Remember the infant cinema, where dreams could be seen over the head of the dreamer — visible, translucent spirits rose over the freshly dead and very little needed to be said? Canadian director Guy Maddin has taken the rudimentary personality traits of early movies and pumped them up with operatic drama, homoeroticism, fetishes, bondage and necrophilia, with children’s-book imagery and a strange humor riding throughout, so it doesn’t take itself too seriously. He’s a self-proclaimed nostalgiaphiliac who’s been blazing a disturbing, refreshing and truly original path for over a decade.
Although his work is rarely seen in Detroit, this Sunday and Monday the DFT will show four of Maddin’s feature films, beginning with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988). Einar the lonely and his friend Gunnar have picked up a cryptic plague. Quarantined in the Gimli Hospital, Einar is maddened by unrequited desires for the hot flapper nurses who give Gunnar attentions and shadowed sponge baths. The film’s black-and-white gothic camp is infused with nebulous 1920s fashions, peculiar “bark-cutting” hobbies and a B-movie consciousness.
Maddin prefers to saturate himself in the “wonderful golden age” of yesterday, when everyone seemed perfect and toys weren’t chewed up by the family dog yet.
“My favorite things have an obstacle between the eye and the ear and the object to be admired.” When he examines the past, it’s like “looking through a keyhole in a door that’s six decades thick, and the thicker the door, the bigger the thrill for me somehow, the more unattainable and thus more illicit the view.”
In Archangel (1990), reminiscent of Rex Ingram’s silent classic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, flickering World War I imagery feathers off around the edges as if we’re watching through a pinhole. With minimal camera movement, the film is a series of beautifully composed still shots, silhouetted figures, visible text, sparsely dubbed voices, a mesh of historical fashions, weird folk remedies with dead birds and horse brushes, blood-sucking Bolsheviks and characters riddled with apoplexy and amnesia.
The more accessible Careful (1992) is the equivalent of Victor Hugo slugging out Freud with John Waters egging them on inside a Maxfield Parrish painting. In the mountainside village of Tolzbad, where everyone speaks softly because they fear avalanches, brothers Johann and Grigorss attend the local butler gymnasium eagerly learning how to fold napkins into swans while blindfolded. Steeped in Oedipal complexes and a limited color palette as if from the pages of a 19th century picture book, their torrid and occasionally grotesque exploration of unacceptable desires leads to their mother’s confessions about their mute, crippled brother Franz in the attic, and a lot of laughs.
Maddin continues to combine his love for Ernst Lubitsch and Luis Buñuel into singular projects with his co-writer-collaborator American George Toles. However, the script for Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) was Toles’ own brainchild, set inside a magenta, aqua and chartreuse Midsummer’s Night nightmare. The film features the quirky talents of Shelley Duvall as spinster Amelia, and Frank Gorshin as her handyman Cain Ball, a couple of lovelorn misfits running an ostrich farm. Pleasure is elusive to them and Amelia’s prodigal brother Peter, as well as everyone else in the terrestrially lush and emotionally desolate Mandragora.
As in all Maddin films, you never know what’ll happen next.
“I love ellipses in movies and I love non sequiturs.” But there’s a price to pay for that love when it comes to pulling elements together into a satisfactory resolution, and one’s often left with an “unfinished” feeling, although never without being awestruck first, as in the unsettling climactic entanglement of men, hands and ass in Gimli Hospital.
“I just noticed how when a (male) rivalry gets past a certain critical intensity, that it’s almost a homosexual possessiveness — like a really sick co-dependent relationship where your rival is your bitch — so I thought that the only way that these things can be resolved is to tear at your rival’s ass with all your might. It just involved a couple of gallons of chocolate syrup, a few extra pairs of boxer shorts and a couple of shivery but game actors on a chilly autumn night.”
Gimli isn’t the only Maddin film with homoeroticism. “I’m not even gay, for crying out loud, but my movies are steeped in the old Hollywood studio system whose greatest practitioners were queer folk who had to encode their lifestyles in the vocabulary of their movies.” And since Maddin is imitating that vocabulary, he inevitably busts open all kinds of repressed cravings within early cinema.
Guy Maddin is not for everyone. He’s in a league of his own that clutches to its smoldering bosom a love of all things backward.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit): Sunday, 1 p.m., Tales from the Gimli Hospital; Sunday, 4 p.m., Archangel (introduced by Guy Maddin with discussion afterward); Sunday, 7 p.m., Careful; Monday, 7:30 p.m., Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Maddin will also give a free lecture at 3 p.m. this Friday in the DFT Auditorium, showing (although not limited to) his short films Heart of the World and Odilon Redon.
Anita Schmaltz writes about the arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].