Keyhole meanders, Maddin ponders. An ode to airy.
If you don’t know Guy Maddin, maker of the short nonsensical art film, you’re not alone. He’s an obscure filmmaker celebrated for abstract explorations of far away places, impossible places well under the radar from his home in Winnipeg. He is nevertheless readily well received by critics and loyalists who embrace his wanderings as artful and they write as though you will too. They describe his films as contemplative, imaginative odes to the personal conflicts of lost souls with fierce ruminations on manipulated time and space. Yet they often forget to mention that you’re going to have to abandon expectations and accept suggestion and innuendo in place of all that other stuff like story, characters and plot. Films like Keyhole are not aimed at everyday viewers much the way pop art is about the immediacy of the few over the intimacy of the many the same way Buñuel‘s eyeball and razor was burdened with symbolism when what he was aiming for was the antithesis of meaning. This practice of alienation and specificity puts the filmmaker’s intentions and goals ahead of, and often in contradiction to that of the viewer. The result is quixotic, no more available than rewarding, leaving the viewer deflated, confused and disappointed.
Keyhole is not a movie, not in the practical sense. It’s more dream than story, more wandering wasteland spectacle, the sort of film that requires a lot of patience and interest in obscure references to literature, art and sometimes philosophy. Those are good things too, a tight blend of many great things but they must be woven in, put in the mix as it were or they end up floating on the top of the soup like an oily film you want to skim off before you begin. The masters do it so well you don’t know it until you’re in it, you give a shit, you want the characters to win because you need wins in your life or you don’t know what’s going to happen. These artisans weave nuance but they don’t make it syrupy for effect, they get it into the fibers so you feel it like a tapestry that’s been crafted. These are gratifying Cohen brother’s hay rides, Oliver Stone inky-black grit in your teeth characters even at the height of his stylings; films have to have this stuff or their contraptions for airy pontificating, speechifying for the need of exploring ideas that are better off the stuff you work through before you make a movie about it. Keyhole is more exploratory operation, staged rehearsal for street theater where people show up and bump into one another for a while and then leave to figure out what happened later, when bruises begin to surface and regret fills in. Forget about story and character development, abandon structure like plot.
Keyhole begins when a band of halfway robbers, minor misfits and malcontents arrive at a shack only to find the cops have gathered around to smoke them out. This is crime caper cinema, film noir and shoot up story scenarios. But that’s just what’s in the air. Someone tells us that their ringleader is coming and I guess that’s structure. It seems the coppers have finally caught up with them for various evil doings but this is only a matter of convenience. They bide their time until Ulysses (Jason Patric) finally shows with his baggage – literally and figuratively; the body of a teenage girl and a bound and gagged young man, all of which will be made known eventually. What you realize right off whenever you sit down for an art film is that certain cinematic forms are of no consequence – matters like acting, casting, set design and character development. Mostly the characters are one-dimensional with minor occurrences of individuality. Ulysses the character, not the movie, makes a point of moving from room to room exploring the shack on his way to find his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) for some reckoning and revelations. Along the way he has to deal with ghosts, fluttering remembering of deeds done and considered, all the while his gang of misfits battle it out for safety and sanity or whatever they find in between. Mostly Maddin seems to have gotten stuck somewhere between stream of consciousness and genuflecting at the foot of the cross of film noir and avant-garde. Maybe in the nether realms between here and gone forever that we know, Maddin found some semblance of meaning in the hereafter and this film represents his attempt at meaningful, albeit totally unintelligible advice.
A.O. Scott is a critic that I appreciate immensely for the poetic traipsing of his reviews, though here he succumbs to Maddin’s airiness in place of any helpful commentary. Scott writes “The simplest way to describe [Keyhole] is as a Guy Maddin Film,” which is a lot like the exposition of a Christopher Nolan film – it doesn’t tell us any more than what we’re seeing and when it does it’s not helpful to the experience, rather to the director’s inferiority complex. That’s usually where reviews get off track when approaching a film like this, gesturing toward puzzles and complications as meaningful instead of how the film plays on, circumstances and plot happenings. Scott goes on in his review of Keyhole to claim Maddin’s sensibilities are “radical” and “rigorously authentic” where Maddin is exploring temporary existence with a firm grasp of nostalgia. Roger Ebert, the balcony curmudgeon I adore and fight with consistently in his lines like “You have the elements lined up against the wall, and in some mercurial way, they slip free and attack you from behind”. If that is meant to suggest Maddin has order and knows enough to position the pieces for us to make up our own mind, he foolishly mistakes our willingness that far into the jumbled mess to even consider such efforts. You know Mr. Ebert hasn’t any grand advice on a movie like this when his review consists primary of plot details, a detail he would at least have to agree is more akin to a heavy chain nearly fused together by rust, large sections of links missing or worn away like meaning and purpose and reward. Like Scott, Roger points out that Keyhole is more adept at dream-like details, the stuff you can’t put a finger on or define in certain, informative ways. Unlike other films that deal in dream and nostalgia, more readily known and dare I point out vastly more watchable films like “The Artist”, “Hugo” and “Midnight in Paris”, Keyhole relies solely on technique over perspective and as such is absent of emotions. To suggest brazen is a clear and cogent replacement for entertaining renders Mr. Scott’s opinions beyond the second paragraph of his view, suspect and airy if not outright unhelpful.
Maddin’s films feel like jig-saw puzzles where he’s intentionally forced the wrong pieces together just to see if we’re willing to play along and see what happens. He’s not looking for answers as much as he’s making doodles, the kind of scribbles that invite you to figure them out or give up trying. Keyhole suffers from the same blunt force trauma to story as all of his films and similar films, desperately in need of someone to stop the bleeding, to resuscitate or not.
Directed by Guy Maddin with a script by Maddin and George Toles. Benjamin Kasulke shot the film, John Gurdebeke edited a Jody Shapiro and Jean du Toit production, released by Monterey Media with Jason Patric (Ulysses Pick), Isabella Rossellini (Hyacinth), Udo Kier (Dr. Lemke), Brooke Palsson (Denny), David Wontner (Manners), Louis Negin (Calypso/Camille) and Kevin McDonald (Ogilbe).