Resurrecting Silent Film in a Peephole World of Sex

Increasingly, mainstream cinemas are using gimmicks like 3D and elaborate special effects to entice spectators into theaters. The Regal theater chain is currently running ads urging patrons to embrace big-screen spectacle and stop watching movies on their computers. On the flip side, Guy Maddin took the opposite path with his 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee. The ten-part film was originally presented as a peephole installation at a Toronto art gallery, but it may have found a perfect home on streaming video, where only one person can watch it at a time under most circumstances. In a 2006 blog post, David Bordwell observed that “the iPod rediscovers the Kinetoscope, Edison’s early peephole film system…It’s a little world addressed to you alone.” According to this line of thinking, Maddin was years ahead of his time.

Only Maddin would have dared to make a silent film in 2003, complete with intertitles and color tinting. However, no one would mistake Cowards Bend the Knee for an actual film from the ‘20s, especially when the director is so clearly paying homage to those that came before. Maddin makes overt reference to Fritz Lang’s Liliom and combines the influence of Lang and F.W. Murnau with the superimpositions and quick editing of Dziga Vertov. It also goes without saying that directors of the silent era like Murnau never had the freedom to express his sexuality as overtly as Maddin does. In sensibility, he’s the most homoerotic heterosexual director since Ken Russell in the ‘70s, and while Cowards Bend the Knee is one of his straighter films, he manages to throw in plenty of full-frontal male nudity.

In Cowards, a hockey player by the name of Guy Maddin (Darcy Fehr) pursues Veronica (Amy Stewart). After Veronica gets pregnant, Guy takes her to an abortion clinic operated out of a beauty salon that also happens to serve as a brothel. However, he lets Veronica down by falling for Meta (Melissa Dionisio), a woman he meets there. Meta then urges Guy to amputate his hands and have her father’s grafted on in their place.


Maddin has created a fictional autobiographical persona over the course of several films, throwing in references to his actual family but often deploying them in absurd situations. One gets the sense that he uses cinema to live out his fantasies and engage in activities he’s never pursued in real life. In this, he’s not so unusual – Luc Besson has probably never killed any Colombian drug lords. What is unusual is his honesty about it; Maddin implicates himself in his fantasies. While a director like Quentin Tarantino gives the impression that his video collection is his world, Maddin, for all his cinephilia, inserts family history alongside references to his favorite films. In Cowards Bend the Knee, Maddin cast his own mother as Veronica’s grandmother, while the character of his father (Victor Cowie) is the hockey team’s announcer.

The opening scene of Cowards Bend the Knee shows a scientist’s sperm under a microscope. It doesn’t exactly represent Maddin’s attitude towards his subjects – his sensibility is too frank about delighting in polymorphous perversity – but it may represent the individual spectator’s point of view. Cowards Bend the Knee employs the dying format of Super-8 – it was distributed theatrically on projected video – in order to resurrect the silent film and reconstruct the fantasies underlying Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films or Murnau’s Sunrise. Its handmade quality may be the most genuinely old-fashioned thing about it – in a world of market-driven cinema, Cowards is one man’s desires laid bare on screen.

Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.


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