Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cowards Bend the Knee (aka The Blue Hands)

How to approach this cinematic oddity? Folks familiar with the works of Guy Maddin will already be familiar with his primordial soup style cinema: Full frame, black and white, nearly silent and often extremely grainy or out of focus. Cowards Bend the Knee is part noir, part melodrama, part Greek tragedy and part opera (with score, occasional sound effects, and inter-titles, but no dialogue or singing) all wrapped up in a frenetic Freudian fever-dream. You enter the story by looking through a microscope into a drop of semen, and the film is at least as dense that particular bodily fluid.

Structured like a matinee serial*, complete with cliff hanger finishes and chapter titles like “Sperm Players,” “The Blue Hands of Vengeance,” and “Fisty,” the story follows hockey player Guy Maddin (not played by the director, but by one of his regular actors, Darcy Fehr), and all the trouble he causes himself and those around him by being spineless, guilt-wracked and a patsy to a feisty femme fatale.

When Guy finds out his girlfriend Veronica is pregnant, it is off to The Black Silhouette, a beauty salon which looks like it belongs in a silent German horror film. The salon is also a brothel by night, with an abortion clinic in the back room. Awaiting the couple is Dr. Fusi, an aged man with saggy skin and large eyes, looking like a cross between Jimmy Gator from Magnolia and Dr. Caligari. He is the hockey-doctor, but moonlights here as the abortionist. The proprietress of the salon/brothel/clinic, Lilliom and her Asian daughter, Meta, are on hand to observe. Guy is immediately smitten with Meta and leaves his girlfriend right in the middle of surgery to have a tryst with Meta. Meta is one of the great temptresses of noir cinema. Her smooth and expressive face can go from flirt to vengeful declaration in a heart-beat. She lights up the screen every moment she is on it (and Cowards Bend the Knee is Melissa Dionisio’s only film credit). She is unwilling to have sex with Guy until he kills her mother. Liliom, with her clawed talon of a left hand and a voracious sexual appetite (not to mention a fondness for apple pie) is a femme fatale not afraid to do her own dirty work. She murdered her own husband and business partner (and Meta’s doting dad) so she can have sex with Shakey, the Captain of the Hockey Team and also local Police Chief. If you think I’m in spoiler territory here, I assure you this all happens in the first 10 minutes alone. What follows is a melodrama constructed of love triangles upon love triangles (love polyhedrons). To discover how tightly everyone meshes together, like a hair net or a hockey net, is one of the chief joys of the film.

The locations and characters are drawn from Mr. Maddin’s childhood memories. His real-life dad was the Coach of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey club and much of the action takes place on the ice of the arena, but also in the dressing room (with many a penis on full display) and a macabre wax museum up in the rafters of the arena (his dad in the film is the arena’s announcer who has a fondness of ice-breasts and ghosts – Take that Sigmund!). His mother and aunt ran a beauty salon out of the family home where sounds carried well though the ductwork. His interpretation of a family’s co-existence under a single roof is as an elaborate (and vaguely sinister) spy game. Combine the aural voyeurism (listening at vents) and one knock-out scene of nearly every major character in the film spying on one another via the elaborate optics of the beauty salon (wall mirrors, hand mirrors, even pair of scissors) and you get the idea. Another large element in the film is hands. From touch-less sex on a pile of hockey gloves, to a bizarre limb-transplant to Scandinavian hand-charms, hands are the chief form of expression (and the ultimate doom) of nearly all the characters in the film. Lady Macbeth has yet to experience the lasting effects of hair-dye.

The characters here are primarily archetypes found in various genres the director likes to mine, but they are so tragic and out of synch with any sense of real world behavior they (paradoxically) somehow end up more human. Maddin is plumbing the darker nature of humanity (and himself) which he makes explicit in the final title card, a statement which is the evil-twin of Kim Ki Duk’s 3-Iron. Guilt, fear and anxiety give rise to cowardice, lust, and ultimately failure of miscommunication. The entire story is told with such visual gusto and at such a break-neck pace (see also Maddin’s 6 minute short “The Heart of the World” to witness how much narrative can be packed into so small a time span) that you are never, ever bored. The editing structure is as close to MTV as he will likely ever get, even to the point of inserting subliminal imagery within rapid-fire sequences.

Cowards Bend the Knee is in many ways the ultimate entry his quickly growing canon thus far. Maddin has a particular talent at flitting lightly from the playful to the macabre and from art to camp. And the film walks the line between feature and short film, two forms the director actively still makes (how many other established directors are making short films these days beyond the occasional BMW film). It is also perhaps the best introduction to the eclectic filmmaker as it brings many of the elements of his previous films together in an autobiography fractured through a broken mirror and told as if drowning in the subconscious. It is also great, wacky, Canadian fun!

*The film was originally commissioned, in 2003, as a 10 part peep-show art installation for the Power Plant, a Toronto Art Gallery.


Video/Audio/Inter-titles: It is always hard to assess the video quality of a DVD transfer of one of Guy Maddin’s films. Since they are made to look like something excavated from an old attic after 80 years in rusty film cans to begin with, any bungling of the video transfer (i.e. the Canadian release of Saddest Music in the World) merely blends in with the visual style. Nonetheless, Zeitgeist did a great job, keeping the quality of the intentional 1.33:1 image and the animated menus are appropriate to the films genesis. The audio consists of only occasional sound effects to enhance the silent film. You hear the occasional scissors snip, a door-bell, or hockey arena ambient sounds which accompany the image. There is a pastiche of vintage film background score which changes to match the tone of each chapter. The intertitles are usually out of focus, way out of focus in some cases. Listen to the commentary (where you will find out this is mainly due to laziness on the directors part, rather than stylistic) if you have trouble reading them!

Commentary Track: Guy Maddin gives good commentary. His tone over the course of the film he shifts from casting notes and impressions of actors to an artistic confessional to a droll sense of humour. Lots of imagery that may seem quite bizarre while watching the film are explicitly connected to Guy’s psyche and memories; so if you want to retain the aura of mystery (or absurd non-sequitor), you may want to avoid the commentary. Since the film is almost completely silent, watching it with the commentary on is quite a pleasant experience. It dials down the melodramatic impact of the film, but offers a lot of insight into the creation.

The Extras: There are two big extras on the disc. The first is a twenty minute featurette on the upcoming The Brand Upon The Brain! It is narrated by Guy Maddin and promises more autobiographical cinema. There are a few scenes from the movie included which only offer the briefest of tease (still pictures from these scenes were previously posted here). The second is a series of fragments and auditions from Love-Chaunt, an abandoned Guy Maddin project. What was most striking from the collection of these pieces was actor Louis Negin’s audition. Negin plays Dr. Fusi in Cowards Bend the Knee as both an overlord and a grim architect. The overlord role he also played as the fortune-teller character in Saddest Music In the World, as well as toga-wearing Patron in Sissyboy Slap Party. In the latter two films it is played broadly and over-the-top. In his audition sequence for Love-Chaunt and Cowards Bend the Knee, he brings a both a sinister and melancholy to the table. His presence I found visually riveting in the film, which makes this extra a nice underscore of that performance.


Blogger Dan Coffey said...

Kurt, you are right on with your description of Maddin's commentary - never came across a DVD commentary that I found so moving. Most other ones make me wish DVD extras were never invented


8:45 p.m.  

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