengal tiger and a baboon on the highway at dusk. That was almost as pretty as your Jerry Lewis collage.
GM: Very sweet of you to say! Yeah, turns out thanks to some legal loophole Ohio is full of amateur zookeepers, and one of them went nuts and let all his animals out, but we didn’t know that. We just saw these gorgeous African beasts in an unlikely setting – I’m remembering them as right in the middle, as is my habit, of that swing state – and the light was so perfect. Those animals, as startling as they were, belonged in that landscape.
After making collage for so long it starts to affect the way you look at the world. A lawncutter sees the world as a bunch of yards that either need or don’t need cutting. I know Foley artists, people who make movie sound effects for a living, who see the world as a bunch of objects that will make a certain sound if rubbed, scratched or struck against other objects. That’s their world. Well, we make collage and for us now the whole world is just one thing that can be placed in unlikely collision with another thing. Highway tigers in a swing state! “Caution Exotic Animals.” That’s a collage!
JL: And then there are collages that simply look like photographs. And photographs that look like collages…
GM: Yes, my favourite collages are images that look like collages, but aren’t -- they haven’t been altered a bit. I found in an old Life magazine some photos taken at a party celebrating the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. There was a cake made to look like a detonated bomb, complete with a mushroom cloud of white icing, and a woman cutting the cake who wore a hat that also looked like a mushroom cloud. Not a collage! Just a photo! But as delightful as the most unlikely collisions -- and somehow “more true,” certainly more delightfully true, than mere facts. That’s what collage can do, it can reveal the “ecstatic truth” Werner Herzog is always going on about. And it’s all the better when no collage work has actually taken place. One just feels the fault lines of combination whether they are there or not. Such is the truth!
JL: And lately, you’ve been obsessed with colliding unlikely words with each other.
GM: The Seances project I’ve been working on with Evan and Galen Johnson features a random word combiner that supplies each randomly generated non sequitur-addled movie it makes with a chance title of its own. Here, let’s go online and produce a few. We get:
When the Lace Men Sleep; The Buttered Breaths; The Darkling Towel; The Mark of the Moist Atom; Shackle the Warmest Doctors!; The Dubious Lunchbucket; Hand-Cuffs and Lowlands; After the Promotional Nimbus; Teabags and Proceedings…
These are movies I need to see! Look at those titles! And all of them created by chance, by happy accident, by algorithm, by collage! It’s taken me a long time to begin to figure out how to enjoy the writing of American poet John Ashbery, who is also, by the way, a great collage artist.
JL: The title of your exhibition, Front Tooth & Wonder Bread, seems like a title-generated collision, but it’s actually just two of your favourite off-whites, right? Colour collage.
GM: Yeah, to earn a few bucks I once gave a talk on the Technicolor process at the Bell Lightbox in Toronto. To prep I watched Magnificent Obsession, the Douglas Sirk version, which has an incredible colour scheme. I tried to jot down all the hues in his amazing palettes. Being an old housepainter I had a good handle on the evocative names given to pigments by housepaint companies hopeful of seducing customers with words that alter the way one beholds colour. I especially liked the off-white palettes – Clerk’s Shirt & Chamber Pot; Seagull Breast & Old Snow; Surgeon & Ermine; Frog Throat & Eisenhower; Admiral’s Moustache & Continuous Towel. Among the more saturated combos I loved Burnt Canary & Tailpipe’s Breath; Nicotine & Aqua Velva; Asparagus & Freckle; Frosted Yolk & Rock Hudson’s Nipple. Sirk described himself as a painter, not a filmmaker, and you can see that in his incredibly delicate chroma orgies, but he was also, without realizing it, churning out colour collage verbiage for the ages.
JL: Another collage-related obsession: chronologically impossible cover tunes…
GM: Yes! Oh, man! Yes! I torture myself by wondering how the late Nina Simone would cover Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Or how long-dead Leadbelly would cover, say, Beyonce’s “Formation.” Impossible pairings, but… ! This is an addictive game!
JL: Miguel’s “Coffee (F***king)” by Nat King Cole. This is our life since we’ve started collaging – a constant rummaging around for surprising conjunctions of contrasting elements – which reminds me of the famous Lautréamont phrase: “As beautiful as the chance meeting, on a dissecting table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella”. But Lautréamont’s talking about a boy. People can be collages, too.
GM: Yes, people too! I’m one, you’re one! The Good Lord took six days to collage the universe, and it was good. I like to think of ourselves right at the centre of that cosmos! A tiny pair of faces placed right in the middle! Maybe He’ll allow Himself a few moments pleasure before putting us aside and starting all over again.