Friday, November 4, 2016
Guy Maddin | The Forbidden Room
a valentine to movie matinees
by Douglas Messerli
Evan Johnson, Robert Kotyk Guy Maddin, writers; with additional material by John Ashbery) Guy Maddin (director) The Forbidden Room / 2015
Guy Maddin’s 2015 film, The Forbidden Room, is an art-house film on grade B and C movies from the silent era through the 1950s. With sly references to cliff-hangers like The Adventures Pauline, submarine adventure tales such 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, exciting Tarzan-like stories—only in the Canadian Maddin’s case, played out in the cold Northwest with wolf-people and trappers—films influenced by the Janus-myth such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even more ridiculous tales including a slightly incestuous relationship between a blind widow and her recently mustachioed son, and a hilarious mystery, replete with Expressionist-like sets, about a government attaché who suddenly finds himself murdering his double, who is delayed in his murder by a former ostler, who tells yet another story wherein, in memory of D. H. Lawrence, he recalls murdering his lover with his mother’s laudanum. At moments, Maddin’s film seems like the hallucinated movie described by the character Dinah, in Leonard Bernstein’s opera Trouble in Tahiti.
Maddin tells these tall tales, with a large score of actors (Roy Dupuis, Clara Furey, Louis Negin, Udo Kier, Mathieu Amalric, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, and Noel Burton among many others, many of them playing several roles) with beautiful music such as Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht, while imitating the intertitles of silent films, and presenting his images as brittle scenes on decaying film stock which might at any moment ignite into flames—and sometimes does!
The director, moreover, presents his narrative, as one critic described it, as a series of Russian dolls, each nestled in each other; or, perhaps to describe his method more precisely, it is as he the director were leafing through a volume of childhood cinema images, only to turn those pages back in the other direction before closing.
Indeed, as the stories within stories within still further stories progresses forward and backward, we finally end up, once again with the early submarine tale, where the men, missing oxygen, are forced to eat flapjacks (pancakes are a returning motif in Maddin’s work, as are bathtubs, women with necklaces, and virgins in distress) so that they might find oxygen in their “air pockets.” The Captain’s room, meanwhile, is the “forbidden room” of the title, but as the men begin to fear for their lives, they rush into his domain only to find him dying within his bubble bath; the lone survivor discovers, in a book hidden within another book—much like the structure of the movie itself—where he encounters briefs of the best “climaxes.”
For Maddin, of course, the “climaxes” are not only sexual—which symbolizes his relationship with the medium—but a literal listing of adventure movie “climaxes,” the best of the cliffhangers that ended films with visions of romantic love and salvation. Film is clearly here not only a sexual force but an emotionally saving force, akin almost to a kind of religious experience.
The several bathtub images which with the movie strangely begins and ends represent, accordingly, not only a kind of spiritual washing of the soul, but the complete immersion in a world of “dreams, visions” and imagination.
If often Maddin appears to be laughing at all of these absurd cinematic sequences, he is simultaneously, in re-representing them, celebrating their curative powers. For each of these stories feature characters compelled by their fixations and their inability to move ahead into a more normative world; the only solution for their problems, so the director suggests, is through the imagination that art, in particular cinema, can offer. Ultimately, Maddin’s work is a heavily collaged valentine to all those films in which so many of us of a certain generation let ourselves be bathed by just such images on those dozens of Saturday and Sunday matinees. Through them, I grew to love theater and later fiction—and through fiction, eventually, poetry. Without them…well, maybe I would no choice but to believe in god. Thank god for the choice.
Los Angeles, November 4, 2016