Guy Maddin  

Guy Maddin definitely lives in a very odd world of his own creation. Although nothing like David Lynch and his style, he does similarly live in his own strange universe and has comparable affinities for the bizarre for its own sake without the usual political or artsy pretensions of the surrealists. However, Maddin goes beyond Lynch in his alien humor, and in his cinematographic obsessions over recreating the look and feel of old films, complete with foggy lenses, jumpy editing, inconsistent film-speeds, missing frames, melodramatic dialogue, old costumes, bad film exposures, tinted monochrome, saturated color and scratchy musical recordings. Often, like Brakhage, he also experiments with the look and feel of the film itself, using editing, color filters, superimpositions and so on. This style lends other-worldly atmosphere to his works when the material is appropriately matched, otherwise it comes off as an artsy gimmick. In addition to this form of presentation, Maddin also experiments with art-house or creative entertainment gimmicks that allow his films to be experienced in different ways, such as using live narrations and music, viewing the film through peepholes, viewing his wispy, quirky movie as if it were a ghostly apparition of the movie camera, and even providing a machine to generate random short mysterious montages based on the viewer's choices (Seances). His works often mix elements of bizarre human behaviour, humor, dream-logic surrealism, ironic twists, right-brain absurdities and bizarre whims that almost take on a subconscious meaning, sexual perversions such as incest and necrophilia, and over-the-top melodrama. Some are silent movies with scratchy music and sound effects, and others have dubbed dialogue voice-overs. He makes a wide variety of shorts, many of them 5 minute tangents or whims inspired during the filming of a feature, as well as several full-length features which are reviewed here, along with some noteworthy shorts. Recent creations such as The Forbidden Room, The Green Fog and Seances are not really proper movies as much as highly experimental experiences and editing/montage experiments, with scenes (literally) randomly spliced together.


Brand Upon the Brain!  
One of Maddin's best creations but flawed in its experimental approach. The bizarre story is pure Maddin imagination: Guy rows to a lighthouse where he grew up, with memories of the past overwhelming him. His first crush, the orphans brought up in the lighthouse with strange markings on their necks, and his father, always working in a mysterious lab relentlessly, so much so that even death can't stop him. His overbearing, insanely neurotic mother who obsesses over returning mentally and physically to her childhood, with an unhealthy dependency on her young son and the orphans. A sister who falls for a gender-bending investigator who comes to uncover the secrets of the lighthouse, and who only allows kissing and undressing using magical gloves. And finally, the Aerophone which communicates between rooms via passions, and Savage Tom who performs Satanic rituals with the orphans. As memories awaken, we see how this strange setup develops into psycho-sexual tensions, violence, melodrama, bizarre developments, and a resurrection involving a writhing, screaming-mad mother, a huge syringe and a wet corpse. The presentation is the usual Maddin dreamlike, surreal but jumpy B&W, with too much aggressive editing in some parts (especially the first 30 minutes which features an average of 2 seconds per shot), and one unique gimmick: The film toured the country accompanied by an orchestra and a live narrator. The DVD features various recorded narrators, but while this may have worked as a unique theatrical experience, I find the narration annoyingly obtrusive, ruining the magic atmosphere of the film every time it starts up again. It's like having some guy sitting next to you in the cinema constantly commenting on or dramatically acting out the movie, except with a Maddin film this is fatal, since the style is so grippingly atmospheric and hypnotic. If they would only release it with a music-only audio track, then it would work very nicely.

Dead Father, The  
Maddin's first movie is a 25 minute, mostly-silent, surreal short about a broken family. The young man is forgetful, detached and distracted, the mother is morose, the sister maintains a secret lover, all living in awkwardness thanks to a distanced father, in this case both literally and figuratively dead at different times portrayed with exquisite surrealism. They try to connect with the commanding patriarch only to watch him repeatedly lay dead, or leave repeatedly to an unnamed preferred alternative life which turns out to be in a surreal graveyard of living-dead people. Their moods and resentment grow until the son explodes in a bizarre act of desperate physical nourishment. Gripping and atmospheric.

Heart of the World, The  
6 minute short from Maddin that made a big splash, a condensed and frantic Metropolis-esque movie squeezed into a short (comparable to Odilon Redon, another condensed and fun but utterly bizarre and incoherent short). Anna is a scientist studying the (literal) heart of the world. She loves and is loved by two men: A mortician and an actor who seems to be stuck in his role-playing of Jesus. Between death and religion, she is seduced by a fat Capitalist rich man while the world goes into heart failure and a full scale panic. Will someone find a way to save the world? The music soundtrack is pounding, the pace is pumping, and the movie is gripping - all 6 minutes of it.

I've been waiting for over a decade for Maddin to recreate the surreal atmospheric magic of Tales from the Gimli Hospital without gimmicks and distracting flaws. This is it. A masterpiece of surrealism that creeps up on you as soon as you give up making sense of it and watch it with your right brain. There is a melodramatic narrative somewhere, but a lot of it is in reverse, and experienced via extremely muddy memories as seen through a fever dream. And, of course, it is peppered with Maddin's usual highly eccentric humor and Freudian subconscious perversions. I especially liked the increasingly warped soundtrack. This is a typical Maddin mish-mash of ideas and scenes that shouldn't go together, unless the movie lets you dream, allowing you treat the inexplicable as throwaway but amusing surreal oddities. There's a 30s gangster noir that rapidly deteriorates into a ghost drama as the boss locks himself and his gang in a house full of memories and spirits. He brings a drowned, blind girl with him to psychically find his way around the house that is full of dead people, screaming ghosts, and secrets, including a naked grandfather literally chained to his bed. His goal is to connect with his wife who may or may not be dead and who isolated herself with her chained father. Characters appear out of nowhere, before he enters a room he goes through an odd ritual of talking through keyholes out of which he pulls threads of hairs. The grandfather whips other ghosts, there's an amusing association of masturbation with yahtzee that only Maddin could come up with, a dusty penis, violence via a quaint electric chair, and lots more. The dramatic narrative at first reminded me of the annoyingly intrusive narrative in Brand Upon the Brain, but thankfully quieted down as soon as the movie built up its elements. An utterly unique and superb creation.

Stump the Guesser  
This is the kind of stuff that made me love Maddin. An outstanding 20-minute short with a complete story and jam-packed with fun strange ideas. A 'guesser' works at the fair answering any and all questions correctly. When he runs out of guessing milk and a strange man and woman challenge him, he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be ... very wrong for him. This makes him lose his way and he goes on a strange dream-logic quest that involves heredity, incest, a mirrored infinite human, people-tests that x-ray humans for concrete bricks and sand, and a guess that will change his life, if he can only guess what it is.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital  
Like Lynch's Eraserhead, this first feature from Maddin is an incomparable, bizarre, surreal piece of work. While their mother is dying in Gimli, children are told strange stories of Gimli's past involving a mysterious plague that brought together Einar the Lonely and Gunnar, who recently lost his wife. Gunnar is popular with the nurses much to Einar's frustration and the rivalry reaches new heights when their own stories are tied together and reveal a dark, ironic secret. The real star of this movie is the atmosphere, dark humor and surreal world, which includes people who squeeze fish into their hair, a puppet show used as anesthesia, a hospital that is also a barn, games that look like wedgie wrestling, etc. The movie is not always sure of itself and there is some amusing experimentation but it builds slowly, drawing you into its bizarre universe, into its final long dream-sequence that blends together the details of the story. An unforgettable surreal experience.

Of Some Interest

Maddin's followup to Gimli Hospital seems to lack inspiration and is merely content with reproducing an Eisenstein movie while both subverting its imagery of patriotism and bravery with Maddin's odd humor while enhancing it with strange and surreal touches. The main dramatic story involves a complicated love quadrangle of shell-shocked soldier denying that his love has died, a look-alike woman whom he thinks is his dead girlfriend, her husband, an amnesiac whose mind was warped by his mother painting a scary face on her breast when he was a baby, and a landlady who pines unrequitedly for the soldier. This is set amidst a backdrop of the Russian war in WWI, complete with a morality tale of a cowardly soldier who finds his bravery by saving his family from Bolsheviks by strangling them with his own intestines, a sneak attack by bunny rabbits, an image of two patriarchal old soldiers kissing each other, and various strange machinery, leftover props from Caligari, Eisenstein-esque close-ups of strange warped faces, strange local customs like reviving a man with horse-brushes, a theatrical recreation of paintings using costumed men to symbolize countries during which Canada gets abused, and other oddities.

A unique entry in Maddin's oeuvre that reproduces various old German film styles using a mixture of hazy saturated colors and color-tinted monochrome, along with harsh camera angles, lighting and melodrama. The setup, another strange created world by Maddin, is in an Alpine village where everyone is afraid, repressed and strict. The grand fear is for the always impending avalanche of snow looming over the heads, for which they impose strict rules about silence, shoot overflying geese, and remove animals' vocal cords. But their lives are always full of warnings, superstitions and disciplines, with many men training at a strict butler school, and women working in mine-shafts with candles on their heads. Amidst this setup flares dark secrets, love affairs, incestuous obsessions, molestations, brooding lusts and anger, secret corpses, a man who had his eye gouged out as a baby by a brooch on his mother's clothes, and a secret brother hidden in the attic visited by a family ghost. Unfortunately, I found this one much more dull than other Maddin works, since behind the careful and impressive cinematic work there isn't much of a story or mesmerizing atmosphere, with the plot simply meandering from one scandal and dramatic scene to another.

Cowards Bend The Knee  
High-melodrama, silent film with pseudo-autobiographical elements and the usual Maddin bizarre humor. A sperm hockey team, as seen through a microscope, has a player who likes to drop girlfriends for new faces, one of which he leaves during an abortion inside a bordello/hairdressing salon. This new girl has an unhealthy obsession over her father who is dead but left behind his severed blue hands. She wants revenge, only lets her father's hands touch her, and Guy is just the easily manipulated coward she needs. Amusing over-the-top melodrama with sudden bizarre laughs like when two men are showering and in a gay impulse he touches the other's behind as if it were a doorbell. The big flaw here is the frenetic editing, which greatly over-uses cuts, jumpy scenes, rapid montages and intertitles, making this movie hard on the eyes and brain and which doesn't let any atmosphere build.

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary  
A unique blend of ballet, the classic story of Dracula, Mahler's music, and Maddin. The elements are put together masterfully and with balance, with Maddin filming the story in his usual B&W hazy dream-like cinematography and melodramatic touches, and the scenes of dancing or high drama synchronized with Mahler's sweeping symphony. In between Stoker's story of Dracula coming to town to seduce his dream-woman, the mad insect-eating Renfield and Van Helsing's battle with the undead, Maddin inserts surreal and campy touches, including a devilish dream-dance-sequence, some fun poked at immigrants, and an odd obsession with money, with gold coins coming out of Dracula's flesh.

An unusually surreal and slightly longer short by Maddin with his usual strange sense of humor. An old criminal is haunted by dreams of death, crime, gangs of unruly criminals invading his home which may erupt in a shoot-out and death. The dream sparkles in firefight and bullet fireworks, morphing into some nonsense about firework shoes and a crackling basement stove before diving into what the guns and six-shooters really represent: A glory-hole orgy of oral sex.

My Winnipeg  
Another unique creation from Maddin that combines documentary, personal diary and exploration, and fantasy, creating a collage of nostalgia, tall-tales and surreal snippets of autobiography. You're never quite sure what is true in this movie but that is part of its charm. Some of Winnipeg's history is shown through a haze, the rivers and railroad lines that pass through are dreamily compared to objects like a woman's thighs, its citizens sleepwalking through the city and unable to leave. Buildings and events are seen through nostalgic eyes, anger turned towards councils and businesses that tear down old memories. Maddin travels in a hallucinative derelict train car always half sleeping and going in circles, with his mother staring down at him, until he attempts to leave by 'filming his way out'. He explores memories of the beauty salon under his childhood bedroom, and various eccentricities and strange habits while growing up are recreated in his old home using actors. Tales are told of horses that froze in the lake with their heads sticking out, strange ghostly hockey teams, surreal seances and psychic fugues organized by various city notables, and so on... A magical tour through memory, history and autobiography that is reminiscent of Fellini but is all Maddin.


Forbidden Room, The  
Maddin often splices his shorts into his longer creations, or extends scenes from his movies into shorts, but this one seems to consist entirely of spliced shorts that have nothing to do with each other, and it suffers as a result. His shorts vary in quality, with amusing absurdities, strange whimsical pieces, little weird ideas or dreams put on film, etc. But if they work, it's usually because they are short. Here we get a dozen or so completely unrelated stories and ideas, with characters' minds wandering off to tell random stories about other people and worlds, presenting whim after whim, and stories within stories, for two hours, testing the endurance even of Maddin fans. There's a lumberjack who appears in a doomed submarine, Aswang horrors, people turning into blackened bananas, murder of a butler, ghostly dads and a moustached kid replacing his dad in bed, strange women captured in wolf-caves where a lumberjack has to prove himself with strange games, a man teaching about bathing, doctors obsessed with bones hounded by skeletal women, and much more, all typically filmed in a hodge-podge of 'damaged' film stock and retro-techniques, jarringly spliced together with awkward dialog and a couple of modern songs. For all its extreme oddness and whimsy, it just doesn't work, and makes me wonder whether the 'Forbidden Room' is a reference to Maddin's archive of abandoned ideas. Followed by 'Seances', a collection of recreated lost shorts literally spliced together randomly by an algorithm, creating a different ghostly short movie for every viewer.

Saddest Music in the World, The  
Maddin gets a bigger budget and some famous actors but unfortunately, this is a failed experiment. The story involves a legless beer baroness in Winnipeg during the Great Depression who launches a contest to find the saddest music in the world. Her former lover represents the gaudy USA with lavish musical numbers. He is attached to his girlfriend who is a nymphomaniac, his brother, who lost his wife, represents Serbia with his cello, and his father, who cut off his ex-wife's legs, is now attempting to buy forgiveness with artificial glass legs filled with beer. Yes, you read that right. Ethnic musicians battle each other over a buzzer and slide into a pool of beer, while the melodrama plays itself out. This time, the dubbed voice-overs, silly and overlong musical scenes, crude attacks on the USA and messy story don't blend well with the usual Maddin B&W cinematography tricks, making it all a pretty dull gimmick.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs  
For this outing, Maddin seems to have put all his effort into creating the most stilted, childishly pretentious and deadpan dialogue with horribly uninvolving and dull results. The movie is presented in full color (a rarity for Maddin) but the look is fuzzy, the colors bright, the costumes and props are cheaply extravagant and artificial, and the scenery is stagy and pastoral, making the movie look like a 50s children's fantasy. The story doesn't go anywhere and involves a variety of odd or annoyingly neurotic characters on an island: Peter is an ex-prisoner coming home with a penchant for having strange dreams while he hunts and throwing temper tantrums, his mad sister runs an ostrich farm and pines for the local strange one-legged Dr Solti who is a mesmerist and who seems to have the mysterious and arrogant Juliana under his spell, which angers the love-struck Peter. Add to this typical Maddin salad a fisherman's wife, born of a prostitute and hanged man's sperm, who seduces Peter, an ostrich farmer who gets into a vicious, violent quarrel with Peter's sister, and a statue of Venus slowly rising in the forest with which everyone seems to have a mystical relationship. Unfortunately, the movie is made terribly tedious due to the aforementioned dialogue that tries too hard to be an homage to artificially meaningful and romantic flicks of the past.

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