Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Forbidden Room

David Bordwell in his excellent book on cinema narrative defines some art films as "parametric."  By this, Bordwell means that the film-maker has imposed certain constraints on his narrative that may be arbitrary and, even, rebarbative.  The constraints channel the content of the film in certain ways and may limit the picture's expressiveness.  Such parameters impose upon the film restrictions that the subject matter works against, or, indeed, must overcome -- the director limits his or her means of expression, ordinarily to foreground aspects of film grammar that we might not otherwise notice.  Ozu will almost always shoot his films with a stationary camera located at the perspective of an observer on a tatami mat; if possible, late Bresson customarily shoots people approaching or leaving an encounter by showing their feet and ankles striding across the ground.  In Notre Musique, Jean-Luc Godard criticizes the standard Hollywood technique of organizing dialogue scenes on a shot -- reverse shot basis:  Godard uses every possible technique to stage dialogue scenes in that film except the shot-reverse shot parlance customary to classical narrative film. 

Guy Maddin's new film The Forbidden Room (co-directed with Evan Johnson) is an example of a movie built around a peculiar parameter:  the film's content is entirely based on lost films, movies that no longer exist except in single still photographs or in archival footage so severely deteriorated as to be unwatchable.  Maddin imagines what these lost movies might have been like and, then, intercuts them into a rigorously symmetrical structure.  In his commentary, Maddin describes the structure as a series of concentric rings or a doll with smaller dolls nested within.  The exterior elements of the film -- that is, its opening and closing sequences involve the imagined reconstruction of a lost film called "How to Take a Bath".  These sequences feature a bawdy narrative written by the poet John Ashbery -- Ashbury's lines are spoken by an elderly Canadian actor (Louis Negin, the disgusted "scoutmaster" in "Sissy Boy Slap Party") wearing a bathrobe alarmingly flared open to reveal his hairy torso and a nasty scar associating with the excision of the man's appendix.  The actor wears hornrimmed glasses similar to images that I have seen of Ashbery and, probably, imitates the poet's manner.  Sunk in the murky waters of the bathtub, there is a submarine.  Inside the submarine, four men are melodramatically awaiting their death by either asphyxiation or explosion -- a slab of some kind of plastic explosive is melting and has become dangerously volatile.  (Maddin revels in images of things rotting or melting in puddles of fetid fluid.)  Apparently, the slightest tremor might set off a blast.  The four trapped submariners are joined by a lumberjack, one of Saplingjacks, a group of Canadian outdoorsmen.   As the doomed sailors, progress through the submarine, opening one locked hatch after another, the lost lumberjack explains that he has come from another narrative -- the story of the Saplingjacks' effort to rescue a girl captured by a group of brigands, the Red Wolves, and held in a cave replete with papier-mâché stalactites.  Writhing on a bed of sleeping bandits, the nearly naked girl dreams that she is lost in a jungle.  She encounters a debauched Filipino night club inhabited by a tropical vampire, the Aswang -- a creature that turns its victims into horrible-looking, deformed bananas.  In the night club, a lounge singer performs a song about a man obsessed with buttocks.  The lounge singer is visualized as a writhing mess of decomposed film -- we see hands and shoulders extruding sometimes from the flicker of the rot eating the film where the man performs.  The tale of the fetishist is acted by the redoubtable Udo Kier.  Kier has parts of his brain removed in a vain attempt to excise his paraphilia.  (In the end, Kier has had his whole cerebellum cut and looks like a paralyzed zombie -- nonetheless, with his last strength he reaches out to grasp at a woman's ass.)  A volcano appears in the background -- a cone into which natives throw sacrifices.  The volcano, about chest-high, belches fire and spills lurid red magma all over everything and a squid-thief, his face bearded with the tentacles of the cephalopod in his jaws, is bonked by a boulder spit out by the lurid peak -- the man falls down dead or unconscious.  Next we see the Baron Pappenheim, lonely in his apartment located in a windmill.  Pappenheim has suffered some kind of loss and is seeking a "Gardener Boy" -- this part of the picture has some of characteristics of a German homo-erotic Kammerspiel from the late 'twenties.  (It resembles slightly Dreyer's Michael.)  A motorcyclist passes the windmill, a structure that sits alone in a garishly colored, expressionistic moor.  A woman is riding on the motorcycle -- she has an accident and breaks all her bones.  An x -ray of her fractured pelvis splits open like a cavern to reveal a group of "skeleton women" who murder a man by forcing him to wear a poisoned leotard.  On the Berlin-Bogota railroad a doctor who has charge of a crazy man (he is gnawing on the bars in his cage) tries to seduce a beautiful woman.  She produces her inner child, a waif that she promptly guns down with a pistol.  By this point, we have reached the center of the film and it, then, reverts to the various episodes continuing their narration in reverse order:  the skeleton women have an orgy while the man in the poisoned leotard dies, Baron Pappenheim nurses a sickly "gardener boy" who seems to be older than he is, the natives offer more sacrifices to the volcano, the Filipino night club continues to offer bizarre entertainment to its habitués, and the kidnapped woman wakes up and is rescued by the Saplingjack hero with his four companions.  In the submarine, the heroes venture into the "forbidden room" where they discover the Captain.  As the men begin to hallucinate due to lack of oxygen, one of them feverishly pages through The Book of Climaxes.  A violent series of climaxes ensues:  lovers embrace, animals attack, planes crash and trains fall off bridge trestles, two Zeppelins smash into one another above the clouds, two mountain-climbers falling off a precipice, wrestle with one another, pull out pistols as they are plummeting to their deaths and engage in a vertical gunfight, a lonely woman commits suicide by walking out into a turbulent sea.  We learn how to take a bath again and the film ends. 

Maddin's movies have always had an appearance unlike anything else in modern cinema and this picture is particularly spectacular:  every possible kind of film stock is used, including ancient Technicolor that has a peculiar burnished and musty looking bronze tint; much of the film is shot in a grisly-looking black and white (often tinted) and the surface of film is scabrous with nicks and flaws -- much of the movie looks as if it were aged like kim chee by being buried for several years in the earth.  The pictures are distorted by Evan Johnson -- his role seems to be to distress the film and devise distortions to afflict the images -- there are double and triple exposures, leering faces superimposed over roiling magma; an image of  Lake Winnipeg has been distorted to look like one of Turner's lost canvases -- all boiling waves and a luminous, sinister mist.  Landscapes are clearly interior to a studio and shot with obviously fake boulders and trees -- many of the images are viewed through house-plants with lenses smeared with semen or vaginal fluid to create a sweaty, ecstatic blur, faces bleeding into one another and images rotting so that they flicker around their edges as if the figures depicted were embedded in decomposing halos of white light.  Some of the people shown are just cardboard cut-outs; others seems to be hypnotized or asleep.  There are curiously incandescent orgies where women fantastically beautiful in the manner of depraved silent film heroines writhe and wriggle atop heaps of half-naked bodies -- the film's standard shot shows someone ranting, a diatribe voiced by a disembodied face or head that seems weirdly bloated and, then, a cut to an androgynous figure squirming in some kind of quasi-orgasmic ecstasy.  There are rotund oratorical intertitles and much of the film is silent - when people speak their voices sound from a void that bears no spatial connection to what we are seeing on the screen.  Sometimes, we hear snippets of poorly recorded Wagner, ancient recordings on wax gramophones, and fragments of Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht.  Of course, the film is too much, too long, too fragmentary, too weirdly ornate, too contrived, too dull, too fascinating, too much of everything and, in the end, a kind of exhaustion afflicts the viewer -- you can't assimilate what you are seeing and there is no thematic continuity, just a series of fetishistic and perverse obsessions.  It's not Maddin's dream nor is it the dream of any of his characters, all of them covered with beads of sweat and grimacing hysterically at the camera -- the film is conceived as kind of dream of cinema itself and it is both remarkable and a complete, and alarming dead end, a sort of reductio ad absurdam  or ne plus ultra of the notion of film as oneiric spectacle.

Maddin's recent films occupy an uneasy terrain between performance/installation art and the cinema.  In this way, his movies are similar to the cinematic events contrived by Peter Greenaway and Apichatpong Weerasthul.  Viewed innocently, The Forbidden Room is a huge, baffling collage in which certain organizing principles are faintly visible but an artifact that makes no real sense.  In fact, the film was shot in public at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Art in Montreal -- the set was open and some of the supernumeraries are, apparently, people who came to the museum to watch the movie being made -- in Paris, the production of the film was call "Spiritismes," in Montreal, "Hauntings."  Accordingly, the process of shooting the picture, itself, was on display as a kind of installation in the French and Canadian museums.  Furthermore, Maddin improvised the film using a curious protocol -- each morning of the production he staged and filmed a séance inviting the spirits of the photoplays of some 42 lost films to appear and advise him on his project.  Then, after the séance, Maddin (who asserts he doesn't believe in spirits or ghosts) shot footage in which he imaginatively seeks to reconstruct films that have otherwise vanished -- movies known from one or two reviews, or a few frames of poorly preserved footage, or still photographs.  For instance, "Seeking Gardener Boy" was a Danish Kammerspiel; "Skeleton Women" was a Chinese silent horror movie, How to take a Bath refers to "How to Undress for your Husband", a lost sex-ploitation film made by Dwain Esper in 1937, and the jungle-cabaret scenes resurrect a lost Filipino production, a box-office hit in 1919 in Manilla.  The sexually inflected orgy scenes always refer to Jack Smith's legendary Flaming Creatures a film seminal in more than one way and that can't be shown for a variety of obscure reasons, thus a picture that is lost for all practical purposes.  In the center of the movie, it's "soft, squishy heart" as the director says, there is a repeated image of the British actress Charlotte Rampling --a closeup that throbs like a bloated, beating heart.  Like the repeated shots of Lillian Gish as the mother of humanity rocking her cradle ("out of the cradle endlessly rocking") in Griffith's Intolerance, this image anchors the film.  But anchors it in what?  Ultimately, this picture, like most of Maddin's films, exists on the frontier between installation art in a museum and a film that you might watch in a movie theater -- it's too narrative, perhaps, for the more abstract genre of museum installation art and, yet, much too complex and confusing to be reasonably understood as narrative movie.  This picture is not to most people's taste but anyone concerned about cinema as an art should watch this film -- and, not only watch it, but study it closely.   

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