When films were still edited in their analogue, celluloid form, it meant the editor physically cutting the reel and with some precise cinematic surgery splicing the strands of images together. Making new prints was an expensive chemical process, so every cut was a definitive decision. The language of cutting and splicing still lives in the interfaces of editing software, but now films exist by and large as purely digital data you can manipulate and recombine the images endlessly.
Guy Maddin is a director who’s always felt the material weight of film, the way the spools of acetate record memories like weathered petroglyphs on stone. His love of the volatility of old and decomposing film stock is almost fetishistic. Yet his new project exists as a website, ceding the power of the cutting room scissors to the randomly-generated will of a computer algorithm.
Co-created by Evan and Galen Johnson and produced in co-operation with the National Film Board of Canada, Seances combines a database of fragments shot by Maddin into unique combinations that only exist for as long as they’re playing on screen. The clips are all reimaginings (hallucinations? Resurrections?) of lost films dug up by Maddin. No reels exist of the originals Maddin takes inspiration from, only traces of information about works that never survived history, or perhaps never even existed in the first place. In a recent interview with Vice Maddin revealed that he specifically sought out the marginal and the forgotten, “stuff by women filmmakers, by Islamic filmmakers, by Commie filmmakers, by racist filmmakers, […] by the Japanese, by the Philippines, by the Bolivians.”
Like the half-nightmare, half-documentary that was 2007’s My Winnipeg, the images here look dredged up from the deep underground of a collective subconscious. The exquisite corpse logic by which the scenes bleed into each other will be familiar to Maddin fans, as will the feeling of hauntological pastiche.
The films conjure up an other time and place that – like the spirit world a clairvoyant claims to channel – is actually just very elaborate showmanship. Instagram-type filters switch and transport the clip from ’20s occult movie to ’60s home video. There’s even data-moshed cat videos in the mix. This is the feverish computer dream of an internet that has had a century’s worth of recorded images and desires uploaded to it.
It’s standard procedure when consuming anything online to be prompted to share it on as many social media platforms as possible. But the only social media trail Seances leaves is the evocative and randomly-generated name of the film that you alone have just given a secret glimpse of. Unlike artists who use the internet to invite their audience to interact in the collective process, to be not viewers but users, Maddin is asking you to surrender yourself to a form that doesn’t allow you to bookmark and peruse it at your leisure. Maddin’s making use of the internet’s power to infinitely process information, but these ephemeral and finite shorts look back to a time when films were fragile, material objects.
Check out Seances at seances.nfb.ca
Published 18 May 2016
The filmmaking duo discuss their beautiful, bewildering fever dream.
By Anton Bitel
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