Tuesday, September 27, 2005

”Oh, Canada...” Severed Hands, Bent Knees, Hockey Pucks, Castration, Cannibals, and Another 24-Hour Comic Update

(Note: For some reason, the html coding for links isn't working this morn -- so, the links below may not be active. Apologies, and I'll try to resolve this problem by tomorrow -- vet bloggers, feel free to offer suggestions!)

My drop-dead favorite of this past week’s DVD releases heralds from a-way up north in Manitoba, and it be Guy Maddin’s latest extravaganza, Cowards Bend the Knee (aka The Blue Hands) (2004) from Zeitgeist Video. I caught Cowards on the big screen back in March at the Green Mountain Film Festival in Montpelier, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s great to revisit the film so soon -- it’s a 64-minute delight for the initiated, and an ideal introduction to the Maddin universe for the uninitiated.

I looooooooove Maddin’s films: they are agorophobic wet dreams, snowglobe microcosms of irrepressible desire and bottomless loss: once shaken, they detonate in unexpected ways. Maddin and his creative collaborators lovingly craft suffocating akimbo melodramas of isolation, lust, tragedy and despair, and Cowards ups the ante in a number of ways. Cowards is weirdly autobiographical: Maddin “stars” (his role played by Maddin ‘familiar’ Darcy Fehr) and his script inflates family tensions and trappings (like the hair salon) which echo Maddin’s own life, per his own accounts. Maddin weds those intimacies with an inspired crazyquilt of Waxworks, The Hands of Orlac, The Manchurian Candidate, The Twilight Zone episode “The New Exhibit” and (I kid you not) hair salons and hockey. In fact, hockey is herein a virulant contagion as well as an arena of manhood, hilariously introduced via a view through a microscope, the players gliding like paramecium on a specimen slide (recalling, for me, the intro of the surrogate Van Helsing in Murnau’s Nosferatu). This delirious gumbo is spiced with incestuous angst, gore, mad doctors, abortion, the walking (and broadcasting) dead, sexual abandon, and dismemberment (real and faux, surrogate castrations all); once the fetid concoction boils over, you’ll be positively punch-drunk.

As evidenced by his first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), the cinematic netherworld Maddin inhabits and creates is perhaps most properly described as a celluloid limbo: most of Maddin’s films seem to have been made in the transitional period between silent and sound films. Thus, the look, sound and feel of the Maddin movies are defined by passionate tableaus as evocative of Melies, Gance, Murnau, Lang and Dreyer as they are of silent serials, soapers, thrillers and the cruel and crude Dwain Esper roadshow sleaze of the 1930s, which revelled in silent era kinetics (making their shocking explosions of nudity and gore -- as in Esper’s Maniac -- even more disorienting) due to Esper’s low budgets and paucity of imagination rather than aesthetic choice. For Maddin, the choices are calculated, the aesthetic a necessity. There are jarring moments of excess in Cowards, as in all Maddin’s films, but he never loses his footing, though the viewer often does (that, of course, is the wellspring of much pleasure for this cinephile). These tableaus are exquisitely conceived and executed, shaped and punctuated by artifacts of apparent neglect: scratchy images and sound, a labored disconnect between visual and audio, splashes of hand-tint-looking color, apparent wear and/or rot of emulsion.

Cowards Bend the Knee goes all prior Maddin masterpieces once better: it evokes an even earlier cinematic era, in that Coward was originally presented as a progressive ten-part ‘kinetoscope’ installation in a museum setting: that is, each of the ten chapters was originally viewed, one at a time, through a series of peephole-like devices (I hope the devices showing Cowards were coin-operated, too). These archaic viewing devices were like the nickelodeons of yore, the film-viewing devices that preceded projected movies in most parts of the world; I got to enjoy these curios at the Champlain Valley Fair as a kid (they were still part of the sideshow in the 1960s), and some amusement parks still offer them as an archival attraction. This artifice clearly delighted Maddin, and he brought his all to the project, lending a contagious energy to Cowards that is unique in the director’s body of work. That kinetoscopic viewing experience cannot be replicated on DVD, of course (nor was it at the Green Mountain Film Festival), but the DVD does present the option of screening Cowards as ten separate chapters, like self-contained short films, or as a feature.

In either case, trust me, there’s nothing else like it on Planet Earth. However, I must also add that Cowards holds the record for the most walk-outs at the Green Mt Film Festival (according to Rick Winston, co-guru of the GMFF). Maddin’s films can quickly infuriate and/or bore those immune to his charms, so proceed with caution if you have little stomach for non-traditional, non-linear cinema. If you’re a reckless cine-addict in need of a fix, take the needle!

Cowards may unreel in a little over an hour, but this DVD has already eaten up triple that time for me. Zeitgeist has done their usual stellar job showcasing Maddin’s work, offering a bevy of extras to sweeten the experience. Maddin’s commentaries are among my favorites, and this is no exception, plunging as it does into more autobiographical detail (and invention) than any other Maddin monologue. There’s also a more-personal-than-ever-before archival photo gallery (including hockey arena and beauty salon photos from Maddin’s past!), some Maddin text excerpts, essays, and sketches, and a marvelous clutch of “short film blueprints” (for the ‘lost’ feature Love-Chaunt), audition reels, and a preview of Maddin’s upcoming The Brand Upon the Brain.

This brings almost the complete Maddin filmography to DVD -- Kino offers Tales from the Gimli Hospital (with Maddin’s first short film, The Dead Father, relevent to Cowards which sports another death-defying patriarch) and Careful (1992, accompanied by the 1997 documentary Waiting for Twilight); MGM released The Saddest Music in the World (2004) with extras, three of Maddin’s short films, two featurettes, and a preview trailer; and Zeitgeist offers Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997, co-featured with Maddin’s sophomore feature Archangel, 1990, and the short The Heart of the World, 2000) and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002, with extras). All are highly recommended, though they may not be your cup of tea... sample one, and go from there. Here, have a cup of Cowards.

For more info on Cowards and all of Zeitgeist’s Guy Maddin DVD releases -- all highly recommended! -- visit the Zeitgeist website:


For the record, one of the cast members of Cowards -- writer extraordinaire Caelum Vatnsdal -- has already scribed my favorite book on Maddin and his work, Kino Delirium: The Films of Guy Maddin. Caelum is also the Carlos Clarens of Canada, having written the definitive They Came From Within: A History of Canadian Horror Cinema, which is essential reading. Check it out at:


And speaking of all things Canadian: If you want to see what I was up to this summer in Montreal, check out Donato Totaro’s Offscreen site this morning. Donato's online report "FanTasia 2005: The Short and the Long" offers a snapshot (and some snapshots!) of some of this past July's FantAsia Fest events, including Joe Coleman's amazing midnight event, my own two-part "Journeys Into Fear" slideshow lecture, and more.

Donato also includes news and a historic photograph for horror fans, including the first online announcement of my upcoming project for FAB Press -- the definitive illustrated hardcover edition of We Are Going to Eat You! The Third World Cannibal Movies -- which may excite a few of you. I originally completed this book in 1990; though the book proper remained unpublished until the SpiderBaby Grafix Archive Edition of 2003, my good amigo Chas Balun distilled that massive text into the lengthy article that was published by FantaCo Enterprises in The Deep Red Horror Handbook (1990). If all goes according to plan, the long-overdue revised, expanded edition will be out in 2007. More details on that project as Harvey Fenton and I work out the details, but for the time being, it's all at Onscreen, Volume 9, Issue 8 (August 31, 2005), which is just a click (or cut-and-paste) away --


Thanks, Donato!

Followup on the Brattleboro Museum 24 Hour Comics Marathon (see my August blogs):

Teta Hilsdon, Office Manager of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, just sent this info and link:

"You can now check out eleven samples of the comics produced at the 24-hour comic challenge at:

Please be aware that these were chosen as a representative sampling of the work. We wish we had enough resources to post a sample from each artist, or, imagine, even the full book! But a range of styles is all we are showing online. This was not a contest, and BMAC has no intention of judging any of the work. We congratulate and celebrate each artist who undertook the challenge!
The finished book will be at BMAC from October 7 through February 5."

Now that's another reason to visit the Museum (the Green Mountain Cartoonists' exhibition, featuring original art by yours truly, Frank Miller, James Kochalka, Rick Veitch, and James Sturm, also hangs thru February 5th). So c'mon out to the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, 10 Vernon Street (roughly across from the Brattleboro Coop parking lot, at the hub of Main, Canal, and the river, bridge & route leading to Hinsdale, NH), Brattleboro, Vermont 05301 -- phone 802-257-0124, FAX 802-258-9182, via email via Teta at office@brattleboromuseum.org, or online: