I’ve known Russell for several years now and I’m always trying to get him to write more often; he’s full of great insights. Here are his first reviews from the Three Rivers Film Festival currently in progress in Pittsburgh. The festival is surprisingly low-profile given its exemplary line-up. -Doug

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By Russell Lucas

Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) started life as an installation exhibit at a Toronto art gallery. The film, which is comprised of ten six-minute episodes, was originally shown through ten individual knotholes so that a viewer could watch the chapters individually and in progression. At the screening, Maddin explained that the exhibit was not successful, largely because each hole was filled with one of those fisheye apartment-door lookouts, so each chapter could only be seen through that distorting and
disorienting lens. There are apparently very good reasons why people never look through those sorts of holes for six minutes at a time, and after complaints of headaches and eyestrain, Maddin prevailed upon the gallery owner to pull the lenses out, and later, to allow him to pull the films from gallery exhibition in favor of a more conventional presentation.

Plot-wise, the film is about a Winnipeg hockey player who learns on the night his team wins the championship that his girlfriend is pregnant. While escorting her in her distraught state to the back room of a combination beauty parlor/bordello for a quick abortion, he falls head over heels for the madam’s daughter, the appropriately-named Meta. Meta is all too willing to help him forget his girlfriend’s moment of need, but she
won’t let him touch her until he agrees to kill her mother to avenge her murder of Meta’s beloved father. Meta’s devotion to her father extends to keeping his rotting severed hands, which she plots to have grafted onto her new beau’s arms by the hockey team’s physician. The player’s hands begin behaving violently and mysteriously. There are casualties. Oh, and the player is named Guy Maddin. And the film is autobiographical, says the real Guy.

The film’s peephole origins are in keeping with a recurring emphasis on the voyeuristic nature of cinema. This isn’t the first time Maddin’s made this point, but here it’s taken further: the film’s first shot is of a man looking at a slide under a microscope and seeing a hockey game through the lens. The game becomes the narrative “reality.” Later, there are several great shots in the back room of the beauty shop bordello. The wall mirrors in front of the beauticians’ chairs are filled with one-way glass, so the viewer watches the characters acting out their back room misdeeds while watching the unsuspecting hairdressers and customers. There’s something striking about the way in which the customers look through the glass, seeing something in their own reflection, but not seeing or knowing that they are being seen.

I admire the way in which Maddin continues to pursue his unique aesthetic. His use of two modes of cinema language which were “replaced” long before they outgrew their usefulness–silent film and black and white–is engaging. His intertitles sometimes speak with an ironic voice that’s not in keeping with the general tenor of silent film, and the deliberate attempts to make the film look like an early film creates an interesting
opportunity to view his images of postmodern surrealism through an older lens.

When all’s said and done, though, does this retro silent film–coupled with ironic self-deprecation, bolstered by noir and genre film language and laden with Freudian sexual humiliation–add up? Oh, and it’s autobiographical, Maddin reminds us, in an aside that makes me both laugh and squirm. Honestly, I don’t know whether it does add up. An unannounced screening of Maddin’s silent-film short The Heart of the World (2000) preceded the screening of Cowards, and having not seen it before and knowing nothing about it, I’d readily call that short the six-minute answer to the question of why I love movies. Cowards can’t match that frenetic, sustained energy (but what can?). I’m not ready to say it isn’t successful on its own terms, though I do wonder whether those terms necessarily emphasize arresting images and technical cleverness over a real emotional core.

Ousmane Sembene’s MoolaadÈ has been making the festival rounds and garnering acclaim at each stop. The praise is well-deserved. The film documents a few tempestuous days in a small Muslim village presumably located in Sembene’s Senegal. Colle, the second wife (in age and seniority) of her husband’s three, is faithful and conscientious, but she acquired a long reputation of refusing to submit her daughter to ritual genital mutilation. In response to this, four young girls who are about to be cut flee the ceremony and come to Colle’s home in the hope that she will protect them.

Colle and the senior wife make their home into a safe haven by invoking the tradition of “MoolaadÈ,” and a cord draped over the threshhold creates a line over which the village’s red-gowned ceremonial priestesses cannot pass. An uproar is created in the village among the male council (who decry Colle) and the priestesses and other “purified” women (who scowl and curse at her).

Her husband is away on business and returns to find his household in the heart of a maelstrom in which the people are up in arms and the ruling council has decreed that the radios which link the villagers to music and the outside world are to be confiscated. At the same time, the village is eagerly awaiting the return of the council leader’s distinguished son from a trip to France. Colle’s adolescent (and “unpurified”) daughter is even more eager to see him, as she’s informally betrothed to him.

The film works the story through the many layers of conflict, and we come to appreciate the way in which each person or group has authority which is precisely-defined. A wife is bound to her place in relation to her husband, and also bound to her place within the other wives. The women and their daughters are collectively bound to obey the priestesses, whose authority is granted by the council. The council presumably draws its
authority from the temple where the men worship alone. Of course, when Colle reports what she heard an imam say on the radio about the theological justifications for genital mutilation and it conflicts with the council, the whole structure of authority shows its seams. The film so skillfully constructs the concentric circles of duty and authority that bind and define the members of the village to the point that each of them is locked into a course of conduct, whether it brings happiness or misery.

I’ve seen hundreds of subtitled films, but I’ve never before seen one which spoke to me so much through the design of the titles. The film’s modest amount of dialogue allowed for some experimentation. The font is not a standard typeface, but more than that, the
subtitles repeatedly and consistently capitalize the four spoken words central to this film, irrespective of whether the speaker is saying the particular word casually, angrily or desperately. We hear/read that the girls sought the MOOLAAD… protection because they did not want to be CUT, but the elders tell them that no one will marry a BILAKORO, or one who has not been PURIFIED. On its face, it sounds like gimmickry, but it works so well to focus attention at all points on the basic elements driving the story forward: the real threat of violence, the perception of purity and the need for protection.

There’s a moment at the end when I was uncertain about whether the film’s heavy emotional spell would be broken. As the conflict is rushing to its seemingly-doomed end, there are a series of events which will be immediately familiar to anyone who has seen a single Hollywood teen film of the past twenty years: the continuing injustice leads to an
unforeseen, tragic death. The authority figures and the rebel literally stand across from each other. The rebel refuses to back down, and continues to assert the justice of the cause.

This sequence, its tone, even its blocking has been rendered something of a clichÈ by a succession of movies about girls at northeastern prep schools whose parents want them to live boring lives, or misfit boys who want to dance at their high school prom. MoolaadÈ‘s replication of those scenes made me hold my breath. I was worried that the story’s visceral impact would be diluted by employing a familiar, pat resolution to such an intense and irresolvable conflict. I am happy to say that, for myself at least, it didn’t happen, and the film’s vibrant significance isn’t lessened by the ending. This film, unlike the others I mentioned, has the thematic heft and human stakes needed to bring it sincere meaning. Indeed, it’s not even a uniformly happy ending in this context; too much has already been needlessly lost, and it can’t be recovered.