Guessing game

Guy Maddin on Mr. Memory, Daniil Kharms and Stump The Guesser

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Guy Maddin on Stump The Guesser: “Kharms had so many ideas and we wanted them all …”
Guy Maddin on Stump The Guesser: “Kharms had so many ideas and we wanted them all …”

A standout decision by the Currents programming team (Dennis Lim, Florence Almozini, Aily Nash, Tyler Wilson) for the 58th New York Film Festival, is to show Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson’s mysterious fairground short, Stump The Guesser, starring Adam Brooks, with There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways Of Showing A Man Getting On A Horse, Nicolás Zukerfeld’s tribute to Raoul Walsh. On the afternoon of the Autumnal Equinox, Guy Maddin joined me for a lively and in-depth e-mail exchange conversation, which touched on the costumes by Greg Blagoev (”Winnipeg's Mayakovsky!”), Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, Robert Donat questioning Mr. Memory, and John Buchan (1st Baron Tweedsmuir), Ludwig Tieck, Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner, Bertrand Tavernier and Pursued, Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms, and the evolution of Stump The Guesser, starting with the Ensemble Musikfabrik in Cologne.

The Guesser (Adam Brooks) in a Russian roulette challenge
The Guesser (Adam Brooks) in a Russian roulette challenge

Anne-Katrin Titze: Happy Autumnal Equinox, Guy! Let's play Stump The Professors - While watching Stump The Guesser, the first mindreader who came to my mind was Mr. Memory from Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. Did he factor at all as inspiration?

Guy Maddin: Haha! Mr. Memory is never far from my thoughts. Of course, Robert Donat famously asks him how far it is from Montreal to Winnipeg. The latter city is my grave, er, my hometown. Guessing! I've never guessed anything correctly in my life, not even the city in which I should live. And I suppose you know the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps was the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Tweedsmuir, aka John Buchan! His books are colonial atrocities, but sporting!

I honestly can't remember how Galen, Evan and I settled on a guesser as our protagonist. We had been commissioned by an orchestra in Cologne, The Ensemble Musikfabrik, to make them a short film to which they might add a commissioned score. They wanted us to pay tribute with our script to the Soviet absurdist Daniil Kharms.

We dutifully read all the Kharms there was and came away mightily impressed, and saddened too, because the man's life was so tragic. He met his end during the Siege of Leningrad, simultaneously starved to death by Germans, persecuted and imprisoned by the Soviets, afflicted with some horrifying illness and maybe murdered, too. It's such an accumulation of enormity and sadness that it is almost as absurd as his own incredible writing.

Robert Donat in The 39 Steps
Robert Donat in The 39 Steps

AKT: I did not know the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps! This is fascinating. How far is it from Montreal to Winnipeg? Soviet cinema is a visual anchor - from Trotsky Bear to how you show the peasants asking questions. There is Russian roulette showtime and a zeppelin and industrialization of the carnival tents. I liked the “Day Guesser” and the “Night Guesser”, the “Guessing Inspector” and the “Substitute Guesser.” Where does “guessing milk” come from?

GM: Well, Mr. Memory says it's 1,424 miles, and Google gives the distance as slightly shorter, so the two cities have spread out towards each since Hitch shot his film. Guessing milk might be the result of combining two Kharms absurdities -- I can't remember. (Not only can I not guess well, but I can't remember anything either!) But it's been our writing style to combine as much of the things we like to make compounds of them, and in that fashion cram as much stuff as we can into the films we make.

We have many faults, and one of them is an inability to reduce matter. So Kharms had so many ideas and we wanted them all, but with a short running time we had to cluster our ideas together into these compounds, which fit better -- and confuse more! I think we wanted to imply that guessing milk was human sperm collected from state scientists sitting in the lecture theatre. But, phew, thank God no one noticed that tasteless allusion in our film.

AKT: You did manage to 'cram' an awful lot into 19 minutes! Incest is a topic in many traditional fairy tales (from the Grimms’ All Fur and Charles Perrault’s Donkey Skin, turned into a film by Jacques Demy, to Romantic writer Ludwig Tieck’s Eckbert, The Fair). You handle the topic in a similar vein, as a quest against the odds. Was this trope present in your drafts from the start?

The Fish Monger (Randy Unrau) in Stump the Guesser
The Fish Monger (Randy Unrau) in Stump the Guesser

GM: You deserve many points for that shout-out to Ludwig Tieck! That dude has not been in print for decades, but I do love his horny little pro-incest tale. Incest is no laughing matter when it involves victims, abuse and ruined life, but as a fantasy, apparently, it can be pretty potent. I love the mother/son incest in Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner. Mann is hilarious. That was a huge inspiration for my film Careful (1992), but in spite of many mommy issues, I haven't an incestuous thought in my head.

But Evan Johnson, one of my filmmaking partners, has long lusted, in theory, after the sister he's never had. He's mentioned this theoretical lust a few times, so I think it just had to go into our Kharms script, because it seemed to belong in the broken-down universe about which Kharms writes, and also because it's important to put your own feelings into your films, especially commissions for orchestras! And, yes, the incest was there from the start. We wanted a character to absolutely NEED to prove that science was wrong.

AKT: Did you know that Ludwig Tieck translated The Tempest into German? Guessing and experts and professors and refuting something in the world of science - did your own teaching experience factor in here? Professor as guesser? Is your heart torn between academia and the carnival?

GM: I did not know about Tieck the translator. And I'm utterly fascinated by 19th-century translation. I wish I could get a really good poet, who has somehow not read Shakespeare, to translate Tieck's Tempest back into English. I'd love to read what he did! And lest anyone think we're getting too tony, let's not forget Gilligan's Island was probably the most-beloved adaptation of The Tempest.

Guy Maddin: “Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner was a huge inspiration for my film Careful (1992)”
Guy Maddin: “Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner was a huge inspiration for my film Careful (1992)”

I hate guessing as an instructor. I currently teach at the University of Toronto, and the students here are pretty wonderful, but I've had very long days with undergrads at other schools where I have had absolutely no idea what they're thinking. Maybe nothing! Maybe homicidal plots involving the boring fool lecturing them.

I really do like teaching, it can be extremely rewarding at times. I liken it to golf, in my experience anyway. As soon as I think I know what I'm doing I'll spend a few classes shanking every shot into the bushes. But I love filmmaking most of all, if you can call the experience of walking around with a belly full of Draino set aboil by stress lovable.

AKT: To you as a filmmaker: The Guesser (Adam Brooks) wears a beautiful white ruff collar and white patent leather slip-on page shoes. Rembrandt or Rubens paintings may come to mind. How did you work with your costume designer (Greg Blagoev) on his look? Are you suggesting that he is of 16th/17th century mindset and plopped into an industrial revolutionary fairground?

GM: First off, I want to say Greg Blagoev did such a wonderful job on the film -- I shudder to think how he outfitted the movie for the three hundred bucks we gave him -- or something not much more. He makes an appearance in the picture, too, as the man with the ticking watch whose sudden disappearance musses the guesser's mojo. Blagoev looks SO COOL! He's Winnipeg's [Vladimir] Mayakovsky!

And timepieces are an obsession with Kharms. Watches and clocks are forever breaking or stopping! Time itself stops, and the things that happen when it does! I think we liked the idea of some cuckold-clown costume for Adam. Galen found some source photos and showed them to Greg, who is excellent with needle and thread. It was one of those collaborations where we all just trusted each other. Greg could feel what we wanted, and we felt he’d know. It worked. By the way, Kharms loved walking around Leningrad dressed in a Sherlock Holmes costume, complete with deerstalker and pipe! And I just love those white slip-on page shoes! Galen contrived the last shot of the film, the slo-mo tilt up from those guesser's shoes to his doomed face. So beautiful!

Robert Rauschenberg’s Currents: collection Ed Bahlman
Robert Rauschenberg’s Currents: collection Ed Bahlman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Who made the heads up - feet up blanket? It is very funny. So is the tin grouse with the veil. Are these someone’s childhood memories? “Weisse Null” - white zero was related to Kharms’ terrible demise?

GM: Galen is the production designer in our filmmaking collective and he just made all these signs for the Kharnival featuring Kharms-y prizes. The tin grouse was one of them, but this was Chekov's tin grouse. You just knew it would show up later. Evan likened the blackboard at the state genetics institute to Malevich's painting The Black Square (1915), and then he threw the “Weisse Null”, or white zero, in for good luck. Yes, it's our doom. It was at that point I felt the guesser's story was my own. He's got some kind of hope for connubial redemption, a fifty-fifty chance at guessing the right door, and -- well, here I am, your ever-lovin' terrible guesser! What an ass I am.

AKT: One final question. Stump the Guesser is screening with Nicolás Zukerfeld’s There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways Of Showing A Man Getting On A Horse in the Currents program. Have you seen it? And do you have a favourite Raoul Walsh film?

Stump The Guesser poster
Stump The Guesser poster

GM: Alas, I haven't yet seen Nicolás's film, but I've heard it's brilliant! I wish him all the best! Gosh, Raoul Walsh! I suppose his Pursued (1947) with Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright is the first western I got into. He opened the door to that genre for me. I had been resistant, but I love that film. I first saw it when Bertrand Tavernier introduced it at Telluride in 1990. Wow, so good. But I also love Jimmy Cagney and the montages in Walsh's The Roaring Twenties (1939), and The Man I Love (also 1947!) with Ida Lupino! And what better mommy-issues scene is there than the one in White Heat (1949), when Cagney learns of his ma's death? Weisse Null !!!

AKT: Thank you for this live e-mail conversation, Guy. I very much like Strawberry Blonde with Rita Hayworth and Olivia de Havilland. I am sure you will be impressed by Nicolás's film.

GM: Thanks for the lovely chat! And thanks for your interest! I really need to see Nicolás's film! Gosh! Thanks for sending your piece on it. Wonderful work! I too love Strawberry Blonde. I was actually a little upset when de Havilland passed. My mom is the last of the living 1916-ers that I know now that Kirk and Olivia have died.

Stump The Guesser and There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways Of Showing A Man Getting On A Horse will screen virtually starting at 8:00pm on Friday, September 25 until 8:00pm Monday, September 28.

The 2020 New York Film Festival runs through October 11.

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