Who is Lech Majewski? Among other things, he’s something of a newfound challenge for the critic and budding cinephile. A tireless and passionate Euro artiste of a kind that gets often relegated to the “underground” or “experimental” categories in this country, but who also employs old-fashioned surrealism and sometimes nets name actors like Viggo Mortensen (pre-“LOTR”), Majewski does everything on his films but make the coffee, and thus they are his works, uncorrupted by business and audience. Which may be the trouble based upon the set of features released by Kino, Majewski may be one of the most pretentious filmmakers alive and working. Or is he a visionary? What separates the two quantities, except taste and argument? When does Majewski’s brand of rampaging, overtly symbolic experimentalism dip below the line of transformative art and into nonsense? “Gospel According to Harry” (1994) attacks modern society’s materialistic failures at happiness by placing Mortensen and wife Jennifer Rubin and a houseful of appliances in the barren dunes of the Mojave Desert, where a tragic domestic scenario plays out complete with Biblical allusions (a Catholic Pole, Majewski can rarely resist crucifixions) and digs at consumerism. “The Roe’s Room” (1997) is a brooding, original modern opera-oratorio (libretto by Majewski, of course), sung over an ostensibly autobiographical dream-dynamic, in which the drab apartment inhabited by a young artist living with his middle class parents is transformed by the son’s creative spirit into a bustling, seasonally active natural landscape. (Not unlike “Where the Wild Things Are,” when you think about it, or David Lynch’s “The Grandmother.”) Too often, memories of music videos and Monty Python skits would impede on the viewing moment. “Glass Lips” (2007), assembled from a few dozen installment-art video pieces originally entitled “Blood of a Poet,” limns without a word of dialogue the memories and hallucinations of a psychotic mental patient, a hopscotching journey that includes a Cronenbergian birth nightmare, bleeding walls (another LM motif), Oedipal lust and a woman in an evening gown boxing a heavy bag in an empty opera house…
I was far from convinced until “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (2004), which is not only a deeply felt and artfully conceived tragedy, but a film that adopts a faux-home-movie strategy that effectively eliminates the possibility of Majewski’s more indulgent tendencies. His other films are pictorially beautiful, but thin and narcissistic; “Garden” looks like a handheld camcorder document, and it sings. More than simply possessing a straight narrative, which is admittedly a relief, the film has something else the other ornate concoctions don’t: character. As seen through the protagonist’s ubiquitous camera, we first meet Claudine (Claudine Spiteri), a British art lecturer currently focused on Bosch and the eponymous triptych. She’s adorably three-dimensional, earnest and coy and sexy and generous in turn, and we fall in love with her as Chris (Chris Nightingale), the filmmaker, does. Jump ahead (and back and forth the film proceeds like a rifling through an unorganized box of home videos) to Venice, where the two lovers find an apartment, work on a lecture about Bosch and engage in all manner of exploratory and often ridiculous lovers’ games (many derived from interpretive questions arising from the Bosch painting, which Claudine is always trying to figure out), until we slowly realize that genuine engine of the scenario: Claudine has throat cancer, and is dying.
I couldn’t say when was the last time I saw frank, fun-loving sexiness so convincingly folded into a character’s troubled personality; suggesting a more voluptuous Kristin Scott Thomas with a touch of a working-class accent, Spiteri is unforgettable. But the larger thrill of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” comes from the seamless dovetailing of high art and human transience Claudine is always searching for meaningful answers in the radicalism of Bosch, just as Chris believes without saying so that his ceaseless recording of her will somehow attenuate her impending doom. “Isn’t it strange,” she wonders aloud late in the game, “that the picture is more permanent than the body?” Here, Majewski’s metaphors are concise and arresting, including Chris’ science fair attempt to satisfy Claudine’s puzzlement over the trivial amount of chemicals that make up the human body. The film may be Majewski at his most orthodox, but it’s also the least like a well-heeled student film, and is, in fact, a world-class love story.
Guy Maddin needs no introduction, and no qualifications: crazed Winnipego, paleokino alchemist, obsessive fabulist, no-budget indie magus, and, recently, nerve-frayed quasi-meta-autobiographer, in the suite of features that began with “Cowards Bend the Knee” (2003) and landed, sweetly, with “My Winnipeg” (2007). Let’s be frank about our position: Maddin is a messiah in a benighted movie age when visual style is judged by its achievement as consumerist distraction, and film history is considered nothing more than a forgotten cellar vault of musty effluvia. Every time he steps into the breach it feels, yet again, as if he’s reinventing the medium from the soil up, or from the foggy-skulled inside out. The middleman in the aforementioned trilogy, “Brand Upon the Brain!” (2006), now paraded down the aisle in a Criterion tuxedo, is prototypically essential Maddin, but something of a special case in its original conception: famously, it was intended as a live performance, with live music, Foley effects and a different narrator in each venue (Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Lou Reed and Isabella Rossellini were among the chosen). On DVD, Rossellini is the off-screen anchoring voice, backgrounding the adventures of “Guy Maddin” (played by several actors at different ages) as he returns to his childhood home — a lighthouse-cum-orphanage — and flashbacks to a traumatized, and extremely unlikely, youth, scrambled with Boys’ Own youth capers, an ogre-ish Mom and his father’s mad-scientist lab experiments.
Roughly the first decade of Maddin’s career was dominated by a bizarro fidelity to antique film styles, inhabited by deadpan anti-acting and physically stressed to resemble a run-down 16mm TV print that somebody, somewhere, watched the shit out of. (Half the fun is the differential between how little Maddin has to work with, and how much he makes of it.) But at least since 2000’s “The Heart of the World,” which mutated from silent Soviet montage into an exultant post-mod movie-movie heart attack, Maddin seems to have been less interested in ironically replicating forgotten modes, and more in adapting them into what’s come to be a seamless hyperedited-but-old-style film world that exists on its own plane. The trilogy that climaxes with “My Winnipeg” doesn’t quite look or feel like any other cinema, and yet the films are as simple as a folktale, and as mysterious as an ancestor’s lie that cannot be disproven. The Criterion package comes with alternative narrations (of course, including Laurie Anderson and John Ashbery), two new Maddin shorts and an essay by critic Dennis Lim.
[Photos: Viggo Mortensen in “Gospel According to Harry,” Kino, 1994; Claudine Spiteri in “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Kino, 2004; “Brand Upon the Brain!” Vitagraph Pictures, 2007]
“The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Kino International) and “Brand Upon the Brain!” (Criterion Collection) and are now available on DVD.