Monday, December 29, 2014

Guy Maddin | Brand upon the Brain!

everything happens twice

by Douglas Messerli

Guy Maddin and George Toles (writers), Guy Maddin (director) Brand upon the Brain! / 2006

Since the mid-1980s Canadian director Guy Maddin has been conjuring up low-budget-expense and high-budget-concept films that combine surrealist-like images, outsider stories, and amateur actors to create films that tower over most Hollywood productions. For Maddin film history is not something to be studied but a treasure to be exploited, used time and again in his own celluloid fantasies. Early works of the silent films, of the horror genre, and exploitive sexual flicks marry sophisticated comedies and psychological documentaries in Maddin’s oeuvre, nearly always creating something arresting and fresh.

His 2006 mockumentary Brand upon the Brain! tells the horrific tale of a figure, also named Guy Maddin (Sullivan Brown/Erik Steffen), who after growing up and abandoning his childhood island-home, Black Notch, is called back 30 years later by his monstrous, yet still beloved Mother (Gretchen Krich/Cathleen O’Malley/Susan Corzette) in order to repaint the lighthouse home in which he was raised. As the older Maddin whitewashes his strange “home,” so he imagines he is covering over the wretched past; but, in fact, in attempting to paint it over, he calls it up for himself and his audience, revealing a series of psychologically tortuous childhood experiences that, in 12 chapters of fractured flashbacks, serve as almost a catalogue of cinematically conceived boyhood terrors. Both Mother and Father (Todd Moore/Clayton Corzette), who run their lighthouse home as a home for orphans within which they also raise their two children, Guy and Sis (Maya Lawson), are involved in something clearly sinister. Although Mother is doting and loving—often to the point of a pederastic-like fondling of her son—she also regularly rages against the two children and her orphan charges, demanding their complete celibacy and sexual non-differentiation. With the help of a telescope atop the lighthouse she spies on their outdoor activities, while trumpeting her love and rage through an “aerophone,” a radio/loudspeaker contraption invented by Guy’s Father. 
     One day, the famed serial movie star, detective/harp-playing Wendy Hale shows up on the otherwise empty island, immediately creating a bond with both Guy and Sis in order to help her solve the secret to their parents’ nefarious activities and to explain why the island children have holes bored into the backs of their heads. Guy falls in love with the beautiful Wendy, while Wendy quickly falls in love with Sis, determining to disguise herself into her twin detective brother, Chance in order to get closer to Sis. 
      Between strange nightly processionals of the orphans, up and down the metal, spiral staircase to Guy’s Father’s laboratory, the periodic transformations of Mother from a middle-aged harridan to a young beauty, and the secret plotting and ritualistic meetings of the orphans led by their eldest member, Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), Sis and Chance/Wendy establish a near-sexual relationship, while the lonely Guy, missing his beloved Wendy, develops a “boy crush” on Chance. Thus does Maddin, the director, establishes a near lunatic story involving nearly every subject forbidden for filmmakers in the decades prior to his film: lesbianism, homosexuality, pederasty, cannibalism (Savage Tom seeks to serve up the heart of the poor orphan Neddie [Kellan Larson]), and medical experimentation on children—the last revealed when Chance discovers that Father is harvesting a nectar from the children which provides his wife and others with a temporarily restoral of youth.

       Everything ends badly as Sis kills Father; Mother restores him, like Frankenstein, to life; formerly victimized orphans return on a rowboat, killing Father; Mother, desperate for nectar, is discovered devouring little Neddie; Sis and Chance/Wendy, now married, force Mother and Savage Tom from the island; and, finally, Guy is sent away in foster care. Is it any wonder that grown-up, Guy, in his attempt to whitewash his horrific past, appears sad and depressed as he now wanders Black Notch still in search of his fleeting love? The return of the elderly Mother, merely rekindles some of the horror he has suffered. She dies, furious with her son’s inattention—at the moment of her death he is distracted by his fantasy of Wendy—and he is left alone, caught between his memories and a vague future that promises nothing but emptiness.
    The “brand” imposed upon his brain, a mark or indelible lesson, is, obviously, the madness of his childhood, a time in which everything has been inverted and perverted in relation to what most might describe as “normality.” If nothing else, every figure with whom he has been connected has self-destructed. Even his Sis, the ghost of Wendy reports, grew evil, continuing her parent’s experiments with the orphans; when Chance/Wendy left her, she circled the lighthouse lamp like a moth, combusting in her rage over  her lover’s flight.

      But the brand Maddin suggests by his title is also a kind of lens through which he (the director) has come to see the world, a kind of “product,” the hokey grade-B horror and adventure stories he has grown up with, helping him—in the most positive sense—to pervert his vision of bland notions of normality.

     In early showings of this film around the world, Maddin presented the mostly silent images accompanied by a live orchestra, Foley artists (sound artist, recreating the film’s sound effects), and an “interlocutor” or narrator (in the released CD, spoken by Isabella Rossellini), a role performed by various figures, including Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, Eli Wallach, John Ashbery, and Maddin himself—transforming the whole into a grand theatrical event that might make an impression on anyone entering the dark territory (with flickers of Poe, the Frankenstein story, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hardy Boy tales, images of Dali and Buñuel, and hundreds of other such works) projects onto our consciousnesses, actualizing the film’s unresolved truism: “everything happens twice.”

Los Angeles, December 29, 2014

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Rob Marshall | Into the Woods

out of the woods

by Douglas Messerli

James Lapine (screenplay, based on his libretto), Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics), Rob Marshall (director) Into the Woods / 2014

It seems strange, given my long admiration for and knowledge of American musical theater, that I had not seen Lapine and Sondheim’s successful musical Into the Woods previously. I missed its original Old Globe Theatre production in San Diego, shortly we after we moved to the West Coast (we were busily attending almost nightly dinners and events in Los Angeles during 1986), and for some explicable reason failed to see it in the late 1980s when it appeared on Broadway. Even more inexplicable was our failure to see it in 2002 when it was revived at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles and subsequently in New York.

    But the coincidence of seeing a production just a week before watching it on the large screen in the film rendition, more than made up for my previous lack of attention to it. Of course I had heard Bernadette Peters’ rendition of “Children Will Listen” many times, and I knew that the work involved a twisted telling of several different Grimm Brothers’ fairytales. But I had remained in the dark, fortunately, about the convoluted plot-line.

    All was finally revealed to Howard and me in a resplendent, if slightly trimmed-down version by The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who were asked to repeat their engagingly skeletal production for the second season of the Beverly Hills Wallis Annenberg’s events.

    This was not truly a “perfect” production—indeed given the work’s convoluted story and its self-consciously witty lyrics and patter, along with its bullet-quick pace, one wonders whether there could ever me a thoroughly resolved performance—but it was certainly an excellent example of what musical theater creativity is all about. If it was difficult, at times, to make out all the lyrics (which reminded me a bit of my endlessly-rhymed couplets in my own short musical attempts), we, along with the general audience, were certainly moved by the blithe performances and more affected by the many deeper subtleties of the Lapine-Sondheim telling.

     For these authors the woods was not just a slightly strange world in which frightening events often take place (Little Red Riding Hood’s descent in the stomach of a wolf, Jack’s amazing ascent into a world of giants, and Rapunzel’s torturous relationships with those whom she allowed to climb her hair up to her open window) but, in Lapine’s version, is a  locale through which Cinderella runs on her way home from the ball, and in which the Baker and his Wife, determined to break the spell of their barren relationship, seek out the trophies—a white cow, a red cape, a golden shoe, and corn-white locks—that will break the witch’s evil spell. It is a world where everyday life can be reconsidered, reality perceived in different dimensions, love and adventure explored, a rejuvenation attained. In songs such as “I Know Things Now” (sung by Little Red Ridng Hood), “Giants in the Sky” (by Jack), “Agony” (by the two princes), “It Takes Two” (by the Baker and His Wife), and “Moments in the Woods” (by the Baker’s Wife), the characters tell us what they have discovered and learned from their incredible “time out” in nature.

      Yet the goal of nearly all of these figures is somehow, after their glorious new perceptions, to return to normalcy, to get “out of the woods” and return home to everyday life as quickly as possible. If the woods, as Little Red Riding Hood perceives is a world that makes her feel “excited and scared,” a world where the Baker suddenly discovers the need for communal action, and his brave Wife delights in the special sexual “moments” the woods have to offer, nonetheless, the forest is a dangerous place to which they do not wish to return, but are forced to in the second act by the giants—immense forces that control their of their lives and are fully capable of destroying them. Indeed, the great power of Lapine and Sondheim’s musical fable, unlike the Disneyfied world in which anyone of my age grew up, is that even in the imagination of children (and definitely in the child-like imaginations of peasants) evil happens: mothers are murdered, princes are discovered to be insincere, children are recognized as greedy and demanding appendages, witches are vain and selfish, and even the most ordinary group of citizens can suddenly turn upon each other with accusations. As LA Weekly film critic Alan Scherstuhl nicely summarizes it:

                    No matter how it performs in theaters, Stephen Sondheim’s and

                    James Lapine’s dark, glorious and supremely messy fairytale

                    mash-up musical/therapy session is now forever a pop-culture

                    curio unwary kids will stumble upon, to their bafflement and

                    betterment. The princess-party punch-bowl has forever been


    The Annenberg production rambled and gamboled through and around the forest with hardly any sets, creating an enormous amount of locational atmosphere simply with lights and costumes. Fortunately nearly all the performers could act and, most importantly in this musical, could sing. Of my many favorite moments, I’d be derelict not to mention Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s touching wake-up call “I Know Things Now,” Jeremy Peter Johnson’s and Royer Backus’s poignant paean to emotional suffering “Agony,” Rachael Warren’s troubling either/or consideration “Moments in the Woods,” and, of course, the musical’s inevitable show-stopper, “Last Midnight,” sung with nightclub zest by Miriam A. Laube. But everyone in this production succeed well in taking the audience through the dark gnarls of woodland and out again into the safety of Sondheim’s conforming vision of reality, where parents are warned about the stories and words they tell to their children—including, presumably, the tale we’ve just experienced.

     Given all the dark elements of this work and its complexity of plot I winced at the idea of Rob Marshall’s upcoming film rendition. I’d seen his nervously–hyperventilated version of Chicago his disastrously over-the-top retelling of Nine, and I got scared, very scared of what he might do to Lapine’s and Sondheim’s gem. And then, there was the even-more frightening specter of the film’s producer, the Disney studios! As Howard expressed it, at best we might see the tamed-down version that Lapine and Sondheim had approved for high-school productions.

    What a surprise, accordingly, to find a nearly intact and, in many ways, superior-to-the-play movie in a nearby theater. Sondheim musicals generally dispense with dance (one of Marshall’s downfalls in Chicago), and, accordingly, he could concentrate this time in bringing a story that suffers on the stage as characters go rushing in and off into the theater wings. With movie-camera mobility, Marhsall maneuvers his characters in tête-à-tête-like encounters as the neighbors go scurrying through the forest. Some critics have understandably criticized this approach as isolating the musical’s increasingly socialized figures, and certainly this does have an effect on the second act when the quartet of survivors are forced to work together in order to rid their world of a female giant; but Marshall’s clearer delineation of the character encounters with one another also help to make Lapine’s tale clearer, and brings greater focus upon each one of these fairytale figure’s psychological desires and failures.

     To devotees of this musical, which even after just having seen it, I had already become, it is always disappointing, moreover, to find that some of the songs of missing, including reprises such as the two Princes’ mocking love-stricken duo, “Agony.” And I agree with some observers that cutting important songs such as “No More,” in which the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s long-dead father), sympathizing with the Baker’s determination to escape from the wood (with lovely admissions such as “We disappoint, / We leave a mess, / We die but we don’t”) makes the Baker’s decision to return to his friends and new family somewhat inexplicable. But one has simply to expect those treasured absences given the genre of cinema musicals.

    I was less able to forgive the sanitizing of the Baker’s Wife’s tryst with the Prince in the forest. The Disney film leaves us with the impression that the “dangers” she has discovered  which bring her to suddenly comprehend it’s time to leave the woods has consisted of only a few kisses, instead of, as the play demonstrates, a full-out, old-fashioned fuck. And accordingly, her wondrous song after (excellently realized by Emily Blunt) does not make a lot of sense.

     But, again, if that minor concession allowed the rest of the film to remain intact, I can live with it. The performances (made more important in the close-up attention of the camera) and singing were uniformly excellent. As the wolf, Johnny Depp was wily, suave, and lascivious in just the right amounts. Okay, his witty lines (“Think of that scrumptious carnality / Twice in one day…/ There’s no possible way / To describe what you feel / When you’re talking to your meal.”) didn’t get the giggles it surely did on Broadway. I’d still argue they were well sung. And the movie did even better with songs that got somewhat lost in the busy run-arounds of the stage. By slowing down and focusing on Anna Kendrik’s (as Cindrella) perplexing contradictory desires to run and remain in “On the Steps of the Palace,” we suddenly were able to comprehend and enjoy that lovely ballad. The young Daniel Huttlestone (as Jack) truly made us feel that there were suddenly “Giants in the Sky.”  The handsome, self-preening princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) capably sang of their agonies while sporting about in a waterfall. And Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) tossed out her golden chords along with her flaxen hair quite glowingly.

     My only criticism of the star of the show, Meryl Streep as the Witch (an actress about whom, I admit, I have often sounded like an old curmudgeon), was that she played her part, even when singing, just a bit too well: in her gently sung “Stay with Me,” Streep growled out some darker tones in a manner that Bernadette Peters might never have imagined. I wanted to more clearly hear Streep’s expressive coloratura, which has been denied us far too long—except for a few quick ditties in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion and some saccharine standards in Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia!. But Streep made up for it with a full-throttle rendition of “Last Midnight” and an offstage, show-worthy voicing of “Children Will Listen.” Like Dickens’ Oliver, I simply wanted “some more.”

    Sure, the movie version of Into the Woods was not perfect…but as I said above I can’t imagine any production of the musical-comedy equivalent of King Lear to ever be everything it aspires to. There’s way too many fascinating characters, too many plot possibilities, and far too many cleverly rhymed couplings to allow any directorial vision to get just right. That Marshall achieved so much perfection is a kind of miracle in itself. His Into the Woods might, in the end, be one of the best of musical movies—and I’ve seen most of them—on record.

 Los Angeles, December 27, 2014