As a viable, relevant art form, silent films began to lose their mojo in the late 1920s with the advent of talkies, but nobody seems to have mentioned this to Guy Maddin. The thoroughly quirky filmmaker works in a brave but finicky style that re-creates the look and antiquated feel of the silents, grain for gritty grain. Of course, he also shoots and edits with a fluidity and pace that's decidedly postmodern, and he spices things up with bits of color, forbidden lust and full-frontal nudity.
This time out he's cooked up a heady mix of Freud and Frankenstein, equal parts gloomy German expressionism and frothy pulp fiction. The hallucinatory plot finds middle-aged Guy Maddin returning by rowboat after decades away to Black Notch Island, his childhood home, where his parents ran an orphanage out of the lighthouse. His dying mother (Gretchen Krich) wants him to paint the old tower, so she can see it in its former glory, an act that washes him in a torrent of memories: The lonely preteen Guy (Sullivan Brown) is overwhelmed by the sudden arrival on the island of the lovely and famous Wendy Hale, an intrepid girl detective, one half of the "Lightbulb Kids," whose daring exploits are recorded in glossy dime novels that Guy cherishes. She's there to investigate strange goings-on, including sinister experiments, miraculous transformations and hidden wounds, and she's also got an eye for Guy's alluring older sister. This might explain why Wendy throws on a hat to disguise herself as her brother Chance.
Further synopsis is futile, since the film runs on dream logic and weirdly amusing non sequiturs that defy explanation, broken into 12 chapters, with descriptive title cards, and loopy narration by Isabella Rossellini, who overemotes with a freaky singsong blare.
At 95 minutes there's just too much to process, as baroque technique violently clashes with obsession, as if Maddin is working out some intense, deeply buried hurt. There are patches of sustained brilliance that will amaze you and also half-baked whimsy and jokiness that will annoy you. If you aren't fascinated by ghosts of the silent age, the relentless experimentalism grows tiresome, as if a snooty student film had grown bloated and untamable. Others will cherish it like the first piece of Halloween candy after a long night of gathering treasures.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 26; 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 29. Call 313-833-3237.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.