That Guy Maddin. What a guy. He should have a business card that reads “Guy Maddin: Why Canada is Cool” or at least “Guy Maddin, Insane Canadian.” The man behind Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, The Heart of the World, and The Saddest Music in the World, he is a purveyor of wild symbolic grab-bags, tawdry melodrama, bewildering irony, and dirty jokes. The damnedest, craziest things happen in his movies, and Maddin tells them with a cinematic language that is more than a half-century out of vogue. Not just black-and-white, but out-of-focus, super-grainy 8mm stuff, with irises, jerky slow-motion, missing frames, and film stock so dirty you’d think his 2002 Dracula couldn’t possibly be less than thirty-years-old. Maddin’s brisk, even frantic otherworldly films are indifferent to what we call narrative and “real life.” His movies cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s.
No summary could do Cowards Bend the Knee justice. The best description might be an hallucinogenic bad dream in which our protagonist keeps getting pulled off course, into detours and tangents and wanderings, and takes us with him. Let’s just make a list of some of the nutty things that Maddin throws at us. A scientist looks at sperm samples under a microscope and sees a hockey game. A forgotten wax museum is hidden in the attic of a sports arena. Baseball cards are used as Tarot cards. Shampoo is used as a weapon. A sultry vixen will not let her lovers touch her until their hands are cut off and replaced with those of her dead father. Not surprising to anyone who has ever seen any horror movie, the hands have a mind of their own and take to murder and obscenity. An old man becomes engaged to the ghost of his son’s dead girlfriend, then tries to strangle his son when he protests. The ghost can also get a job (it’s high time ghosts started pulling their own weight). A daytime hair salon is separated from a nighttime abortion clinic by two-way mirrors, and a greasy old doctor goes about his business with a cigarette in his mouth, a corset around his chest, and a whisk in his hand. This same doctor checks for a murdered hockey player’s pulse by cupping his crotch. “He always was a little soft around the net,” an intertitle says. All this culminates in the frantic words “Guy had to keep the ghost from getting an abortion.”
Very loosely—Maddin has a refreshing “to hell with narrative!” approach—Cowards Bend the Knee follows a hockey player named Guy Maddin (played, of course, not by Guy Maddin, but by a fellow Winnipegite named Darcy Fehr) who allows himself to be buffeted impulsively from one woman to another. First is Veronica (Amy Stewart), the girl he knocks up and takes to the nighttime clinic. Then comes Meta (Melissa Dionisio, the definition of sultry), the daughter of the clinic/salon’s madam, who wants her dead father (Henry Mogatas) avenged. Then there’s the madam (Tara Birtwhistle) herself, power-hungry and obsessed with pie and weird sex acts. Finally, there’s the ghost (Stewart again) hired by the madam to cut hair. Poor Guy bounces from one to the other to the other, costing him his friends, sanity, his spot on the team, and eventually his hands. Does any of this make sense? Not in the waking world.
Maddin is obviously in symbolic territory here. Masculine indecision, sexual conquest, and competitiveness is examined—the sperm under the microscope—in the hockey team’s rivalry with the Soviets and Guy’s inability to decide which girl is the best. The movie is also an Oedipal and Electral nightmare of children competing with their parents for lovers, of fathers emasculating sons.
Cowards Bend the Knee might also be Maddin defending his artistry. Critics and moviegoers alike betray their ignorance when they claim that movies are ultimately about stories; the desired end of the cinema is the moving image, not the idea, and Maddin knows this. He knows the pleasure that can be derived from grainy footage of blurry images set to cracklingly bad recordings. Maddin the filmmaker is probably under constant attack, from within and without, to follow mainstream narrative filmmaking techniques. He is urged to be “a team player,” so Cowards shows who he thinks he would be if he “bent his knee” to what’s popular: a well-meaning but spineless and unfaithful buffoon, bounced from one woman (filmmaking trend?) to another, and an impotent disappointment to his father (his integrity?). Cowards, Maddin says, go with the artistic flow, and abandon their original muses on the operating table. By casting himself as the coward—a stroke of genius—Maddin transforms what could be heavy-handed preaching into a parable of his own fears about himself.
All this would be for naught if Cowards Bend the Knee weren’t a lot of fun, and it is. It is exciting, utterly unpredictable, and pulsing with energy. The movie plays like a greatest hits compilation of every failure made by a camera to recreate what the human eye can see. Double exposures, bad slow motion, so much dirt and grain and blurriness. Maddin knows that the pleasure is not always the story and characters represented by the images thrown on the light wall of a dark room; the pleasure is sitting in the dark room watching the blurs and mirages and listening to pops and crackles coming out of speakers. Cowards Bend the Knee, like many of Maddin’s films, is a celebration of all the happy accidents found in mankind’s effort to replicate reality on a screen, made by a man who has no interest in replicating reality.
Finished September 20th, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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