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Regina Weinreich

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Breaking the Ice with Guy Maddin

Posted: 11/18/11 07:34 PM ET

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has perhaps one of the most rarefied visions of anyone working in film: operatic, on a tilt, jaw-dropping. This weekend, his talent for bringing together elements, yes, Icelandic music from the Middle Ages to a unique historic moment in Canadian history, comes to the Walter Reade Theater for a program commissioned for this year's PERFORMA 11, the new visual art performance biennial. I had the opportunity to speak to Maddin about his Tales of the Gimli Hospital: Reframed, a dreamlike re-imagining of his first film from 1988, with a new score by Icelandic musicians including Aono Jikken Ensemble and former members of mum.

RW: I loved your movie Careful. Is this film anything like that?

Maddin: Careful was one of my happiest moments. In 1992, it was part of the New York Film Festival. I thought I was on my way. For Careful, I built an indoor mountain range.

This movie was four years before, and shot in the family beauty salon. I dragged wood and boarded up the walls, desecrating the family business with hay and brought in cows for a set in a plague quarantine, near Lake Winnepeg. You could call its genre "pioneer noir."

In 1870 Icelanders fled volcanic eruptions and created New Iceland in Canada, north of Winnepeg, the coldest city in North America. They got smallpox and started dying, wiping out the aboriginals, too. This was both ludicrous and tragic.

We in Canada are next to the greatest myth-maker, America. So we are not good at storytelling. But the Icelanders knew how to tell stories. They had a pure language. I tell a love triangle with small pox -- the quarantine adds a fever delirium to the story. I show a little piece of Canada and tried to do this under the old Hollywood code. I created the movie as if trying to sneak things past a repressed Hollywood production code.

The problem is Canada is unable to mythologize itself, so I am telling and retelling a 23-year-old movie, 23 years of mythological composting, mixing the original movie with footage of the actors in subsequent years, fashioning an oral tradition. I added music to the dream logic, pure Icelandic melodies, in an instant, telling a history set in 1988, that takes us back to 1874, and back to 950 with Icelandic sound. The result is contemporary and ancient at the same time, in deference to American culture.

RW: Speaking of American culture, what do you think of Hollywood?

I love Hollywood: ridiculous, evil, amazing. It's like family.

RW: What is your artistic direction now?

I'm working on a big Internet project, "The Seances." I am shooting 100 movies in 100 days starting at the Pompidou Center in Paris in February of 2012, all in the context of lost films viewed by paranormal means. Like the medium of séances, you might ask for your sister and get your crazy uncle. It's a mash-up of spirits, and will be shot in four cities: Paris, New York, Sao Paolo and Winnepeg. John Ashbery wrote the monologues for How to Take a Bath from Dwain Esper, a filmmaker who is more famous for How to Undress in Front of your Husband (1937).

It's unbelievable to think of shooting monologues by John Ashbery, influenced by the French writer Raymond Roussell who wrote narratives within narratives. I hope it's a delight: fun and strange.

RW: What do you think audiences will get out of your new Tales of the Gimli Hospital: Reframed?

I hope audiences will enjoy the smell of delicately smoked fish, mildewed sweaters and teenaged necrophilia all swept up in a cool lake breeze.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.