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The Wizard of Winnipeg

By Andreas

[This post is my contribution to the Maddin-est Blogathon in the World! Contest, being hosted by Fandor’s Keyframe blog.]

Q: Why is Guy Maddin one of the world’s greatest living directors?

A: Because he finds cinema’s future in its past.

Boiled down into a sentence fragment, that’s essentially why I love the movies of Guy Maddin. That’s why I’m on tenterhooks to see his new movie, Keyhole, which debuted to middling reviews at TIFF. (Hah, as if any reviews could keep me away from the latest Maddin!) He’s an alchemist, cultivating fake mythologies and secret histories from a lifetime of pop-cultural consumption. If any 21st century filmmaker deserves the epithet “mad genius,” it’s this long-lost love child of von Stroheim and von Sternberg.

And he’s not just a Dr. Frankenstein, breathing life into dead forms. Yes, he smears his lens with vaseline and invokes the techniques of silent cinema, but these willful anachronisms are colored by Maddin’s sensibilities: a sharp sense of verbal and visual humor; a love of manically over-the-top melodrama; and a sardonic, nostalgic, magically realist vision of his native Winnipeg. These hallmarks brand each of Maddin’s films as unmistakably and unforgettably his.

Conveniently, Maddin’s filmography has a clear halfway point to chart the evolution this loopy, quasi-surrealist style; just look before and after his landmark short film Heart of the World (2000), a frenzied origin story for cinema. Pre-Heart, we see four feature films, each with their respective virtues and signs of a true original at work, but also fairly detached and silly. Archangel (1990), for example—a hazy tale of raging amnesia in WWI-era Russia—has its share of unique pleasures, but it’s by no means essential.

But post-Heart of the World, Maddin really took off. He made a silent ballet adaptation of Dracula (2002); the musical tragicomedy The Saddest Music in the World (2003), also his greatest crossover success to date; and three weird, wonderful semi-autobiographical films, culminating in his masterpiece My Winnipeg (2007). (Though Cowards Bend the Knee’s traumatic peepshow and the gimmicky adventure of Brand Upon the Brain! are not to missed.)

In these increasingly personal films, Maddin mixes irony with genuine emotion like a kid conducting a risky science experiment. The border between real life and his strangely plausible fantasies grows thin. Even in the outrageously expressionistic Saddest Music, Maddin plays devilishly with cultural memories of the Depression and personal definitions of “sadness.” By the time of My Winnipeg, which meshes archival footage and childhood recollections with grainy shots of present-day Winnipeg streets, any and all “truth” has been swallowed whole by Maddin’s feverish imagination.

His wistful voice, the voice of a poet-documentarian, guides the viewer down My Winnipeg’s stream of consciousness, through bursts of absurdist comedy and pockets of deep, unexplained trauma. Maddin is an odd, endearing man; when I saw him provide live commentary on Saddest Music in the summer of 2009, he sprinkled his talk with extremely personal details, shocking in their candor. But, judging by his films, that seems to be how Maddin operates: life fuels film, and vice versa, and it’s unclear where one ends and the other begins.

P.S. — For more Maddin love, go read Christianne’s post about him at Krell Laboratories, “Heart of Cinema.”

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Memento, Batman, and Beyond: Notes on Christopher Nolan

With this Friday’s release of Inception, director Christopher Nolan will add one more entry to his increasingly compelling oeuvre. To celebrate this blessed event, and Nolan’s status as one of the most intriguing directors now working in mainstream American cinema, I’m participating in the Christopher Nolan Blogothon at Things That Don’t Suck. I’ve seen three of Nolan’s films – Memento (previously written about here), The Prestige, and The Dark Knight – and found much to recommend all three (as well as some common faults), all of which makes Inception easily my most-anticipated wide-release film of the summer. So here, in somewhat piecemeal form, is my take on the career of Christopher Nolan. (Also note that given the nature of Nolan’s films, this piece is almost entirely spoilers.)

1. “John G. raped and murdered my wife.”

Khan once said that revenge is a dish best served cold. This doesn’t hold true for Nolan’s protagonists, who crave immediacy in their payback: for them, it’s the hotter the dish, the better. Memento‘s Leonard Shelby wants to wipe out the semi-mythical “John G.” as soon (and, perhaps, as often) as he can, willfully altering his own “evidence” to expedite the consummation of his bloodlust. Angier and Borden in The Prestige let other motivations like love and professional success take a back seat to revenge, until both men are consumed by their own labyrinthine, continent-spanning death traps. And Batman, of course, is on a quest for revenge so storied and complex that it has transformed into a nocturnal heroism, as he projects his response to his own familial tragedy onto the criminal class worldwide.

With his brother Jonathan, Nolan has built these criss-crossing stories of stimulus and response, cause and effect, the two of which are often confused. Obfuscation abounds on every level of his films, whether diegetically embedded in the film’s subject matter (Leonard’s brain injury, The Prestige‘s stage trickery, Batman and the Joker’s exchanged illusions1) or in the Nolan bros.’ layered and intentionally duplicitous screenplays. These tendencies prevent us from ever answering the question “Who started it?” and strand us on a morally relative battleground. All we really have is the knowledge that a woman (Leonard’s wife, Angier’s wife, Rachel Dawes) died, and the characters’ subjective assertions that the guilty party must be punished. Should Batman have saved Rachel instead? What knot did Borden use? Is John G. to blame for his wife’s death, or is it Leonard himself? Unable to obtain satisfactory answers, Nolan’s anti-heroes toss aside the questions and get revenge.

2. “How about a magic trick?”

Even after the rest of the film would seem to have dispelled its mystery, I still love the contextless opening image of The Prestige: dozens of top hats lying in a field. Whether or not you know the image’s real place in the film, it produces, like the whole of Memento, a sense of being temporarily thrown off-balance and forced as a viewer to ask yourself, like Leonard Shelby, “Now, where was I?” As Nolan’s stories grind on inexorably, even mechanically, it becomes easy for us and the characters to lose track of where we are amidst the dense twists and turns of the narrative. But like a dove out of a handkerchief, some resolution emerges from the story’s logic, usually with a disconcertingly fatalistic thrust. Leonard, for example, trustingly follows his tattoos’ guidance, but the audience doesn’t learn until the end/beginning that he’d predestined his own beginning/end all along. And all it takes is an explosion and a pep talk for the Joker to turn Harvey Dent from a White Knight to the monstrous Two-Face.

Thus, it’s their own pathological obsessions that, when coupled with a myopic unawareness of the broader picture, undo these flawed men. As the Joker says with reference to the cops and criminals of Gotham City, “they’re schemers… schemers trying to control their little worlds.” The Joker and Memento‘s Teddy can see beyond themselves, and sink their teeth into the protagonists’ drives and delusions. Angier and Borden attempt to pull similar tricks on each other, but are too caught up in their own fixations to realize the pointlessness of their mutual grudge (and both end up paying for it). Between their slippery subjectivities, the inevitability of their characters’ fates, and the bitterness of their finales, Nolan’s films mark him as one of the most consistent latter-day masters of neo-noir.

3. “Do you know how I got these scars?”

Nolan’s greatest triumph has been his ability to carry these predilections over into giant-budget superhero filmmaking. In a genre where anonymity is king, where authors in print and film are expected to defer creatively to the characters’ ongoing sagas, Nolan turned out an unusually personal and unexpectedly great work. For all its obvious blemishes and political superficiality, The Dark Knight is still an impressive example of an intimate story told on an epic scale. Rather than letting them be a hindrance or become the substance of the film2, Nolan plays with all the trappings of the superhero lifestyle, either in a light action-movie way or by working them into dramatic conceits (like the hero/archenemy rivalry). He also directs performances that are subtle variations on broad archetypes – embattled Dark Knight, incorruptible White Knight, paternal butler (with some riffing on Michael Caine’s 1970s screen persona), culminating in Heath Ledger’s villain-to-end-all-villains.

Why is Ledger’s Joker so compelling? Is it the sloppiness of his makeup, the griminess of his hair, or how the costume design somehow makes his cartoonish purple suit believable? Is it his voice, which sounds like Bugs Bunny3 doing an impersonation of Daffy Duck, or how he can dart from Groucho-style one-liners to threats of mass murder without taking a breath? Is it his proudly anarchic, amoral ethos, his unwillingness to commit to a single back story, or is it how Ledger has so knowingly incorporated these multitudes into his cheap vaudevillian persona? Whatever it is, he’s the class of criminal that Nolan’s Gotham deserves, because he’s the missing link in the director’s dark vision of humanity. In my review of Memento, I described Carrie-Anne Moss’s Natalie as “damaged [and] secretly predatory.” This, I think, gets at what unites these three films: portrayal of individuals as the sums of their damages, as an accumulation of scars tissue4 and conditioned responses. All of which makes Nolan a perfect match for Batman.

4. “Don’t trust his lies.”

This brings us to Nolan’s future, which starts on Friday. It feels so right that Inception‘s characters will hazard into the geography of the mind, since that’s the terrain that Nolan’s been circling around all these years, albeit more metaphorically. His films, by and large, explore the distortions imposed by fallen men onto their own realities, and that space between perception and truth. From the looks of the trailer, Inception will see Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, and others (!!!) entering that space and working around those distortions. With that cast, that premise, and the directorial prowess behind it, this is one journey I’ll be shelling out $8 to take. And you know I’ll be taking notes to see what Inception adds to my understanding of Nolan’s style.

Thankfully, as well, Nolan’s future will continue in July 2012 with the release of the as-yet-untitled Batman 3. Whether it’s in the form of comic-book operas or ambitious stand-alone projects, I hope we hear a lot from Christopher (and Jonathan) Nolan in coming years. Many of the trends I’ve cited, like the nonstop obfuscation and the mechanical natures of his scripts, can negatively impact the finished films, but at his best – as, I’d say, represented by Memento‘s hard-boiled cunning and The Dark Knight‘s action-packed grandeur – Nolan has directed some of the smartest, most exciting commercial cinema of the 21st century. So, thanks to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck for providing an excuse to write this piece, and now I turn it over to you, dear reader. Am I ridiculously overrating Nolan’s work? (Maybe.) What am I missing? Penny for your thoughts.

1By which I’m referring to the multiple Batmen, the decoy Batmobile, Gordon’s faked death, the Joker’s constant lies and disguises, and the minions-as-hostages ploy during the climactic showdown.

2Cf. Joel Schumacher’s 1998 anti-opus that enabled Nolan’s entrance to the franchise.

3While mentioning Bugs, I must also mention Ledger’s Looney Tunes-style cross-dressing turn as a hot nurse – an interlude I spent marveling at how convincingly (and attractively) he pulled the outfit off.

4And since superhero comics are intensely melodramatic, psychological wounds are always externalized, as with Two-Face and the Joker, the latter of whom has only his face as a record of his past. As Gordon asks, “What’s he hiding under that makeup?”

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Memento remembered

A couple nights ago, I watched the movie Memento (2000) for the second time, as part of my “Personal Identity” class, and it dawned on me that I didn’t fully appreciate its merits the first time around. So even though the film’s been talked about to death, I’m going to add my own two cents. I first saw Memento my freshman year and mentally lumped it in with The Usual Suspects as structurally clever but superficial, and therefore overrated. My opinion of The Usual Suspects hasn’t changed (really, aside from some Spacey and Gabriel Byrne, where’s the appeal?), but I want to reconsider Memento. At the time, I felt that the narrative acrobatics may have occupied the mind while viewing and trying to put together the pieces, but once you had them together, the final product was hardly profound. I sided with Roger Ebert’s ambivalent review:

Nolan’s device of telling his story backward, or sort of backward, is simply that–a device. It does not reflect the way Leonard thinks. He still operates in chronological time, and does not know he is in a time-reversed movie. The film’s deep backward and abysm of time is for our entertainment and has nothing to do with his condition.

I still haven’t decided for myself quite what I think of the reverse chronology; it’s clear that it puts us in a state of awareness similar to that of clueless anti-hero Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). But does the movie necessarily have to be backward? For now, I’ll just say that I can’t think of a more effective way to cinematically convey the tabula rasa state in which Leonard enters each new scene. (Damn: it occurs to me that if I were really clever, I’d be writing this post backward.) But setting aside the question of whether the film’s structure is necessary, I’ll move on to what I really wanted to talk about…

Now, where was I?

I really love several elements of Memento. I believe a great film should be more than a puzzle – and it is more than that – but at the same time, it must be one of the great “puzzle movies” of all time. Having devoured countless Agatha Christie novels and Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, I appreciate the appeal of a good whodunit, or a whodunwhat, or whatever word you’d use to describe the investigation at the heart of Memento. (Maybe a whatidun?) A basic reason for its consistent popularity has to be the pure giddiness of trying to solve the mystery along with Leonard, trying to use your own short-term memory to make up for his shortcomings. And writer-director Christopher Nolan is so careful about which clues he dispenses, and when – a note here, a tattoo or polaroid there, visible in the margins of the screen.

But it’s really not just a puzzle; it’s a revenge saga, akin to Oldboy (2003) – compare Oh Dae-su’s plight with Leonard’s cry of “I want my fucking life back!” It’s also a brilliant example of neo-noir, quietly invoking numerous recognizable noir tropes. “I’m Leonard Shelby. I’m from San Francisco,” insists Leonard every time Teddy (smarmy bastard Joe Pantoliano) casts doubts about his identity. The line almost feels plucked from the screenplay of, say, DOA (1950). And Leonard’s a former insurance investigator, too, like the protagonists of Double Indemnity (1944) and The Killers (1946). Like any good noir, it’s got a convoluted narrative and a murder to solve. Only this time, it’s uncertain when the murder was committed, whether it’s been avenged, or who’s trying to obstruct the investigation.

This is one of the beauties of Memento: you never know who or what to trust. While the pervasive dishonesty of The Usual Suspects led me to wonder, “OK, then, what’s the point?”, Memento goes places with its confusion. The whole film, after all, is about the fallibility of a basic human resource – memory. “Memories can be distorted,” says Leonard to femme fatale Natalie (the beautiful Carrie-Anne Moss, in the best role she’ll ever have). “They’re just an interpretation, they’re not a record, and they’re irrelevant if you have the facts.” Everyone’s been forced to face the imperfection of memory sometime or other (consider the deliberations of 12 Angry Men); Leonard just deals with it to a greater degree.

But this uncertainty doesn’t just operate on the level of Leonard’s memory, or the viewer’s perception of the plot. It informs the very world the characters are living in. Memento‘s world is one without absolute authorities and without objective truth. Never in the film is the viewer exposed to a media outlet – no TV or radio, let alone Internet. No news, nobody who can clear up the hydra-headed mysteries. The city in which the film takes place is as insular and claustrophobic as Leonard’s motel room during the black and white sequences. And what’s the city called, anyway? Teddy repeatedly suggests that Leonard leave town, but where would he go?

I’m reminded of two 1998 films, both of which involve confused men investigating the constructed worlds they live in: The Truman Show and Dark City. (Though the storyline is older than both films, having been used occasionally in The Twilight Zone.) The generic, probably Californian city of Memento is never shown to be artificial, and I don’t think it is, but I think Leonard’s condition is exacerbated by lack of contact with the outside world, and this leaves him especially susceptible to Teddy and Natalie’s games.

Even within all the film’s structures and modes, it’s essentially a three-person drama. Each of them wants something from the other two. Leonard is the most transparent, or so it seems, as he’s just using them to get to the truth. (Or is he – ? Look at the poster again: an infinite amount of past Leonards, with all their lies and ulterior motives, are hidden around corners in the film’s temporal reality.) Natalie “has also lost someone. She will help you out of pity,” according to Leonard’s polaroid. “I think I’m gonna use you,” says Natalie to his face. This is what’s great about the film. Leonard’s facts aren’t worth the plastic they’re printed on, and his notes are about as ephemeral and useless as his memories. Nihilistic? Probably, yes. But so well-stated, as if the film were a giant thematic Möbius strip.

And Teddy. What motivates him? I think he’s probably manipulating Leonard to get money out of local drug dealers. “Don’t trust his lies,” says the polaroid. Teddy is a hell of a liar, and even as he sounds off at the end/beginning, telling Leonard all the unpleasant “truths” he’d rather not here, you can’t possibly be sure. I don’t think his words are completely true – I mean, really, he had Leonard kill Jimmy just so he could see a look of happiness on Leonard’s face? Yet there’s probably a grain of truth concealed in them somewhere. In this way, Memento is like a less beautiful but more elaborate variation on Rashomon. You can never really establish the entire truth, but you try, you can get close enough to realize how futile it is.

Memento‘s certainly not without its flaws. After all, when most of a film’s reputation stems from its zigzag structure, it’s especially prone to plot holes. I’m still confused as to why Natalie, after seeing Leonard in Jimmy’s car and wearing his clothes, only did a brief double-take. Did she realize that Jimmy was dead, and decide to sink her claws into Leonard then and there? Apparently she’d already heard about his memory condition, as the dialogue in the bar reveals. This is just a minor quibble, but similar logical gaps are easy to find if you look for them. I don’t they ruin the experience, but they can distract you from the film’s real accomplishments.

I also think it’s not worth dwelling too much on the reverse chronology. I still think Ebert makes a good point, as when he compares Memento to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, a play about the unraveling of a relationship told backward, where the structure has a profound emotional impact. In Memento, the tragedy isn’t built up so much by experiencing the events backward, but by Leonard’s inability to put everything together, and the reverse chronology works, at least, to keep us similarly off-balance. The irony is that while Leonard forgets his own lies, we’re forced to remember it all, even as the satisfaction he receives from one act of vengeance invalidates another.

At present, the only other film I’ve seen by Christopher Nolan has been his massive 2008 hit, and perhaps masterpiece, The Dark Knight. The same renovations to neo-noir imagery and character types that made Memento so fresh and different were applied to the most noirish, anti-heroic member of the superhero pantheon, and with terrific results. As both films show, Nolan knows how to make entertaining pop cinema, but he’s not afraid to work in darker, more complex ideas. (For extra auteur fun, compare Teddy and the Joker as chaotic, eternally smiling trickster gods.) His next film, Inception, is due out this summer, and it looks like he’s up to more of his old (which is to say, new) tricks. You can bet I’ll be seeing it as soon as I can. (Besides, it’s got supporting parts for Ellen Page and Cillian Murphy – i.e., an attractiveness overload.)

So ultimately, I grant that Memento does deserve repeated viewings. Not, as so many Internet commenters have said, because it’s impossible to understand after just one. I understood the plot just fine the first time. (With Primer, though, it’s a different story…) Instead, the second viewing paid off because in seeing the finer details of the performances and mise-en-scène, I was engaged by the doubts and dilemmas that underlie the entire film, and connect them with the moral ambiguities of film noir, whose codes Nolan uses as touchstones. Memento isn’t the deepest or most thoughtful cinematic inquiry into memory (for that, see the work of Alain Resnais, please), but it’s an unusual, fun film with unusually dark undercurrents.

[The following discussion of Memento contains many spoilers. Be warned. Yes, that’s my stab at a reverse chronology joke.]

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