Guy Maddin on Bill Morrison

It was 1980 when I first heard of the uncanny discovery in Dawson City of a swimming pool’s worth of lost films—movies that, for inexplicable reasons, had been desecrated as landfill and then by some grace preserved in permafrost since olden times. I wrote the whole story off as apocryphal. The resurrection in the report was too good to be true: it made biblical but not literal sense, and discoveries this cool, this culturally important, didn’t happen in Canada, especially not in what I considered the vast blankness of our country’s north. I was ignorant. I hadn’t even started dreaming of making my own movies yet—I hadn’t yet seen my first Bill Morrison film.  

Bill’s work is now a constant source of consolation, heartbreak, and intoxication for me. His frames are the most beautiful in all of cinema. The eye recognizes in under a second a shot belonging to a Morrison assemblage; our sight organ feels that little bath of pleasure upon its cornea, and opens its iris to accept into its depths the singular physicality of Morrison’s light. 

In his work the eye can almost feel, as if with fingers, the long sharp ribbons of unstable chemical emulsion, frighteningly brittle with age, now stabilized and cooled somewhat by Morrison’s kind gesture of preserving them for us in new prints. But the filmic fragments he unearths—roiling, buckling, and ablaze with oxidized incident, thanks to our culture’s long indifference to their value—swell our bosoms with intensely conflicted feelings: an injury to the heart is salved by the idea these images we behold have been saved, but we can only feel wiser, not happier, for appreciating the preciousness of ephemerality, and the ultimate beauty of loss. No other filmmaker does this for me. 

It turns out that long-ago story about the Dawson City film find was not apocryphal, it’s the truth of rebirth—book, chapter, and verse—in cinema’s oldest testament, where Time is God.

Bill Morrison on Guy Maddin

I was first introduced to Guy’s work in 1997 while showing my films at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, in Buenos Aires. My host and programmer, filmmaker Ruben Guzman, had befriended Guy in Winnipeg, Canada. Ruben championed Guy’s work to me as someone who appreciated early cinema and its metaphysical implications. Guy was someone who not only assembled seemingly disparate ancient clips from long-forgotten films, but he could also write, cast, shoot, and edit those clips into fantastic reveries of fate, lust, and dashed dreams. 

There was a shot in Guy’s short film Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1995) that reminded me of the final scene of a 1924 Austrian stage production that was captured on a Fox Movietone newsreel outtake I had seen. It was then I realized that Guy worked on a completely different level—not just from me, but also from anyone else working today, or ever, for that matter. 

And now, 20 years later, while examining lost troves of nitrate film, I still will find a scene in a film that was shot 100 years ago, and it will remind me of something I saw in a Guy Maddin film. It happened most recently while working on Dawson City: Frozen Time. While viewing a reel from The Girl of the Northern Woods (1910), I noticed a scene that reminded me of one in Guy’s film The Forbidden Room (2015). 

My travels through the hidden inner recesses of cinema’s memory will forever be viewed through the mist of a Guy Maddin film—whether that film has in fact been shot yet or not.