Ashbery will perform as “the Interlocutor” as part of the live accompaniment to Maddin’s latest, Brand Upon the Brain! (at New York’s Village East theater on Sunday, May 13, at 7 p.m.). Produced through the Film Company, a Seattle-based nonprofit studio, Brand is the story of a young boy—named Guy Maddin—whose martinet mother and scientist father run a lighthouse-cum-orphanage where the strange and sinister goings-on attract the attentions of a brother-sister pair of teen sleuths. With its swirl of frothing soap opera, misfiring hormones, and oneiric rapture, this silent, black-and-white film is likely to be the most melodious and vibrant of the year. The Village East screenings will be further intensified by an 11-piece orchestra, sound-effects artists, a “castrato” singer, and a bevy of celebrity narrators—Ashbery is one of a rotating firmament that includes Isabella Rossellini, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Eli Wallach, and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. (Brand Upon the Brain! will then move on to live engagements in Chicago and Los Angeles as well as regular theatrical runs across the country.)
Maddin recently spoke with the Poetry Foundation about Ashbery, lyricism, turning the melodrama dial up to 11, and other pressing matters.
Q: How did it come about that John Ashbery joined the roster of celebrity narrators for Brand Upon the Brain!?
Guy Maddin: I just asked him and he said yes, shocking and pleasing me equally! What a great sport, what an honor! We are also trying to collaborate on another film, though, as screenwriting partners. I’m brashly confident it will work out, but it’s still early. It could still be anything, and your readers might cringe at what I think it could be. I’m really excited about it, though, and I think it can be done quickly and in John’s 80th birth year—that’s this year. I’m emboldened by the precedent set by John himself, with James Schuyler, when the two of them produced the novel A Nest of Ninnies simply by taking turns writing one sentence apiece until the thing was done. And it’s wonderful!
Can you offer any hints about the screenplay—a ghost of a plot outline, a defining character, anything?
The project might be called Keyhole. I want the viewers to navigate themselves through the narrative, going even as far as to interact with the thing—that would mean it would have to be a web picture, but maybe that doesn't sit well. I want to give the viewers peeks through keyholes until they get to the center of the onion—like a piece of architecture, a labyrinth of narratives. Then, proud of their sense of direction, weeping profusely, they stagger out again. It’s, er, about a woman in trouble! That’s all I should say!
Some of the poems in Ashbery’s Houseboat Days (1977) have affinities with your work, in their confrontations with memory, regret, lost love, and violent passion. Orpheus and Eurydice in “Syringa” are characters that would be right at home in your films, and there’s also “The Gazing Grain,” which talks about “emerging into the clear bluish haze / of uncertainty” to “come back to ourselves / Through the rubbish of cloud and tree-spattered pavement. / These days stand like vapor under the trees.” Here, Ashbery could be describing the mood and color scheme and set design of a future Maddin project.
Ashbery thrills and excites me more than any other poet. Perhaps he and I are both effects of the same unknown cause. Or he’s the cause and I’m the effect. For some reason we both love Rin-Tin-Tin, that I do know. (So does Isabella Rossellini, I’ve found out recently, and yet she might not like John’s poetry at all—I’ve never asked her. Did you know that Rin-Tin-Tin died in Jean Harlow’s arms?)
I don’t think about Ashbery’s work in conventional evaluative ways. I don’t care if Ashbery’s work is “about” anything. I tend to think of it as one enormous poem, and I rarely distinguish one poem from another. Having said that, sometimes I feel I can just shoot some of his lines, or that he shot them by writing them—the latter is probably more true.
When did you start reading Ashbery?
My friend Michael Silverblatt [host of NPR’s “Bookworm” program] read me a poem of John’s over the phone in 1993, when I was holed up in a motel in L.A., depressed and broke. The Ashbery lines moistly intoned into my ear by Michael—a sinuously seductive reader and perhaps John’s most devoted set of sense organs—just made their way straight to my heart, faster even than music ever has. I don’t even remember the poem. But I bought a bunch of his stuff when I got back home to Winnipeg. Years later I bought his Selected Prose, the volume full of introductions and reviews. His contagious enthusiasm for his favorite writers, especially [French experimental poet and novelist] Raymond Roussel and those guys who wrote Fantômas [Michel Allain and Pierre Souvestre], really fired up my sense of all that was possible, not just with the written word, but with film as well. I wrote great big chunks of Brand Upon the Brain! while under the influence of these collected forewords! It’s like a movie adaptation of forewords!
My filmmaker friend Caveh Zahedi, who made I Am a Sex Addict, is a huge Ashbery fan. He even named a film of his In the Bathtub of the World, after a quote from an Ashbery poem [“Thoughts of a Young Girl,” from The Tennis Court Oath]: “It is such a beautiful day I had to write you a letter / From the tower, and to show I’m not mad: / I only slipped on the cake of soap of the air / And drowned in the bathtub of the world.”
Ashbery’s readings of his own work tend to be fairly matter-of-fact. It will be interesting to see if he turns on the melodrama for Brand Upon the Brain!
I like to direct each of my narrators, but I don't like to force anyone to do anything that doesn't feel right. Normally I ask the readers to turn their melodrama dials to 11. But Lou Reed has stated quite plainly that he simply doesn't do melodrama. Who would want him to? With stars, now as always, one wants the star persona to push through whatever role is being performed—with the notable exceptions of self-erasing star chameleons like Meryl Streep. One wants to hear how Lou Reed would reinterpret an Isabella Rossellini role, or how Eli Wallach would do it. The set lines welded to specific images within a fixed stream of edited images offer up very sharp points of comparison. It should be really fun. We're recording all the different performers.
Now, John Ashbery has never been anything but the sweetest and most agreeable man, but I wouldn't dream of asking him to change his reading persona one iota. I'll direct him to stress, in his own shrewd and microscopic way, certain expositionally vital facts, and other than that he will be the public John Ashbery you know. Very un-melodramatic, I imagine, but with plenty of sublimated Rin-Tin-Tin.
The words “poetic” and “lyrical” often come up in reviews of your films. This may be intended as another way of saying “beautiful” or “dreamlike,” but does the idea of a “poetry” of sight and sound mean something more precise to you?
Poetic filmmakers may have the same objectives as actual poets, but there is next to nothing in common with the way they must work to achieve their goals. Or so it seems. I think I’m tagged as poetic when people lose track of the narrative, but there’s still something pretty going on onscreen. I would love to be a poet, but it’s not in me, so I’m this other thing, whatever that is.
You once said that silent film is “a perfect stepping stone between the literal-minded movies of today and all other art forms, plastic or otherwise,” and a form so distinct from contemporary popular movies that “it might as well be painting, poetry, or classical music.” Do you think of your films as ideally occupying a “protected sphere” (to borrow Stephen Burt’s phrase), outside the dictates of commerce, much as poetry does? Obviously, it’s a lot cheaper to write a poem than to produce a movie. . . .
I’m almost pulling off that protected-sphere trick. I’ve managed to stay out of the system for 20 years. And no one actually inside the system returns my phone calls, so I think I’m safe here. Still, as far as poems go, film poems are a bit pricey to manufacture, so I have to be pretty tricky. It helps to live in Canada, where the state support is wonderful. You should all come live here—they practically shovel the money at you just to doodle out lyrical stuff!