Sunday, August 16, 2015


 I showed a friend of mine the 1950s version of The Thing. She enjoyed it but had to get out: "what if they made movies like that now." She wasn't referring to the durable compulsion of the Christian Nyby classic but the kind of acting that was the norm at the time and the way the film played out in spare, essential scenes to its final tension. Well, they do. Since the concept of post-modernism landed arse-backwards into populist cinema in the '90s and people started making movies designed to be cult, the movies have never looked older. But then there's Guy Maddin.

Maddin started clanging about in his Winnipeg workshop in the '80s, well out of the range of the spotlight, fashioning a kind of cinema that is both fresh and very old. His silent short films like Heart of the World look like Eisenstein but play like Lynch and the refusal to hop on the tribute band wagon clear from the start. Maddin doesn't copy old movies he makes his own new. The acting was a mix of stagey early sound (and the sound itself decidedly early), irised scene transitions and vignetting in sets that looked like the ones in Murnau or Lang. The stories were a loopy mix of old manners and joltingly modern ones. They were impossible to categorise (they certainly weren't just retro) even as comedy or melodrama and finally we who followed him in fascination had to admit that here was that rarest of cinethings in the current climate: an auteur. Guy Maddin makes Guy Maddin films.

Well, he did or I thought he did until I saw Keyhole (most recent before this) a bizarre retelling of Ulysses' return to Ithaca told in jazz age dress and in the cleanest scope image you ever did see (ditto for the audio). It was bizarre because its cleanliness did not fit the odd dreamlike mashing of the mythical story. That was clearly intentional but the intention itself was silent. So, I came to this with a wince of trepidation, knowing that I want my favourite artists to keep developing but also want them to stay where I like them best.

Well, it didn't take a second through the warping slide show and protean hybrid clean and dirty  electronics of the music to know that I was in for something I'd like.

Story? Too many. Ok, a submarine crew is carrying a gelatinous explosive that is melting and must be kept under a certain depth to stop it melting too much and exploding. They are looking for their captain who has disappeared. Suddenly into this scene, a lumberjack comes in through an airlock, telling a tale of trying to save his ladylove who is being held captive in the cave of the local brigands. After a hilarious scene of strength and skill trials the woodsman is welcomed among them but his goal, the lovely Margot demands greater proofs of his loyalty starting the next night. As she and the robbers are sleeping she dreams she has amnesia and enters a night club as a flower girl and then strange Lydia Lunch style cabaret singer and on and on. But every one, every new tale (and they average a new one every few minutes or even seconds), the forgetful and murderous husband, the literally broken motorcycle girl, her doting doctor and his brother, as escaped criminal and the miller (and "pillow hugger" he works for) and the various dreams by new characters, a volcano and the hairs of a moustache (this list doesn't begin to cover it) ALL, every one I remembered to count, get resolved for the end for, as dreamlike as Maddin gets (i.e. in every film he does and deeply) he keeps a strong hand on narrative flow and there isn't a moment that isn't set in it's own part of the greater arc.

And Maddin the stylist never lets up. The music ranges from clear high resolution string sections to muffled Victrola records to acapella songs to '80s ballads so precise and perverse they sound like Sparks (Youtube them)*. Images of the characters warping as though viewed through water appear like underlay. New characters are given title cards with the character names and the actors who play them. The palette shifts rapidly between desaturated colour, Technicolorish boldness, deep greyscale, vaseline lensed obscurity. The home workshop look to props and sets continues from Maddin's own traditions. The acting looks silent or wrenched from the early talkies. The gang's all here. It feels comfortable but just that step more assured and restless. Keyhole was an interesting detour; he's much stronger on the path.

Also, we're getting a higher profile international cast this time, including Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric and Geraldine Chaplin among many many others, often in multiple roles. I had worried about the high recognition casting back in the day of Isabella Rosselini in The Saddest Music in the World. No more need to worry now as then. He's come through with enough of what we liked on top and riches that we love in the middle. Might have to watch Keyhole again, now.

*Um, just found out that the Derriere Song is by Sparks.

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