Sunday, January 16, 2011

What the Fu...Hell?

Film: Archangel
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I frequently like to think of myself as the smartest guy in the room, a bit of ego and mental narcissism I freely admit to. I know that more often than not, I’m not the smartest guy in the room. A film like Guy Maddin’s Archangel is all it really takes to prove to me that I am often a novice when it comes to deciphering some of the more obtuse films that exist in this world. As a viewer and critic, this is the most difficult thing I’ve had to write in a number of months, perhaps since I started this project.

Archangel certainly has a plot of sorts, and characters and all that, but it also feels completely random. It’s surrealist cinema, which always strikes me sideways. I never know if I’m supposed to take it seriously or if I should be laughing at it.

So let’s talk about plot, shall we? It’s 1919 and World War I is over, but no one has told the people living in and around the city of Archangel. One of those people is John Boles (Kyle McCulloch) who is mourning the death of his love, Iris far more than he is mourning the fact that he has only one leg. He has promised to sanctify her cremains in the White Sea, but he loses the urn overboard a ship. This causes him no end of mental anguish that manifests itself into something like amnesia.

He is billeted in the house of a family that consists of the elderly Baba (Margaret Anne MacLeod), the obese and cowardly Jannings (Michael Gottli), his wife Danchuk (Sarah Neville), their son Geza (David Falkenburg), and an infant. Also evidently living in the house is Veronkha (Kathy Marykuca), who might or might not be married to Philbin (Ari Cohen). Philbin is also suffering from something like amnesia and believes that every night is his wedding night. Boles believes that Veronkha is actually Iris and pursues her, and Danchuk pursues him.

And then there’s lots of revelations and battle scenes and Veronkha decides she loves Boles and suffers her own amnesia, turning into Iris. Boles decides that the infant is his. Everyone goes off to war except for Jannings, who stays home and is gutted by the terrifying, semi-human Bolsheviks. He overcomes his cowardice, though, fighting back and killing one with his own intestines before calmly going back to where he was, lying down, and dying.

And then Veronkha runs away and Boles chases her and she remarries Philbin despite having annulled their first marriage and they fly away in a biplane while Boles stays on the ground and rides in a cart. Whatever.

Throughout this movie, particular moments struck me with the overriding thought of “What the fu…hell?” Not much of it makes sense. Geza complains to Philbin that his father died a coward and Philbin responds by saying that everything happens for a reason—someone shaved off his mustache in the night. Seriously, what the fu…hell? Should I be taking notes on this and trying to figure out what it means or should I look at a piece of dialog like that and laugh?

It’s evident that Maddin is paying a great deal of homage to the silents with this film. Everything oozes silent film heritage from the costuming, lighting, make up, sets, and title cards. This is a modern take on German expressionism without question. It’s also an homage to David Lynch. The first thing I thought of in terms of comparison while watching this was Eraserhead and it’s an opinion that never left me.

The version of this film that I found promised glorious black and white photography, which is much nicer than what I actually did get. What I got was a lot of muddy scenery, scenes that were difficult to see from any angle, and even title cards that were so faded at times that I had to pause the film and get an inch away to see what they said.

Also on this DVD were a couple other Maddin films. I watched the short called The Heart of the World, and I recommend it highly. I certainly recommend it far more than I do Archangel.

Why to watch Archangel: A true artistic vision of film.
Why not to watch: It’s the damnedest 80 minutes or so you’ll spend in front of a screen.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Guy Maddin is one of those enigmas, wrapped in a riddle.As campy as it may be, he really knows how to create that look. Like you I was WTF throughout Arcangel, genuinely enjoyed "Heart Of The Worth" impressed by the visual treat of both and "Eraserhead" popped into my mind as well.
    I'm watching Warhol's "Vinyl" as I type and and almost willing to site some influence on Maddin as well.
    I suggest finding his "Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary". Filming a ballet has never looked so good.

  3. Interesting. I've been avoiding the Warhol for awhile--I've never been a fan, but I realize that eventually I'll have to submit myself to Vinyl. From what I know, it makes sense that he would be one of Maddin's influences.

  4. In way of clarification: "Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary" is a Maddin film. I thought my previous posy may have been unclear.

    "Vinyl" may be distinguished as the FIRST film adaptation of "A Clockwork Orange" but it DOESN'T hold a candle to Kubrick's film. I wouldn't suggest "Vinyl" to my worst enemy but seeing as how it is in "The Book" I offer up this link that will get you to a place to find it.

    This will take you the a youtube collection of the movie bin 6 or 7 segments that seems pretty complete. The picture quality MAY suffer but after all, it's WARHOL. The cinematography was the least on his mind.

  5. I'll get there eventually (assuming I survive the mass of papers on my desk).

    Yeah...Warhol. To my mind, Warhol is to film as White Castle is to food. Both have their supporters, and they're technically what they claim they are... but why would you?

    Oh, and I thought it was clear that Dracula was Maddin's film. I'd be looking at you strangely if you were seriously recommending I watch any Warhol I didn't have to.

  6. I found Archangel on a site called and watched it today.

    WOW! If I had known what it was, I would have watched it a long time ago! I vaguely remember when it came out. I lived in Los Angeles at the time and I saw my share of unusual movies, but somehow I never made it to Archangel.

    I love those hybrid silent/sound films of the late 1920s and early 1930s. There's silent films with a score and special effects on the soundtrack, like Wild Orchids (with Greta Garbo) and Our Dancing Daughters (with Joan Crawford and Anita Page). And then there's bizarre films like Louise Brooks in Beauty Prize (also known as Prix de Beaute), filmed as silent films, but then dialogue is added (not very convincingly). (Brooks also has The Canary Murder Case for a hybrid film, but it's not nearly as good as the others I mentioned.)

    I watched Archangel in several segments and I got the feeling that it might work as well as several dozen very short movies as it does as one film.

    1. I can't call myself a fan of Guy Maddin. I recommend tracking down his version of Dracula, though. It's an interesting cinematic experience, and filled with a strange beauty.

      Then again, since it's a filmed version of the ballet, you should expect nothing less.