Perhaps in response to the accolades received by a few white directors who have been making independent films about the black cultural experience, like Craig Brewer’s HUSTLE & FLOW (2005) and BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007), Lance Hammer’s BALLAST (2008), even perennial indie filmmaker John Sayles taking a stab with HONEYDRIPPER (2007), all set in black neighborhoods using primarily black casts—perhaps the accumulated praise finally got into this director’s craw so she decided she was going to do something about it by writing her own script and directing her own movie. Whatever inspired her, much of it feeling confessional, she’s written a sprawling complex work about black dysfunctional families which turns out to be the story of her life, a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, an eye-opening look into a world of poverty and depravity that most of us have never seen, certainly not the kind of relentless onslaught that is depicted here. For its unflinching look at her own wrenching family horrors, as well as assembling a terrific cast, the feeling of authenticity deserves high praise, but it’s shot on video and blown up on Super 35 mm, so there’s plenty of intimacy through close ups and mobile camera movement, but the colors tend to be washed out or saturated, just the antithesis of realistic, and much of it remains in a grainy image. But the fact that it’s on ‘Scope gives it a much more impressive canvas to work with, such as expanding the number of people in the picture, or isolating someone in the corner of the frame. But in this film, people have no place to hide.
just 22 days in
Based on the large number of characters, but most significantly the heavy reliance on dialogue, where dialect and regional authenticity are key, the spoken word becomes the essential component that drives this film, making this feel more like a theatrical play than a movie, especially the way it purposely uses such intensely uncomfortable subject matter, which feels much more at home in the theater than in cinema houses. Even the need to portray miserablism with such authenticity feels like a theatrical device, as it will be difficult to find an audience for this film, especially without a known star, as it was for Toni Morrison’s slavery themed BELOVED (1998) which had both money and stars. There is plenty of willful manipulation on display here even as the director wisely withholds judgment about any character’s actions, much of it through the use of children whose innocent faces see all, yet when they get older, must bear the brunt of so much of this communal pain. What I found particularly distasteful was the way only one character was portrayed as if she had a halo on her head, continually perceived as thoughtful, kind, intelligent, remaining innocent and likable throughout, despite the horrors inflicted upon her. And this character turns out to be the director herself. On the other hand, this depiction does at least acknowledge that within the black community, there are layers of accountability, things one does to prove their blackness, their worth to family and community, while there are also powerful forces that do not wish intelligent kids to succeed, as if that’s selling out to the white world, as if they’re somehow better than the rest. Unfortunately the majority of the male characters seen in this film would fall into the latter category.
Much of this film was shot in claustrophobic interiors that become all too familiar after awhile, where the confinement of life behind the same four walls indicates prison, yet the degree to which homes are being snatched away due to foreclosure adds a constant element of anxiety and insecurity even within that restricted confinement. And of course, when one character loses their home, they become a larger burden to someone else who must take them in. Everything just adds more pressure, where life is seen as a hell on earth, and money the root of all evil, because few have it, everyone needs it, and many are forced to do horrible things to get it. Initially we’re introduced to the matriarchal society of three proud sisters, Anna (Simbi Kali Williams), Delores (Michael Hyatt), and Charlie (Jossie Harris Thacker), who fight daily battles with violent, abusive, mostly absent or unemployed men to provide what passes for family stability. Money is the key ingredient that no one has, so the wear and tear of these daily battles over money fester and boil over into scenes of violence, witnessed by three kids, Sammy (Malcolm David Kelly) the young basketball prodigy, his little cousin Kari (Kylee Russell) who plays the role of the director, and her older sister Leigh (Chastity Hammite) who has a full blown crush for girls. Sammy is forced to perform sexual favors for money, Leigh is constantly chastised by her parents for her sexual interests, while Kari routinely runs next door for a meal.
The constant shifting of tone from elation to defeat, from joy to pain, runs throughout this film where people are continually playing one another, trying to take advantage any way they can, as the lives of young hopefuls are crushed under the devastation that engulfs them, at times succumbing to the worst instincts that were heaped upon them and their elders at such a tender age, leading to unforgivable crimes inflicted upon their own family members. If there is a damned creature in this film it is the alcoholic, yet bluntly outspoken Charlie, molested by her own father as a child, her mother turning a blind eye, eventually taking matters into her own hands and stabbing the girl of a good for nothing boyfriend who was cheating on her, serving time in prison, yet beholden to the bottle even after her release, becoming a ghostly presence where a fiercely independent woman once lived. But her son Sammy carries the same burden of sexual molestation as a child into adulthood, a raging cancer as deadly as any economic force that could potentially wipe out a family. Tessa Thompson as an adult Kari literally carries the hopes of her family and the entire community on her back, a musical talent with hopes of getting into NYU, she ends up postponing her college dreams to become the nurturing force of womanhood in the film, a young woman who has withstood the most intimate of crimes yet has maintained her integrity and idealism intact. Hard to imagine, hard to dispute, but this is her life as she perceives it, and who are we to doubt any of it?
Special Note – best lead actress Tessa Thompson, best supporting actress Jossie Harris Thacker, direction and screenplay Tina Mabry, ensemble acting
Spanning across 1986 to 1998, this dramatically epic tale
based on true events follows the heart-wrenching tale of three poor, Black kids
Bitterly honest and profoundly subtle, Mississippi Damned successfully captures growing up in a world where possibilities and opportunities seem to die in the face of the suffocating reality of physical and sexual abuse, obsession, and a myriad of destructive compulsions.
This movie had me truly riveted, simultaneously wanting to avert my eyes from all the pain but not daring to stop watching for a second in case I missed something. An emotional journey for both the characters and the viewer, Mississippi Damned is a notable filmic undertaking, with intense moments punctuated by responsive cinematography and detailed production design. The fact that all of the trials, the heart ache and the poignant happenings are so grossly captivating is a testament to the talent that went into crafting this film and the truth that comes across in the telling.
Mississippi Damned | Frameline33 | Tina Mabry | USA Angelique Smith
Based on true events and spanning between 1986 and 1998, Mississippi
Damned follows three young African Americans in the rural south as they
suffer through the devastating cycles of poverty, addiction and abuse. Leigh is
a bull dyke with an unhealthy, and long-lasting, obsession with her girlfriend.
Sammy gives up his youth, innocence and body for a shot at his basketball
dreams. Kari, the most promising of the three, has aspirations to attend New
York University to further develop her musical talents, but fights to keep her
head above water as her relatives and circumstances drag her down.
This captivating drama takes the viewer through his or her own internal conflict: you want the characters to catch a damn break already, but you almost don’t want to give them a chance to mess up another opportunity. Each well-written individual is raw and genuine, with hidden complexities and agendas, which is rare for an ensemble cast. Jossie Thacker’s Charlie is especially tragic and haunting, as a woman whose own dark past demands forgiveness for her inability to be a better mother.
Under writer-director Tina Mabry’s delicate touch, no plot twists feel forced, even when coming out of left field. Yet, the most predictable of actions leaves you blindsided. With the intimacy of handheld camera work, Mississippi Damned is a film that is both compelling and heartbreaking.
Mississippi Damned, written and directed by Tina Mabry, carves out an
expansive visual presence with its bold and layered portrayal of a black family
Mabry plays on the themes of silence and denial and their ability to attenuate the potential for a family to transcend their circumstances. In the film, we see Charlie, the mother of Sammy, struggle immensely with alcoholism and past sexual abuse. As she buries her pain in liquor and house parties, her own son suffers the same trauma. The silence between the two and other family members concerning this issue only exacerbates the toll it takes on everyone’s lives. Without a healthy mother-son relationship, they become one in the same.
Characters in Mississippi Damned are imbued with depth, making it difficult to describe them with the divisive categories of “bad men” or “good women.” This often separates many independent films from mainstream features: an ability to conceive of characters that do not fit into rigid roles. The heroes are also the villains in this film. Young Sammy, a wide-eyed teenager just trying to buy food for his family and get a basketball scholarship to college, ends up succumbing to the vices that he sought to escape and then recycles that same behavior with another family member in acts of sexual dominance. Further, Leigh, a lesbian young woman fighting to experience love despite the familial stigmas attached to her sexuality, becomes romantically obsessed and reckless. And as much as we would love to hate Tyrone, the abusive, trite husband to Anna, we see them share a tearful embrace in the hospital room following the miscarriage of their child, a recurring tragedy for them. Tyrone’s character and his actions are portrayed as consequences of the poverty and joblessness he endures throughout the film. So while there is no excuse for his disrespect of Anna, there is a foundation for his behavior.
Bradford Young’s cinematography serves as a rich, visceral supplement to the
fearlessness of Mabry’s script and direction. It is ethereal and soft in places
where sisters sit around trading jokes while a younger Kari plays the piano. It
is bold and sassy in the opening scene where we are pulled into a lively party
and card game accented with oranges and reds. At times, the complex character
interactions mingle with evocative cinematography to elate and unsettle. In one
scene, Charlie enters her mother’s room to ask for twenty dollars. Alice, who
occupies a mostly comedic role throughout the film, attempts to thwart her
daughter’s requests until Charlie speaks of being sexually abused by her
deceased father and the silent consent that Alice gave. At once, the camera
forms a tight close-up of
Mabry also demonstrates a knack with dialogue and foreshadowing with
characters’ terse exchange hovering between humor and pathos. For example,
concerning Anna’s pregnancy,
Yet for all of its bitter honesty and realism, one has to wonder how much emotional intensity an audience can endure. Screenwriters are often warned against writing scripts where dramatic or suspenseful scenes seem to run one after another, without a clear respite for the audience to breath before the next one. Mississippi Damned sequences scenes of violence followed by scenes of anger followed by scenes of sexual abuse. While the stakes are raised, one could notice audience members oftentimes squirming in their seats—uncomfortable, but also intrigued. This is the gravity, the pull of this film. It evokes discomfort as an inevitable result of pain and denial in this family. There aren’t many respites to ongoing cycles of pain and abuse. The respite results in the confrontation and acknowledgement of that pain, and that is the goal, albeit unachievable for some characters, of this film.
The closing sequence in the film magnifies parallels between the suffering that both generations face throughout. In one visual juxtaposition, we see Sammy and his mother Charlie, once again reunited by the alcoholism and sexual abuse that they never confronted, in a way that haunts and leaves one aching for them. In that same sequence, Kari takes a major step toward the recognition of her family’s flaws, and embarks on a personal journey that one is to believe will inevitably enrich her future and her family’s as well. Ultimately, Mabry’s genius lies in her ability to expose one family’s vulnerabilities, demons and love that remains amidst it all—a portrait of familial distress, angst and hope. In many families, just as with the one in this film, silence has its place. Mississippi Damned speaks into that silence and denial, the resulting echo being a daring cinematic journey.
Review of "Mississippi Damned" | AfterEllen.com Danielle Riendeau
Interview With "Mississippi Damned" Filmmakers Tina Mabry and ... Karman Kregloe interview from After Ellen, August 10, 2009
HollywoodReporter.com Duane Byrge
Mississippi Damned | Variety Ronnie Scheib
Women of Color Women of Word -- African American Female ... biographical information
Ntozake Shange biographical profile
Nina Simone 'Mississippi goddam' - Live in the ... live performance on YouTube ()
Part biographical documentary and part a series of musings on life and art, this extremely watchable film about actress Charlotte Rampling is a fascinating series of discussions between her and a series of photographers, writer and filmmakers. It will intrigue those who are fans of her work and should appeal to festivals and nice arts broadcasters.
For those, however, out for a look at her life and career The Look might be rather unsatisfying given that it features a series of head-to-head chats (or musings) separated into chapters - such as ‘Desire’ and ‘Demons’ - rather than featuring a plethora of film clips and lots of gushing praise.
The famous Rampling ‘look’ - the way that her increasingly hooded eye-lids help create of powerful stare that is much loved by her directors - is amusingly discussed by Rampling and photographer Peter Lindbergh, where she debates how a little surgery would actually rid her of the ‘look’ itself. Engagingly she takes the camera and turns it on Lindbergh, shooting some pretty impressive images.
Subsequent meetings with a series of friends - including author Paul Auster, German photographer Juergen Teller and artist Anthony Palliser, all annoyingly without titles to indicate who they are - are intriguing and at times fascinating, and while Rampling is a charming, witty and erudite personality she rarely gives anything away about herself.
The film does feature a few extracts from Rampling’s film work, with - unsurprisingly her role in Liliani Cavani’s controversial 1974 film The Night Porter receiving the most attention, as she discusses the film with Juergen Teller. Also featured are extracts from Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Sous le sable; Lumet’s The Verdict (and the scene where her character is hit by Paul Newman); Oshima’s Max mon amour and Visconti’s The Damned.
There are brief moments when the film dips into other more
personal aspects of her life - such as when he briefly mention’s her younger
sister’s suicide at the age of 23 - and while she can appear formidable and
vaguely unapproachable she also has a ready smile and sharp wit. Towards the
end of the film she is shot wandering around
Engaging documentary, directed by Angelina Maccarone, offers a revealing glimpse into Charlotte Rampling.
Providing less of a standard biographical study than a free-wheeling tête-à-tête separated into heavily thematic chapters with names like “Demons,” “Desire” and “Death,” director Angelina Maccarone (Vivere) accompanies Rampling on visits to various artists-cum-friends, with whom she chats about her unique approach to working in front of the camera.
The fascinating opening segment, “Exposure,” has Rampling being photographed by Peter Lindbergh, until she turns the lens on him for a bit of role reversal. After a few glasses of wine (used often throughout the film), their conversation concludes with Rampling saying something that could sum up her career as a whole: “If you want to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”
For those looking for ample proof of this, the “Taboo” segment with German photographer Juergen Teller will surprise some viewers who never saw the extremely raw photo series (Louis XV) the two did together in 2005. Their conversation drifts from that to Rampling’s early nude work with Helmut Newton, and then to her controversial portrayal of an S&M practicing concentration camp survivor in Liliani Cavani’s 1974 shocker, The Night Porter.
Other clips presented include scenes from Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour and François Ozon’s Swimming Pool and Sous le sable. To describe her work in the latter, Rampling claims that “the best remedy for any form of pain is to let it happen to you,” and earlier on she makes brief reference to her sister’s suicide at the age of 23.
But beyond a few such personal details, The Look is much more of a cerebral rumination on the métier than any sort of trivia quiz, and it’s carried almost entirely by Rampling’s wit, intelligence and incredible screen presence. When she and Lindbergh joke about what a little plastic surgery would do to her face, we’re thankful that the 65-year-old star has chosen instead to age so gracefully.
Although technically apt, the documentary lacks titles to introduce each character, which is unfortunate for those viewers who won’t recognize artists like Teller or Anthony Palliser merely by their looks.
Largely unseen, as it’s a documentary without an examination of a political world crisis, and somewhat reminiscent of SUNSET STORY (2003), it’s a shame there aren’t busses of senior citizens lining up to see a film like this, as it features aging in such a phenomenally positive light. What was Gene Kelly singing, “Gotta Dance?” Well these women were doing it decades earlier, featuring five women from the original dance lines at the Apollo and Cotton Clubs, among others, which highlighted soloists with a line of 16 girls in a supporting role, who were among the most glamorous girls in Harlem in the 30’s, working with the likes of Fats Waller, Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, or Lionel Hampton, who actually wrote a number specifically for these women (Marion Coles, Elaine Ellis, Cleo Hayes, Fay Ray, and Bertie Lou Wood). Now in their mid 80’s, they still rehearse regularly at the Cotton Club, and continue to perform in shows, known as the “Silver Belles.” Their founder and guiding light (Bertie Lou Wood) is 96 and was dancing regularly with the group until she was 95, but now she sits in a wheelchair, has a cocktail, and provides a little sass and energy to the rehearsals, which are unending conversations, trading quips back and forth that reveal not only their agility, but their wit and extraordinary vitality.
Current dancers speak about them in reverence, as they have a style all their own, and at performances, they usually get the loudest applause. Dancers today use number counts to keep time, not these ladies, who simply have a special relationship to the music and to the audience. They move according to their own instincts, which, as one of the younger dancers states, adds plenty of spice to their steps. The film clips of their earlier days performing at clubs in Harlem, or in movies from the 30’s or 40’s with Bill Robinson (who danced without taps, as do the Silver Belles), including STORMY WEATHER (1943), are simply amazing, as they were among the best dancers in the world, and at their age now, what they represent is a one-of-a-kind ethic of professional showmanship. Each of them has had serious bouts of illness, overcoming cancer, hip injuries, or other falls, yet they retain a sense of optimism that is simply a state of grace. They indicate when their kids call, they don’t want to hear them down in the mouth, so they always shine, even for their own families. It’s as if they’re always “on,” that there isn’t a moment in their life that isn’t expressed without an enormous pride and dignity.
One actually fell down the steps to the subway, resulting
in a cast on one arm and one leg, where it wasn’t clear if she would ever walk
again. But we witness her extraordinary
mentality, and when the cast comes off, she’s there at the rehearsals,
initially wiggling her toes to the beat, then she gets up from her walker and
gets in line with the girls, doing her steps with her cane. During the war years, some worked in
factories, one became a welder of battleships, before returning to the stage
after the war. They performed in some of
the original USO shows entertaining the troops, which were still racially
divided at that time, and where the country would pay to see them perform, but
then wouldn’t serve them a meal, or allow them to use a “white toilet.” One
even worked in the oil industry in
One Day in September Peter Matthews from Sight and Sound
This documentary blends archive footage and interviews with witnesses to relate the tragic events at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich. On 5 September, eight Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic village apartments and took 12 Israeli athletes hostage. A wrestling coach was killed while tackling a terrorist who belonged to Black September, a group connected with the PLO. They demanded the release of 236 political prisoners or the hostages would be executed at noon. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to negotiate.
With just minutes to spare, terrorist leader Issa extended the deadline and demanded a jet. Two helicopters were organised to take the Arabs and Israelis to a nearby military airport where undercover policeman and snipers lay in wait. When the Palestinians disembarked from the helicopters, the snipers opened fire and a 90-minute gun battle erupted. By the end, most of the terrorists were dead or wounded. Two surviving terrorists killed the Israelis with a hand grenade and a round of bullets. The three remaining terrorists never stood trial. Two were assassinated in the late 70s by Israeli hitmen. The third, Jamal Al Gashey, appears as a witness in the film.
One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's sensational new documentary about the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, tightens the screws almost from the start. The first few minutes lull you with kitschy infomercial tourist shots of the time-tykes frolicking in lederhosen as a voiceover announces this earthly paradise as the site of the Olympic summer games. But just when you're sniggering at the travelogue clichés, there's an abrupt cut to black. Ominous music rises on the soundtrack, while a babble of panicky news bulletins is heard, culminating in the sickening rattle of machine-gun fire. The mood swing is like a steel trap snapping shut and is preliminary evidence that One Day won't have the pontificating respectability of most feature-length documentaries. There's nothing remarkable about its hybrid format of talking heads, found footage and recreations, but what makes the movie startlingly original is how this historical material has been shaped to squeeze your emotions the way fiction does.
The two certifiable classics in the genre of films about the Olympics - Leni
Refusing to take sides, the movie whips along with the cold-blooded
excitement of a police procedural. Only here the investigation uncovers a level
of official bungling that would be farcical in another context. From the
evidence, it appears
Touching the Void Richard Falcon from Sight and Sound
Oddly enough, this film was written by Peter Morgan, the same person who wrote THE QUEEN with Helen Mirren, both featuring potential Oscar winning performances, yet they are like polar opposites, one a refined and finely observed portrait of the British royal family which comes to life from the brilliance of the performances as well as the deft direction from Stephen Frears, while this film which follows a decade of terror in Uganda falls off the tracks early and never recovers. The problem, once again, exactly as in HOTEL RWANDA, and even more so in THE CONSTANT GARDENER, is that it places the focus of the film outside the real target, so it’s only accidentally that a character we follow closely wanders into some of the more brutal massacres in the last few decades. These films appeal to the liberal guilt of whites and are pretty much worthless when it comes to telling the real story, especially when they center on the romantic misadventures of whites wandering through exotic locations in Africa, where the continent is used merely as a decorative backdrop. To focus on the whites or the numerous secondary characters is to miss the real story, yet the appeal is made nonetheless through the pain and torture afflicted onto the white characters, as if they symbolically represent the brutality inflicted upon Africans. But this racistly undermines the real truth, and suggests the filmmakers have an innate distrust that viewers will care about atrocities inflicted upon blacks, so they alter reality to fit a pre-conceived racial target audience. All this really does is reduce the impact of the film to little more than inconsequential, as it’s a misguided white fantasy. Haitian born director Raoul Peck had no such problem in his superb 2000 film LUMUMBA, which followed an earlier documentary he made on the same subject and is easily the most powerful of the lot.
Forest Whitaker as Idi
Amin, however, is brilliantly manic, physically imposing and wildly
charismatic, always charmingly engaging, catching you off guard with his
unbridled energy, quick wit and friendly humor as he surprisingly makes you the
center of attention, asking questions about yourself that make you feel like
you’re his best friend in the entire world before he turns on a dime and
intently broods about you as one of his enemies, thinking the entire world is
picking on him, obsessing about the horrid things they say about him,
rationalizing to himself and to his nation that they’re simply jealous that a
black African country can survive without white intervention. He is simply superb as the mood-shifting
paranoiac maniac who sends death squads to brutally assassinate anyone who
disagrees with him, accumulating numbers like 300,000 dead by the time he left
Shot by Anthony Dod
Mantle, who shot von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES and DOGVILLE, also the
apocalyptic British zombie flick 28 DAYS LATER, using brightly saturated colors
that make the images of Africa explode off the screen, where the vitality and
joy of the nation is expressed in 1971 through music and dancing in the streets
as they celebrate the overthrow of a deposed dictator (Milton Obote, who may
have murdered more than Amin!) and greet the new ruler, General Idi Amin, who
is welcomed as an internationally educated African nationalist who promises to
bring prosperity to the homeland. The
musical selections are upbeat and energetic, the streets are filled with wide-eyed
children, and there’s a feeling that African culture might actually be
prominently featured in this film. But
our hopes dissipate quickly once we realize the story is actually about a white
Poor James McAvoy,
fresh out of portraying a fawn, Mr. Tumnnus in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, is
dwarfed in every scene as Dr. Garrigan, Amin’s personal physician, by the
explosive performance of Whitaker who simply overwhelms him in every sense of
the word. Garrigan’s stupidity in the
presence of a mass murderer is mindboggling and unfortunately belittles the
otherwise serious subject matter of the film, most of which was shot on location
in the capital city of Kampala, sucking the very life out of what might have
been an authentic historical journey into the heart of madness. THE LAST KING really deteriorates badly, and
continues this thread of racist-tinged movies filmed in
The Onion A.V. Club review Noel Murray
Because Ugandan dictator Idi Amin was such a murderous creep, it takes a lot to convince people that he might've also been a fun guy to party with. But in The Last King Of Scotland, director Kevin Macdonald has two strong persuaders: a kinetic style, and Forest Whitaker. As Amin, Whitaker gives a scarily charismatic performance, whipping quickly but naturally between joyous charm and steely rage. In the past, Whitaker has tended to lean too much on his low-key, mumbly side, playing off the irony that such a big man could be so gentle. But with his guest stint earlier this year on The Shield, and now with The Last King Of Scotland, Whitaker has started to use his oversized frame and off-center gaze to exude real menace. He's perversely attractive.
In Macdonald's hands, The Last King Of Scotland's breakneck rush through a heady half-decade of African nationalism plays like Boogie Nights: The Sub-Saharan Years. James McAvoy stars as a glib young Scottish doctor who wants to change the world and have a ball. When he meets Amin, McAvoy is initiated into the high life of state dinners, sports cars, nubile prostitutes, and high-level cabinet meetings. Macdonald—who previously directed the energetic documentaries One Day In September and Touching The Void—cuts together the first hour of The Last King Of Scotland to the rhythm of early '70s Afrobeat, driving viewers to identify with McAvoy's loyal defense of the madman who pays his bar bills. "I'm his doctor," McAvoy says to those who challenge Amin's ethics. "It's not my job to judge."
Of course, there must come a reckoning, and in The Last King Of Scotland, the loss of innocence consumes the whole final hour, during which time Whitaker appears less often, his screen time stolen by an increasingly weepy McAvoy. The climax of the movie juxtaposes McAvoy's attempts to flee the country with Amin's role in the Entebbe hijacking incident, which pushes audience identification past its limit. As one of the most famous hostage situations in modern world history takes place, audiences are asked to concern themselves primarily with the fate of one decadent doctor. The Last King Of Scotland makes a stronger case when it's demonstrating how opulent power-lunches corrupt absolutely.
In The Last King of Scotland, young Scottish doctor Nicholas (James McAvoy) decides where to head for excitement by closing his eyes and plunking his finger on a spinning globe -- Uganda is the chosen spot, no surprise since Africa, after Hotel Rwanda and The Constant Gardener, is still earmarked as contemporary cinema's main pit stop for white liberal guilt and neocolonial pillaging. The smug lil' bugger sets up camp at a local mission, but he's less interested in caring for the poor and sick than trying to bang the married medic (Gillian Anderson) tutoring him; since the year is 1971, the nation is under the control of President Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), who over the course of his eight-year regime would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, but emerges as a pretty fun fella when Nicholas goes to fix his sprained hand. Amin has pool parties and rock-star revelries, Nicholas has the Scottish blood that in the dictator's mind links them as buds against British imperialism, and in no time the scrawny youngster has been catapulted into Amin's orbit, enjoying new cars and women as his "closest adviser." But the ruler's chamber is filled with stuffed predators with bared fangs, so you know it's not long for psychotic cracks to appear in Amin's gaseous, prank-pulling ebullience -- people in whom he sees betrayal have a tendency to end up in pieces on underground slabs, which worries Nicholas, especially since he's been sleeping with one of the dictator's many wives (Kerry Washington).
Like Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland operates on continuous
anxiety, though it lacks even that picture's basic decency to view a country's
upheavals through African eyes -- as in Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season
and The Constant Gardener, the filmmakers are too scared or racist to
think that viewers could identify with the black people directly experiencing
the horrors, so a pasty stand-in, no matter how unlikable, has to be
offensively parachuted in. With a sinister monarch swaying the crowds and
galvanizing everybody around him, the film also brings to mind the recent,
stilted All the King's Men remake, where another actor sweated through a
dozen shirts for Oscar recognition. Where Sean Penn suggested an apoplectic
parade float, Whitaker turns into a swollen tiger, dropping in hints of the
humanizing gentleness of Ghost Dog and The Shield before
embodying the blowfish-boogeyman of Nicholas's "aberration of nature"
diagnosis -- his Amin is a deranged buffoon writ large, and at one point, as he
fills the screen inspecting a miniature building, the connection to Godzilla
(or, considering the film's racism, King Kong) is inescapable. In fact,
director Kevin Macdonald is very fond of looming closeups of faces and
mosquitoes and buzzards, all of them dripping with sweat and cut together with
high-pressure editing; shifting the colors from orange-toned light to
fragmented darks means to mirror the main character's growing awareness, though
it all comes out splotchy anyway. African doctors turn sacrificial lambs to get
the truth about
Strange to think that the flamboyantly lethal nut job Idi
Amin died in Saudi Arabia just three years ago. About 80 at the time, he had
The queasily enjoyable new fiction film “The Last King of Scotland,” based on the novel by Giles Foden and directed by Kevin Macdonald, creates a portrait of this famous Ugandan dictator from inside the palace walls. Furiously paced, with excellent performances by Forest Whitaker as Amin and James McAvoy as the foolish Scotsman who becomes the leader’s personal physician, the film has texture, if not depth and enough intelligence to almost persuade you that it actually has something of note to say. It would make a terrific double bill with Barbet Schroeder’s mesmerizing 1974 documentary, “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait,” of which Mr. Macdonald has obviously made a close and fruitful study.
As it also happens, “The Last King of Scotland” would make an
even better double bill with Stephen Frears’s
forthcoming film “The Queen,” a sly peek at the
current British monarch in the wake of the death of Princess Diana. (Amin once
wrote milady: “Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to
“The Last King of Scotland” makes the case that Amin was rational enough to understand his country’s tangled relationship with British imperialism and to inject that sociopolitical understanding into words. If this lecture feels a little too neat and contrived, well, that’s entertainment.
And how! Cannily designed to please and repulse, “The Last
King of Scotland” uses a self-anointed outsider, Nicholas Garrigan (Mr. McAvoy),
as its initially empathic point of entry. Arriving in
Crucial to that savvy is the director’s vision of Amin as Dr.
Frankenstein and monster both. A period fiction with a high-gloss historical
finish, “The Last King of Scotland” is also a very contemporary, pointedly
resonant film about blowback. That said, and despite some background filler,
Mr. Macdonald isn’t interested in furnishing history lessons, and the details
In 1971 Amin ousted Milton Obote, who had become president
after tossing out the country’s king five years earlier. (Mr. Obote himself may
have been responsible for half a million deaths.) “The Last King of Scotland”
opens shortly after Amin has seized power, and his madness had yet to take at
least visible bloom. After a brief spell working at a clinic run by a white
British doctor (Adam Kotz) and his wife (a very fine, almost unrecognizable Gillian Anderson),
Garrigan signs on with Amin. The Scot eagerly makes the transition from rural
slum to Amin’s
Despite his vaguely Falstaffian proportions, Mr. Whitaker doesn’t look like the man he’s playing, a point that becomes less crucial as the performance takes root. As much a seducer as a destroyer, his Amin changes moods on a dime depending on the gas percolating in his bowels or the threats on his person, real and imagined. It’s a role rich in gristle and blood, and Mr. Whitaker makes the most of it, even if the performance and the film’s essential conception of Amin never push deep or hard enough. This actor can play devious, as his brilliant turn in “The Color of Money” showed early in his career. But what you need in a film about a man who fed the corpses of his victims to the crocodiles is something more, something hateful and vile.
“The Last King of Scotland” delivers shocks worthy of the horror film it becomes. Garrigan is the kind of man who exploits his own boyishness, successfully with women, perilously with Amin, and Mr. McAvoy expertly makes the character’s naïveté seem at first appealing, then foolish and finally odious in the extreme. As a stand-in for all the white men who have unwisely and cravenly journeyed into the proverbial heart of darkness, the character effectively serves his purposes, and you shake your head, tsk-tsk, right on schedule.
Clearly, the film means this journey to be as inwardly directed as outwardly bound, though the larger message here, one that might make you blanch after you nod, is that the misery of other people makes unsettling entertainment, no matter how pretty the pictures and valuable the players.
Slant Magazine review Jeremiah Kipp
DVD Times Gary Couzens
The Last King Of Scotland Kevin O’Reilly from DVD Times
Slate (Kim Masters) essay ["What
exactly is "true" about ___?"]
Political Film Review Michael Haas
Slate (Dana Stevens) review also reviewing THE QUEEN
Oscar Winners Mark Harris from Patrick Murtha’s Diary
Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
long as I can see the light.
Pack my bag and let’s get movin’, ’cause I’m bound to drift a while.
When I’m gone, gone, you don’t have to worry long,
long as I can see the light.
Guess I’ve got that old trav’lin bone, ’cause this feelin’ won’t leave me alone.
But I won’t, won’t be losin’ my way, no, no
long as I can see the light.
Yeah! yeah! yeah! oh, yeah!
Put a candle in the window, ’cause I feel I’ve got to move.
Though I’m going, going, I’ll be coming home soon,
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
Long as I can see the light.
—“Long As I Can See the Light” by John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater (1970)
Interesting to see the trailer
for Michael Mann’s new thriller PUBLIC ENEMY (to be released later in 2009)
just prior to seeing this film, as without credits indicating otherwise, I
would swear this was a Michael Mann film, thoroughly entertaining, heavy on
tense atmosphere, complete with Russell Crowe as a world weary Washington
reporter, as they worked so well together in THE INSIDER (1999 – nominated for
7 Academy Awards), while Rodrigo Prieto’s striking ‘Scope cinematography makes
excellent use of the urban architecture in the region, right down to the
meticulous detail of newspapers rolling off the presses onto the delivery
trucks in the wee hours of the night over the end credits while John Fogerty’s
raspy voice from Creedence Clearwater eloquently sings “Long As I Can See the
Light.” An homage to the significance of
the newspaper business, much like a low level CIA operative going to The New York Times in THREE DAYS OF THE
CONDOR (1975) or Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate reporting for the Washington Post in
Rising from the ashes
of insignificance, being subject to corporate takeovers, being downsized,
feeling the effects of significant numbers of laid-off employees, the film has
a The Last Hurrah feel to it, as if
against all odds, one last major push for Pulitzer prize winning journalism was
at stake at the Washington Globe
investigating the Washington scandal of the moment, connecting a few recent
dead bodies to a powerful military outsourcing corporation which is under
investigation by a congressional hearing, especially after one of the lead
investigators turns up dead. Rumpled
looking reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) is on it, tracking down leads, taking a more personal
interest when he soon discovers that the Congressman leading the investigation
is his former college room-mate, Rep. Stephen Collins, the always wooden
looking Ben Affleck, who sheds a few tears on camera at the loss, which
certainly catches his wife’s attention, Anne Collins (Robin Wright Penn), where
rumors fly that the congressman was having an affair. When the newspaper blogger, the squeaky clean
looking Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), comes searching for a few choice story
tidbits, Cal coldly stiffs her, only to be called on the carpet by the
resplendent Helen Mirren as the editor, who barks at him: “She’s hungry, she’s cheap, and she turns out copy every
hour!” The two end up joined at the hip
at the end under the guise of solid newspaper reporting, brought together by a
circuitous route that resembles some of the best thrillers of the 70’s, using 3
top-notch screenwriters to do it, Tony Gilroy (MICHAEL CLAYTON and the BOURNE
SUPREMACY series), Matthew Michael Carnahan (THE KINGDOM), and Billy Ray
(SHATTERED GLASS and BREACH). Not
exactly action packed with car explosions and CGI effects, but interest is
hyper-kinetically sustained from the opening moments, where there is never a
loss of interconnected clues, and
What the film doesn’t
have is extensive character development, where the audience feels a connection
to anyone, like Mann’s THE INSIDER, where a man wrestles with his
conscience. Instead it’s the newspaper
business itself that is under siege, and all the inter-connecting parts that
make up the daily operation, as they are so under pressure to simply sell a
marketable product, dumbing down the news all the time for fewer and shorter
feature exposé’s, bigger photos, and a more entertaining spin on celebrities in
the news. One of the interesting,
behind-the-scenes aspects is the blending together of policework and
investigative journalism, as what the police see as a case to crack is also
fertile territory for a groundbreaking story, so the line between them is
occasionally blurred. The pace of the
film heats up when
Sources are as crucial to filmmakers as they are to investigative journalists. In the glossy, ambitious thriller "State of Play," Russell Crowe is a powerful presence as Cal McAffrey, a veteran reporter for a newspaper that resembles the Washington Post. When the death of a congressman's female assistant suggests an elaborate cover-up, Cal goes into action with a vengeance: "This," he says of the story, "is as big and connected as they get." But the reporter has his problems with sources -- he and the congressman, played by Ben Affleck, are longtime friends -- and so does the movie, which was based on an uncommonly intricate and intelligent six-part, 350-minute BBC miniseries from 2003. There's simply too much stuff for a two-hour feature, and three writers, including Tony Gilroy, haven't figured out how to boil it down into a readily comprehensible narrative, or how to solve the problem of an ending that goes blah rather than bang.
Instead, they and the director, Kevin Macdonald, punch up a succession of mostly specious resemblances to Watergate -- "State of Play" even has its own Deep Throat -- and turn the Woodward and Bernstein of "All the President's Men" into a Woodstein comprised of Cal, the classic ink-stained scribe, and Rachel McAdams's Della, an ostensibly naive cub who exemplifies the new breed of online bloggers. This dichotomy lends topicality -- in many newsrooms, after all, economic pressures are putting traditional enterprise reporters on the endangered-species list. Yet it's a shallow substitute for the scintillating interplay in the BBC production, which drew much of its drama from the combined intelligence of a reporting team. And Helen Mirren's Cameron Lynne, the newspaper's fire-breathing editor, seems closer in spirit to the fashion dominatrix in "The Devil Wears Prada" than to the inscrutable eccentric played so wonderfully by Bill Nighy in the TV series. Measured against its original source, "State of Play" is both bigger and smaller.
Inked-stained wretches unite! That’s the battle cry of Kevin Macdonald’s
latest film, State of
With its heavy theatrics, intrigue, crazed killers, and a healthy dose of
left-wing paranoia, State of
John Simm plays Cal McCaffrey, an investigative journalist and an ex-campaign manager for the MP whose relationship with the dead researcher has come under scrutiny. Did Sonia Baker fall onto the tracks? Was it suicide? Murder? And why, on the morning of both their deaths, did she receive a brief phone call from Kelvin Stagg, the boy killed in what is presumed to have been a drug related shooting?
This is more than just another sordid domestic scandal, and McCaffrey and several of his colleagues at The Herald, (including the youthful, driven reporter Della Smith, played by Kelly MacDonald), set out in pursuit of the answers. It's a world of high-profile politics and journalism where the normal rules of personal interaction do not apply. Tape recorders are concealed in every pocket and absolutely nobody can be trusted to either tell the truth or respect a confidence.
If there's a drawback to State of
Like any well-made political thriller, State of
A former British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, once said,
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
While statistics have little to do with Kevin Macdonald’s “State of Play” aside
from the fact that three murders clock in by the story’s three writers (Matthew
Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray), untruths make their way across
the screen faster than you can say “politician” or “corporation.” “State
Like many films about corruption in high places, “State of Play” leans decidedly to the left, taking aim at Bush-era privatization of war—the role of large companies like Halliburton in Iraq, sponsoring foot soldiers of a mercenary bent to supplement the regular armed services GI’s. In the writers’ view,
The BBC miniseries dealt with a large oil company determined to put down protests of environmental abuses. “State of
The movie begins with an intensity of physical action involving the chase and gunning down of an African-American and a pizza delivery man who seem anything but people related to political shenanigans. From there Macdonald tones down the plot, creating an intellectual exercise that will lead the journalists to a story that can put new life into a newspaper that has been bought out by a strictly profit-seeking managerial group that wants blood.
The acting is fine across the board, albeit bereft of anything resembling Oscar performances. Russell Crowe makes sure that we know him to be a slob not only by his appearance but by his casual tossing away of food wrappers on the floor of his cubicle and the impossible stacks of paper that frame his ample body. Rachel McAdams is the perky Lois Lane, a cub reporter who may be out of her league but determined to prove herself, while Ben Affleck turns in a credible show of a man who seems incorruptible when questioning a corporate bigwig about a company’s war profiteering but is anything but invulnerable when seemingly frightened by the sudden death of his girlfriend. Production values are ace.
Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice review [4/5] Scott Mendelson
Slant Magazine review Bill Weber
CBC.ca Arts review Lee Ferguson
International review Fionnuala
Film Freak Central review Ian Pugh
Little White Lies magazine Alan Mack
UK review Jonny
Combustible Celluloid (Jeffrey M. Anderson) review also longer review seen here: Cinematical.com
Entertainment Weekly review [A-] Owen Gleiberman
The Hollywood Reporter review Kirk Honeycutt
The Independent review [2/5] Anthony Quinn
The Daily Telegraph review [3/5] Sukhdev Sandhu
Russell Crowe's remarkable rehabilitation Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, May 4, 2009
Boston Globe review [2.5/4] Wesley Morris
ONLINE A Critical Cinema 5, five volumes of interviews with experimental filmmakers by Scott MacDonald, interviewed here by Michael Sicinski from Cinema Scope
Lower City from Sight and Sound
Based on an 1889 Tolstoy chamber drama, this is a film that very much resembles OTHELLO, only the role of Iago is the nagging jealous nature of man. Opening in an ordinary train ride, where the passengers are freely discussing love and marriage, an elder gentleman known as Pozdnyshev breaks in with a scandalous confession of his own, initially questioning “What is love?” before revealing that he murdered his own wife in a jealous rage. Rather than recoil in disgust, the passengers lean closer to hear all the pertinent details, which are revealed in flashback. Married life is presented as a festering sore which only grows more painful in time, where the initial passion is replaced by boredom and abject passivity. The joy of children is depicted without an ounce of gratitude, instead revealing adults who find them constantly in their way, as the children bicker and fight and are perceived as a nagging nuisance. Rarely do they spend any actual time together, instead, marriage is realized through maintaining one’s distance.
When a music teacher enters the scene, playing violin to his wife’s piano, where they practice Beethoven’s 9th Violin and Piano Sonata, known as the Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnyshev’s boredom disappears, replaced with a venomous rage of jealousy, where it’s unclear throughout whether he witnesses sexual transgressions or if he just imagines them. Either way, he becomes obsessed with the idea of another man fondling his wife. During a calm before the storm, where their vows of love appear to be rekindled, he goes on a business trip, frantically returning home early, suspecting he will catch them in the act, where time all but slows down to a crawl once he enters the house. As he creeps from room to room, taking on the persona of Dracula in our midst, where normally the suspense would be building, here the drama is amped up to the max when we already know the outcome, and the dramatic attention paid to this sequence through Expressionist imagery is simply overly stylized with anticipated hysteria. When it comes, he bursts at the lover with a knife, flailing away as he runs out the door, leaving the poor girl behind to suffer the consequences. Of course the man was eventually acquitted, suggesting society as well as the individual are completely blameless for these actions, early evidence of the temporary insanity defense.
CZECH MODERNISM IN FILM: The 1920'S to the 1940's Charles Coleman, Facets Film Programmer
After several years in
Village Voice J. Hoberman (excerpt)
The Czech New Wave was one of the glories of '60s cinema; "Czech Modernism" demonstrates that it was the continuation of a pre-existing tradition. The series opens sophisticated with Gustav Machatý's 1926 adaptation of The Kreutzer Sonata (November 30). Machatý, who spent the early '20s in Hollywood working with Eric von Stroheim among others, brought a measure of Stroheim's "European" cynical realism back home; updating Leo Tolstoy's once scandalous account of sexual jealousy with deco sets and expressionist lighting, he similarly uses crime and confession to critique the institution of middle-class marriage.
The Kreutzer Sonata is a novella by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1889 and promptly censored by the Russian authorities. The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence and an in-depth first-person description of jealous rage. The main character Pozdnyshev relates the events leading up to his killing his wife; in his analysis, the root cause for the deed were the "animal excesses" and "swinish connection" governing the relation between the sexes.
During the international celebration of Tolstoy's 80th birthday in 1908, G. K. Chesterton would criticize this aspect of Tolstoy's thought in an article in the September 19th issue of Illustrated London News, writing: "Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in “The Kreutzer Sonata” he weeps almost as much at the thought of love. He and all the humanitarians pity the joys of men." He went on to address Tolstoy directly: "What you dislike is being a man. You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human."
While an obviously old German pictorial translation of Tolstoy's novel, "The Kreutzer Sonata," now at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, is not distinguished for its direction or its photography, there is an appealing simplicity in the outlining of the story until the climax is approached. But in that final chapter the producer in his eagerness for suspense overdoes matters to the extent of heaping ridicule upon the characters. The offended husband, after reckless driving and an impatient ride in an express train, appears to take hours to go from his front door to the drawing room where his faithless wife, as he suspected, is in the arms of a violinist.
The director evidently worked from a script which was mapped out in sympathy with the narrative. This is a relief, after the manner in which novels and plays are distorted by scenario writers. There are in this film some compelling scenes, especially those actually pictured in a German railway station. Occasionally the director shows touches of originality, but his knowledge of cinematography is, on the whole, limited. When the husband, Posdischew, enters a room, the camera is turned on his face at the moment one expects to see the surprised countenances of the wife and the violinist, Truchatschewsky.
At the outset five persons are beheld in a compartment of a railroad train. The trend of the conversation causes a man in the corner to surprise his traveling companions by admitting that he is none other than Posdischew, who stabbed his wife to death. His story then comes to the screen and now and again the director flashes back to Posdischew in his corner seat in the coach.
The acting for the most part is commendable. Eva Byron probably lets her eyes bear the brunt of the work, but in some scenes she plays creditably. Jans Petrovich officiates as Posdischew. He is capital in revealing the effect of jealousy on the character's countenance. An unlisted player handles the rôle of the violinist rather well.
The Reeler Peter Hames
Czech filmmaker Gustav Machaty's erotic 1929 silent feature is
less impressive than his subsequent and most famous film, Ecstasy
(1933), but it remains a striking mannerist work with affecting poetic touches.
Machaty's silent second feature takes a simple, linear, fable-like story - a young woman's passage from girlhood to knowledge, from countryside to city, and from sentimental gullibility to a more level-headed, prudent sensibility - and invests it with a tumult of emotions: lust, longing, shame, jealousy, despair, courage and confusion. The plot might be knottier melodrama than Machaty's Extase, but its potentially sensational aspects remain subservient to the director's themes of emotional conflict and compromise. The daughter of a railway station guard, having run away after being seduced and left her pregnant, finds shelter with a gallant (if not so captivating) rescuer who has saved her from rape. But what really distinguishes the film is its wealth of poetic detail (merging raindrops, charging trains), and its bold, frank eroticism, most notably in the opening sequence of the girl's sexual initiation, with its luminous whites and ecstatic throes set almost in abstraction from her world hitherto. The film was censored, of course. This is the near-complete restoration made in 1993, and comes accompanied by Jan Klusák's score, performed by five members of the Czech Film Symphony Orchestra.
75 years after the release of EROTIKON, I had a chance to see it in a modern
EROTIKON, like many silent movies, does not offer much action. The content of the movie is, from today's perspective, quite naive. It is a story of complicated love affairs of George (Olaf Fjord) and his number of women. But, astonishingly, love is not showed as sweetly as in other movies of that time. Some love scenes are, indeed, very open and without taboo (Machaty's way of showing sex was mostly revealed in EXTASE (1933).
There are three most memorable moments in this movie:
- a love scene between George and Andrea (Ita Rina). It is in no way vulgar but it is directed towards her face in ecstasy for most of the time. That is probably the thing that shocked the audiences.
- a scene of playing chess. The thrilling atmosphere is really extraordinary. In very few thrillers nowadays will you find an equally well made scene! WONDERFUL!
- a considerable number of funny slogans throughout the movie. Some are dated but still funny in a way.
For anyone who likes European cinema and for whom film is art in itself, no matter of when it was made, Erotikon is a must to see. It was a great work of the Czech cinema. Partly thanks to this movie, I do believe that silent films may still be highly entertaining. Of course in an entirely different way. They require INTERPRETATION rather than AUTOMATIC WATCHING! Lilian Gish (1893-1993), a famous silent movie star, said once when asked about film art that "silent movies were well on their way to developing into an entirely new art; it was not just pantomime but something wonderfully expressive." After seeing EROTIKON, one may infer the same
Read the New York Times Review » Morris Gilbert
A film that plays out much like a silent film, and is in fact the director’s first work with sound, edited by Machatý himself, opening with a bizarre camera angles and constant camera movement from Václav Vích, offering the feel of a work environment that resembles Welles’ depiction of Kafka’s THE TRIAL, honing in on two cute co-workers who work at a drab job as audio typists all day long, where the more sexually aggressive Nany, (Jirina Sejbalová), gets a call asking her out and decides to bring along her shy work partner Mána (Magda Maderova), a girl who never goes out. In a swank Prague night club that could just as easily be the evocative decadence of Berlin, where a dance orchestra plays continuously, including a jazz theme scored by Jaroslav Ježek that plays throughout the film, Mr. Ervin, a monocled older sugar daddy, reminiscent of Emil Jannings from THE BLUE ANGEL, buys plenty of champagne, leaving Mána feeling too tipsy to dance, so while Nany dances, Mr. Ervin crudely offers Mána money for the evening, which causes her to run away in disgust, but he places the money in her purse anyway. By the time she gathers her things and runs outside, she runs several blocks before realizing she’s in the middle of a downpour and is soaking wet, taking shelter under an awning where she meets a man, Karel (Ladislav H. Struna), who offers the protection of his apartment nearby, as her clothes are thoroughly soaked. Innocently enough, his actions appear chivalrous, but the sight of a beautiful woman dozing off in his apartment is too much, so he tenderly makes advances which play out offscreen.
In the morning, Karel runs to Nany’s apartment to bring back a change of clothing, but also a note from her that Mr. Ervin wants his money back. In what was a budding love affair, this takes the guy completely by surprise, and when Mána pleads with him that it’s not what he thinks, when she empties her purse to prove it, this money falls out. Devastated, she leaves without her purse or the money, and pulls a ROSETTA scene alone in her apartment. Karel has a change of heart and decides to run after her, but in a wild scene running through an army band marching through the streets of Prague, he’s arrested for stealing the purse in his hand. When he’s finally able to explain, he runs, accompanied by the police, to save his ROSETTA, where in a crazy moment, the music of John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” plays as they bash in the windows to let in air. This is an interesting American reference, saved by the Americans, which may make little sense today.
Magda Maderova is not your typical lead actress, as she seems molded by the silent era and appears shy and uncomfortable with words, which actually compliments her character, who is believable, totally unpretentious, and completely approachable. At one point, she even breaks into song to express her newly discovered happiness, which is expressed with reserve, but also a delicate touch of tenderness and sweetness. Needless to say, this is a wild film with terrific performances from the two girls, a veritable Céline and Julie from the early years, as they’re incredibly appealing, especially in long wordless sequences showing real depth of emotion, with occasional notes of humor –– a real discovery from the early archives that is simply saturated in recurring romantic musical themes.
CZECH MODERNISM IN FILM: The 1920'S to the 1940's Charles Coleman, Facets Film Programmer
Machatý, a master at conveying sexuality in Pre-Code cinema, makes his first sound film a simple tale of a young woman attracted by the glamour of the champagne set, only to find herself repulsed when she is offered money for sex. Fleeing the scene she runs into a good-hearted workingman, whose simple decency wins her over. Like Lang's M, this is a fantastic example of a silent director embracing sound and using it creatively, as Machatý does with an innovative score by jazz great Jaroslav Jezek. With L. H. Struna, Magda Maderová. Directed by Gustav Machatý, Czechoslavakia, 1931, 35mm, 72 mins.
Czech Modernism in Film: The 1920s to the 1940s Andrea Gronvall from the Reader
Gustav Machaty started in silent films as an actor, then learned
to direct in
Slighter than either Erotikon or Extase, Machaty's first sound film remains typical in its technical and stylistic elan, its transcendence of a potentially banal narrative, and its thematic focus on female innocence and experience in love. Two working women go out on a Saturday night double date with a pair of prospective sugar daddies. Unlike her more knowing friend, shy Mary (Maderová) proves out of her depth, and eventually takes flight into a humbler watering hole, where she meets a man after her own heart. It's a sweet yarn, bolstered by some gentle discursive comedy (the girl surreptitiously returning the skin of her coffee to her host's mug; a delightfully odd cut-away to the corpulent physique behind the voice of a morning radio exercise programme), and an unforced attention to differences of class, character, moral habit and expectation.
Village Voice J. Hoberman (excerpt)
Sex was Machatý's major theme. The lone Czech director of the period with an international reputation (mainly for Hedy Lamarr's bare-all debut in 1933's Ecstasy), Machatý is also represented in the BAM series by his 1931 partial talkie From Saturday to Sunday (December 3). Mildly racy and pleasantly experimental, the movie follows a pair of plump dumplings for a night on the town. Scored by avant-pop composer Jaroslav Ježek, their jaunty trajectory through cabarets and pubs anticipates Martin Scorsese's After Hours complete with romantic switch: Taken out by a rich man, the heroine winds up going home with a poor one.
The Reeler Peter Hames
Jezek bio Jaroslav Ježek, musical director
Gustav Machaty's erotic classic (1932) from Czechoslovakia, which introduced Hedy Lamarr to the world, is considered a curiosity and a period piece by some, but if my own memories are anything to go by, it still has its charms, both cinematic and sensual. Lamarr plays a sexually frustrated young wife who leaves her older husband and subsequently finds bliss with a younger man. 82 min. In Czech with subtitles.
Extase from Time Out
Opening with an exquisite image of a groom carrying his bride over the threshold of their conjugal abode, Machaty's film immediately unravels this romantic ideal, with the seemingly urbane husband proving an impotent dilettante unable to give his wife any attention. Sympathy lies strongly with the woman's plight, but not to the exclusion of other characters' feelings; and when the now abandoned husband comes across the farm labourer his wife has fallen in love with, his tragedy again intercepts her happiness. The simplicity of the story couches some stunning visual coups: a wry, idyllic pastoralism when the woman retreats from the town to her father's horse farm; and the famous sequence of Hedy Kiesler (later Lamarr) bathing nude, with its suggestion of a return to prelapsarian innocence (Vatican censure helped bring the film to a wider audience); the detailed attention to the play of light and shadow, animal and plant life and imagery (from flowers to fly paper); and a magical coda, turning a montage of static machinery into a reflective ode to love and labour.
Cinepassion.org Fernando F. Croce
Neither experimental masterpiece nor pioneering stag movie, Gustav Machaty's controversial, even scandalous search for the female orgasm is to lascivious movie buffs like myself the earliest example of celebrity skin -- namely pre-MGM, 19-year-old Hedy Lamarr (née Hedy Kiesler), running through fields with nary a stitch on and mimicking rapture (in writhing close-up) as a brawny lover goes down on her. She plays a young bride laying heatedly on her honeymoon bedspread while her older, finicky hubby (Zvonimir Rogoz) spends the night organizing his toothbrushes. Her desires neglected, Lamarr files for divorce and runs back to her father's house, until one day she bumps (naked, natch) into virile handyman Aribert Mog, whose proletarian vigor finally delivers the head-tossing fuck denied by the circumscribed bourgeois Rogoz. Despite the association of life forces with working-class studs and the culminating montage of peons happily toiling the earth, the movie's politics are resolutely sexual, and its sense of nearly flabbergasted wonder at the sublime heights of female sexuality keeps interest from waning through an ocean of pedestrian symbolism. (Mostly clearance night at Freud's, opening with a key penetrating its hole and proceeding to toss in horses, trains, dew-dripping pods, phallically extended shoes.) Shot as a monosyllabic semi-talkie, the film is crammed with tilted angles, laboriously idiosyncratic camera placement, abstracting editing, and the poetry of flesh -- the kind of avant-garde sensuality panted over by horny Henry Miller during his European sojourn. (In fact, Miller did praise the work as worthy of D.H. Lawrence, though even as early as 1933 Eros had already been more expressively served by the likes of Dreyer, Von Sternberg, Buñuel, Vigo and Pabst.) In black and white.
Turner Classic Movies review Felicia Feaster
The Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy (1933) begins on a
joyful note as the beautiful, young newlywed Eva (Hedy Lamarr) is carried over
the marital threshold by her far older husband Emile (Zvonimir Rogoz). But
Eva's nervous anticipation is immediately dashed by her husband's prim,
unromantic manner. Pulling a frumpy sleeping cap on to protect his hair, Emile
fails to respond to Eva's seductive overtures. Emile's sexual neglect of his
young bride eventually drives her back to her father.
But Eva's romantic dreams are reawakened when she meets a handsome young engineer Adam (Aribert Mog) while skinny-dipping. He helps her recover the horse who has trotted off with her clothes and subsequently helps Eva achieve sexual fulfillment. Disaster ensues when Emile discovers the couple's affair.
A beautifully photographed and, for 1933, unabashedly erotic drama, Ecstasy, also known as Symphony of Love is just that -- a dreamy, nearly wordless sexual reverie. Even today, Ecstasy is most notorious for 15-year-old Lamarr's scenes of nude bathing and lovemaking which the actress claimed were not in the original script, but which director Gustav Machaty sprung on the actress during shooting outside
Expected problems with censors led to more conservative regional authorities, like the Germans, demanding an alternative version in which Lamarr's nude form was hidden behind bushes.
Ecstasy had even more trouble from American censors. When the film was first imported to
However, though the film now passed customs, the Production Code Office was less forgiving and refused to grant Ecstasy its Seal of Approval. Production Code head Joseph Breen reported the film "highly--even outrageously-indecent." And many states refused to show the film. The New York State Board of Regents rejected Ecstasy calling it "indecent, immoral, and tends to corrupt youth." The censors were not so much disturbed by the nude bathing, Lamarr stated in her autobiography, but by a close-up of the "love-starved bride in the act of sexual intercourse." Distributors booked the film in
Ecstasy caused almost as much turmoil in Lamarr's private life. The film so infuriated her new husband, business tycoon and munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl, he ordered his staff to buy up every print of the film in existence, spending some $280,000 in the process.
Ecstasy was such a key component in Lamarr's professional identity, she entitled her autobiography Ecstasy and Me and said of the notorious film "I had no idea of the humiliation it would cause me...or that it would catapult me out of my Middle-European circle into world fame."
After fleeing her hometown of
Lamarr was eventually signed to MGM after shrewdly negotiating a contract that upped Mayer's initial offer of $125 a week to $500, though Mayer did add a "morality" clause in her contract, to keep the European sophisticate in her place. Lamarr waited anxiously to be cast in a film at MGM, but eventually got her lucky break outside of MGM when she met actor Charles Boyer at a party. Boyer thought she would make a perfect co-star in producer Walter Wanger's American adaptation of Pepe Le Moko (1937), to be titled
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
A delightful little film set in the
The films is about a south pacific
tale of a young deaf boy with no friends until he meets a (rare) white sea
turtle and they become friends. Filmed at the scenic location in Aitutaki
I recommend this film for anyone 6 years and older.
SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review review [2/5] Richard Scheib
A child is washed up in a basket in the
This New Zealand-made
production, shot on the
The depiction of Jonasi’s deafness is nevertheless well done – the way director Yvonne Mackay suddenly cuts to silence in the middle of dances and jeering crowds aptly portrays the confusion a deaf person must find at things we take for granted. It all works reasonably well, although the acting is rather too simplistic to carry it more than adequately, and the hint of reincarnation at the ending is just banal. It is very nicely photographed, both above and below water. For some though the sea turtle’s voice is dubbed as the sonar cry of whales.
The film has many similarities to the later New Zealand-made Whale Rider (2002).
A film noir from the Ealing funny man? But Mackendrick's involvement with cosy British humour was always less innocent than it looked: remember the anti-social wit of The Man in the White Suit, or the cruel cynicism of The Ladykillers? Sweet Smell of Success was the director's American debut, a rat trap of a film in which a vicious NY gossip hustler (Curtis) grovels for his 'Mr Big' (Lancaster), a monster newspaper columnist who is incestuously obsessed with destroying his kid sister's romance... and a figure as evil and memorable as Orson Welles in The Third Man or Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. The dark streets gleam with the sweat of fear; Elmer Bernstein's limpid jazz score (courtesy of Chico Hamilton) whispers corruption in the Big City. The screen was rarely so dark or cruel.
Sweet Smell of Success Mike D’Angelo from Time Out New York (link lost)
Pitiless and corrosive, Sweet
Smell of Success may not be the most cynical Hollywood movie ever made—that
honor goes to another picture about journalism at its most heartless, Billy
Wilder's Ace in the Hole—but it's undoubtedly the most quotable. So
distinctively pungent is the film's dialogue, in fact, that Diner, Barry
Levinson's wry portrait of sexual neurosis among a group of young
Walter Winchell, the inspiration for Machiavellian gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Lancaster, oozing rancid bonhomie), has largely been forgotten, and today's tabloid mudslingers are a pale shadow of their forebears in terms of power and influence; if hungry press agent Sidney Falco (Curtis) were still around, he'd be pitching his clients to the producers of Inside Edition. The symbiotic relationship between overlord and sycophant, however, never changes, making this caustic masterpiece feel surprisingly modern. In a move that would still raise the eyebrows of studio suits 45 years later, Sweet Smell explicitly equates publicists with pimps, as a desperate Falco palms one of his floozies off on a Hunsecker rival in exchange for the latter's agreement to run a scurrilous item designed to torpedo the relationship between Hunsecker's beloved sister (Susan Harrison) and a clean-cut jazz musician (Milner). "Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off," Falco tells his secretary early on; the sordid pas de deux that follows resembles a couple of porcupines doing the tango without moving their feet.
Alexander Mackendrick was best known as a director of British comedies (The
Man in the White Suit (1951), The Ladykillers, 1955) when he was
chosen to replace Ernest Lehman as director on Sweet Smell of Success
(1957). The result was a visually stunning and hard-edged film noir melodrama
which was actually a little too strong for mass audience acceptance in its
time. It told the story of J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a powerful and
dangerous national columnist, and his obsequious assistant, Sidney Falco (Tony
Curtis). Hunsecker, who has the power to make and break reputations in his
daily newspaper column, was said to be modeled on Walter Winchell who had made
his share of enemies during his peak years.
The screenplay was inspired by an original story from Ernest Lehman who worked for celebrity press agent Irving Hoffman in
Due to heath reasons, Lehman, who was serving as director and screenwriter, had to abandon the film production of Sweet Smell of Success in the early stages and MacKendrick took over direction. Clifford Odets was brought in to give the dialogue more punch with street slang and New Yorker vernacular.
What's most surprising is the fact that Sweet Smell of Success was totally ignored during the 1957 Oscar race. Not only was Tony Curtis's breakthrough performance as the self-loathing Sidney Falco ignored but even Elmer Bernstein's dynamic, jazz-influenced score failed to garner an Academy Award nomination. The latter featured notable contributions from Chico Hamilton's Quintet and such fine musicians as Frank Rosolino, Curtis Counce, Paul Horn, and Buddy Clark.
Images Movie Journal Kevin Jack Hagopian
Turner Classic Movies review On the film restoration, by Jeff Stafford
VideoVista review Lucinda Ireson
100 films Lucas McNelly
Noir and the City:
Dark, Dangerous, Corrupt and Sexy
Terrence Rafferty from The New
'McDogme' is the word for this loosely plotted first feature. It's comparatively low rent and pleasantly retro, and feels like it belongs on the small screen - and not just because Monarch of the Glen heart-throb Mackenzie plays Charlie, vengefully driving through remote Scotland to incinerate the house of the pop star who stole his wife. He picks up hitch-hiker Vince (Phillips), a motormouth fleeing unidentified heavies, and when the car runs out of gas they seek refuge at Moore Lodge - a retreat run by the gruff but seemingly benign Rory (Hayman). It's here matters pick up. As we're introduced to the oddball residents, the film stakes out the atmospheric, queasily comic terrain of the 'weirdo-filled mansion' sub-genre. As with most semi-improvised projects, the screenplay is wildly uneven - but director and cast mostly keep the balance tilting the right way, resulting in a promising digital debut full of unpredictable, thistly charm.
Alastair Mackenzie is driving to
There are too many people making independent films on home equipment these days, who seem to think that when they've got enough footage for feature length, they've got a movie. They should take a look at "The Last Great Wilderness", which is a terrific example of how to make real cinema on a low budget. The guys behind this thing are going places, while so many other wannabes are just pissing in the wind and kidding themselves about it.
Actors aren’t often any great shakes in the scriptwriting department, which is why projects billed as improvised or even semi-improvised seldom turn out very well – especially if it’s the director’s first feature. According to this theory The Last Great Wilderness has all the makings of a real dog’s breakfast – a semi-improv, dogme-influenced blend of black comedy and horror that barely bothers to conceal its debts to its many celebrated cinematic forerunners. But somehow it just about manages to work and assert an endearingly rough-edged identity of its own – suggesting director and co-writer Mackenzie is a name to watch when he settles down to more orthodox projects like the forthcoming Alexander Trocchi adaptation Young Adam.
Here he’s working with his brother Alastair, whose character
Charlie isn’t a million miles away from his ‘English-accented posh-bloke in
Getting us to Moor Lodge is a rather laborious process, and the basic set-up (moody, vengeful loner driving through countryside, picks up ‘zany’ hitch-hiker) is a standard-issue scriptwriter’s contrivance. Luckily, things pick up once we’re introduced to the characters who populate the retreat, and the film starts staking out the agreeably atmospheric terrain previously covered in ‘weirdo-filled mansion’ movies like The Old Dark House (1932, remade in 1962), The Horror of It All (1964) and What A Carve Up! (1961) – with inevitable ominous hints of the ‘Tartan terrors’ in The Wicker Man (1973). The final act, meanwhile, when push comes to shove in an unexpectedly gory climax, belongs firmly alongside paranoid rural nightmares like Deliverance (1972) and Straw Dogs (1971).
The Last Great Wilderness, while no masterpiece, is nevertheless a little more than the sum of its many parts. The mood of the film is pleasantly retro – as well as the many movie references, there’s much ‘mad people are the sane ones’ talk ripped straight from the 1960s tomes of R D Laing, plus a decidedly 80s-ish soundtrack from Scots folk-popsters The Pastels, who even make a brief appearance in a party scene in which everyone, the band included, appears in drag (star Mackenzie looks unexpectedly like Juliette Binoche).
Director Mackenzie creates and sustains an intriguing tone, helped by the fact that he has a good eye for composition and landscape, aided by cinematographer Simon Dennis capturing some suitably intense widescreen DV images of the wintry Scots landscapes. Apart from the soundtrack, and a couple of minor (and ill-advised) special effects touches in which a ghostly presence flits in and out of sight, this could probably be described as a ‘McDogme’ project, and the intimacy of the video cameras (not to mention their capacity for infinite retakes) suits the thrown-together, defiantly unpolished, rough-Scots vibe that gives the film its unpredictable, thistly charm.
eFilmCritic Reviews Beth Gilligan
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
If ever anyone says to you, “You can put that where the sun don’t shine,” think of this film, as I don’t believe the sun ever shines in this film, a deeply probing, but excessively gloomy adaptation of Scottish Beat author Alexander Trocchi’s novel. This is a tense, sexually explicit lower class version of Polanski’s KNIFE ON THE WATER with a brilliant cast, the menage a trois, Les and Ella, played by Peter Mullan and Tilda Swinton, an unhappy couple who transport post-WWII fuel rations on a barge up and down the narrow canals from Glasgow to Edinburgh, who take on hired help in the form of Ewan McGregor, who plays Joe, a chain-smoking, handsome lothario, a self-absorbed character largely based on the author himself, who was a heroin addict who died young. Filled with an attention to detail, few words, and an endlessly gray mood, the film opens on the docks as they sweep a nearly nude body of a woman out of the harbor. Shortly afterwards, Joe is staring at Tilda Swinton’s every move, sharing close quarters underneath the decks of the barge, concealing little from her husband. In this film, no words are needed, and after a brief sexual escapade outdoors on the grassy slopes, when Joe tries to say something, Ella cuts him off quickly, “You’ve said enough for one evening.” In a series of well-placed flashbacks, Joe is seen meeting and romancing the drowned woman found in the water, so the film seems to be moving in slow motion backwards and forwards, all at the same time. The style is absorbing, moody, incredibly detached, but extraordinarily focused on each single moment at hand, which when gone, seems to have never meant very much to anyone at all, as if all is lost in an existential void. The story moves to the murder trial of the drowned girl, as the police seem to be accusing the wrong man, which sparks the interest of Joe, who slowly, but surely, falls farther and farther from grace. The title, I assume, refers to original sin. To quote Michael Wilmington, “ This is an unvarnished, pitiless look at real life by a man who knows his character is deeply flawed and does nothing to disguise or excuse it.”
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
Set in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh in the 1950s, writer/director Mackenzie's impressive film from a novel by the Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi centres on Joe (McGregor), a drifter helping out on the coal barge owned by Les (Mullan) and his wife Ella (Swinton). Soon after the two men find the corpse of a young woman floating down by the docks, Joe embarks on an affair with Ella that will have dramatic consequences for all three. It's a dark, brooding film, most notable perhaps for the surprisingly forthright eroticism of Joe's scenes with both Ella and Cathie (Mortimer), the lover seen in the film's many flashbacks. Now and then the dialogue grows a little too florid (which may almost be explained away by Joe's past), but Giles Nuttgens' noir camerawork and the excellent performances of all four principals carry the day.
Young Adam Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
This is a tricky film to critique, since its intent is clear and, I think, worthy. But this can't excuse its ultimate failure to deliver on its promise. Ewan McGregor is Joe, not so much a human being as a primal male force. Following his huge schlong (played by Ewan McGregor's penis) into an endless string of Penthouse Forum encounters, Joe seems to embody a certain strain of virility fantasy, recoded as absolute psychopathology. He's "innocent" in a Nietzschean sense, a guilt-free Superman acting without plan and shrugging off consequences. This Adam works aboard the Glaswegian barge the Atlantic Eve, screwing everything in sight, both literally (Tilda Swinton's Ella) and metaphorically (Peter Mullan's cuckolded Les, whose name is pronounced with a distinct, feminizing Z-sound at the end). The rapidity with which women shed their frocks clearly marks this film as some sort of allegory, as does its gorgeously deliberate use of the river, but first-timer Mackenzie loses control of his material. The flashback-subplot involving Joe's girlfriend Cathy (Emily Mortimer) works in tandem with the overall critique-of-the-unchained-male-libido structure for most of the first half -- Joe and Cathy's sex is even more rutting and animalistic than his encounters with Ella -- but these passages veer into the risibly outsized (the bizarre, jaw-dropping custard sequence, successful in itself but belonging in a more psychologically oriented film), culminating in an interminable third-act trial. Beautifully lensed, mostly well-acted (within the limited emotional framework), but shoddily structured and -- worst offense overall -- gratingly scored by David Byrne, obviously trying for "minimalist New Age crime drama," and hitting that dubious mark.
Emotion stains the walls of this period film like gutter
waste. It is as if Dostoevsky walked in the shadow of the
The way that writer/director David Mackenzie has adapted Alexander Trocchi's novel makes it difficult to describe without puncturing the plot. It's like being dealt a hand of cards, before arranging them into suits. The cards are moments in time and there is no order yet.
The use of flashback has always been a delicate business. There is the one-blink effect of instant memory, or the blurry fade into nostalgic soup, or the whooshy light show that precedes recollection. Mackenzie allows the past and present to flow together. The story emerges by chance, scene by scene. It is a technique that could easily lead to confusion, especially without the safety harness of a voice-over commentary, and yet it works beautifully, enhanced by exceptional performances and a taut, literate script.
Joe (Ewan McGregor) works on a coal barge, with Les (Peter Mullan), his wife Ella (Tilda Swinton) and their young son. Once he was a writer, but now he's a hired hand. There is a sense of loss about him.
The body of a girl is fished out of the water. The incident becomes news, followed by a murder enquiry. Les is proud to have been part of something that was reported in the papers. For Joe, it is different. The girl's name is Cathy (Emily Mortimer). Once, they were lovers. As the river runs through it, their story floats to the surface.
This is a film about the responsibility of action, how desire cuts at the roots of loyalty, how the weakness of a moment destroys the lives of the innocent, how retribution seldom finds what it's looking for. The evocation of the Fifties, when everyone had a fag in their mouth and women drank neat gin and sex was barely understood, except by men like Joe who took it where they could, violently. The atmosphere of repressed passion is as strong as the taste of blood on the lips of the wounded.
The colour is drained to the shade of a drowned baby's lips.
David Byrne's music swamps the senses. Mackenzie shows courage and demonstrates
a confidence that British films have been crying out for too long. This is
genuine auteur cinema from
McGregor gives the strongest, most sensitive performance of his career. Swinton, as ever, is fearless and Mullan shows dignity in a role that is painful to watch at times, while Mortimer allows herself to be humiliated with a dedication that is brave beyond reach.
Young Adam Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound
Scotland, the 50s. Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a young drifter, works with Les (Peter Mullan) and Ella Gault (Tilda Swinton) on their coal barge plying the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. One day Joe and Les find a young woman's near-naked body floating in the sea and notify the police. Joe and Ella are physically attracted, and one night while Les is at the pub they have sex.
In flashback, Joe meets a girl called Cathie Dimley (Emily Mortimer) and moves in with her. After breaking up, they meet by chance on the dockside. They have sex under a truck, but when she suggests they get married, Joe pushes her away and she falls into the harbour. Joe panics and runs off, later disposing of her clothes.
The Gaults' young son Jim (Jack McElhone)falls overboard; Joe rescues him. He becomes increasingly involved with Ella. Les discovers the affair and, as Ella owns the barge, sullenly leaves. It's reported that Cathie (whose body Joe and Les retrieved) had been seeing a married man, Daniel Gordon, now arrested for her murder.
Ella suggests she and Joe should settle down together. Her sister Gwen (Therese Bradley), recently widowed, comes to visit. Joe and Gwen have sex on a street corner. When Ella senses this, Joe leaves and finds lodgings, where he starts an affair with his landlord's wife. He attends the trial and sees Daniel condemned to death before trudging away along the quayside.
Portraying an emotionally amputated protagonist without either soliciting sympathy or alienating your audience is no mean trick. It defeated Visconti in his over-literal adaptation of Camus' L'tranger (Lo straniero, 1967), a novel with which Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam has often been compared. Other directors have been more successful with less head-on tactics; in Leo the Last (1969) John Boorman undermined his exiled, passive-aggressive aristo with subversive humour, and the Coen Brothers brought a cool monochrome elegance and glittering irony to bear on The Man Who Wasn't There. David Mackenzie, in his second feature as writer-director, takes his own route but still hits the target.
Trocchi's 1954 cult novel is written in the first person, but Mackenzie rejects the obvious solution of giving his anti-hero, Joe Taylor, a doomy noirish voiceover. Instead Joe's affectless state of mind is expressed through the gritty visual texture and cold, grey-blue palette, flat, detached dialogue and above all Ewan McGregor's performance. Paring away the streetwise perkiness of his earlier roles, he evinces a hungry, raw dissatisfaction, his mouth skewed in a grimace of anticipated distaste.
Mackenzie's debut feature, The Last Great Wilderness, had atmosphere to spare but lacked focus, veering wildly; if divertingly from road movie to black comedy to Polanskian Grand Guignol, all leavened with a hint of The Wicker Man. Young Adam, with the spine of Trocchi's terse novel to keep it on course, establishes its tone with far more assurance, and sticks to it. The script deviates very little from the original, least of all in its key narrative obliquity: Joe's connection with the girl whose corpse he drags from the water when working on a barge is withheld from us until halfway through. By the time we find out, it's evident that any recourse to Dostoevskian redemption-through-guilt is beyond Joe's moral compass.
The script includes only one significant deviation from the novel, in which Joe rescues his employers' young son from drowning. It's hard to see why this was inserted, unless to soften Joe's character which would be odd, since there are no other attempts to ingratiate him. Otherwise Mackenzie handles his material with a light touch and intimate attention to physical detail: the sense of grimy, sweaty flesh, especially in the sex scenes on the barge, is startlingly vivid. In a moment of supreme post-coital disaffection, Joe watches expressionless as a fat black fly takes a leisurely stroll around Ella's nipple.
Mackenzie draws edgy, exact performances from Tilda Swinton and Peter Mullan, while Emily Mortimer makes the most of an underwritten role as Joe's put-upon girlfriend. There's a relishably slatternly cameo from Therese Bradley as Ella's sister Gwen, complete with black-rooted hennaed hair, blood-gash lipstick and chillingly reductive attitude to sex ("Drink up. We've got business to attend to").
Mackenzie resists jazzing up his story with any spurious sense of urgency or passion. Barring one brief, bizarre scene of erotic violence involving custard and spanking with a wooden slat Young Adam moves with the torpid, inexorable pace of the coal barge itself, abetted by David Byrne's moody score. Such assured film-making augurs well for Mackenzie's next project, an adaptation of Patrick McGrath's gothic tour de force, Asylum.
Written On The Body Ryan Gilbey from Sight and Sound
Reverse Shot review Bob Carroll
Kamera.co.uk review Jon Ashton
Slant Magazine Ed Gonzalez
culturevulture.net, Choices for the Cognoscenti review Arthur Lazere
Reel.com review [3/4] Pam Grady
Plume Noire review Moland Fengkov
Kamera.co.uk dvd review Charlie Phillips
Reel.com dvd review [2.5/4] Bonnie Fazio
hybridmagazine.com review Leah Churner
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web and Tuna
Strictly Film School review Acquarello
Interview with Tilda Swinton
Interview by Suzie Mackenzie,
The Globe and Mail review [2/4] Rick Groen
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Sean Axmaker
Boston Globe review [2.5/4] Ty Burr
Like ‘Asylum’s’ Dr Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), the movie industry specialises in sexual pathology and its associated catastrophes. Making a useful contribution to the subject is therefore pretty tough, but David Mackenzie managed it in his last film (‘Young Adam’, also adapted from a British novel set in the 1950s), telling an affecting story about disaffected characters across whose torpid sexuality death flickered like a fly around a nipple. Unfortunately, ‘Asylum’ proves a disappointingly uninvolving follow-up.When Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville) is given a top position at a secure psychiatric hospital, his bored wife Stella (Natasha Richardson) finds her 60-a-day habit and plunging necklines out of step with other asylum wives. Instead she forges a blunt, Chatterleyesque liaison with inmate Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), who is mad, bad and decidedly dangerous to know. Meanwhile McKellen hovers with predatory charm, as if belatedly auditioning for Hannibal Lecter, and Bonneville is left spitting unpleasantries (although the sharpest lines go to Judy Parfitt as his mother: ‘Don’t let your shame degenerate into self-pity,’ she sniffs at Stella). Each character is unlikeable and deluded, their problems self-inflicted; worse, Mackenzie’s hands-off stance leaves them cold to the touch. Similarly, the setting of drab garretts and blasted plains is not just austere but miserabilist: a long shot of a minibus puffing its way up a desolate Welsh hillside verges on camp. There are some nice touches – the long tracking shot that follows Edgar’s initial bee-line towards Stella at a hospital dance – but others tend towards glibness: a broken glass frame separates them before the tension boils over. The narrative feels broken-backed too, reaching an apparent climax an hour in, and then episodically prolonging Stella’s decline towards a denouement apparently modelled on ‘Vertigo’. But where Hitchcock made tragedy of willing delusion, ‘Asylum’ offers only self-absorption.
Slant Magazine review Jeremiah Kipp
David Mackenzie relishes dark tales of sexual obsession like
a gleeful masturbator, following up last year's with this adaptation of Patrick
McGrath's modern gothic novel. Once again, he takes a compelling literary work
and renders it trite, and, since he appears indifferent to visual storytelling,
he lets his well-cast actors dictate the rhythm of scenes. But the greater
problem seems to be his use of highbrow literary works as an excuse for tawdry
sex scenes, which seem calculated, not earthy. In , the scene where Ewan McGregor
sprays condiments all over his nubile girlfriend tries so willfully to be edgy
that it becomes laughable.
Asylum is likewise doomed by its own self-importance. Buttoned-down psychiatrist's wife Stella Raphael (Natasha Richardson) takes up residence at a high-security mental institution for the criminally insane. Her uptight husband (Hugh Bonneville) has become deputy superintendent, and has little time for her. Enter handsome, brooding gardener Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a former sculptor who brutally destroyed his wife in a jealous rage. Late 1950s housewife repression gives way to naked desire, and Cinemax-style sex in the greenhouse. But the enigmatic Dr. Cleve (Ian McKellen) keeps a close watch over his patient, and develops an unhealthy fascination for Stella. Screenwriter Patrick Marber preserves the radical plot twists intact from McGrath's novel, but his translation loses the author's tone of dry macabre.
This failed opportunity is nearly saved by Richardson, who hasn't had so meaty a role in years—a curse that befalls many a talented fortysomething actress. She digs into it with the fearlessness of her mother Vanessa (who she strikingly resembles). It's a woman's dream part: the Queen Bee surrounded by amorous would-be suitors.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Paula Nechak
Patrick McGrath's 1997 gothic novel is on my list of favorite books, so with anticipation, and wariness, I asked to review the film.
I was wary because David Mackenzie was onboard as director. He made an aberration of a movie called "Young Adam" two years ago and its crassness was so distasteful I wondered if he could get sophisticated nuance in a story dealing with psychological obsession and the societal and literal confinement that punishes its rebellious lovers.
Also a little worrying was playwright Patrick Marber, who with Chrysanthy Balis, wrote the script. I feared the cold disconnect of character in Marber's play "Closer" would pervade McGrath's balanced insight and make it difficult to connect with people whose helpless, monstrous actions may have been impossible to fathom in the 1950s, but not in our age of reality TV and road rage.
I'm delighted to say I've been proved wrong. "Asylum" is a reverently faithful and compact adaptation and, though it skims over the book's initial tone in favor of a NASCAR race of sexual sensationalism, it captures the tragicomic hypocrisy of McGrath's narrative and manages to mine the emotional ballast in a consumptive love that destroys all in its path.
"We wish you many contented years here among the confined and the confused," toasts Jack Straffen (Joss Ackland), superintendent at a decaying, depressed English asylum for the criminally insane. He's hoisting a glass to forensic psychiatrist Max Raphael (Hugh Bonneville). It's 1959 and Max, his wife, Stella (Natasha Richardson), and their young son, Charlie, have come to this end-of-the-earth place to wait for a better one. There's tension between Max and Stella, perhaps a hint of some previous transgression by a wife toward her husband's inability to understand her -- and so tries instead to contain her.
The family meet Peter Cleave (Ian McKellen), a bloodless doctor who is as diabolical and controlling as a spider in a web waiting for the fly to make its fatal mistake. In the early, languid days of settling in, Max decides to renovate an old conservatory at the far end of a garden.
A handful of inmates are assigned the task of glazing the broken glass with new panes. And it is here that Stella meets Edgar Stark (Marton Csokas), a sexy artist-turned-murderer afflicted by "severe personality disorder with features of morbid jealousy." The two become acquaintances and more -- swallowed up by a lust that upends rationale.
"Asylum" is a film that takes you by surprise, refusing to relinquish its grim, fascinating hold. Better yet, it has crept up on us without much advance promotional fanfare. The less known about its twists, the better.
Author McGrath stated in a 1998 interview that "to sacrifice all for love would soon find (one) in a very difficult situation ... love at a certain point, has to relinquish its exclusiveness, lovers have to become rehabilitated into the wider society." It's the exquisite performances that draw on this tenet and bring suspense and comprehension to a startling turn of events.
Richardson, who also executive produced, is a heartbreaking, strong Stella, failed by being born in the wrong era -- and by the wrong men.
the moral compass of the story. New Zealander Csokas, who has been relegated to
playing villain roles in "xXx" and "
DVD Times Anthony Nield
Reel.com review [2/4] Tim Knight
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
Boston Globe review [2.5/4] Ty Burr
aka: Mister Foe
A dirty little story
about dirty family secrets, and my how the ultra rich have secrets. There are strange goings on at this Scottish
estate, which is a massive home on plenty of forested grounds where one young
boy, Hallam (Jamie Bell), retreats from his father and stepmother as much as
possible, preferring instead to live in a giant treehouse which servers as a
veritable shrine to his deceased mother, including candles and a giant,
wall-sized photo, a place where he picks up the habit of using binoculars to
spy on people, also wearing a badger pelt half naked and swinging from the tree
unannounced, but let’s not concern ourselves with details. Believing his step-mother (Claire Forlani in
her best Cruella De Vil) is the re-incarnation of Hamlet’s step-father, namely
that she secretly killed his own mother to be with his father, Hallam has
difficulty remaining civil around her, where conversation runs ice cold, to say
the least. When Hallam’s sister goes off
to college, the step-mother confronts Hallam in the manner of the rich and
famous, by sleeping with him, after which she insidiously suggests he fly the
coop on the first train out of town.
Finding himself alone in
Because of the
wish-fulfillment aspect of his fantasy world, one would think it possible to
see Hallam actually meet Kate onscreen, while it might never have really
happened. But not only does he walk into
her office asking about a job, she actually gives him one working in a hotel
kitchen as a dishwasher—perfect for our muddle-minded spyboy who gets to stay
in short range of his obsession. Instead
of rejoicing at his prospects, he is not satisfied and wants more, sneaking
into her home and peering into her windows while perched on the roof at night,
like some kind of creepy Phantom of the Opera, fascinated and repulsed by what
he sees, watching her have sex with his overly pompous hotel manager (Jamie
Sives) where they work, a married man who leaves as quickly as he comes. Most incredulously, upon reaching his 18th
birthday, Kate notifies him of an automatic pay raise he’ll receive, even
suggesting she’ll join the boys after work for a celebratory pint at a local
pub. After a marathon night of binge
drinking, when she whispers dirty thoughts into his ear and actually brings him
home, it defies belief. When we see a
shot of him staring through her roof window looking down at him in bed with her,
it could only be happening inside his head, a thought prolonged until the
mandatory day after talk when of course she tells him it was all a
mistake. From this point on, despite
Once Kate takes him in, her role in the film accelerates and she’s nothing less than remarkable, especially in the indignant manner that she holds him accountable after she discovers the dead mother connection and that he’s been stalking her the whole time, a somewhat bizarre scene where I thoroughly expected Etta James to be singing “Tell Mama.” The film is nicely paced and gorgeously filmed by Giles Nuttgens but truly falls into the eccentric category, perhaps a distant cousin to LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (2007), both films released the same year featuring tender young men who have extreme difficulties accepting reality, each walking a fine line between sanity and mental retardation. Hallam is surprisingly resilient and lucky with the ladies, all the more impressive since he’s one nut from being in either the lunatic asylum or prison. Their scenes together are mysteriously compelling and both sizzle with a strange erotic attraction. Still and all, the peculiarities of accepting this scenario as plausible undermines the dramatic power of the film, where identifying with either lead character Hallam or Kate becomes near impossible, lessening the overall impact, which is certainly enjoyable, but only from a distance.
Most of the interesting Scottish films of recent years have
had a certain oddball feeling, seeing the world from the point of view of an
alienated, sometimes voyeuristic outsider. One thinks of Lynne Ramsay's Morvern
Callar, Andrea Arnold's
Jamie Bell, now a seasoned performer in his early twenties,
plays a wealthy architect's son, unhinged by his mother's recent death, which
he blames on his father's former secretary, now his stepmother (Claire Forlani).
He runs away to
A happening indie soundtrack, a nice lead performance - it's all here, and yet it can't somehow cancel out my feeling that the story's tosh-level is considerably in excess of the EU maximum. Jamie Bell plays young Hallam Foe, a tortured teen who lives in a very grand house somewhere in the Scottish borders. He has lost the plot since his mother died: murdered, he suspects, by his foxy stepmother, played by Claire Forlani, who has ensnared the heart of his good-natured but ineffectual dad, played by Ciarán Hinds. So now Hallam spends his time hanging out in his treehouse - a sign of ineffable creepiness in any other film, but here the token of wounded, eccentric sensitivity - and spying on local folk with his binoculars.
When he runs away to Edinburgh, Hallam finds himself scampering roguishly along the rooftops and working a menial job in a hotel, with whose personnel manager (Sophia Myles) he conceives an obsession, because she is the dead spit of his dead mum. Jamie Bell has grown into a performer with warmth and style, and David Mackenzie's direction is exuberant, but the story itself is self-regarding, and the ending, with its muddled vengefulness, strains both sympathy and credibility.
A persistently off-kilter blend of Gothic, thriller and
comedy, Scottish director David Mackenzie's "Mister Foe" may not be entirely original or
entirely successful, but it's definitely fun to watch. A director bursting with
verve and technical prowess who's somewhere between the mainstream and the
margins of British film, Mackenzie seems almost overdue for an American
breakthrough. But his Hitchcock-via-Patrick McGrath erotic thriller "Asylum"
wasn't quite that movie (although I really liked it), and "Mister
Foe" -- "Hallam Foe" in its
Eponymous Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell, in a memorable performance)
is a lonely and demented Scottish teenager with occasional transvestite
tendencies, a habit of spying on people while they're having sex, and a
half-baked idea that his vixenish stepmother (Claire Forlani) actually poisoned
and drowned his late mother. Mind you, he's thoroughly charming and without
question the hero of the film. There's an entire
Most of the film concerns Hallam's increasingly insane relationship with a blond hotel manager (Sophia Myles) who, at least in his mind, strongly resembles his mother. Boy peeps at girl, girl finds boy a job, girl has rough sex with married man, girl falls for boy (without yet knowing that he's already seen her naked). But the enjoyment in "Mister Foe" flows more from its foulmouthed wit and from the often dazzling cinematography of Gilles Nuttgens than from its ludicrous plot. As in "Asylum," Mackenzie's passion for brooding, rotting, half-ruined Victorian architecture sometimes throws the characters into the shade.
Electric Sheep Magazine Sarah Cronin
Both thriller and comedy, Hallam Foe is an enticing coming-of-age film about love, grief and redemption. Directed by David Mackenzie (Young Adam), and based on the novel by Peter Jinks, it’s dominated by Jamie Bell’s exciting performance as the title character – a screwed-up teenager addicted to voyeurism.
Grieving over the mysterious death of his mother, Hallam is an
almost feral creature, hunting his prey on the family estate in
A humorous current runs through the film, from the opening credits (animated by the much loved off-kilter illustrator David Shrigley) through to the very end. But at its heart, Hallam Foe is something of a thriller. Echoes of Hitchcock permeate the film’s style and narrative. In Edinburgh, Hallam’s pursuit of Kate, and her blonde hair, pulled back tightly, recall Kim Novak in Vertigo; so too do the vertiginous views of the city as Hallam clambers over the slate rooftops to spy on her. There is also something Rear Window-like in his insatiable voyeurism; not physically bound in a wheelchair as Jimmy Stewart is, he’s handicapped instead by his grief. Spying on other people is Hallam’s way of escape, of submerging his pain over the loss of his mother. But it’s also an addiction that spirals out of control; seeing only fragments of the big picture, Hallam, like Stewart, comes to suspect that a murder’s been committed. The suspicion that his stepmother might be involved in his mother’s death becomes an obsession, tormenting him until he has no choice but to act. The film unravels, like Hitchock’s movies, as part mystery, part thriller, and part romance.
The claustrophobic camerawork forces us to see through Hallam’s
eyes. On the family estate, sweeping views of the
Though the film celebrates
Reel.com review [2.5/4] Bonnie Fazio
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Bill White
Great Britain (106 mi) 2013 ‘Scope Official site
A highly acclaimed British prison drama shot by an independent minded Scottish film director, the maker of YOUNG ADAM (2002) and HALLAM FOE (2007), one that uses a grim, ultra realistic style featuring ferocious acting, but at the same time stretches credulity, seemingly in contrast with one another, where many viewers will be scratching their heads wondering why violent criminals are contained in such a seemingly lax prison environment, as so much of the depiction of endless violence inside the prison is simply never contained, where there never seems to be appropriate consequences for obvious violations. As the film is actually shot in the unused correctional center of HM Prison Maze in Belfast, Northern Ireland, closed since September 29, 2000, the irony is not lost on the viewers, as this was the site of the notorious 1981 Irish hunger strike when ten Irish political prisoners starved themselves to death, including Bobby Sands, who was a Member of Parliament at the time The reason for his imprisonment was the possession of a handgun, for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in maximum security prison, some of which was spent naked while in solitary confinement, whose life was depicted with stunning clarity by British director Steve McQueen in HUNGER (2008). This film initially has the feel of authenticity, adapted from a screenplay by Jonathan Asser who worked as a voluntary prison therapist at HM Prison Wandsworth in London, home of some of the country’s most violent criminals. The title of the film represents the prison terminology used when they transfer a youth offender to an adult prison unit, in this case teenage Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a troubled kid from working class London with a violently abusive past. However, nothing is known about him in the opening except he is a new prisoner, where the attention to detail is meticulously accurate, where he is forced to strip, his body inspected for contraband, and given a prison uniform to wear. This begins a long, extended walk in real time that couldn’t be more precisely choreographed, wordlessly unlocking one set of doors while closing and locking the door behind, perhaps asking him to step forward, repeating the process again and again as a guard leads him through an elaborate maze of endless locked doors and empty walkways before finally arriving to his solitary cell. The degree of locked down order and professionalism maintained in this sequence quickly erodes, where the conditions inside eventually descend into chaos and madness. While it never reaches the heights of Jacques Audiard’s unflinching, near documentary realism in 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), and is near unintelligible (no subtitles) due to the non-stop use of profanity and heavily accented slang, MacKenzie nonetheless creates a bleak portrait of conflicting prison interests.
This kid doesn’t waste any time and immediately gets to work melting the handle of his toothbrush where he’s smuggled a razor blade, molding the blade into the handle as a makeshift knife, immediately hiding it in the florescent lighting fixture on the ceiling. This sequence has a Bressonian feel to it that’s told in a worldless rhythm defined by this particular environmental space, where he calmly measures each move even as internally he is emotionally rocked by this major change in his life. By morning, he’s already verbally sparring with another large black inmate, where a bit of name calling will likely lead to predictable results, where it appears he intentionally picked this fight, publically, and in front of all the other inmates. Taking his food to his cell, he lies in wait afterwards, pretending he is sleeping. When another black prisoner from across the hall walks into his open cell, Eric springs from the bed and viciously attacks him, knocking him out with a single blow, dragging the man to the end of the hallway where the guards can provide medical treatment. It’s little more than profanity being spewed back and forth between the prisoner and the guards, where no one simply talks, instead they shout and intimidate, where every act is a threat, using unintelligible slang that seems to define an unbalanced prison state of belligerence, where being a little mental can be used to one’s advantage. By the time the guards enter his cell with riot gear, he fends them off with the broken legs of a wooden desk, using them as clubs, waving them in the air like a maniac. Even after he’s apparently subdued, he chomps down on a guard’s testicles like a pitbull, eventually leading to a standoff, but only after a prison counselor Oliver (Rupert Friend) insists that he attend group therapy, “I can reach him,” he pleads, seemingly locking heads over the issue with Deputy Warden Hayes (Sam Spruell) who gives his permission. Unlike Destin Cretton’s equally gut-wrenching Short Term 12 (2013), where there is a clear line between administrators and supervisory staff, not always in agreement but the film adequately explains the differing perspectives, this film makes no attempt whatsoever to provide any rational view of the administrators in charge of the prison, and instead turns them into bigger monsters than the prisoners themselves, modeled apparently after Cruella De Vil, as their criminally heinous acts throughout are nothing less than villainous. It is surprising, however, to see female guards in an all-male prison facility that is this violent, where the head administrator is a big-bosomed, cruel-intentioned blond woman (Sian Breckin), using Hayes to run interference in the trenches for her.
It’s a half-hour into the film before we discover a major revelation, curiously revealed by Eric’s improbable exploration into another inmate’s cell on the same wing where he finds a drawing he made as a child crudely showing a young child standing alongside his mother and father, all holding hands, with the inscription, “I Love you daddy.” Meet Eric’s father, Neville Love, Ben Mendelsohn, an Australian actor from David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010), separated from Eric at the age of 5, who adds something of a psychotic presence to an already hysterical prison environment, as his hair-trigger temper and propensity for violence makes him one of the lifers, his sentence extended as he apparently killed another prisoner, where he represents the hardened view of an inmate that will never see the light of day. Eric, on the other hand, has only five years to serve and he’s free, his Dad reminds him, so he needs to cooperate and keep his hands clean, urging him to listen and follow instructions in therapy, which is little more than anger management sessions, though Eric does eventually acknowledge he was abused by a pedophile at the age of 10, where prisoners may become unhinged and subject to making vicious assaults when verbally provoked, where standing up for yourself isn’t so much a choice but a mandatory prerequisite to staying alive. Eric, however, has little regard for the rules and remains out of control throughout, trashing his own cell as well as others, assaulting multiple guards, cutting up another inmate’s face, yet has free reign to wander the place at will with little, if any, consequences for his actions. This defies belief, where the film is not without its flaws and has a clear ideological agenda, pitting the idealistic motives of the “volunteer” unpaid prison therapist, whose unconventional motives suggest his own dark past, against the more corrupt aims of the embattled administration that holds no hope whatsoever in the idea of prisoner rehabilitation, and instead routinely covers up their own treacherous crimes of targeting certain incorrigibles with murder faked to look like suicides. When Hayes decides to implement such a plan against Eric, his father Neville goes ballistic, forced to fight through a battle royale of prison guards standing in his way to finally get to his son, which despite the authentic tone throughout adamantly strains belief, turning this into a kind of superhero prison drama, where the prisoners continually exert their moral and physical superiority over the continually outmanned and overwhelmed prison system that is crushed by the weight of its own ineptitude. While the performances throughout are stellar, this grim and tightly edited drama literally makes the audience choke on the suffocating conditions, graphically raw and intense, never allowing the transcendent release of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé) (1956), continually tightening the screws, allowing no space to breathe in this taut prison thriller.
Review: Starred Up | Film Comment Graham Fuller
In the British prison system, an inmate under 21 who proves too dangerous to be held in a youth offender institution will be moved—or “starred up”—to an adult facility. So it is with Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a 19-year-old working-class Londoner in Scottish director David Mackenzie’s punishing realist drama, written by Jonathan Asser, who drew upon his own experiences working as a counselor in HM Prison Wandsworth.
Initially held in solitary, Eric is unfazed by having to keep company with all the Choppers and Bronsons when he’s assigned a cell in a communal wing. He batters the faces of two prisoners, trounces a handful of guards in riot gear who try to subdue him, and clamps his teeth around another guard’s testicles, then slashes the face of another prisoner with a weapon he’s made from a razor and a toothbrush.
Eric is so violent that the ineffectual Deputy Governor Hayes (Sam Spruell) feels he has no option but to have him hanged, and the killing passed off as a suicide. By the time Hayes reaches this decision, however, disclosures about the kid’s history and his attempts to manage his anger via the group therapy sessions run by Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), an unpaid upper-class voluntary worker, have made him a character with whom it is possible to empathize, if not identify.
One sign of this is the drawing Eric made, as a child of 5, showing himself, his mother, and his father holding hands, above the words, “I Love you daddy.” It turns out to be stuck to the wall of his father’s cell—which happen to be in the same wing as Eric’s: Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn) is an intimidating long-term con whose sentence has been increased because he killed another prisoner. With his father in prison and his mother dead, Eric was taken into care as a boy and abused by a pedophile on whose face he poured boiling water and sugar when he was 10. He’s serving his current sentence for “offing” a man who killed or hurt (it’s not clear) a woman dismissed by his father as a “junkie Slut.” Because of Starred Up’s murky sound and criminal argot, U.S. viewers may miss some of these details, though Mackenzie’s tense, fluent storytelling—more indebted to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped than Alan Clarke’s Scum, the obvious antecedent—is emphatically visual.
Neville encourages his son to attend Oliver’s meetings—from which the savvy Eric quickly benefits—but twice disrupts them. He is jealous that another man is usurping his long-forsaken paternal role. Intrigued by therapy’s potential to help him curb his own ferocious rages, he is too proud or too conflicted to sit in. He also resents Eric’s “fraternizing” with other men who value the sessions, not least because they are black. As it portrays the battle of wills between two men for one savable youth’s soul, Starred Up unostentatiously depicts other integral aspects of prison life—administrative corruption and homosexuality, as well as racism.
Whereas Scum, adapted by Roy Minton from his stage play, excoriated the inability of the British borstal system to rehabilitate young offenders, Starred Up is more optimistic, given Eric’s growing control of his temper. The reconciliation between Eric and Neville after the film’s histrionic final battle redeems the latter, yet the last words he speaks to his son—“I’m proud to be your dad”—are bitterly ironic. His removal from the scene doesn’t come a moment too soon.
Starred Up opens in a dark anteroom where 16-year-old Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) is being processed into a prison for adults, a status he earned (the Brits call it being "starred up") due to the violence and the frequency of his crimes. O'Connell plays Eric as a near-feral survivor of abuse and neglect; his movements economical and confident, he carries himself like a cat, quick to react to a threat and prone to bursts of ferocity. Soon after arriving, Eric nearly kills a fellow prisoner who's done him no harm and then battles the guards who try to subdue him, creating a standoff by taking one man's penis in his mouth through his pants and threatening to bite it off. Though this preemptive strike is presumably intended to keep the other prisoners at bay, it has the opposite effect, earning Eric the enmity of powerful alpha dogs like one of the guards who runs the prison and the suave prisoner who unofficially runs Eric's unit and doesn't want some crazy kid causing trouble on his turf.
Eric's volatility also earns the attention of two men who want him to calm down for his own sake: his estranged father, Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), a longtime prisoner high in the pecking order, and Oliver (Rupert Friend), a volunteer who leads an encounter group whose members learn to break the cycle of violence they've been trapped in. But what first appears to be a good dad/bad dad battle for Eric's soul, with Oliver demonstrating the power of respect and affirmation while Neville fails miserably with his hectoring and beatings, turns into something more interesting as both men exhibit more—and more complicated—aspects of their characters. Oliver's crusade to give Eric a place to be "just a kid" learning how to be a man turns into a battle with the prison brass, who are half-convinced from the start that Eric is beyond redemption. When Oliver loses that fight, Friend lets us see what's behind the hints people have been dropping about how unstable Oliver may be, despite his calm façade. Meanwhile, without ever lowering the wattage on Neville's fury or the power he wields over other inmates, Mendelsohn runs through an arpeggio of emotional changes as Neville struggles with jealousy over Eric's relationships with men who can mentor him better than he can, acknowledges his cluelessness about parenting, and fumbles his way through to a breakthrough of sorts.
The film's staunch realism probably owes something to director David Mackenzie's decision to film the scenes in chronological order and keep his actors on location in a former maximum-security prison in Northern Ireland, and to the care he took to make sure that even actors with just a few lines could match the intensity and complexity Mendelsohn and O'Connell bring to their roles. Mackenzie was also wise to work with a writer who was intimately familiar with his subject; screenwriter Jonathan Asser was, like Oliver, a volunteer therapist who led group sessions in a British maximum security prison, which may help explain why the dynamics of Oliver's group feel so believable. A peaceful conversation can turn into a confrontation on a dime, and when it does the men spring from their seats, using their chests to confront, block, or shield one another while the talk roils on, Oliver and the other noncombatants working hard to defuse the situation before it explodes.
But Starred Up isn't just about life in prison. It's also about the brutality and neglect in the outside world that made Eric near-psychotically violent and unable to trust others. Oliver's group saves the boy's life, teaching him how to gain control of his emotions and alter the behavior that's endangering him, yet when Oliver first reaches out, Eric shuts him down with contemptuous rage, pegging him for another predatory pedophile. In essence, this film is asking whether prisons like this can make space not just for containment and further brutalization, but for rehabilitation and forgiveness. The cautious optimism with which it answers that question is credible because the characters and setting feel so thoroughly authentic.
A brooding romantic in the tradition of Nicholas Ray and Francois Truffaut, Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Mister Foe) would seem ill suited for a realistic prison drama. His films are rooted in a sense of liberty: his characters behave unpredictably, often changing the course of their lives on a whim, and the choreographic camera movements and highly physical performances of his actors evoke a world brimming with possibility. One can easily imagine a prison film by Mackenzie being overwrought or unconvincing, yet Starred Up, while entirely characteristic, says a good deal about what it means to live behind bars. One of Mackenzie's ongoing themes is that the way people live determines how they use their bodies. In Starred Up, he applies this perspective to lifelong prisoners, depicting them as modern mutants—part animal, part machine.
Mackenzie's perspective never feels overbearing, however, because Jonathan Asser's screenplay grounds the film in an authoritative portrayal of prison life. Asser worked as a therapist in a maximum-security London prison for several years; according to the film's press notes, he was on set throughout the shoot to vet every detail for accuracy. Viewed as a docudrama about the challenge of socializing violent convicts, Starred Up succeeds brilliantly, delineating the issue without resorting to platitudes or sentimentality. Indeed the protagonist resists our sympathy for nearly the entire first half. Nineteen-year-old Eric (Jack O'Connell) has been "starred up" from a juvenile detention center to an adult facility because of his compulsively violent behavior. When he attacks a group of guards in the new facility, the warden declares that one more violent episode will land him in solitary confinement indefinitely. The prison therapist, Oliver (Rupert Friend), intervenes, inviting Eric to join his therapy group in hope of curbing the boy's destructive impulses. But since the group consists only of violent offenders, fights often break out before any real discussion can take place. Moreover, Eric has already spent most of his life as a convict and doesn't believe that anyone can rehabilitate him.
One can understand his cynicism; in a sense, Eric was fated to be a prisoner from birth. His father, Nev (Ben Mendelsohn, even scarier here than in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom), is a violent convict himself, and he's been serving a life sentence in the same prison since Eric was four years old. The irony of Starred Up is that Nev and Eric can begin to mend their broken relationship only when they're incarcerated together. The older man regards Eric's arrival as a belated opportunity to do right by his son, though he's been so thoroughly dehumanized that he doesn't know how to express his concern healthily. In one of their first encounters, Nev persuades Eric to agree to group therapy by scaring him. If he doesn't get in line, Nev warns, the guards will kill him and make it look like a suicide. "It happens all the time," he says brusquely. "So play their game and they'll leave you alone."
Asser doesn't reveal that Nev and Eric are father and son until 30 minutes in, and not until the 20-minute mark does he divulge anything about Eric's background. Until then, he simply immerses the viewer in the experience of living in a maximum-security prison, where the immediate threat of violence or degradation overwhelms any sense of past or future. Only seconds into the movie, Eric is admitted, stripped naked by guards, and subjected to a cavity search, in a scene that evokes farmers inspecting livestock. Mackenzie shows this process in real time, underlining the dehumanization that Eric submits to on a regular basis. Revelations about his parentage and his years in foster care (when he was repeatedly raped by one of his guardians) may not alter our fundamental understanding of him, but they're still surprising; the opening scenes make it hard to believe that Eric has experienced anything that might be described as childhood.
As soon as the guards deposit Eric in his cell, he goes to work making a shiv, using a lighter to melt the handle of his toothbrush and sinking a razor blade into it; he then creates a makeshift screwdriver to open up a lighting fixture and hides his weapon under the bulb. It's a remarkable sequence, using a few specific actions to convey the young man's hardened, survivalist mentality. After a few brief shots delineating the layout of the cell block and prison courtyard, Mackenzie returns to the cell, where Eric is napping. An inmate from a neighboring cell knocks on the door to introduce himself (delivering one of the first audible lines of dialogue); Eric snaps awakes and instinctively attacks the stranger, accidentally knocking him unconscious. Eric drags the man to the end of the wing, so that the guards might take him to the prison hospital; then, anticipating violent retaliation, he readies himself for battle, running back to his cell and breaking the legs off his desk to use as clubs. The riot squad disarms him, but the fight ends in a stalemate when Eric clenches one guard's testicles between his teeth.
This is strong medicine, yet it's also exhilarating. As usual, Mackenzie creates a sense of careening momentum, cutting briskly from one shocking detail to another or executing fast, nimble camera moves to follow characters from room to room. Even his use of color adds to the film's visceral impact: though prison movies are usually cast in blues and grays, Mackenzie had most of the cells painted yellow or orange, and some crucial scenes play out in deep red lighting. (The room where Oliver conducts the therapy group is painted in faded shades of green, which has a subtly calming effect.) As a result, the prisoners' intense emotional states seem almost tangible.
In Starred Up, violence is part of everyday communication, practically no different from speech. The inmates have lived amid violence for so long that they're always primed to fight; in fact Eric is so indoctrinated that he hasn't yet learned when not to. Mackenzie communicates this primarily through the body language of his performers, staging the action so fluidly and in such meticulous detail that the movie often suggests a monstrous ballet. Consider the early scene in which Nev meets with the leader of a prison gang to request that Eric be left alone. When the gang leader equivocates, Nev smacks him across the mouth, only to resume speaking calmly the next moment. Mackenzie presents the conversation in an unbroken shot, and in this context the gesture feels like punctuation, rather than a threat. A similar moment occurs when Nev roughly twists the ear of his lover before kissing him; he can't express any feeling of vulnerability without a qualifying act of violence.
Eric agrees to join Oliver's group only when the therapist admits to his own violent impulses. "I don't care about you," Oliver says when Eric tries to fend him off. "In fact, I want to hurt you." ("Now we're getting somewhere," Eric replies.) When Nev agrees to join his son in the group, setting off a series of events that precipitate the tragic conclusion, he can't believe that his son would want to settle their issues by talking. At the very suggestion of honest conversation, Nev rips off his shirt and challenges Eric to a fistfight; when Eric declines, Nev goes mad and starts striking out in every direction. "Get me off this fuckin' wing!" he shouts repeatedly, his voice so loud it echoes throughout the entire prison. Here is a man so convinced he's irredeemable that he'd rather behave like a rabid animal than confront his buried humanity. It's a terrifying sequence; Nev seems to be devolving before our eyes.
[Spoiler alert: The story's conclusion is noted below.]
In the end the most astonishing moments of Starred Up may be those of physical tenderness, which stand out like flashes of color in a black-and-white movie. Short, surprising sequences show Eric alone in his cell, jumping up to touch the ceiling or making funny faces for his own amusement. These moments hint at the emotional breakthrough of the film's penultimate shot, in which Eric and Nev—finally reconciled, but only as they're about to be separated once more—gently rub heads in lieu of an embrace (both men's hands are cuffed behind their backs). The image, ironically evoking a mother animal nuzzling her cub, shows that Eric and Nev have at last reclaimed their human need to love and be loved. (Unsubtly, the men's surname is Love.) Whereas Asser's script gives dramatic form to the pervasive violence of prison life, Mackenzie's images alert us to the life-affirming spontaneity of which all people are capable, and which enables people to change their lives, no matter where.
Sight & Sound [Michael Pattison] March 20, 2014
Brutal Prison Drama Starred Up Stirs Rare Empathy | Village ... Stephanie Zacharek from The Village Voice
Starred Up / The Dissolve Tasha Robinson
Review: Jack O'Connell Gives A Breakthrough Performance ... Jessica Kiang from The Playlist
Review: Starred Up is a brutal, but profoundly humane, look ... Ignatiy Vishnevetsky from The Onion A.V. Club
Starred Up - HitFix Guy Lodge
Starred Up - Newcity Film Ray Pride
Starred Up | Reviews | Screen - Screen International Allan Hunter
Further thoughts on the climax of Starred Up: Old realism versus new realism Ben Sachs from The Chicago Reader
'Starred Up' movie review - Washington Post Ann Hornaday
Review: 'Starred Up' - Los Angeles Times Kenneth Turan
Starred Up - Roger Ebert Brian Tallerico
'Starred Up,' a Father-and-Son Prison Drama - The New ... A.O. Scott from The New York Times, also seen here: New York Times
A remarkable record of a city that has vanished. —Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
Watching this early 1960’s film about American Indians adapting to their city environment in the now demolished Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles where in the space of 12 hours they go on an all night drinking binge, is literally like opening a time capsule to a different era, but despite the vintage cars and the dated vernacular of the times, this film is as relevant today as it was when it was made. The film’s strength is its wrenchingly honest documentary style, where the reality of a marginalized people whose past has been stolen from them is stunning, as they feel as detached from the present as from their past, where they have literally become exiles in their own country. The film opens with sage words: “The old people remember the past,” along with Edward Curtis portraits of strong Indian faces in the late 19th century, a time when Indians were forcibly evicted from a life of freedom on the open plains and ordered to live on restricted reservation lands, a military and political act that effectively cut native people’s ties to their heritage. More than a century later, they’re still searching for it. The camera focuses on a neglected pregnant wife, Yvonne Williams, whose husband Homer Nish (the spitting image of César Rojas from the Los Lobos band, known for his wide girth, trademark black sunglasses and slicked-back, black hair) all but ignores her and lays about jobless all day long as he would rather hang around every night in the company of friends than be at home. In the opening moments of the film, we hear her in voiceover describe how she’s glad to be off the reservation and hopes for a brighter future for her unborn child. But life is no picnic in the city either, especially when her husband avoids any connection to family and abandons her every night while he and his friends mooch drinks and cigarettes, hustle up whatever change they can scrounge together, and pretty much joyride and barhop every night listening to Anthony Hilder and the Revels' primitive rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox, The Revels - Comanche 1960 YouTube (2:01), getting as drunk as possible on rotgut Thunderbird and Lucky Lager beer.
Unseen for decades until Thomas Anderson featured the film in his amazing documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), it was recently restored by preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, comprised of two distinctively different parts, almost as if they’ve been stitched together, as they aren’t always on the same track. The luscious black and white photography by cinematographers John Morrill, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman is extraordinary throughout utilizing a very modern free-form camera technique of weaving in and out of crowds, capturing bar scenes, fights, sidewalk action, joyriding, and people gathering together high atop Hill X after the bars have closed for more drinking, drumming, and chanting Indian songs while also occasionally engaging in fisticuffs. While the camera captures the free-spirited look of the times, the audio track reflects the lack of any script whatsoever where much is dubbed from recorded interviews, so it lacks the searing intensity of the images and despite its best efforts to remain relevant, falls short in many respects. This may be what the “original” version of Shadows (1959) was like when it was completely improvised, filled with greetings, hip expressions, and an otherwise detached way of communicating with one another before Cassavetes sat down and wrote a more personal script. However this lack of personal connection in THE EXILES matches the theme of the title. The characters are so busy getting high and avoiding life and its responsibilities that their evasiveness even from one another leaves them completely detached from their own lives. In one telling scene, Homer and his gang are sitting in a car smoking a cigarette watching the cops routinely roust some customers in a bar before he gets out, without a word, and enters the bar alone. The guy doesn’t even feel like acknowledging his friends, he simply does whatever the hell he feels like doing. No questions asked. While in his mind this feels like freedom, it’s actually another failed connection, as he exists in a separate reality from the world around him. This stands in stark contrast to those Indian portraits from the 19th century of men who lived in complete harmony with their environment.
One could argue about
whether this is even a documentary film, whether it might have been more
powerful without fictionalized re-enactments, but as is, we have never gotten
such an unflinchingly realistic glimpse of Indians carousing, particularly
inside Indian bars. As a social portrait
on being poor and being Indian, this film is remarkable. Speaking from personal experience, Indians
don’t usually mix with whites in Indian bars.
In the early 70’s, Indians were a strong presence in the Uptown
Written, produced, and directed by Kent Mackenzie, this low-budget independent feature (1961) deserves to be ranked with John Cassavetes's Shadows, but it languished unseen for nearly four decades until Thom Andersen celebrated it in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself. Pitched somewhere between fiction and documentary, with nonprofessional actors improvising postsynced dialogue and internal monologues, it follows a few uprooted Native Americans from Friday night to Saturday morning in the Bunker Hill district of Los Angeles. Its moving portraiture is refreshingly free of cliches and moralizing platitudes, and the high-contrast black-and-white photography and dense, highly creative sound track are equally impressive (even the occasional imprecise lip sync seems justified). Mackenzie lived only long enough to make one other feature--Saturday Morning (1971), which I haven't seen--but this film's lowercase urban poetry suggests a major talent. 72 min.
Erendira to Eyewitness Pauline Kael
American Indians were granted citizenship in 1924, given civil
rights in 1934. Since then many have left the reservations; dispersed, they are
strangers-exiles-within the big American cities. It seems to be the same in
each city: many of the Indians live "communally"-sponging off each
other, drinking, brawling, working for a few days, perhaps committing petty
thefts. And in each city there is a gathering place-a hill, a park, a beach,
where, late at night, they gather to sing tribal songs, beat the drums, and
dance. This documentary follows a group in
CINE-FILE: Cine-List Ben Sachs
A major point of reference in Thom Andersen's essay film LOS
ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF, this independent production from 1961 provides vivid
THE NEW YORKER Richard Brody
Kent Mackenzie’s miraculous independent film, made between 1958 and 1961 with scrounged film, borrowed equipment, donated services, and free labor, has, scandalously, not been released commercially until now. Mackenzie, while a U.S.C. film student, befriended Native Americans who had left their reservations and towns for Los Angeles, and he persuaded them to reënact scenes from their own lives for the camera. The resulting drama, a Pilgrim’s Progress of three characters through a night of urban loneliness and dissipation, has an epic grandeur and a monumental intimacy that belies its mere seventy-two minutes. Yvonne, who is pregnant and dreams of a better life for her child, drains away the hours watching B-Westerns in an all-night grind house while her layabout boyfriend, Homer, goes out to drink and gamble. Tommy, a smooth operator, hangs out in bars and tries to pick up women but likens his life to “doing time on the outside.” Mackenzie films the minutely incremental action (or, more often, inaction) in strikingly textured and composed images (the night photography alone would make the film immortal), balancing them with the character’s revealing, poignant voice-over monologues. Few directors in the history of cinema have so skillfully and deeply joined a sense of place with the subtle flux of inner life.
Largely forgotten since its release in 1961, Kent Mackenzie’s transfixing 72-minute drama The Exiles arrives like a message in a bottle—restored (by Ross Lipman at UCLA), in lucid black-and-white, a warning we ought to have heeded but didn’t want to hear (or, in the case of younger moviegoers, never had the chance to hear). The director regarded it as a documentary, and this is a rare case in which something shaped and partly scripted might qualify. The film centers on young Indians who’ve moved from the reservation to downtown Los Angeles, where the men drink and pick up women and drink and play cards and drink and sing tribal songs and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink. Nothing in the narrative is especially surprising, in part because so many filmmakers have absorbed The Exiles, either literally or by osmosis. But there isn’t a banal shot: not the faces of each man hunkering over a beer bottle or giving himself to a tribal song on a dark hill overlooking the metropolis, not the traffic tunnel with its unearthly glow under the neighborhood where these nomads can never seem to put down roots. The Exiles opens with photographs of tribal warriors before their tribes were decimated and ghettoized, but what follows can’t be reduced to a victimization plaint. The protagonists, Homer (Homer Nish) and his wife, the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), speak in voice-over about their dreams for a better life, but she is deposited at a downtown movie theater and he embarks on an all-night odyssey in search of a wholeness that will never come. You can only brood on the near half-century since The Exiles was shot—and be grateful that someone went to that place and captured it all.
Kent Mackenzie, USC Filmmaker,
follows one 24 hr day of a native american couple and their friends in downtown
The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie,
A unique and powerful film, blending storytelling with documentation. Mackenzie constructed a narrative about one day in the life of three main characters - a pregnant young woman (Yvonne), the father (Homer), and a man about town (Tommy). Both men are profound alcoholics, and the woman seems stunned by the circumstances of her life though hopeful for the future of her child.
The film opens with portraits from Edward Sheriff Curtis's monumental North American Indian, which I recommend as a starting place. Mackenzie has a sharp eye for cultural details - check out the Grand Hotel mattress in Yvonne and Homer's apartment, as well as the magazines, comics, advertisements, toys, and street scenes.
The story develops via voiceovers by Yvonne, Homer, and Tommy - and an amazing middle sequence from the rez, with generous doses of native language and music.
This is a must-see movie for anyone interested in social work, indigenous peoples, or the dark side of American culture. Never boring for any viewer.
"The Exiles" was made on
a shoe-string budget by a number of idealistic young film-makers
"led" by Kent Mackenzie as "writer/director/editor.
Mackenzie and his crew were dismayed (putting it lightly) by what they saw as a lack of use of film as an artistic medium. At the same time the standard "
Erik Daarstad, John Morrill and Bob Kaufman shot an incredibly striking 35mmm B&W film. It is truly stunning. And a testament to all involved.
"The Exiles" is phenomenal in that, Mackenzie agreed not to put anything in the film that "the actors" objected to in any way. Appropriately, but very unusual, the "voice" in the film is that of the subjects.
"The Exiles" is of a specific time: a
Mackenzie credits the viewer with the intelligence to relate to the human condition as seen on screen. And explore for one's self how we fit into a world in which these conditions exist. We aren't forced to listen to the traditional "voice of god" voice over that dehumanizes all involved in the experience.
Sadly, Kent Mackenzie died young in May of 1980. He made relatively few films. Yet, "The Exiles" and his USC student film: "
If one has the opportunity to see this film as it should be, in a theater on a 35mm print. It is well worth the time. And an experience which will stay with you from that day forward.
'The old people remember the past," a narrator says
early in The Exiles over a prologue of Edward S. Curtis
photographs—faces of aged Native Americans who may have had their lands taken
away, but not their history or memories. For the length of Kent Mackenzie's
1961 feature, the past is not distant: It's vital, concrete, immediate—a record
of vanished sites and vanquished dreams suspended in an eternally looped
present. Thanks to a superlative UCLA restoration and the efforts of Milestone
Film (who partnered last year to release Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep),
this 50-year-old film about a
By the standards of The Incredible Hulk or Wanted—buzzing CG pixel storms in which lives, locations, and bodies exist in perpetual zero gravity—The Exiles may not seem that exciting. An account of 14 dusk-to-dawn hours in a community of scuffling Native Americans—the once-prosperous Bunker Hill—it unfolds without artificial urgency or hyped-up climaxes; it's acted with unpolished conviction by neighborhood residents that the British-born director met in the mid-'50s while researching a documentary. But Mackenzie (who died in 1980 at age 50 after making just one other feature) had an ear for the poetry of ritualized interaction, and an eye for the glint of hard light on city streets. The movie walks a nightworld so crackling with unfocused energy—so alive with threat, promise, and raw honking rock 'n' roll, yet so limited in any sense of a future—that to enter it is to feel your blood surge. Even so, after its premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, it never received an official release.
Like mostly forgotten features such as Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil (1973) or Jacques Deray's The Outside Man (1972), The Exiles was plucked from obscurity by a shout-out in Thom Andersen's 2003 essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself. In that expansive meditation on cinematic geography and the coded history lessons of film, Andersen held up The Exiles as a particularly evocative example of location shooting, the spiritual forebear of Killer of Sheep and Billy Woodberry's Bless Their Little Hearts—films about the "outside" told from the inside. "The cinema of walking," Andersen called it—when one of its main characters, Yvonne, a lonely, pregnant Apache woman played by Yvonne Williams, trudges home after a night of dissatisfied window shopping, the camera takes in her real-life surroundings at the same pace, situating fiction within docurealism.
Started in 1958 and completed in 1961—a period encompassing the nouvelle vague's initial shock waves a world away, and roughly coinciding with the similar efforts of John Cassavetes, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel at home—The Exiles offers possibilities for semi-doc narrative feature-making that extend beyond miserabilism or Andersen's derided "low-tourist" rubbernecking. Mackenzie conceived it as a film about the relocation of late-generation Native Americans from the reservation to the city. Starting with a bluntly sociological prologue—the one dated element—the movie charts a diaspora in microcosm. Yvonne shares two rooms with her Hualapai husband, Homer (Homer Nish), a beefy rounder with slicked-back Elvis hair and a sudden look of quizzical hurt; his wolfish mixed-Mexican buddy Tommy (Tommy Reynolds); and four other men who crash there and filch cigarettes. The guys ditch Yvonne at a double feature, then disperse like seeds into the night—Homer to a poker game for easy dough that doesn't pan out, Tommy to a joyride with a Choctaw bud and two thrill-seeking floozies.
Even in the city, there are reservations. The bar of choice, the Ritz, is a shrunken Native American nation where the displaced tribesmen meet before retiring to smaller groups and private spaces. (Their women serve as child-keepers and ATMs: Mackenzie watches without judgment as the guys habitually raid their wives' purses and split.) In Mackenzie's vision, no one here is beneath notice—not the grizzled regular reading a pamphlet at the bar, who's held for just a beat after the heroes leave; not the clerk who gives Yvonne a sullen look as she leaves Bunker Hill's Grand Central Food Market in the first scene without buying anything. We're left to wonder where their stories lead.
Deepening our involvement with the characters are the
voiceovers they deliver on the soundtrack: documentary interjections that float
above the street noise, music, and dialogue below. Independent of the action
onscreen, they give the movie's semi-doc authenticity another layer of reality.
"I haven't started drinking or hanging around
The most immediately striking thing about The Exiles, shot through with humor and nerve and keyed to the throb of Anthony Hilder and the Revels' thrillingly seedy garage rock, is its look. The black-and-white camerawork (by Erik Daarstad, Robert Kaufman, and John Morrill) is so starkly high-contrast that the outdoor shots have the muscular definition of a graphic novel. The black has surprising depth, catching hard edges within shadows; the white burns a halo around every liquor-store sign or streetlight.
"You could call [The Exiles] independent," Andersen wisecracked, slinging an elbow at the deep-pocketed Miramax "indie," "but you couldn't call it 'pulp fiction.' " And yet the area that Yvonne, Tommy, Homer, and their many friends wander is a literal film noir neighborhood: Its crooked angles and night-splitting neon also served as the backdrop for the atom-age apocalypse of 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. It's also film noir in that the city is inevitable, inescapable. As in Mean Streets and American Graffiti, two films about the confinement of community that seem influenced by The Exiles' incidental sprawl, every night out or stroll away circles back to the neighborhood. Even when Tommy gets behind the wheel of a car—in a sequence that's pure foot-to-pedal exhilaration, all whipping hair, cranking tunes, and gear-jamming low angles—he's back by daybreak. And the cycle of mooching, scuffling, and hanging starts all over again, on to the next dawn.
CINEMA SCOPE Quintín
TIME MAGAZINE Richard Corliss
THE NATION Stuart Klawans
FILM JOURNEY Doug Cummings
BRIGHT LIGHTS FILM JOURNAL Marilyn Ferdinand, February 2005
FILM QUARTERLY Benjamin Jackson
INDIEWIRE Eric Kohn, including an interview with
producers Charles Burnett and
Native American neighborhood lost - JSOnline Steve Ramos
EXILES Marty Rubin from the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer William Arnold
ANGELES TIMES Saul Austerlitz,
and Poetry at Margins of Society
Manohla Dargis from The New York
and Adrift in Los Angeles Dennis
Lim from The New York Times,
Hideous Kinky Philip Kemp from Sight and Sound
1972. Julia, a young Englishwoman, is living in Marrakesh with her daughters Bea (age 8) and Lucy (age 6). Julia hopes to study Sufism but, with money from the girls' father arriving only rarely, she scrapes a living making dolls for sale. The girls meet Bilal, an acrobat, and he and Julia become lovers. Bea persuades Julia to let her attend school.
When Bilal loses his regular quarrying job, all four set off for Bilal's home village. They are welcomed, but Bilal, uneasy at the presence of his neglected wife, insists they leave again, and goes to Agadir to find work. Back in Marrakesh Julia and the girls meet a Frenchman, Jean-Louis Santoni, and his English friend Charlotte, who invite them to stay in their grand villa. A cheque arrives from London; Julia proposes to hitch to the Sufi college in Algiers but Bea chooses to stay with Charlotte and go to school.
In Algiers the Sufi's leader makes Julia realise she isn't ready to leave her old life. She and Lucy return to Marrakesch to find Jean-Louis and Charlotte have departed, and Bea has run away. Julia tracks her to an orphanage run by a priggish nun and reclaims her daughter. Bilal returns, wearing a resplendent uniform for a tourist spectacular. Bea falls ill, and Julia realises she must return to London. Bilal sells his uniform to buy tickets for her and the girls, then flees to escape his employer's wrath. As Julia and the girls sit in the speeding train, they see Bilal racing alongside in a truck waving goodbye.
Gillies MacKinnon is one of those stimulating film-makers who hates to repeat himself. Each film is different from his previous ones, and especially from the last. As if in reaction against the shell-shocked stasis of Regeneration, all chilly blues and greys in a desolate winter landscape, Hideous Kinky finds him plunging with infectious relish into the vibrant sun-baked colours, sounds and turmoil of Morocco. What's more, both films include nightmares, but in Regeneration the camera seemed to hover over the hellish trenches in mesmerised horror, trapped and helpless. The nightmare that opens Hideous Kinky, reprised later, is a tumult of noise, panic and headlong flight, as a small girl rushes terrified down narrow alleys, harried by clutching hands and grinning faces.
Despite appearances, though, this nightmare isn't being dreamt by either Bea or Lucy, the young English girls plunged into this fascinating, bewildering country, but - as if on their behalf - by their mother Julia. Though she insists, both to the girls themselves and to her compatriot Charlotte, that Morocco is a wonderful place for her daughters, far preferable to a dreary cold flat in South London, her dreams betray her. Subconsciously she's haunted by the potential dangers to them. It's not surprising either that Julia seems to live her nightmare through her daughters' eyes, since in some ways she's more of a child than they are: more naïve, less ready to confront reality. Much of the film's comedy derives from the contrast between her flower-child fantasies and the children's laconic, down-to-earth appraisals. To Julia, the longed-for visit to the Sufi will bestow "annihilation of the ego", magically solving everything. The girls, having pretty healthy egos of their own, are less than convinced. "What the hell is a Sufi anyway?" mutters Lucy in voice-over, eventually concluding that: "They live in a mosque, they pray all day and they never go out."
The set-up, if not the surroundings, recalls Bill Forsyth's underrated melancholic comedy Housekeeping. There too a would-be free-spirited mother-figure tries to bring up two young girls according to her own wayward lights, only to collide head on with the innate conservatism of childhood, and there too the elder girl insists on embracing what she sees as "normality". Bea, at that stage in a child's development when she wants to stand out as little as possible from the crowd, yearns for the conventional. And, as if in one of those fairy stories where you get exactly what you wished for, she finds it in the form of the pious orphanage matron Patricia.
Indeed, in many ways Hideous Kinky can be read as a fairy tale, not least for its loose, episodic structure and its mood of enchanted unreality. From this angle, Patricia serves as the wicked stepmother - or maybe as the Wicked Witch of the West, with Charlotte as the well-meaning but disorganised Witch of the South, and the charmingly unreliable Bilal, with his acrobatic tricks and dicey juggling (an engaging performance from Saïd Taghmaoui, who featured in La Haine) as a younger, handsomer Wizard of Oz. There's even a magic slipper to wish on, and the title comes from the secret, half-understood phrase that the two children repeat like a mantra in moments of stress. But the film's superb final image evokes a far older story-telling tradition: Bilal, standing in the speeding truck, waving madly as he recedes into the distance, his scarlet turban unravelling like a banner across the sky, is pure Arabian Nights.
“I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
A formulaic film that works, because of the degree of edgy
realism that keeps flowing through every frame, led by a lead child actor,
Harry Eden, an extraordinary performance by a ten-year old child, Paul, who is
onscreen for nearly every shot, whose performance is so compelling it defies
belief, who seems to represent a higher state of consciousness witnessing all
the events, which is the basis for the title, as horrible things continue to be
seen through his eyes. Alison Hume's
script, based on a detailed research of drug-addicted mothers in
Melody tries to kick her habit cold turkey, and Paul locks
her in her room, refusing to answer to all manipulations, including one
harrowing scene where she tells him she wishes he was dead, that he was never
born, that he’s worthless, but he knows it’s the heroin talking. But Lenny eventually intervenes through brute
force. Even after Melody is arrested in
front of Paul, there’s a mesmerizing confrontational scene of mixed interests
in the morning after she’s released when both Paul and Lenny come to meet her,
and Lenny punches her in the stomach, forcing her into his car, while Paul
helplessly runs away. Much of the film
is repeated scenes of Paul running away, hopping onto his bike going here,
arriving in the dead of night somewhere else, usually enhanced by loud,
pulsating music that represents heightened tensions, usually followed by
extremely calm, melodic music written for the film by Nitin Sawhney, adding
sounds of the Middle East or India to color the mood. Paul’s grandparents intervene and want to
take the kids away from Melody, believing it’s the right thing to do. In a wonderful scene, Paul wheels his
granddad to a meeting with the social workers, made more beautiful as the
audience doesn’t initially understand the implications, but by his vote, they
are persuaded to leave the kids with Melody, a heartbreaking scene where Paul
is waiting outside in the rain, his hands on the window pane looking in,
watching the proceedings in silence.
Eventually Paul helps Detective Inspector French, played by Gary Lewis,
a man who speaks with an accent so pronounced that you can barely understand a
word he says, which only adds authenticity to his role, and he and Paul hook up
to catch the bad guy, leaving only “good things” from now on, as Melody goes
into a treatment program, after uttering something like "I know I am a shit
mother. I never say it, but I always think that. I love you." There are dreamy sequences where Paul sees
his mother all cleaned up, and another where Louise actually allows him to
smoke heroin, leaving him in a dreamy state of wonderfully expressed cinematic
disorientation that finally convinces his mother to go straight. Interestingly, the past and the future
somehow merge together, leaving us to get through the present, which in this
film, seen through a child’s eyes, seems to last forever, as if we’re stuck
there indefinitely. The cinematography
by John de Borman is highly effective mixing the dreary, lower class row-houses
Jesus' Son Danny Leigh from Sight and Sound
Iowa City, the early 70s. Fuckhead, or FH, a drug addict in his early twenties, is involved in a car crash while hitchhiking. He returns to his apartment and is visited by his ex-girlfriend Michelle. He then reminisces about his life so far, starting with his first meeting with Michelle at a party. Ignoring the attentions of her boyfriend McInnes, Michelle seduces Fuckhead. Months after the party, the two move in together and nurture their heroin habits. McInnes is shot by one of his house mates; he's driven to hospital by Fuckhead, but dies on the way.
Fuckhead and Michelle move into a cheap hotel. Fuckhead agrees to help Wayne, an alcoholic, strip a derelict house for salvage. Having made $40, the two men buy heroin. That evening, both overdose: Wayne dies, but Fuckhead is revived by Michelle. Fuckhead gets a job at a hospital, where he and his colleague Georgie steal various medication; later, Georgie saves a patient's life. Tripping, Fuckhead and Georgie drive into the country. When Fuckhead returns home, Michelle tells him she is pregnant. The baby is aborted. Michelle leaves Fuckhead for another man.
Following his car crash, Fuckhead gets back together with Michelle. After arguing with Fuckhead, Michelle dies from an overdose. Grief-stricken, Fuckhead overdoses himself, and is sent to a rehab clinic. Five months later, he is working at a hospice in Arizona; there, he finds peace among his terminally ill charges.
For a director as seemingly talented as Alison Maclean, the seven years
since her last feature - the taut, unsettling Crush (1992) - must have
been hard to endure. She spent some of the time working in
Yet fitfully faithful as Maclean and screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman are to Johnson's smacked-out lyricism, it emerges here as something of a mixed blessing. On paper Johnson's fleeting insights are immaculate, peppering a bottomless, opiate, first-person fugue. And the temptation to have Billy Crudup's drug addict Fuckhead simply recite chunks of interior monologue has not been resisted. But while Crudup's recitations sound great, they often leave the film looking uncomfortably like an illustrated narration. The sense of displacement is almost too palpable. Maclean can't seem to make up her mind between honouring the skewed nature of Johnson's vignettes - by punctuating each segment with title cards - and trying to mould them into a coherent, viewer-friendly narrative. Take, for instance, the key character of Michelle. Despite Samantha Morton's fine, funky performance she seems an arbitrary and strangely hollow figure. It quickly becomes clear that her role is a composite of Johnson's numerous anonymous female characters, one designed to bind several threads into a conventional storyline.
Yet this hesitancy hardly negates the otherwise astute and idiosyncratic
charms of Jesus' Son. Maclean's camera perfectly captures a mood
of euphoric listlessness which is at once a homage to Johnson and a tribute to
her and her team's sensitivities. If the scriptwriting mechanics of unifying
Johnson's yarns prove troublesome, the potentially jarring disparities in tone
are handled with greater ease. The film segues seamlessly from absurdist comedy
(Crudup blankly watching a naked middle-aged woman paragliding), to documentary
detail (Denis Leary's broken alcoholic
Her handling of heroin, though indulgent in terms of screen time, is otherwise strictly matter-of-fact. Rather than the ostentatious fetishism of drugs chic in, say, Trainspotting or Drugstore Cowboy, smack here is as regular and uneventful an activity as eating. People get high; sometimes they die. This uncondescending fatalism means that, when a doped-up Fuckhead wanders through a drive-in showing the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls convinced he's actually in a vast, sprawling cemetery, the effect is captivating.
All of which is enhanced by the accomplishment of the performances. Billy Crudup is a dazed, ruined presence whose poise gives the project its anguished heart. The supporting turns - particularly Morton, Leary and the inspired Jack Black - are equally impressive. The sublime interplay between Black and Crudup in the darkly comic segment 'Emergency', set in a blood-soaked casualty ward ("What am I gonna do about these fuckin' shoes, man? Listen to how they squish..."), is just one memorable scene in a film of many. Moments such as these leave you hoping Maclean doesn't have to wait another seven years for her next big-screen outing.
"Surf Buggy" - Dick Dale & His Del-Tones; "Sweet Pea" - Tommy Roe; "Mute", "Big Pill" - Camphor; "Yes, I'm Ready" - Barbara Mason; "The Iowa Waltz" - Greg Brown; "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)" - Paul Revere and The Raiders; "Last Date" - Floyd Cramer; "Lover's Holiday" - Peggy Scott, Jo Jo Benson; "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone?" - Doug Sahm; "She's a Jar" - Wilco; "The Ballad of the Green Beret" - Barry Sadler; "Ooby Dooby", "Airline to Heaven" - Wilco; "Main Title Theme (Billy)" - Bob Dylan; "Hang On Sloopy" - The McCoys; "The Love You Save" - Joseph Accrington; "Cowgirl in the Sand" - Neil Young; "Soul Dressing" - Booker T. and the M.G.s; "The Family That Prays", "Satan Is Real" - The Louvin Brothers; "Unchain My Heart" - Joe Henry; "Farther Along" - Christine Mourad; "Misty Blue" - Dorothy Moore; "The Circular Hallway" - Gerald Beal, Hanna Tennen, Eliot Bailen; "Sweet Desire" - The Kendalls
A beautiful portrait of Queen Victoria in the 1850’s, superbly played by Judi Dench, who remains isolated at Windsor castle in mourning for years after her husband’s death, just not up to facing “the people” until the arrival of a Scottish servant, Billy Connolly, who becomes her best friend and protector, so much so that he becomes the film’s title, causing whispers and rumors that continued to surround their life-long friendship and most likely unconsummated love affair. The best parts of this film are the short glances, gestures, and looks of impossibility between the two. Against this love story is the backdrop of the British Parliament discussing whether to abolish the Royal Family altogether, as they were spending so much time “away” from the people, causing the Queen to return to her rightful place playing a royal spectacle, the role she was always meant to play.
A deliriously happy film, a sweeping, powerful work filled with non-stop creative energy from all levels, it simply bursts with the joy of creation, as seen through the fictionalized re-creation of young William Shakespeare, played by Joseph Fiennes, whose life’s everyday turmoil is captured with his love of life, theater, language, and the love of stage-struck Lady Viola, an elusive beauty wonderfully played by Gwyneth Paltrow, a fleeting spirit who inspires him to write again after he’s stuck with the tentatively titled work “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirates Daughter – a Crowd Tickler,” aided by what must be the most intelligent and outrageously clever script of the year written by playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. While it is a costumed period piece, it worships the power of the imagination and one is literally taken aback by how completely this film lives up to the storyline’s dream of what love and inspiration can be, an ideal date movie.
Set in London in 1593, the film pits the rivalry of two theaters in Elizabethan times, the Court and the Rose, both engaged in ruthless competition, and one with a cash flow problem, the Rose. Meanwhile young Shakespeare has writer’s block, “It’s as if my quill is broken,” and seeks help from a psychic soothsayer who tells him “words will flow like rivers.” Judi Dench is perfectly cast as the frightfully pallid and serious Queen, wearing outrageous costumes, decorated to the nines with spikes coming out of her hair, chairs from one entire side of the theater must be removed so she may sit with a completely unobstructed view. Geoffrey Rush plays Henslowe, a twitchy theater producer who is always in debt to the local mob, rogues in robes that are always urging Shakespeare to write a comedy. It is only after a beautiful, young woman, a cross-dressing heiress with dreams of a forbidden career in the theater, reawakens his gift that Shakespeare begins to discover his muse, a clever romp that makes clever use of theatrical conventions and Shakespeare’s own works.
Viola De Lesseps, a rich merchant's daughter betrothed to Lord
Tilney, tipped off that a woman has joined Henslowe's troupe, exposes Viola
and closes the theatre on grounds of immorality, but Burbage magnanimously
offers the Curtain to his rival. Will takes over as Romeo, while Viola
resignedly goes through with the marriage to
Shakespeare in Love is a hodgepodge – or, as the Elizabethans might
more pungently put it, a gallimaufry and an olla podrida (rotten pot). The main
plotline – well-born young woman named Viola dresses up as a boy, joins
Shakespeare's troupe and has an affair with the playwright – is pinched
straight from Simon and Brahms' classic comic novel No Bed for Bacon, as
are some of the gags, such as Will practising multiple variants of his
signature at moments of stress. ("Shakspaw, he scribbled
viciously.") The stagestruck heavy is a blatant lift from Woody Allen's Bullets
over Broadway, and the scene-setting pays homage to the Monty Python school
of scatological reconstruction: Henslowe, striding through the
Which is perfectly fine since the heterogeneous mixture, a rich but satisfying plum-pudding, works splendidly, absorbing its borrowings and negotiating its switches of mood with little sense of strain. (There's only one serious lapse, a jarring descent into Carry-On inanity when Will puts on a squeaky voice and pretends to be Viola's female cousin.) Besides, style and subject are ideally matched, since we're dealing with the greatest magpie genius of all time. Shakespeare was notoriously disinclined to devise his own plots, preferring to snaffle them from Plutarch, Holinshed or whatever dog-eared chapbook came to hand; he cared nothing for unity of mood, tossing dirty jokes into high tragedy in a way that gave the Augustans the vapours; and several of his plays (Richard II, for example) contain great chunks written by someone else. Shakespeare in Love may fall short of his exalted standard, but it's a film after his own heart.
Tom Stoppard, co-scripting, can likely be credited with some literary gags that may bypass the groundlings (a bloodthirsty small boy, given to tormenting mice, gives his name as John Webster, who later wrote the bloody play The White Devil) and some of the cod-fustian dialogue: "If you be man to ride her, there are rubies in the saddlebag." But the chief delight of Shakespeare in Love, along with its gamy exuberance, is the acting. The chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow (after Sliding Doors, delivering yet another faultless Brit accent) and Joseph Fiennes inspires relief that the original casting (Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis) fell through. Around them cavort star turns from Imelda Staunton (born to play the nurse), Colin Firth sending up his arrogant Darcyesque image, Ben Affleck (a nostril-flaring Ned Alleyn), Judi Dench having a ball as Queen Bess, the increasingly superb Geoffrey Rush as the harassed Henslowe, and others too numerous to list. And the final triumphant premiere of Shakespeare's first true masterpiece, while edging dangerously near luvvie-ish self-regard, conveys something of what Nabokov called shamanstvo – the 'enchanter-quality' of great theatre. As Rush's Henslowe remarks, smiling beatifically as the whole shambles comes magically together, "It's a mystery."
The truth is whatever we say it is. —Stephan (Marton Csokas)
This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. —Reporter from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
This is another one of those paranoid
Cold War espionage thrillers that were the rage of the 1970’s with Alan
Pakula’s KLUTE (1971) and PARALLAX VIEW (1974), or the recently deceased Sydney
Pollack’s THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975), each one a tense, well acted, and highly
suspenseful drama with dark political undertones marked by the cool exteriors
of sterile architecture, featuring plenty of empty space, and a near
mathematical structure on which the story rests. This film is also well served by such an
extraordinary cast and a director who knows what he’s doing behind the camera,
shifting all the pieces around like a chess board, re-enacting history through
a kind of morality chamber drama, much like Roman Polanski’s DEATH AND THE
MAIDEN (1994). This is actually a remake
of a previously released Israeli feature by Assaf Bernstein, known by its
Hebrew title HA HOV (The Debt) (2007), where in the 1960’s a group of three
young Mossad agents are sent behind enemy lines into East Germany to kidnap a
Nazi war criminal known as the Butcher of Birkenau and bring him back to Israel
to stand trial. This fictionalized tale
is based on the horrific medical procedures of Josef Mengele, a German SS
officer who performed grisly medical experiments on the concentration camp
inmates, particularly young women, such as sterilization, shock treatments,
limb amputations or injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, leaving them
blind, where many died afterwards from untreated infections. In real life Mengele was hunted by the Mossad
in the 60’s, but he evaded capture and died a free man in exile at the age of
At her daughter’s grand book opening celebrating her life by revealing the harrowing details of the historic mission, Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer is being lauded for her heroic work as an Israeli agent 35 years ago, but that concerned look on her face suggests she’s uncomfortable with all the attention. Quickly flashing back to when she is played by young actress Jessica Chastain, we see the mission has gone terribly wrong, where the captured prisoner manages to escape by surprising his kidnapper and beating Rachel into a bloody pulp on the floor before making his way down a winding staircase, but somehow she summons the strength to crawl to the top of the stairs and shoot him before he could get away. The book is a huge success, but the lives of the three remain in turmoil, remaining secretive and distant, where a disfiguring scar on Rachel’s cheek from a succession of kicks to her jaw is a daily reminder of this incident. The Hollywood aspect to this story when told in flashback is adding a romanticized love triangle to the mission, which despite the taut suspense of the precision of their operation adds an element of pure soap opera melodrama. It’s hard to believe that secret agents actually have time for hanky panky, as one would suspect they need to eliminate distractions and focus on the business at hand. As it turns out, that’s exactly the view of one of the agents, David (Sam Worthington), but not shared by the commanding officer Stephan (Marton Csokas). This not only turns into a distraction but becomes a fatal flaw due to the intricate nature of what they need to do, which is kidnap a still practicing (under an alias) Doctor Vogel (Jesper Christiansen) after a series of routine fertility exams from Rachel as a pretend patient confirm he’s their suspect.
Madden displays a deft hand in the action sequences, where each phase slowly unfolds with surgical precision, where the underlying tension, especially well drawn out during the visits when Rachel allows herself to be examined by a man she knows is a vile monster, couldn’t be more discomforting and creepy. It’s all drenched in an eerie, completely detached calmness, shown with the cool veneer of excessive restraint, creating at times a dark, atmospheric mood of stillness that borders on horror. Christiansen is chilling in his role as a Nazi-spewing Jew hater, which he uses against his captors every chance he gets. Despite their meticulous planning, things go awry, and Bernhardt quickly realizes just how exposed and vulnerable his kidnappers have become, continually bickering among themselves about what to do. The bumbling aspect of this Mossad crew is a bit unsettling, as instead of maintaining their hard corps discipline, as this is the elite of the elite, they lapse into moments of psychological weakness which their captive easily exploits. Even with the elements of the narrative that one might find implausible, the choreography of the sequences moving back and forth in time is excellent, where the harrowing aspects of the kidnapping itself is a sheer delight and outweigh the misguided personal intimacies that evolve. But a morality play is perhaps best expressed in the breaking down of trust and loyalty, where the bonds that hold relationships and even societies together may be shaken by the very root of their own unstable foundations, undermined by human miscalculations. Rachel Singer is a complex figure, beautifully portrayed by both Chastain and Mirren, drawn by the opposing strengths offered by both David and Stephan, leaving her conflicted and perhaps even exiled from her own conscience, instead making an unholy alliance with history, where myth is always more captivating than the facts.
Based on the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, The Debt
is a complex spy thriller about three Mossad agents in 1966 sent into
A remake of the far more brisk 2007 Israeli film with a bullpen
of aging stars, this rather old-fashioned espionage drama seems deftly
engineered to please the middlebrow minions allergic to superheroes and
vampires. It's hardly a challenging film, though not for lack of strain,
bouncing between 1997, when scar-faced Mossad
agent Helen Mirren endures some autumnal glory in Tel
Aviv, and 1965, when, embodied by a wispy Jessica Chastain, she joins a team (Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas) intent on kidnapping a famous Nazi
butcher (Jesper Christensen) passing as an East Berlin
gynecologist. The rhythms of The Debt are emphatic and obvious, but at
least the Israeli cult of heroism gets a side-swipe fuck-you, and the loaded
thought of vaginal exams administered by a Birkenau mutilator is exploited for everything
it's worth, especially when one exam explodes into a leg-lock fight to the near-death.
The leading cast, strangely Jew-free, is all uncomplicated angst and
brow-furrows, except for
The latest effort from Shakespeare in Love filmmaker John Madden, The Debt follows a trio of Israeli agents (Sam Worthington's David, Martin Csokas' Stefan, and Jessica Chastain's Rachel) as they attempt to abduct (and bring to justice) a notorious Nazi criminal - with the film unfolding both in the past and in the late '90s, when the three comrades (Ciarán Hinds' David, Tom Wilkinson's Stefan, and Helen Mirren's Rachel) are forced to reunite following the publication of a book detailing their efforts. Madden generally does a nice job of establishing an impressively tense atmosphere, with the stretch set within a dingy apartment - where the agents are holding the aforementioned criminal - undoubtedly standing as a highlight within the proceedings. All three of the younger actors are quite good in their respective roles, with the real surprise here Worthington (ie after his wooden turn at the festival's Last Night, it's rather unexpected to discover that he's actually quite compelling here). The inclusion of a few electrifying interludes - ie the Nazi attempts to goad David into beating him up - staves off the stagy atmosphere one might've anticipated, yet it's ultimately difficult to muster up much interest in the love triangle that crops up about midway through. It's also worth noting that the film does run out of steam as it progresses, with the anticlimactic (and increasingly preposterous) third act effectively diminishing the impact of the frequently enthralling opening hour. Still, The Debt is a solid little thriller that undoubtedly stands as a marked improvement over Madden's last foray into the genre (2008's miserable Killshot).
What starts out as a gripping Cold-War-era espionage thriller
devolves into utter fantasy in director John Madden’s remake of a 2007 Israeli
film by the same title. Told mainly in flashback sequences, the story follows
the 1966 efforts of three young Mossad agents assigned to capture and transport
Nazi war criminal Dr. Vogel (Jesper Christensen), a.k.a. “the surgeon of
Birkenau.” A fundamental flaw stems from the film’s fictionalization of the
infamous Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele--a.k.a. “the Angel of Death.”
Although hunted by the real Mossad during the '60s, Mengele evaded capture. He
died a free man at the age of 67 in
Given the “Inglourious Basterds”-themed nature of its revenge fantasy narrative “The Debt” plays it too straight when it should push at the boundaries of revisionist history. When the filmmakers finally get around to pushing the action over the top in the third act, the result is disingenuous.
In any event, a 1997 book release party for the biographer/daughter of retired Mossad agent Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren) promises to reunite the three Mossad operatives for the first time in 30 years. With a prominent scar on her right cheek, Rachel reads aloud from the biography her daughter wrote about her intrepid experiences a lifetime ago. Rachel’s jagged facial scar evinces deeper emotional wounds. Mirren’s keen performance lets us see the broken internal pieces her character desperately wants to keep hidden. She reads a brutal paragraph in which she describes killing her hostage as he attempts to escape. The episode will pop up later in the movie, albeit under crucially different circumstances than those related in the book’s version.
Cut to 1966 when a younger Rachel (played by Jessica Chastain)
Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) communicates continuity with her older incarnation (Helen Mirren). Although the same level of recognition doesn’t exist between Sam Worthington and his older version (Ciaran Hinds), or between Marton Csokas and his later personification (Tom Wilkinson), the connection between Chastain and Mirren presents sufficient glue to keep us hooked.
The filmmakers attempt to shoehorn a lingering love story between Rachel and David that has simmered over the years. The relationship vies too heavily with a third-act spree of vengeance that hardly seems worth the effort for the pretentiousness it inflicts. A subplot regarding a long-held secret links the couple’s affair with the far-fetched action that serves as the climax. There’s an old saying that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” In real life, the Mossad gave up on tracking down Dr. Mengele and bringing him to justice even though they were at one time close to completing the mission. If the filmmakers wanted to recast history, they needed to have a better sense of war genre and espionage films to make it work. “The Debt” is entertaining enough. It just doesn’t function as a cohesive film.
What happens when you take an Israeli spy thriller and pump it up with
high-budget steroids for a
The original motion picture, “Ha-Hov” (“The Debt”) (2007), directed by Assaf Bernstein, was nominated for four Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, but didn’t garner much of an audience internationally. Focus Features and Miramax have reimagined the film to include Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, along with better costumes and dramatic music for chase scenes.
The story deals with retired Mossad agents Rachel (Mirren), Stefan (Wilkinson)
and David (Ciaran Hinds), and a 1965 mission that won them renown. In
You see, the punch line — spoiler alert — is that the threesome didn’t
actually kill Vogel, as they told
The film meets its first hurdle of casting challenges well. Because it flips between two eras, two people play each character: one older and one younger version of the same person. Sam Worthington as the young David meshes believably with Hinds as the older version of himself, and the fiery performance of Marton Csokas as the young Stefan (looking like a younger and even angrier Russell Crowe) outshines even Academy Award nominee Wilkinson.
In the original film, Gila Almagor played the lead female Mossad agent, and the inimitable Mirren is a worthy successor to Almagor’s prowess. Mirren has the actor’s gift of appropriating dialogue as though it were truly her own. Unfortunately, the contrast between her skills and those of her younger version, Jessica Chastain, reflects poorly on the latter. Chastain is certainly lovely to look at in the period clothes of the “Mad Men” era, but her character appears to vacillate between two states — distressed and disconcerted — and never seems to have a core competence, or even a sense of control, that would be a necessity for even a young Mossad agent.
While the psychological depth of the older characters is deftly portrayed,
Chastain as the young Rachel is too much of an incomprehensible cipher to carry
a story of this weight. Sure, the film’s most suspenseful moments are still
there — the moments when Rachel, pretending to be trying to conceive, visits
the surgeon of Birkenau, now in hiding as a gynecologist practicing in
But such scenes were true to the original film and, because they were less
heavy-handed, were done better the first time around, because of less
Now, I’m not a purist — I don’t always believe that original versions of
films are better (although actually, when I think about it, I can’t think of a single
remade version of a film that surpasses the first). My problem with this
adaptation, however, goes far deeper than quibbles with the
“You spent 30 years taking credit for it. Aren’t you tired of lying?” One character tells another, speaking of Vogel’s alleged death.
While I may be overly sensitive on this point, the film seems to be focused on the lie the Israeli characters allowed to exist rather than on the unutterable evils perpetrated by the person they are hunting. And by shifting the focus, from the quest for justice in the face of unspeakable evil to Israelis feeling bad about their own wrongdoing, “The Debt” stands the underlying story on its head in a far more dramatic and insidious way than casting choices alone ever could.
THE DEBT - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
Star Not Quite Overnight Margy
Rochlin interview with Jessica Chastain from The New York Times,
Helen Mirren: The Reluctant Libertine
Andrew Goldman interview with Mirren from The New York Times,
'The Debt' review: Evil's stain leaves a mark Mick LaSalle from The San Francisco Chronicle
The Canadian magazine Cinema Scope analyzes the Winnipeg Film Group, and has this to say about Maddin: "Unquestionably the most successful filmmaker to emerge from the Film Group, Maddin has produced seven features and numerous shorts since 1985, all marked by his strange quest to create 'authentic' early sound cinema. His obsession with early film styles is admirable in a way for, well, its sheer obsessiveness. But ultimately, his films sometimes seem to end up in the dead end of irony, their cleverness preventing engagement and exhausting the viewer by dint of their relentless artificiality."
Postmodernism POSTMODERNISM AND FILM Mattias Frey from Film Reference
Guy Maddin's films contain uncanny worlds that, at once strange and familiar, are archives of film and culture references from high to low. Born and raised on the Canadian prairies, Maddin is the best-known exponent of "prairie modernism," which developed around the Winnipeg Film Group.
Aesthetically, Maddin betrays a fondness for black-and-white
cinematography and a silent-film look lit from a single source. But color
footage often intrudes at unlikely places, accompanied by intentionally
discordant music and ambient sounds. Errors in continuity or film equipment in
the shot are par for the course in Maddin movies, which have been filmed in
abandoned warehouses, a grain elevator, a foundry turned garbage depot, or in
his mother's beauty salon. Capturing the essence of a Maddin film is difficult.
In interviews, as in his films, Maddin refers to influences as diverse as Pablo Picasso, the film director Douglas Sirk, the punk group the Ramones, Mexican wrestling movies, hockey star Mario Lemieux, the 1933 musical Footlight Parade, Euripides, and Mary Pickford. His short The Heart of the World (2000), commissioned for the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Preludes series by ten Canadian directors, is perhaps his masterpiece. In a mere six minutes he perfectly captures the style and tropes of Soviet montage cinema of the 1920s.
Irish Film Institute»Delirious Dreams: The Cinema of Guy Maddin ... Mark Peranson introduction to Guy Maddin
Perhaps the time is right for Guy Maddin’s type of filmmaking. Nostalgia and romancing the past are currently as de rigueur as the glorification of kitsch, and Maddin provides all these in spades. The end of 2003 saw no fewer than three very major yet different films from Guy in wide circulation: the stupendous movie-ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, the peephole gallery installation Cowards Bend the Knee, and the ‘proper’ feature film Saddest Music in the World. This is an astonishing cinematic output and all the more impressive if you’re aware of Guy’s laziness.
Guy Maddin claims to have been born on
Maddin’s cinephilia reveals itself in a film like Careful, the Leni Riefenstahl-meets-Caligari mountain movie in which there are allusions to directors as diverse as Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock, James Whale, Buster Keaton, Max Ophuls, Georges Méliès, Ernest Lubitsch and René Clair, all presented as if slapped together purposefully by Victor Frankenstein. But while Maddin wholeheartedly embraces primitivism in his delirious cross-breeds, he despises continuity and complicates nostalgia. One of his ongoing projects is remaking lost movies that even he has never seen. His celebrated short film The Heart of the World re-imagines Abel Gance’s 1931 science fiction movie La Fin du monde: other possible films in the project include Tod Browning’s London After Midnight and F.W. Murnau’s 4 Devils. These films, as well as those which inspire his other work, have in a way been murdered by history, and Maddin takes revenge. Yet he staunchly avoids literal remakes through his use of fast editing, absurdly complicated plots, hyper stylised sets and dialogue, and by injecting autobiographical elements as pure melodrama.
Before he became a filmmaker, Guy wanted to be a writer. Literature is as influential on his work as the cineastes mentioned earlier, including such writers as Knut Hamsun, John Ruskin, Herman Melville, Bruno Schulz and, in Cowards Bend the Knee, Marcel Proust and Euripides. The more one reads his own writing, the more intensely personal his films appear. His published diaries, strewn with passages of self-doubt amid the director’s amorous exploits, make it painfully clear that, for Guy Maddin, filmmaking is a way of coping.
All-Movie Guide Jason Buchanon
to as "the Canadian David Lynch,"
Winnipeg-born filmmaker Guy Maddin's
surreal, dreamlike works are often cited for their striking visuals and obscure
sensibilities. Whether he is recreating the look and feel of a frantic silent
film in the acclaimed short The Heart of
the World (2000) or basking in the over-saturated hues of Twilight of
the Ice Nymphs (1997), it seems slightly unfair that, due to Maddin's
strikingly unique talent as a filmmaker, critics and audiences still find the
need to define him through the talents of another filmmaker. Given the
decidedly primitive aesthetics of his celluloid universe, though, his work may
Maddin's father was a prominent hockey coach and manager, and his mother the proprietor of a local beauty shop, and both of his parents' careers had a profound effect on the young filmmaker. Whether watching the teams practice at Winnipeg Arena or playing with his friends at his mother's salon, Maddin's unique take on everyday eccentricities was fueled by numerous unforgettable childhood experiences. Two of these, in particular, were a piggyback ride from Bing Crosby and the advancement of a common cold into an intense neurological disorder that resulted in strange physical sensations; these experiences gave the imaginative youngster an acute and unique view of the world. Childhood memories and stories passed on by his parents have frequently found their way into Maddin's unique films as well, with the tale of how his grandmother accidentally poked out his father's eye memorably recreated in his first feature, Tales From the Gimli Hospital. As for his education, Maddin received a degree in economics from the
Encouraged by his participation in a local cable access show in addition to the films that Snyder had produced while in film school, Maddin put light to celluloid for his darkly comic freshman effort, The Dead Father. Soon developing his own style in regards to camera movement and lighting aesthetics, Maddin was quickly on his way to filming his first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital. An expressionistic voyage that found two hospitalized patients embarking on a bizarre competition and which took viewers into "a Gimli we no longer know," Maddin's surreal and humorous freshman effort gained the burgeoning filmmaker international attention, and the film continually played as a midnight feature in the theaters of New York in the years following its release. Reluctant to abandon short films for features as many filmmakers do, Maddin subsequently averaged one short per year while preparing his next feature, Archangel (1990). Once again filmed in stark black-and-white and taking on the crackling texture of a film released at the turn of the century, the film held true to Gimli's promise, and fans certainly couldn't accuse Maddin of a sophomore slump. Dipping his toes into color for his third feature, Careful, Maddin's departure from black-and-white showed a filmmaker as adept at creating lush, over-saturated images as he was at re-creating the desaturated images of an age long past.
In 1995 Maddin was honored as the youngest ever recipient of the Telluride Film Festival's Lifetime Achievement award — an event which ultimately marked the beginning of one of the most creatively stifled periods in the young director's career. Though his critical acclaim was at an all-time high moving into the new millennium, it seemed that many of Maddin's works were not coming to fruition as originally envisioned. Though Maddin had collaborated with writer George Toles to pen what was to have been his fourth feature, entitled The Dykemaster's Daughter, the withdrawal of a major financier would ultimately result in the project reaching a standstill during pre-production. The disappointment resulted in a five-year hiatus from features, and Maddin spent his downtime refining his skills with a series of acclaimed shorts.
Though he would emerge in 1997 with Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the fourth feature from Maddin ultimately proved somewhat compromised and unsatisfying to all involved despite its admirable stylistic flourishes. Even though the film itself would prove something of a disappointment, Maddin's developing relationship with numerous Manitoba-based filmmakers began to find the generally neglected regions' filmmakers receiving some long overdue recognition. While Maddin was teaching film at the
Maddin's fifth feature, a filmed version of a Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of Dracula entitled Dracula, Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2001), proved that the renowned experimental filmmaker had lost none of his remarkably unique vision in his period of soul searching. In addition to serving as co-editor of The Heart of the World, former student Dawson also joined Maddin for the production of Dracula, Pages From a Virgin's Diary. Following an experimental autobiographical art exhibit entitled Cowards Bend the Knee, in which viewers could only witness the film through strategically placed peepholes in a museum wall, Maddin was back at work for his sixth feature, The Saddest Music in the World (2003). A dramatic musical fantasy revolving around a worldwide competition to create the eponymous composition, the film retained all of the typical Maddin surrealism of his best works — including a stunning turn by Isabella Rosselini as a brewery baroness with beer-filled prosthetic legs.
Guy Maddin Jason Woloski from Senses of Cinema, June 2003
Particles of Illusion: Guy Maddin and His Precursors Darragh O'Donoghue from Senses of Cinema, June 2004
The Private Guy Maddin Adam Hart from Senses of Cinema, July 2004
Images Journal: The Cinema of Guy Maddin Derek Hill
The Film Reference Library bio information by Jason McBride
The Film Reference Library bio information from Guy Maddin Archive
GUY MADDIN, ARTIST - Artopia profile from John Perreault’s art diary
TCMDB Turner Classic Movie profile
Zeitgeist Films | Guy Maddin biography
The Canada Council for the Arts - Guy Maddin: Imagining ‘entirely ... profile by Christopher Guly
GUY MADDIN brief profile from 4p8
CBC Digital Archives - Prairie Visionaries: Guy Maddin and the Winnipeg Film Group including brief YouTube film clips
Series Details Curated By…Guy Maddin, introductory comments and 7 films selected from the UCLA film archives
here My Top Ten Criterions, by Guy Maddin
The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival short films of Guy Maddin, by Jason Sanders
Film Foundation member of the Film Foundation
Very Lush and Full of Ostriches, page 1 - Movies - Village Voice ... Guy Maddin looks at his own films from The Village Voice, July 31, 2001
Playtime Review -- Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival Northern Exposure, a reprint of Mark Peranson’s article from City Pages, February 4, 2004, also seen here (missing page 1): Northern Exposure - Arts - City Pages - City Pages
Guy Maddin at FilmJournal.com Wizard of
The pleasures of melancholy: an interview with Guy Maddin ... feature and interview by Richard Porton and Marie Losier from Cineaste, June 22, 2004
Tales From a Maverick’s Diary Donato
Totaro on a Maddin retrospective from Offscreen,
guymaddin Notes from a Maddin restrospective at American Cinematheque, January 21, 2005
Guy Maddin takes a
dream-like tour of Winnipeg - Arts - Toronto ... Home Truths, by Alison Gillmor from CBC News,
Guy Maddin Goes
Home - June 6, 2008 - The New York Sun
Nicholas Rapold from The
Maddin, Guy They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They
with Guy Maddin Interviewed by Scott
Shrake from Used Wigs,
A Guy Thing -
Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice
Interview by Dennis Lim from The
kamera.co.uk - feature article - Interview - A Quick Chat With Guy ... feature and interview by Antonio Pasolini (2004)
GreenCine | article Interview by Jonathan Marlow from GreenCine, April 28, 2004
Twitch Interview With Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini Interview by Todd Brown,
An Interview with Guy Maddin Dissecting the Branded Brain, interview
by David Church,
Twitch - Guy Maddin Talks The
Brand Upon The Brain Interview by
Guy Maddin on The Hour Interview by George Stroumboulopoulos, including a Maddin montage on YouTube ()
IndieWIRE Interview by Brian Brooks, May 9, 2007
Guy Maddin | The A.V.
Club Interview by Andy Battaglia,
- Guy Maddin talks My Winnipeg, self-mythologizing ... Interview by Kurt Halfyard,
TRIBECA PROFILE | "My Winnipeg" Director Guy Maddin Interview by Peter Knegt,
Maddin on His Winnipeg - ComingSoon.net
Exclusive: Guy Maddin on His
on Directing a ‘Docu-fantasia’ About His Hometown ... Interview by Bilge Ebiri from Vulture,
RED & SHINY: INTERVIEW WITH GUY MADDIN, DIRECTOR OF MY WINNIPEG Interview by James Nadeau,
Evening Class: 2008 SFSFF13—Guy Maddin In Defense of Melodrama Interview with Maddin by Michael Guillen,
Maddin's 'My Winnipeg' takes him home
Interview by Walter Addiego from SF
Reviews & Movie Showtimes | Guy Maddin Interview Interview by Richard von Busack from
Brian Darr Guy Maddin: "I Had This Haunted
Childhood," GreenCine interview
Time Out Interview (2008) Wally Hammond interviews Maddin from Time Out London
Guy Maddin's Docu-Fantastia: My Winnipeg, Premiere.com feature and interview by Karl Rozemeyer from Premiere magazine
The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin WallyDanger Channel Video with the correct aspect ratio (6:08)
A surreal meditation on death, this short film contains some
ideas and images worthy of the original Surrealists, with touches of humor.
Though in some ways the movie feels like the first-time attempt that it is, the
story is both more coherent and more profound than some of Maddin's
feature-length efforts. The black-and-white cinematography and old-style
dubbing set a strong mood, and the director makes good use of locations, props,
and costumes to create a dreamlike but palpable suburban world from a few
decades ago. A small note: 1930's movie buffs may be annoyingly distracted by
the clips of familiar soundtracks in the background. You can find this short on
the DVD of "Tales from the
In a collection of memories, our narrator recalls the death
of his father but not his actual departure. With the man's eldest son still
feeling resentment, loss and guilt over the man's death bring the spirit of his
father back in a semi-living state; ghostly if you will. These visits continue
as the son finds himself driven to despair by his father's continued presence
and he comes ever closer to a series of desperate acts.
Having been taken in by Guy Maddin's later work it was only a matter of time before I had a stab at his earliest film, specifically this short film that was one of his first forays into directing. Having gotten used to not understanding the narrative of any of his later films it was a surprise to find that not only did this appear to have more of a structure to it but that it also had a rather toned down visual style that I wasn't expecting even if this was his first film. Narrative wise it is still a bit thin but it produced enough to keep me interested and make me think more about the characters and the story I was being told, even if I could have done with a bit more in the way of explanation and background development. Ironically enough this is actually more accessible than some of his later work and could work as a way in for the uninitiated as well as some of his better films made more recently. Stylistically the film is very sparse and bare and may put some of his modern fans off who have come to expect great flair and style from him but for me both worked and this had enough going for it to be visually interesting without going over (or near) the top.
The cast are OK and do their part (posing well in the clever opening credits) but really Maddin is the star here as both writer and director. Overall this is an interesting short that is up to standard for the majority of Maddin's work. It may not win over those that find no value in any of his films (what would?) but it is a good short film that can be enjoyed on its own or as an example of the style and approach that he would continue to develop over later years.
There's a thin line between weird and strange, and Maddin's debut falls just the wrong side. For all that, it's hugely enjoyable, a shaggy-dog story set in Manitoba in a bygone age of bucolic gambolling, innocent erotic idylls, and dark, dark shadows. Lonely Einar succumbs to an epidemic that leaves cracks across its victims' faces, and ends up in the local hospital, where he whiles away the hours carving bark fishes and envying the narrative skills of his voluminous neighbour. The two spin tales of love, loss and necrophilia, and mortal combat ensues, to the sound of ghostly bagpipes. A nearly wordless '20s pastiche, the film obeys no logic except the impulse to fling in as many campy, incongruous images as possible. There are moments of jaw-dropping inspiration, and many that are just impenetrably odd. But this is immensely winning for the rawness alone.
"Please watch carefully," Winnipeg-born filmmaker Guy Maddin admonished potential viewers in the program note for The Heart of the World, the five-minute tribute to Russian silent film that for many attendees was the best single work at the recently-completed Toronto International Film Festival. Much the same can be said for Maddin’s first feature, the sinister and surreal 1988 Tales From the Gimli Hospital. While not a horror film per se, Tales so completely envelops the viewer in the turn-of-the-century title town, reeling from the effects of a smallpox epidemic ("a Gimli we no longer know," someone says), that the melodramatic competition between two patients becomes a life-and-death struggle comparable to the meditative and visually striking works of David Lynch, Luis Bunuel and F.W. Murnau. A blend of the new and old, complete with Icelandic traditions both accurate and invented, Tales From the Gimli Hospital is also available in a DVD edition that includes Maddin’s 1986 short The Dead Father and 1988 work Hospital Fragment. For those hooked on Maddin’s unique worldview, Kino Video’s day-and-date DVD release of his subsequent Careful (to be reviewed in the October video column) includes an hour-long documentary on the director and his career.
Guy Maddin's debut feature establishes the otherworldly, unfamiliar quality that he obsessively cultivates in later movies, albeit in different forms. Dreamlike or nightmarish depending on your taste, this black-and-white reverie creates a world seemingly unencumbered by Maddin's self-consciousness. The dreary, timeless Canadian backwoods that the film is set in appears to have sprung intact right out of Maddin's id, which in turn seems to have been deeply influenced by folklore, myth, and, most importantly, cinema. Surreal and distanced, Tales From the Gimli Hospital is more concerned with eliciting laughter through its clever use of the medium's formal and technical elements, rather than expressing or exploring distinct ideas. With its hissing soundtrack and hallucinatory black-and-white, one can almost imagine the film as a recently excavated sample from a forgotten genre. Even at its 72-minute clip, Tales From the Gimli Hospital might strike some viewers as overlong and laborious. For all its perversity, the movie doesn't quite sustain its oddball singularity. Before it's over, the novelty of the film's look and sound and Maddin's peculiar sense of humor fades, and monotony sets in. Wildly uneven, if undeniably inventive, the movie stands as a fitting introduction to one of the more unusual voices in world cinema.
Much like David Lynch's Eraserhead
or Lars Von Trier's The Element of Crime, Guy Maddin's first feature, Tales
from the Gimli Hospital, is almost unclassifiably strange. I have plenty of
reservations about it, but there's no danger of déja vu: it's safe to
say that even its detractors aren't going to be saying "Oh no, not another
semi-silent melodrama based on Icelandic folk tales featuring weird diseases
and traditional buttock wrestling!".
They will, however, be saying plenty of other things about it, mostly along the lines that it intersperses moments of jaw-dropping originality with almost wilful incoherence. There's a plot of sorts - the inhabitants of the town of
The opening intertitle sets the florid tone: "O Mount Askja! Your Eruptions have put us in Boats and sent us to scar [sic] new Lands. But from across the celibate Ocean you cast your nets and haul us back to your smouldering bosom." In other words, although set in Canada, the various Icelandic characters that populate the film keep harking back to their roots, both in terms of their profession (fishing and wrestling, for the most part) and their various rituals.
One such fisherman, Einar the Lonely, catches the disease and ends up in the Gimli Hospital, waited on by suspiciously young-looking nurses (Maddin confirms on the commentary that their average age was thirteen) and sandwiched between such characters as the garrulous Gunnar and what must be one of the few blackface minstrels to have appeared in any film in several decades. It’s a decidedly unorthodox hospital, where patients have to watch puppet shows through binoculars in lieu of anaesthetics, and there are hints that the nurses have rather more to offer their patients than just medical treatment – though this is tragically denied poor Einar, who eventually finds himself compelled to challenge Gunnar to a traditional Icelandic buttock-wrestling duel...
And that’s pretty much all the plot summary you’ll get, because that’s about as much as the film gives us – and no mere summary can hope to convey the film’s uniquely off-kilter atmosphere: it’s like a cross between Eraserhead and an early sound film from the late 1920s, and it’s constantly breaking into eccentric musical interludes and moments that I imagine are supposed to be dream sequences, though it’s hard to tell what’s meant to be “real”.
To be honest, I’m not sure Maddin really knows either – he later admitted that the film wasn’t especially strong in the plot structure department, and confessed that the script should have gone through a couple of extra drafts before shooting started. As a result, it’s a film that demands a fair bit of tolerance and understanding from its audience – there are quite a few moments that look like an inept school pantomime, and others that are breathtakingly inspired. I doubt very much that it adds up to anything particularly significant (though the Icelandic roots aren’t just an affectation – Maddin is himself of Icelandic ancestry), and Maddin has gone on to make significantly better films (
Plume Noire review Fred Thom
MediaScreen.com dvd review Paul Brenner
Images (Derek Hill) review also reviewing CAREFUL
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] also reviewing CAREFUL
CBC.ca Arts (Patricia Bailey) review Wicked
and Weird, The kooky charms of the Gimli Film Festival, By Patricia Bailey
DVDBeaver dvd review Mark Balson
WWI. Deep in Russian snows, peg-leg Canadian soldier Boles, pining for his lost Iris, is billeted in Archangel with the family of the lovely Danchuk; but the addled Boles ignores Danchuk's feelings for him in favour of mysterious Veronkha, whom he mistakes for Iris, although she is really the spurned wife of a faithless Belgian aviator... Confused? No matter; so are the characters in this absurdist melodrama. Maddin's second feature is pitched straighter than Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but is every bit as inspired and patchy. Pastiche remains to the fore, with Maddin's acute sense of camp more historically motivated than before. Complete with hieratic '20s-style acting, the film is an extravagant mélange of All Quiet on the Western Front, Eisenstein and DeMille, all the more impressive for its cut-price mise en scène. The war scenes are extraordinary, although thrown in far too liberally; even better are the daft tableaux vivants which seem to comprise Archangel's only entertainment.
The Heart of the World Guy Maddin from GreenCine
During the First World War, a Canadian soldier, devastated by
the recent death of his fiancee, arrives at the frozen Russian city of
Filming entirely indoors with homemade props and costumes, director Guy Maddin has created a very strange and intense movie. Cribbing heavily from the look and atmosphere of German expressionist cinema, Maddin goes much further in exploring some very human issues: loss, love, memory and redemption. He also examines patriotism and by stylistically depicting the horrors of trench warfare he delivers a pacifist message that reminds me of movies like Grande Illusion and All Quiet on the Western Front. The ultimate power of this movie, however, lies in the sense of alienation we see among the characters. They are not only unable to love each other, they are barely able to communicate. In fact, under the cloud of forgetfulness that is a major theme in this movie, the characters are often not even capable of recognizing one another at all!
Synopsis: A one-legged Canadian soldier is sent to the
Russian Arctic town of
This is the latest film from
The film centers on Lt. John Boles, a Canadian Army officer
who has one wooden leg, who is sent to the Russian Arctic town of
The film showcases Maddin's weird sense of humor. When a boy
faints, he is revived by brushing his stomach with horsehair brushes (a scene
reminiscent of the one in
The film has a unique appearance and style. It has some nicely warped humor. However, I found the film lacking on a number of points. First, there wasn't enough humor in it to make it really appealing. Second, the plot is iterative (as you will discover if you see the film). Certain scenes are reused many times. Because of the cycling of the plot, you might eventually lose interest in the film. At times I looked at my watch to see how much longer the film had to run.
I should mention that the film has received very mixed
reviews. Two local papers gave it very good reviews. However, word-of-mouth
advance reviews from various sources indicated that it was pretty bad. (Some of
the negative reviews came from fans of
As for a recommendation on the film, I would begin by noting
that it is much too strange for a general audience. If you are a fan of silent
films, you might find the film of interest for its technical aspects, namely
the imitation of silent film techniques. If you are a fan of
Reel.com DVD review [Rod Armstrong] also reviewing TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS
DVD Talk (Matt Langdon) dvd review [3/5] also reviewing TWILIGHT OF THE ICE NYMPHS and THE HEART OF THE WORLD
The Vagrant Café - Christian Cinema [Seth Studer] also reviewing LA JETÉE
It's time Guy Maddin, the brilliant Winnipeg fabulist who gave us Tales from the Gimli Hospital and Archangel, was rescued from cult obscurity. Hopefully, this darkly idiosyncratic gem will do the trick. In the 19th century Alpine town of Tolzbad, the puritanical townspeople tread and speak softly, for fear of bringing down an avalanche. But beneath this soft blanket of repression lurk incestuous desires, unspoken fears, and the ever-present threat of violent death. A post-modern silent melodrama, its wry inter-titles and colour-tinted images hark back to, and yet cruelly dissect, a lost 'innocence'. Uniquely weird, subtly macabre, and utterly compelling.
“Careful,” the hilariously bizarre new film from Canadian director Guy Maddin, is like some lost masterpiece from a time-warped alternative dimension -- a strange artifact that time forgot.
Everything about this curious enterprise seems perversely
anomalous. Its setting is a mountain village in the fictitious
Of course, beneath all this surface politeness and courtesy lies a swamp of depravity. The main characters are two brothers, Johann and Grigorss (Brent Neale and Kyle McCulloch), well-mannered boys, basically, who attend butler school and have the misfortune of being in love with their mother, Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). A third brother, Franz (Vince Rimmer), sits lonely by the window in the attic, where he is kept.
The story follows a mad logic all its own. In one scene Johann has a lurid dream about his mother and then as punishment presses burning coals against his lips. In another, Grigorss spills wax on the face of a corpse, then wipes it off in a panic, rubbing the skin raw. The fun of all this lies in the uncanny extravagance of Maddin's exaggerations.
Visually, the picture is an exceptional feat. Using wildly angled shots and footage that is tinted or intentionally distressed to mimic the texture of aged film stock, Maddin presents us with ghostly images that seem just beyond explanation. And the dialogue is equally baroque. (My favorite line is "Don't boast, Grigorss, it will make you callous. And stop eating those gooseberries.")
At times you feel as if you're watching some Jeanette MacDonald operetta gone insane; at others it has the haphazard quality of an Ed Wood cheapie. Perhaps the strangest aspect of all is that somehow Maddin manages to make all this outrageous inventiveness hang together. It's of a piece, though a piece of what I'm still not quite sure.
For the residents of the Alpine Valley hamlet of Tolzbad in the late 19th century, their greatest fear is of making the slightest noise and triggering an avalanche that would destroy the village. Their entire lives are muffled. People speak only in modulated tones. Musical instruments are “played” silently, or in acoustically soundproofed chambers. When a widow takes the notion to crank up the gramophone and dance with her two sons, the three of them cover the windows with protective drapes made from sheepskins so that the music can't seep out. Even the vocal chords of all the region’s animals have been surgically severed in order to avert any unintentional disaster. When a dog barks frantically, all one hears is the unnerving clacking of its teeth. The villagers' daily comings-and-goings are punctuated by their admonitions to each other. "Careful," one will say, "Don't spill it." “Never gamble with life,” counsels another. "Peril," all are assured, "awaits the incautious traveler," and restraint in all behavior is the dictated expectation.
Welcome to the deliriously inventive, wildly melodramatic,
and blackly comic world of Guy Maddin – this time set in the Bavarian foothills
of a mythical land called Tolzbad, a stand-in for Maddin's
Dreamily filmed in a glorious process much like that used for early cinematic two-strip Technicolor, Careful is a feast for the eyes and an intoxicating homage to German Expressionism and the German "mountain pictures" of the early 20th century, with a bit of Frank L. Baum stirred in to the heady brew. Think of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari, Josef von Sternberg, Leni Riefenstahl, and The Wizard of Oz, and you start to get the picture.
If the visuals are homage, the goofily demented dialogue belongs entirely to Maddin and his frequent collaborator, George Toles, who had me alternately – and often simultaneously – mesmerized by the melodrama and giggling wildly at its outlandishness (when my jaw wasn’t dropped, that is). The film hits the ground running with an hysterical opening litany (diatribe) of adages, most of which start with the word "Don't," and which any child can attest he or she has heard more than once too often. Later, a prospective lover proffers a wad of hair to her beloved, with a heartfelt, "here is all the hair I've lost in the past few weeks." Likewise, I can't imagine a more sublimely absurd lovers' exchange than, "Oh, Klara, you are a frisky one!" and the rejoining, "Even the reindeer are such, when the spring is coming."
DVD Review of Maddin's 1992 Film Careful Keith Waterfield from Alternative Film Guide
DVD Times Michael Brooke
MediaScreen.com dvd review Paul Brenner
DVD Confidential dvd review [A] Scott Stanndish
Images (Derek Hill)
review also reviewing TALES FROM THE
The Onion A.V. Club [Noel Murray] also reviewing TALES FROM THE
Playtime Review -- Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival Northern Exposure, a reprint of Mark Peranson’s article from City Pages, February 4, 2004, also seen here (missing page 1): Northern Exposure - Arts - City Pages - City Pages
DVDBeaver dvd review Richard Malloy
SISSY BOY SLAP PARTY
Brilliantly conceived and with an editor from the gods, this grainy black-and-white slap-fest produces a range of ideas and emotions that many features fail to find. The notion of hands on skin-stretched for the African drummers, sculpted for the sissy sailors-is tossed back and forth as the men explore their pent up feelings to the pulsating rhythms (deftly coloured with eerie strings), despite their geriatric leader's admonishment before he headed out to the condom shack for supplies.
Sissy-Boy Slap-Party Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
Note: I was watching this on crappy streaming video, so the rapid-fire edits mostly turned to blobby black-and-white, like a digitized beer logo on Cribs. Still, if Maddin authorizes the on-line put-up, it's fair game.] In the past, we all know that Maddin has done wonders with the short-form. The Heart of the World is a flat-out masterpiece that gives and gives even after 10+ viewings. Odillon Redon was suitably intricate and mysterious, a hazy homage to GM's surrealist forebear. S-B S-P is just a lazy, one-joke affair, a sketchpad trifle more akin to how feature directors tend to treat short filmmaking. It trades on Maddin's frequent ambiguously-gay ambiance, but then turns into a rather transparent treatise on the homoeroticism underlying the martial arts genre. (Still, as Commentaries on a Disreputable Genre by Eminent Intellectual Auteurs go, it's nowhere near as bad as Hal Hartley's abysmal short The New Math.) Fey and smarmy where it thinks it's ironically deploying the tropes of "feyness" and "smarminess," it's partially rescued by a great sight-gag at the end. Do you need a permit to park your bicycle like that?
DVD Times Anthony Nield (excerpt)
Indeed, among the supplementary features are three such examples: Sissy-Boy Slap-Party, Sombra Dolorosa and A Trip to the Orphanage. Admittedly the latter plays like a Saddest Music outtake (though all three work as spin-offs, each being music based and concluding with the intertitle: “the saddest music in the world?” - though Sissy-Boy was made almost a decade ago), but the first two demonstrate how Maddin can be far more fulfilling when he allows himself a narrower focus. Sissy-Boy Slap-Party plays like a goofy homage to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks and Jean Genet (bare-chested sailors courtesy of Querelle; black and white photography courtesy of Un Chant d’amour) as well as some po-faced example of ethnographic documentary. There’s no narrative as such, just the “slap-party” of the title - had it been included in The Saddest Music of the World it would have made a standout moment, as it is it makes for a standout short. And the same is true of Sombra Dolorosa, a demented take on demented Mexican melodramas replete with grieving widow, masked wrestler and garish (yet oddly beautiful) two-strip colour.
A hazy, fever dream of riverbank eroticism played out as a
mirror ball recollection of turn of the century soft-core surrealism; with the
whole thing further abstracted by the continual stylisations of the director,
his absurd sense of postcard caricature and bawdy humour, and the exciting
presentation of music and movement that recalls the energy and sensuality of
the continually fascinating masterpiece, West Side Story (1961). You can
attempt to read the film on a deeper level if you must, however, I think the
intention of Maddin was simply to play around with the various iconography of
early gay cinema as an exercise in ironic style and sly subversion, whilst also
experimenting with the representation of movement and rhythm in a purely
musical sense (something that he would eventually return to with a film like
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, 2002). The emphasis is clearly on style
and technique, as opposed to any kind of conventional narrative or accent on
plot; with the director instead experimenting with elements of interpretive
dance and his typically antiquated approach to cinema, as a parade of preening
boy-toys in sailor suits indulge in fighting and frivolity as an extended
metaphor for the nature of man and the continuing cycle of violence.
However, even with such suggestions in mind, the film is presented in such a way as to defy easy interpretation, with the spellbinding quality of Maddin's film-making approach and the sheer hypnotic quality of the rhythms of the music and the rhythms of the film transporting us in a way that the very best pictures often do. Even though many chose to accept this simply as an exercise in stylistic indulgence, you can still attempt to find some kind of sub-textual connection with the ideas, finding elements of metaphor or allegory perhaps in the way that Maddin juxtaposes an antique, anachronistic presentation of clearly defined sense of iconography, with an energy and excitement often lacking from many authentic films of the era that he is here making reference to. More fittingly however, the film can be approached as an infernal parody of the notions of machismo and male bravado, as ego and competition fuel the performance into more and more frenzied realms of dance-like violence that is 'acted' (both by the performers and the characters that they portray), as opposed to 'felt'. You could also see the film as an extended metaphor for sex, with the harsh foreplay giving in to a series of beautiful lines and movements before all participants lie back, exhausted and spent.
This interpretation is further suggested by the opening lines of dialog, in which the elder of the men announces that he's going into town to buy condoms, quickly reminding the boys that there will be "no slapping" - perhaps a pertinent allusion here to "no slapping / no sex". Again, these are just suggested interpretations on my part, with the film really working as a visual experience, no different from music video or performance art. It's all very silly and somewhat tongue-in-cheek as well, with the faux-kitsch implications of the title also going some lengths in suggesting the frivolous and amusing tone that the director seemed to be attempting. At the time of writing, I'm still a novice when it comes to the work of Guy Maddin, though I've seen most of his short films and find them all to be excellent in their own unique and compelling little way. Though it at first might seem like a ridiculous novelty, Sissy Boy Slap Party (1995) is actually a fascinating and highly entertaining six-minute film of captivating design, intelligent style and pure, unadulterated imagination.
The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival Jason Sanders
Asked by the BBC to create a short film inspired by a favorite artwork, Maddin chose a charcoal sketch by French Symbolist Odilon Redon. Emulating the smudgy, charcoal look of the original, Maddin feverishly retells the story of Abel Gance's La Roue in five minutes (the original was eight hours).
After the successful art-house release of Guy Maddin's
feature film Careful in 1992, and the made-for-tv half-hour The Hands of Ida,
Guy was commissioned by the BBC in 1994 (along with a select few filmmakers
around the world) to choose a favourite work of art and make a short film about
Guy chose "The Eye Like A Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity (After Edgar A Poe, 1882)" by Odilon Redon, the great French symbolist painter. Eye Like A Strange Balloon taken from a period of Redon's life where he used charcoal almost exclusively up until the 1890's (when Redon started using pastels and colours in his work), contributes much of the inspirational source for this brilliant short film.
This film does remind one of a dark charcoal painting come to life. The film was shot in black and white on a 16mm Bolex, edited on a Steenbeck, with minimalist music added by Roger White and an excellent sound design by Clive Perry.
For those interested in short films and surreal art, The Eye Like A Strange Balloon is a great introduction.
Commissioned by the BBC to create a short film inspired by a favorite work of art, Canadian avant-garde filmmaker, Guy Maddin, selected The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity, a charcoal sketch by the leading French Symbolist, Odilon Redon (1840-1916). Redon's piece was part of a series of illustrations he created for Charles Baudelaire’s French translations of the works of Edgar Allen Poe.
As Redon took a certain impressionistic distance from Poe’s text, Maddin does likewise with Redon’s illustration. Though one shot is a direct cinematic rendering of the title work, Maddin was not really interested in duplicating Redon’s drawings or following the narrative of Poe’s text. Instead, he sought to broadly emulate the black, smudgy texture of Redon’s charcoal, which he describes as “oily as a train engine,” and took narrative inspiration from the silent film, La Roue (1922), by one of his favorite filmmakers, Abel Gance. Whereas Gance’s epic originally ran a full 8 hours, the BBC limited Maddin’s submission to “4 minutes, and not one frame more.” Should you find the narrative a tad murky in sections, understand that a rather significant amount of redaction was inevitable.
The story, though fairly simple and straightforward, may well be lost to the casual viewer beneath the endlessly bizarre imagery and intricately layered soundtrack. Like Gance’s La Roue, it is a love-triangle between a father, his son, and an orphan girl who joins them on their great railway journey across the surreal landscape of life. Each character is conveniently identified by name-tag: the father, Keller, the son, Caellum, and the orphan girl, Bernice. When we first meet K & C, they are happily riding the rails, a proud father and his young, adoring son. Within the first 60 seconds, we are witness to C’s sexual maturing, dramatized by the flash of a beard sprouting across his face (spreading from one ear to the other in time-lapse fashion) and his emergence from a giant boulder-like snail-shell cladding his lower body. It cracks open with an ominous explosion, and an adult actor emerges to take over the role of C. K & C soon come upon the comely Bernice, still clad in her juvenile shell. B joins them on their journey and quickly becomes K’s favorite. Soon, B’s shell also breaks away, she emerges into maturity, and the inevitable sexual tension is born.
The rest I leave for you to decipher, though pay particular attention to the jackhammer teeth-chattering, the image of the double-blinded father, the son’s head hanging like plump fruit from a Dali-esque tree, and the eaten beard. This film is a catalog of exquisitely rendered, dark dream imagery.
Maddin’s original cut ran 5-1/2 minutes and he concedes that the 4 minute cut came at the expense of narrative clarity, such that the images appear to be ‘dealt out like a pack of cards’. As with an earlier experience of being asked to pad out a film to feature length for exhibition (Tales from the Gimli Hospital), the easy-going Maddin complied and, in both instances, placed his stamp of approval upon the final cut (without stating a preference). Although the film is timed at on the packaging, it is, in fact, precisely 4 minutes – plus about 30 seconds for the credits.
Regarding the quality of the transfer, it is difficult to tell whether a particular hazy, murky or otherwise distressed image is Maddin’s doing or otherwise. From the high quality of the other, more conventionally shot films in this collection and the lack of any pixelation or other obvious digititis, it seems safe to pronounce it a very good, if not excellent transfer. Worth mentioning, however, is a peculiar, tiny, white silhouette of a camera superimposed like a TV network logo in the upper part of the screen just right of center. It appears to have been added after-the-fact and remains totally unexplained. Though present throughout, it quickly recedes from prominence amid the busy mise-en-scene and is not overly distracting.
The film features Maddin’s typical, densely-layered scoundscape, replete with hissing, steam-spewing clamshells, the incessant chu-chu-chu-ing of the train and tacka-tacka-tacka of the rails, the intermittent sounds of teeth being brushed and great waves crashing against rocky shores, and a single line of dialog: “Oh the humanity!” Judging sound quality is hindered for the same reasons as the video, but by reference to other films on this disc, one may presume that it is an accurate reflection of the original mix. As with all the commentary tracks accompanying the various short films on this disc, Maddin’s sounds, quite literally, phoned-in. But he provides an insightful and nuanced commentary in his typically engaging style, detailing just the sort of information a curious viewer would be interested in knowing. Brief but informative production notes are included, as well as an alternate angle feature displaying Maddin’s rudimentarily drawn storyboards.
A Note to the Perplexed: One might be inclined to wonder why anyone other than a bona fide Guy Maddin fanatic would be moved to purchase a DVD for a single, four minute film, regardless of how interesting or innovative it may be. Certainly, one would not likely be so moved even at its relatively inexpensive price of $10-12. But in addition to Maddin’s film and a veritable trove of wonderful short features (including Bride of Resistor, Depth Solitude, A Guy Walks Into a Bar and the original short version of Big Brass Ring), there is also Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), the 30-minute science fiction classic that inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Marker’s film is one of the true landmarks in the history of cinema and something no sci-fi aficionado or lover of experimental cinema should be without. So why not review La Jetée, you ask? Simply because it’s a film that’s received so much critical recognition and appreciation over the years that any review I could muster would be completely superfluous. Suffice to say that it is fascinating, mesmerizing, thought-provoking and – for one brief moment – utterly transcendent.
Bright Lights After Dark: The Eye Like a Strange Balloon (Guy ... Noel Vera, which includes the film ( mi)
The Evening Class [Michael Guillen] not much to say about the film, but it’s an interesting perspective nonetheless
The previous posting is actually describing Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee, which started as an installation piece before it was released as a film. Hands of Ida, on the other hand, is a half-hour TV drama which Maddin directed for hire and is probably the worst thing he ever made. In revenge for the rape and murder of a girl named Ida, a group of radical women go about surgically castrating randomly kidnapped men. A bickering pair of former lovers who work for a market research company conduct an implausible opinion survey to find out how people feel about what's going on. The script is ridiculous and the acting amateurish in what is, to date, Maddin's only attempt at a contemporary story set in the supposedly "real" world.
The Heart of the World Guy Maddin from GreenCine
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) drifts away from the familiar confines of the archaic film (it's shot in 35mm full colour with a contemporary aspect ratio and nary an intertitle) and into the deep waters of language, and therefore decadence. The dialogues are drawn from the ascetic Knut Hamsun's Pan, then corrupted by dollops of Prosper Merimée. The theatrical decors are inspired by fevered Gustave Moreau. [Screenwriter and longtime collaborator George] Toles gave actors Frank Gorshin and Shelley Duvall plenty to say, and Maddin let them say it all as musically as possible. Very lush and full of ostriches! Has the strongest final reel in the auteur's filmography.
An acquired taste they may have been, but from the mock early sound-era Nordic saga Tales from the Gimli Hospital to the deconstructed, de-Nazified mountain film Careful, the camp pastiche melodramas of Canadian experimentalist Maddin had a compelling (if confounding) hallucinatory logic of their own: surreally funny, but halo'd by a haze of 'lost age' romantic nostalgia. Forsaking at last the creaky conventions of '20s cinema, Maddin takes his inspiration here from the equally kitsch but more ethereal magical reaches of such '30s movies as the Reinhardt/Dieterle A Midsummer Night's Dream. Sadly, it collapses dizzily amid a baroque shower of bejewelled costumes, Kenneth Anger style colour overload, mock fairytale purple prose, and pixillated anti-naturalistic performances: mournful ugly sister Amelia (Duvall); mesmerist Dr Solti (Thomson), the object of her affection; widowed Zephyr (Krige); a returned convict, and a dog called Aesop among them. Finally pretty tedious.
The Globe and Mail review [2.5/4] Liam Lacey
THE first reaction to a film such as Guy Maddin's Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is simply not to get it. It is apparently some sort of fable, set in a musty twilight never-never island of a pale yellow light, moss and drifting ostrich down, where six characters live, in various states of delusion, talking strangely and acting odder.
After a bit, though, you recognize there may be nothing to "get" in any conventional sense: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs creates a textured world that is weird and wonderful (and sometimes monotonous). There's a debt to surrealism, a fascination with the unconscious and dreams, of symbols of power and death and disruptive eroticism. There are elements of mythology, snatches of Grimm's fairy tales and low humour (for instance, a character walking about with a spike through his head).
Like Maddin's previous three features (Tales From the
First, the story: A man named Peter, still wearing his handcuff scars from prison, arrives home to the mythical island community of Mandragora, on a ship. After an encounter on board, with a mysterious young woman named Juliana (Pascale Bussières), he arrives home at the family ostrich farm where his sister, Amelia (Shelley Duvall) lives and yearns to marry Dr. Solti (R. H. Thomson), the community's resident cruel mesmerist.
Amelia's hired hand (Frank Gorshin) wants to take over the farm. A mysterious pregnant woman named Zephyr (Alice Krige) wanders about the island, living in a tidal cave and waiting for her absent fisherman husband to return. Peter, the hero, discovers that the doctor, who recently had his leg crushed while trying to put a statue of Venus upright, has Juliana in his thrall. Violence ensues and the order is upset.
Shakespeare's The Tempest is one obvious source of inspiration here, with the island ruled by a magician, Juliana as an Ariel figure, and most clearly, Cain Ball as an anagram form of Caliban, the enslaved monster of Shakespeare's tale. But those Shakespearean elements from Georges Toles's screenplay, for all their foreshadowing of Freudian psychology, are merely the frame upon which to hang the movie's deliberately static, but visually opulent conceits.
No doubt there is a beauty to the appearance of the film, but it is a rather sickly beauty: washed-out pinks, yellow skies, moody green forests. Each interior shot is stuffed with prop images (skulls, statuary, netting), a fungal richness of purples and greens and icy blues.
The sound is even weirder. Actors have dubbed their own dialogue (the exception is actor Nigel Whitmey, as Peter, who has the voice of another actor, Ross McMillan). But the entire cast could have been dubbed in by Mel Blanc, for all the difference it makes. The dialogue seems carefully constructed to resemble literature in clumsy translation, with archaic constructions ("We have much to talk about"), and an avoidance of contractions. There are several accents running around, with Thomson, as the sinister doctor, hitting those hard Scandanavian 'r's like a malfunctioning coffee-grinder.
There is something compelling about these performances, so detached from expected motivation and the usual actors' tricks. Tight-rope walking in space without a net, the cast manages to find some grounding for its elusive characters.
In a movie world where every new release promises to be something you've never seen before, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs succeeds in being genuinely different -- even if you can't quite figure out exactly what it's supposed to be.
(Matt Langdon) dvd review [3/5]
PopcornQ review George Brent Ingram (Border/Lines)
With Hospital Fragment, Guy Maddin brought back some of the
actors from his longer work Tales From The Gimli Hospital.
This film does seem to have been shot at the same time as Tales From The Gimli Hospital was (a full 11 years earlier), and that's part of the charm. It's like having an extra bonus after watching the longer film. We're treated to a sequel/remake/3 minute condensation? of a longer film with three of the main actors, with the same director, similar ambience, rhythmic editing, surreal storyline, etc.
This film is a bonbon in the oeuvre of Guy Maddin, and makes for a fun epilogue to Tales From The Gimli Hospital. After this film, one of Guy's highest achievements was to come next: The Heart Of The World.
Guy Maddin : Hospital Fragment on YouTube ()
The happiest and most joyous film event of the year, and by no means an accident, like all of Maddin’s films, it was painstakingly put together, frame by frame, and is simply wonderful. The frenzied music is the engine that drives this piece, described by Maddin himself as “the world’s first subliminal melodrama.”
The Heart of the World Guy Maddin from GreenCine
[ed."This wonderful collection also includes"] the five-minute agitprop pastiche The Heart of the World (2000). Some have described this frenzied feature-compressed-into-a-short as a call to arms meant to topple the complaisantly flaccid cinema of today, a plea to reinvent movies from scratch, or a reverent myth which finally places film at the very center of the universe where it belongs. Maybe Guy Maddin, that great lava-sprite, has been expressing all these impassioned sentiments since the very beginning of his career. Who am I to say?
"Guy Maddin?s five minute feature is a thimble sized epic of sacrifice, salvation and innuendo turned inside out. Like a Kino Eye version of the Fleischer brothers' Koko?s Earth Control or Metropolis on an (unlaced) shoestring, The Heart of the World comes hurtling off the screen with the crazy determination of a runaway train. Maddin exposes a sibling rivalry of biblical proportions and a romantic triangle - beware when saviors attract! A fair haired fallen Messiah with a heart of gold divides the brothers but unites the world." - Mark McElhatten
"I'm sorry! I've abused this Prelude - turned it into a soapbox for my tireless campaign to redeem melodrama. Without anyone suspecting a thing, I've jammed tiny, microscopically fleeting plot twists between the images of my ostensible movie presentation, deviously submerging in this way an entire feature film, all in a mere five minutes - the world's first subliminal melodrama! Please watch carefully." - Guy Maddin
As befitting their etymology, many of the other-congratulatory 25th
anniversary Toronto International Film Festival-commissioned shorts called
“Preludes” were ludicrous wastes of time and money. No need to get into those.
Perhaps closest to the operatic definition of the word, Don McKellar’s
bitter-toned, light-hearted and ultimately “merely” amusing A Word from the
Management, based on his experiences as an abused
This praise comes from someone who doesn’t consider himself a die-hard fan of Maddin’s always intriguing features. My conjecture is that despite his apparent desire to tell fanciful stories (if not exclusively, of the heart), he’s willingly incapable of the constraint necessary to be a successful storyteller. The Heart of the World is another one of his idiosyncratic reveries, with the director’s customary obsessions and characteristics, including the idealization of women, blatant, playful cinephilia, masochism (both emotional and physical) and a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic plot. But it’s feverishly paced and dramatically encapsulated, at points even subliminal in its imparting of information – and perhaps that’s the key to this grandly concise success.
A five-and-a half-minute short containing approximately 800 edits, The Heart of the World is a frenetic machine-gun montage of low-angled images and ideas. Still, it’s more avant-gardish than avant-garde. Opening with an allusion to Un Chien Andalou in the form of a close-up of an eye followed by a mortician’s incision and ending with the repeated visual exhortation of Kino!, Maddin slices and dices a sexualized melodrama – complete with exploding phallic rockets and vaginal splits in the Earth’s cracking crust – into postapocalyptic shards. The effect is watching a narrative feature that’s been reassembled after being hit by a comet.
Set on the fateful day that a blonde state scientist named Anna (think: Aelita, Queen of Manitoba) uses her acumen and a really big telescope to discover the impending implosion of the earth’s core, the true tension of the film has to do with a simple love-triangle between Anna and two brothers, Nikolai, a youth mortician who tries to impress her with cadaver trickery, and Osip, an actor energetically playing Christ in the Passion Play. The Slavic revolution led by a vodka-swilling peasantry and the pending apocalypse aside, things between the three lovers are complicated when Akmatov the industrialist (played with cigar-chomping gusto by erstwhile Maddin producer Greg Klymkiw, credited by his Ukrainian name) enters and sweeps Anna off her feet.
Upon the first viewing of the onslaught, the perfect match between the rousing Soviet-styled patriotic score and the Russian Constructivist-inspired sets and images may trick a viewer into thinking that Maddin assembled some found footage and put it to a score of his own composition. Of course, the reverse is actually true – The Heart of the World was shot on an ancient hand-cranked Bolex on a massive set in Winnipeg’s Dominion Bridge Works building and the music, Georgi Sviridov’s “Time, Forward” (first composed for a popular 1965 Soviet film directed by Mikhail Shveitser and later featured as the theme music of successful TV program, “Novoe Bremya”) was found in the vaults of Preludes producer Rhombus Media. (A different sensation is created by the found-footage shorts of Jay Rosenblatt, most recently, King of the Jews – where the images of crucifixions culled from early silents slowly assume the status of historical documents.)
The excavation does not end there. The familiarity of the images may be
imbedded in our collective film unconscious – while the film begs comparisons
to Eisenstein and German Expressionism, the inspiration mostly comes from one
of Maddin’s favourite filmmakers, Abel Gance. Maddin took the core of his plot
from Gance’s 105-minute 1930 sci-fi melodrama La Fin du monde, a
legendary lost, critically reviled, choleric melodrama of apocalypse. In the
future, a comet is headed towards earth and the end is imminent; a stunned
public meets this predicament – seen explicitly as a judgement from God – with
either hedonism or religious stoicism. Itself based on a futuristic 1893 novel
by astronomer-visionary Camille Flammarion (available in translation as Omega:
The Last Days of the World), Gance’s film was shredded to pieces by
unscrupulous American producers. It was only seen in the
In La Fin du monde, Gance played Jean Novalic, the son of the astronomer who discovers the approaching comet. Jean becomes a would-be messiah, denouncing ribald excesses of humanity and getting himself crucified. How Maddin, his congested career in a semi-constant state of torment with regards to filming and funding, would identify is obvious. (The same goes for any other artist working in film in the year 2000.) This baggage also explains why he would make the kind of film that he did – audacious, challenging and unrelenting – when given free rein and a plentiful bounty, where others might have played it safe. Though The Heart of the World is a sly rebuilding of a film never seen, its mirrored shards a mournful legacy of Gance’s loss, the way Maddin shifts the thrust of the narrative alters history. For example, his replacement of an external cause (meteor crashing) with an internal one (heart failure) is both typical and inspired in its tragic implications. (And I think the glimpses of the resurrected dead allude to Gance’s J’Accuse, but don’t quote me on that.)
But, yet, there’s even more there. If McKellar’s laundry list of complaints
revealed the general truth of panicked disorganization lurking behind any
operation of the
Here’s a hint – The Heart of the World first played in front of a Gala. Maddin’s film bears with it some heavy negative sentiments. It ends with the self-sacrifice of its heroine, who after choking the evil industrialist, descends to the earth’s heart, saving the world and “creating” film. The two shots are linked by the old principles of montage; both are necessary functions to “save the world.” Rather than being the creation of an abstract “film,” I prefer to see it as an exhortation towards a new cinema, if not a new festival – ironically, this would have to be one less “populist” (at this point, clearly associated with imperialism) and more outré.
It is even more timely as certain historically determinant complaints about the way the festival has developed over the past several years arise from certain sectors of the public and an increasing number of journalists unafraid to speak out against the Stalinist party line: too many American films, too much of a reliance on world premieres, too many publicists. Too much big business. But, remember, Maddin’s tongue is ultimately in cheek – no revolution is imminent. The film is a dream. Even though the rights for The Heart of the World are owned by their commissioner, it’s unlikely that the only anti-heart of the film world Prelude will vanish from circulation any time soon. And if anyone ever has the notion to expand this already-expansive film to feature length, they should immediately be purged.
Best Short Narrative Films of All Time Gerald Peary
David Lowery from Drifting
The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin WallyDanger Channel Video with the correct aspect ratio (6:08)
Video(s) of the Day: Short Films by Guy Maddin - The Screengrab on YouTube (6:18)
What an absolute thrill, from start to finish, just
experiencing the “artistic conception” of this reverent homage to silent film,
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary Ed Gonzalez from Slant magazine
Commissioned by producer Vonnie
Von Helmolt to adapt Mark Godden's Royal Winnipeg Ballet Dracula: Pages from
a Virgin's Diary for CBC's Opening Night, Guy Madden creates an
expressionistic curio every bit as playful as his mini-masterpiece Heart of
the World (though certainly nowhere near as consistently engaging). Madden
successfully downplays the element of dance in this black-and-white neo-silent
film to fabulous effect. Though movement is barely discernible beneath the
endless fog and digital effects, it feels that much more special (almost
cathartic) when characters do break into synchronized dance. Put simply, it's
never boring! (A standout image is that of Lucy's saviors twirling inside
Dracula's abode, the light from their lanterns twinkling in the night.) Madden
seemingly refuses to broach the allegory of AIDS that's become so inextricably
bound to modern vampire tales and adaptations of Dracula and does
something entirely more relevant. Zhang Wei-Qiang stars as Dracula, referred
explicitly in the opening scenes of the film as an Other that invades from the
East (for added effect, his blood literally crawls across a map of the world
Pages From A Virgin's Diary Gerald Peary
Well, there's Guy Maddin, for one, the wizard-in-residence of
Winnepeg, Canada, and each shot in his oeuvre is sculpted, a starry night of
wonder. Totally unique, Maddin is a comic visionary, whose work is as loopy as
it is luminous. His warped, dream-fever fables-Tales from the
Have you tuned into Maddin? On release, his peculiar movies
were barely seen in the
Pages from a Virgin's Diary. This project began modestly, as a commissioned assignment, to capture on film a dance performance based on the Bram Stoker novel done by the Royal Winnepeg Ballet. But a Dracula story is prime Maddin material. What rises from the grave and to the screen becomes, at least for two thirds of the picture (the last section loses focus and energy), made-in-Maddin heaven.
There's ample ballet, much of it well-turned, as the Royal Winnepeg choreography is complemented by Maddin's swing-through-the air, supple cinematography. I especially like the fearsome dance, when Lucy (Tara Birtwhistle) roars out of her grave, an undead refusing the stake to her heart; also Lucy's sensual pas de deux with her attentive vampire-master, Dracula (Zhang Wei-Qiang); also the amazing moment when Dr. Van Helsing (David Moroni) unwraps a scarf around Lucy's neck, and she leaps forward, a brazen, bitten victim.
"Vampyr!" Van Helsing declares, via title card.
What does a girl want? According to Maddin, it's to go down for the Count, to have Dracula pin your body and sink his notorious canines into your waiting swan-flesh. Maddin's revisionist Stoker is unabashedly pro-Dracula. The Count's a red-eyed, back-door man in high heat, giving the girls what the other guys won't, or can't. Here, lustful Lucy is pursued by three twit suitors, secondary dancers who flit about her but never, never go for the jugular. And poor, love-starved Mina (Cindymarie Small) is given the shivery shoulder by her fiance, Jonathan Harker (Johnny Wright), who definitely wants to save it for after the marriage: presumably, he's the unnamed virgin of the movie's title.
Maddin's POV starts early, with gothic-lettered tabloid headlines warning of Immigrants! The Other! From Other Lands! From the East! The male dance ensemble are all pale Canadians, except for the princely Chinese portraying Dracula. Is Maddin, a multiculturalist, taking note of an increasing conservativism and isolationism among long-settled Canucks? Zhang Wei-Qiang's Dracula takes on a perverse relevance with the film's release in Spring 2003. He's the Yellow Peril personified, coinciding with the pestilence of SARS brought to the Great White North by Asian carriers.
Less heavy: the filmmaker's stamp is located in the featuring in many humorous scenes of the 100% non-dancing "Renfield! Eater of Bugs!" He's played with gusto and a hairy face by Maddin movies regular, Brent Neale, so great as the incestuous-minded brother in Careful. Renfield! For anyone who has reached puberty on classic horror movies, the name positively sings! He's the wormy, slobbering, bootlicking sychophant who does the bidding of Dracula, whether from his jail cell or sniffing at the vampire's heels. A Guy Maddin kind of kooky guy!
Count of the Dance: Guy Maddin Mark Peranson feature and Maddin interview from Cinema Scope
Fancy, Fancy Being Rich is a great addition to Maddin's
filmography. It's everything you'd expect from Guy Maddin and more.
While you couldn't really call Maddin's previous short films music videos (though Maddin has directed a few of those as well), this short film comes closest, but it's not accurate to call it that either.
I've read one description of the film that comes close to what I think the film is about, that being about a lonely housemaid who can never find lasting love.
I'd say that's true since in the film, all the men she attracts leaves her, going back into the ocean from whence they came.
All along, she's singing the title song "Fancy, Fancy Being Rich". The song itself is from the opera Powder Her Face composed by Thomas Adès, with libretto by Philip Hensher. The play itself was commissioned by the Almeida Opera and first performed in 1995. Why do I bring this up? Well, there's a creative connection.
Does Powder Her Face influence Fancy, Fancy Being Rich? Definitely. Both include women with voracious sexual appetites. The motto of the Duchess in the play: "Go to bed early and often" could very well be the motto of the film. And in the film, when the men keep abandoning the heroine, well, you can imagine the frustration she feels.
And that's the beauty of Maddin's films. Seeing how his influences merge with his own genius visions, and ending up with something unique and nowhere close to what someone else could do.
Not up to the usual Maddin standards, as this was originally intended for art gallery viewers to be seen only as a peep-show, which, in bits and pieces, works wonderfully, but expanded to a full-length 60 minute feature, 10 titled sections of 6 minutes each, gets a little carried away with itself. Abortion, infidelity, and revenge meet Guy Maddin the hockey player who goes through a succession of women as easily as crossing the blue line, only they have a few tricks up their sleeves that lead to his ultimate demise as a hockey star. Despite moving along at breakneck speed, featuring a whirlwind of exasperated love interests, Guy has difficulty cuddling up to women. I read this as a spoof on the morality of male sports figures who certainly live up to their reputations of love 'em and leave 'em. Each section features different theme music, usually giant, somewhat bombastic themes, which included Beethoven, Wagner, Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev, and more. Not for the timid or the meek.
Cowards Bend the Knee Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
MILD SPOILERS -- Am I growing weary of Guy Maddin's shtick? I don't think so, but there was something incredibly exhausting about Cowards, the fact that, in true melodramatic style, it is crammed with incident and struggles to keep, um, multiple balls in the air. Makes sense, given that it's a cautionary tale about male infidelity, "Guy Maddin"'s inability to keep his errant penis from getting the better of him. (Ever flirted with a hot medical assistant during your girlfriend's abortion? Cowards is a pretty scathing indictment of some uniquely male pathologies.) Interwoven through this narrative are the sort of themes we'd expect from Maddin, but delivered in new ways -- phantom control of one's will, Oedipal strife, hockey as masculine proving ground, and perhaps above all, an inquiry into whether "Canadian masculinity" is hopelessly oxymoronic. (The ease with which "Guy Maddin" slips from hockey star to hairdresser, all in the vain hope of getting laid, seems to foreground this problem, as do the unleashed-id locker room hijinx, "two long, two short.") The conclusion does add a level of poignancy to the mayhem, but I was still left feeling rather browbeaten, held prisoner by the most extreme expression yet of the director's sensibility -- this may not be Maddin's masterpiece, but it's certainly the most intensely "Maddin" thing he's done -- and by the end, I wanted to stumble back into the light, have a Coke, watch some TV, and rejoin the 21st century.
COWARDS BEND THE KNEE Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion (link lost):
With three film releases in the past two years, Guy Maddin has taken a step out of the obscurity he endured during the 1990s after his disastrous “Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs.” Earlier this year, he published “From The Atelier Tovar,” a collection of diary entries, news articles and screenplay treatments.
Judging from the films, it’s easy to imagine Maddin as an
utter eccentric barricaded in a
Casting himself as a passive observer of family melodrama and tragedy, the treatment is the most straightforward piece in the collection and the first piece of film work Maddin set during his own lifetime. “The Child Without Qualities” was never expanded into a full script, but Cowards Bend The Knee” revises the feelings and ideas behind it. Told in ten chapters, with intertitles and sound effects but no dialogue, “Cowards Bend The Knee” opens with a hockey team, the Winnipeg Maroons, winning a game.
One of their players, Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), finds out that
his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) is pregnant. They go to the
BlackSilhouette, a beauty salon/bordello/abortion clinic. During Veronica’s
abortion, Guy becomes enraptured by
“Cowards Bend The Knee” picks up where Maddin’s Soviet silent-movie pastiche short “The Heart Of The World” left off. In addition to directing it, Maddin served as cameraman. As a cinematographer, he’s exactly the opposite of a craftsman like Vittorio Storaro. He likes degrading the image. “Cowards Bend The Knee” is designed to look like it could have been made in the 1920s. More importantly, it resembles a print from that time period.
The soundtrack is full of static, recalling the early 1990s hip-hop trend of sampling scratched records. The black-and-white image is grainy. The lighting fluctuates wildly, often being so bright that it obliterates the actors’ faces. The framing is eccentric and full of disorienting close-ups. Some montage sequences go by so quickly that they’re almost subliminal.
The subplot about severed hands comes from Robert Wiene’s
1924 German horror film “The Hands Of Orlac,” but the setting of “Cowards Bend
The Knee” draws from real life. Maddin’s father Chas managed a
“Cowards Bend The Knee” is Maddin’s most sexually explicit
film and, appropriately, it first came to life as a peephole installation at
As always with Maddin, it’s difficult to tell where put-ons stop and start. He’s rumored to have invented some of the life story he’s written about and discussed in interviews. Is “Cowards Bend The Knee” a goof, or a serious attempt to penetrate the mystery of family life? I lean towards the latter.
In Maddin’s films, emotions often exist in quotation marks, filtered through irony and a plethora of movie references. “Sissy-Boy Slap-Party” and “Sombra Dolorosa,” the two Maddin shorts filling out Film Forum’s program (which also includes the Quay Brothers’ “The Phantom Museum”), help point up the merits of “Cowards Bend The Knee.” Pastiches of 1960s gay avant-garde cinema and Mexican melodrama, respectively, the two Maddin shorts have little resonance beyond camp value and a flair for mimicry.
Shot in five days, “Cowards Bend The Knee” is not exactly automatic writing—Maddin knows exactly which Greek tragedies he’s pillaging—but it feels like a direct flood from the unconscious. His most dreamlike film, it’s also his most heartfelt.
More comic brilliance from the Winnipeg film master who
always seems stuck in a time warp, this time making a totally authentic
retro-film, which looks like it was made in the 1930's, combining German
expressionism with Hollywood extravaganza, setting this mostly frenetically
paced, grainy, black and white film, with brief bits of two-strip Technicolor,
in Winnipeg during the Depression, where his home town was named the world’s
most sorrowful town, prompting no-legged, beer hall queen Isabella Rossellini
to establish a contest to determine the world’s saddest song, where the winner
gets $25,000. Along the way we learn how
she lost her legs to a drunken doctor who mistakenly cut off her “good” leg
after a car accident that was caused by her giving a blow job to one of the
doctor’s sons. The father and his two
sons are entrants to the contest, representing
Guy Maddin came to Facets last night. He was an absolute delight, with a terrific Q & A interview led by programmer Charles Coleman, by the way. The place was packed, turning dozens of people away at the door for a showing of his recent film, SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD. He has the most insatiable appetite for the weird and the bizarre, and seems to find a natural place for it in his life, indicating his mother used to work in a hair salon, where they swept the hair into containers, and that he used to smell the hair, putting them into clumps where he could play with it as a toy, as another kid might play with a wooden airplane. This was the warmest, safest place in his childhood. What a guy...
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion
Guy Maddin is a regional filmmaker. That region happens to
exist in his head. An excellent mimic, he’s able to pastiche the look of ‘20s
and ‘30s cinema - especially as seen on TV or in ragged prints - while turning
its influence to his own eccentric purposes. In some ways, he’s not that
different from Quentin Tarantino - whose films derive far more from his video
collection than the real world - but he’s far stranger. Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM
HEAVEN, which aped ‘50s melodrama, is another cousin, but Maddin’s work is more
evasive. It never comes across as either entirely campy or serious. For all the
laughter at the screening where I saw THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE
WORLD, the audience rarely laughed together.
Maddin’s best film, the 2000 short THE HEART OF THE WORLD, distilled silent Soviet cinema into one exhilarating five-minute burst. Of his first three features, one was set in an unidentified Alpine country and another in
Even so, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD grapples with what it means to be a Canadian. Not surprisingly, that entails some engagement with the
The performances in THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD rank among its highlights. Members of an African troupe mutilate themselves while dancing to drums, producing “tears of blood.” An all-female Scottish group blares away on bagpipes. Compared to the
Where Tarantino brings together film noir, the French New Wave, blaxploitation and Asian action cinema without making any larger cultural critique, Maddin’s style flaunts its hybrid nature. On this level, there’s a more hopeful alternative to his characters’ identity crises. In a culture obsessed with youth and flash, he’s committed to bridging the cinema of the past, present and future. By commercial logic, there’s no reason why a present-day Canadian filmmaker would be so heavily influenced by the ‘20s work of German directors Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, but Maddin takes them as his birthright. Importantly, he uses their influence irreverently, incorporating the technical limitations of Super-8 and video (especially the extreme grain created by a blowup to 35 mm) as a badge of pride. Grit is so central to the film’s look that one can imagine Maddin adding scratches to the stock.
As in many Maddin films, his energy went into creating a concept - and an enticing world around it - rather than a real narrative payoff. Unfortunately, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD doesn’t sustain its initial brio. The jokes don’t add up to much more than clever bon mots. Although Maddin obviously loves melodrama, he has a better flair for comedy and music. When his performers sing and dance, the film takes flight; the more it turns to resolving the outlandish plot complications, the more it stays grounded. Even so, its high points are invigoratingly imaginative. Maddin’s not yet a great filmmaker and may never become one, but he’s a genuine visionary.
Jason McBride feature and interview from Cinema Scope, September 13, 2003 (link lost):
The Music Men: Guy Maddin and George Toles on The Saddest Music in the World
----Another goddamned piece on Guy Maddin
Six years have past since Guy Maddin’s last feature film,
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), though that’s not counting his two most
recent out-of-the-park home run successes: his made-for-TV dance film, Dracula:
Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (2002) and the autobiographical peephole
installation Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), both of which have been covered
extensively in these pages. The Saddest Music in the World, however, is the
first film in that period that Maddin has made for conventional
festival-circuit and theatrical release, and it also marks a long-overdue
reunion with his frequent screenwriter,
Set in the dark days of the Depression in
Port-Huntley’s nemesis – and former lover – is
While the film bears many of the Maddin hallmarks – the allegiance to antiquated filmmaking techniques, an unremitting affection for the absurd rigours of romance, missing limbs and missing memories as metaphor – there is much that is new in Saddest Music. This is the first time that Maddin and Toles have made a film based on material not their own (discounting of course the abundant myths, fairy tales, and other myriad films that informed previous creations). Saddest Music began life on the pen of British Booker prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, though Maddin and Toles wasted no time in transposing its setting and time period from 80s London to 30s Winnipeg. This is also the first feature that Maddin has set in his much-mythologized hometown and the first one to feature – apologies to Frank Gorshin, Pascale Bussières, and Shelley Duvall – a bona fide movie star. Rossellini, with her unusual accent, legendary parentage (at times she’s even dolled up to resemble her mother, Ingrid Bergman), and distinctive beauty, fits perfectly into the Maddin universe.
Saddest Music proceeds almost breathlessly, quickly sketching in its complicated and hilarious back-stories before the contest takes centre stage. The narrative then builds to an unadulterated emotional crescendo – I squirted real tears – that’s unlike any of Maddin’s previous films save perhaps for his success d’estime, the six-minute The Heart of the World (2000), a film whose frenzied decoupage and explosive ending signalled a filmmaker reborn. Saddest Music (as does Cowards Bend the Knee) employs a similar, though more restrained, editing style and a variety of film stocks – not including 35mm. A visit to the set last March revealed that, not only were Maddin’s cinematographers Luc Montpellier and Ruben Guzman shooting on Super 8, 16mm, and Super 16 (in black-and-white and two-strip “Melancolour”), but that almost everyone on the set – from the first assistant director to the actors themselves – were wielding small cameras. Needless to say, the set, though housed in an enormous and positively Siberian former steel works, was entirely relaxed and collaborative. Maddin, while he knows exactly what he wants, is no martinet, and Rossellini even voiced comical exasperation with the director’s excessive politesse.
While the film was being shot, the war in Iraq was just beginning, lending Saddest Music a layer of political relevance; even if they did not intend it as such, the film might go down on record as the most trenchant commentary on American cultural imperialism from the Canadian standpoint (because, not in spite of, the fact that the Yankee Doodle Dandy Chester actually is Winnipeg-born). As Toles and Maddin reveal, larger political issues were at work in Ishiguro’s original story. However, the politics that Toles and Maddin indulge in creatively are of the decidedly more personal sort, and in Saddest Music, questions of how and why and when life and love are consumed by art take centre stage. A refrain of Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” is threaded throughout the film, implying, among other things, that selfsame consumption. Likewise, a big influence on Maddin this time around was Lon Chaney, an actor who literally sacrificed his body for the movies. Indeed, Saddest Music, like all of Maddin’s ouevre, feels at times like a cadavre exquis, in this case composed of the Chaney vehicles The Unknown (1927) and The Penalty (1920), Compton Bennett’s The Seventh Veil (1946), Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), and most obviously, Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s Footlight Parade (1933), featuring Jimmy Cagney as one Chester Kent, a Broadway producer bedeviled by talking pictures.
Finally, perhaps what feels most unique about Saddest Music
is the sense of confidence, both in the work and in Maddin himself. The film,
which premiered internationally in the New Horizons section in the Venice film
festival (a first for the director) is the latest triumph in a year of – excuse
the by-now hoary phrase – Maddin mania: retros in Rotterdam, Vienna, Toronto,
and Washington, D.C., the crossover success of Cowards, Dracula’s surprisingly
strong theatrical run, and the publication of a book of Maddin’s journalism and
journals entitled From the Atelier Tovar. It remains to be seen whether Saddest
Music will be the commercial hit that many have expected of Maddin, but it is
certainly no “lateral move,” to use Telefilm
Cinema Scope: Could you describe the nature of your collaboration? And how, on this particular film, that differed, as you were working from a story that wasn’t originally yours?
Guy Maddin: The process by which this film got written was
different than most because of its tripartite nature: Ishiguro on one side of
George Toles: You got something that no one liked.
Maddin: Yeah, basically. No, until we got permission from Ishiguro to proceed with his story to the next step: the screenplay. And that’s when it’s George’s turn to go off and write. I think the treatment is more or less a 50-50 collaboration. I’ve never really broken down the score. But George really wrote the screenplay, and what I basically did was go to his office at the university every few days, and listen to the last few scenes that he’d written. Sometimes he would write enormous amounts in one stretch, and then it was my job to run those handwritten pages over to my typist.
Toles: Oh, you’re being much too modest.
Maddin: I share a screenwriting credit with George, but I wish I could have used a really tiny font for my name. I’m very proud of the script and of my role in the treatment, but sheepish about my name sharing equal billing with George’s.
Toles: After the first draft, however, I was stymied about how to proceed to the next. Guy had the crucial, sensible, almost effortless (though it didn’t seem to me at the time) idea of combining Fyodor and another character – who served many functions but none of them important – into one character. I don’t want to get too specific about plot matters, because that doesn’t really matter to viewers – or even non-viewers. But, to make sure that one of them worked, I had written about four endings, with each one trying to top the next. I was committed very early on to an idea of revealing – surprise! – that the saddest music in the world is really “Happy Birthday.” I had written in the treatment this wonderful fantasy montage that convinced everyone in the world that we were right: “Happy Birthday” was the saddest. But there was simply no way finally to incorporate it; it was painless to see it go. Though it may strike anyone who watches our movies as a strange mantra, believe it or not, the phrase “keep it simple” does issue from both of our lips at various times. But anyway, from my end, what I’d like to say about the collaboration is that screenwriters are the world’s greatest whiners. And as a whole, they’re a pretty unhappy breed. I’ve been astonishingly fortunate to have someone to work with whose taste I absolutely trust. And that’s not something I say lightly or often. In other areas of my writing life, I’m fiercely protective and defensive and independent. I’ve never, ever felt that when Guy didn’t take a suggestion or go down for the count over something, that this would make the project a lesser thing. And I would be surprised if there were many screenwriters who have been so blessed.
Maddin: It’s probably true that screenwriters are miserable, but I should warn everybody now that, on whatever little junket I go on for this motion picture, I’m going to try to champion the undervalued state of the screenwriter. And also another craftsman who isn’t valued highly enough in the film world: the editor. So much is done that no one seems to care about by these two people. Really, when you’re collaborating with an editor, he’s saving your ass so many times. If possible, he’s restoring what the screenwriter intended. Usually he’s trying to make the best out of something the director botched in translating the story from the page. Not just George and David Wharnsby, who worked on this project, but attention should be called to all screenwriters and editors, and I’m going to try to do that as much as possible in the next little while. If I just get a few people to think about that for a few minutes, that’d be great.
Scope: How much of the original Ishiguro story was preserved?
Toles: The title, which I’ve always loved. I’ve never for one minute doubted that that was the title, and I’m proud to have it connected to me. The premise of the contest. His story was contemporary, and it had both irony but not too much … well, let’s say, in my reading of it, not too many obvious attempts at humour. And it was a liquor organization sponsoring the contest.
Maddin: And the media were involved, too. Was it CNN? We have a radio station.
Toles: It’s fair to say, in terms of story, characters, and tone, we started over virtually from scratch.
Maddin: It was something that Niv, with whom I had just worked on the short film, The Heart of the World, had given me. I read the script, but because it was set in the present, I couldn’t even imagine how I’d begin to handle it. I was so scared of the present. Still am, in many ways. Why shouldn’t you be? The present is more frightening than the future or the past. You’ve survived the past already.
Toles: The past can’t hurt us.
Maddin: Yeah, and the future can’t until it becomes the present. So I was having trouble getting into it, but I sent it off to George who instantly started talking about entry-points. So I started getting enthusiastic, and we started tripping over each other’s sentences and coming up with ideas. And started thinking about movies that we’d seen together that really mattered to us as reference points. We’d sometimes pull a movie half-off the video shelf and use it as something to hang story ideas onto. Just because we know it worked so well for Billy Wilder or Jimmy Cagney. We’ll sometimes use little precedents to more or less make a soup stock for the story.
Scope: What movies in this case?
Maddin: Well, there are many, but I don’t know whether I should reveal our secret recipes.
Toles: Shall we say, at least, that Chester Kent had another incarnation in Footlight Parade (1933)?
Maddin: Sure, he’s the Cagney character. After we finished
Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), George and I vowed that we were going to
deliver in our next feature a protagonist who was really aggressive and active
and made things happen. The traditional Canadian protagonist is so often a
passive person who lets things happen to him. And we decided we’d had enough of
that. We wanted to improve the briskness quotient of our films so we decided to
have take-charge guys, Yankee Doodle Dandies. We started thinking of men’s men,
not just alpha males but people that are leaders and strong and don’t look
back, that don’t doubt for a second that what they’re doing is correct. There
are some people that we just kept channeling when thinking of
Toles: The notion of the musical as a source has been
percolating since The Dykemaster’s Daughter, the movie we were supposed to make
after Careful. And which will always be the best movie we ever made because it
didn’t get made. It’s a fantasy of perfection, like the missing 45 minutes of
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Nothing is marred by the actual circumstances
of making it. But anyway, I think something of the Lubitschian musical flavour
of The Dykemaster’s Daughter kept forcing its way back. If there’s ever been a
subject dear to both Guy’s and my heart it’s the nature of the viewer’s emotional
contract with a movie. To put that whole thing squarely in the foreground, to
put it in our laps, I was ecstatic about it. I should also mention, for
anecdotal purposes, that Guy and I had had a long and enigmatic falling-out for
a two-year period. We had exactly one meeting prior to the arrival of the
Saddest Music script; we had done the voiceover commentary for the Careful DVD,
where we walked deliciously on eggshells. We really hadn’t had the rhythm of a
conversation for a very long time. The Saddest Music meeting was literally the
second talk that I can recall, and, believe me, I was determined to find
something in that script to at least open a channel for possible collaboration.
The basic elements though seemed made to order for something that we had long
wanted to do. I was furious in 1996 when
Maddin: That’s what excited me: when we decided it just had
to be shifted to
Toles: In fact, it is our hope that, “
Scope: Guy, in a recent interview, you mentioned that you
stripped out the political allegory that was in the Ishiguro story. I think,
though, there’s a large political dimension to the film. This is partly because
of the coincidence of the film being shot during the war in
Ishiguro’s original political concerns were almost entirely
Toles: But politics is always implicitly there, to some
extent. “Implicit” is a nice synonym for repressive, perhaps, in terms of
structure. I think both of us detest the too-knowing attitude, the atmosphere
of complacency which political art, when it’s terrible, can very easily
generate. I always think of the $100 tickets for Les Miserables where everybody
fantasizes that they’re on the barricades, watching brightly garbed workers
storming for better working conditions, then going out into the lobby and
thinking how stirring it all is. There’s so much potential for
sanctimoniousness and pomposity when you use art as a sort of bully pulpit
where you tell people something they already know – or you think they should
know – in easily transcribable terms. And I just feel that’s counter to the way
that art makes knowledge or thinking or feeling happen interestingly. It’s not
that we can or should leave politics out, but the moment it begins to be
placard politics, it’s dopey or insulting. There is something about that notion
of competitive sadness, people trading away their tragic histories for image,
and falsifying genuine tragedy. I think it’s still there very much, if not in
specific scenes then in the underpinning of scenes. Also, I’m a powerful Bush
hater. Without changing what I think of as my moderate political disposition at
all, during the time I spend in the
Maddin: The whole country is shifting beneath you.
Toles: Yes, further and further to the right. I haven’t been
in such an angered state about my country of origin,
Scope: You’ve been criticized for a lack of linearity. But in this film, there’s a real build to the film, emotionally and narratively. Was that an intentional direction?
Toles: Critics should always be listened to with at least half an ear. Often, you can’t do more than you do at a given time. You always have ample reasons or defenses for the things that you make. In fiction, Guy and I are enchanted by digression. You always play the demands of structure, which has a clear though-line, against the desire to do curlie-cues and zigzags. We were lucky again with this film. It was not something that was automatically apparent, but with a small amount of reflection we realized that the music contest would give us all kinds of room for digression as long as we tied the characters tightly to the contest in ways the audience understood. And the digression wouldn’t feel as digressive as maybe it has in other films. So we could have our cake and eat it, too.
Maddin: I’ve always been called not only non-linear but a non-narrative filmmaker. I was willing to take that assessment because if that’s the way someone felt, fine, I can’t doing anything about it. But what I was always trying to do was tell a story, just in a kind of fresh way. If most of the viewers, or even all of the viewers, couldn’t see a narrative there, then, well, that was my own storytelling ineptitude or something. But I’ve also been told I make silent films or black-and-white movies, even though the movies have plenty of conversation in them and plenty of colour in some cases. I know even after making Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, both of which are full talkies with full colour, some reviewers still called them black-and-white silent movies. I’m still waiting for this movie to be called a silent film. I don’t know what I have to do, make a movie in 3-D or something. I think clearly this is a narrative, and never more so before have George and I had to be answerable for the narrative. And we felt pretty protective of our narratives, because there was never a friendly atmosphere before. We would never show our scripts to anyone else, nor would I show cuts of my movies to anyone else, because I didn’t really feel it would be likely that anyone would be sympathetic to them. Whenever I showed something to a fellow Winnipegger in my early filmmaking days, I was always told I was doing things wrong. I had to fight for the sound mixes I got.
Toles: “Someday, you’ll make a real movie.”
Maddin: Yeah, it made me feel bad. So I made these movies in
a vacuum. I realized years later how valuable it might have been to have a test
Toles: I always loved Shoot the Piano Player (1960). It seems to me the most magical of all of Truffaut’s films. It strikes me every time I view it or teach it. It seems both freeform and inevitable in a way that no amount of acquaintance can account for. The blend just feels right, improbable but right. This time the many helpful chefs in the early stages seemed to make things happen in a way that was magical in a potentially Shoot the Piano Player way. Sometimes you can’t exactly say why moving from point A to point B at this moment is so easy, it’s sort of a skewed logic, but somehow the structure makes it happen easily. Whereas with other structures, a lot of huffing and puffing is still going on. So, in my mind, in a lot of ways it’s not like Shoot the Piano Player at all, but the guiding spirit of that is visible to me.
Maddin: It would be great to chance on a premise that always
allowed you to feel that confidence to move from A to B intuitively, making
huge leaps and knowing that they’re just the right size. It’s just not always
going to happen. It didn’t always happen with Truffaut. I always liked the
Scope: If the film is, on one level, about the exploitation of one’s misery for financial or artistic gain, what private miseries are you two exploiting in this film?
Toles: That’s an interesting question. Guy?
Maddin: I don’t know. I’ve been a privileged position of leaking not just disguised autobiography but sheer blatant autobiographical elements out there and seeing what people make of them. It’s a really self-indulgent thing, and I’m usually just doing it to masochistically mock my own feelings. I think I just repress knowledge of all the horribly irresponsible things I’ve done towards other people. It’s something that’s fun to confess to at times. And if you can at least confess it through a character and give him some sort of punishment if he’s guilty of the same thing, it’s an ersatz working-through of your problems. Because you still get to keep everything filed away secretly, but punish a stand-in for yourself. I did much the same thing in Cowards Bend the Knee, in which I even named a character Guy Maddin and got to beat him up badly. It felt quite good making that project, and for a while I wasn’t even that big a coward after making it. But I’ve found my old railway tracks again, and I’m just going about my day in the same sort of sheepish way that I usually do.
I’m not too sure what specifically I’m repressing, but I use amnesia a lot. I actually have a great memory; I can memorize statistics and I’ll never forget an insult. But I conveniently use amnesia all the time to keep myself in the same fuzzy, pleasant condition much in the same way the guy who wakes up every morning and lights up a big spliff. I guess I go through this ritual where every morning I wake up completely battered by dreams that have been confronting me with relatives I didn’t love properly while they were alive, with courses at university not completed. My dream director just loves to bash me about the head with a pillow with a brick in it all night long. And then the first thing I do is just light up the big amnesia hookah and chase it with a cup of coffee. Within a few minutes I’m happy. I think I use baseball box scores on the Internet the first thing in the morning quite a bit to sort of forget. And the next thing I know I’m a pretty nice guy, as far as I’m concerned, and I can go about my day. I do recognize though that some of those dreams do stay with you, as flashbacks, or if you write them down in your diary you remember them more specifically.
When it comes time to constructing a fiction with George, I strongly feel that the characters have to be true. No matter how far-fetched the movie or how stylized the acting, the things they’re doing have to be psychologically plausible. And I only have myself as a litmus test for these characters, so I screw up the courage, cast aside all amnesias for a moment, and then see if the horribleness of the characters jibes nicely with my own. Then I relight the hookah just to make sure. That’s how I process it. I’ve never even asked George how he runs character checks on his creations. I just have to see if a weak or flawed character – and they all are, at times, weak or flawed – is weak or flawed in a way that I recognize personally. So, in many respects, even if a character is solely a George creation, they are at least, in one respect, me on the screen. And I suspect it would be that way even if I were getting scripts mailed to me by other people. I’d have to translate them in the way I did Dracula; I had to understand every character in the ballet before I felt confident enough to film them. They all had to be me a little bit. I found it easier to enter the jealous male characters than the wronged female characters, but I found a way of rationalizing, or at least understanding, all of them.
Toles: I’m going to make this a deliberately short and
self-protective answer. I think the phrase “always too late” covers a lot of
ground. I don’t know if I’m exploiting this, I’m sure I am, but the failure of
my first marriage, and the years of fallout, in terms of children, is something
that I’ve never been able to – well, no one will let me – forget. The amount of
chaos and subsequent lost-ness that came from that … I feel I can sail right
into that particular vivid maelstrom of feelings. Let’s put it another way: my
favourite kinds of narratives are those in which you just see for a couple of
brief moments exactly the right thing to do, the right set of feelings to have.
Unfortunately, the timing is wrong. In
Maddin: That’s a great starting point for story writing. Because you’re always out of synch with what you’re doing. You’re almost constructing a two-cylinder engine that can run forever on very little fuel. One cylinder being what you should do, and the other cylinder – delayed considerably – you doing it. And on it can go.
Toles: For me, each script I have the opportunity to write seems
to be about learning, for the first time, a lesson I was supposed to have
grasped, effortlessly, decades ago but then never quite put into operation.
What I learned from Saddest Music was that if you’re going to do fantasy you
better ground it more carefully than in any other kind of movie. Because you’re
asking for so much freedom to be, to use that hateful word, weird, or off, or
wacky, or strange. But I think you can’t forget for an instant that you need a
grounding in the world set up for the audience to escape their own feeling of
distance from it. I think Ishiguro’s concept of the contest, and the fact of
the Depression, and the fact of
Maddin: That’s true, it is more specifically set in a
particular place. But I’m not so sure people out there in the world really
Toles: Yeah, but it’s like The Wizard of Oz (1939). Everything depends on the specificity of the cornfield, the road, the dog. It’s what makes the flight of the audience, as well as the movie, to Oz, feel effortless. And I think we’ve given more thought to that grounding. I like Buñuel’s notion: the more fantastic you’re trying to be, the more matter-of-fact you should be about it. You shouldn’t register astonishment. If you set up something psychologically, like Lady Port-Huntly’s feelings about her legs, the moment they become glass, the improbability of it becomes much less important than the sheer feeling. Kids know how to do this at age four, when they’re listening to “The Three Bears,” but it’s not so easy to do in movies. There are so many pitfalls. And I think Guy really understands this about as well as anybody working in movies.
Maddin: I never want to go too far for some reason. And I don’t think that’s the Canadian in me. I don’t want to fly too far away from the ground. I’d like to be able, if I fall, to get up again and keep flying.
Jason McBride edited From the Atelier Tovar, and is managing editor of Cinema Scope.
Pump Up The Volume - Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice J. Hoberman from The Village Voice
Sad Songs Say So Much - Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice Part One: This is Guy Maddin's production diary for The Saddest Music in the World, from The Village Voice, May 6, 2003
of the Ice Nymphs Part Two,
Dreams and Funeral Scenes: Succumbing to Gravity on Garbage Hill Part Three,
Dark Part Four,
Saddest Diary in the World Wraps Up in a Torrent of Tears Part Five,
Canada (4 mi) 2004
A Trip to the Orphanage Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
The only one of Maddin's three Saddest Music companion shorts that remotely compares with his best short-form experimentation, Orphanage appears to consist partly of outtakes or short-end footage from Saddest Music (with Maria de Medeiros in her parka), but Maddin transforms it into something more. Instead of breakneck jump cuts and movie-geek in-jokes, we have long takes of a woman in the snow, lip-synching to a crushingly melancholy aria. Maddin textures the piece with gauzy curtains flapping into the frame, ghostly forms layered through slow fades and superimpositions. It recalls some of Janie Geiser's most plangent work, like The Fourth Watch and her recent Terrace 49. A much-needed change of pace, and a worthy addition to the Maddin oeuvre.
In my opinion, this short movie can be regarded as a beautiful link between "The Saddest Music in the World" and "Brand upon the brain!" The setting is - except for the curtains - the same as in one scene of "The Saddest Music": the winter night, the meeting between Narcissa and the sleep-walker who entitles her as "Mother". But why: the orphanage? In "The Saddest Music" there is no orphanage at all, but it will be the location in "Brand upon the Brain!" Many possibilities can be chosen: If "Brand upon the Brain!" is to be regarded as an autobiographical movie, then it has to be seen (in the light of "Trip to the orphanage" as a dream - or as a nightmare! - of autobiographical movie. Or: Could the sleep-walker be regarded as the "Guy Maddin"-character of "Brand upon the Brain!"? But: When the sleep-walker appears in this very scene of "The Saddest Music" you hear the voice of Narcissa's dead son. Summary: What a lovely short, opera-movie - and what a beautiful miracle!
A Trip To The Orphanage (2004 YouTube (4:01)
Canada (4 mi) 2004 France (7 mi)
This four-minute short from Canada's most well-known experimental filmmaker, Guy Maddin, mixes Latin daytime television and Mexican wrestling with silent cinema and folklore to create a bit of well-edited nonsense that manages to wring a surprising amount of narrative from its brief running time. Like with most of Maddin's works, I don't get it—but it's certainly not boring.
Sombra dolorosa Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
Pure stupidity, and borderline racist to boot. Yeah, I know I'm probably being oversensitive, and I know that Maddin's really just riffing on Mexican melodrama in the same anarchic, free-associative way he riffs on every other morsel of cinema history. But if you didn't know Maddin's other work, this would be indistinguishable from, say, SNL parodies of Telemundo, with a slackjawed Horatio Sanz jumping around in a bumblebee suit. What's more, Sombra isn't funny or clever, just trying way too hard to do The Heart of the World over again, Mexicano style. Refried, reheated, and retarded.
SOMBRA DOLOROSA is probably the best Guy Maddin short I've
seen yet! Filmed in vivid color and edited in Maddin's rapid-fire collage
style, it follows the story of a Mexican widow who must defeat El Muerto (think
El Santo as the Grim Reaper) in a boxing ring in order to save her husband from
death. When she fails, El Meurto must eat "The Meal of the Dead"
before the solar eclipse so that her husband's soul may be released from his
The short is extremely funny and a little bit unnerving. It shares the "dead father" motif, intertitles, and artificial atmosphere of many of Guy Maddin's works, but the colorful Mexican backdrop puts it into a class of its own.
Definitely check out SOMBRA DOLOROSA!
A four-minute masterpiece of music and movement, montage and
more; Sombra Dolorosa (2004) is typical of director Guy Maddin's work, filled
with archaic film references and an appropriation of silent cinema conventions
to tell a vague and enigmatic story that plays out in a dreamlike and
metaphorical world rich in visual symbolism. Although Sombra Dolorosa isn't a
silent film, as such - it does feature snippets of Spanish dialog and a densely
layered soundtrack of music and atmospherics - it still borrows heavily from
the style and tone of silent cinema in a way that is reminiscent of The Heart
of the World (2000) or elements of Brand upon the Brain! (2006). In this
respect, we have the incredibly quick cutting style and bombardment of visual
information that reduces narrative to mere montage; as well as the use of
on-screen captions and inter-titles, which present to us the information that
is spoken on the soundtrack in a manner that is deconstructive, but also slyly
Though the worry of being overwhelmed by the rapidity of the on screen information and the complete genius of the director's mise-en-scene is always apparent with Maddin's work, Sombra Dolorosa is never inaccessible. In fact, it is fairly easy to pick apart and interpret the vague semblance of narrative if we carefully follow the information as it appears on-screen; with the director gleefully taking influence from Latin American melodrama, with its roots in arts and magic-realist literature to chart a tale of lost love, life and death, and the extraordinary ability to overcome. It is, like the vast majority of Maddin's work, an absolute marvel of film-making energy and imagination, with the presentation of suicide attempts, death and regeneration, and that striking image of a wrestling match between a widow and the grim reaper all working alongside that continually striking use of colour, composition, music, design, performance and all to create a one-off visual experience that is sure to delight and overwhelm.
Guy Maddin - Sombra Dolorosa YouTube (4:01)
The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival Jason Sanders
In these short film blueprints from a lost Maddin feature, past loves and desires are polished to a fetishized gleam: fragmented, slowed to a crawl and unusually lurid. In Fuse Boy, a janitor's lust becomes his nightmare. Women's bodies, or parts thereof, make up the fevered scrawls of other workbooks.
Canada (16 mi) 2005
The Heart of Guy Maddin | San Francisco Film Festival Jason Sanders
Even those unfamiliar with the work of Roberto Rossellini should get something out of Guy Maddin's haunting and memorable short film My Dad is 100 Years Old, which plays as a sort of personal exorcism for its writer and star Isabella Rossellini. It's not a document of the great Italian director's work (the only clip used is from the oft-excerpted Rome: Open City) so much as the younger Rossellini's reconciliation with her father's mystique. To her, he is a towering figure, represented here by a comically blubbering torso that argues with several famed figures from cinema past (all played by Isabella). Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, David O. Selznick, and Charlie Chaplin weigh in with their ideas about the art of motion pictures, while Ingrid Bergman expounds on her tempestuous relationship with Roberto, which begat both Isabella and a powerful series of films (Stromboli and Voyage to Italy among them). The actress is never presumptuous in how she inhabits the short's many roles and she even "directs" its most emotional scene, interrupting an in-character reverie to decry an ostentatious and manipulative crane shot that she feels does a disservice to her father's ideals.
My Father is 100 Years Old Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
In his catalog description, Guy Maddin referred to his
acclaimed 2000 short film The Heart of the World as "the world's
first subliminal melodrama." With the help of collaborator Isabella
Rossellini, Maddin has successfully brought his melodramatic leanings well
above ground. True, he's done it before, most notably at feature-length with The
Saddest Music in the World. But My Father is 100 Years Old stakes
out some fresh territory for Maddin, since the affect it articulates is utterly
straightforward. Well, as straightforward as a Guy Maddin film can be. Roberto
Rossellini, for example, is played by a giant quivering belly, and one discerns
the perfect coupling of the two collaborators' sensibilities in this
"pregnant" image. Guy and Isabella have constructed a heartfelt
meditation on Roberto Rossellini, the man, the theoretician, the father figure
and, most importantly, the father. It strikes me as meaningful that this film
is a daughter's love letter to her deceased father, since the cinema is
virtually littered with father-son Oedipal struggles (most recently Baadasssss!
and My Architect). By contrast Rossellini's engagement with her
father's legacy is permeated with tenderness and even a degree of awe.
Likewise, Maddin helps Isabella to surreptitiously assume the roles of the
patriarchal cinematic canon (she appears as Hitchcock, Selznick, Fellini, and
Chaplin), as well as her own mother. It's a Brechtian gesture (partly, I think,
borrowed from the work of fellow Canadian filmmaker John Greyson), but it also
serves to emphasize Isabella's position with respect to Roberto. His big bald
belly is a globe, a heavenly body in her emotional firmament, holding all other
discourses and attachments in its orbit. Whatever you do, though, don't try to
circumscribe the Rossellinis' universe with a crane shot. [SECOND VIEWING,
Produced for the centenary of Roberto Rossellini's birth, My Dad Is 100 Years Old stars his daughter Isabella Rossellini, who also penned the script and previously figured in Maddin's Sternbergian tuner The Saddest Music in the World. Like Maddin's even briefer 2000 showstopper The Heart of the World, Dad is an exquisite and playful pastiche of cinema's lost golden age, rendered with the Winnipeg wizard's wonder cabinet of archaic effects: billowing smoke, jittering title cards, expressionist lighting, characters who wander through as loose and luminous back-projections.
Isabella Rossellini appears not only as herself, pondering whether her father's films were "ridiculous or sublime," but also in intergenerational drag as her father's contemporaries, drawn as broadly as a set of Hirschfeld caricatures. As Hitchcock, Isabella lurks in shadowy profile with potbelly and extended lower lip; her Fellini appears trench-coated and scarved. More poignantly, Isabella plays her own mother, Ingrid Bergman, who materializes as a towering movie goddess, smiling down lovingly from the big screen, her face framed in a glowing white Marian headscarf.
Roberto himself takes part, as nothing but a fat naked belly, jiggling as he intones uncompromising manifestos for the ethical demands of cinema. His voice—also provided by Isabella—seems to emerge from his cavernous navel. Compared in Isabella's narration to a pregnant male seahorse, Roberto is reimagined as both the fecund mother of modern cinema and the strict father who sought to impose its limits. His arguments with contemporaries, here staged within a decaying movie theater, become battles for the soul of cinema itself. Thanks to Maddin's visual humor, the old chestnut of Art versus Entertainment becomes a freshly engaging philosophical tussle.
But Hitchcock and Fellini aren't the only directors who
counter Rossellini. Maddin too argues against his credo, not through words, but
by example. As many other critics have noted, Maddin's own cinematic style is
the antithesis of Rossellini's. Whereas the progenitor of neorealism sought to
embody truth by pushing narrative cinema as close to raw documentary as
possible, Maddin embraces the surface glamour of Hollywood's most sugary
productions: musicals and melodramas, with hokey fairy-tale effects and
careening camera angles. Both attempt opposite but equally quixotic struggles
for artistic purity. Rossellini argues that filmmaking must be purged of all
artifice, while Maddin wishes to remove almost everything but. Yet by
showcasing a sequence from
Roberto Rossellini’s Belly Jonathan Rosenbaum
I was unable to see the live orchestral version, featuring sound effects and the music of a ten-piece Ensemble Noamnesia along with a male castrato, which in Chicago was narrated by wildman Crispin Glover, while in other cities, Joan Chen narrated in San Francisco, with a rotation of Glover, Eli Wallach, Lou Reed, and the poet John Ashberry performing in New York. Listening to Isabella Rossellini was weird enough, as this was presented as a Freudian children’s story, supposedly taken from truisms from Guy Maddin’s own childhood, perhaps embellished a bit, as most of it takes place inside the imagination of a young boy’s mind. It typically features a faceless father, who we rarely see, as he’s always “at work,” and in this case a diabolical mother, with both parents running an orphanage in an island lighthouse, with the mother developing an ever-evolving rage, obsessed with reversing her aging process, supposedly extracting precious “nectar” from the children, obtained through a burrowed entryway from the back of the neck, using a horrendous sound effect that sounds like the highly amplified crunching sound of pulling an obstinate tooth, rocking it back and forth, as if with a pair of pliers, attempting to loosen it from the gum. Yecchh! But these are Guy’s childhood memories, which includes an adolescent sister whose neck shows the signs that she has a “brand upon the brain!” While his white-coated father tinkers in a mad scientist, Frankenstein-like cavernous basement, the mother mans a searchlight-guided, high-powered telescope to constantly scan Black Notch Island, exerting control over all, even inventing an Aerophone, a gramophone-style earphone for the children to use which does not run by electricity, but by telepathic emotion, so they could always be within listening range of the parents barking out orders, usually insisting Guy come home right now for dinner.
Shot in black and white, with just the briefest use of color, it again resembles the frantic, quick cut editing style shot to resemble German Expressionist silent era archival clips, largely shot by Maddin himself and Benjamin Kasulke, using intertitles with occasional rude interruptions from the “interlocutor,” the narrator, who at times resembles the overdramatic effects of a Wizard of Oz, repeating echoing phrases like “the Secrets…the Secrets,” or “the Shame…the Shame.” A remembrance in 12 chapters, where the action of the previous chapter comes to a thudding halt when the screen turns to black, identifying a new chapter title, this is an autobiographical nightmare of sorts as a house painter appropriately named Guy Maddin returns to the lighthouse some 30 years after he left it to fulfill his dying mother’s request that he re-paint it, where we hear the thundering voice of Rossellini yell “Paint it over…cover it up,” a reference to his all-too vivid recollections which keep reappearing, morphing into strange variations on what feels like a dream. Sullivan Brown is excellent as the ever impressionable young Guy who is always observing his sister’s activities, played by Maya Lawson, developing a crush on the female half of a brother and sister teenage detective duo, both played strangely enough by Katherine E. Scharhon, a couple of sleuths known as the Lightbulb Kids who are curious about the strange markings on the back of the orphan kid’s necks. When Wendy mysteriously disappears, Sis develops a strange sexual fascination with her brother Chance, peeped on by her pubescent little brother, especially when Chance gets naked and he turns out to be a she, a reoccurring image (I wonder why?) that Guy can’t seem to shake from his head.
Maddin feels quite comfortable using bizarre, avant garde elements, giving the film a detached, experimental feel, where bleached out images are met with overly dark, morbid humor. There is never a real emotional connection to any of the characters, who aren’t so much dramatically realized as they are uniquely imagined. What’s absolutely amazing is that Maddin in person is not at all shy, brooding, weird, or detached, but develops an immediate connection to an audience with his outgoing personal appeal using clever, descriptive, and nearly always humorous anecdotes. It’s a shame he’s not a better financed artist, as many of his films like this one are made on the fly due to lack of funding, so it’s altogether amazing when he puts together a finished product that has such an extended interior and exterior range, utilizing a brilliant musical score from Jason Staczek, matched by superb editing from John Gurdebeke. One patron snored all the way through this movie, which does feel like a somnambulistic experience, always featuring such startling imagery, where it’s a dizzying experience trying to keep up with the probing density in Maddin films, processing or internalizing so much so fast, as they don’t contain familiar narrative patterns, instead it’s a multi-layered, kaleidoscope effect, exhibiting a kind of magic or circus pageantry, where you never know what’s going to be pulled out of the hat.
Avant-garde to the last shuttering edit, Guy Maddin's
signature aesthetic is also, paradoxically enough, a classical fusion of style
and content. The search for youth that runs through much of his work is
complemented by its projection as an outpour of archaic cinematic
tropes—mementos from the medium's own past. The Canadian director pushes his
style even further in Brand Upon the Brain!, where his conservationism
extends to the film's very presentation as a live auditorium event meant to
recreate the original silent-movie theaters, complete with orchestra, foley
artists, and an incantatory narrator. (Few pictures will lose as much impact
upon their DVD release.) Yet the theatrical experience isn't a William
Castle-type gimmick any more than Maddin's feverish melodrama is a blur of
shards from Feuillade, Borzage, and Gance. The director's profoundly felt
biographical obsessions and love for film history go beyond parody and homage
and into poetically inexplicable private reveries.
The story—subtitled "A Remembrance in 12 Chapters"—follows one "Guy Maddin" (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the isolated island of his childhood, where his family ran an orphanage out of a lighthouse. Memories are relived: Guy recalls his prepubescent self (Sullivan Brown) and his rebellious older Sis (Maya Lawson), constantly watched by Mother's (Gretchen Krich) dictatorial light shaft while Father (Tom Moore) holds the standard mad-scientist experiments in the basement. When a teenage detective (Katherine E. Scharhon) enters the island disguised as her own brother, their world short-circuits. The characters keep slipping into trance, either to acknowledge their forbidden passions or possibly to try to keep up with the film's hallucinatory rhythms.
Densely composed and outrageously Freudian, Brand Upon the Brain! offers psychosexual anxiety, resurrection, vampirism, and the kind of phantasmagoria that exists only in the mind of a playful visionary. (It's also a very funny film, my favorite moment being Mother's meeting with her brood following a rejuvenating experiment that makes her 20 years younger: "An awkward breakfast," reads the intertitle.) Maddin's fantasies can become easily overextended, and the film could have used some of the condensed brevity of . As a frantic, lyrical spectacle, however, it has images unforgettable enough to do justice to the title.
Adrolly phantasmagoric, silent-film spectacle in which Freud meets Feuillade and Frankenstein! An auditorium crammed with an 11-piece live orchestra, a Foley effects team, and an onstage castrato! Celebrity guest narration by the likes of Isabella Rossellini, Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Kiki (without Herb), plus that dude who sings for TV on the Radio! Countless intertitles spelled out in purple run-ons and punctuated by exclamation marks!
Brand Upon the Brain!—director Guy Maddin's latest pomo revitalization of early-cinema tropes and aesthetics—sees the Winnipeg-based fabulist attempting a blockbuster event; think of it as counter-programming to Spider-Man 3. Sure, the Tribeca Film Festival had $18 tickets (unjustified!) and the publicity machine dubbed "Spider-Man Week," but the first seven days of BUTB! in NYC offer all the aforementioned in-person excitement for only $30 a pop (totally justified!). And just when you thought the sprawl of Tribeca couldn't stretch any farther, check out the fest's executive director Peter Scarlet with his fingers in both pies: He's on tap to narrate a screening of Maddin's extravaganza himself.
At more than a half hour longer than Maddin's comparably
autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee, BUTB! will be shown two
ways: as a live spectacle in
Behold the classically grainy, mostly monochromatic imagery that's yet again edited with a modern rapidity belying the bygone era it superficially represents! Gaze into the stark-contrast shadows of what might've been a German Expressionist horror flick, its Super 8mm pinhole visions strobing quickly to form a unique cinematic pointillism whose oblique linearity could only be pieced together by an overstimulated, 21st-century mind!
Erik Steffen Maahs frames the film as the middle-aged Guy
Maddin, returning by rowboat to his
Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, from a screenplay by Mr. Maddin and George Toler, succeeds at one and the same time in functioning as both a celebration and a deconstruction of the conscious and unconscious glories of silent movies through the barely 30 years of their existence at the beginning of the 20th century. Let us say simply and definitely that I have never seen anything like it.
Brand Upon the Brain! is one of Mr. Maddin’s two dozen cinematic exercises in hyper-eccentric self-expression and self-revelation dating back to a 26-minute short feature, significantly entitled The Dead Father, in 1986. I say “significantly” because there is in Brand Upon the Brain! the father of a son named Guy Maddin, and this bizarre paterfamilias passes between life and death and back without ever turning around from his lifelong scientific endeavors. But the strangeness of this character is only a small part of the overall obsessive strangeness of Brand Upon the Brain!, which might be more precisely (if less poetically) entitled Hole in the Head!
Imagine for a moment an island with a lighthouse tower that once contained Guy Maddin and his mother and father, who operated an orphanage within the lighthouse. There is where the child Guy Maddin (Sullivan Brown) grew up with his older sister, Sis (Maya Lawson). Mother (Gretchen Krich)—often shown in vintage iris close-ups—keeps a watchful eye on her two children with the intrusive help of the lighthouse tower’s searchlight, which scans the entire island.
Then try and imagine the grown-up Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the now-deserted island he has inherited to dredge up the detritus of his childhood memories, and the once-tremulous passions they still evoke. The power of the flashback in old movies to bring the past to life and into sharp focus unleashes here a torrent of images of scrambling orphans of both genders, of a teenage boy-girl detective team, Chance and Wendy Hale (both characters played by the actress Katherine E. Scharhorn), and a very disturbed older orphan named Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), who wants to cut out the heart of a terrified younger Boy Neddie (Kellan Larson) for some primal ritual of reincarnation. Chance and Wendy have come to the island to confirm their suspicions of an illicit trade—run by Guy’s mother and father—in smuggled body parts from the orphans.
After a time, Wendy Hale pretends to be her brother Chance in a gender-reversal process familiar from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Sis develops a crush on him/her. Meanwhile, Guy has remained faithful to his childhood adoration of Wendy. When Chance/Wendy is finally unmasked and unclothed, both Guy and Sis remain constant in their obsessions. And so it goes, with Mother becoming incestuously involved with Guy—or at least with his tush—and Sis enthusiastically entangled in a lesbian relationship with the faux Chance/Wendy. There are magical elixirs drained from the children’s heads and necks that make Mother young again, with devastating consequences. Yet Brand Upon the Brain! escapes the gruesomeness of modern horror films by re-creating the visual indestructibility of the human image to death and beyond.
And the pace of the 12 chapters, told over the course of 95 minutes, surges along, propelled by the archaic silent-movie storytelling device of intertitles coupled with a faux-naif verbal narration expressing a remembered wide-eyed innocence at the dawn of the miracle of the movies. Brand Upon the Brain! has already been screened with a kind of live-action theatrical accompaniment at the venerable Village East Theatre at 12th Street and Second Avenue in the East Village. If it is ever revived there or released on DVD, don’t miss it. It is one of the most compelling avant-garde excursions into the narrative cinema ever.
Guy Maddin leans over the cafe table and says, "I know
that even though we're speaking in
It's never easy to tell when Maddin, who looks like a bank
manager or a high school teacher, but has made some of the strangest movies of
recent decades, is pulling your leg. I don't know that he exactly is here (even
though, as he admits, his hometown of
Like most of Maddin's numerous films (the best-known might include "The Saddest Music in the World," "Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary" and "Tales From the Gimli Hospital"), "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a bizarre hybrid of 1920s silent film and experimental or avant-garde film. Shot in bleached-out, archaic-looking black-and-white (with occasional unexplained flashes of color), it features cornball intertitles, hambone acting and intentionally fake-sounding sound effects. Some of its images, however, are spliced together in a super-fast, post-MTV blur that Maddin says was driven by contemporary technology, and that he hopes will echo the processes of memory itself.
"I was tickled by this notion that I could present
memory as a more neurological phenomenon," he tells me over coffee in
Despite the overtly melodramatic plot of "Brand Upon the Brain!" Maddin insists that its origins lie in his real childhood. "Anyone who's remembering his or her childhood is at that moment a poet," he says. "They're launching themselves into something lyrical. They're making erroneous but metaphorical leaps into explaining things, re-creating what they've been through. I try to re-create the act of remembering in this movie. My childhood was full of terror and titillation, as proper childhoods are. There were incredibly horny periods. There were confusing periods, adventurous periods, mildewy periods."
Maddin claims that "96 percent" of the film accurately reflects his childhood experiences. When I suggest that he was not raised in a lighthouse (one that was also an orphanage) and that his father was not a mad scientist conducting nefarious experiments, he replies, "OK, so you nailed the 4 percent that isn't true." Under pressure, he further admits that (unlike the character named Guy Maddin in the film) he was never friends with an intrepid brother-sister duo of harp-playing teen detectives. But the sinister sexual warfare between Guy's mother and sister in the film, he says, is drawn from life, including a mysterious incident when a pound of butter ends up stuck to the kitchen wall.
Despite the evident jokiness of some elements -- most notably the exclamation-mark-laden intertitles, which spoof the explanatory mode of silent film -- "Brand Upon the Brain!" is a surprisingly frightening and affecting film, launching itself from vertiginous peaks into shadowy hollows. To heighten what Maddin calls the "melodramatic hysteria" of the picture, he'll screen it in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago with an 11-piece live orchestra and a troupe of live sound-effects artists, along with a series of live narrators (to include Isabella Rossellini, Lou Reed, Crispin Glover and others). The result is giddy, exciting and hilarious, not quite like any artistic experience you've ever had.
"I have a sense of showmanship that I never suspected I had," Maddin says. "I've been a filmmaker for so long, and there's something in that word that makes it sound like I don't care if I entertain you. I haven't turned into P.T. Barnum -- I'm not going to do Odorama or Sensurround next -- but I enjoy feeling that I'm engaging the audience."
Maddin's rejection of nearly all the cinematic grammar of the last 70 years does not, he says, come from highfalutin aesthetic notions, but rather from delight. "You know, you're shocked at how modern expressionism feels when you first encounter it," he says. "Or how cool the fashions of the '20s look if you've never really seen them before. They just feel so modern! This stuff just never smells like mothballs to me. When I look back on the early days of cinema, it's like looking back at my own childhood. I just see the wonderment that all its pioneers must have created and felt.
Besides, Maddin continues, there are lots of other filmmakers content to display the vocabulary units of mainstream film. "I don't know, I'm not exactly a polished technician," he says. "I'm not the best at any one thing. I'm not necessarily good at any one thing. I've somehow managed to carve out a niche where I can operate pretty well. I'm happy there, and I still have plenty to say. As a filmmaker it didn't always matter if people were listening. But as a showman, dammit, those suckers are going to come in and I'm gonna take their money!"
Guy Maddin's new film "Brand Upon the Brain!" exists in the world Maddin has built by hand over several features that seem to be trying to reinvent the silent cinema. Flickering, high-contrast black-and-white images, shot in 8mm, tell a phantasmagoric story that could be a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and Salvador Dali. It's an astonishing film: weird, obsessed, drawing on subterranean impulses, hypnotic.
Equally astonishing is the live theatrical kickoff being
provided by the Music Box Theatre. A narration will be performed by the actor Crispin
Glover (who is not in the film). The throbbing, hard-driving score will be
performed by Ensemble Noamnesia, from
This live performance will play at the theater today through Sunday. And then the run will continue with a recorded soundtrack and a narration by Isabella Rossellini. Would I be correct in guessing you have never seen anything like it before?
The film opens with a man named "Guy
Maddin" in a rowboat. He is a house painter, answering his mother's
summons. She wants two fresh coats of paint on the family's lighthouse, an
orphanage that is the only structure on the
Once Guy arrives on the island, he is cast back into flashbacks of the troubled childhood he had there with his sister and his sexually jealous mother. She stands fiercely atop the lighthouse, sweeping the island with a powerful searchlight and a phallic telescope, and issuing commands through an "aerophone," an invention of Guy's Dad, which allows communication between any two people who love each other, although few seem to love the mother.
The plot, as it always does in a Maddin film, careens wildly in bizarre directions, incorporating material that seems gathered by the handful from silent melodrama. There is a murder mystery involving an orphan named Savage Tom, and an investigation by two teenage detectives named the Light Bulb Kids, who discover suspicious holes in the heads of some orphans.
Elements from mad scientist and black magic stories also creep into the plot, while the film hurtles headlong into an assault of stark images.
Maddin, based in
In a sense, you will enjoy "Brand Upon The Brain!" most if you are an experienced moviegoer who understands (somehow) what Maddin is doing or a naive filmgoer who doesn't understand that he is doing anything. The average filmgoer might simply be frustrated and confused. For me, Maddin seems to penetrate to the hidden layers beneath the surface of the movies, revealing a surrealistic underworld of fears, fantasies and obsessions.
"Ode to a Nectarite Harvest": On Brand Upon the Brain! David Church from Bright Lights Film Journal
Brands upon the brain, meet director Guy Maddin Didier from Cinetrange, including an interview with Maddin
Brand Upon the Brain! Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
Maddin on the Brain Shannon Gee interviews Maddin for GreenCine
New York Times (registration req'd) Manohla Dargis
I felt like if ever I
was going to hear an obscure rendition of “O Canada” played on some archaic,
Herzog-like phonograph, this would be it, but nooooo, we’re instead treated to
the dulcet tones of “Wonderful Winnipeg” in this somnambulistic, autobiographical
fantasy documentary on Maddin’s recollections of his youth in Winnipeg with his
father coaching the Canadian National hockey team and his hairdresser mother
with a maniacal fear of birds as well as a psychic ability using a tracking
system like a laser beam to see through her children’s half truths. Maddin continues to use black and white film
as well as anyone in the business other than Béla Tarr, showing a dreary,
industrial, snow-ridden town that apparently spends most of its time in the
dark. Opening with a Gloria Swanson
style screen test, meet the mother (Ann Savage), “a force as strong as all the
This is the first Maddin film to actually include family photos, a stark contrast from the actors playing the parts onscreen, but this certainly personalizes the material, accentuating his point of view along with what feels like subliminal inner titles. He relishes telling the story of his mother’s fear of birds, as well as having her hair mussed, but recalls visiting a neighbor that had a 75-year old myna bird which had a fairly developed vocabulary and the freedom to be let loose from its cage a good deal of the time. Apparently it jumped near her shoulder where she simply swung her arms and batted the thing to the floor killing it instantly. Other scenes are dramatized in typical Maddin fashion, such as the scene where his sister is morose over killing a deer while driving in the snow, but her mother has other ideas and changes the subject entirely to suit her own mental framework, basically browbeating her daughter to confess to another crime, taking advantage of her daughter’s fragile, distraught state of mind. Guy laments the loss of several city landmarks that fall by the way of demolition crews all in the name of progress, usually replacing something beloved with an artifical monstrosity that remains a persistent eyesore, the result of some corrupt backroom political deal where somebody benefited at the expense of everyone who lives there, sort of Winnipeg’s version of the new and improved Soldier Field, only worse, as they built a replacement hockey stadium that’s too small to actually book NHL games, so instead it just sits there empty. Only during the demolition (which fails miserably) is there a brief appearance of color. In one of the more remarkably extended fantasy sequences, Maddin can only reminisce about the glory days when hockey was the epicenter of his life, the bond between he and his father, the glue that held his family together, now only a fading memory where glitz, glamour, and money has replaced the tough, working class ethic that was once Canadian hockey.
It’s hard to make an objective appraisal about your own home and family onscreen, so Maddin makes no attempt, instead he certainly displays more emotion in this film, particularly his own sense of outrage about what’s happened to his town, offering a thorough historical perspective that is doused with a heavy dose of his own imagination, switching the format from a newsreel item to animation followed by surrealism, as he recalls an event where an electrocuted squirrel on a telephone line started a fire in a horse stable, which led to a stampede out the door into a nearby river where they got log-jammed along with the ice flow, creating a stunning image of just their frozen heads elevated above the ice, like chess pieces. As the horses can’t be removed until spring, the area is subsequently used as a lovers lane and also by kids playing games nearby at their annual jubilee event. He also takes relish in describing the one hill in an otherwise completely flat city that is man made due to trash build up, where a carpet of earth is thrown above it turning it into a sled and tobaggon run, where inevitably someone gets impaled or injured from something sharp sticking out of the ground. There’s also interesting sexual imagery, much of it from the perspective of a young boy drooling over the healthy physiques of grown men, or poking fun at the prettiest man pageant judged by the mayor where many of them end up later with city jobs, but he’s also enamored with streets named after prostitutes, where the women he fantasizes over suddenly turn into ballet dancers. His introduction of the Citizen Girl (Kate Yacula) as the rectifier of all the city’s terrible mistakes is psychologically quite inventive, as if in a dream where all the characters in the film are really acting out a portion of his own inner thoughts. Among his funniest films, but heartfelt and whimsical throughout, we get another window into Maddin’s charming worldview which thankfully never takes itself too seriously, but does offer a fairly ingenious perspective on his own roots.
[Note: Unfortunately, at the screening I attended, only the bottom half of the screen was in focus, as the top half, which included the inner titles, was seriously out of focus for the entire film. Amazingly, in a Maddin film, in focus or not, one can still appreciate his artistry, but I’m not sure I’ve seen the film the director had in mind.]
I can say with absolute authority that you've never seen a
film like Guy Maddin's love/hate/goodbye letter to his hometown of
A pleasingly personal history—both metaphoric and civic—of the Canadian capital
In his ninth feature, My Winnipeg, Canadian filmmaker Guy
Maddin uses his native city in much the same way Michael Moore used
Guy Maddin’s hometown phantasmagoria, a documentary within inverted commas
HILARIOUS! Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg is an outrageous documentary tease, the Canadian’s most hysterical film to date. Ostensibly a paean to hometown roots, Maddin’s affection for ‘The Peg’ quickly turns south, and from within the frosty confines of a looping railcar, is compelled to reveal the truth about Canada’s ‘Gateway to the West’. A sleepy hollow as nocturnal purgatory, deviancy and absurdity lurks beneath the city’s wintry façade, with Guy, our tour guide, providing a lusty commentary on Winnipeg’s dark side: an unauthorized history, replete with shocking asides on brothels, hermaphrodites, man pageants, locker rooms, and other sexual mores. Amusing still, are Maddin’s autobiographical forays, where actors are cast in place of immediate family members (that’s Detour’s Ann Savage as Guy’s beauty shop mother), and long buried memories are exhumed and overanalyzed like a Ross McElwee film. Which is to say My Winnipeg is vintage Maddin, from the childhood anecdotes, to the insertion of ice hockey and ballet, to the lurid turn-of-the-century aesthetic: those grainy celluloid splashes, woozy cross-fades, brusque inter-titles, and extreme genital close-ups all contributing to the film’s drowsy, jokey malaise. Though angrily ensnared within a reoccurring dream, Maddin’s mock-umenting is not without fondness and good jest, and the director even turns fiercely protective at one point, lamenting the destruction of his beloved Winnipeg Arena, and the developers who’ve leveled the olde world charm. In a rare colour sequence, he films the demolition of the stadium, which refuses to topple even after the dynamite explodes – a sign, perhaps, that his beloved native city shares in his nostalgia, and has a life force all of its own.
Guy Maddin is my favourite Canadian filmmaker, but even I
had doubts he could make a documentary about
I needn't have worried. Maddin's film is bizarre, hilarious,
and nothing at all like any documentary I've ever seen. Actually, that's not
true. The film seems at least partly influenced by
Nevertheless, in the midst of My Winnipeg's flights of fancy, which include strange animation sequences and bizarre re-enactments of scenes from his childhood, Maddin manages to include plenty of actual information about the city. Granted, some of the facts presented are... unlikely, to put it delicately, but the way the film oscillates from tone poetry to straight documentary to a barely cohesive rant about the old Winnipeg Jets arena is absolutely brilliant.
I have no doubt that the grainy black and white photography,
strange inter-titles, and occasional tangents into uncomfortable sexuality
might be off-putting for those interested in more traditional documentary, but
this is hands down the best film I've seen at the festival, and perhaps my
favourite of the year. However, I still don't think
thrilling, ingenious My Winnipeg is a love letter to the Canadian director’s
hometown disguised as a Buñuel “escape from the bourgeoisie” comedy. Like a
guest at a never-ending dinner party, Maddin (who narrates the B&W, MOS
film) is plotting to finally leave the comfort of “snowy, sleepwalking
Winnipeg,” the city of his birth—the city he’s spent his entire life in—but
must fight the unseen magnetic forces that are keeping him there. Fortunately,
unlike Buñuel’s clueless characters, Maddin has a secret weapon—he’s a
filmmaker. “What if I film my way out of here?” he proposes.
And thus begins one man’s incredible odyssey through a looking glass past. Using a combination of archival footage, scenes of narcoleptic train passengers, words flashing onto the screen as in an old train robbery silent, the sounds of chugging railroad cars and jangling keys, of hair clippers mixed with a symphony, repeating images of “forks, lap and fur” (the ingredients of the “magnetic pull”), not to mention hilarious narration (wherein Maddin dispenses “facts” like Winnipeg having ten times the sleepwalking rate of anywhere in the world), all mingled with descriptions of his “mother” (as strong as the railroad), Maddin creates a “docu-fantasia” that is more truthful than most nonfiction films. He deals not just in physical reality, but psychic as well. Maddin’s small childhood memories, just as momentous as the city’s grand history, are entwined as one.
And what memories he has—of “dreamy addresses” (
Things get off to a start both good (the movers are a tax deduction—“I’m a filmmaker!” Maddin reminds) and bad (he’s forced to include in his reenactments the current tenant, “a strange lady who won’t leave her house”). The actors watch the TV program “Ledgeman!” (the titular character threatens to jump from a ledge in every episode, but is always saved by the director’s “actress mother”), and witness/perform the “straightening of the hall runner.” Maddin stages the day his sister hit a deer on the highway, his mother twisting the tragedy into a salacious tryst with the “man with the tire iron”, who put the dying deer out of its misery. “Did he pay you?” she huffs. “Everything that happens in the city is a euphemism,” Maddin explains. (Later he adds, “Mother is the most psychic of all Winnipeggers.”) He even accuses mom of trying to sabotage his film (the words “Passive aggressive!” pop onto the screen), captures every detail like the “YUG” carved “dyslexically” into his bedroom door. Much to his chagrin, mom wants to include his dead father in the proceedings, so they reach an uneasy compromise—pretending he’s had dad exhumed and buried in the living room. (It doesn’t get any more Buñuel than this!)
Even the city itself—with the frozen Ferris wheels of its amusement park “Happyland,” built in 1906 and shown in whimsical animation (as is the 1919 worker’s strike), and the “Academy of the Ultravixens” (a.k.a. St. Mary’s Academy)—is snow-piled in absurdist tradition. Maddin shows us ghostly “archival” scenes of a man who de-spooks furniture, of a séance that erupts into a ballet recital, of the sign graveyard (another
In this warped valentine to a city where “demolition is one of the few growth industries” and the “MT Centre” is empty, Maddin reminisces, stealing a hockey shirt from a famed Russian visiting player, wearing it for a few stick hits, then quickly tossing it in the wash, fearful of the KGB. He wishes he could say his father, employed on the management side of
And the hilarious romp continues right back to mom—afraid of “birds and messy hair”—being threatened with a parakeet by her own actor-children in a last ditch effort to get her to cook for them. Maddin’s camera captures the winter walkers as they visit the notorious frozen horse heads (yup, a herd got stuck in the snow up to their necks), which soon becomes a lovers’ stroll. “Golden boy!” and “Man pageants!” and “Corridor of Thighs” flashes onto the screen when Maddin trains his lens on Winnipeg’s infamous debauched nightclub, the mayor the judge of these risqué beauty pageants, which ceased when too many “golden boys” were found holding “golden jobs” at city hall. (The pipe-smoking contest that followed in the pageant’s wake just wasn’t as exciting.) From the “Dance of the hairless boners!” in the gender segregated spa (“Why? Why don’t we just swim?” Maddin wondered as a kid), to the animated gay bison that stampede Happyland, to “Aerial Happyland” (the rooftops of skyscrapers where Winnipeg’s homeless live out of sight), to the spectacular “If Day” in which 5,000 Nazis invade Winnipeg, renaming it Himmlerstadt, Maddin’s incomparable triumph is his sweeping annihilation of such quaint categories as “fiction” and “doc.” As sturdy a hybrid as Lorette, My Winnipeg is breathtakingly one-hundred-percent true to the heart, the only truth that matters in the “winter wonder” end.
By Jason McBride The Secret Sharer: Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, from Cinema Scope
My Winnipeg | Reverse Shot Andrew Tracy
SpoutBlog [Karina Longworth] offering a counter response to Tracy’s review
My Winnipeg Michael Sicinski from The Academic Hack
The Village Voice [J. Hoberman] also reviewing Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
MY WINNIPEG Steve Erickson from Chronicle of a Passion
Filmcritic.com Chris Cabin
The Auteurs' Notebook Daniel Kasman
Salon.com [Andrew O'Hehir] also reviewing Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Screen International Leonard Klady
Guy Maddin interview by Steve Erickson from Film & Video
Guy Maddin takes a dream-like tour of Winnipeg - Arts - Toronto ... Home Truths, by Alison Gillmor from CBC News, September 7, 2007
The Globe and Mail Rick Groen
New York Times (registration req'd) A.O. Scott
Canada (94 mii) 2011 Official site
A Guy Maddin film is
likely to be weird and creepy, among other things, although weirdness is his
state of normalcy. Maddin is one of the
more original filmmakers working today, a highly inventive guy who thrives on
Silent black & white movie techniques, where watching his films resembles
sleepwalking, as his imagery is very dreamlike, usually writing his own
scripts, using original German Expressionist lighting and set designs, where
early in his career he actually hand painted each colorized celluloid
frame. He infuses a wonderful sense of surrealistic mystery with an
audacious sense of humor, often intermixing graphic nudity with bizarre
hallucination sequences, and makes frequent flashbacks to childhood. His
films often create a sense of chaotic confusion, blending fiction with non-fiction,
using a stream-of conscious, experimental style where there’s little or no
narrative, no character development, rather wooden acting, where a sense of the
ridiculous predominates the mood along with a heightened melodramatic hysteria. Frequent themes include the trappings of
love, murder, mental anxiety,
KEYHOLE is largely a haunted house film, told in a murder mystery style, where a collection of oddball characters starts piling up, some obviously ghosts, but others who have the capacity to see and feel these haunting spirits who are easily spoken to, though they often disappear before your eyes. This film does have a slightly demented narrative form that keeps challenging the audience’s reference points, as the eccentric goings-on in this ghost house don’t always make sense, though the opening is right out of John Huston’s KEY LARGO (1948), where a wanderer in the night named Ulysses, no less (Jason Patric), walks in out of an electric storm returning home where his gang has gathered and his first order of business is to have all the characters line up against the wall, the dead ones facing the wall and the live ones facing forward. The dead ones are told they’ll have a pleasant police escort to the morgue, where they’re ushered out the door to the sound of rapid gunfire. Gangster life was never easy. Ulysses is the top dog who gives the orders around the house, where the film seems to be a collection of incidents that largely take place in his head, like an evolving memory piece where he wanders through various reflections of his own imagination, interacting with ghosts from his past, where it’s hard to tell if any are still living, as all have a deep connection to death. Certainly since Maddin’s first short film, THE DEAD FATHER (1986), Guy Maddin - the Dead Father Clip - YouTube (2:00), the director has mixed absurd humor with surrealist flourishes, where mingling the living with the dead is a familiar theme, where here Ulysses actually carries around with him, wherever he goes, a bound and gagged blind prisoner strapped to a chair, who turns out to be his (very much alive) dead son Manners (David Wontner), also his own personal psychic (Brooke Palsson), who may be his daughter Denny, who walks around in a weakened and collapsing state of exhaustion from drowning, which certainly doesn’t prevent her from taking her clothes off frequently, apparently swooning from the heat. These three set out to explore the house (and their family) through a secret passageway.
Meanwhile, waiting upstairs, Isabella Rossellini as Hyacinth (his wife) lays covered in her bed with her naked father (Louis Negin) held hostage on the floor chained to the bed, “There will be no forgiveness, that's why I keep you chained to my bed,” while her lover Chang (Johnny Chang) lurks in the shadows, where at least the father offers an attempt to explain what’s going on via a recurring narration, though it’s clear they don’t wish to be disturbed by Ulysses and that racket he’s making in the house, so they have locked the door, where Ulysses can only stare in at her and speak through a keyhole. The connections between the deadpan Ulysses and his family remain forever distant, as at times he doesn’t even recognize them, himself an absent father. The morbid noirish atmosphere within the house is all drenched in claustrophobic detail, with other characters continually moving in and out of the scene, where there is always a new storyline to follow along with resurfacing family legend. There’s even a Cinderella character continually scrubbing the floors, where someone gets electrocuted when they attempt sexual favors, and a brief appearance by Udo Kier as a dismissive Freudian era medical practitioner, also a James Whale FRANKENSTEIN (1931) style electric chair sequence powered by stationary cyclists, which has the effect of recharging many of the dead memory cells for Ulysses, while others who try are less fortunate. An earlier Maddin short Guy Maddin - Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair (2009 ... YouTube () with Louis Negin adds a familiar allure, even including the continued reference to the clock about to strike . Basically, KEYHOLE is a tour de force blitzkrieg of phantasmagorian Maddin images, often incoherent, somewhat in the manner of the infamous James Joyce stream of conscious novel, a masterful piece of editing that often resembles subliminal clues interspersed throughout that offer keys to Ulysses’ fragmented memory. “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” calls the voice of the narrator, as if there is a secret code. Forced to continually turn back the clocks, this is a conceptual exercise where in his search to get up the stairs into his wife’s bedroom, Ulysses is repeatedly frustrated by recurring thoughts and memories and has to continually contend with ghosts of the past, where often, even in our own lives, the living and the dead may feel interchangeable.
It was a dark and stormy night. What? You’ve heard that one before? Not the way Canuck director Guy Maddin tells it in his mind-bending black-and-white psychosexual melodrama. We begin in medias res, with gangster Ulysses Pick (Patric) and his lackeys hiding out in a creaky old house. Thunder claps, cop sirens blare, and a naked old man in chains rattles around in the attic. Uh…wha?!? The weirdness doesn’t end there: It slowly emerges that Ulysses—like his mythological namesake—has come home after a long absence, and his abode is filled with ghosts from the past.
Among these are his wife, Hyacinth (Rossellini), whose hair unlocks doors, and an under-the-stairs apparition who shouts “Double Yahtzee!” while masturbating. There’s also a mysterious handlebar mustache–sporting doctor (Kier) whose son has just died and a mobster with a taste for poltergeist booty (played by The Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald). And we’d be remiss not to mention the sentient, dust-covered penis lever because, well, it’s a freakin’ sentient, dust-covered penis lever! Maddin fans will no doubt be tickled (to death!) by each of the film’s outré elements, which only get more demented as Ulysses’s quest takes him closer to a reunion with Hyacinth and his son, Manners (Wontner), whom he is strangely unable to recognize. Yet for all the undeniable imaginativeness and visual dazzle (this is Maddin’s first entirely digital feature, and it positively glistens), Keyhole ultimately comes off like a feature-length private joke that revels a bit too gleefully in its overall inscrutability. Close, Guy. But no Double Yahtzee.
The latest offering from Canada's favourite oddball, Guy
Maddin, Keyhole is bizarre, discomfiting, grotesque and perverse. In
other words, it's another reliable Maddin product. Those expecting a
straighter, more conventional film following the breakthrough of My Winnipeg
will instead have to come to grips with something that fits well within his
long-established weirder, claustrophobic tradition.
Keyhole is the loosely framed story of steely-eyed gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric, brilliantly deadpan) who barricades himself in an ancient, creaky house filled with familial ghosts mingling with psychosexual imagery, accompanied by a mute girl in a wet dress named Denny (Brooke Palsson).
While it would do Maddin a disservice to say that the plot is inconsequential, it's certainly not paramount, and at least half the pleasure of opening one of Maddin's elaborately enigmatic creations is the visual interplay and hilarious verbal non-sequiturs interwoven throughout his work.
With Keyhole, Maddin finally embraces the '30s gangster melodrama that one suspects he's been dying to tackle his entire career, but in his own particular way. His endearingly obsessive-compulsive eye for arcane detail is fully intact and Keyhole is the kind of film that's impossible to digest in one sitting.
In a way, this is the design flaw of his work, and Maddin has always sacrificed coherence for expressionism, yet it's hard to fault such a self-assured filmmaker for steadfastly sticking to his uncompromising aesthetic at this stage in the game. Everything you could possibly want from a Guy Maddin endeavour is intact, and when it peaks, Keyhole is as wildly unique and enthralling as his best work.
If the film goes slightly awry it's in its convoluted third act (around the time the great Udo Kier shows up), when the tautly paced noir style gives way to a deeper dive into the subconscious, and the sharp one-liners give way to soupy semaphore.
Regardless, one is inclined to give our Guy the benefit of the doubt and prep for repeated viewings.
Keyhole | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club Noel Murray
For those who complain that Guy Maddin keeps making the same movies over and over… That isn’t entirely true. Maddin’s latest, Keyhole, is significantly different from anything he’s done before. In the past, Maddin’s work has felt like avant-garde re-edits of footage he found in the archive of some Eastern European country that didn’t survive the fall of communism. Keyhole feels more like some Poverty Row production that lapsed into the public domain decades ago, and ever since has been running at 2 a.m. every morning on a small state college’s dedicated cable-access channel. It’s still a pastiche of forgotten cinema, in other words, but the references are a little more modern and mainstream, at least by Maddin standards. Keyhole is a gangster picture crossed with a haunted-house picture crossed with a sword-and-sandal adventure, with Jason Patric playing a hoodlum named Ulysses whose mob is cornered in a crumbling house occupied by the ghosts of Patric’s past. The hero confronts his family issues as he goes searching for his wife (Isabella Rossellini) in the house’s secret rooms and nooks, while Maddin plays around with tough-guy patter between woozy black-and-white shots of half-naked people stumbling through a nightmare.
Few directors have Maddin’s visual imagination, which manifests in Keyhole via gun-molls with obscene graffiti scrawled on their underpants, a dusty wooden penis protruding inexplicably from a wall, an nude old coot chained to his bed, a woman with gold dust nestled in her pubic hair, a bicycle-powered electric chair, and more darkly perverse visions per minute than even most horror filmmakers could muster. Maddin and his regular co-writer, George Toles, are again dealing with memory and unconsciousness, creating a sensation not unlike nodding off during the late show and waking to find the furniture around your easy chair re-arranged. But while it’s nice to see Maddin broadening his range of influences (and moving beyond autobiography for the first time in a while), the genres he’s riffing on call for a little more narrative discipline than Maddin is inclined to give. It’s odd to see Patric apply his veteran polish to a story that’s often nonsensical by design, and one in which the rest of the cast is frequently either stiff or exaggerated. Keyhole’s flashes of actual B-movie coherence are enough to make longtime Maddin-watchers wonder if he could’ve played this material straighter, with more of a plot and fewer reveries. As it stands, Keyhole contains stretches as potent and distinctive as any in Maddin’s filmography, but they stand apart from each other, and fail to fully connect.
"The ghosts are imposing their memories on the living" as we draw back the curtain to follow Ulysses through the keyhole into his mind. Guy Maddin's latest filmic inquiry into the nature of memory was commissioned by the Wexner Center for the Arts and personates an enigma.
Keyholes make for curious frames and whenever you look through them, you are gazing at something forbidden, locked away - Santa Claus or the secrets of adults and children at work.
In Maddin's Keyhole, there are gangster ghosts who come from the 30s or 40s, film noirish and unyielding. One of them is a father named Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) and he returns, in Homeric fashion, to his hideout and a family strategically placed in (or dragged into) different rooms. "Many enemies in this house and I am one of them," foreshadows the re-callings inside the claustrophobic interiors.
The film is, unsurprisingly, in black and white, with only a glimpse of a dazzling pink and rose sequined gauze curtain (conceived by Maddin's daughter Jilian, who is a jewelry designer) blowing in from colorful times. We are transported to an imaginary American Weimar, where the figures from paintings by George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann freely mingle with an Orson Welles lookalike and a naked old man (Louis Negin), held hostage by Isabella Rossellini, who plays Hyacinth, the wife of Ulysses.
"There will be no forgiveness, that's why I keep you chained to my bed," she says to her father, the aforementioned old man. And here we are at the nucleus of Keyhole: The absent father.
Ulysses' children, a son named Manners (David Wontner) gagged and self-blinded, and a perpetually drowning daughter named Denny (Brooke Palsson) both have names with a double N in the middle, a phonetically soft voiced sound that stands in stark contrast to their parents' flinty voiceless S sounds.
"It's never too late to love a child," we are enlightened by the ageless, and all-ages encompassing Rossellini who dominates the upper floor of the house filled with mnemonic objects including a shiny toaster, a blanket with stripes and a Nugget shoeshine kit, all evoking smells of the past, which keep the longing for parental affection alive. True West of the spirits. Who can forget the aroma of toast in the morning? "Never trust your eyes, Ulysses, never trust your eyes!" He obeys, and smells a lingerie catalogue from a bygone era and sticks his nose into an urn instead.
Ulysses pulls strings through the keyholes, slender umbilical cords in daydreams or nightdress and undress. A blond Cinderella scrubs the floors and all clocks show midnight without a strike.
Similarly to Freud's story of the father, who had a dream that his child, next to his bed, pulled at his arm to inform him: "Father, don’t you see I’m burning?," every person and object in Keyhole is pulling at your arm, or is it your leg?
When I brought up the taboo subject of Freud in my conversation with Guy, he grinned and said "Maybe I can read him now." After flipping through The Interpretation Of Dreams in a bookstore many years ago, Maddin started interpreting his dreams while dreaming. The filmmaker believes in the irreversible impact of our earliest perceptions, or how he phrased it to me: "We are still standing on those furtive ruins."
Udo Kier (all ways fantastic, always different, from Fassbinder to Lars von Trier and beyond) portrays an unflinching doctor with a handlebar moustache and a sick child of his own, in a mode of naturalism, that is all but comparable to Kafka's naturalism.
Linear adventures, characters of flesh and blood reflected on the silver screen doing things in the great outdoors, can not be found here. To enjoy this kind of adventure, you have to get lost in Guy Maddin's house, because he has made a ghost of a film - "but a ghost isn't nothing."
Full disclosure: I produced Guy Maddin’s first three feature
films, lived with him as a roommate (I was Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger –
Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sprang miraculously to life on the top two
floors of a ramshackle old house on Winnipeg’s McMillan Avenue), continue to
love him as one of my dearest friends and consider his brilliant screenwriting
partner George Toles to be nothing less than my surrogate big brother.
Most importantly, I am one of Maddin’s biggest fans and refuse to believe I am not able to objectively review his work. Objectively, then, allow me to declare that I loved Keyhole.
What’s not to love?
Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. Like Terence Davies, Maddin is one of the few living filmmakers who understands the poetic properties of cinema, and this, frankly, is to be cherished as much as any perfectly wrought narrative.
This is not to say narrative does NOT exist in Maddin’s work. If you really must, dig deep and you will find it. That, however, wouldn’t be very much fun. One has a better time with Maddin’s pictures just letting them HAPPEN to you.
The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before – playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing.
Populated with a variety of tough guys and babe-o-licious molls, Ulysses is faced with ghosts of both the living and the dead, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini – gorgeous as always and imbued with all the necessary qualities to render melodrama with joy and humanity), her frequently nude father (the brilliant Louis Negin – perhaps one of the world’s greatest living character actors, who frankly should be cast in every movie ever made), chained to his bed, uttering the richly ripe George Toles dialogue and Udo Kier (the greatest fucking actor in the world), whose appearance in this movie is so inspired I’ll let you discover for yourself the greatness of both the role and Udo himself.
Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. For movie geeks, literary freaks and Greek tragedy-o-philes, the movie is blessed with added treats to gobble down voraciously.
Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s not all fun and games. Beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. For me, what’s so important and moving about the film is its literal and thematic exploration of a space. Strongly evoking that sense of how our lives are inextricably linked to so many places (or a place) and how they in turn are populated with things – inanimate objects that become more animate once we project our memories upon them – or how said places inspire reminiscence of said objects which, in turn, inspire further memories, Keyhole is as profound and sad as it’s a crazed laugh riot.
Of all the reviews about the movie that I bothered to read, I was shocked that NOBODY – NOT ONE FUCKING CRITIC – picked up on the overwhelming theme of PLACE and the SPIRIT of all those THINGS that live and breathe in our minds. It was the first thing to weigh heavily upon me when I first saw the movie. It has seldom been approached in the movies – and, for my money – NO MORE POIGNANTLY AND BRILLIANTLY than rendered by Maddin, Toles and their visionary young producer Jody Shapiro.
All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce), the animate and inanimate, the real and the imagined, these are the things that haunt us to our graves, and perhaps beyond. And they all populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole – a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in.
We are all ghosts and are, in turn, haunted by them.
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