Interactive

Guy Maddin’s Algorithmic Cinema Resurrects Lost Silent Films

The director’s latest project with the National Film Board of Canada shuffles scenes into a one-time viewing experience.

Guy Maddin, 'Seances'
Guy Maddin, ‘Seances’ (courtesy National Film Board of Canada)

Guy Maddin was haunted by the disappearance of an estimated 80% of silent-era cinema. So the Canadian filmmaker dreamt up an online “machine” that would resurrect some of these lost stories, but only allow each of its creations to be viewed once. Seanceswhich Maddin made with Evan and Galen Johnson with support of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), uses an algorithm to shuffle its scenes into an ephemeral short film experience.

The footage for Seances was, per Maddin’s site, shot “in public over 18 days at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and over another 13 days at the Phi Centre in Montreal.” Like Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, also produced with the Johnson brothers, the scenes are inspired by vanished films, or those never shot. Some are saturated with early silent-film color, others interrupted by glitches from the present as airplanes and YouTube-style videos are glimpsed through surreal narratives. While the interactive experience, launched earlier this year, has been exhibited as an installation (including at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival), it’s meant to be an individual, transient moment for online viewers. You cannot pause, rewind, or download your film. Once you watch it, it’s gone.

Scenes from the Seances teaser (GIF by the author via National Film Board of Canada)
Scenes from the teaser for ‘Seances’ (GIF by the author via National Film Board of Canada)

The NFB regularly supports these types of media experiments that blur the lines between film, gaming, and visual art. Its interactive content includes short meditations like Alexi Hobb’s The Last Hunt, on hunting in Quebec with an aging grandfather, and more elaborate digital environments like Stan Douglas’s Circa 1948, an interactive app set in postwar Vancouver. Maddin himself previously collaborated with the NFB on “Night Mayor,” a brief film about an inventor who harnesses the power of the aurora borealis.

Upon accessing the Seances page, you’re asked to “touch and hold to conjure” as words rearrange themselves on the screen. Then the spirits assemble into a flow of images. In my film — “The Misandrist’s Champagne” — a boy failed to follow his father’s orders to kiss his mother while wearing a poisonous false mustache. He then fell into a dream, wherein a woman inadvertently kissed her lover with hemlock-laced lipstick, created by a jealous doctor who helped give her back her eyesight. Even some ectoplasm made a cameo amid the curious chaos, emerging from a woman’s mouth — just like in a good old-fashioned séance.

Seances by Guy Maddin is available online from the National Film Board of Canada.

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