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Guy Maddin’s ‘The Forbidden Room’ Makes Digital Video Uncanny

Guy Maddin's 'The Forbidden Room' Makes Digital Video Uncanny

At Sundance, Guy Maddin’s “The Forbidden Room” drew comparisons to Franz Kafka and “Too Many Cooks,” as well as a steady stream of walkouts from its world premiere. The movie, which has just been picked up by Kino Lorber for theatrical distribution, is both exhilarating and confrontational in its nonstop barrage of imagery. The movie opens with a quote from the Bible: “Gather up the leftover fragments so that nothing will be lost.” Guy Maddin
and his co-director Evan Johnson gather fragments of information about lost films from the silent era and recreate
these films through the ancillary information they’ve unearthed. “The Forbidden
Room” is a nightmarish resurrection and amalgamation of these lost films.

While making “The Forbidden Room”, Maddin and Johnson drew from
French novelist Raymond Roussel’s nested writing structure: parentheticals
digress deeper into certain words and themes. “The Forbidden Room” uses this
parenthetical structure to move to a different story; through a newspaper
article or through an X-ray scan, the audience is transported to a different
plotline. Each storyline is held in suspense while the viewer is taken deeper
into resonant but disconnected scenes: A mock educational film about how to take a bath (with words by the poet John Ashbery) slips into a new storyline of
crew running out of oxygen in a submarine; a story about a man killing his
servant slips into recounting the memories of the servant’s mustache. As
the film goes deeper and deeper into these sub-stories, piling up a cast that includes Mathieu Amalric, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin and Jacques Nolot, some of whom play multiple roles, the narrative becomes
impossible to follow. The limits of memory and attention are tested, and the
narrative coheres only when the film is pulled back to the major plot, making
its way back through all sub-plots one by one. Then it goes for another dive.

“The Forbidden Room” was produced alongside another project,
still in development: an interactive film called “Séances”. “Séances” also
involves the reenactment and restaging of lost films, suggesting that there may
be overlap between the two works. Although “The Forbidden Room” is linear,
testing the viewer’s memory as it descends through a rabbit-warren of plot, it
also seems to be in close dialogue with the overarching material, story
structure and algorithmic design of an interactive project. The film seems to
strangely bridge Roussel’s nested writing structure and stream-of-consciousness
style with hypertext narrative and algorithmic randomness of interactive films.

This dichotomy in narrative structure is complemented by a
self-conscious appropriation of the aesthetics of early film as well as the
affordances of digital production and editing. Filmic artifacts like scratches
and dirt are found alongside digital glitches. Early film techniques like title
cards and rear projection are intermixed with heavily mobile camera and fast
editing. Unlike Maddin’s earlier films (excluding “Keyhole”), “The Forbidden
Room” was shot entirely in digital; the “silent film” look was created in post production. However, Maddin and Johnson did not use digital post
production flow only to recreate a vintage look. They also experimented with
video compression methods like motion compensation and datamoshing, pushing
these methods to distortion to create a visual vocabulary from the
imperfections of the digital video. In a conversation with Dennis Scholl,
Maddin says that there is no reason to abandon certain filmic vocabulary as you
develop new ones. A unique, anachronistic vocabulary is built in “The Forbidden
Room.” 

Maddin’s first films were made when a CGI revolution was
beginning in Hollywood, and his body of work and primitive style can be seen as
operating against this trend. But “The Forbidden Room” is less of a reaction
and more of an attempt to offer an unconventional contemporary cinematic
language. “The Forbidden Room” may be a piece on the edge of filmmaking. It
mixes filmic and digital vocabulary, creating a historical continuum. It
bridges surrealism and modernist stream-of-consciousness projects with the
inhuman, algorithmic randomness that shapes the kind of content we consume
daily in social feeds and youtube channels. It adds artifacts of digital decay
to resurrected lost films, a possible reminder that digital materials are
susceptible to what has happened to almost eighty percent of silent films, loss
and decay.

In one scene, when confronted by his master, the gardener says:
“Nothing is ever the past”. “The Forbidden Room” repeats.

Deniz Tortum is a filmmaker and a research assistant at MIT’s
Open Documentary Lab.

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