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COWARDS BEND THE KNEE

A typically whacked-out mock silent movie from Canada’s Guy Maddin, one of the most brilliant, visionary filmmakers on the scene.  COWARDS BEND THE KNEE is textbook Maddin, chock-full of all his signature themes: forbidden desire, twisted sexuality, repression and overheated-to-the-point-of-delirium melodrama. 

The Package 
     Since his premiere feature TALES FROM THE GIMLI HOSPITAL back in 1988, Guy Maddin, a native of Winnipeg, CA, has consistently proven himself a vital, one-of-a-kind talent.  His films tend to be shot on scratchy black and white 8mm film stock, and are done up in the style of silent movies of the twenties (and sometimes “talkies” of the early thirties), complete with intertitles, irises, color tinting and all the conventions we’ve come to expect from such vintage fare, right down to patently artificial studio locations and soft focus visuals.  Maddin’s films also contain a distinct self-awareness that doesn’t mock the silent movie style but rather uses it to further the filmmaker’s skewed narratives and worldview--in Guy Maddin’s cinematic universe silent movie artifice and overheated melodrama are as integral as the special effects in George Lucas movies.
     COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, with its jam packed 64-minute running time, was created for a 2003 Toronto art show in which patrons viewed the film as ten self-contained chapters, lasting around 6½ minutes apiece, through peepholes.  The fact that the central character is named Guy Maddin is hardly accidental, as the film is deeply autobiographical: the hair salon that figures prominently in the narrative is patterned after the one run by Maddin’s mother, just as the ice hockey milieu was lifted from the filmmaker’s childhood, dominated as it was by a father who owned a hockey team.

The Story 
     Guy Maddin is a small-time hockey player in love with the saintly Veronica.  Unfortunately he falls under the spell of the seductive Meta, who lures him away from Veronica just as she undergoes a botched abortion that ends her life.  Not that Guy notices, as he, being the weakling he is, allows Meta to seduce and hypnotize him for her own nefarious ends. 
     Meta is convinced her mother Liliom has murdered her father together with Guy’s hockey coach Shaky.  Meta keeps her dead father’s hands preserved in a jar, and tries to get the morally questionable Dr. Fusi to cut off Guy’s hands and sew her father’s onto the stumps.  Fusi, however, finds he can’t go through with the operation--no problem: he simply paints Guy’s hands blue and then tells Meta he did the deed.  She in turn demands that Guy use his “new” hands to strangle her mother, but when the time comes Guy fails to complete the act, using his blue hands in another, far more obscene manner on his intended victim.  Guy is, however, able to murder Shaky on an ice rink, after which he becomes overcome with remorse and tries to confess his crime to Mo Mott, a policeman friend.  Unfortunately, Guy, on a murderous roll, ends up strangling Mo.
     Not that this is the end of Guy’s killing spree: he finally manages to carry through offing Meta’s mother when he catches her performing an abortion on the ghost of Veronica, his original beloved.  Meta shows her gratitude by hypnotizing Guy once again and getting Fusi to cut off his hands for good.  Thus afflicted, Guy shows up for his latest hockey game, but is shocked to see Veronica’s ghost in the audience…on the arm of his own father!

The Direction 
     Guy Maddin’s moviemaking, ingenious though it is, hardly makes for easy viewing.  COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, as with most of his other films, demands to be seen at least twice or not at all, overflowing as it is with innumerable visual puns and narrative convolutions that make great demands on the viewer.  Quite simply, one needs to pay the film extremely close attention, and, above all, stay patient! 
     If that sounds off-putting, rest assured that Maddin’s work exerts a powerful fascination; it’s clear from the start we’re in the presence of a truly original sensibility unlike that of ANYONE else.  It also helps if one is familiar with Maddin’s other features like CAREFUL and THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD, or shorts like EYE LIKE A STRANGE BALLOON or THE HEART OF THE WORLD (the latter being his finest work, IMHO).  That may seem like an awful lot to ask in the interests of comprehending one 64-minute movie, but if you’re an adventurous filmgoer you owe it to yourself to become acquainted with the peculiar genius of Guy Maddin (in the unlikely event you haven’t already).  I guarantee you won’t be sorry.
 

Vital Statistics

COWARDS BEND THE KNEE
The Power Plant/Zeitgeist Films
 

Director/Screenwriter/Cinematographer: Guy Maddin
Producer: Philip Monk
Editor: John Gurdebeke
Cast: Darcy Fehr, Melissa Dionisio, Tara Birtwhistle, Henry Mogatas, Amy Stewart, David Stuart Evans, Mike Bell, Louis Negin, Victor Cowie, Herdis Maddin, Marion Martin, Aurum McBride, Bernard Lesk
 


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