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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Maddin's Keyhole: Another Amazing Journey

Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini
Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin's 2011 Keyhole, which I just caught on DVD last night, is another jewel in the obsessive filmmaker's crown. Strange enough to satisfy Maddin diehards, it's also straightforward — er, sort of — enough to give neophytes gentle passage into his world.

Certainly it's the chattiest of Maddin's works, and has the most exposed flesh. I see it as a haunted house's passion play, performed by ghosts over and over every night for an audience of nobody. Some people may argue that point, but I'm sticking to it, damn it.

Keyhole is Maddin's first completely digital film, which means it's lacking some of that lovely silver nitrate glow his other features have, but it's still firmly planted in his favored German-expressionism-meets-the-sound-era netherworld. Shadows are everywhere, chandeliers swing of their own volition and lights shining through elaborate transoms constantly wander around every room. And what rooms — Maddin's obsession with objects continues here, as the camera roams lovingly over all manner of things — stuffed animals, radios, toasters and trinkets. There's even a stuffed wolverine with a scout knife clenched in its teeth.

Ostensibly, this is the story of Ulysses (Jason Patric), a gangster who returns after a long absence to his own haunted house to hide out from the cops. He ends up confronting the ghosts of his past —his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who keeps her father (Louis Negin) chained to her bed; her lover, Chang; an assortment of children who are dead but still wandering around, including one son who is constantly masturbating and one living son, Manners (David Wontner), who is kept gagged and tied to a chair for most of the film — and whom Ulysses doesn't recognize as his own.

Ulysses orders his gang to begin redecorating — yes, redecorating. And he starts to make his way through the labyrinth with Denny (Brooke Paisson), a blind and half-drowned girl he'd brought with him to serve as his psychic guide. Ghosts wander about this forlorn place, occasionally emitting blood-curdling screams, and although Ulysses warns the gang that ghosts don't like to be touched, one of them ("Kids in the Hall" alumnus Kevin McDonald) can't resist trying to sexually assault the spirit of a scrubwoman and is electrocuted to death for his trouble. Happily, once he's dead and has become a ghost himself, he can go on to fulfill his sexual quest.

Ulysses' gang
Then there's Dr. Lemke (Udo Kier), a physician who has just left his just-deceased son at the hospital at Ulysses' behest so that he can examine Denny, whom he declares is "in bad shape — blind and full of water." Next thing you know, everyone gets into the bathtub. Denny joins Manners, who's already there, still bound and gagged, and Hyacinth manages to squeeze in too, despite her husband's contention that it's pretty crowded in there. And did I mention that her father, who serves as the narrator of the piece, walks around naked throughout the entire film?

Maddin based Keyhole on Homer's "The Odyssey," which he says he'd just recently discovered, but this is most assuredly semi-autobiographical. Like the magnificent Brand Upon the Brain! (which I had the good fortune to see at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood with live musical accompaniment, live sound effects and live narration from the awesome Barbara Steele), this is a story about an uber-dysfunctional family. Between the chained-up dad, dead offspring and sons Ulysses doesn't even recognize anymore, this clan could cause Freud's head to explode.

However, Maddin is always a madman with a purpose, and Keyhole unfolds with a twisted urgency and lots of jet-black humor. For example, when Ulysses and Denny are making their way through a dark hallway, there's an erect penis sticking through — you got it, a keyhole. Denny says "Unicorn coming up," and Ulysses merely comments, "That penis is getting dusty." Strangely, I was reminded of the hallway of living limbs in Jean Cocteau's masterpiece La Belle et La Béte. Was that Maddin's intention? And Keyhole also reminded me of 1975's Thundercrack!, another black and white old-dark-house black comedy (except with actual hardcore pornographic scenes).

Ulysses' living son Manners (David Wontner)
This is the most Hollywood-ish cast that Maddin's ever had, and it's a good thing. Of course, Rossellini became a Maddin regular with his 2003 The Saddest Music in the World, and it's a match made in Weird Movie Heaven. Instead of staying with David Lynch (whose work some people may unfairly compare to Maddin's), she ditched the "ooh, look how weird I can be" bore to hitch her star to a real talent — and it's paying off in spades artistically.

Rossellini is an incredibly warm actress with a face that the camera adores, and even when she's playing a really strange character (paging Dorothy Vallens), the humanity comes through. Her Hyacinth is also a nurturing figure, despite the fact that she's sleeping with the help, she wants to kill her husband and she keeps her nude father in chains. Ah, but who doesn't have their character flaws?

The always-welcome Kier has what amounts to just a cameo, but his story about his son's death is suitably upsetting. Patric, the original Lost Boy himself, is an absolute revelation here. Blessed with those angular good looks, he channels a 1930s-style gangster character superbly and brings it into Maddin's bizarre ouevre without a misstep.

Guy Maddin
In an interview with the AV Club, Maddin says that Patric might still consider him "a crazy fucker," but he really got it during production. Being the son of the late Jason Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and star of The Exorcist, he knew something about familial discord and was able to bring that insight to his performance as Ulysses.

Patric really nails it, and his delivery of Maddin's darkly comic dialogue is perfect. A highlight arrives after his gang straps him into his son's homemade electric chair (which is bicycle powered) and tries to execute him. He merely laughs, stands up, regards his horrified would-be killers and says, "I feel charged!"

And later he confesses, "I'm only a ghost. But a ghost isn't nothing."

Keyhole is full of Maddin's trademark visual delights — hundreds (thousands?) of cuts, brief flashes of color, the ever-prowling camera. And Jason Staczek, who also wrote the music for Brain!, has composed an appropriate score that contributes to the film's unease with its almost continuous, low-fidelity hum.

I love Maddin's world. I'm sure it has a great deal to do with the fact that I'm a collector of films in the super 8mm format, with their variable contrast and sound quality — that makes his multi-guage filmmaking very reassuring to me. But his is also a bleakly beautiful milieu, full of mystery, that at first seems impenetrable but gradually opens itself up to the willing viewer —petal by petal, like a deadly nightshade in bloom.

Maddin says in the AV Club interview: "I know a lot of people who follow me probably figured I’d be the last person in the world to switch to digital, and that I also sort of ride a penny-farthing with a bowler hat, but I don’t. I want to be a normal guy. I’m just an artist trying to make stuff that matters to me." Hear, hear.

By the way, the wolverine's name is Crispy.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great film! Maddin is an original. I was reminded of Katherine Hepburn's line from "The Lion in Winter": "What family doesn't have its little ups and downs?"

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