Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What's on Netflix?: THE FORBIDDEN ROOM

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a movie currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's choice is the art-house experiment...THE FORBIDDEN ROOM.

I was once told a story, possibly apocryphal, about an incident that occurred at a certain high-end art gallery. It seems that in this art gallery there stood on a display dais what appeared to be a maintenance man's tool cart, laden with all the tools and other fiddly-bits one would expect to find there. This being an art gallery, and modern art sensibilities being what they are, this tool cart eventually drew a crowd of art lovers. They scrutinized the cart closely, examining the distribution of the implements, the colors of the tools, their levels of wear, and all the other things that serious art lovers pay attention to when they examine a piece. Presently they began to debate among themselves, discussing what was meant that the broom should hang so, or that the hammer should be flecked thus with paint, or that the trash compartment contained only paper. The conversation continued for a time, reaching no consensus and naturally growing more heated, until at length the art gallery's maintenance man arrived and trundled his tool cart away.

The point of this story is that, sometimes, there is just no deeper meaning to things. "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," as Counselor Troi put it. This can be a genuinely difficult statement to accept, as it's in peoples' nature to want to make sense of their experiences. We want to take deeper meaning from the things we encounter, and understand how they fit into the larger scheme of things. But sometimes our efforts are fruitless, and we have to accept that things are what they are. And so it is with watching co-directors Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson's weirdly brilliant experimental art-house film The Forbidden Room.

The Forbidden Room is a vignette movie -- that is, a movie made up of shorter, interconnected stories, such as Creepshow, Heavy Metal or Sin City -- but it's quite unlike any vignette movie I've ever seen before. The easy part to explain is that the film is presented in the style of the earliest years of cinema, using digital effects to imitate the look of primitive, badly degraded film stock and early colorization techniques. The hard part comes in trying to explain what the film is actually about, because it isn't technically "about" anything. Stick with me on this one, Occasional Reader; I'll try to explain.

The main conceit of The Forbidden Room is that it follows dream logic, a storytelling technique that I find fascinating simply because it's so difficult to pull off well, and as a result, is so rarely used. When directors try it at all, it's usually only in short segments intended for cheap laughs or an easy spur to move the greater story along. In fact, I only know of one other production that follows dream logic from start to finish: a 1969 comedy album titled How Can You Be In Two Places At Once When You're Not Anywhere At All?, from the psychedelic comedy troupe The Firesign Theater.

Instead of the standard four or five short tales that we commonly get from the vignette style, The Forbidden Room packs 17(!) stories into its 130 minutes. And, as a dream would, it combines these stories together, twisting, splicing and burying each into the others, often with segues so natural that we don't realize the story has shifted right away. At first we're aboard a submarine facing disaster, the crew at a loss for a way to save themselves. To pass the time one crewman starts telling a story about a lumberjack fighting to rescue his beloved from a gang of bandits. While in their clutches, the girl has a dream about being a singer in a nightclub, and on, and on, and on. Stories segue into other stories, which turn into others, which become still others, only to revert back to the stories that were going on before. Back and forth we go between tales, through drama, suspense, adventure and even moments of unselfconscious silliness, until all the tales are told. And this rabbit-hole of anti-logical wheels-within-wheels is bookended and punctuated by an instructional film entitled "How to Take a Bath", in which a man named Marv, looking like a poor man's Hugh Hefner, instructs us in the proper art of bathing.

This is a challenging film to watch, even after you realize the film follows the logic and style of a dream and so isn't supposed to make sense. The anti-logical flow of the stories coupled with the imitation Early Years of Film look create the sensation that you are watching a dream instead of a film in the conventional sense. The stories don't even end definitively, because again, they aren't supposed to. Dreams don't really end; they just go on until we wake up. Sitting through over two hours of this is difficult; there's always another bizarre curveball coming your way. I found myself casting about, looking for the things I could make sense of even while the movie assured me that the whole thing made sense, just not the kind of "sense" I expected, or even understood.

And this is why, after sitting through this uncharacterizeable and certainly incomparable project, I find I have to praise it, bewildered by the experience through I am. A film like this could easily have been two hours of careless, meandering, idiotic chaos, and yet it isn't. This film defies all accepted rules of storytelling and weaves a tapestry of narrative that the first time viewer will likely get lost in, but there is a method to this madness. This is not the work of someone who was simply making it up as they went along; this is Lewis Carroll left alone with a movie camera.

I think what I like about this movie is how, in its way, it challenges the modern belief that nothing is anything, that perception trumps reality. This is a fine enough idea up to a point, I suppose; a little thinking outside the proverbial box certainly never hurt anyone. But at some point a bedrock of the real must exist, otherwise the world is reduced to a swirling, impressionist maelstrom. It's like sight without the ability to discern shapes, or hearing without the ability to comprehend language. The Forbidden Room is like that: you may be able to find meaning in small, isolated segments, but try to interpret larger sections and the story will only laugh and grow more bizarre. This is the post-modern belief that we each define and live by our own concept of truth carried fearlessly into the last extremity. Look ye, and wonder.

So-called 'art movies' are not normally my thing, and I say 'so-called' because all film is, by definition, art. My taste trends toward the conventional, and I have been known to enjoy a good car chase, perhaps coupled with an explosion or two (or five). But variety is the spice of life, they say, and occasionally I seek something different, something more 'original', for want of a better term. The catch there, though, is that you have to be prepared to accept originality when it appears, since originality necessarily stands apart from the conventional. Failure to do this is why, I find, the people who scream the loudest for more originality from Hollywood are always the last to recognize it when it arrives.

The Forbidden Room will quench your thirst for the new. I've certainly never seen anything like it, and it will take a far more experienced movie lover than I to find its equal. It's even fun, in its own way. But if you do watch this, you'll be stepping way outside your comfort zone. Try to keep an open mind.

Robert's Score: 8/10

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