Sunday, May 11, 2008

SFIFFBLOG - Week Two - The Forks, The Lap, The Fur

My Winnipeg

SFIFF51 closed May 8th with a screening of Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. A week ago, Saturday, I went to the Pacific Film Archive to see Guy Maddin present his latest, My Winnipeg.

The last time I saw Guy Maddin in-person was at the Brand Upon The Brain! screening in Seattle, a few months before I moved to San Francisco. The time before that was at a screening of Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary, at the New York Video Festival, a few months before I moved to Seattle. I think I must be stalking Guy Maddin.

Maddin told the audience San Francisco was his favorite city in the United States. But wait, I recall him telling us at the Cinerama that Seattle was his favorite city. Perfidious wretch! Actually, I think San Francisco may be his favorite. He has a longstanding relationship with the the San Francisco Film Society and the PFA. He's appeared at numerous SFIFFs and received the Film Society's Persistence of Vision Award in 2006. He's also appeared at the PFA a number of times and did a residency, curating a series of films in 2004. He also, by his own admission, once passed out in a local bar, trying to catch-up on some sleep. If Guy Maddin is comfortable enough to lay his weary head upon the countertop of one the city's drinking establishments, well then, I consider it a compliment.

I grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, a town with a 400 year history. A few things happened there, most notably George Washington's retreat from the British army; and a number of well-known people lived there, including Anthony Bourdain, Alan Alda and, my favorite, Sammy Davis Jr., who took up residency during his stint in Golden Boy. I can only imagine him, shopping at the Acme or checking out the produce at the Co-Op saying, 'Hey man, look at these mangoes.' For all that, I can't imagine doing a film, My Leonia. Sad to say, the subject of my hometown doesn't inspire any flight of fancy in me. Guy Maddin has no such problem. My Winnipeg was commissioned by Canada's Documentary Channel as a personal history. Well, what they got was personal, but there isn't much history. At least, not of the factual sort. Maddin did a ton of research and quite a bit of the film is archival footage, but he so thoroughly mythologizes and fictionalizes his subject, that you would have an easier time discerning the history of Edwardian England from the novels of Ronald Firbank.

Indeed, I used to think of Maddin as the Firbank of film, with his whimsical pastiches of Russian Constructivism and German Expressionism, bordering on the twee, but something in him broke with Twighlight of The Ice Nymphs and ever since, with the exception of The Saddest Music in the World, he's headed into deeper, more personal, territory and his work has gotten darker, richer, kinkier and more kinetic. Cowards Bend The Knee kicked off the trend with a heavy dose of oneiric perversity [like chasing shots of chartreuse with sips of absinthe], but Brand Upon The Brain! introduced a depth of emotion, mostly oedipal, that gave it gravity. With My Winnipeg, Maddin becomes lyrical. It's rare to see a filmmaker with an equal command of the surreal, in imagery and language and, I imagine, George Toles leant a hand in this, but the voiceover narration, improvised by Maddin, is a Joycean riff of repetitive phrases [The Forks, The Lap, The Fur, The Forks, The Lap, The Fur] and ideas, lulling the viewer into a dense meditation on nostalgia, aging, the mortality of people and places, memory, family, hockey, the past and how, even such a seemingly mundane place can hold a tight grip on you if you call it 'home.'

Oh, and Maddin. Yes, he was there. Charming as usual. Sanguine yet witty, in his Bill Irwin sort-of way, solicitous of the audiences questions, eveready with an insightful, yet humble quip. The fucker.

Erika B/>=k contemplates borscht.
As peculiar as it may be to transform a Midwestern, Canadian town into the stuff of high art, it may seem more unusual to press Georges Simenon into the realm of Dostoevsky, but this is what Bela Tarr attempts with The Man From London. This is not entirely uncalled for. The film is adapted from a novel by Simenon, a writer known for having penned over 400 works of fiction and having slept with nearly as many women. Simenon was a half-generation removed from Camus and saw himself, not as a scribbler of potboilers, but as the heir to Balzac. In fact, when Camus won the Nobel prize in 1957 Simenon is reputed to have flown into a rage, screaming "Can you believe that asshole got it and not me?" Though largely known for his Maigret novels, he wrote a series of books, referred to as his romans durs, that were fatalistically noirish, full of marginal characters often spiraling towards oblivion.
And so, "The Man From London" is an apt source for Tarr and Tarr is correct in freighting it with all the existential weight he can muster but, for technical reasons, the film doesn't properly work. A good deal of this can be attributed to a difficult birthing. Plagued by a host of problems, the film was, at one point, put on hold, after the producer Humbert Balsan, committed suicide. Despite the scattershot production, the film feels complete. The story is there and is told. The film looks gorgeous, the camerawork is fine. As for the movie itself, some parts work well, while others come off as a Bela Tarr parody which, I'm sure, is not what he intended. The dubbing is particularly to blame. Having worked with a largely Hungarian cast that also includes a Czech, a Romanian and Tilda Swinton, Tarr chose to dub the film into French and English [every review I've read says the film is in Hungarian but, I could swear, the print I saw was in French], so the end result comes off like one of those Italian movies from the 60's where everyone is dubbed, usually with somebody else's voice. During some of the more heated scenes it comes off like an old Your Show of Shows routine. This was particularly distracting with Tilda Swinton. It was like seeing her act in one movie, with the soundtrack from another plopped on top of her. Istv/*n Len/*rt, who plays the investigator, Morrison, seems to have been dubbed by two actors. When he speaks English it's with the voice of Michael Lonsdale, but when he speaks French, it's with another voice entirely.
As for the visuals, well, if you've seen Tarr, it's more of the same. Long, beautiful tracking shots, lots of footage of people walking, sitting in cafes, drinking. There's a shot of Erika B/>=k eating a bowl of borscht, of such duration, it had me thinking, "Borscht, yes, where can I find borscht in San Francisco? That piroshki place on Capitol Hill had good borscht. I miss that place." [BTW, if anyone can recommend a good place to get borscht in SF, let me know]. The film, however, lacks the balance and pacing of his other movies. It's not that it's overly long, it's that it's needlessly slow. Scenes that could have been half as long are overly drawn-out and lines of dialogue are delivered with dramatic pauses so protracted, they make Christopher Walken sound like John Moschitta. Interestingly, the direction is co-credited to Tarr's wife/editor /Agnes Hranitzky. Whether this signals a half-cocked gesture towards the formalism of Straub-Huillet or a directorial partnership that has yet to gel, I can't tell but, whatever the case, in The Man From London, Tarr & Hranitzky are not on their game.
Endnote: I would be remiss if I didn't credit Paul Theroux's recent article in the Times Literary Supplement, 'Georges Simenon, the existential hack', as a source of Simenon-y goodness.


  1. Good news regarding "Brand Upon the Brain!" The Criterion Collection issues the DVD on 8/12 with the choice of seven different narrators. Karen Black and Geraldine Chaplin did not make the cut, but Crispin Glover and Eli Wallach did (you win some, you lose some).

  2. I see by the Criterion site that Maddin is also one of the narrators. He said in the PFA Q&A that he hates the sound of his own voice, which is natural. Most people do. However, given his films increasingly personal bent, it's more than fitting that he narrate them. Indeed, although I regret having missed the Karen Black screening of Brand [especially since her rendition is not on the disc] I'm very glad I had the chance to see Guy do it and I'm even gladder that his version will be preserved on the DVD.
    Now, if only Criterion would release a disc of all his shorts!