Herzog was invited to Antarctica by the National Science Foundation, with the only stipulation that he not make another penguin movie. He can’t quite pull that off: The movie’s most haunting image is of a little penguin trudging by its lonesome in the exact opposite direction it should be heading—toward distant mountains and certain death. Why? Herzog respects the penguin’s mystery. A scientist says that up here you hear “the universe whispering to itself.” What is it saying? Herzog doesn’t speculate. He ends with underwater seal calls—high-pitched, inorganic-sounding, yet keening, like a message to extraterrestrials saying the end is near.
Herzog grapples with the external world; Guy Maddin pulls the world into himself, sinks his fingers into it, and sculpts. His inner landscape is remarkably vivid. His films are montage-collages, found footage woven into faux–found footage, with an Expressionistic intensity unseen since the days of the German silents. At their best, they are like psychosexual messages piped in from the collective unconscious of moviegoers; the medium itself becomes the ultimate fetish. But they are better in small doses, before Maddin’s digressions and the sheer overload of his miraculous imagery wears you down. My Winnipeg is overloaded and digressive—it comes with the territory—but it’s also grounded in a place, Maddin’s Manitoban hometown, and it’s painfully engrossing. The grounding keeps the movie focused—or focused enough. The inner and outer worlds glance off each other: The destruction of an old, beloved hockey arena represents the death of Maddin’s father and of the city’s soul. The enduring image of his mother—withholding yet controlling, with an aversion to nature—looms in stark close-up, larger than the landscape. The force of her will and her lap (many lap close-ups) holds Maddin in place; the train out of town in which the narrator reclines, reminiscing, never seems to get beyond the outskirts. The city’s seminal events feed into Maddin’s sense of futility—like his cartoon rendering of the horses in the twenties that were driven from their barn by fire, leaped into one of Winnipeg’s four rivers, and gradually froze in place as the current met the unmovable ice. There is footage of people strolling on that ice among the frozen horse heads, smiling, smooching, unaware of the symbolism, while Maddin palpably sides with the animals, their faces contorted in agony. He’s not going anywhere.
The first half of Quid Pro Quo is among the most jaw-dropping things I’ve ever seen: Who knew there was a closeted subculture of people pretending to be paraplegics? Nick Stahl is a paralyzed NPR reporter who wheels around in search of the real story; Vera Farmiga is the femme fatale who’s into spokes. Director Carlos Brooks’s script is lovingly strange—until the climactic revelation, which we’ve seen creaking toward us for some time. The movie is best when it’s most open-ended. But Farmiga is—as usual—scarily good. Her madness isn’t something out of the ether. She’s always visibly calculating, thinking better of something reckless she’s about to do—then doing it anyway. It’s a very erotic portrait if you’ve ever yearned to be flattened by a kamikaze wheelchair-driver.