Recently I watched Cowards Bend the Knee, a film by Guy Maddin. I have seen a number of his movies, including The Saddest Music in the World (possibly his best known and most accesible film), Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, and Archangel. If you’ve never heard of Maddin’s work, it is not surprising. Basically, he makes silent films and even when he makes “talkies” they are shot very much like silent films and he tends to dub the dialogue back onto the film after it has been shot. At his best, his work exerts a hypnotic charm, making pictures that are both stark and richly textured. Maddin’s work reminds the filmgoer of the importance of the picture, that movies are moving pictures. Too often movies tend toward a “moving-ness” that denies the power of tableau. Oh sure, we get wide sweeping vistas of New Zealand, or overhead panoramas of New York City, but those are, more often than not, shot from a place of movement. Maddin brings pictures of people back into cinema. Tableaus that don’t need spoken dialogue because the picture is, quite literally, worth a thousand words.
It is fair to call him a primitivist film-maker. In fact I think he might call himself that on one of his dvd commentaries. His “silent movies” are not recreations of a long-past era. Rather they are a new manifestation of an old technology.
Cowards Bend the Knee is a riff on the Electra myth, the great old Peter Lorre film Mad Love, and Maddin’s own autobiography of growing up in Winnipeg, Canada. Originally commissioned for an peep show presentation in an art gallery, each scene is 6 1/2 minutes and the story traces the character of “Guy” through a series of situations that test Guy’s ethical courage: he usually fails the tests.
Memorable images include Guy and Veronica in profile while in the distance hockey players move back and forth. Veronica crawling along the ice, leaving a trail of blood. Meta’s hand raised high as Shakey is killed. Guy and Meta “making love” on a pile of hockey gloves.
Also, the casual display of male genitalia in several scenes is fascinating simply because of the lengths (pardon the pun) that American cinema goes to avoid showing the penis. Even to someone who isn’t bothered by it, there is something shocking about seeing the penis in a film, or at least a non-porn film.
I have a lot more I want to say about individual films and Maddin’s style in general, but I am still working on my thoughts. If you’ve seen any of his movies it would be great if you could leave a comment and let me know what you think. If you haven’t and are feeling filmic-ly (sure, that’s a real word, really it is) adventurous, his work is available any number of places, including Amazon and Netflix. For an insightful review of two of Maddin’s early works, check out Derek Hill’s review here.
You can also check out the Kino site for a wide range of silent and other interesting dvds that are outside of the mainstream.