Guy Maddin talks MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION at TIFF

As part of TIFF’s ongoing Dreaming in Technicolor series, filmmaker Guy Maddin is coming to town to give a masterclass on Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession on Saturday, July 18. You probably know Maddin for his filmmaking efforts such as a My Winnipeg and The Saddest Music in the World, but the multifaceted artist has been a professor at University of Manitoba and come this fall will be teaching at Harvard. He still resides in Winnipeg, or as he calls it, his “burial site”, and jokes that while in Boston, he’ll still be “just a couple flights away from my grave at any point.”

Despite his busy schedule, when he was given the chance the present Magnificent Obsession at the Bell Lightbox, he jumped on it,  “because this one’s a revelation.”

Maddin spoke to us about his relationship with Sirk, Technicolor, and his Dork Shelf.

What’s special to you about this film? 

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I’ve always loved this movie. It’s been one of my better relationships. My love for it has really evolved over the years. At first when I was a teenager, full of irony and superiority, the mere sight of Technicolor filled me with a kind of hubris towards the past. I felt it difficult to take Technicolor films seriously. Technicolor was usually devoted to musical number sequences in late 20s, sometimes drama. This program proves that there were some dramas earlier on. Once you started getting into the melodramas of the 50s, Douglas Sirk stuff in particular, it was hard to take it seriously. Especially with Rock Hudson in them.

I’ll backtrack a bit…

When I started making films in the 80s, I took it as an impossible goal, but a goal to try for anyway, to make someone laugh and cry simultaneously. It seemed like the perfect goal of a filmmaker. When I say laugh, I even have long been willing to be laughed at as well as laughed with. I had my first experience, where I was laughing at a movie, or at least being delighted at and being incredibly moved by a movie with Douglas Sirk and then later a bit with Josef Von Sternberg and Blonde Venus. With Sirk somehow, I don’t know, it’s just something in the very emulsions of Technincolor that make it possible for you to stand outside of the movie and just behold a delightful artifice. The plots are as uninhibited as the colors. It seems to me that good melodrama uninhibits the truth about us all. But of course with Technicolor, Sirk and Russell Metty, his cinematographer, found a pallet that was every bit as uninhibited as the crazy stories. He didn’t always choose his stories of course, he was given Magnificent Obsession to remake. I don’t think he watched the original John Stahl version, I think he read the book which is completely insane and then read the script that he was given and I think he just decided to go with it. Just go with all the insanity and treat it as seriously as he would one of the Euripides plays he used to direct back in his theater years. I think he really pulled it off.

This is taking me a long time to say this simple thing: Douglas Sirk found in Technicolor an insanely uninhibited pallet that matched his material perfectly and managed to pull off a piece serious filmmaking that’s both delightful to behold and even moving. Sometimes simultaneously ridiculous and moving. I love that recipe. Some of his other movies are more moving, I think Imitation of Life is the more famous tearjerker but this one is just delightful.

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When you lecture on film you love like this, do you plan your points or can you just go off on a tangent?

When I teach at University I don’t plan anything. I’m usually showing a movie that I really know well and I can talk about it and I feel the room, feel how much resistance there might be in the audience to the film they’ve just seen and I try to attack certain points of resistance so that ideally they’ll love the movie as much as I do… or at least go home thinking about how much they disagreed with me and maybe I can soften up their resistance while they’re sleeping or something. For something like this I’ll probably prepare something because it’s a real special event, it’s not just a bunch of undergrads. It’s a wider demographic, some real cinephiles. There will be people there who know their Sirk better than I do. TIFF has been kind enough to send me a bunch of research material from their archives. I’ll try to old my own against a Sirk scholar, I’ll have a louder microphone anyway. 

I’m just looking forward to sharing the experience with everyone, plus I’ve never seen the movie on the big screen, a proper Technicolor print of it. I first fell in love with the movie in really crummy VHS copies where colours tended to get over saturated, kind of like when you played with a color photocopier. If you made a copy of a copy of a copy, the colours would stay true except their saturations would increase to the point where Rock (Hudson) and especially Otto Kruger’s faces, turned into a kind of terracotta colour. They just looked like flower pots coming out of shirts. Which actually uninhibited the colours a bit too much and actually effected the way you viewed the script and the performances. Now that the colour has been remastered and I’ve seen it on the Criterion disc on a proper big screen TV it looks really nice. I was a little bit scared that once things were remastered that the experience wouldn’t be as euphoria inducing but it is. I went straight to the section where Rock Hudson was shirtlessly scrubbing up for an operation and the pallet in that scene is just swoon inducing. As a matter of fact, even if you don’t like the melodrama you can just sit down and watch Russell Metty’s photography and the production design and it’s just awe inspiring. 

Do you feel the new digital prints do a satisfying job of reproducing that 35mm feel? 

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There was much conjecture over this. I watched Black Narcissus in Berlin and someone told me it was just a DCP (Digital Cinema Package) but it had little sparkles and scratches on it. Just the lightest dusting of some… it sure looked to me like a film print. I can’t tell as a matter of fact. There are definitely emulsions involved anyway, at one point. It looked really beautiful. 

You get these 4K restorations, really great restorations. Just a chance to see things on the big screen, I think you’re seeing stuff that, I don’t know, I wasn’t around watching Magnificent Obsession in 1954 but I’m sure it’s close if not exactly the way it was meant to look on opening night.

What’s on your Dork Shelf? 

I come dangerously close to being a collector and yet I’m scared of being a collector. Whenever I visit collectors they’re no fun for me. They have all their comic books sealed in plastic, they keep their baseball cards behind lucite. So whenever I find my collection getting close to that point where it’s really valuable, I’ll let a kid play with my 19th Century toy soldier collection until the legs are smashed off or something, just to take the nerdy edge off a pretty nerdy guy. I guess I collect Roman Catholic voodoo figurines. I got a bunch in South America when I went there. Just crudely fashioned plaster moulds of devils and scarlet women and skeletons chewing on crucifixes and things like that. I guess none of this stuff is too surprising to hear, probably. 

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Tickets for tomorrow night’s even have gone rush only,  but you can see Guy Maddin introduce My Winnipeg FOR FREE Sunday afternoon.

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