Jul 8, 2015
After watching the Canadian auteur filmmaker’s extra bizarre and surprisingly gay and pornographic short The Little White Cloud That Cried (2009)—a kaleidoscopic tribute to compulsively campy homo auteur Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures, Normal Love) featuring trannys sucking cock and engaging in surrealist orgies, among other things—I felt it was about time to reexamine some of the earlier and more gritty works of Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Brand Upon the Brain!). Considering Maddin’s debut feature Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988) is unequivocally my favorite film directed by the auteur, I naturally decided to re-watch his second feature Archangel (1990), which I found to be equally as obsessively oneiric as obscenely incoherent and convoluted when I first saw the film about a decade ago. Of course, like most of Maddin's films, which are exploding with countless strikingly and singular images and instances of hyper hermetic humor, the film becomes much more coherent and thoroughly enthralling upon subsequent viewings. Naturally, as a work where the central theme is amnesia, the film is an intentionally confusing work that actually manages to induce amnesia and delirium in the viewer, or as auteur Maddin himself once even stated, “ARCHANGEL is a film literally directed by an amnesiac delirious from the strangeness of directing a film.” Maybe I have developed a high tolerance for cinematic hermeticism as a result of watching one too many Werner Schroeter flicks, but I found absolutely nothing about the film to be inaccessible upon my recent second viewing. Initially imagined as what Maddin once described in the book Kino Delirium: The Films Of Guy Maddin (2000) by Caelum Vatnsdal as “the most irritating pro-war movie since THE GREEN BERETS,” Archangel would ultimately only offend Germans due to its depiction of the Teutonic race as a group of literally bloodthirsty and cannibalistic child-killing ‘Huns’ and bratwurst-fetisizing sodomites (in fact, in one scene in the film, a creepily kraut soldier forces a bratwurst down another kraut soldier's throat whilst buggering him in the bum). Of course, Maddin’s film does not so much feature Teutophobia as it mocks the sort of patently absurd anti-Germanic sentiment featured in Bolshevik flicks like Alexander Dovzhenko’s classic anti-kraut agitprop piece Arsenal (1929) and largely forgotten Erich von Stroheim vehicles like Allen Holubar's somewhat gruesome D.W. Griffith rip-off The Heart of Humanity (1918) and The Unbeliever (1918) directed by Alan Crosland (who is probably best known today for The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson in his iconic blackface performance), Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941) and various films directed by Lewis Milestone (real name Leib Milstein) like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and The North Star (1943) aka Armored Attack. Set during the winter of 1919 at the end of the First World War in ‘Arkhangelsk’ in northwestern Russia in a place where the populous suffers from collective amnesia and is still fighting sinister Huns and poorly dressed Bolsheviks, Maddin’s film is a sort of absurdly dark war-romance hybrid featuring an exceedingly eccentric approach to humor that makes the anti-Aryan satire of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) seem both asinine and philistinic in its commie-symph (meta)political satire. Indeed, if one learns anything while watching Maddin’s film, it is that Westerners, especially North Americans, seem to have collective amnesia when it comes to not only the anti-German sentiment in cinema (which surely still lives on today in ‘Jew porn’ like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and David Ayer’s Fury (2014)), but the Great War in general.
As one can expect from a Maddin film, Archangel is patently politically incorrect, but due to the director and his co-writer George Toles’ obscenely obsessive idiosyncrasies in terms of themes, humor, and aesthetics, very few people, including highly irritable social justice warriors, would have the gall to criticize the film. On top of making a mockery of the way old school Soviet and Hollywood films mocked Germans, the film is also riddled with the filmmaker’s various dubious fetishes, including half-naked children in compromised situations. Of course, arguably the most offensive aspect of the film is Maddin’s sort of passive-aggressive cynicism when it comes love and death, which are portrayed as things that are no more significant than taking a shit or going to the drug store. Apparently most influenced by the somewhat obscure and certainly strange Pre-Code era flick International House (1933) starring W.C. Fields and featuring Bela Lugosi, which is (in)famous for a scene where scat maestro Cab Calloway sings a song entitled “Reefer Man” in tribute to weed, Maddin's film is nothing if not one of the most absurdly arcane comedies ever made. As described in the film’s very first inter-title regarding the time and place of Archangel, “The Northernmost tip of old Imperial Russia. Winter of 1919. The Great War has been over for three months, but no one has remembered to tell those who remain in Archangel.” Meanwhile, one-legged Canadian soldier Lt. John Boles (early Maddin regular turned South Park screenwriter/voice-actor Kyle McCulloch) is an amnesiac who is all melancholy because the woman he loves but can barely remember is dead. Boles is on a ship carrying an urn holding the ashes of his lover Iris and right after saying, “Goodbye Iris,” the ship’s captain grabs the vase and throws it overboard before the protagonist can. It seems the captain thought the urn was a bottle of alcohol, as he is depicted in a previous scene taking a couple bottles of liquor from some passengers and throwing them overboard. Instead of getting mad at the captain for destroying a highly personal ‘ceremony,’ Boles salutes the man, thus setting the sort of madly mirthful yet melancholic tone of the film.
After opening ‘The Dirge of Lt. John Boles’ sequence, the film features an intentionally morally outmoded montage on the subject of ‘love’ that degenerates into considerably hilarious anti-German propaganda featuring an elderly Prussian officer with a giant totenkopf hat surrounded in ‘Satanic’ flames, a cannibalistic kraut commando chomping on the throat and drinking the blood of a enemy soldier, a couple German soldiers violently destroying ancient paintings and Christian icons, and an Aryan firing squad liquidating a prepubescent Aryan boy that looks like he would make for a satisfactory member of the Hitler Youth. Indeed, while beginning with shots of cute babies juxtaposed with sappy narration like, “Love—what do we know of love? We know a baby loves with all its tiny heart…and is loved in return by hearts as simple and as pure. We know a growing child thrives on love…and with its generous limbs apportions that love to the rest of the world,” the montage cuts to shots of genocidal German berserkers juxtaposed with lines like, "Then there is pride or self-love—a malignant vanity, insatiable—the pride of the Teuton […]Why should such a belligerent urge ravage all that is lovely and right. One must forgive, but a crime against humanity is a crime against god. One must have the discipline to fight for what is right in the Lord’s eyes. We must restore peace to his earthly garden…For the love of god.” While he barely remembers what country he is from or why he is fighting, Boles is a virtual automaton when it comes to his patriotic soldierly duties, which he will ultimately provide to both the White Russians and a small Russian peasant family.
As described in an inter-title, “Chance leads Boles to billet with a family in need.” Indeed, not long after arriving in Archangel, Boles wanders into a random home featuring a Cocteau-esque life-size statue of the Holy Virgin with only eye sitting outside the front door and manages to save the life of a young boy named Geza (David Falkenburg) that has just suffered a seizure by rubbing his body with a horse brush (!) After Boles gets the boy’s entire family to rub down the poor lad, the protagonist recommends to his mother Danchuk (Sarah Neville of Madden’s Careful (1992)) and “cowardly father” Janning (Michael Gottli of Tales from the Gimli Hospital) that they feed their son horse hair because he thinks the boy might have worms. As a reward for reviving her son, Danchuk gives Boles a prosthetic leg which he proudly describes as being, “An almost perfect fit.” When a fairly beauteous nurse-cum-actress named Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca) randomly shows up, Boles mistakes her for his dead beloved Iris and faints. Veronkha was married to a Belgian aviator named Philbin (Ari Cohen of Bruce McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments (2007)), but he, not unlike Boles, suffers from amnesia and unwittingly cheated on his wife on their wedding night so she had their marriage annulled. While he forgot the fact he got married on his wedding night, Philbin now thinks everyday is his wedding night (which is described as the, “happiest day of his vague existence”), which greatly pains the terribly lovelorn Veronkha, who complains when he arrives at her home, “Why do you torture me with your presence?” As the film progresses, Boles will not only continue to mistake Veronkha for his dead lover, but the latter will also mistake the former for Philbin.
While he is told by Danchuk and her family that Veronkha is not Iris while chunky coward Jannings gives him a sponge bath, Boles becomes convinced that the Russian beauty is his soulmate and states, “Then I’m saved. She’s not dead after all.” When Boles is informed that Veronkha will be performing at a White Russian propaganda play that night, the protagonist declares, “I must look like a prince” and has Danchuk’s entire family dress him up like a literal prince for the big event where he will be ostensibly reunited with Iris. Before leaving, Boles becomes quite disturbed upon seeing Danchuk beating her son Geza’s bare back with a stick after catching him fiddling some war medals, so the protagonist berates the boy’s father Janning by asking him, “Isn’t it the man’s place to discipline a wayward child?” and proceeds to beat the boy himself after asking his mother, “I’m not used to seeing a woman doing a man’s job. Would you mind?” After ruthlessly beating Geza like a rabid dog, Boles tells his mother, “He’s a good lad. You should be proud of him.” As an assumed result of the fact that he is heroic and handsome unlike her much loathed hubby Jannings, Danchuk falls in love with Boles, who seems to reciprocate her feelings to some degree, though she does not compare to Iris or Veronkha. As does oftentimes happen in real-life, the characters in Archangel are hopelessly in love with people they cannot have, with the film’s amnesia theme being arguably symbolic for the forgetfulness of the heart when it comes to love.
When Boles arrives at a theater called ‘The Illumination,’ he is happy to see Veronkha playing ‘Mother Russia’ in an absurd agitprop adaptation of the ancient Battle of Wesenberg of 1268, which is notable in that both sides, the Teutonic Knights and a coalition of Russian princes, would later designate themselves as the victors. Rather absurdly, during the performance, an actor complains, “I’m sorry. I refuse to portray a German,” so gentle giant Jannings is recruited to replace him in the role of a “slavering hun” after an announcer calls for “another blonde beast.” During the middle of the performance, Philbin, who still thinks it is his honeymoon, goes up on the stage, repeatedly declares, “We’ll bait the Huns with our guns and watch the Kaiser roll,” and attempts to embrace Veronkha, who violently rejects him. When the announcer requests that a representative of the “Dominion of Canada” come up on the stage, Boles naturally obliges and soon busts Philbin’s face in with a rifle butt after he manhandles Veronkha, who he still believes is Iris. While Boles and Veronkha have a short romantic rendezvous with one another where the former asks the latter, “why did you leave me?,” because he has mistaken her for Iris, the two never meet the audience’s expectation by making love or even making out. After confessing that she kissed him when he passed out earlier in the film, Veronkha hands Boles a large archaic map that Philbin previously gave her and claimed was their marriage certificate. Before leaving his presence, Veronkha encourages Boles to find both her and Iris using the map, which the protagonist most certainly plans to do.
After Boles’ somewhat uneventful late night stroll with Veronkha, he walks back to Danchuk’s house like a somnambulist, walks on top the roof, and ultimately falls through a window and injures himself. Needless to say, since she is deeply in love with him, Danchuk immediately comes to Boles’ aid and embraces him while her coward husband cries like a little baby in bed because he knows that his wifey is in love with the heroic Canadian amnesiac. Of course, with the barbaric Bolshevik hordes soon arriving in Archangel, everyone in the town has to put their obsessive heartbreak on hold and prepare to fight to the death. In a rather bizarre and even somewhat crappy scene that one could only find in a Guy Maddin flick, Boles sleeps naked in bed with Geza, who wakes up in the middle of the night after becoming disturbed to find dozens of (animated) spiders crawling on his little unclad body. The next day, Boles tells Geza to protect his grandma aka ‘baba’ from the Bolsheviks and when the boy asks what they look like, the protagonist replies, “Oh, they are terrible creatures. Half-man, half beast. They have great big eyes, great big ears, and great big claws.” When everyone eventually goes to battle against the Bolshevik beasts, many of the soldiers, including a Congolese negro and Orthodox priest, fall asleep. Naturally, Boles ends up mistaking these sleeping warriors for corpses.
When a couple Bolsheviks break into Danchuk’s home and attempt to steal her baby, lard ass sissy Jannings barely has time get up after waking up from a deep sleep before having his large gut slit open by a red savage. While succumbing to his fatal wound, Jannings manages to shed his cowardliness and strangles a Bolshevik with his intestines, thus saving his baby from being eaten by a rabid Marxist maniac. Meanwhile, Boles uses the map given to him by Veronkha to find her and while walking around, he finds various soldiers making love in the snow. When Boles eventually finds Veronkha on the battlefield, she seems to have more of a lust for blood than him (as expressed in comments like, “Your face is so bloody. I feel so alive”), but she eventually comes around and falls in love with protagonist. Indeed, after once again marrying Philbin and heading to a place called Aerodrome airport, Veronkha states to her hubby during midflight, “He struck that hateful head of yours in blood, but not enough. You’re still alive.” Out of anger, Philbin strikes his bride and, as detailed in an inter-title, “As a result of the shock, Veronkha joins her two lovers in forgetfulness. Total amnesia. Boles now has his Iris.” Indeed, Veronkha falls for Boles and the two even steal Danchuk’s baby thinking it is their own. Meanwhile, little Geza is killed in battle and his ghost is reunited with his father Janning’s ghost, who informs him that he died a hero and not a coward after strangling a Bolshevik with his own intestines. As ghosts, father and son have finally developed a deep bond in what is indubitably one of the more ‘sweet’ and ‘sentimental’ moments of the film.
Upon seeing her hubby Philbin, Veronkha regains her memory and complains to Boles, “My husband. What have you done? You’ve made me a prisoner […] if you ever touch me again, I’ll kill you,” thus leaving the protagonist totally destroyed. After his own heart is broken, Boles breaks Danchuk’s heart by giving her baby back and making it quite clear to her he has no romantic interest in him. After a kraut blows him up with a bomb reading “Gott Strafe Kanada” on the battlefield, Boles nearly dies and states while melodramatically spitting up blood, “My name is John Boles. I’m in Archangel…fighting a war. I’m trying to find the woman I love. IRIS!” Luckily, a Swiss soldier manages to refurbish Boles’ body with some sort of quirky machine, but the protagonist is too late to reunite with Veronkha, who has once again married Philbin and is flying away with him in a plane out of Archangel. In the end, a gang of gorgeous gals kiss Boles, but he is too forlornly lovelorn to give a damn.
In an audio commentary track for a DVD release of Archangel, auteur Guy Maddin describes how the amnesia theme of the film was influenced by his own tendency to forget marriages, promises he made, people that died and other personal things in his life that he probably preferred to forget. As far as aesthetic influences on the theme of amnesia, Maddin names Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the romantic melodrama Random Harvest (1942) starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson, and the Henry Green novel Back (1946). Of course, in terms of imagery, the film owes a lot to pseudo-aristocratic Hebrews Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, with the latter’s ‘evil Hun’ archetype being quite prominent throughout the film. In fact, certain Germans found the film to be highly offensive, or as Maddin recounted in the book Kino Delirium, “The movie had its very first screening in Munich, and there’s some really good anti-German propaganda in there. I remember a couple of blond beasts at the back of the room putting up their hands in a very rigid manner to get my attention, and asking me if I didn’t like Germans very much. I told them ‘No, no. I love Germans!’ It seemed the prudent thing to say. I was waiting for years for a question about the minstrel [in GIMLI HOSPITAL], but instead here I was getting questioned by Aryans who wanted to know if I liked them or not. I had a more ready answer for any angry minstrels out there than I did for the Aryans.”
I got the sense while watching the film that, like most of Maddin’s work, Archangel is the expression of a Nordic degenerate who feels completely out of touch with the modern world yet cannot quite truly understand the past ‘Eurocentric’ world in any innate way, hence his propensity for mocking and satirizing film styles and events of the past while simultaneously paying a strange sort of fan-boy tribute to them. Either way, in his own sort of self-loathing and comically idiosyncratic way, Maddin is arguably the most Nordic of the filmmakers today, but then again, there are not really any other filmmakers who make films with titles like Odin's Shield Maiden (2007) or phantasmagoric yet fetishistic pieces of offbeat postmodern Icelandic folklore like Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Aside from his love of von Sternberg and the classics, as well as seeming disillusionment with romance, Maddin shares a lot in common with the great late Swiss auteur Daniel Schmid due to their seemingly innate rejection of the modern world (notably, while he was still living in Germany with his pal Fassbinder, Schmid was one of the only filmmakers who vocally rejected the counterculture movement and other vapid ‘liberation’ movements). Despite Maddin’s seeming love of European culture and tradition, Archangel makes not a single reference to the fact that the so-called Russian revolution, which was started mostly by Jews and other ‘minorities,’ more or less marked the beginning of the end of Old Europa. Indeed, one of the greatest aspects of Maddin’s films is that they demonstrate a certain naivety regarding the modern world and all its ugliness, even if his works reflect a certain cynicism when it comes to issues of romance and interpersonal relations. As a work that sends me to a completely otherworldly cinematic universe and helps me forget about the sad joke that is the contemporary Occidental world, Archangel certainly features the sort of amnesia that I and many other old souls need. Undoubtedly, one of Maddin’s greatest talents is that he is a true master of escapism and nowhere else in his oeuvre is this more apparent than in his second feature.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:31 PM
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