Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Apparently it's incumbent upon me to acknowledge that I think both Mr. Atlas' remarks, below, and my own, are really very silly. I do think the notion of "functionality" is something worth questioning given how thoroughly most of us are infected with the Puritan work ethic. Is the giving—even more scandalously, the taking—of pleasure a "function"?

Speaking of pleasure, I'm getting more and more interested in the work of Guy Maddin. First I saw his astonishingly beautiful, Baudelairean film The Saddest Music in the World; then I read his anxious, erotomaniacal memoir/journal From the Aetelier Tovar, and now I'm halfway through his "secret" movie, Cowards Bend the Knee. I say halfway because the DVD I borrowed has a flaw that caused it to stop working in the dead middle of the disk; I say secret because apparently he shot this film on the sly in just a few days at the same time he was making his first "big" feature, Saddest Music. I learned this from my friend and neighbor Jonah, who is one of my cohort of Cornell grad students and who happens to be from Winnipeg and is a personal friend of Maddins's—has even worked on a few of his films. The funny thing is, years ago he told me he had a friend who was an experimental filmmaker in Winnipeg and I never made the connection until yesterday when we were having an impromptu Mexican dinner. I got all starstruck, because Maddin's films have come for me to embody the practice outlined in Henry James' story, "The Middle Years": "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." You could break that down line-by-line to describe Maddin's work:

- "We work in the dark": Darkness is palpable is Maddin's films; it forms a visible border at the edges of a frame that is spiritually and often literally in black and white. Light's struggle through the sometimes hazy or blurred images, through marks on the celluloid itself, becomes emblematic of Maddin's attempts to unearth the darkest recesses of his very strange, very Canadian unconscious.

- "We do what we can": The man's technique is encyclopedic and frenzied: from directly treating the film itself to using antiquated equipment and, as far as I can tell, refraining entirely from the use of digital equipment. Cowards Bend the Knee is a semi-silent movie, and his uncanny ability to make his films seem like unearthed perverse pre-Hays Office classics show his dedication to exploiting all the resources of film qua film.

- "We give what we have": Joseph Beuys' motto Zeige deine Wund (Show your wound) might as well be Maddin's. He's absolutely fearless about mapping a very personal, vaguely Freudian sense of his own psychology across his films, tossing up all kinds of tropes and images: the tyranny of unreliable fathers, castrating women, sexualized violence, full frontal nudity, and plenty of ice hockey. Although he himself is straight, Maddin's films have a noticeably queer, campy sensibility (check out the hilarious short Sissy Boy Slap Party, included as an extra on the Saddest Music DVD). The effect is to "queer" even heterosexual desire, revealing anew the sheer bizarreness of any and every libidinal attachment. Blue hands...

- "Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task": Maddin is a highly exploratory and open filmmaker, concerned with putting as much of himself directly on film as he can, which means submitting film and self dialectically to each other's possibilities and limitations. He demands freedom from conventional ideas about realism, particularly as it applies to character development. Like in a dream, you sense that every character in each film is an aspect of Maddin (especially Cowards, whose protagonist is named... Guy Maddin). But there's nothing boring about these dreams, because they aren't being retold or rationalized, much less interpreted. You dream them with Maddin in a simulation of real time.

- "The rest is the madness of art": As the above suggests, Maddin takes big risks, mitigated perhaps by the collaborative nature of filmmaking as an art form. It should go without saying that one of the risks he took until comparatively recently was penury: there's considerably more government support for the arts in Canada than here, but as an avant-garde filmmaker Maddin has lived nearly as marginal existence as, say, an avant-garde poet. Still, the more significant risks he takes seem to be emotional and artistic ones. I'm challenged and irritated and wonderstruck by his art—in short, inspired. When that energy of inspiration is carried over from maker to receiver, you know that art is happening.

All of this has about bupkus to do with my dissertation; but I'd still like to say a few words about Ron Slate and his book; he's a reader of this blog and sent me an intelligent and courteous e-mail yesterday that I hope he'll give me permission to post here. That will all have to wait until I've struggled with Pound for a couple of hours. Avanti!

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