Friday, 20 June 2014

Cowards Bend The Knees (Or The Blue Hands) (2003)

Dir. Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin is an experimental director yet he is also not stereotypically avant-garde. Experimental because, despite being very narrative obsessed, he depicts them in a trademark style completely his own with a willingness to be absurd. To have films in monochrome, or specific colour styles, to having intertitles instead of any spoken dialogue. To draw on obsessions and material almost dreamt of and not soften to seem conventionally rational to the viewer. To purposely undercut narrative conventions with non-sequiturs, absurdity, and to use his own allegory of the grandmother who tells you a bedtime story, to look at the grandmother as well as be swept up in the story she tells. He's not a stereotypical avant-garde director not because of his narrative driven work but how he depicts them. Because his influences, while dismissed as curiosities in some quarters, and fodder to cineastes and the curious in the other, were once populist work in most cases. Silent films, melodramas, hyper realistic soap opera. He has a grounded worldview with the lofty, where the normal meets the fantastical, including the autobiographical. Humour. Perversity. Very kinky sexuality because sex is real, kinky and sells. Lots of ice hockey references. He is what avant-garde filmmaking, if you were to put him in that box, should be in its true form, upholding the desire to break conventions, but for the open minded, it turns out that he does so by breaking every stereotype of a pretentious artist to pieces with his deadpan personality and making diverse, creative films.


Originally an installation piece made more candid as a peepshow exhibition, of chapter chunks like the ten the sixty minute epic is split into, Cowards Bend The Knees has Maddin drag Maddin through dirt. Literally, as Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), an ice hockey player, leaves his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) to die of an illegal abortion to lust after Meta (Melissa Dionisio), the daughter of Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle), owner of a hair dressers that's a bordello at night. Meta wants revenge on her mother and her younger lover Shaky (David Stuart Evans), the captain of the ice hockey team, for murdering her father, loving to her and his hands blue because of the dyes used in his hairdressing work. Planning to have her later father's persevered hands grafted onto Maddin, only for trick ones to be given to him by Dr. Fusi (Louis Negin), she tempts him into murdering her mother and Shaky with the promise of her body, his hands seemingly possessed by the ghost of her father despite being his original ones painted blue. Veronica, despite dying, comes back as a ghost and is having a relationship with Maddin Sr. (Victor Cowie), Guy's father. Somehow, in only sixty minutes, this perverse, blackly humoured work juggles between intentionally falling off the rails and being tied up in a cohesive structure. Maddin deliberately goes against the notion that any event has to be the same as the rest of a story's structure, letting the events dictate the structure instead, including those that go into the completely absurd and goes against conventional rationalisation. In terms of "conventional" rationalisation, that which is would soften some of the material to not feel like a film is jarring between different moods and tone. Maddin goes against this but keeps the appearance of the film in one consistency in style. The content exists in its own logic, that of lurid and unpredictable cinema from a yesteryear. A yesteryear that doesn't exist and comes from its own plane of reality. In cinematic terms, Cowards Bend The Knees is not your ordinary murder revenge story, particularly when it's the tale of a murder-revenge with ice hockey museums in the lofts of the ice rink full of wax mannequins of dead hockey player, out-of-left-field sexual practices not even seen in some porn, and blue filter, in a black and white film, to show the majesty of blue hands.


His work is an ode.  Not only to the film making techniques of the past, arcane rather than nostalgia, contacting once dead cinematic practices, which went further to the director currently holding recorded séances for lost films, but also an ode to the lack of pristine gloss. The concept of viewing films scratched up and with jittering frames. It's sad to see old silent films battered, and we prefer them restored and almost brand new, but there is something irresistible to seeing them with scratches too, textures that makes them unique compared to other films. Cowards Bend The Knees, the images shown through a circle surrounded by complete black, of its peepshow origins and very old silent films, is made to look like a blurred and damaged film print Maddin discovered in a basement of a Canadian home, sordid hyper stylised thrills that would've gotten the scissors on it by censors back in granddad's day, frames moving and the actors at points distorted into figures of pure grain as they are clear and beautiful in portraying these exaggerated archetypes. Entirely silent, with intertitles, it charges ahead with its content in quick, sharply edited images clearly learnt from Soviet propaganda cinema. The content itself manages to be shocking and surprising, yet this style wrangles it all together into one cohesive whole.


What does it say as well about the director when he names his less-than-great protagonist after himself? It may be fantastical in tone, but the ecstatic truth, to quote Werner Herzog, is that in doing so, clearly Maddin admits with Maddin the character - spineless, a coward, a killer - failings he might have encountered in himself or other men subconsciously shown through the scenarios shown onscreen. Then there are the autobiographical aspects. Maddin's mother in the role of Meta's blind grandmother. That he grew up with ice hockey, his father coaching an actual hockey team, as well as hairdressing as an aunt ran such a business. He would later go on to make the poignant and funny My Winnipeg (2007) which directly examined his titular Canadian homeland and his life, but in placing his own memories within content like this with its killer hands, Elektra based influences and perversions, it's far from undermining it but using the absurd and perverse content to amplify and examine the effect these reminiscences. By way of dreams and the logic of a b-movie cum German Expressionist influence horror movies. Bringing a subconscious confession to this film, even through psychotronic, erotic murder melodrama and literary meanings, is still bringing the personal level to the work and having a greater truth as a result. It helps as well Maddin has no censoring of the content in his head. Gender balancing in the poking of the male body as well as the female, which actually does happen when a large pare of buttocks is confused for a doorbell. Scrutinising masculinity even to the point of a large close-up of Maddin Sr's penis as he used a urinal, with Maddin Jr next to him using it too, it eventually becomes a film that views the failings of masculinity in such a hyper exaggerated work. Maddin Jr.'s lust leads to Veronica being abandoned on the abortion table, left with a corset wearing, drunk surgeon, who looks like Udo Kier's down-and-out cousin, and is why he's forced into murdering someone with what he believes are no longer his own hands. Starting with sperm, shown in a magnifying glass, to be ice hockey players, the idea of sexually charged, macho men is given a ridiculous light. Eventually its revealed that Maddin's abandonment of Veronica, hopelessly chasing after her ghost who'd rather be with his father, and falling for Meta, is as much cowardice for not wanting to be a father as it is lustful stupidity. The film doesn't end happily, which is felt because the director still takes the material deathly serious in tone, but still looks at what happens with a gallows humour laughing at the stupidity of the protagonist for sealing his own fate. That he's named and based on his own creator Guy Maddin suggest the director/artist is open to admitting that he's done the same mistakes as his character has even if not as serious, an honesty one wishes was more common and done more in such an intentionally bizarre work.
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): HIGH
Fed on Sergei Eisenstein levels of editing, including the use of multiple replays of moments and even Eisenstein's montage of attractions, images out of narrative reality to emphasis metaphors, and the horror films of the black-and-white era, all of which seen in the most cut-up, cobbled back together film prints possible, yet beautifully lit and shown, Cowards Bend The Knees is an impressive work. The result as well is undoubtedly his vision and one you'd never see in any other context, the fact that you can recognise his cinematic influences if you've studied pre-1950s cinema showing how powerful and effective the use of classic techniques are. The closest thing to Guy Maddin's work was La Antena (2007), a Argentine silent film homage which went further into science fiction pastiche. Heavily dependent on CGI to depict its world, and very much made with modern sensibilities, rather than a director purposely restricting the material they can use and getting the mood of a period mindset for the content, it's no way near the film Maddin's work is and is a very different creation as a result. Maddin's vision is perplexing in equal measure to being intentionally playful, making sure the content is taken seriously whether it's absurd to the audience or intentionally shocking. In this regard, this will not be the last time Maddin's mix of the down-to-earth with the camp and fantastical will likely hit the highest rating for this scale. And that's not even considering that short films can be added as well as feature length work, which Maddin has made as many if more of than his feature work.

Personal Opinion

Wonderful to return to. Now with a greater relish for the perverse but also personal in filmmaking, the divisive and the unexpected too, Cowards Bend The Knees works perfectly more so now for me, the border between the completely engaging story to its heightened sixty length, full of bombastic content, suggesting that in a better world, Maddin would've done a David Lynch and briefly been welcomed into the mainstream of cinema without compromising his vision. Like Lynch, he'd had probably made a film that completely divided audiences and thrown him further into the unconventional and "difficult", but it would've been great to see. In a less than perfect world, Maddin still exists, which I won't complain about, only in the lack of his work available to us the British on DVD. He is a director where the auteurist theory is fully proven, although I don't think the late Andrew Sarris's writings have involved any auteur who'd have a fisting scene as Maddin does and nonetheless make it giggle inducing and tongue in cheek. Again, as above, Maddin is bond to appear in this blog more than once, and may have to start picking out furniture as he is more than likely going to live in the highest rankings of the abstract scale.

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