Guy Maddin, gone too long? With The Forbidden Room, a mind-boggling witch’s brew of cinematic primeval swill, psychotropic kitsch, mental dicombobulation, the kitchen sink and the bathtub too, Maddin intends to show us where he’s been. The simplest answer is down the rabbit hole of forgotten cinematic, recklessly compiled in research halls, forlorn still images, and in the dankest depths of cinematic archival libraries. Hard at work reconstructing (and most deconstructing) a series of early lost films from scratch, Maddin has released The Forbidden Room, a love letter to the out-of-the-way cinema that haunts modern digital filmmaking sheen like a phantom-like specter. Love is a plaything in Maddin’s world through, and the ostensibly archaic concoction bubbles and burns into cinematic liquid as Maddin’s love of cinema flies far away from mere recreation and into a psychotic opium-laced crosshatch of memory, trauma, and the collapsing back alleys of the human mind. No more pastiche, The Forbidden Room is a living, breathing, fighting, joking performance art piece, rejiggering the past and transforming it from waxworks show into a cinematic scalpel cutting into the human mind.
The broad strokes paint The Forbidden Room as some sort of perverse cinematic mausoleum, an ode to the dead and the damned. Maddin’s cinematic phoenix doesn’t merely bring past cinema to life, though; perched between play-doh playroom and exotic essay film, cinema becomes a clay, if not a blank canvas, for Maddin, upon which he can explore his own past as well as the human mind at its most shredded and frayed. With co-director Evan Johnson and editor John Gurdebeke (rewriting the notions of cinematic editing on a scene-by-scene basis) in tow, Maddin’s anarchic flow begins with a how-to-lecture on bubble baths filmed like Herk Harvey’s last industrial video before he went and made Carnival of Souls. It’s tempting to say the rest of The Forbidden Room travels backwards through time – from a claustrophobic submarine thriller stricken leavened by absurdism, to a demented two-strip color fairy tale from the bowels of hell, to a silent cinematic three-ring circus on a train. But something about the elliptical flow of images and sounds of The Forbidden Room – I say flow, but white water rampage is more apt – defies linear time entirely.
No mere curator, Maddin cautiously avoids the likes of German Expressionism in The Forbidden Room’s tempestuous patchwork of scribbled-on cinema and scraped-off sanity. Hints of Murnau, Lang, and all the other usual suspects lie around the edges, but the giddy joie de vivre of Maddin’s madcap race into cinema’s past reconfigures its own cinema of the present and the future. It not only vacillates from style to style but refuses to ever sublimate itself to any one style in the first place, experimenting with the wallowing drone, the intermezzo yelp, and the desperate howl all in unison rather than on a scene-to-scene basis. Still, it’s never exploration for exploration’s sake. The framing narrative distorts into a ramshackle hodgepodge of free-floating thought as short films open up to reveal short film (think a cinematic Matryoshka doll), but the film pit stops into the opening bubble bath once or twice again as if coming up for air after spending too long swirling down the drain. Maddin always keep the reigns on a mind that seems hazardously off-the-charts.
About the mind, Maddin’s films are necessarily perched at the intersection of cinema, memory, and the dream. The flippancy with which the scenes recalibrate before our very eyes evokes a cinema half-remembered and half-stolen from our lives. The stories only complete themselves via falling further into the decadent forests of dreamland, with characters in each tale stumbling into their own inner mind for new tales (at one point a mustache’s dream is the subject of explication) in an expression of how all cinemas bear with them the burden and weight of their creators. Necessarily, this interrogates Maddin’s mind, and an excavated segment of The Forbidden Room where a father continually returns from the grave for one last pitiful observation (“the final farewell” eventually becomes “the final, final, final farewell” when the father refuses to leave). The sequence is lithe and panther-like in its withering wit, but the spirit of the scene is no less grave for it: the phantoms of the past, be it the cinemas of the past or Maddin’s father’s death at a young age, haunt the recesses of our minds even when we box them up and throw away the key.
The Forbidden Room structurally begs comparison to another film from the current decade, a work made with economic resources far-outstripping Maddin’s effort but only a pinhead’s worth of the mental resources: Christopher Nolan’s Inception. That film commits flaws aplenty, the most obvious being that it segments off its reality from its dreamscape, ultimately eliding its own subjectivity in the process. In seeking refuge in the sanity of its wraparound segment, presented as objective and contrasted to the subjective realm of dreams, the film establishes a stable ground that Maddin’s film adamantly refuses us. In The Forbidden Room, there are no dichotomies between the remembered and the forgotten, the dreamt and the lived, the subjective and the objective.
The more pressing flaw of Inception, linked to the former but not synonymous, is its formal failure as aesthetic cinema. More simply, the realms of dream and memory in Inception are logical, deductive, and staid, presented with no cinematic flair while Nolan’s ever-somber prose circles around the film in hopes of tangling a dialogue web to trap the audience and counsel misdirection away from the film’s visual failures as an attempt to paint cinema as a lexicon for understanding or confronting dream logic. Inception, essentially, is crystal clear in its refusal to debate with its own fictionality, its own existence as the product of Christopher Nolan’s dreams and memory. His film lectures us on dreams, but it accomplishes nothing a paper on the subject couldn’t. His tools of cinema – editing, mise en scene, cinematography – have nothing to say about how dreams function or relate to our world.
In Inception, then, we interact with characters who dream, but the film also exists at a distance to them. It’s a cinema of security and rationality, willfully oblivious to its own limits as part of the cinematic dream it ostensibly separates itself from. The Forbidden Room, in contrast, is fascinating because it is a cinema of possibility and impossibility, a cinema of speculation and a cinema cheerfully bowing down before its own limits as cinema, a cinema’s where truths are always provisional and tangents reign supreme over the violence of a streamline narrative. It is a cinema that mimics the process of the human mind while also mocking the potential for cinema to experience a mind of its own. With its increasingly entropic editing mechanisms and adamant insistence on plummeting into the caverns of its own ancestors and its own construction whilst also questioning that very construction via a stringent layer of absurdist art cinema satire, The Forbidden Room doesn’t discuss characters that dream. It finds the cinema itself performing the dreaming, and it invites, or throttles, us along with it. While the lion’s share of cinema on the subject of dreaming is hopelessly lucid, The Forbidden Room never strays far from the Maddin crowd and is much more apt to throb with the aura of warped reality because of it.