Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ice Nymphs, a Branded Brain, and a Keyhole.

I know to call a Guy Maddin movie strange is completely beyond the point, but his movies can be really strange. I've been lucky enough to catch (read: find the time) three of this Canadian auteur's films that were previously unseen by me at the "Nocturnal Transmissions" retrospective of the director's work here in Melbourne. Screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, I've been disappointed that many of the titles I really wanted to see were only screening on Saturdays and Sunday evenings that are generally no go zones for me due to work. Still, considering there are next to no other ways to see these films that don't involve importing them from overseas on DVD, I've felt lucky enough to have been able to see the small amount that I have. And on the big screen no less.

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs was hailed as Maddin's first "full-colour.... 35mm 'big budget' picture" and, well, I guess you could say that it is. I mean, it's in colour and while I'm unsure as to its budgetary figures it certainly looks feasible that it may have cost more than some of his other, earlier work. Unfortunately the version I saw was not screened off of a 35mm print, but beggars can't be choosers and I certainly appreciated the exceptionally rare opportunity to watch Twilight on a big screen.

I'm not entirely sure what on Earth the film was trying to say and, I have to admit, a lot of the film (which I only saw last week) has exited my brain without leaving much of an impression. Having said that, however, it's truly a fascinating viewing experience and part of its interest lies in the way that Maddin's almost trademarked confusing oddness was translated to the world of colour film. He had - and continues to to this day - madee films in black and white, and given how strange most of his films are, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the upgrade (if you want to use that word) didn't blunt his significant voice. The action itself isn't all that interesting, but the method with which it is presented is a treat.

Visually, Maddin made Twilight of the Ice Nymphs into an experience that shares many similarities with Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1982 candy-coloured queer classic(?), Querelle. The sky is a permanent kaleidoscope of red, orange, yellow, pink, and purples, colours that frequently reflect off of the bright, lush sets. Elements of arts and crafts as well as a very obvious artificiality fill the frame whilst the actors strut about and recite their ridiculous dialogue in a very Shakespearean manner. Nigel Whitmey and Alice Krige in particular could be mistaken for having thought they were performing on a stage in front of a crowd. Furthermore, the story has elements of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, whilst the score at moments evokes Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet - Dance of the Knights". I have no idea what any of this means, but Maddin's next film was Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (which I recently wrote about for the Canadian "Possible Worlds" film festival) so maybe there was something here that Maddin needed to get out in order to get to a period of his filmmaking life that has come to be seen as, arguable, his most rewarding and mature phase.

A day later I went along to see one of those very films, the 2006 silent fantasy Brand Upon the Brain! While far from the excellence of Dracula or My Winnipeg, this was a very entertaining film. Alas, my body got the better of me and I dozed off for a bit at the start and then spent chapters 6-11 desperately needing to pee oh so desperately. So, really, not the best of viewing circumstances, but that only proves that it was good. In the grand scheme of things, Maddin is certainly one of the more accessible names in experimental/avant garde cinema and Brand Upon the Brain feels like a melding of his more esoteric work and his more commercial work.

"Commercial". Heh.

The third Maddin film that I've been lucky enough to see Keyhole, his latest work that is receiving its Australian premiere during the retrospective. Screening this Sunday the 22nd and then Tuesday the 24th and in 35mm, Keyhole is at times like a defiant rebuke to anybody who thought he'd gotten too arthouse mainstream with recent works. It's a maddening feature, one that appears to make little sense with its noir detective tale of ghosts and haunted houses (I think that's what it about, but I'm hardly going on the record). I don't think it's successful - and judging by this interview he gave with fellow Melbourne filmy type, Martyn Pedler, it wasn't quite what he had envisioned it to be, calling it "far more abstract". Make of that what you will - but as with all of Maddin's films, they are made for cinema viewing. It's easy to see one getting mindlessly distracted by a work like Keyhole if watching in the confines of your home. At least in the cinema there's no real escape and so even when Maddin is being an impenetrable scamp I was forced to admire the staccato editing and the rich, slippery performances of Isabella Rossellini and Jason Patric (Guy Maddin's version of an all-star cast).

I really wish I'd been able to find the time to see Archangel, Cowards Bend the Knee and Tales from the Gimli Hospital, but work and illness conspired against me.

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