Cowards Bend the Knee

. 1995


Director: Guy Maddin

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

Three More Guy Maddin Films

Sometimes Guy Maddin just makes me feel ripped off for my time. I feel like writing a killer review like this one:

If David Lynch were a talentless goober, he'd be Guy Maddin. There's an old adage that runs something like "Artists who can do it; those who can't teach it," & Maddin's real living is as a college professor. I don't know why I keep giving his films a chance, but I've really got to give up on him. In the name of "art" so much that is merely amateurish can be fobbed off as beyond the appreciation of mere film lovers.

Cowards Bend the KneeI am reminded of such "art" as a series of piles of dirt payed for with a sizeable art grant, that got washed into mud slicks by heavy rainfall before opening night.

Art mavens showed up at the mud hole at the "art" opening & walked between sagging heaps of mud sipping their champagne & getting their nice shoes filthy, all clearly trying very hard to convey how excited they were to be at the wonderful art event. The only "artist" present was the flimflam artist who got a grant to pull this stunt.

The same funding source on another occasion paid for a gallery show in which the "art" consisted of strips of rubber stapled between the wall & the floor. At the end of the show the rubber was removed & thrown in the dumpster where it should've been all along. This kind of "installation art" doesn't have to be this sorry-ass, but it usually is exactly that nonsensical. Similarly, experimental films don't have to be as sorry-ass as Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), but Maddin's versions certainly are.

Now & then this film captures the mood & feel of an actually old silent film, which it immitates due to lack of having mastered or obtained sound equipment. The "story" such as it is is a mystery dismantled & put back together incoherently, set largely in a haunted hocky rink & at a beauty salon that becomes a bordello by night where unsafe abortions are performed.

Maddin must have his fans because idiots keep giving him money to waste making abominably bad films. And anyone fool enough to actually be a Maddin fan should like this one even more than most of his stuff, because he has done even worse.

Eyes Like a Strange BalloonSo goes my killer review which is not terribly just but it's great to blow off steam when, as a viewer, I've been that greatly disappointed or feel set-upon by needless tedium. And Maddin has bored me the most of any director I was willing to try again & again; usually such disappointment would not induce me to try more by the same director, but it is the nature of the experimental that it will not always be interesting to access, not even for the miniscule audience that likes to give strange things a try.

There are moments when I'm just about willing to admit Maddin is a filmic genius. He has thrown away all the the crapulistic commercialism of what it means to make a standardized modern film, & returned to an attitude & tone that by rights belongs to the very beginning of filmic art, before "what it means" to be a film had found its formulas & techniques & devices, rarely to waver therefrom.

Nor do his shortest films try one's patience because, first, they're wonderful little films & second, well, they're short.

Strikingly like a surreal short of the silent era despite that it is a sound film, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1995) feels as though it originated from an alternate world where cinema was truly decadent in the 'teens & 'twenties & wide-open for experimentation.

The inspiration for this amazing five-minute fantasy is French symbolist painter Odilon Redon's 1878 painting "The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity" which in turn quotes Edgar Allan Poe. Maddin has essentially brought an ochre charcoal symbolist drawing to life, lending it characters & a slight plot structure borrowed from Abel Gance's love-triangle train romance La Roue (1923).

A doomed train is crossing a wild Russian countryside of dinosaurs & screaming giant scallops. A weird beautiful maiden climbs to the roof of a speeding train & walks along like a blissful somnombulant. Bizarre moments include an incident of spontaneous human combustion, a beheading, & the removal of the old man's eyes one of which is transformed into a hot-air balloon that looks exactly like Redon's famous drawing.

Weird & beautiful, it is like many of Maddin's short films more poem than a narrative, but enough of the latter to be worth putting together as a story in one's mind.

HeartThe strange short science fiction film The Heart of the World (2000) is done almost in the style of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) but at a frenetic pace. It is simply a marvel of primitive filmmaking as an authentic artform.

Anna the art deco beauty of a scientist has drilled a hole to the center of the earth & discovered the planet is ill & will die of a heart attack in one day. When she announces this to the world, panic fills the street, & an insane Jesus acts as a maniac orchestra conductor for a populace in the throes of orgies & murderous warfare.

Anna decides she must spend her last day having sex but cannot decide with whom. Instead of the handsome candidates who've formerly courted her, she lets herself be purchased like a harlot by an ugly cigar-puffing industrialist who mesmerizes her with gold.

In the midst of his lust, she comes out of her trance, murders him, & sets out at the last possible minute to save the world.

As a visual poem it is highly interpretable, but this is what it meant to me: Anna saves the world by changing the masculine spirit of all humanity into feminine spirit, while she herself becomes the new & improved heart of the planet. As she becomes the world's new beating heart, even the insane Jesus becomes peaceable, & the penis-shaped weapons are abandoned by a new humanity.

Whether I got it right or not is beside the point. It's just a beautiful work of art that functions as a nostalgic homage to the greatest of silent cinema even while being it's own weird thing.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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