It gets a (nervous?) laugh from the Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival crowd, but it's also true. Canadian director Guy Maddin's black-and-white fever dream is an extended -- and very silent -- movie, in which a fictional "Guy Maddin" recalls his surreal and occasionally psychosexual childhood on an island orphanage run by his parents. 
The movie's funny and weird and jittery, full of jump-cuts and hysterically overwrought title cards. Maddin edits it to look like it was filmed with a hand-cranked camera in 1915 while unspooling on a projector that's about to fly off its sprockets. 
But the movie's only part -- and maybe not even the biggest part -- of the entertainment. The "trick" promised by Hook is the accompanying live soundtrack. The movie unspools above an 11-piece orchestra, a singing "castrato" in a tuxedo (actually a male actor lip-synching to an offstage female singer), and some mind-blowing sound-effects work by the Aono Jikken Ensemble.
The show's biggest distraction, actually, is watching the eldest member of the sound-effects group, diminutive Suzie Kozawa, strap a silver hard-hat festooned with water cups and straws to her head to simulate the sound of a bubbling ocean. Pre-show, Kozawa stands ready with a battery of props that include four seemingly identical, neatly arranged cow-in-a-can sound boxes. Is that for redundancy? "No, they're all different pitches," says Kozawa. "I drove the toy-store people nuts looking for those."
Oh, and here's legendary actress Karen Black ("Nashville," "Five Easy Pieces") glittering in one corner of the stage. She's one of a series of live narrators on the film's traveling road show; others have included Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and Crispin Glover. And she's absolutely hilarious -- especially when she's interpreting the voice of Maddin's onscreen mother as a nagging cacophony of guilt trips and hysterical moans.
Ms. Black, 62, has earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working women in show business; she made seven movies in 2003 and five this year; she's jetting from Portland to Washington, D.C. for a one-woman show. Her refusal to slow down has garnered her some disparate cult fan bases: She's approached by Altman fans and horror aficionados, the latter thanks to her turns in fare like "Trilogy of Terror" and "House of 1000 Corpses."
She tucked into a theater seat for a quick post-show chat. An edited transcript follows the jump.
MIKE RUSSELL: Congratulations. The show was absolutely splendid. How did you come to be involved?
KAREN BLACK: They asked me to do it. They sent my agent some information about Guy Maddin; he's won Best Experimental Director awards twice in the United States. Everything about it was interesting to me.
Q. And your career is very indie-friendly. You've worked with a lot of first-time directors.
A. Yes, that's my world -- independent features. That's how I started. That's what I like. It's playful and comfortable and not stressful, and it's an individual's way of creating. You're not in the studio system imitating other people and yourself. I'm having a good life.
Q. You're in a very interesting place in your career. You're loved by indie directors and horror fans and you've become something of a gay icon and then of course there are fans of your '70s work, like "Five Easy Pieces" and "Nashville."
A. I'm for gay rights. Who you are is very sacred, and should be honored -- no matter what gender you were born. You shouldn’t feel like you have to dodge some sort of conformity.
I guess I'm not that thrilled about the horror thing, because if you think about it, there's a differentiation that's seldom made between horror movies and science-fiction movies. I'm not actually a fan of horror movies -- I don't understand blood, and I don’t know what's interesting about wounds. I can't figure that out. I don't know what's going on.
Q. Uh, have you talked about this with ["House of 1000 Corpses" director] Rob Zombie? [laughs]
A. That was a studio film that everyone was going to see, and my agent really wanted me to do it. But if you look at my career, you see very few horror movies. ["Trilogy of Terror" director] Dan Curtis never did a horror movie; he only did science fiction. That a house could devour its occupants is completely conceptual; it has nothing to do with being graphic. That a doll could come to life and scare the bejeezus out of a young woman? Complete science fiction. Nothing to do with horror.
Q. Did I hear you say you're heading straight from here to D.C. to do a one-woman show?
A. Yes. I'm also doing Ernest Thompson's new play in the spring. Ernest Thompson wrote "On Golden Pond," and he has this new play called "Axe of Love" that's extremely funny. It'll absolutely knock your socks off. People can't even move after they see it. I'm an alcoholic mom in that, and the play checks in with the characters over the decades, and they learn to forgive and they learn to be who they are -- the subject of the evening! [laughs] All kinds of stuff is coming up. I'm very happy about it.
The show I'm going to Washington, D.C. to do is for the Ganymede gay and lesbian theater festival.
Q. Now, you used to do a one-woman cabaret show. This isn't that?
A. This is not that. The cabaret show is quite elaborate; I have a bed onstage, and I do Katherine Anne Porter on the bed, and folk tunes and Faulkner and things like that. And people got tired of that, and they wanted me to talk about me. Kept telling me, 'Why are you playing these Faulkner characters when we want to hear about 'Airport '75'?" So this is sort of an evening chat with the audience, kind of simple. And I'll sing a little bit.
Q. And you're doing a bit of writing these days.
A. I know five of my screenplays have gotten made that I've written or co-written. And the one that hasn't gotten made is by far the best one: It's called "Deep Purple," and it made it into the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab. And I wrote a play that had a six-week run in the Blank Theatre in May and June of this year. I really like writing plays.
I'm also going to do a "Trilogy of Terror 3," believe it or not, next year. I've written it, but it's not frightening enough yet. I'm more used to writing slice-of-life stuff.
Q. Although it seems like, at this point, you have some friends you can draw upon.
A. I think that's what I'm going to do, yes, Michael.
Q. You work relentlessly -- something like five movies this year, seven in 2003… What drives that?
A. My life's purpose is to communicate characters and to help art to continue. And I have a 19-year-old daughter -- that takes a lot of time up -- and I have a 24-year marriage and I love to cook.
Q. Have you had a chance to sample any of the food here?
A. No, I haven't. But I did in Seattle. It's beautiful up here. I hope you know how lucky you are to live here. The only indigenous trees we have in southern California is one palm and the California oak; everything else is brought in. Everything else is like, [at this point she adopts a strange, hypnotic vibrato] "Yes, Karen, that's real grass. That's a real tree." No, it's not! It's the color of Prell shampoo!
A. They gave me the movie and I put it on in my home, in my den. And then I lie on the floor and watch it and watch it and lie on the floor and talk to it and stop it and roll it back again and again.
Q. Are there subtitles on the version you're watching?
A. Oh, yes. Darling, I could NEVER memorize that. Never! And things shift so fast in this little masterpiece. It's the most interesting, childlike work I think I've ever seen. It's childlike in the sense that there's no gluing you to what we'd call reality. There's no sticking-place. There's no conformity. It's like a child playing dress-up. Whimsical and splendid.
Q. Have you watched it with the other narrators?
A. I watched it with Guy Maddin! He was excellent, but it was a totally different show. He's not a woman, so he doesn't do the woman "thing" very much. I liked being the mother. She appealed to me very much, so I couldn't keep it in. In fact, I added all sorts of things for her to say: "Cleanliness is next to godliness."
Q. So they gave you a little room to improvise within the framework.
A. Oh, [producer] Jamie [Hook] will let you do anything. In fact, there's a line in there that I don't want to say, so I don't. I waited to get [Maddin's] permission not to say it. He's a wonderful director. Really wonderful.
Q. I also noticed while I was watching this that there were some long silent stretches for you, where the music and filmmaking and sound effects just take over. As you're sitting onstage during those sequences, what's going on in your head?
A. Well, the truth is, it's extremely comfortable to do this show -- really fun and nice. The sound effects are so much fun, I like to look over and watch them do it. I've asked them how they make it all match, and they say they just eyeball it! And I like to watch the conductor, David Hattner; he's just an extraordinarily swell guy. I like to make the narration coincide with the tone of the music if I can. And of course I'm watching the movie. You don't have time to be self-conscious.
1. I write "fictional" because it seems unlikely that the real Guy Maddin had to deal with a domineering mother who monitors him from a lighthouse; a reanimated corpse for a father; or a sister who fell in love with a famous girl detective as the kids tried to solve The Mystery of the Orphans with the Holes in their Skulls.
2. The overall effect is hard to describe, but the jumpy editing kind of makes the movie feel like its own subliminal message, or a story breathlessly told five seconds in the future from itself. In 1915. Maddin used this same editing technique beautifully in his short "The Heart of the World," which you can find on YouTube and the "Guy Maddin Collection" DVD ; in the feature-length "Brand," the effect is just as thrilling, but also a little exhausting.