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: its slow crawl out of the silent fallopian Méliès ocular orifice, its uncooked bullet monocle pace as it crosscuts through Intolerance valleys, its slop to the dusty floor in time to find Jolson belting out "Mammy" as the heavy silence of his meshugginah papa offers naught but silent film barbed wire-rimmed be-spectacled reproach. Too late, old rabbi, wave, Harpo-like, into the collapsing iris as thou wilt, but thou shalt not not speak again! Cinema is born as howling amnesiac, its cries washed away in rhtythm of the celluloid train tracks. 

The tracks of the celluloid train's trip stop, sharply, suddenly, in 'real life' at a cliff overlooking 70mm Cinemascope and Technicolor. The train you were on ("when you left... Europa") sails off into the red, blue and yellow orbs of early color TV projectors, no longer track-bound, but on wings of surround sound. But Maddin has gotten off at the border. Maddin shuns everything except the old 2-Strip sprocket train trod by the Winnipeg forefathers. Down into the trackside gully trundles Guy, to pick up the undeveloped scraps of discontinued stock, the 'ends' tossed by wasteful cinematographers, the old combustible silver nitrate that boils and twists in the heat of the projector lamp, but cooks down real nice into twisty jewelry. 

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 down the slope below the sprocket tracks and into the tulip beds of the 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... Europa), and finds a new form of cinematic vision, one not so very moored to the speed of rotating locomotive reels, 24-frames per second, one that savors instead the speed bumps on the track, that savors flicker from the shutter that gives the illusion of a single moving image. The landscape, scrolling past outside the window, gets to keep its cigarette burns, its scratches and tape marks, its mismatched rear screen size ratios (waiting commuters seen the compartment window loom large as ogres). 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 whiteness seems to spread all through the theater, and even out into the street outside (Winnipeg! Snow!) The audience groans like groggy nappers. They refuse to leave, or to fully wake, until the light burns so bright the hair on their arms singes. 

Maddin cures his characters of their psychiatric ills by showing them their inner children, hidden in closets, he gives them melted copper nitrate booster shots. He pays a visit to one of his favorite old Boards of Canada-produced pock-marked classroom instructional 16mm films; 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. 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. Mama, if we hadn't flinched at their rube-y gawking, would we still be young?

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, and only Brecht or Godard would want that). But in Maddin's world, consciousness extends beyond both waking and dreaming to a new third thing that's better than either, a kind of long great white northern slumbering. Winnipeg--as he notes in his previous film--has the most sleepwalkers of any city. Thus he is unusually bestowed with the gift of mixing film viewing with 'living' in a film as the ultimate in real viewing. Characters in most films 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 that it's all a gag. 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, or the languid Red Wolves in the cave the lumberjack infiltrates to rescue Margot. 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 bath, scrubbed by that pretty maid. The rube at the roadshow remembers but 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. Sign and they'll stop pestering you! Sign....shhhh... ine. Initial there and sleeep on....dream and slumber forward into the ever chugging night--sleep while moving faster than you could run. 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? They don't bother to try anymore. We're stuck 'orbiting' the sun like a moth around a light fixture, and it's all mom's fault. We get 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 regretted it.

Even if their husks are swept up with the dropped popcorn at the end of the night, those moths had that one shining moment... and they're still here. We can smell their burnt impression on that mighty orb. 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. Gradually the smell fades, but the memory lingers, and the film won't decompose, not with so much cold. And so, to bed. The road home is waiting for you... come on, pal, 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, the one who misses it. It exist only for you to feel you're missing something - that's your gift. The accident on the road that gives JG 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 been to one at all? What does one bring back from the orgy, once one runs out of bros to boast to? Nothing but STDs and regrets, and longing for a feeling that maybe never existed, but nonetheless makes your forthcoming small normal joys seem like mockery. 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)
If you started reading the above and thought, good god he's being awfully flighty, then just START READING HERE:

The stories of The Forbidden Room are seventeen or so of the shorts Maddin filmed at museums and historic sound stages around the world, 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, full of compressed explosive jelly... to pancakes full of oxygen, 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, or even big ones, but nones, nones meanings. 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 a 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. We didn't know when we signed on that line, just what the contract entailed.

But now 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 your 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 the root of all film viewing. 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. (you could be reaching for "stand your ground" laws if you get too caught up in perceived signifiers rather than actual immediate threats). 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.

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/liberal 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 up there to have much else.  We in the US imagine Canada a bit like Alaska stretched out wide and got socialized health care. 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, 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 the ones 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. I thought Careful was a masterpiece of psychosexual Freudian deep ice floe plunging that I saw with my Argentine ex-wife, and we swooned as one. Is there a connection?

I can't even wade a half our into Careful nowadays, though, it seems way too pleased with itself and there's one towhead too many.

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, to take us on a 'ride,' not bury the only escape route in avalanches of 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 ourselves from 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 burdened by too many scenes of 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. When she leaves, we may be terrified, alone as soon as the light switch hits, pissing ourselves, afraid to go to the bathroom on our own, waiting for the all-absolving warm pink dawn to dispel the nightmare that is darkness and quiet (for there's always some tiny...scratching... little... noise deep in the muffling silence, and in the thick black of night, phantom grey shapes).

But soon 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 starts getting smaller every year of our own growth, like Alice on a slow-slow-slowly kicking-in mushroom, from that towering Easter Island moai to little old lady with a paisley shawl.

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 on 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? 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, in the other room, as I write this, left on, all the time, to beat back the silence. Hey! It's 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 and she fades to scary coat hanger parody, even as her mask becomes a harsh severe horror, that flat dark pink lipstick and trowel grey foundation, even she is better than the abyss.

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, seen through a train window rear screen projection, 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 if they cannot please you sexually. God knows what else they saw you do, and in what aspect ratio. Better no witnesses. 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.

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, honey, the line is all the way down the slope, and winding like an unspooling film roll snake.

Oh, and I almost forgot... It's HILARIOUS!


  1. What Erich said.

  2. You make me feel dumb. Thank you.


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