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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guy Maddin and Barbara Steele


About a year and a half ago I saw Guy Maddin's incredible film "Brand Upon the Brain" at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. As I'm sure you know by now, it's a silent film with recorded music and narration (by the wonderful Isabella Rossellini) in some cities. However, I was fortunate to see it with the music, effects and narration performed live.

When the film toured the United States, guest celebrities performed the narration in different cities. In New York, for example, Eli Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson did it, which would have been a thrill, but...

In Los Angeles I had the opportunity to see it with the incredible Barbara Steele narrating. Yes, the "Black Sunday," "Terror Creatures from the Grave" and "I Lunghi Capelli Della Morte" Barbara Steele--in person! I was beside myself, having never been able to attend the East Coast conventions, like Chiller Theatre, that she has been known to appear at--but rarely.

Not only was the film a moving, funny and on-target pastiche of silent movie techniques, German surrealism and just plain Winnepegean strangeness, it was given an extra dimension by the small but surprisingly full orchestra and effects team. And Ms. Steele looked glorious, delivering the narration for this very strange movie with determination in her sultry, Steele-esque tones. And she didn't fluff a line.

About the film, for the uninitiated. Maddin is certainly an acquired taste, but once you've familiarized yourself with his style, there's no turning back. He loves silent, stark, black and white surrealism, but he's like Bergman on Red Bull. He'll lull you into a "Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" semiconsciousness and then he'll do something that really f**ks with your head. Can I say f**k? This is my first blog.

And he utilizes such great, unusual, adventurous actresses as his leads. Shelley Duvall, from "The Shining," Faerie Tale Theatre" and "Nashville"; the gorgeous Alice Krige from "Ghost Story" and the Mickey Rourke/Faye Dunaway sleaze masterpiece "Barfly"; Rossellini, who is also in "The Saddest Music in the World" as well as their co-produced "My Father is 100 Years Old" (about Roberto, of course, in which she plays Alfred Hitchcock, her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and her father). She is currently his de facto muse (I hope), and well deserved. But I digress...

Anyhow, the film ended and Ms. Steele walked down the aisle and to the ad-hoc backstage area right in front of me. Two people in front of me jumped up and ran after her. Of course, I said "Hell, I'm going with them!"

She was behind the stage, looking incredible with the klieg lights dancing in her hair. She was signing autographs for the people who ran after her. I walked up to her and asked, "May I have one, too?" (Yes, like Oliver). She signed my program, handed the pen back to me, and smiled that strange, upside-down, serpentine smile, and suddenly decades melted away. Was this the good twin or the evil twin? Who cares? I was within touching space of the real Barbara Steele, and it was great! I said nothing else to her because it would have been ridiculous fanboy blather...I think.

And I was taken back to that warm summer night sitting in the back of our station wagon at the Niles 31 drive-in theatre, watching "Terror Creatures from the Grave" and thinking, "That guy's guts just came out of his stomach! Now that's entertainment!"

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