Friday, December 12, 2008
The Heart of the World
The Heart of the World
Directed by Guy Maddin, Canada, 2000
I became slightly obsessed with this film after having decided that I wanted to post on it during this blog's inaugural "narrative" week, but Lindsay swooped out from under me and snatched it up (DAMN YOU!). You can see her post if you want plot details, because it seems unnecessary to repeat them.
Initially, Lindsay discussed how this film was a commentary on "the inherent brevity of short films," making a frantic, tongue-in-cheek attempt at tackling larger-than-life issues in only six minutes. I think she's right to sense that Maddin is mocking something, but while she thinks he's mocking supposed thematic limitations of the short film genre (i.e. the idea that short films are much too short to meaningfully explore themes like love, greed, and self-sacrifice), I think he's moreso mocking the idea of the homage and his own investment in this concept. His aesthetics are based on early silent cinema, so to what degree can we applaud him as a visionary filmmaker? If Heart of the World borrows from these aesthetics as well as countless other elements, what makes it worth watching?
Heart of the World comprises a dizzying number of shout-outs, many of which flash by too quickly to be perceptible. In the first 15 seconds, we are presented with the image of an eye, and a knife slicing down a woman's torso. The torso, not the eye, is being sliced, but to insert this non sequitur in the opening sequence of the film is an undeniable allusion to Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's Un Chien Andalou, with its iconic eye/slicing image. This eye then pops up several times again throughout the movie to solidify the effect of the allusion; but the eye looks like it's peering through a camera lens, an indication that this eye is the embodiment of Maddin himself, watching us watch him. The machinery and gears at work where Anna does her work as a state scientist has the same gigantic cardboard cut-out feel as the set of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), while Anna herself is dressed (helmet-esque hat and all) like Maria. Oh, and Metropolis' tagline also just happens to be, "There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator." Sound familiar?
Lindsay touched on the nod to German cinema, but I noticed in my comment on her entry that "kino" is also Russian for "cinema." The characters' names in Heart of the World, Anna, Nikolai, Osip, and Akmatov, are Russian, and the font used looks like Cyrillic characters. Even the music is by Georgy Sviridov, a Russian composer. It seems then that this is also a nod to Soviet cinema, although unfortunately my ignorance prevents me from speaking more specifically about it.
I won't keep listing the allusions in the film, partly because I'm not enough of a cinephile to pick up on all the many references I suspect Maddin is making, and partly because I'm more interested in the idea of the homage in general, and how Maddin manipulates it to his advantage. This is an intriguing concept because it must negotiate the threshold between unoriginality and showing admiration, but Maddin doesn't tread carefully: he annihilates that threshold, piling homage upon homage as quickly and in as short a time span as he can. In this way, Heart of the World is kind of a joke. Maddin obviously admires those to whom he has alluded, but he's also aware that allusions must be used sparingly lest one's own work devolves into a mere collage of what others have done first. Nevertheless, film is a cumulative artform, and in making one film, you're necessarily hearkening back to the films that have come before you. Even though by contemporary standards, Maddin may seem like a breath of fresh air, his seeming originality is based on what he's borrowed from past films, and this film shows that he is more than cognizant of that. What makes him original is his use of modern themes (like overt sexuality, e.g. the flashing of the word "ORGY" when the masses find out they have only one day left, and the penis shaped canons), the way in which he creates a pastiche of all these elements and the self-awareness and humor with which he does so.