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    Cowards Bend the Knee

    Four from the Maddin crowd

    With "Cowards Bend the Knee," shown alongside two other Guy Maddin creations and one from the Quay Brothers, the filmmaker continues to distill classic unhinged movie greatness into unpredictable antique-styled melodramas.


    A triple shot of Guy Maddin madness opens up at the Film Forum this week, and nothing will make you feel more like you've just taken a trip to your dirty old uncle's house. Maddin lives in a world where 1929 never happened, his films are pulled out of his most secret crevices — sticky with static, gooey with scratchy build-up, and encrusted with discoloration and shame. These kinky re-creations of lost movies from a pervert's gallery of humiliation fill the theater with the thunderous sound of crotch rustles and head scratching.

    Written and directed by: Guy Maddin.
    Includes individual films: "Cowards Bend the Knee" by Guy Maddin; "Sissy-Boy Slap Party" by Guy Maddin; "Sombra Dolorosa" by Guy Maddin; "The Phantom Museum" by the Quay Brothers
    Cast: Darcy Fehr, Melissa Dionisio, Amy Stewart, Tara Birtwhistle, Louis Negin, Mike Bell, David Stuart Evans, Henry Mogatas, Victor Cowie, Herdis Maddin, Marion Martin, Aurum McBride, Bernard Lesk, Stan Lesk, Moses, Richard Orlandini, Jon Ted Wynne, Ted Wynne, Mark Yuill.
    Cinematography: Guy Maddin.
    Edited by: John Gurdebeke.
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100 Opens Aug. 11, 2004

    "Cowards Bend the Knee" is the main event, running a bare 64 minutes. A feature-length reworking of an autobiographical peepshow project, it heaves itself out onto your lap in ten installments, like an old-time movie serial. Unapologetically Canadian, it coils itself around Maddin's life and artifacts of Canadiana (hockey teams, hair salons, wax museums, rural multiculturalism, and maple-leaf-shaped pools of blood) like some kind of choking weed. The story concerns Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr), a hockey player for the Winnipeg Maroons who receives one head knock too many and is submerged by a tidal wave of amnesia during his girlfriend's back-alley abortion performed by Doctor Fusi, the Maroons' team doctor, in the secret clinic behind the beauty parlor that also serves as the town bordello. Mind unanchored, Guy is seduced in the operating theater by simmering Meta, the Chinese daughter of the bordello's madam, who is, in turn, looking for an unwilling recipient for her murdered father's severed hands ... hands that cry out for revenge! Nothing happens in a Maddin movie that isn't simultaneously broadcast in giant, shrieking intertitles.

    Cowards Bend the Knee  
    Maddin goes off with Meta, and on a pile of hockey gloves she frustrates his efforts to touch her nude, triumphant breasts, slapping his hands away again and again, proclaiming that no man shall have her until her father is avenged, at which point Maddin begins to consider vengeance. Maddin's girlfriend dies during the abortion, but her ghost comes back and is hired to work in the beauty parlor. Then things get really weird. This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the realm of the arthouse film, but has anyone ever made the arthouse more fun?

    It's a pity that Guy Maddin can't be killed, dried out, ground into dust, and then suspended in syrup, to be taken orally by less inspired filmmakers. An ounce of essence d'Maddin injected into "Catwoman" could have pumped a little adrenaline into that DOA flop; a drop of Maddin taken on the tongue could have rendered the inwardly twisting "Terminal" into something worthy of the time it took from the audiences' life. Unfortunately, there is only one Guy Maddin, and no amount of whipping will make him work any faster.

      Cowards Bend the Knee
    On the plus side, he seems to be working faster on his own. After a long hiatus following his dire "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" with Shelley Duvall, and his failed big-budget opera, "The Dikemaster's Daughter," Maddin is churning out movies at a lively clip. "Cowards Bend the Knee" is preceded by the sublime short "Sissy-Boy Slap Party," which plays, as the press kit states, like Jean Genet via the Three Stooges; and "Sombra Dolorosa," a Mexican wrestling melodrama. The idea of a Guy Maddin Mexican wrestling melodrama is a lot more engaging than the finished product, but it's short enough and harmless.

    In an effort to show what the arthouse looked like before Guy Maddin turned it into his solitary shooting gallery of sin, Film Forum has kindly included a dry-as-dust short by the Brothers Quay (remember them?) at the start of the evening. Entitled "The Phantom Museum," it purports to be an arcane exploration of Sir Henry Wellcome's museum of medical curiosities.

    One black-clad, white-gloved individual (we never see its head) explores the museum, running its hands all over everything like some kind of filthy mime. We see some boxes containing shrunken heads (although not the heads themselves), a mummified body, and some anatomically correct dolls simulating sex (which induces one of those moments where the audience gets to stroke their chins and nod their heads as if this was a quaint idea with what to do with those parts in their pants that had never occurred to them before). A moment of true horror is generated at the end when suddenly a second mime person appears and the two hideous things scurry all over the museum. Fortunately, the short resolves itself soon thereafter, leaving the stale stench of its own irrelevance wafting through the theater like a ghost fart. Then within minutes we're into Maddin's "Sissy-Boy Slap Party" and the Quays and all their precious ilk seem like a dim memory of an abusive childhood, rapidly fading away in the face of the fury of unchained, uncompromising, unhinged melodrama.

    AUGUST 10, 2004

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