On the Set of Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World

Originally published in the Manitoban 90.26 (26 March 2003): 12-13 (as “The Saddest Article in the World”). I have added an interlude here. I also interviewed Maddin and co-writer George Toles about writing the film.

Sunday: The Press Conference

Despite a long drive (to downtown and then along some fractured street into the industrial heart of Winnipeg), I manage to arrive a few minutes early, which works out well since it takes me a good five minutes to find the door of the building. After following a series of signs seemingly designed to protect Maddin from inept interviewers by steering the less intelligent into a pit of cruel stakes and poisonous vipers, I avoid a hellish fate and ascertain the proper entrance.

There are a few people milling around the bottom of a staircase, and one of them is Isabella Rossellini. I am star-struck for the first time in my life, and it is a good thing that she melts away into another room before I have a heart attack. I stand stunned for an instant, gathering my bearings and trying to remember why I am here in the first place. I notice I have been turned around somehow by Rossellini’s presence and there is a door in front of me now; it opens and Maddin himself steps out from the darkness beyond. Mist curls in along with him and gives Maddin the appearance of having materialized from some other dimension.

Maddin recognizes me and looks surprised, greeting me with a hearty “Hey!” One of the things a lot of people don’t know about Maddin is that he is quite possibly the nicest Guy in the world. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here as press,” I reply.

“Wow!” Guy seems more impressed by the fact that I am writing about the film than the fact that he is making it, as if hoping to be so lucky as to write about it himself one day. He becomes distracted, face darkening, troubled and confused. “I have to … put make-up on?” he states, almost asking.

“Sure,” I say, not knowing what else to say. Guy nods solemnly and disappears into a nearby room. Later he confides to me that this is the first press conference he has been to, which I don’t believe.

Leslie Stafford, the woman who appears to be in charge of everything, introduces herself and herds me upstairs to where the conference is about to begin. I chat briefly with fellow Tobanites Erin Haluschak and Joel Trenaman before sitting down beside Uptown film reporter Peter Vesuwalla, whom I know. He introduces me to some woman whose name I promptly forget who works for the Winnipeg Sun and who is both amused and sickened by her boss’s orders to “stalk” Rossellini, snapping pictures whenever possible.

After a short time, the room has filled with reporters and camera crews. Robert Enright, who is facilitating the conference, takes a seat at the front along with Mark McKinney, Isabella Rossellini, Ross McMillan and Maddin himself. Guy is pleased to discover that there is water available for him to drink, and makes a display of discussing the fact and pouring glasses for others — but then he doesn’t drink any.

Enright opens the conference with a few remarks introducing the participants and the movie itself, while Guy examines the microphone in front of him as if he had never seen one before. A lot of people see Guy do things like this and assume, wrongly I think, that he is putting on a show. However, watching his films, I take what others view as surrealism to be a form of “extra-realism” — that is, it seems to me that rather than present a symbolic world, Maddin presents a representational world which appears only to him, blessed with a fantastical vision which spills over from his film life to his “real” life both in his consideration and constant re-consideration of everyday objects and events. This isn’t to say that he is some sort of naïf, but that when cornered or in reverie he seems to retreat into a childlike re-discovery of things.

The conference goes well. Rossellini has a lot of wonderful things to say, and Guy himself is a sound-bite factory, consistently brilliant. He remarks that the film is about the tendency of groups or individuals to make their sadness or suffering into a theatrical event. “Haven’t you all been at the funeral of a family member that you were close to and had to pretend to cry?” he asks, eliciting a round of nervous laughter. The press conference itself ends in howls, with McKinney riffing off a reporter’s question and pretending not to know about the existence of film festivals.

Afterward, Maddin and his actors are whisked away for brief one-on-one interviews with the national media, but not before George Toles hijacks Isabella Rossellini. Toles appears to have flown in from sabbatical in New York for the sole purpose of talking to the legendary actress and observing her on set, and although he’s a relatively seasoned veteran of the film industry, I think he’s just as star-struck as I am. In addition to being Maddin’s frequent collaborator and the screenwriter of The Saddest Music in the World, Toles is an English and film professor at the U of Manitoba, and my friend and thesis advisor as well. I visit with him for a little while, offering my congratulations on the project and the stellar cast.

George and I agree that things look promising, and that Maddin seems to be bursting with a newfound creativity following The Heart of the World — and shows no signs of flagging. Chatting with Enright just prior to leaving, I am shocked to hear that Maddin shot the hour-longCowards Bend the Knee, which I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing, in a mere five days. Guy seems to be reaching his artistic peak, and I am excited to be around to see the fruits of his labour. I leave reluctantly, excited and inspired, as I always am following an encounter with either Maddin or his films.

Interlude: On Meeting Maddin

I’d like to interject here to offer the anecdote that I tell everyone whenever they ask me what Guy Maddin is like. Talking to people over the years, I’ve come to understand that Maddin has a bit of a reputation as somebody who can be difficult and overbearing, and who has a pomposity to match his profile.

This impression has never been my impression. Although I’m not as close to Maddin as many, I feel this notion is a media construction, due to well-publicized spats with George Toles (the two reconciled before writing The Saddest Music in the World) and Deco Dawson, and a lesser-publicized rivalry with John Paizs. I know all these parties somewhat, and so I am careful not to contribute to discussion or take sides whenever the topic comes up (usually raised by some third party in a gossipy way — it seems to me that those involved don’t care much to rehash old news). In any case, I have had nothing but wonderful dealings with Maddin, and my first two encounters with him set the tone for my personal impression.

I met Maddin briefly at the University of Manitoba, where (as mentioned above) I was completing a Master of Arts degree with George Toles as my supervisor. I happened to run into Toles and Maddin and Toles introduced me as one of his students. Maddin chatted for a few moments and then took off. I was thrilled, but it was hardly a memorable interaction — even I don’t remember anything about the encounter, other than it being brief.

The next time I saw Maddin was weeks later, at the premiere of his film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, held at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg (this isn’t a movie theatre, but a hall reserved normally for symphonies and so forth: I watched R.E.M. play on the same stage). I was seated about fifteen or so rows up, with my friend Patrick Short (the guitarist from This Hisses).

Maddin and his party entered and made their way to seats near the front of the venue, but before sitting Maddin turned to survey the crowd. His face lit up and he began frantically waving at somebody. I pointed him out to Pat — “That’s Maddin, the guy waving” — and then started wondering who he was waving at. I turned to look but nobody was waving back.

Then I realized that he was waving at me — some student he met for a minute weeks ago. I offered a small, shy wave in response. He was satisfied and sat down.

That, to me, sums up Guy Maddin.

Thursday: The Set

After days of virtual begging (that’s actual begging via e-mail), I have managed to wrangle a visit to Maddin’s set from Leslie Stafford. There wasn’t much wrangling, I suppose, though a lot of begging; she’s been rather graceful and helpful concerning the whole thing. I learn later that there has been a problem with visitors to the set — the amicable Maddin has been allowing too many to frequent the place during shooting and it has become a bit of a bother. (In retrospect, I should have just asked him directly! But I hate asking Maddin for things, although I do later ask to visit the sets of his short films Sissy Boy Slap Party and Sombra Dolorosa, which were fascinating visits deserving their own article.) In the end, just as it seems that my request is about to be denied, it is granted and I find myself waiting for Leslie in the dressing area, resisting the urge to steal food from a table laid out for the cast.

The dressing area is quite a mess, rags heaped atop rows of tables with more rags hanging against the walls. Some Viking helmets lie beneath a rack of dresses, their cruel horns apparently carved from plastic. A small dog runs through the room, in one door and out the other, followed by Maddin’s girlfriend. I say hello — I know her as well — but she is chasing the dog and rushes past.

Leslie appears and escorts me to the set. “You picked a good day to come,” she says.

It seems that what I’ll see this morning is the shooting and reshooting of the musical finale. For those not in the know, The Saddest Music in the World takes place in Depression-era Winnipeg and tells the complicated story of the Kent family against the backdrop of an international music competition sponsored by beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini) to determine which country has, well, the saddest music in the world. This scene is basically a song-and-dance number involving a concert given by some of the sadder countries, playing together.

Leslie walks me by an old set, miniatures of the town which are no longer in use. I take a moment to examine them; this is the Winnipeg of Maddin’s imaginings, a Grimm place half-buried in snow and populated by Orthodox crosses, looking simultaneously like an F.W. Murnau set and a drawing by Dr. Seuss. This is all located in a very cold and dismal warehouse with a large black curtain located at its far end, which appears to be our destination.

When we arrive at the curtain Leslie pulls a portion of it back for me to step inside, revealing the set, and an explosion of colour, sound, and light. The first thing I notice is a stage upon which is situated a large throne-like structure consisting of blue-white shards of cardboard or some other building material. It looks almost like a cross between an iceberg and a flame. Some pretty girls in bluish garb and exaggerated Inuit gear stand around it, while to the far left a dismal black-draped man with a sinister moustache sits solemnly (later I am told this is Ross McMillian, barely recognizable). Below the stage an orchestra pit is filled to bursting with musicians, small groups representing different nationalities, dressed in exaggerated, stereotypical fashion. (Maddin’s cult classic, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, featured comic relief in the form of an actor in blackface — offensive at first, this character’s subsequent death and the solemnity of his funereal proceedings speak to a deep-seated respect for him and of a great value placed on his life and being. In like manner, Maddin de- and re-constructs stereotypes constantly, allowing him to navigate within film discourses that appear outmoded and inject them with a contemporary relevance, reviving old forms while also critiquing them to avoid an empty nostalgia.)

Leslie positions me near the curtain on its inside and I wait for the cameras to roll. Members of the crew scuttle to and fro, placing beer-filled mugs atop every level surface (beer abounds in the film, and even the legs of Rossellini’s character have been amputated and replaced with beer-filled glass legs). Maddin cuts his way through the chaos, the otherwise docile man in polite but firm command. A voice calls for quiet and the cameras begin to roll, followed by a series of melodious clicks and the voice of Mark McKinney (who plays the conductor) counts upwards to four.

A transformation occurs. All of a sudden the music gives the chaos form; the strains of a sitar ring out an ethereal progression of notes, dying into silence. McKinney’s baton points away from the sitar player toward a banjo-toting man who, as counterpoint to the sitar line, begins a meat-and-potatoes rhythm. Other instruments join in, and in the middle of this cacophony the Inuit girls begin to dance. They spear fake fish and offer them to the iceberg/throne — except for one girl, who hoards her catch. The music darkens, and the blue-white structure begins to move, to turn, revealing Rossellini, radiant with anger. The dancing resumes, Rossellini intermittently casting icy stares and warm smiles upon the revellers gathered at her feet. Every time she smiles she sheds twenty years.

The music ends and I return to the world. There is a moment of perfect silence following the song and before the order to stop the cameras is given, and in that moment I think that I hear the real song, infinitely sad and filled with inexpressible longing. Then noise explodes around me as the work resumes; Maddin proposes new angles, actors are moved, the lighting is altered, and, of course, more beer is brought in.

I talk briefly with Robert Enright and Meeka Walsh between takes as the same scene is shot and reshot. Enright fills me in on the scene’s context within the film to a greater degree (the particulars of which I will not divulge here) and I begin to see the hidden apocalyptic aspects of the scene as it is played out again and again. Each time the scene is enacted it is a new experience, fresh and distinct from its previous incarnation.

Leslie politely informs me that my time is up and I have to leave. Before I head off I return to the miniature town and take a closer look at it. It’s a fantastic place, and walking through its streets I feel like a giant. I wish I could shrink, dwindle down to scale, find a cold corner in which to sleep. Something in this fabricated Winnipeg make it feels like the real Winnipeg, only sadder and more still, a place where something significant is about to happen.

Then something does: as I am leaving I stumble across the baroness herself, taking a short break away from the set. I decide that this will be the only chance I get to say anything to her, and so I had better take it.

“I think you’re wonderful, Miss Isabella Rossellini,” I offer, shaking her hand.

“Oh!” she replies, surprised and maybe a bit embarrassed. She smiles broadly, and on my list of Things to Do in Life I check off “Make Isabella Rossellini smile.”

Without another word, in a starstruck panic, I leave the building. It rains on the drive home, a gentle, cleansing rain, scouring the streets. I listen to my car stereo in perfect happiness, singing along with the saddest of songs.

Clockfire in History: Vlad III Dracula (1431 – 1476)

A “clockfire” is a play that, due to its mental, physical, or conceptual demands, is impossible or impractical to ever produce. My book Clockfire collects a representative sampling of such plays, but throughout history there have been many other clockfires, and many clockfire practitioners. Perhaps the most infamous of the latter is the Wallachian Prince Vlad III Dracula.

Although he staged and crafted many such plays, Dracula is best-known amongst aficionados as the author of the play Clockfire, from which the genre takes its name. In its modern incarnation, the play is staged in a theatre (amongst other alterations). Dracula’s original version places the action in a dining hall.

During his rule, Dracula declared a feasting day for the poor of Wallachia, stating that no one should go hungry in his land. The day came, and a giant hall in Târgovişte filled with the finest meats, sweetest fruits, and tastiest breads and cheeses, not to mention the strongest drink. Dracula himself sat and feasted with these downtrodden. He denied them nothing. Blissful, they praised the Prince, most wonderful of rulers, most merciful of men.

As the night drew, Dracula posed a toast. “My people, I care for all in this land, rich or poor. Though you feast today, it saddens me that tomorrow the sun will waken you back into your brutal lives. So before I leave you, I ask: What else do you desire? Do you want to be without cares, lacking nothing in this world?”

The people, lulled, cheered in assent. They pleaded with the great Prince to make good on such offers, asking their new god to deliver them from the evils of their stark lives.

And thus, so that no one would be poor in his realm, and because they had begged, Dracula ordered the building shut, the doors barred and nailed. So that all inside might enjoy this joyous feast as the immense hall burned.

Interview with Dennis Cooley

I interviewed Canadian poet Dennis Cooley shortly before the release of his 13th collection of poetry, Seeing Red (Turnstone Press). This interview took place in person in April 2003.

You’re a founding editor of Turnstone Press. Can you talk a little about how you got involved in the creation of this press?

Turnstone started here in the mid-70s. Robert Enright was the most important figure, really, in getting that press started and in its operations for several years. We were the three official founding editors—contrary to a story that’s taken on such proportions that everyone now believes it, Arnason was not a founding editor of Turnstone Press—he didn’t even join until about five or six years later. It started mainly because of Enright’s passion—he wanted to do an anthology of Manitoba poets, but the then-chair of the Manitoba Arts Council, Ken Hughes, said: “Well, maybe that’s a little premature; why don’t you publish a bunch of books and then do an anthology?” So on the basis of his urging and his hint that MAC might put up the money to help support some titles, some of us thought there might be some value in starting a press. It went through various kinds of configurations but it ended up being Turnstone through a desperate need suddenly to have a name (a name we thought was available wasn’t available).

The very first book published by Turnstone was In the Gutting Shed by W. D. Valgardson, which originally had some kind of maudlin title, Purple Lilies or something like that. For the first several years we had that press, writers would sometimes bring in kind of “tough” poems and then want sweetly sentimental titles, and we managed to bully almost every one of them out of it. That one had some unbelievably melodramatic and sickly-sweet title that became In the Gutting Shed. It sold like crazy, because he sold it—he was a mad seller of books, he would go out to Gimli in the summer and set up tables and just sell books. So he was this fierce promoter, but also the people in Gimli are fierce book-buyers, so it was a good match, he sold hundreds and hundreds of that book and others. That was the very first one. One of the first was Patrick Friesen’s the lands i am.

How did you get your start as a writer?

It was a combination of things: I had written a dissertation on a poet, Robert Duncan, and was teaching poetry, studying poetry in classes, writing about it, and had been editing Turnstone for a couple of years. So the combination just sort of came together of the interest and the opportunity and the skill. It was also a very heady time, the mid- to late-70s; people were just doing things all the time. Many of the things that have become institutions in Manitoba were started then—within a matter of a couple of years the Manitoba Writers’ Guild started, and Turnstone started, Border Crossings was then Arts Manitoba and ran out of that office right there [pointing at the office across the hall from his own office in St. John’s College]—Turnstone was in that office too, though they weren’t in there at the very same time. Dorothy Livesay was next door with CV2, Arnason was over here with Journal of Canadian Fiction for, well, I don’t know how long he had it when he came here, but for several years, so it was just a wild and heady time.

Did you write at all before then?

Oh a little bit, but not really. I didn’t have the sense of myself as a writer. When I was in public school I had a teacher who was very influential and I liked writing and that probably had a lot to do with it ultimately, but when I was in high school or university I certainly didn’t think of myself as a writer.

Most, if not all, of your collections are organized around a theme, concept, or semi-narrative, though you delight in diverting yourself from this loose “topic.” What is it that you find attractive about these conceptual threads, and why do you indulge yourself in digressing to such a great degree in the published work?

For me, it’s a way of generating texts. It gives me a site to research, to see what the possibilities are; there’s a kind of focus in thinking about a terrain, saying, “what can be done in this area.” I find it really generative, and because it works so well for me I always recommend it to others. Find a site, and then play off it to see what the possibilities of it might be. If you write a balloon poem, well, maybe you’re interested in doing a series, and maybe this extends into a notion of flying things, or rubber things, or symbols of innocence, or whatever—you often find all sorts of things by accident.

I got into the Dracula poems because I was writing a series of fairy tale poems, some of which became Goldfinger, and as I was reading and working there I thought, okay, well, what else might I write? and I thought of Dracula and how he was sort of a fantasy figure, and I wrote a Dracula poem, which I don’t think is in the collection now because I willfully pulled it, because there’s just so much stuff to draw from. So I wrote that and I found myself writing a bunch of Dracula pieces, they just went on and on and on, I started about 1989 I think. [Cooley put a few of these poems out in 1992 as the chapbook burglar of blood.]

You’re known for constantly working on your manuscript up until the last minute. When do you decide to begin the editing process with the publisher, and when do you decide that enough is enough and that’s the book?

When you run out of time! When the publisher says, “Okay, that’s it, we’re taking the manuscript.” I bring it to the publisher when I think it’s quite well-developed, but I never have the sense that something’s finished—there it is—and I can’t change anything or shouldn’t change anything.

How heavily did you edit Bloody Jack for the University of Alberta Press reissue?

There are hundreds of little changes and a batch of new things, and I pulled a couple pages, and I rearranged some things.

Was there something you felt was lacking in the original text that you wanted to add or bring to the fore, or was there another reason for the extensive changes?

One of the main reasons was because of the opportunity; when you get a second edition you can do that, and it’s rare that one gets such a chance, especially with poetry, given the sales there are—poetry almost never reappears. But it also was the nature of the book in the first place—Bloody Jack perhaps even more so than some of the books I do—there is no obvious boundary to it, it is plastic and omnivorous, I could swallow things and throw them up or out. In the meantime over the years I had kept a bunch of notes, I had a huge pile of notes for “cunning linguist”—I must have had about 80 pages of notes for that poem.

I read somewhere that it was over 800 pages at one point.

That’s a legend, it was never that big! There were some things that I was working on back in the 1980s, that I had been developing but that didn’t appear—why I can’t remember, probably because it was too late—and I slipped some of those things in. Near the end I began leaning more towards cinematic entries and I slipped some of that in.

Bloody Jack contains a number of meta-fictional pieces—a review of the book, an angry letter concerning the book, characters interacting with the author—are these examples of you consciously drawing attention to your re/writing of history or some other, less political, move?

I can’t decide how you read the book, nor should or can my sense of it determine or decide what people do with it—though certainly the book has those possibilities, I hope. In my view the book has a lot to do with power, a sense of “who gets to do what to whom,” to use that phrase that Atwood keeps using when she talks about politics—I think it’s a little insufficient, but certainly that’s a good part of this. Also the authority of the reader, the authority of the critic, the authority of the author, what sense of jurisdiction may be there.

You see these sorts of things happening internally in the text, they may be about law or criminality, transgression, propriety and impropriety. In all kinds of ways the book addresses that, but also the constructed-ness of it, the verbal options which seem trivial to people who work up notions of large and fixed truths, but which probably have a whole lot to do with power itself. What are the options? What forms of language do you have so that you might understand things? What is it to apprehend the world in a certain way?

What about this bad review of the book, contained within Bloody Jack?

That’s certainly a pretty unfriendly review, isn’t it? Well, there it is! There’s a text in there, L. A. Wynne-Smith writes his criticism. There’s the interview, think what you will. Why would you assume I wrote it?

Well, to what extent then does it matter to you how involved the reader gets in thinking about such things, and engaging in the text in this manner—is it important to you whether or not the reader does the crossword puzzle in the book, or plays the sheet music on their piano?

Well, that’s up to them. Often, if some of those things appeal to the person, it may be because they enjoy this departure from the discourse. It’s hard to think of those things as ruptures, because the book doesn’t have much continuity to begin with, but certainly they are departures from what you might expect to find in a literary text, a voice speaking in a sort of non-literary discourse, saying: “What is this?” I would hope that readers would respond with some sort of surprise or delight, or maybe puzzlement. The danger of course in doing this is that you might make people mad, and people do get mad.

Why is that? Do they just want something easier, something that makes more sense?

Well, yeah, or maybe they just want the illusion, I think that’s a powerful appeal to readers—you want the illusory world, and when that illusion is broken often you feel disappointed and angry about it, like something has been taken away from you, I think that this is not an uncommon feeling, and also I think a not surprising response. It’s understandable, I think, that readers might be angry or disappointed.

Seeing Red is a collection of poems based on Dracula—what is it about that attracted you to contribute to the Dracula mythology, and what do you feel your book adds to the in many ways saturated field of Dracula literature?

I have no idea. I’m not a student of this, I don’t read such things generally, not because I am offended or bored by them but because there are just so many things to read that I haven’t gotten around to reading. I don’t know what’s out there really, I could make some guesses—my guy is whimsical and self-mocking, sometimes frightening, sometimes tender—I kind of like my figure of Dracula, who in some ways resembles my figure of Krafchenko, I think. This figure is especially bawdy, even more so than the Krafchenko figure.

Why do you think Dracula is such an enduring figure, enjoying immense popularity over so many years?

A part of it is that the figure has gotten to be safe, in some ways. The figure has become domesticated—if you show up on cereal boxes, you’re not a very frightening figure. Also, there is a distance from the character, historically and personally. In a way it’s much tougher to write about things that are closer to you and more personal. When I write a text that is very personal—if I write a poem about my mother, I’m not going to screw around with it much, there is a sense of a kind of loyalty to a certain moment or figure, a certain narrative, whereas Dracula is kind of public property, to which almost no one has any sort of ties to “the” story or “the” figure.

Have you thought of getting more involved in the musical aspect of poetry? You seem very interested in orality—when you are writing, how much do you think in terms of how the words will sound when read aloud?

I am strongly guided by the sounds of things, it is an enormous force for me when I write—so much so that sometimes I think that I probably get too caught up in it, I rhyme like crazy, for example, and begin words off their sounds to a great extent. I have been pleasantly surprised to find that musicians are often very interested in what I do, and quite a few of my pieces have been set by musicians, so there is something there that I guess catches their ears. I have planned for many years to do a musical version of Bloody Jack and still hope to do it over the next few years. But also, visually, I use the page—I have always thought of the page as a space in which you put ink.