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On DVD: Lech Majewski, “Brand Upon the Brain!”

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08192008_gospelaccordingtoharry.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

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.

08192008_gardenofearthlydelights.jpgI 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.

08192008_branduponthebrain.jpgRoughly 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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