We spoke to filmmaker Guy Maddin about his new project 'Séances'—a web-based, algorithm-driven assemblage made up of the world's lost films.
Fans of celebrated Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, whose work spans more than 50 short- and feature-length films, including The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg, might be surprised to hear his latest project is a web-based, algorithm-driven assemblage, one that literally recombines itself newly for each viewer in a never-to-be-repeated incarnation. Visit the site for Séances, and you will see a continuously mutating title card, one that cycles second by second through word combinations like Demigods of the Savage Crutches, Forces of the Savage Crutches, Forces of the Savage Liquids, Forces of the Strange Liquids, and on and on. By clicking on any title, you initiate a new short film under its name, made up of countless smaller parts conceived in Maddin's attempt at recreating dozens of historically "lost" films—that is, films that were either created and destroyed or rumored to exist but never actually seen—with new actors performing under Maddin's direction. You can't pause the film, and you can't fast-forward or record. Once it's over, that version of the Séance is then listed as "destroyed," never to be seen again. It's a refreshing, enchanting, and eerie phenomenon, one that signifies a new way of experiencing both cinema and the internet.
I spoke with Maddin on the phone about his conception and execution of the project during an era of the shrinking attention span.
VICE: The scope of Séances is pretty massive. How long have you been working on it?
Guy Maddin: I've kind of lost track. I've been daydreaming about it for about ten years actually. But I didn't seriously get it going until around 2010, and then I aborted it. I wasn't ready and then started again in writing stuff in 2011. It's been a while. There's a lot of writing, and the financing of it wasn't easy because it's really as much money gobbling as film shooting. The state-funding bodies that really do want to engender internet art just aren't as stockpiled with cash as the film funds, so it was hard to get money going.
So the body of each of these films is actually made up of component parts spanning a number of different projects over quite a long time.
We wrote about a hundred scripts, each based on lost films from all over the world and from all different eras. There's Cambodian lost films from directors murdered by the Khmer Rouge and American underground films that just weren't looked after properly, that might be sitting in some trailer park somewhere. There's stuff made by Islamic women that stood in the face of religious tradition that were destroyed for religious reasons. There are all sorts of politically destroyed films. The vast majority of them are things that were either destroyed by the studios in the earlier days to clear shelf space for next year's product or just lost to poor storage and time.
How did you go about digging up the source materials?
At first, as with previous films, I insisted on conducting all my research in my unreliable memory and in my heart. I made an initial list of movies, lost movies I was aware of, that I wanted to see. By the end of it, there was a bunch of FW Murnau and a lost Hitchcock and some lost Fritz Lang stuff. Basically, I had a bunch of white male European immigrants working in Hollywood on the roster, and that didn't seem very exciting to me. So I just started light research online and found stuff by women filmmakers, by Islamic filmmakers, by Commie filmmakers, by racist filmmakers, by, you know, underground, by the Japanese, by the Philippines, by the Bolivians. There's even an Antarctic film that's lost. A lot of them are lost for different reasons. When you look back at history, you start looking at all the films that were made and lost by marginalized people, by African Americans like Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams and Tressie Souders, perhaps the first African American woman to make a film. These people faced such long odds getting a film made, let alone storing it and preserving it later. It's all fascinating, and to me, movies have always helped me make sense of history because you can see real people moving around like real people in their images, and to me, the history that happened before I was born really starts to make palpable sense once the motion picture camera was invented.
The concept of having each iteration of the films as seen online by a viewer, never repeating, is a nice inversion of that longing to recreate an experience, one that transcends the usual "everything online lives forever" feeling.
It was my partner, Evan Johnson, that came up with the idea of destroying these films as they were shown, which really makes the site. If the non sequitur addled collisions actually create something that's charming, which occasionally they do, then that's out of lost matter, then it's lost immediately again. There will be a real sense of loss experienced by the viewer. That was the hope, anyway. And by being gone, the way things collided just would have to exist as a memory and maybe by word of mouth, some sort of report. Then finally there's a sadness that you can't recreate it. On the internet,a there's a feeling that everything is up there for good. Just to be about destroying things, not for the sheer pleasure of destroying them but just to return some sense of loss to the digital world.
So how does it work, exactly? What is dictating the timeline of each unique iteration of a film?
It's not randomly done, but it might as well have been randomly done. Where the movies break off, a lot of time, we built into the scripts little points where someone has a dream or where someone starts telling a story or someone gets a telegram. But at other points, it just happens.
I heard that before filming, you would hold an actual séance with the actors, encouraging them to become connected to the spirit of the lost film. What do you think the effect of that had on their performances?
I think it loosened them up quite a bit. It was fun to put them into trances and then invite a lost film spirit to come down and possess these actors and compel them to act out its long forgotten plots. It loosened them up as an acting exercise. At first, they were encouraged to act more, then they were encouraged to more sleepwalk than act, and we shot them over and over again. I would stop them every now and then and ask them to drowsily repeat something, and the camera improvised. I think it created a kind of a flimsy Charlatanism, a séance-y fraudulence but one built around real hauntings. A séance just means a seating and a paranormal séance and a movie seating are the same thing, just a bunch of people sitting down in the dark hoping to believe in or be enchanted by something that's not really there, by ghostly images, either photographed images or by otherwise projected or acoustically projected whatnots that aren't really there. At the end, when the lights go on, everyone gets to discuss among themselves how enchanted they were by the supposed ghosts or the supposed movie. In both cases, the medium or director is a charlatan.
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