by Chris Randle
I have a minor obsession with lost artworks. The potential psychological motivations for this are almost embarrassingly transparent, but there’s also the increasing scarcity of vanished masterpieces as a concept. Though unfinished or abandoned creations will always tantalize – no one’s ever going to read the ending of Big Numbers, Alan Moore’s fractal opus – mass digitization should save a future Cardenio or London After Midnight from erasure. I think that’s one cause of the current vogue for ultra-limited cassette releases: when almost any work is instantly accessible, willful obscurity becomes a source of cultural capital.
My own little fixation isn’t quite as covetous, or so I’d prefer to believe: it’s a desire for obliterated possibilities to be made manifest again. To see a major-key version of the obsession, look at Guy Maddin. The director of such weird and wonderful fabrications as Brand Upon the Brain, My Winnipeg and The Heart of the World was already defined by his love of the archaic. Ethereal cinematography, strict monochrome, silent typographic dialogue – if a technique has been absent from conventional filmmaking for 50 years or more, he’ll cherish it. But the September opening of the Toronto International Film Festival’s new Lightbox headquarters allowed Maddin to spoil his artistic parents rotten. Hauntings is an installation of 11 short pieces essaying “unrealized, half-finished or abandoned films by otherwise successful directors,” a “ghostly collage” licked together with glowing ectoplasm.
The film fragments are arranged in two horizontal rows along the Lightbox’s diminutive gallery space; the tumour-shaped, slit-eyed helmet from Videodrome is sitting behind glass nearby. They’re staggered, hiding a couple of the projections behind other ones, and vary widely in length. Playing and overlapping simultaneously, they give the installation an effect of constant distraction. Memory is messy here. Several Maddin hallmarks are obvious: every clip is silent, most are in black and white, swooping closeups abound, and the very Germanic list of “otherwise successful directors” (Murnau, Lang and von Sternberg all appear) is filled with people he’s already cited as favourites.
But Hauntings never succumbs to reverent imitation. Its realization of Mizoguchi’s Out of College, which centres on a young aviator torn between his fiancee and oily cockpits, does channel the master’s painterly attention to light…but it also features Udo Kier as the eager airborne graduate. No tragic geishas, either. Fiancee Teruko is much more Maddin’s type: beautiful, bewitching, flickering between “dangerous” and “maybe just totally inscrutable.” He should collaborate with Dan Bejar.
A couple of the notional films don’t name an inspiration at all, enigmas among enigmas. In “Bing & Bela,” the husband of another mystery woman has been transmogrified into an inexplicably bloody white wolf, and she can’t decide whether to leave his corpse on the grave of Bing Crosby or Bela Lugosi (who are indeed buried right next to each other in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City). I know Kenneth Anger still technically walks our plane, but I pictured his spectral hand spelling out EROS and THANATOS during a tinsel-strewn séance. As one intertitle puts it: “REDDEST OF LIPS! WHITEST OF WOLVES!”
The feverish ardour of Maddin’s deadpan text narrations is another habit untempered by his ghostwriting. (My favourite title card in Hauntings is probably “WOOED TO THE LAND OF NOD,” from an allegorical Hollis Frampton tribute where camera-headed Kino is literally seduced by passing clouds.) The director has mastered a tricky contortion: embracing the phantoms he admires while tweaking their tics at the same time. So his version of Murnau’s lost Satanas shows revolution gone wrong from the atmospheric perspective of various toes: “Hopeful feet…On their way to join the surging masses! The lumpen cheer!” Part fetish reel, part Marxist sight gag, and funny as hell, it’s the kind of joke that could only be played on a friend.
A few years ago, I saw Maddin in discussion onstage with Toronto film critic Jason Anderson. The idea was that they’d each take turns constructing a fantasy life with scenes from favourite movies. The director’s first choice was an old British film, seemingly dating back to the 1930s. In his clip, a little girl was moving in with her relative for reasons I can’t remember; the benefactor is a chauvinist cad who immediately reels off all the rules she’ll be obliged to follow. (“I don’t like having…women around.”) Maddin, beaming, told us he wanted to relive childhood as that stunned moppet, because hers had precious “structure.” I understood where he was coming from, if not where he was going. I just wish I could remember the film’s title. What if I’m only imagining it?