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Rotterdam 2009: Guy Maddin Will “Send Me To the ‘Lectric Chair”

Rotterdam 2009: Guy Maddin Will “Send Me To the ‘Lectric Chair” (photo)

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Guy Maddin is a hoarder of uncanny images, from the candy-colored Alpine tableaus of “Careful” to the frozen horse heads of last year’s “My Winnipeg.” A commission from the Rotterdam Film Festival centers around another: Isabella Rossellini blasted out of an electric chair. It’s the basis for his new short film, “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” part of the Urban Screens series at the festival, which is projecting three works onto office buildings throughout the city. It’s an archetypal Maddin film, conflating sex, death and film history in a manic seven minutes. I spoke with him at the festival about the new work, collage parties, Thomas Edison and the hazards of Dutch public transit.

How did you get this assignment, and how did you conceive it?

I was approached by the producers Keith Griffiths and Simon Field, who are both friends of mine. They just phoned me up in early December and apologized for the short notice, but asked if Isabella and I would like to make something. Keith said it would be a public loop of some sort, anywhere between two minutes and seven hours long. I immediately started thinking I better shoot something that’s just three minutes long, and got it in my head right away that it should be Isabella Rosselini sitting in an electric chair getting zapped over and over again. I’ve been to a lot of collage parties lately that I’ve been throwing with my friend Paul Butler in the hopes of generating image ideas for my next feature.

What’s a collage party?

They’ve saved my sanity. You show up for a day or seven days at a wonderful place, a cottage with 600 pounds of old magazines, books, glue sticks, X-Acto knives and bottles of bourbon, and you tell just one or two story ideas to humble artists. Some of Canada’s greatest living artists were there, and other times it was developmentally disabled kids at a community club — they make some great images. Paul made an image of a nude woman being blasted out of an electric chair. They forgot to fasten her seatbelt, and I wanted to put this into effect right away. Now, I was immediately told no nudity, I was immediately told no strobing, so strobing became the new taboo. It would throw the citizens of Rotterdam into epileptic fits flipping on the sidewalks.

01292009_lectricchair2.jpgWe dialed down the violence of the electric chair until it more or less stimulated Isabella instead of blasting her violently through the roof. We clothed her in prison garb modeled after Louise Brooks’ costume in “Diary of a Lost Girl,” and then we built an electric chair even though I had a lead on the original chair used at Auburn State Prison — the one photographed by Andy Warhol — a collector in Toronto has it. It was built by Gustav Stickley, the famous designer, and it looks like really nice furniture, but it had a few straps on it, it had some burns, so we built a chair that looks a little more expressionistic. It was designed to fold up portably and travel because Isabella couldn’t make it to Winnipeg to shoot so I shot everything except her close-ups.

Where did you shoot?

Just in my usual little studio space, the Atelier Tovar in Winnipeg, and I shot everything but her. Then I flew to New York with the electric chair in a suitcase, along with some panties, stockings, garters, her costume, a wig, 20 rolls of film, two cameras and no work visa. We shot with some sparklers purchased in Pennsylvania, because they’re illegal in New York. I had a sparkler mule bring in some of these deadly fireworks to Manhattan. Everything was so sketchy. I was flirting with Rotterdam taboos and New York State laws and work visa issues and the whole thing was very exciting. And it was over within a few days since the phone call from Keith.

When it’s projected onto the building, some of the floors still have their office lights on.

I haven’t looked. It was like that during the dress rehearsals and I just assumed that late workers would be fucking with the rectangulation of the whole thing.

A silent protest.

Yeah. They wanna work. I’ll send them to the electric chair.

Was it as easy as telling Isabella you wanted her in the electric chair and she went for that?

She’s game for anything. We’re co-directors, sort of. I always direct her and she always directs herself. She understands melodrama and I just said think Falconetti, think Renée Falconetti, and I’ll pretend to be Carl Dreyer channeling Thomas Edison or something like that. I realized that Edison is more of a capitalist than an inventor, you know, stealing patents from people and making money off them, that was his real contribution, especially to movies, because the second movie ever made was “The Kiss,” I think, which is already softcore porn. He conspired to acquire the patent on the movie camera even though he didn’t invent it. And after he invented the electric chair, he would hold these public demonstrations where people or animals, where stray dogs and cats were violently fried alive.

01292009_lectricchair3.jpgLike his famous film where the elephant is electrocuted?

Yeah, he framed an elephant, called it mad, and electrocuted it. And that was the world’s largest electric chair — it was basically an ankle bracelet but he wanted to entertain people and frighten them. Godard said you only need a girl and a gun to make a movie, but Edison seemed to be ahead of him somehow. He knew that all the murder and mayhem that America could think up was enough to fuel a film industry. So I think he was a great film theoretician without realizing it.

I wanted the set to look like a living room. An electric chair in a living room. As if Thomas Edison had convinced all of America that everyone should have an electric chair there, maybe to try family members for domestic crimes committed.

Instead of the naughty chair, you get a really naughty chair.

Right. And many parents would have sat in many hotly wired electric chairs if that were the case. Maybe America would be a better place. [Laughs] With capital punishment in every home.

So you said you hadn’t looked at the projection?

Not much. I came in a day early before the opening to sort of supervise the “gamma,” the contrast of the brightness. I’m not sure what “gamma” is.

The audio stoplight warnings for the blind at streetcorners — sometimes during the projection their audio syncs to the film.

That’s perfect! I always thought the real musical score would be just street sounds around Rotterdam, the squealing streetcars, the song of tires and musical bells, but I didn’t know about that blind traffic light. It’s quite a soundscape out there. And there are more ways to get run over in this town. I’m half suspecting I’ll get run over by a barge in a canal one of these days.

I’m deadly afraid of getting struck by a bike.

You could be maimed and clipped. I don’t know what the Dutch have come up with here, where like five streetcar tracks converge on a canal and then you see a bus coming on the sidewalk. An old pot-smoking craftsman on a bicycle might just kill you, just pedal you down.

01292009_lectricchair4.jpgThis whole project only took a week?

Yeah, while the film from the Winnipeg half of the shoot was being processed, I was collecting fresh emulsions of Isabella’s face in Manhattan and then moving back home and that was it. My condition for doing it was that I got permission to re-use the footage in my next feature.

Whenever I accept a short film commission, I get permission to use the footage from it and so I’m slowly assembling clips… and in this financially depressed time, you need to. It’s a Frankenstein feature film built together from a bunch of dead short commissions.

You’re going to pull from “‘Lectric Chair” too?

I wanted an electric chair in the next movie, too, I decided. And Isabella, even though she’s not available, she’s going to be in Spain shooting a movie when I’m scheduled to shoot in late March, I think I can just fly over with some wallpaper and some garters and a suitcase full of film or something! [Laughs] And cut her into the movie.

You’re turning into Orson Welles.

Yeah, I finish these films though, that’s one difference. Believe me, I’ve thought of it, because there’s something pretty depressing about all those unfinished Orson projects.

Do you want to talk about the feature you’re working on?

I’m hoping that it’ll have live performative elements. I don’t know what those will be. I’ll have live music of some sort. I’m building a bunch of futurist and very primitive synthesizers for use in the actual story. It’s a crime film, like a film noir, but without guns — I want to prove Godard wrong.

You’re throwing down the gauntlet.

Yeah, exactly. I think I can make a crime film without a gun.

[Photos: Guy Maddin; “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair,” courtesy of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, 2009]

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.