39. COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, OR, THE BLUE HANDS (2003)

“I only include things that are psychologically true in my stories, no matter how bizarre, stupid, silly or gratuitous the episodes in them may seem… I can only hope that the spectacle of me trying to inflict pain on hard-to-reach places on my own body is amusing to some people.”–Guy Maddin

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DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: , Melissa Dionisio,

PLOT: Amateur hockey player Guy Maddin falls in love with the proprietor’s daughter when he takes his current girlfriend to a hair salon/brothel for an abortion. The daughter, Meta, will not give herself to a man until her father’s death at the hands of her mother is avenged. To accomplish this, she wants to transplant her dead father’s hands onto Guy, so that it will be her father’s hands that strangle her mother.

Still from Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Commissioned by the Power Plant Art Gallery of Toronto.
  • On its debut at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam, viewers watched the ten chapters of Cowards Bend the Knee through ten peepholes in a wall. Spectators had to kneel to put the peepholes at eye level.
  • Maddin issued a companion book to Cowards Bend the Knee (now a collector’s item) containing an expanded screenplay of the film and an interview with Maddin where he discusses Coward‘s autobiographical elements and gives his personal interpretations of the film.
  • Autobiographical elements abound in Cowards Bend the Knee. Maddin’s real life Aunt Lil owned a beauty parlor similar to the one that appears in the film. Maddin’s father coached the Winnipeg Maroons, a pre-NHL professional hockey team; the actual Allan Cup championship ring his father won appears in the film.
  • Maddin’s mother, Herdis, a non-actress, played Meta’s grandmother in the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: As Veronica lies on the operating table undergoing a clandestine abortion, the blood streaming between her legs forms itself into a Canadian maple leaf.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cowards features Maddin’s trademark in-your-face style (a mix of silent film artifacts and glitchy hypermodern editing); crazed, dreamlike narrative (incorporating hockey matches, beauty salons, murder, infidelity, ghosts, and a hand transplant); and a wildly veering, yet somehow coherent tone that moves from melodrama to slapstick to absurdist vintage pornography to Greek tragedy in the space of a few frames. If that’s not enough, there’s the fact that the entire story is observed by a scientist, who witnesses it being played out while looking through a microscope at a dab of semen on a slide. Weird enough for you?

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Clip from Cowards Bend the Knee

COMMENTS: Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee is a dream, and like all dreams it is at the same time inscrutably personal and mysteriously universal. Cowards drips with guilt and traffics in heady, mythic subjects like sexual repression, murder, cowardice and betrayal; these big themes of melodrama are the meat of the meal. Maddin flavors the feast with his own peculiar spices by setting the action in the landscape of his childhood, bounded on one side by a hockey rink and on the other by his aunt’s beauty parlor, and presents it with his typical flair, silent movie aesthetics mixed with blisteringly fast, disorienting edits.

Maddin could be (and of course has been) accused of elevating style over substance, but the truth is that his evocative, oneiric style is in service of the kind stories he hungers to tell. No one should confuse his love of the primitive visuals of Murnau and Eisenstein with a shallow postmodern mockery; it’s genuine reverence. Just observe the way he deliberately overlights scenes and overexposes the film to create images of shocking, forgotten beauty: a hockey player’s bandaged stumps glowing with an unearthly light, a woman’s melancholy face lovingly framed in an iris, blurs of motion and shadow. Disdaining special effects, the director creates his own world solely by toying with the basic elements of vision: light, shadow, and motion. This style mimics the narrative strategy of the dream, where language and logic become murky, while the primal image surges to the forefront. And it complements his psychological narratives, which deal with emotions and themes that are just as blurry, grainy, and beautiful as the pictures he paints.

Even more jolting than Maddin’s reliance on primitive film styles is the unique, disorienting mode of lightning-quick editing he adopted after the success of 2000’s The Heart of the World. The speedy, jumpy cuts in Cowards are disorienting, like a fast hard turn on a roller coaster; but, like the bends of the coaster, they are always purposeful and tightly controlled. Your heart pounds as you keep thinking the movie is going to jump the rails, but it never does. Key bits are repeated in quick succession; scenes stutter and lurch forward and backward. The film will progress at a normal pace for a while, or even jump forward in a long narrative ellipsis that leaves the viewer to fill in the gaps, then suddenly a single slap to the face may be replayed five or six times in quick succession, shown from different angles, reviewed in slow motion. The effect is disorienting, but it never feels disjointed. The style reminds us, if we needed reminding, that we are not in the real world, but there is another purpose to it. Maddin believes that this method captures the rhythms of our unconscious and of our memories, where certain moments are memorialized and emphasized and replayed and turned over and over in our minds, followed by long stretches of hazy, forgotten details that serve to connect these peak moments together.

Maddin’s humorous use of shocking imagery reconciles opposing emotions. The film has a very strange tone; it tempts us into hopelessness about the sordid human condition, but it has a winning, life-affirming, naughty sense of humor that lifts us out of despair. Shocking psychosexual imagery abounds: a fisting scene, implied sadomasochism, an anesthetic-free abortion and a gruesome surgery, a scene where a prostitute services a client while clutching the ankle of her baby. Maddin particularly loves to tweak the homophobic aversions of his male audience: there is abundant male frontal nudity, a scene where a father must unzip his adult son at the urinal, and a hilariously vulgar “dropping the soap in the shower” gag. While disturbing in and of themselves, these images find their ways into such absurd and witty contexts that they elicit guilty giggles instead of repulsion. Rather than rubbing our noses in the sordidness of these images, Maddin imbues them with the innocence of the amoral dreaming mind, which is merely roaming through the storehouses of its memory, looking for something meaningful to latch on to.

A key example of this technique of juxtaposing the painful and the ridiculous occurs in the first abortion scene, which posits the shabbiest scenario imaginable. Pregnant Veronica is taken to the illicit abortionist who works out of Lil’s, a hair salon by day and bordello by night. With no anesthetic, she’s strapped to a table next to a two-way mirror through which a woman getting her hair coiffed can be seen. A slice of pie is placed by her head. Beethoven’s famous dirge, the Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony, plays in the background, in a tinny, mono recording. The doctor takes off his short and puts on a corset, lights a cigarette held in a delicate long cigarette holder, gets out his whisk (!), and forces the girls legs apart as her sweetheart holds her hand reassuringly. Then, the bordello owner’s gorgeous daughter enters, seductively dipping her finger in a sugar bowl and licking it clean, and Guy’s eyes are drawn to her. His hand disengages from his girlfriend, and seeks out the hand of his new love; they clasp hands right before the suffering girlfriend’s eyes as she endures the operation. The blood that trickles from between her legs forms the shape of a Canadian maple leaf. In less assured hands, the surreal digressions might be seen as an attempt to dodge the emotional impact of the material. But in this dreamscape, Maddin manages to make us feel both the psychological horror of this grotesque treachery and laugh at the absurdity of the scene at the same time. His magic is that he betrays neither sentiment.

With its ghosts, living wax statues, and murders committed in public that no one seems to notice, one could almost be forgiven for concluding that the movie makes no sense. But, even though the individual incidents that make up the dream are often ludicrous or impossible, careful attention will reveal that there is a serious narrative logic to the story. Each action the characters take results in a consequence later in the film, loose ends are tied up by the climax, and each major player gets their own character arc with a beginning, middle, and (usually tragic) end. The plot synopsis at the beginning of this entry only describes about half the film, and leaves out many twists and turns; it would be a shame to spoil the surprises Cowards Bend the Knee has in store for the viewer. It’s safe to say, however, that the plot is a combination of two major inspirations. The first is The Hands of Orlac, the 1925 silent German expressionist film about a pianist who receives the hands of a murderer in an experimental transplant (remade memorably with Peter Lorre in 1935 as Mad Love). The second inspiration is the Greek myth of Electra, who manipulated men to murder her mother to avenge her father, as played out by Meta, the brothel owner’s daughter. Hockey matches, sleazy digressions and Three Stooges routines are thrown into the mix, but these two intermeshed plotlines serve as a constant backbone which gives form to what might otherwise have slumped into an amorphous mess. This makes Cowards not just a weird experience, but a satisfying weird experience; the story tells us all we need to know, but the symbols have mysterious implications that stretch off the boundaries of the frame. The marvel here is that Maddin manages to honor the demands of narrative cause and effect in the grand scheme of the movie, while allowing the dreaming mind to play in the details.

There is even a moral of sorts to the story. The fictional Guy Maddin is a hero with a tragic flaw. The flaw manifests itself as infidelity (“the joy, joy, joy of meeting someone new!,” “the sweet oppression of a fresh love!”) But the monograph that ends the film makes it clear that Guy’s wandering eye is a result of cowardice: the fear of committing to a single woman, of accepting the obligation to care for a wife and family. He kills his own offspring because of this fear, and all of his problems and his tragic end result from this gutlessness. In the end, Guy Maddin is immortalized in the wax museum of galoots, the only figure on bended knee. He kneels submissively before his own cowardice, which has defeated him.

It is worth noting that the fear of becoming a man and raising a family was also the motivating terror behind David Lynch‘s Eraserhead, which was equally dreamlike but even more nightmarish in tone. There is something about the subconscious resistance to this pivotal transition in a man’s life—from sexual hunter to protector—that inspires the masculine imagination. The male reluctance to cede his own identity and to subject his own desires to those of a family is too painful, primal and shameful to face head on, and must be told through the language of myth and dream.

Guy Maddin is a professional dreamer, and we feel safe napping for an hour in his psyche. If laypeople could all dream this well, we would never want to wake up.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Straight from the guilt mines of Guy Maddin’s psyche to the collective unconscious of stunned audiences, ‘Cowards Bend the Knee’ is film autobiography at its most hilariously creative… psychotically inventive pic is a formidable addition to the ever-evolving Maddin oeuvre.”–Ronnie Scheib, Variety

“…[a] wildly tawdry hour-long hallucination… what’s truly extraordinary about this movie—which strikes me on two viewings as Maddin’s masterpiece—is that it not only plays like a dream but feels like one.”–J. Hoberman, The Village Voice

“…an insidiously entertaining bit of whimsy… stridently bizarre and overtly perverse and Oedipal…”–Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

OFFICIAL SITE: Zeitgeist Films: Cowards Bend the Knee

IMDB LINK: Cowards Bend the Knee or The Blue Hands

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Official Pressbook – Contains a long, illuminating interview with Maddin.

Cowards Bend the Knee – Movie Review – This review by Jason Anderson of Eye Weekly incorporates so many otherwise unpublished quotes from Maddin that it really is more of an interview than a critique.

DVD INFO: The Zeitgeist DVD release (buy from Amazon) is stacked with exactly the sort of bizarre bits and pieces one would hope to find on a Maddin release. The most curious of these are the “Chaunt-love Workbooks,” four segments totaling about fourteen minutes, which are all that remains from a lost Maddin feature. Edited very much in the style of Cowards, the “workbook” footage appears to comprise experiments in creating latent images and unexpected incongruities. It’s impossible to get a hint of the overall narrative of the lost film (based on several Herman Melville studies) from these snippets, but there are some arresting images, such as the juxtaposition of bantam cocks and a nude woman in the “Rooster” workbook. Other strange featurettes are two auditions reels from the unfinished film, which are unlike any other auditions you’ve ever seen. The actors strike melodramatic poses while being filmed under various lighting and exposure conditions; Maddin and editor John Gurdebeke then edit and transform the footage to see how the actors will appear after they’ve been filtered through Maddin’s weirdifying lens. There’s also a short promotional documentary, narrated by Maddin, on the making of his subsequent feature film, Brand Upon the Brain. Rounding out the features are stills gallery containing Maddin’s own photos of Aunt Lil and her beauty salon, and of his father with the Winnipeg Maroons. There are also production stills; it’s fascinating to see how primitive and ghoulish the actors’ makeup looks in color (for example, black lipstick is used to create maximum contrast in the black and white film stock).

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Godfrey Mattei.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “39. COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, OR, THE BLUE HANDS (2003)”

  1. I’ve just finished my translation of this review for the Russian speakers. And I would like to say one: Good job!

    You’ve written a wonderful and very thoughtful piece. I’m sure my readers will be delighted to read it and thankful to you, and will rush to find the movie, anywhere.

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