Friday, September 23, 2011

At the Earth's Core

Proud to participate in “The Maddin-est Blogathon in the World!” (September 19 - 23), a tribute to Guy Maddin courtesy of the folks at Fandor.

Maddin blogging, essay 3 of 3:

The modern scientific model of a thin earth crust, a massive layer of mantle, and a white-hot metallic core makes logical sense but does nothing for me aesthetically.  I’ll take a good hollow earth fiction any day.  Or the wonderful poetic image of a heart beating at the earth’s center.

My favorite hollow earth models populate their inner worlds with prehistoric monsters.  This offers tremendous imaginative benefits over the lifeless scientific paradigm.  For instance with the hollow earth model, earthquakes can be explained by herded mammoths toppling off cliffs, setting off seismic reverberations that can shake our side of the crust.

Jules Verne and Edgar Allen Poe couldn’t resist the pull of the hollow earth theory.  But my personal favorites are the Pellucidar books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, starting with At the Earth’s Core, where David Innes and other heroes of the inner world struggle for survival in a primeval world ruled by intelligent and malicious pterodactyls called Mahars.   Gravity is reversed along the interior surface of this earth ball.  There’s an internal sun floating at the center.  It’s a vicarious paradise for adventure-craving boys.

Anna goes down the slide, face first,
in The Heart of the World.
Guy Maddin doesn’t exactly give us a hollow earth in The Heart of the World, but it’s certainly closer to hollow earth than it is to 21st century geology.  The geo-cosmography of The Heart of the World allows for an immense man-made tube/slide that extends from the crust all the way to the center of the earth.  There’s no apparent temperature increase as you descend (our heroine Anna never breaks a sweat).  With a good telescope, you can peer down the tube and watch the earth’s heart beating.  Initially, we can’t tell the size of the heart but the old worn-out one is ably replaced by a normal human-sized heart at the end.  As the movie winds down, our heroine’s heart appears to be strong enough to keep the whole earth project going.  In a way, I guess, Anna becomes Gaia.

But—as even Terrence Malick learned from forty years of procrastination and occasional filmmaking—everything can be improved with dinosaurs.  Maddin had an opportunity here that he unfortunately missed.  By adding just a handful more one-second shots, he could have had Anna flash by some spectacular views of the hollow earth, maybe with a styracosaurus and T. Rex briefly interrupting their battle to view her descent, as she swooshed by
                                              on her slide to the core.  A fast visual homage to
Styracosaurus vs. T. Rex in
The Lost World (1925).
Willis O’Brien and The Lost World would have fit right in with the rest of the film references.  Yes, I know that The Heart of the World is still a great short without the dinos, but just think about what a great theme park ride it could have made with them!  (I’m thinking: Universal Studio’s Land of Maddin, with rides through the avalanches, tours of the Gimli Hospital, slides to the center of the earth, and inescapable sad music piped in from hidden speakers.)

© 2011 Lee Price

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Dearth of Good Men

Proud to participate in “The Maddin-est Blogathon in the World!” (September 19 - 23), a tribute to Guy Maddin courtesy of the folks at Fandor.

Maddin blogging, essay 2 of 3:

Anna announces that the world is running out of time in
Guy Maddin's The Heart of the World.
When you consider her romantic options, it’s no wonder that Anna, the heroine and world-savior of The Heart of the World, finally chooses to take a one-way trip to the earth’s core.  Anna is a
Anna played by Leslie Bais.
very attractive woman in a stylishly helmeted, 1920-ish sort of way, particularly notable for the constant aura that emanates from her.  She’s a soft-focus science-wielding princess, and it’s probably the princess aspect of her nature that forces her to engage with the narrative’s would-be prince charmings.  They’re a singularly charmless lot.  She should stick to science.

Visually, Anna draws from both the early Soviet science fiction movie Aelita and Fritz Lang’s silent epic Metropolis.  She’s a more independent 21st century model of the “good” Maria, the Metropolis schoolteacher who holds the solution to all capitalist/labor problems.  (Economic SPOILER:  The solution is:  “There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”)  Just like Maria, it falls to Anna to find heart-based solutions to civilization-threatening problems.

Why does she need any of these guys?  For some reason, she thinks she has to choose one of them.  This leads to my favorite ½-second comic bit in the entire 6 minutes—when her eyes dart wildly back and forth between Nicolai and Osip.  It’s an amazing ocular performance.

Nicolai:  According to an intertitle, he’s
both a youth and a mortician, raising the question of whether he’s really old enough to be a properly degreed mortician.  We get a closeup of him, followed by a glimpse of an autopsy, and then of Nicolai with coffins in a sequence clearly modeled on Nosferatu, the great silent vampire movie.  As the plot speeds ahead, Nicolai begins obsessing on cannons and other phallic objects.  I don’t think he’s right for Anna.

Osip:  The intertitle claims that Osip is an actor preparing to play Jesus in a passion play, but he really looks more like Ivan the Terrible.  Apparently a method actor, Ossig never departs from his manic, impassioned Jesus/Ivan persona.  I think Anna should stay far away from him.

The Dark Horse:  This would be Akmatov the Industrialist, whose offer of money bags appears to be accepted by Anna.  As he’s introduced, he’s visually linked to both Dr. Caligari and the evil capitalists that Eisenstein caricatured in Strike.  He’s overweight, smug, and smokes a cigar.  And for whatever reason, he’s Anna’s dark horse choice.  She even allows him a moment of bliss before her shadow expressionistically strangles him.

Louise Brooks as Lulu in
Pandora's Box (1929).
Ultimately, there is no good choice for Anna.  All three suitors are creeps.  It’s a relief when the romantic triangle plot collapses and Anna gets back to her real job of saving the world.  Incidentally, The Heart of the World ends the way that I secretly wanted Pandora’s Box (1929) to end.  In my ideal world, we’d be treated to Lulu’s shadow strangling Jack the Ripper’s shadow, followed by Louise Brooks daring flight down the giant slide to the earth’s center to achieve her destiny providing the flapper pulse at the heart of the world.

© 2011 Lee Price

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Heart of the World: A Backstory Conjecture

Proud to participate in “The Maddin-est Blogathon in the World!” (September 19 - 23), a tribute to Guy Maddin courtesy of the folks at Fandor.

Maddin blogging, essay 1 of 3:

Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World (2000) may look timeless but a close viewing reveals that it’s a movie grounded in a specific time and place.  Through meticulous examination of the evidence, supported by a set of reasonable assumptions, we may be able to learn something of the story behind this mysterious film.

The Evidence
The background sounds (crowd noises, sputtering sprockets, whip lashes, beating hearts) of The Heart of the World are typical of the great years of synchronized silent cinema, 1926-1929.  After synchronized recordings were attached to film, beginning with Don Juan in 1926, theaters realized they could make a one-time investment in the new projectors and drop the ongoing costs of orchestras or piano players.  Music and background sound effects became a permanent part of film, replacing the old-fashioned and ephemeral live performances of musicians in the pit below the stage.

Expressionist shadows in The Heart of the World.

The composition of individual shots in The Heart of the World might peg this as a German expressionist silent film—even if it weren’t for the direct references to at least half a dozen German films from 1919 to 1927.  This style traveled to Hollywood in movies like The Cat and the Canary (1927) and the popular Universal horror films of the 1930s, but even the visually strongest of these movies (The Black Cat and The Bride of Frankenstein) look fairly muted next to authentic first-generation German expressionist masterpieces like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.

But while some of the imagery may look German, the editing of The Heart of the World is classic Soviet montage, brutally fast like 1920s Eisenstein or Vertov.  Some of the compositions are Soviet-style as well.  And one of the characters is a stock Soviet favorite—the grossly caricatured capitalist villain, a character right out of Eisenstein’s Strike.

The Hypothesis
So let me try to fit these pieces together and hazard a guess about the backstory of this fascinating artifact of another time and place.

Guy Maddin, the mysterious director of this poorly preserved film, must have been a German emigrant to the Soviet Union, perhaps a cinematographer working at Germany’s UFA Studios in the 1920s, frustrated by his inability to advance to the director’s chair.  Intoxicated by the montage rhythms of the new-style Soviet films, Maddin must have turned his back on the decadent capitalism of the Weimar Republic, striking out across eastern Europe for the Soviet border.  But the life he found there was hardly a workers’ paradise.  Unable to insinuate himself into the graces of the Gorky Film Studio, Maddin probably found himself sharing a bare Moscow apartment with a factory worker, Nikolai, and his beautiful wife Liudmila.  With their help, he may have found a job at the local babushka factory, mechanically inserting dolls into dolls while his dreams of becoming a genuine auteur slowly faded.

Then one night, sitting on a
Typical American capitalist.
snowy park bench nursing a quart of vodka, Maddin met a corpulent, wealthy American millionaire traveling through the Soviet Union on a mission to purchase masterpieces on the cheap from the Hermitage in return for needed American capital.  Unable to convince the capitalist to finance an actual full-length feature film, Maddin pleaded for at least sufficient funds to make a six-minute short—a love story sure to have universal appeal.   Moved by the pathos of the story that Maddin pantomimed that night against the backdrop of the Moskva River, the weeping capitalist agreed to write a small check in exchange for a producer’s credit and a supporting role.

The actor playing Christ,
seen through a glass darkly.
I think Maddin must have cast himself as the actor playing Christ in the passion play (yes, I’m sure that MUST be Maddin), his roommate Nikolai played Nikolai the mortician, and the capitalist appeared in a brief cameo role as Akmatov the Industrialist.  Maddin’s secretly beloved Liudmila became the brilliant scientist who sacrifices herself to heal the world.  Filmed in a 24-hour passionate blaze of activity and then fussed over in the editing for a couple of years, Maddin finally completed his masterpiece—but the world wasn’t ready.  In its one known screening, it was booed off a Leningrad screen by an angry crowd expecting a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Things turned even worse when MGM purchased the rights to the movie, suppressing the original for decades and then finally losing their one copy in a ferocious nitrate archive fire.  Its loss went unnoticed;  the film had been entirely forgotten.   Then, in 2000, a miraculously intact copy was found in a musty New Zealand archive, mistakenly shelved among the works of Colin McKenzie.

That’s my reconstruction, based solely on the evidence of the film itself.

I can’t vouch for the facts but I can vouch for the spirit.

© 2011 Lee Price

Unofficial Soft Launch

My plan was to launch 21 Essays on October 8, 2011.  My last blogs two blogs, June and Art and Preserving a Family Collection, concluded on September 1 and I’ve been enjoying some well-deserved time off.  Up until October 8, I hoped to maintain a leisurely schedule of sleeping late, generally loafing around the house, eating ice cream, and lazily rewatching old favorite Godzilla movies.

However, a plea from Kevin Lee at Fandor has upset my schedule.  Seeing that the expressed purpose of 21 Essays is to serve as a platform for participation in blogathons AND that Fandor’s very worthy blogathon subject is the great Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, I guess I have no choice but to (soft) launch this blog three weeks ahead of schedule.

From September 21 until the close of the Fandor blogathon on September 23, my focus will be Guy Maddin’s six-minute tour-de-force The Heart of the World.  There won’t be 21 essays this time—not even close—but I think I can manage three solid essays before the blogathon closes on Friday night.  Then it’s back to relaxing with Godzilla and friends until the real launch of 21 Essays on October 11 (mark your calendars).

© 2011 Lee Price