Ever since I saw director Guy Maddin’s dark absurdist comedy The Saddest Music in the World in the mid-2000s I’ve been trying to make sense of his visual aesthetic, which is a strange form of collage that uses intentionally-degraded film & analog effects to create an ancient world of “lost”, “forgotten” cinema that probably never existed. Last week, the simple act of Netflix browsing helped me break the code. After watching animator Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow in close proximity with Maddin’s latest work, The Forbidden Room, I feel like I’ve finally found a point of reference for where Maddin’s coming from as an auteur. Both Maddin & Hertzfeldt seem to be operating in similar realms of visual collage, just ones separated by the live-action/animation divide. Both directors also have a propensity for mixing highbrow technical achievements with surprisingly childish (or at the very least absurdist) humor that undercuts any potential pretension. Thinking of Maddin as the live-action Hertzfeldt opened a lot of doors for me in understanding his work, as Hertzfeldt’s early works Rejected & Billy’s Balloon made a huge impact on me in my high school years & have stuck with me ever since.
Understanding a basic context or comparison point for Maddin is one thing, but trying to get a full grasp on his work in any particular sense is a much more futile exercise. The Forbidden Room is, in a lot of ways, pure Maddin aesthetic with little to no consideration given to purpose or accessibility. The film is funny, strange, visually astonishing, but purely there to amuse itself with its very existence. The Forbidden Room is High Art with a prankster’s spirit, a feast for the eyes much more interested in juvenile humor than any specific narrative. Its a story within a story within a story within a story story structure is a pure down-the-rabbit-hole adventure, a dizzying mess of dueling timelines that individually hold less & less significance as they multiply. The film opens with the instructional short “How to Take a Bath”, a how-to guide hosted by “Marv”, who might be the least mysterious man in the world. From there the camera is flushed down the bathtub drain where it finds a submarine full of men who’re sustaining their oxygen supply by consuming the air pockets in flapjacks. It gets more convoluted & silly from there. By the time you’re in a cave inside a forest inside a submarine inside a bathtub, making sense of the film’s setting or Inception-esque narrative becomes entirely superfluous, especially since the walls dividing their individual parts become increasingly thin in the film’s second hour.
The best way to enjoy The Forbidden Room is to look for solace in its visual treats & remarkably silly humor. It’s probably wise not to worry, for instance, about why the bathtub submarine men are “protecting the blasting jelly”, but rather to have a good laugh at the purple prose of the title card that introduces them as “Four frightened men forty fathoms deep, embedded in silence, hidden from God behind the face of the sea, behind the waves that sing and flirt of the face of the sea.” And that’s one of the more highbrow gags. Another title card exclaims, after the suggestion of cunnilingus, “Within the deep pink of a cave – boggling puzzlements!” Because of its frantic visuals & silent era horror weirdness, The Forbidden Room is the kind of film destined to be projected behind some anonymous stoner metal band at a dive bar or a house party, but treating the film that way would severely undercut its weirder strains of humor. It’d be a shame, for instance, to miss the treat of hearing new wave pranksters Sparks perform an ode to the wonder of derrieres (or at least a fetishist’s love of them). The film demands to be seen with full attention at least once through. There’s nothing else quite like it.
As fascinating & as funny as The Forbidden Room can be, it’s also a grand test of patience at a whopping 130 min. I feel like Hertzfeldt’s main advantage over Maddin’s in terms of accessibility is that he works almost exclusively in short films. Even Hertzfeldt’s wonderfully twisted mental illness comedy feature film It’s Such a Beautiful Day was pieced together from a series of shorter works. Maddin’s feature-length work films might be less daunting, or at least a little easier to digest, if they came in ten minute tangents, and the director indeed mostly works within a short film format, much like Hertzfeldt. Any of The Forbidden Room‘s story within a story vignettes could’ve thrived as a standalone short film & might’ve stood as tighter, more vivid pieces with that kind of runtime limitation. Still, it’s wonderful that we have a craftsman experimenting in this kind of entirely unique (to live-action cinema, anyway) dream logic & absurdist humor visual collage. Maddin is a treasure even if his feature-length films require a great deal of work on the audience’s end. He’s worth it.