Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Just Whoa Stories: Guy Maddin, Canadian Amnesiac: THE FORBIDDEN ROOM (2015)

If you'd wondered casually where Guy Maddin's been all these weeks, months, years, then you haven't read the snootier cineaste tabloids that remind us he's traveled the world and the eighteen seas shooting weird shorts on weird soundstages with his cool (and/or literally cold) friends. Now he's slung all those shorts together in order to re-witness the allegorical birth of cinema, from its slow crawl out of the silent fallopian Méliès ocular orifice--gaining momentum like an uncooked bullet monocle, crosscutting through Intolerance valleys--to slop to the dusty floor in time to find Jolson belting out "Mammy" as the heavy silence of his meshugginah papa offers barbed wire reproach. Too late, old rabbi Joslon! Vitaphone 4ever... and then... what? 

The tracks run out, sharply, at a cliff overlooking Cinemascope and Technicolor. The train sails off into the red orbs. But not Maddin, who shuns everything except the old 2-Strip. We walk from here, down into the gully, to pick up the undeveloped scraps of discontinued stock tossed by wasteful cinematographers. 

Then, wondering what kind of Brakhage-based nonlinearity cinema might have grown up on had the silent-to-sound conversion gone differently, Maddin sets to wandering the largely unexplored land betwixt German expressionism and post-nouvelle vague hipster retro meta-narrative. Tip-toeing through the sprockets and into the tulip bed unconsciousness, out the shutter, through the gate, and into the blackness beyond any flicker fusion threshold, he tallies the dreams of everyone who ever fell asleep on a speeding train (ala Lars Von Trier's Europa), and finds a new form of cinematic vision, one overtly moored to the speed of rotating locomotive reels, 24 frames a second, like speed bumps in the track, and no flicker from the shutter to give the illusion of a single moving image; the landscape scrolling past outside the window skips its sprockets. The passing scenery freezes and starts burning up under the blazing light of the projector until it's all bright white light. The house lights come on. The audience groans like groggy nappers. They refuse to leave, or to even fully wake, until the light is turned so bright the hair on their arms singes. 

Maddin cures this by sickening still further; he uses melted copper nitrate for booster shots administered by Dr. Caligari. He pays a visit to one of his favorite old Boards of Canada-produced pock-marked classroom instructional 16mm film; he has a dream that John Berryman was right.... there, in the fluoride, crossing the racing lines and looking both ways before learning how to take a bath. The bath. Here come mothers or actresses paid to wear motherly clothes, scrubbing us so thoroughly we can feel Liv Ullman's breathing on the screen of our thin skin. But in our shame we then notice the horrified rubes peeping through the sideshow curtains at our Oedipal naked soapy infant nakedness! 

A mere dissolve later and we're an old man doomed to die in an abyss of black tail leader.
Infancy = Amnesia! 

A good dreamer doesn't know he's dreaming (for he'd wake) nor a character that he's fiction (for we'd wake, too, his hand reaching for the remote like an emergency brake). But in Maddin's world, consciousness extends beyond both waking and dreaming to a new third thing. Characters are aware of the importance of keeping from the audience their full awareness of the mise-en-scene frame boundaries. They don't need a silver nitrate fireball held right against their mother's temple to keep them from squawking. They don't want us to stir from our slumber because--to them--we are like the semi-slumbering couch potato titans in Cabin in the Woods. One disgruntled click of a button and everyone on this 'train' will cease to exist.  

But still these characters set about seeing you get that purty bath, scrubbed by that purty maid. The viewer at the roadshow remembers that picture - you don't remember him at all. Future generations will see you in your bath, but now the colors will have all turned to rust. If you're in a Guy Maddin movie, that rust has happened ahead of time,  just far enough for your nightmare third-eye fevered brain to hallucinate patterns upon the bubbling Ektachrome shower curtain into which your silhouette dissolves. It's just enough to distract you so the skeleton insurance defrauders can lull you into a gentle trance. Your worthless squirming signature on a piece of paper is all they need, and they'll stop pestering you! Sign here. Initial there and sleeep on....into the ever chugging night as the track culls you forth like a ticking clock, scrubbing blackness from the pink skin of the sky by force of the tick-tock habit. What else does the world turn for, if not lack of other options? Has anyone convinced it to stop twirling like a mad idiot around the sun, to slow its roll and stop unwinding itself? Instead, we're 'orbiting' the sun like a moth around a light fixture, desperate to burn back up in the white heat of an empty projector, to drink from the sun like a mammary flame fountain and be reborn as an angel... on a new UV-ray disc, the new UV-ray players coming soon - 2034 at the latest.

Every moth who made it past that shade has never come back to tell us they regretted it.

Even if their husks are swept up with the dropped popcorn at the end of the night, dem moths had that one shining moment... and they're still here. We can smell their burnt impression when the lamp's left on too long. The light's off now, the smell is gone, but the show goes on, repeating every two hours tomorrow starting at 11 AM, until the late show lets you out into a parking lot that's as still as a tomb. The road home is waiting for you to finally fall.. asleep... so the orgy.. can begin, right under your sleeping nose.

Margot (Clara Furey) of the Ridden Red Wolves
Baffled Woodsman (Roy Dupuis)
The orgy is, Kafka and Lacan and De Mille all say, an act. It's performed not enjoyed, and it's performed only for you, only for you to feel you're missing something - that's your gift. The accident on the road that gives Ballard a bloody boner, that's why the road is there. It's your one consolation gift upon exiting the cinema of perfect oceanic union with Mother Night and her comforter abyss. No matter what happens here, whether you enter the sunshine and arbeit macht marks with daddy Sarastro and his golf monk posse, or just hang out at home like an idiot and watch another movie, know this: you will never get that blissful pre-egoic union back. Not until the next show, but even then, the show is about missing it. We can only wish we didn't know this sad fact, we men who aren't coke dealers, that the orgy is only ever, just now, over.

But with a little meditation-- and/or Lacan and/or addiction recovery--under our belts, we may one day accept the insider view: that the angst of missing the orgy is all that keeps me, you, us, it, whatever, from breaking down in abject torn-and-frayed pin scratch despair. Those who participate in every orgy, who live at the 'mansion' and drown each night in coke and bunnies, imagine their despair when they have to go home alone on a Greyhound full of obese tourists? Their sobs are heard three states away... Was it better to have not gone at all? What does one bring back from the orgy, once one runs out of bros to boast to? Nothing but STDs and regrets. Hey, maybe... maybe you were there at the orgy, the one I missed, and you just don't remember.

If you remember me there, then you definitely weren't there, because I wasn't at the same one you were, cuz I don't remember seeing you there, or anyone. The ones I went to were.... how do we say... unter-attended? Yes, iss that the phrase?

Skeleton Insurance Defrauders (themselves)
So that's the story of The Forbidden Room, for it hath to the screens small in my apartment come via Netflix streaming. Seventeen or so of the aforementioned shorts woven together in a grand fusion of Brakhage-Decasia film decomposition and Freudian psychological disintegration. The stories enlarge and swallow each other so that one leads to the other and each new character in the last story has their own story they must tell, on and on and inward and inward until it finally hurls five crosscut D.W. Griffith's Intolerance climaxes into the Russian doll vortex of Jerzy Has Wojciech's The Saragossa Manuscript. Everything congeals and fuses itself back into an old man's bathtub submarine race... to pancakes, and to the wild forest, to 'Canada' as it exists in the mind - the maple syrup and mounties to the USA's apple pie and baseball.

And there, in the endless forests of the Great White North, the woodsman forced to watch his Red Riding Hood luxuriating post-orgy (he missed it) amidst the wolf pack, like she's the hot Kurtz of 40s Jungle Jim lost tribes.

And like his best work and that of only a handful of other filmmakers--Lynch, Bunuel, Antonioni, Martel--Maddin's style defies easy description or analysis, and so falls into the collective amnesia of the 20th century, coming at us the closest thing yet to the baroque yet strangely cheap look of our own dreams. The only one who can tell us what it all means is a Freudian analyst, smoking in his train compartment (Forbidden Room includes a 'train psychiatrist' - like a ship's doctor, on the 'Berlin-Columbia' Express) while trying to seduce a young zombified girl through hypnosis, to cure her of


Amnesia is, I explain to my students (when I have them - which is never), the key to understanding not just this film but all art films. This is not the search for small meanings here, or even big ones, but nones. If film itself--the physical, ever-decaying reels of it, most of which are deteriorating in dark hidden chambers deep under long closed cinemas and Nazi bombing rubble--was to go into psychoanalysis, under the care of an licensed emulsion scratch that grew and shrank (fee-wise) according to the size of the epiphanies realized, then this film would be that breakthrough session. The result? Film has a message for us: Hey, it says, sorry for misleading you. You, my watchers, who choose to watch me, the cinema, instead of living some full dumb life playing sports or pursuing fame, money, power, altruism: sorry for leading you astray. It realizes now (that it's too late) it had no right to dominate us so completely. It took advantage of our vulnerability to the dark and glowing images, the bulb using its wattage to hypnotize a nation of moths, and it made certain deals with our unconscious we didn't even know about.

But in cinema is sorry, and so--here in Maddin-land--cinema self-flagellates with rust and emulsion scratches and cigarette burns, because it still wants you back! And you stay, because those burns are beautiful, hypnotic. They can't help but console and cajole and cosign our trust, which they will then defraud!! Drop that pen! Rust! Rust while you can!

The emulsion scratch shrink, now widened into a flickering blue-green band down the right side middle, smiles as the client image dissolves.

Coincidental double Amnesia: I started watching some Canadian sci-fi show on Netflix called Dark Matter after Forbidden Room ended, which tells the story crew who wakes up from frozen sleep on a space ship and don't know who they are or what they're supposed to be doing. But amnesia is not just Canada's identity crisis, it is a film thing in itself. We come to each new character in any narrative as an amnesiac viewer, picking together details from the surroundings - i.e. a sketchy unshaven dude in a hoodie with his hands in his pockets walking down the street in the middle of the night while ominous music plays --all those signifiers tell you loads about him, none of which may be true; maybe he's just going to get milk for his mom's sick cat, and not to break into your house or sell crack to your infant daughter. Artists like Maddin see right through the elusive reality of false signifiers by making them all opaque. We needn't pretend to know what's going on if we don't speak the language, talking the same English but in a foreign accent as if that will magically convey our wish to enter the tongue's forbidden chambers, to access the king's inner ear, each ossicle a connecting tunnel around a rickety carnival funhouse ride choo-choo track leading down into a roiling surf of lava and beer foam.

Playing around with speed and reversals, decomposing blobs around a lighted figure in a dark room seem to be breathing in and out of dissolving bubbling lava-like abstraction and--almost like free association--BOOM there's a volcano. And while each of the interlocked stories and subroutines feels familiar, there's no time or inclination to really identify or understand: a woodsman comes into the forbidden cave to rescue his lady love from a wolf pack in an inverted Red Riding Hood myth, he thinks. But they're all dead and she's shaking as if possessed, and then, what? Rather than speak on the crime of squid theft, the volcano lectures the gathered tribe on the impossibility of gaseous emissions speaking coherently.

No erupting mountain is so incoherent it can't express its incoherence coherently.

I'm going to rear back and take a non-educated guess that the Canadian gift for portraying amnesia stems from its identity crisis as the middle child between louche America and stiff upper England.  "America" --as you see it today--no longer has a national fixed identity beyond our psychic conservative/lberal split, but at least we know who we aren't. Canada has niceness, pancakes, dry ginger ale, weird football rules, mounties, eskimos, woodsmen, better wax museums on their side of Niagara Falls... but it's too cold to have much else.  We in the US imagine Canada a bit like Alaska stretched out a continent wide. Cold and underpopulated, mostly forest, a kind of giant air pocket full of magical snowy sky over our heads, mappily speaking...

Until the movie starts...

by which I mean we trek with snow shoes and sled dogs between Leni Reifenstahl's alpine romances, baroque Russian coronation ceremonies, and South American mining accidents, until the sky falls below us like a blanket with a Buster Keaton hole in the center.

I'm an American but I still love most Maddin films, at least the first half, until their lack of coherent narrative onus leaves me drowsy (I blame the intellectually dry cadre of Winnipeg writers he hangs out with), but it's helped me to have seen each one with a different girlfriend, and I've loved the ones I saw with girls from Europe or Buenos Aires, but not with American girls - who don't get it. The last film of Maddin's I saw was with Branded on the Brain, with live orchestral accompaniment (with Cripsin Glover narrating in person) and it was okay, the (American) girl I was with was 'meh' about it. I enjoyed more the Saddest Music in the World at the Landmark in company of my Swiss French mistress who was suitably impressed that I could even explain it. Before that I saw Tales of the Gimli Hospital at a midnight screening in Seattle circa 1990 with my girl from Carmel, NY. This was back before anyone knew anything about Maddin other than his film was a Canadian surrealist black and white homage ala Eraserhead. I liked the framing device with the radiator but I had a roaring headache and my girl was all pissed because I brought a flask and reeked of booze. But Careful was a masterpiece of psychosexual Freudian nonsense I saw with my Argentine ex-wife, and we swooned as one. Is there a connection? I can't even get a half our into Careful nowadays, though, it seems way too pleased with itself.

Maybe this: Americans, even me, can become bored by alienation and Lost in Translation style dissonance when there's nothing to grab onto. We're not used to having our desires toyed with. Our craving for some kind of narrative thread, some kind of familiar signifier, to orient ourselves by and lose ourselves in, is not something we admit is an addiction. We think movies should bring us out of our heads, not bury the escape routes from our silver skulls in avalanches ice. When a European art movie toys with this desire (as in Godard or Antonioni) it eventually drive us half-mad and into boredom when not in the right mood or company.

This boredom speaks not so much to our diminished attention span as much as our addiction to reproduced images and sound. Our loss of contact with the real has become awkward, like that friend we should have called last week when they got out of the hospital, but we waited too long so now just thinking about calling them makes us break out in a cold sweat. We've alienated the real to the point we resent anyone who uses our beloved imaginary-symbolic realm as a tool to bring us back to it. As a result, we're burdened by the constant need to have the TV on, or the radio, or ear buds, or (for me) a white noise machine. Silence and emptiness are too tomb-like to endure. The existential lonesome nipping at our heels barks so quiet the blood flowing through our ears is deafening; we latch onto any promise of escape, any noise, long as its loud and/or steady. Up north they don't seem to need that. Maybe loneliness couldn't find them in all that forest and had given up. Or the wind howls constant like a lullaby.

Maddin works in the realm of dreams and 'Kino,' but whose dreams? He picks some unconscious realm where Eisenstein and Oscar Micheaux crank out Klopstockian anti-war propaganda, a place connected directly to the zone where narrative identity shifts and bends and follows no clear linear path, or logical sense, but everything seems familiar... little signifiers that add up to little more than Jackie Treehorn's penis drawing in Big Lebowski ---phallically hip, but sans an address. So if you get hung up somewhere in this maze then your stuck for the duration, beating your head against a wall until that room of the game is 'passed' as if by some anguished miracle, and the detox can begin, level two (or '2').

Maddin's best moments, for me, always occur when he dares to go deep into the psychosexual, as in the mother-son/ father-daughter incest bonds amidst the isolated Reifenstahl-ish Alpine hamlet of Careful.  Existential frozen misery sagas like Gimli Hospital are waste timme with too many fat guys eating or starving and so forth (as I recall, from 25 odd years ago, drunk in Seattle at midnight). When narrative expectations are thwarted, there needs to be someone or some place pretty to look at, something that won't demoralize our senses, while we wait for our attention span to widen and our sanity to disgruntle itself. For example, in Red Desert there is the beauty of Monica VittiCatherine Deneuve beautifies the madness in RepulsionAnna Karina has a giant head in My Life to Live.  In Maddin's best work there is always a good center to hold, ala Saddest Music in the World's Isabella Rossellini and her beer stein glass legs launching the switch to color, and there was the sad music competition, a familiar narrative we can become involved to the point we can rest our European 'art' eyes and flip over to our American 'entertainment' eyes. If we have to be weaned along the way, well we can at least see our mom as she was then, gorgeous and more than five times our height, towering above us like an Easter Island moai crossed with a fairy princess, a giant breast ever at the ready. The darkness coming up when she leaves, we terrified, alone as soon as the light switch hits, pissing ourselves and having to wait for the all-absolving warm pink dawn or a half-asleep parent waking up to change our diaper or dispel our nightmare.

Now we've learned to hold it in, like good little boys and girls who paid attention during that instructional film on potty training. And the figure we so venerated in our cribs was getting smaller every year of our growth, like Alice on a slow-slow-slowly kicking-in mushroom.

That said, Forbidden Room zips by way too fast in parts. Maddin rushes to cram all the shorts in and give every actor he used during his long globe hop a shot or two. My favorite critic Kim Morgan has only a split second appearance with a wolf skin (that I saw); I imagine it would be quite worthwhile to get this Blu-ray if it includes all the other short films from which this be culled and more. Because my favorite is still that short, Heart of the World, which my Buenos Aires girl and I saw on the big screen at Angelika before.... what the hell was the main feature? I forgot again, and that I already mentioned it. My Buenos Aires girl and I were so thrilled I don't think we even paid attention to the film that came after. I wish I could remember what it was...  but I can't even remember who I am except I'm an American. Because even now I'm hearing the siren call of TCM behind me... Joan Crawford bitching about losing some part, some romantic leading man cringing on his side of the Cinemascope screen...even that... even that terrifying Woman's Face of hers... hair coiled around her head, tight and butch, like a face hugger alien reaching out to the warmth of applause like plant tendrils to the sunlight, then retracting in curlers when it dies. Even her mask becomes a harsh severe horror, that flat dark pink lipstick and trowel grey foundation, even she's a gargoyle moai that turns my blood colder than my Coke Zero herbal tea highballs.

Also spracht der filmdose! 

The Film Cannister tells of his rich childhood: Udo Kier played his ghost dad and like all ghost dads is always erupting like burns in the emuslion, ja? He keeps making final farewells to his son, leaving him a can of fake mustaches with which to fool his blind wife in any Oedipal domestic clinches that might result after sufficient time has elapsed. Trouble is: Udo, with ghost beer and a friend he met in the afterlife, comes back again and again. Dad, thirty feet high, passing us a can of mustaches to call our own, with Udo's soulful eyes to swim in. Are we not men, we who wake up from drunken black-outs? As children in the night? Wearing canned mustaches?

Every new viewing of any DVD comes with an FBI/Interpol warning -a sign you've slipped again, passed out, must begin anew. The trick: don't admit you don't remember. Just feel your way along, acting like you know every detail of last nights drunken boorishness. If people seem to know you, from Chicago, when you were in some sadomasochistic cabaret act, just sleep with them and let your razor speak on your behalf. God knows what else they saw you do, and in what aspect ratio. Jess Franco knows, for you. And you alone, in the dark, with a squid in your mouth, still struggling like that Korean Elektra complex en verso Oldboy. That's psychosexual mustache fraud, Charlotte Rampling, and the best present any man can give a woman is a sculpture of Janos, the god of doorways. Janos, the guiding spirit of The Forbidden Room! Janos: for there are many doorways to this Room and many beginnings and always the rewinding to the FBI warning and mustache-dabbed memory, and the black paint dripping in the dark corridor where memory was supposed to be -- it must have fallen off. Thinking about this movie is so close to watching the actual movie itself that both seem to dissolve when one does either: the rusted emulsion and dissolving nitrates breathe and pulsing like real lava, even when the pause button is on, like Ingrid Bergman gazing into the STROMBOLI, either jump in or move to the left, the line is all the way down, and like a snake.


  1. What Erich said.

  2. Fucking A - I was speechless in wonder at the end of this film and you have now prompted me to watch a dozen more times to sift through my impressions. Cheers!

  3. You make me feel dumb. Thank you.


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