When a postmodern film premieres, there’s often a rush to condemn (or praise) its lack of coherence, leaving filmgoers huffing (or cheering), “It doesn’t make any sense!” I submit that this reaction is often misplaced, one recent example of such an instance being Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the novel (by the seminal postmodern author, Thomas Pynchon) Inherent Vice. If, as a viewer, you’re attempting to square everything that happens with a singular narrative or, more significantly, an overarching meaning or sense, you’ve failed to grasp the “point” of postmodernity in literature, which includes (but is not limited to) that “reality” and “meaning” are no longer monolithic values locatable outside of the interpretive act (or anywhere at all). Paranoia is the organizing principle in that particular film, in that nearly everything that happens appears to have some hidden significance or to indicate a larger organization, malevolently, though no such broader scheme will ever be revealed/provided to the reader.
I bring this up in my review of Guy Maddin’s newest film, The Forbidden Room, for two reasons, the first being that I’ve overheard a bit of that all-too-familiar sentiment, “I don’t get it” or “It’s too much,” and the second that I think the film might be categorizable as postmodern. I base the latter assumption on the wonderfully cogent and effective work of an intelligent writer (David Foster Wallace) on a film that I think would sit down to dinner with The Forbidden Room – namely, David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
From the opening moments of The Forbidden Room, which resemble an unscripted commercial for a domestic bath, before proceeding into the bowels of a seriously imperilled submarine, the immediate sense is that the film is intrinsically personal. The imagery and characters/settings ring with the weight of meaning, but meaning that could only be located within Maddin himself. This becomes more explicit later in the film as the focus turns to a young boy who witnesses his mother being straitjacketed, ruminations on the “dead father,” and the so-called memories of a moustache; these represent poignant echoes of the concerns of Maddin’s previous films, like Saddest Music of the World and My Winnipeg. And where daddy issues, for example, have been the obsession ad nauseum of a director like Wes Anderson, Maddin situates the father-son relationship in fable-like narratives that seem to come from another time that points to a certain personal vulnerability in his filmmaking.
This depth and richness of personal revelation is heightened by the “logic” or narrative style of Room – and the film does, indeed, have a narrative (or several narratives) – which relies on the recognizable structures, patterns, and lacunae of dreams or memories. The striking Freudian-ness of some of the sequences point at the former, but the repeated references to and characters suffering from amnesia suggest the latter. Take the nightclub sequence: after the Flower Girl “sings,” a male crooner takes the stage; his name, both in the title card and in the audio-track-introduction, is distorted, as is his face; this immediately recalls a familiar dream experience in which identity becomes fluid or hides just out of our sleeping mind’s reach. And while I’m writing about the nightclub: Clara Furey (as dream-Margot, aka the Flower Girl) goes full-Adjani and her performance is like a strange, primal eruption in the midst of what is such a minutely-controlled, strictly defined and deeply neurotic film.
Maddin’s visual aesthetic, an intentionally-obscured representation of silent-era-film quality and age, enhances the memory/dream affect and is far more esoteric in this than in his previous films. The look and the endless box-within-a-box-within-a-box structure, which zooms in then back out then in again and so on, demonstrate a move-inward for Maddin as a director. I was immediately reminded of Lynch’s latest, Inland Empire; the similarity in length, intimacy, and apparent submersion within the mind of the auteur lead me to wonder, as I did after seeing Empire, where he could possibly go next – a query that seems, with Lynch’s veritable retirement (don’t even mention the new Twin Peaks season to me, I don’t have acknowledge that that’s happening) to have its answer. It was this similarity that reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s “profile” of Lynch on the set of Lost Highway, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” from the September 1996 issue of Premiere. A movie can be beautiful and enigmatic and a rich glimpse into another person’s internal life, but what then are the stakes? Is it worthwhile/interesting to attempt interpretation of such a work?
Possible spoiler: I found myself wondering at the end of Room whether it was another example, like Highway, of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (a short story by Ambrose Bierce from 1890 that is some kind of archetypal), in which a man, in the final seconds of his life, dreams himself into a future that will never be realized, making sense of what has happened to him, finding peace, whatever his mind needs. But I realize now that such an interpretation, whether accurate or useful, crams a postmodern, subjective film into a clever box. Foster Wallace writes, “The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films… lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)” I think this is a good way to approach Maddin’s work as well; it’s not intended to simply entertain you or lead you into a morass of interpretation(s), nor is it merely a seduction that washes over you – it’s insidious and yet full of love.
Foster Wallace again: “Lynch’s movies are about images and stories that are in his head and that he wants to see made external and complexly ‘real.’ His loyalties are fierce and passionate and entirely to himself.” This applies to Maddin just as neatly, as I think The Forbidden Room more than amply proves. The difference being, of course, that Lynch is “creepy” and Maddin, with his dry humor, picture-postcard imagery, and tender romances is absolutely loveable. If this is personal filmmaking is a “good” or “bad” thing is up to the viewer to decide; The Forbidden Room is a one-of-kind, epic masterpiece either way.