The physicality of a contact sport seeps deep into an athlete’s memory. With the hits and movements repeated during gameplay, a player’s mind soon falls into the pattern of the body’s experience. Even the feeling of the padding and sweat underneath it can take over one’s dreams. Years after playing, I can still feel the sport of football – how I could go full tilt at a moment’s notice, and how pain was no more than a dull sensation, drowned in adrenaline. At times my mind slips there momentary; at night an occasional dream will submerge me in the feeling.
I never played ice hockey, but I can imagine similar mental traces in its players. I’d bet the feeling sits beneath Guy Maddin’s opening imagery in “Cowards Bend the Knee.” The players of his fictional hockey team fly about the ice and are ready to cut each other down – the kind of images a former hockey player would find bursting into memory. Maddin must have absorbed the game during adolescence (while watching his father’s team play), when young athletes attempt to quell all those newfound anxieties. Whether Maddin played or not, these are musings of someone who can recall the game in his bones. Teens of the pig iron or the ice regulate aggression during game time, and when the season’s off it’s brought to the gym, a mosh pit, or an outright brawl.
In “Cowards,” ice hockey is something like an obsessive action, and like the others appearing herein, it ends up fetishized for Maddin’s young alter ego (himself named Guy Maddin, played by Darcy Fehr). In this nightmarish inner journey, anything dominating the frame becomes sexual, for the id surges throughout all of Maddin’s filmscapes.
This short feature, itself based on a silent peep show installation, harkens back to murder melodrama, one of Maddin’s career-long inspirations. Rightfully, “Cowards” is fueled by an object of obsession, Meta (Melissa Dionisio – I bet Maddin loved the roots of her name), who comes so close to Maddin’s alter ego – and the viewers – but cannot be touched. Artificially melodramatic yet fleshy and sensual, she is like the ghost of a recurring wet dream who nonetheless boils down to a castration image. To plum the psychological depths further, we also have a dead father who’s murder must be avenged by an Electra-fied daughter (the girlfriend of the onscreen Maddin).
By structuring the film on chapters, Maddin adapts the logic of an old-time cliffhanger, albeit with content such films would have repressed. After the rampant images of hockey, the film moves to a beauty salon (another Maddin touchstone) which doubles as an abortion clinic. For Maddin’s alter ego, this location – rooted in both feminine artifice and carnality – manifests fear and anxiety of the opposite sex, while homoerotic strains sit just around the bend. To the salon-clinic comes Guy with his girlfriend, who’s condition needs to be “righted,” not long before Guy encounters Meta, who embodies swelling eros at first sight. We know not to demand depth or verity in a Maddin characterization like Meta; the filmmaker is more concerned with her potential to mime deep-rooted passions, in what is essentially a manipulated theater of the mind.
While this Maddin entry isn’t quite a “Brand Upon the Brain,” it’s just as searing. It plays like a fever dream recalled upon waking, told with the immediacy of fear couched in relentless pleasure. Like Maddin’s best work, “Cowards” plays upon the psyche to bring about a catharsis almost visceral. Maddin has made the term “dream factory” all his own. No other filmmaker can tap into the cinematic dreamscape quite like him.