Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Guy Maddin at the HFA: The Forbidden Room

Another series at the HFA, another case where I only see the final film. Slightly more forgivable than when I lived a block or three away, but I really should reinstate my membership, if only so that I'm more inclined to make the most of it.

Still, this was one of only two screenings where Maddin was appearing in person, and I'd already seen him talk about My Winnipeg. Also, I hasn't yet heard that this was just going to be the first time The Forbidden Room played here; as seems to happen relatively often toward the end of the year, the Archive will give it scattered screenings throughout the month of December.

It's a fun movie, if not for everybody. Maddin said he knew it had to be "too much", although he had to hold back to keep it from being "too too too much". That talk of excess manifested most obviously when he talked about using pieces from seventeen "Seances" performances, including one point where they were stacked nine deep.

I'd heard of "Seances" when it was announced, although I didn't connect it with The Forbidden Room until the introduction. As mentioned in the review, that was sort of an installation project where Maddin and a group of actors would try to recreate a lost film in a day during museum hours, with the name coming from how, at the start of the session, he would place the cast in a trance and ask the spirit of the film to possess them. Actors, said Maddin, are easy to place in trances; sometimes they come pre-tranced or will accidentally entrance each other.

I liked that he pointed out that a bunch of those easily-hypnotized thespians were more famous than some in the audience might think in response to a question about how he got some big-name European actors to appear - basically, the casting people knew who in Paris might find this a fun project. Like a lot of us, though, he was a bit surprised how big some of the folks he worked with in Montreal were locally, with Roy Dupuis being a major QuebeƧois star. I figured some in the a audience might recognize Caroline Dhavernas, although Wonderfalls was a while ago.

He also spent some time talking about this being his first work with digital for a full project - I recall him talking about how he used it during My Winnipeg because the new arena didn't deserve film, and hope he's enjoying his new hockey team anyway. One thing he mentioned was that there are few lucky accidents with digital photography as opposed to film, no mechanical or chemical missteps that leave an imprint on the end result, which is an issue with the aesthetic they were going for (I've seen other digital productions look silly because they put the same "aging" filter on every frame). They actually wound up coding something to introduce random "errors", with the trick being that you have to commit to them whether you like the end result or not. Similarly, he talked about how they tried to simulate two-strip Technicolor in ways that gave each recreation is own color palette, although using impossible chemistry in many cases. That he's still talking about building color schemes in terms of chemistry shows how film-based his thinking is still.

Although who knows what the future holds? Maddin joked about how he imagined going up to Martin Scorsese at a film festival and asking if he really thought he liked old movies, but also said that after this particular project, he felt like silent and lost movies were out of his system. A big motivator for much of his career to date was that the only way to see any of these films whose descriptions intrigued him was to recreate them himself, but doing this much at once had him interested in trying some new things.

Hopefully that goes well. I like Guy Maddin; he's one of those surprising guys who, for creating art that is kind of on the arcane and demanding side never seems like he considers himself above his prospective audience, and never seems consumed with his own eccentricity. He could be a more insufferable Tim Burton, but instead always comes across as someone who could carry on a fascinating conversation about film who's sitting next to you at a hockey game, though he would not force it upon you.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin, digital)

Though part of the Archive's Guy Maddin program, this short was made by his co-director on The Forbidden Room, Alex Johnson, and is not hard to see why the two were natural collaborators. There are similar aesthetics at play here, as Johnson also draws inspiration from their home town of Winnipeg to create a black-and-white, found-footage piece that plays as an offbeat counter to dry expectations, although it is very much his own.

It's neat, though, a self-aware work that exaggerates is darkness by having the voice narrating what a dreary pall the elm trees cast upon the city rumble almost to the point of incomprehensibility; it's neither a Vincent Price-like layer of elegance atop something dispiriting nor a parodically contrarian attempt to make something lovely sinister, but something right at the boundary of the second. And while we're noting what Johnson is doing with the narration and selection of images seemingly taken on one of the city's dreariest days, he's increasing the closer-ups of leaves stricken by Dutch Elm Disease, introducing genuine malaise into the manufactured sort.

It's a neat trick, if not a whole lot more. If nothing else, it's a nifty-enough few minutes to make one curious about what else Johnson is capable of on his own.

"Louis Riel for Dinner"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin, digital)

Presented as a story that Guy Maddin found thrown away as a kid, this three-minute piece is built around soft-peddling one joke - a little girl being appalled at finding the family's roast duck has the head of Louis Riel (an important figure in Canadian history and legend) - but the measured approach to everything that director Drew Christie takes makes things even funnier. The animation is limited and the father's almost bored response keeps it from escalating to cartoon lunacy beyond some incongruous visuals. It is comedy boated by an unwillingness to proclaim itself thus.

And maybe that makes what's underneath - a little girl's hero worship dashed both by her father's actions and his casual disregard for a great man - a little more powerful. You wouldn't necessarily describe this cartoon in those terms, but they may be what allows it to gain a little traction in one's head. That feeling, after all, is one we all understand, even if we don't need to articulate it to enjoy a little slice of absurdity.

The Forbidden Room

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 November 2015 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Sharp Amnesias of Guy Maddin, DCP)

Given that The Forbidden Room wasn't even really supposed to be a movie, you have to say it turned out pretty well. Conceived as a two-part multimedia project - the first half live "seances" where Guy Maddin and the day's cast would recreate a lost film, the second a website that mixed and matched the results - the feature was added to the project even as the number of seances were cut, forcing Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson to Frankenstein together something a little less random than intended, but still a wonderfully singular mess.

Frankenstein is a fair metaphor for this movie in a couple of ways; not only are the filmmakers trying to sew the parts of various dead films together and reanimate them, but the novel itself is perhaps the most enduring nested narrative in literature, though few of its cinematic adaptations preserve the multiple-narrator, flashback-within-a-flashback structure. Maddin and his collaborators go kind of nuts with this, though, using common actors and other more dubious methods to assemble seventeen recreations into something that resembles a single work, at one point submerging the audience nine layers in an ocean of flashbacks, dreams, and fantasies.

The surprising thing, then, may be just how effective many of these little vignettes are. The audience enters them in absurd ways and often playing as parody, there is nevertheless something genuine to many of the stories that keeps them from just seeming like mockery of early 20th century film. Consider the segment introduced as the dreams of mustache hairs trimmed from a dying man (Udo Kier), which features his goat returning for a third "final, final, final" farewell and a story of his son (Vasco Bailly-Gentaud) gluing those hairs to his face to fool his blind mother (Maria de Madeiros) into thinking her distant husband is still around despite him seeming to enjoy his death more than his marriage. It's ridiculous on the face but genuine in its underlying cruelty. Several levels further up, a "Saplingjack" (Roy Dupuis) attempting to rescue the local beauty (Clara Furey) from a gang of bandits is an entertaining serial-style adventure that actually becomes more intriguing for its connections to the stories above and below it.

Full review on EFC.

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