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The Dead Father (Guy Maddin) 1986   

Guy Maddinís The Dead Father is a superb short film and his first. In only twenty-six minutes, it etches a portrait of familial strife and neurotic obsession thatís as poignant as incisive as any that cinema has to offer outside of Bergman. That flattering description doesnít exactly do the film justice, however, since it neglects to mention the stylistic adventurousness and quirky sensibilities that are found here. Shot in black-and-white, the movie feels like a low budget 50ís era melodrama, complete with minor technical imperfections. The quality of the picture has been artificially degraded, and the sound fades in and out, demonstrating an analogue uncertainty. The effect of these stagy flaws becomes startlingly emotional when the subject matter of the movie is considered. The filmís unnamed protagonist (designated only as ďThe SonĒ) narrates the film, reminiscing about his deceased father, who wouldnít quite stay dead when he was supposed to. Like the work of fellow surrealist David Lunch, Maddin encapsulates the overbearing presence of the father figure by loading the screen with 50ís nostalgia. Since the oppressors (fathers) believed in the power of 50ís melodrama to provoke emotion and the power of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to nourish, their presence here next to the beleaguered son seems downright ominous. More than most filmmakers, Maddin has the ability to recognize the archetypes of cinema and pop culture, and then turn them upside down and against us in a pointed attack.   

    The cumulative effect of Maddinís combinations of humorous kitsch, dream imagery, and the grounding reality of family life is absolutely remarkable. The director yields these modern day totems with the full power that they contain. Lesser directors like Spielberg simply use those powers at face value when they borrow them, but Maddinís mind warps them into something greater than they ever were. That thereís little here that is remarkable in the way of special effects, visual flourishes, or quality acting (the son cannot hear his dead father, so the actor that plays him has no lines) stands as a further testament to the skilled assurance shown in Maddinís direction. Without much in the way of the elements most filmmakers use to move us, Maddin manages to move us anyway. As a result, the film feels somehow purer than most. The filmís corny music cures are milked to the max for their comic potential, but they also function simultaneously on the level that they were originally intended to. Just as the juxtaposition of the fatherís corpse onto the dining room table (a lovely metaphor, since thatís the center of the nuclear household and the death is clearly weighing down upon the familyís nerves) riles up our feelings that things arenít right here, the cloying music soothes and sympathizes with our vicarious pain as it rankles us for being so arbitrary, inappropriate, and insufficient. I could easily go on about Maddinís accomplishments here. Surely, a film as densely layered as The Dead Father warrants multiple close viewings, but its accessible nature and short running time make me think that such a task might be better left up to the individual. 

* * * * 

02/04/02 

Jeremy Heilman