Thursday, October 25, 2007

Free Radical: The Films of Len Lye

Screened twice last week at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD, as the kids call it), this 67-minute program consisted of fifteen experimental shorts by the New Zealand animator Len Lye, made over a period of half a century (1929-79). The crowd I saw it with greeted many of the shorts with derisive laughter, which seemd to me entirely appropriate. The program guide helpfully explains, for instance, that A Colour Box (1935), the second film in the program, "was funded and distributed by John Grierson's GPO film unit on the condition that Lye include some postal messages at the end," which simply means that about three and a half minutes into this four-minute abstract film, in which Lye provides "colour accompaniment" to a piece of Cuban dance music, tacky advertising slogans for the British post office suddenly flash on the screen, at which point everyone at the screening started giggling. "In Venice, the Facists disrupted screenings because they saw it as 'degenerate' modern art," but a more accurate way of describing it would be sublime kitsch.

The program is divided in two parts by a short reel change, and apart from the unfortunate Musical Poster #1 (1940), which I talk about below, the later films are more successful--if that's the word for it--at adapting Lye's talents to commercial ends. In Colour Flight (1938), the triangular shapes that move across the screen suggest paper airplanes, so it almost seems logical that the piece would end with a plug for an airline, with the musical choices--"Honolulu Blues" by Red Nichols and a rumba piece by the Lecuona Cuban Boys--evoking an exotic destination. This seems to me a vast improvement on the film preceeding it, N. or N.W. (1937), a stilted and, in its odd film grammar, highly mannerist live-action narrative, in which a relationship is saved by a friendly postman. The program describes the ending as "a very tongue-in-cheek treatment of the sponsor's message," though the irony was lost on me. The only other live-action piece in the program, Rhythm (1957), which edits black-and-white footage of a Chrysler assembly line to African drumb beats, is at best kitsch Dziga Vertov.

The use of African music in Rhythm, Cuban rumba music in A Colour Box, Kaleidoscope (1935) and Colour Flight, and a blues track by Sonny Terry in Colour Cry (1952-53), which Lye "imagined to be the anguished cry of a runaway slave" (begging the inevitable question: why a runaway slave?), all point to an unacknowledged colonial subtext running throughout his work. His first film, Tusalava (1929), in which the shapes on the screen move between abstraction--suggesting here a world before language--and primitive representation, was inspired by an Australian Aboriginal creation myth with a string of circles on a white background, reminding one of a tapeworm, evolving into a lizard-like creature that competes with early humans (deliberately rendered in the style of a cave drawing on a black background). In The Birth of the Robot (1936), a puppet animation piece comissioned by Shell Oil, a white colonalist drives his convertible over the pyramids. After dying in the dessert, he's resurrected as a steel man; then comes the punchline: "A modern world needs modern lubricants." This dichotomy between the primitive and the modern reaches its most distilled form in the aforementioned Rhythm, where Lye presents industrial labour as a primitive expression of masculine vitality (incidentally, Chrysler hated the film).

Tusalava was originally accompanied by a live piano score by Jack Ellit, which has since been lost, so it's impossible to know how this would've changed the tone of the piece, which in its present form inspires a certain thoughtfulness in the viewer; it was virtually the only piece no one laughed at. Recently, Michael Sicinski argued that Jim Henson improved on his hero, Norman McLaren (a filmmaker inspired by Lye), by making films explicitly for children, and that criticism could just as easily apply to Lye. I learn from the program that he "was adamant that wartime films did not have to be gloomy," and Musical Poster #1 begins as pure abstraction to draw the viewer in before hitting us with a series of paranoid slogans to the effect that "the enemy" is listening to everything you say (one title reads "Don't tell him where you go," and the word 'go' is shivering with fear).

Avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage are often credited with influencing the style of commercials and music videos, either as an indication of their signifigance (1) or in order to illustrate how oppositional art becomes assimilated by the mainstream, so it's amusing to discover how the avant-garde was influenced by advertising. The man who curated the screening, Roger Horrocks, was of course at pains to present Lye as a neglected artist who really had no choice but to whore himself out, and indeed there was a period in the 1960's where he abandoned film to pursue sculpture (a body of work of which I know nothing), though if it were true that every filmmaker had to sell-out just to get ther films made in the first place, I probably would've outgrown my interest in cinema a long time ago. (2) Even in Free Radicals (1958), a black-and-white abstract piece where Lye's scratchings on the emulsion suggest lightning and rain (to my tastes, his greatest work), which doesn't advertise anything, I can't say I felt very challenged by it. How then to explain the enthusiasm of P. Sitney Adams, Brakhage and Jonas Mekas for his work (all three are quoted in the program)? As a classmate of mine put it, the films were probably good for their time.

1. I haven't seen Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006), Mary Jordan's feature-length documentary about the maker of Flaming Creatures (1963), though according to the reviews, it credits Smith with being a major influence on mainstream figures like Fellini, John Waters and Andy Warhol.
2. Pauline Kael was an expert at rationalizing the artistic compromises inherent in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. Of Hud (1963), she argued that the conflict between the desire of the filmmakers to make a noble, liberal-minded message picture and the masses' hunger for a nihlistic western was integral to the film's "Americanness."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!

Guy Maddin's career has two distinct phases. I've never been a huge fan of his first three features, Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990) and Careful (1992), and I haven't seen his fourth, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), though by reputation it's his worst film and was followed by a three-year hiatus where his future as a filmmaker was uncertain. The turning point in his career was The Heart of the World (2000), a six-minute short commissioned by the Toronto Film Festival that catapulted Maddin from cult figure to international auteur.

All of Maddin's films are pastiches of silent and early sound cinema. Careful, a "pro-repression" Mountain epic set in a village where the characters have to whisper in order to prevent an avalanche, appears to have been inspired by Leni Riefenstahl's The Blue Light (1932), complete with a blond, blue-eyed cast of characters with names like "Johann" and "Sigleinde." Admittedly, this film looks a lot better on second and third viewing (one nice touch: when the characters throw a party, they put sheep skin over the triangle-shaped windows to dampen the noise), though it wasn't until The Heart of the World that Maddin developed a restless, stuttering style of montage to match the delirium of his stories.

It's worth noting that, with the exception of The Saddest Music in the World (2003), none of Maddin's major films have gone through the usual funding channels for Canadian cinema. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002), his film of a Winnipeg ballet company's adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, was commissioned for television; Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) was originally a gallery installation where viewers could observe the piece through one of three peep holes; and My Dad Is 100 Years Old (2005), Isabella Rossellini's tribute to her father, Roberto Rossellini, was made for the Documentary Channel. Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) was produced by The Film Company, a Seattle-based organization that provides support for filmmakers (as opposed to Telefilm, which merely produces scripts), meaning that Maddin had the green-light even before he had a concept, rather than having to struggle through a long pre-production period as he no doubt would on a Telefilm production. Since 2000, Maddin has worked consistently at a time when the careers of other Canadian filmmakers have either floundered (Denis Villeneuve) or gone of the tracks (David Cronenberg) (1), and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to make a connection between his vigorous productivity and the sustained vitality of his recent films.

I've only seen Brand Upon the Brain! once, so it's too soon to say whether this is Maddin's best work to-date, although such giddy hyperbole seems perfectly appropriate given the spirit of the film. Still, I feel obliged to qualify my following remarks as a preliminary stab at interpretation. Also, this essay contains spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film yet, stop reading here.

In terms of narrative and form, Brand Upon the Brain! feels like a companion piece with Cowards Bend the Knee: both have anatomically-themed titles, heroes named Guy Maddin and, apart from the off-screen narration by Isabella Rossellini in Brand Upon the Brain!, both are non-verbal though far from silent. When Mother/Gretchen Krich wants to call Guy/Sullivan Brown and Sis/Maya Lawson for dinner using her aerophone (a device invented by Father/Todd Moore that allows two people who love each-other to communicate over vast distances), the noise it makes is scratchy to the point of being unintelligable, reminding one of the teachers on the Charlie Brown TV show.

The title of the film refers to the strange puncture marks on the children at the orphanage run by Mother out of a lighthouse. World famous teen detective Wendy Hale/Katherine Scharhon arrives on the island to investiage, arrousing the desires of both Guy and Sis. Finally it's revealed that Father has developed a technique for extracting nectarine from the cerebral cortex in children, a youth potion that acts to reverse the aging process in Mother. A creepy sequence where Father extracts Sis' nectarine suggests an incestuous relationship; deciding she's had enough, Sis murders Father with a butcher knife and later banishes Mother from the island (the story is told in flashbacks with an older Guy/Erik Maahs repainting the lighthouse in anticipation of Mother's return).

Although Heather enjoyed the film overall, she objected to the treatment of women as either nectarine-slurping psychos or sex-crazed hoochies, and while this seems to me a perfectly valid response, I think the central conflict between Mother and Sis is meant to represent the struggle between repression and animal lust with Guy caught in the middle (a not unsimilar mother-daughter-younger brother dynamic can be found in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous from 2000). Mother's need for "nectarine at any cost" is linked with a desire to return to an infantile, sexually undifferentiated state, while Sis' attraction to Wendy (who, in the interest of the case, assumes the identity of her brother, Chance) is seen in terms of personal autonomy. In addition to the aerophone, Mother uses the lighthouse as a means of keeping tabs on her children, and after she's banished from the island, Sis establishes a "reign of terror" (the connection to the French revolution is so obvious it's barely worth mentioning). Wendy, in pretending to be Chance, constructs herself as the subject in her lesbian flirtation with Sis. In order to prevent Sis from discovering her true gender, Wendy agrees to kiss her only while wearing her Kissing Gloves, but Sis turns the tables on her when she gets ahold of Wendy's undressing gloves ("Those gloves could lead me to paradise... Or cast me into hell!").

Maddin's decision to name the protagonists of this film and Cowards Bend the Knee after himself lends both a self-mythologizing quality. (While I haven't seen his latest film, which premiered at the Toronto film festival last month, the title--My Winnipeg (2007)--seems to say it all.) In the earlier film, Guy Maddin/Darcy Fehr was a hockey player for the Winnipeg Maroons who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend for another woman, and while the younger Guy in Brand Upon the Brain! is often adorable ("Once again, this was too much for Guy" a title card explains after one of his periodic fainting spells), self-critique creeps into the film through the bookending sequences, in which Guy is no less eager to please Mother as an adult than he was a child, and in both films, self-deprecation expands into a larger critique of over-masculinity (Cowards Bend the Knee) and repression (this film).

Although he's routinely praised for his atmospheric lighting and furious montage, Maddin is less often recognized for his work with sound--perhaps because his hommages to silent cinema discourage viewers from listening too closely to his sound mix, and I'm as guilty of this as anyone. It was only after the screening that Heather pointed out to me that the splooshing sound Guy makes while painting is remarkably similar to the sucking noise of Father extracting the necatrine from Sis and the crunching sound Mother makes when eating Neddie/Kellan Larson, the most adorable of the orphans--an aural leitmotif linking all three activities. And I've already alluded to the role sounds plays in Careful, where the whole film is about the danger of speaking too loudly.

Brand Upon the Brain! is the first Guy Maddin film shot outside Winnipeg, and it seems somehow appropriate that the best Canadian film I've seen in ages (with the possible exceptions of Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee, The Saddest Music in the World and My Dad Is 100 Years Old) was actually shot in Washington state. I enjoyed Atom Egoyan's British-Canadian co-production Where the Truth Lies (2005) for the novelty of seeing a thirty-million dollar Egoyan film and for one of Kevin Bacon's slimiest performances, but on second viewing I find it far less impressive, and in general, I tend to prefer Egoyan's original screenplays--Next of Kin (1984), Speaking Parts (1989), Exotica (1994) and Ararat (2002) being my personal favorites--to his more expensive literary adaptations. Given the current climate, which I addressed in an earlier blog, what little talent Canada has to begin with will surely go elsewhere, and I'm glad there are alternative avenues for personal filmmakers like Maddin (2) (Orson Welles did some of his best work in exile). When Hollywood makes terrible films, one can say "No one's forcing you to see it," but in Canada there's always the issue of the public money that's being squandered. I think once we give up this stupid notion that there is such a thing as Canadian culture, we can see our domestic cinema for what it is: a government charity that exists merely to prop up various unions.

1. I admired Cronenberg's American-made A History of Violence (2005), which--unlike The Departed (2006)--wanted to be funny, but seeing him direct a perfectly conventional script about the Russian mob with a straight face, as he does in Eastern Promises (2007), makes one wonder why he wanted to make this film in the first place. I'll concede that it's flawlessly executed, like a child colouring inside the lines, but from the director of Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996), I expect more.
2. The screening of Brand Upon the Brain! was preceeded by a series of shorts from the Winnipeg Film Group that leave one with the impression that Maddin is the only person in Manitoba with any talent at all. If I have to sit through another humorless experimental short of some one's old Super 8 home movies, using the same scratch and dye techniques that Norman McLaren developed in the 1940's, I'm gonna go postal. The guy who curated the shorts didn't even have the balls to show up, they were that fucking bad.