by Jay Seaver
There aren't many like Guy Maddin, making silent movies at the turn of the twenty-first century. In Winnipeg, of all places. And it's frequently brilliant. Even when it's brilliant, though, it's kind of an acquired taste; when it's as off-putting as Cowards Bend the Knee, it can be a real drag to sit through.Cowards is the story of Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), popular star of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey club. He's gotten his girlfriend Veronica (Amy Stewart) "in trouble", as they euphemistically say, but not to worry, his best friend Shaky's girlfriend Liliom (Tara Birtwhistle) has an establishment that is hair salon by day, bordello by night, and abortion clinic with the right knock. Sadly, Veronica dies during the operation, but Guy has already become entranced with the owner's daughter, Meta (Melissa Dionisio). But, it soon turns out that she won't even let him get to second base, slapping his hands away from her bare and tantalizingly perfect breasts, until he does her a favor: Have her late father's hands, tinted blue from the preservative, transplanted onto his arms and use them to kill her mother and Shaky (David Stuart Evans), whom she blames for her father's death.
"Guy Maddin's a mad genius, although this film is more 'mad' than 'genius'."
Maddin-the-director has claimed that all of his movies are at least partly autobiographical, although I somewhat doubt that he lived Maddin-the-character's tale of ghosts, murder, and wax figures coming to life. No matter, though - it's a fun idea, bizarre enough to fit Maddin's minimalist, surreal aesthetic to a T. As usual, Maddin deliberately uses lesser film stock (this picture was shot on Super-8) to create a grainy, tinted black-and-white visual that looks like a recovered pre-code film. Not that it's set in any specific time; though the aesthetic is very early-twentieth-century, the references to games with "the Soviets" would place it later; this is a Winnipeg that exists only within Maddin's imagination.
There's no denying that Maddin makes interesting use of his medium. Some of the intertitles are pretty funny ("the joy, joy, joy of meeting new people!"), and he isn't completely slavishly beholden to silent movie techniques - the editing is occasionally very modern and fast-paced. The subject matter is on the weird side, which limits the audience even beyond those who go in for modern silent movies. It throws a whole bunch of strange things up on the screen, and its characters are rather on the callous and unlikable side. Plus, there's equal-opportunity nudity and nasty violence. It's not a very accessible feature.
Of course, part of the problem for me might be that I approached it as a feature. Cowards was originally presented as a museum installation, with the viewer looking through a series of ten peepholes, one for each six-minute chapter. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts played the film in an auditorium, as a single hour-long picture. This doesn't change the narrative, but it does change the experience. As an installation, the viewer would experience a sort of voyeuristic thrill, watching these sordid goings-on privately, through a restricted view; in the theater, it's blown up larger than life, and there are other people in the room, so it's not a private, hidden thrill. Also, the audience is not given time to digest each part before being thrown into the next one. Though the episodes are serial, they feel as though they were designed to be separated by more than a title card, even if it is just the walk from one peephole to the next.Ironically, the eventual DVD release may more accurately replicate the filmmaker's intent than a theatrical screening: The viewer will see it in a private space, maybe selecting each chapter individually. Maybe I'll enjoy it more that way.
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originally posted: 05/23/05 12:13:52