Very Lush and Full of Ostriches

Very Lush and Full of Ostriches first appeared in the Village Voice, August 1-7, 2001 to coincide with a film retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

Guy Maddin has kindly allowed ACMI to republish this article and in a display of his unquestionable “good guy” status, has been kind enough to bring this piece up to date. In Very Lush and Full of Ostriches Part Two, Guy Maddin has again put pen to paper to offer up insightful and downright hilarious prose on his more recent films from Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary onwards…

Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin

I can never read reviews of my own movies. I’m terrified to find out what the barbaric world thinks of my trembly filmic dreams and, by expression, my overly frangible soul.

As a hedge against catatonic depression, for years I gave all the print reviews to my nonagenarian Gramma, who would translate them out loud into Icelandic to her big brother Hjalmar, who in turn would promptly translate them sentence by sentence, with a shrill detail whistle, right back into his own archaic approximation of English, while I listened in a cold sweat.

By the time my review went through this two-stage process, it no longer frightened me, having acquired the flavours of a bowdlerized Nordic folktale. Most of the cruelties were recouched in quaint heartside metaphors with more charm than stomp. Even better, the not infrequent praise warbled out in the singsong falsetto peculiar to Icelandic typically depicted me as a mighty storytelling slayer of Hollywood ogres, a fair-haired god with wisdoms infinite, or some kind of mischievous lava sprite – all good things!

In never suspected generous mistranslation, but when these two handy ancestors of mine recently climbed up to Valhalla, I hauled out my clippings to reread the encomia. Without fail, I was shocked at the sorry level of writing in the original English next, film journalism as sloppily hammered together and painted as kid’s clubhouse – no grace of line, no awareness of harmony, no evidence of an eye. And this was the positive press! Really! (I’ve actually received very little, or no, bad press than can’t be easily explained off as reviewer’s insecurity).

If this well-meaning, but unfortunate scrivening is the best America’s top film critics (some of them very nice people) can come up with, and if I want a fair shake in the press, then I am left no choice but to review, with great reluctance, my own movies, starting right now on the eve of a mini-retrospective of my four features, along with a short, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Scene from 'Tales from the Gimli Hospital'

Scene from ‘Tales from the Gimli Hospital’

Made while he was practically still a child, Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988) is Guy Maddin’s primitive first feature. Setting out to be not juvenile but wilfully childish, Maddin shot the movie in the vernacular spoken by film in the year of its own glorious second childhood – namely 1929. He mixes black-and-white with toned sequences, mine with talking, locked-down expositional tableaux with bumpily fluid musical numbers. His moral sensibility is strictly precode. His mono soundtrack drones and hums out a comfy wool blanket of ambience – the viewer can sense his own mother tucking him in beneath a sweetly decaying quilt. The director eschews sharp focus in favour of oneiric portraiture and dismisses the literal mindedness of continuity as inimical to dreaming. He seems always careful to throw the picture together carelessly, with the delirious glee of a finger-painting preschooler.

Gimli’s story takes the director back to his own ethnic prehistory in a nineteenth-century Icelandic settlement in rural Canada, where an epidemic (cleverly unnamed in to invite comparison with AIDS) has paved the pioneers with unsightly fissures and landed them all in makeshift hospice shared with invaluable heat-generating farm animals. Here, in the titular hospital, dark but bouncy tales of death and jealousy exchanged between two men eventually pit the endomorphic raconteur Gunnar against the necrophiliac Einar in a buttock-shredding climax that is probably the most autobiographical moment in Maddin’s career.

Though finding a Canadian Ned Sparks or Guy Kibbee for this project proved impossible (virulent strains of Berkeleyism infect almost every frame of the picture), the filmmaker did find a stalwart actor in Kyle McCulloch, whose ability to pitch his mannered performances perfectly to each anachronistic script won him the starring roles in this and the next two features.

The fluency with which Maddin speaks a dead movie language suggests he suffers from a most plangent nostalgia, that he has spent most of his life looking backward through misty eyes and with absolutely no idea where he is going. Travelling through a film in this fashion, he bumps into and rearranges much narrative furniture, often standing still to weep while he and his viewers get their bearings.

Scene from 'Archangel'

Scene from ‘Archangel’

In Archangel (1990) all of Maddin’s backward-gazing characters grope about in the murk of their memories in a sad attempt to regain loves and comforts lost. Archangel is a full-blown amnesia melodrama set deep in the confused winter immediately following the Great War – the last war designed exclusively for the pleasure of children. (The uniforms worn in battle made all the combatants look like scaled-up toy soldiers, and Maddin himself described the movie as a ‘Goya painting etched upon a child’s windowpane in frost.’) Another part-talkie, this is Maddin’s most delirious feature; there is a narrative, but it lies buried somewhere beneath a fluffy snowfall of forgetfulness. All the characters, being amnesiacs, have forgotten the war is over, and between naps continue to fight. They fight painful facts, they fight the love gods, they fight through thick mists of Vaseline. (The Archangel camera crew went through a whole keg of this unguent). Soldier and viewer alike fight confusion, unsuccessfully. This is said to be the director’s favourite among his movies.

Careful (1992) is a pro-incest mountain traumerei shot in the two-strip Technicolor used in that holy year of 1929. Maddin’s most fully realised project, it’s also his most accessible. His longtime collaborator George Toles was possessed by a high-altitude Hamletism when he wrote the meticulously detailed script as a mad tribute to Herman Melville’s Pierre. (Careful is actually much closer in fell to its source than the recent adaptation by Leos Carax.) Prairie-bound Maddin was obsessed by mountains, which he had never ever seen, when he shot it. McCulloch gives his strongest performance as Butler Gymnasium student who must endure paddy-whacks of Oedipal privation to win this beloved’s heart. Both violent and cozy! The colours are extremely lurid.

Scene from 'Twilight of the Ice Nymphs'

Scene from ‘Twilight of the Ice Nymphs’

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) drifts away from the familiar confines of the archaic film (it’s shot in 35mm full colour with a contemporary aspect ratio and nary an intertitle) and into the deep waters of language, and therefore decadence. The dialogues are drawn from the ascetic Knut Hamsun’s Pan, then corrupted by dollops of Prosper Merimee. The theatrical decors are inspired by fevered Gustave Moreau. Toles have actors Frank Gorshin and Shelley Duvall plenty to say, and Maddin let them say it all as musically as possible. Very lush and full of ostriches! Has the strongest final reel in the auteur’s filmography.

Running before each feature at the retrospective is the five-minute agitprop The Heart of the World (2000). Some have described this frenzied feature-compressed-into-a-short as a call to arms meant to topple, a plea to reinvent movies from scratch, or a reverent myth which finally places film at the very centre of the universe where it belongs. Maybe Guy Maddin, that great lava sprite, has been expressing all these impassioned sentiments since the very beginning of his career. Who am I to say?


Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
The director didn’t want to make this one, but he was broke. Then he seemed to have a lot of fun with this hoary yarn by adding ballet and a lot of virgins to get the blood flowing again! Plus he abandoned his tripod – no more shots locked in place, no more frames sealed in a bell jar. A ballerina needs a football pitch worth of floor space just to decide if she likes someone or not, so the camera had to move, and Maddin hasn’t stopped moving it since. The auteur decided the real story behind vampires is all the male suitors of this world’s women, men made jealous by the pretties’ secret sexual desires. They see a woman sleepwalking with ardor in her eyes and they figure they’ve got a rival – a rival perfect by dreams, a foreigner probably, wealthier, stronger and better at love. The presupposed existence of this perfect man drives them bat-shit crazy and they take it out on the girls: A stake in the heart that she might love him no more. A decapitation so she may think of him no more. A mouth full of garlic so she may speak of him no more! But they didn’t figure on how to stop a pirouette!

Scene from 'Cowards Bend the Knee'

Scene from ‘Cowards Bend the Knee’

Cowards Bend the Knee
The mustiest of Maddin’s features by far, but also the fastest paced. An adaptation of Euripides Elektra stitched onto the Hands of Orlac, this is probably the fiercest condensation of the director’s narcissistic self-loathing and most primitive mania for melodrama. An autobiographical reminiscence in ten neurologically skittish, thoroughly disinhibited chapters. Made originally as a peepshow installation, the movie somehow coheres as a story more than most of the helmer’s features – was he being perverse by making an installation that made too much sense? Perhaps, still, extremely peephole-worthy!!!

The Saddest Music in the World
Maddin was given a premise by preeminent author Kazuo Ishiguro: A contest designed to draw out the musical side of our self-pity is held and every musician in the world sings for his or her supper – something to do with an allegory about how we’re all forced to feign poverty, and performed that feigned poverty, even when we’re already poor. In Maddin’s take, an Olympic games of sadness is held in the director’s hometown of Winnipeg, the saddest city in the world. This is the first time Isabella Rossellini passed in front of the director’s smudged lens, and she is effulgent here! Sick of being glamourous during her modeling career, Isabella deconstructs herself in this picture, one leg at a time. Maddin’s biggest budgeted movie, and every penny of that extra cash seems to have made it to the screen!

Scene from 'Brand upon the Brain!'

Scene from ‘Brand upon the Brain!’

Brand upon the Brain!
Maddin’s favourite movie is reportedly Jean Vigo’s Zero de conduit, and this movie seems to be his own attempt to tap into the delicious, delirium-inducing nectars of childhood. He’s no Vigo, but he still manages to collage together some dreamy loin-o-centric adolescent yumminess in this plot-driven sui generis what-not. Part teen detective mystery, part Oedipal coming of age horror story, Brand upon the Brain!sutures together a portrait of tweener confusion that provokes many a tumescent nostalgia. Let yourself go and relive what you thought were uncomfortable years! They were far worse and way more fun than you remember!

My Winnipeg
Maddin was commissioned by Canada’s The Documentary Channel to make this portrait of his hometown. Back in Canada, debate over whether the resultant picture was a documentary or not was virulent enough to sink the channel. My Winnipeg is a documentary, just not necessarily about Winnipeg, but about one Winnipegger’s atrabilious state of mind, about his shredded-but-still-throbbing heart, a heart whose longings, regrets and sad hopes were cleverly configured to resemble the same throbs wracking the bosoms of citizens round the world. This universalising strategy paid off, making My Winnipeg easily Maddin’s most popular movie.

Scene from 'Keyhole'

Scene from ‘Keyhole’

The culmination of twenty-five years of uncomfortable dreams, ridiculous melancholies and lessons hard unlearned while making movies, Keyhole is Maddin’s extremely personalised adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Maddin poured his heart into this one, exposing his most private heartbreaks, stripping naked for all to see what makes him tick, what keeps him locked in a haunted past, what keeps fastened desperately to the state’s teat for film funding. This may be the most frank, the riskiest, vivisection of the filmmaker, but it doesn’t mean all that stuff is readily available to the audience. Concentrating almost exclusively on long-buried traumas recently uncovered by writing about his distant past and his earliest toddler-self drafts of the emotional universe in which he lived, the director accidentally made the film more abstract than he intended. It’s a gangsters meets ghosts portrait of the one home we all remember most persistently with our hearts, and all the wonderful horrifying stuff that happens under its roof, again and again, night after night, in our dreams when we are allowed to return to the beloved domicile. It’s a mishmash with extremely strong atmospherics, great music and an almost Sternbergian array of acting styles and accents. If the director were hit by a bus now, he would have to let this picture stand for all his work to date. Maybe that would be just as well.

– Guy Maddin, filmmaker

Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema of Guy Maddin is screening from Thursday 5 July to Friday 27 July. For more information see the ACMI website.

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