Wednesday, May 23, 2012


In 1986, Guy Maddin began his career with a little film called The Dead Father, chronicling a family vexed by the reappearance of their deceased patriarch. Twenty-six years later in Keyhole, he gets around to telling the corpse’s side of the story. A sort of reverse ghost story, the film follows gangster Ulysses Pick (the name is derived from the original absentee parent and, I don’t know, a lock pick) as he holes up in his family home, lugging around a stuffed wolverine, a blind mind reader, and his bound-and-gag son. His goal is to reach his wife, Hyacinth, locked up in her bedroom, where she lounges with her mute lover and her naked father. Meanwhile, one of the Kids in the Hall rapes a ghost, the police have the place surrounded, and Ulysses’ gang is cobbling together a bicycle-powered electric chair in between orgies. As a pseudo-pornographic gangster movie set in a haunted house, the film is perhaps a tad overstuffed.

But as far as Maddin’s ongoing cinematic therapy goes, Keyhole is an important step forward for the director, even if the end results are sometimes jumbled and confused. His world has always been one of failed fathers, all of them missing, dead or simply disinterested in the families they have abandoned. For once, we see the fractured family from the father’s perspective, and the results are unsurprisingly ambiguous (lock the doors, daddy’s coming home). Perhaps that is due to the unfamiliarity of this terrain for Maddin, but it’s also a side effect of Jason Patric’s fascinatingly incongruous performance as Ulysses. Whereas Maddin’s stock company provides the usual mannered performances, Patric offers a terse naturalism unique to the director’s filmography. Charismatic and doomed, Ulysses seems to exist on a different plane from the rest of this world. Charging through the house, he stumbles onto a new memory in each room, clutching at ghosts as he sinks deeper into the past. After a while, it’s impossible to tell who’s haunting who.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Long Day Closes

The weather in the past is brutal. The rain comes down heavy as buckshot. Umbrellas, by all observable evidence, appear to have not yet been invented, or else are the property of only recluses who never leave home anyway, rain or shine. How else to explain their complete absence from the mid-1950s world of The Long Day Closes, which may be set in Liverpool but appears to have been filmed in a fish tank? Writer-director Terence Davies sees his childhood through a haze of water, the rain casting a shimmering blue pall through the windows of his drab tenement home. There is the peculiar sensation that we are not looking at the weathered streets of a working-class neighbourhood, but rather some aquatic city beneath the ocean, another Atlantis lost to time and the perpetual gnawing rain.

Less a narrative than a nagging preoccupation, the film charts a few recurring themes throughout the childhood of Davies’ stand-in, Bud— his loneliness, his burgeoning homosexuality and tortured Catholicism, and above all else, his relationship with his mother. But rather than reduce his formative experiences into a neat schema, Davies lets each moment hang on its own. Indeed, each image seems to contain the entire film (this is a rare film that just as easily be five seconds long as five hours). Consider the opening shot: a vase of flowers, carefully lit and arrayed into a perfect still life. During the course of the credits, the blossoms wither and fade, crumbling to the table. Nothing happens; everything changes. More than a poignant statement on life, it is the director's warning to viewers: forget your phony dreams of narrative progress. Instead, Davies offers a different form of epiphany in this uncanny sensation that we are standing motionless throughout our whole lives, watching the world move steadily away. He sees the motion in complete stillness.

Somehow this waterlogged work stays afloat, a raft of images lashed together with nothing more than some music and a few old movie quotes. Snatches from film soundtracks—The Ladykillers and The Magnificent Ambersons, for example—drift by on the soundtrack, striking with the shocking clarity of an old tune rescued from memory. These glimpses of familiar cultural artifacts do more than provide some temporal garland, like shiny little baubles of bygone days. They serve as occult talismans, opening the door on the past and inviting it back into the world of the living. In one scene, Bud’s mother quietly sings while holding her son on her lap, both staring calmly into a fire. When she finishes, she declares that her father used to sing that song to her, tears streaming down her face as Bud remains focused on the flame. If he can sense her distress, his placid gaze does not betray it.

The boy does not yet feel the burden of the past weighing down on him, but it’s clear that Davies, looking back, now does. Despite the warmth and even joy found in so many of the film’s scenes, there is a melancholy at the sight of this lost world. Lacking traditional narrative, the film’s hopscotch style, its collage of jumbled memories, only deepens that feeling of loss. There is no sense of place and time because this is neither a place nor a time, but rather a quavering image in Davies’ memory. All that remains are moments, fractured and faded, pasted together with glue and a song. Still, Davies holds on to these memories, even as they wither and crumble at his touch. Do the images fade the more they are handled? Does remembering destroy them? The truth lies somewhere on the bottom of the ocean. But take what mementos you can salvage from the wreckage. Here are a few: The cellar succumbs to rot. Bud’s friends run along, as he watches, unable to follow. A man with cancer walks by. The five types of erosion. Life, someone says, also collaborates in the process of destruction.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

This is Not a Film

Nothing terrifies a tyrant like an artist. How else to explain the absurd cruelty of the Iranian government’s punishment of director Jafar Panahi for the dubious crime of making propaganda against the state? Slapped with a six-year prison sentence and 20-year filmmaking ban, the director offers up a defiant response with This is Not a Film. Confined to his home as he appeals the decision, Panahi does what any compulsive filmmaker would do: he makes art out of his own inability to make art. He invites his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb over to record him describing his most recent script, struggling to conjure up the ghost of the film he would have made with only some tape on the floor, a few words on the page and his own voice. He fails, of course. “If you could tell a film, then why make a film?” he asks, on the verge of tears. The film becomes a story of absences, of films that cannot be made, of a world of turmoil and upheaval that lay just outside Panahi’s apartment. In the film’s final, exhilarating moments, Panahi picks up his camera—a criminal act, essentially—and follows the building’s garbage man into the elevator. Outside, fireworks crackle like distant gunfire. In the alley, figures dance around a fire, pouring gasoline on it and jumping back when the flames roar up. Panahi sneaks out onto the street against the warnings of his companion. It is a dangerous thing he does. But holding the camera, he seems momentarily invincible.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Alfred Hitchcock once described Champagne as the lowest ebb in his career, and that may well be the chief distinction of this thoroughly lackluster 1928 effort from the director. There’s certainly little else to distinguish this shapeless, rambling romantic comedy. Following a spoiled heiress from riches to rags to riches again, the film is at once spry and exhausted, a madcap farce on barbiturates. The girl—a veritable font of teeming womanhood—finds herself caught in a love triangle with two men, who apparently do little other than smoke and drink fiercely while glaring at each other. (They would have made a lovely couple were it not for the dame.) This jet-set romance is interrupted when mega-rich daddy tells her he’s broke, and suddenly her world of cocktails and snappy gowns goes up in a puff of smoke. In a plot twist that recalls the earlier Downhill, she winds up working in young Alfred’s favored den of iniquity, a Parisian dance hall.

Surely this is the most superficial rendition of the eternal Hitchcock plot: a woman reduced to living doll for the edification of a neurotic, controlling man. You see, daddy was faking bankruptcy all along just to help his daughter learn a bit of responsibility and scare away any gold-digging gigolos scoping her inheritance. Rather delightfully, this is revealed when the girl’s father hands her a newspaper where the front-page headline reads, “Daring daughter to be taught lesson she’ll never forget, millionaire declares”—the film is a lovely paean to the diligence of the daily press, if nothing else. Yet there’s something creepy about the whole screwy setup, with father fabricating her entire world just to teach a few life lessons about love and money. Down and out, she learns her only option is to pursue her own objectification—no more of this unseemly independence that so bothered father. She settles for the wholesome career of toothpaste model, but the agency prefers her legs to her smile. Soon she’s in the dance hall, handing out flowers and looking for a new sugar daddy to rescue her from the awful place. The only lesson she learns is her own market value.