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Guy Maddin on His Obsession with Lost Films and Why We Need to Preserve Them

Guy Maddin on His Obsession with Lost Films and Why We Need to Preserve Them

“To Save and Project: The 13th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation” runs from November 4-25, 2015 and features 74 newly restored masterworks and rediscovers including films by Chantal Ackerman, Dario Argento, Samuel Fuller, Orson Welles and many more.

READ MORE: 10 Rare Gems MoMA Just Saved from Obscurity

Special guests for the series include Oja Kodar, Stefan Droessler, Guy Maddin, Chris Langdon, Academy Award–nominated filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako (“Timbuktu”) and noted film historians John Canemaker, Tom Gunning and Eddie Muller.

Maddin will introduce two films on the silent program including “Pan,” the 1922 film by Harald Schwenzen based on the novel by Knut Hamsun; and “Monsieur Don’t Care,” a 1924 comedy short starring Stan Laurel in his pre-Oliver Hardy days.

Indiewire recently spoke to Maddin over the phone about why these two films matter to him and about the state of film preservation.

Why these two films in particular?

Although, I haven’t seen “Monsier Don’t Care,” it’s mostly because I want to. I’m kind of obsessed with lost film and this other film I have playing that I co-directed, “The Forbidden Room” is made up out of lost matter. I’m just finishing up a massive lost film project where I reimagine the way movies were and “Monsieur Don’t Care” is the fragment of a lost film. So I’m keen to experience it.

As for “Pan” I have a long history with it. I was a huge fan of Knut Hamsun in my twenties and thirties when “Pan” and his other novels “Hunger” and “Mysteries” really struck a chord with me. The protagonists are young Dostoevskian types. Always in an altered state of mind, altered by unrequited love most frequently or starvation or some sort of delirium inducing deprivation and that seem to define my state of mind as a twenty-something, and I couldn’t believe that someone had written books, this Knut Hamsun guy, this Nobel Prize-winning author had written books that really described my troubled but highly romanticized state of mind, my elevated state of romance and a menacing romanticism that I found myself intoxicated by during those long ago years — thank God they’re in the past, but it’s  really amazing to read Hamsun and his romantic naturalism. 

I guess he was described as a prototype of Hemingway. The translations I read of him were very cluttered with Victoriana. But later translations I read were more punchy, Hemingway-esque. But I loved him enough that in 1997 I adapted “Pan” myself into a movie. The movie has been adapted I think six times and the one that MOMA is showing is the first, I believe. And I adapted the last, but there was no way I could direct in those days or even to this day, naturalistic performances. I’m more of a melodramatist and maybe with heavy ladling of surrealism on top of my melodrama. When I adapted “Pan” in the mid ’90s, I tried to make what was set in the forest in the northern regions of Norway into something decadent and strange. It was a really bad recipe. And I think the movie is a disaster but I needed to do it evidently to find out. [laughs]

Not only that. On top of the artistic disaster, it’s called “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.” It’s not even called “Pan.” My producer at the time forgot to license the rights to the novel from Knut Hamsun family. Knut Hampsun lived forever. And you know just because the novel was written in the 1890s, he lived— he buried practically everyone in Norway. And his grandson demanded $25,000 after we made the movie. It came out of my salary so I ended up earning negative $14,000 for making this movie that was no good and to add insult to injury they insisted as the condition of this settlement that we not credit Knut Hamsun or the movie “Pan” in our credit roll and they just wanted nothing to do with us except our money. But I remain obsessed with the story, which is beautiful, and when I finally got around to watching this version, the Harald Schwenzen one, which is the only film the guy made i believe.

Everything looked exactly as it did in my mind’s eye while reading the book and I couldn’t believe that I went to all this trouble 20 years ago to adapt a book that had already been shot perfectly. That would be like shooting my own version of “Days of Heaven” or “Badlands” or “The Godfather” or something like that. Not going to happen.

That’s the definition of hubris.

Yeah. Exactly. In my case, it was just stupidity.

So what is it that fascinates you about lost movies? What do you think that taps into?

Well, film is often described as the most haunted medium for the simple reason that as soon as the people and things that are photographed on some motion picture recording device — whether it’s film or video — as soon as they’re captured, they start drifting apart in time. The subject shot or the subject screened are aging at different rates and in different ways. Whenever you behold someone or something on the screen it’s no longer as you see it, a ghost in other words.

Whether the original subject is dead or not, it’s just someone that’s not really there. And then when that thing that represents something that’s no longer there is also lost, it’s kind of a double haunting. It’s just a ghost raised to the power of two. It’s a ghost of a ghost you’re haunted by when you think of a lost movie. And I’m already probably more being a filmmaker something has driven me to spend my life doing this stuff so I’m probably already more susceptible to this stuff, to film the content than the average person. And I’m obsessive about the past as well. About where I’ve come from. Nothing is quite as good as film is at helping us place ourselves in time’s great flow. I’m always haunted by looking backwards and looking ahead and thinking of what might’ve been and looking at how things once were through film through these ectoplasmic facsimiles flickering on screen. And so when something like that is taken away from me and made not visible because it’s lost, I become— I just kind of get driven nuts and I glibly once said about 20 years ago that I would even make lost films myself in order to see them and I ended up doing that. Now that’s hubris. But you know, once I got into the idea that I could make my own adaptations of lost films, I became extra haunted. I think maybe I’m haunted to the power of three now. I don’t know. I’m haunted.

We at Indiewire take it for granted that film preservation and restoration is important. Why do you think it’s important?

Film is such a new art form. It’s only been around for about 120 years and already so much of it has been lost. It’d be the same answer to why would you preserve paintings or literature or art of any sort? It’s just important. No one knows what’s going to be important in the future. Think of a snapshot of some friends in your house when you were little and you value the photo because it’s a photo of old dear friends, but once you and your old dear friends are gone the people that buy your house would be more haunted by the sight of the interior of the house not knowing or caring much about the people in the photograph.

They would be thrilled maybe to discover what the house looked like before they were born and the value of things keeps shifting eternally in artifacts, even the elements that make up the artifacts shift values over the years: emotional values, educational values, historical values. it’s just impossible to tell and it’s a very volatile chemistry — the power to combust in some sort of love flame out that each item or photograph or piece of art inherently contains. So, just taking this work. Even just taking the recently preserved Chantal Akerman movie, [“I, You, He, She”] is countlessly times more precious to us now that she’s recently passed away and so the market for these things is one of the most volatile and abidingly active things and it’s just really important.

And it’s not to much to ask — just keep these things. Just keep them. They’re the works of some of the great minds, the great artists of the last 100 years. Let’s just keep them and we’ll see how valuable they are down the road.

To Save and Project runs November 4-25 at MoMA. Visit the event website for more details, including ticketing and scheduling information.

READ MORE: 5 Key Takeaways from the Documentary Film Preservation Summit

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