Stump the Guesser (Review)

This 2020 short from Maddin, Johnson and Johnson feels like it comes from a parallel reality. This is true of both the craft and the narrative, both consistently surreal and beguiling. The result of this is an uproariously fun twenty minutes, in the hands of people with astonishing visual animations, that takes you on an incoherent journey to internally coherent places.

What I mean by this is that, though this short is completely eclectic and surreal – and defies real world logic, it definitively coheres to its own rules. The filmmakers create a consistent and beguiling world full of life, factions, detail and eccentricities. There are even repeating and returning motifs and thematic echoes that make every unpredictable step feel new to the audience but oddly logical.

The premise is an odd one, a festival performer does an act where he guesses anything. The goal is to stump him. This goes to bewildering places and ends up, in a way, as a light exploration of determinism. The idea is that a person who makes his living by determining things suddenly becomes a victim – in a really audacious way – of wider determined factors. Through this, somewhat, we see how pre-scripted and rote life can be, and how so much exists outside of our control, yet controls us. What I particularly liked were the moments of, relative, banality for the Guesser at home: where he blindfolds himself and can poor tea into a cup no matter where it is moved – he is the guesser after all. This adds a prosaic quality to his psychic gift that cements the idea of him functioning as a symbol of everyday determinism.

All of this is communicated with a visual style that you expect from Maddin. It feels like classic silent film, in the key of Eisenstein or a bold news reel, yet also feels completely contemporary (or even straight out of the future). There is a post-modern vocabulary but it is self-aware post-modernism: always fun and never pretentious. Every frame is overwhelmed (delightfully) with flair and detail, and visual splendour. It really is a joy to watch as the early 20th Century aesthetic melds with surrealism and circus iconography. It feels like a surrealist cartoon, in the ilk of early Gilliam, but live-action. This is why it feels like alternate reality: the cinematic grammar is skewed and the internal coherence feels like you are looking through a portal to somewhere shifted and uncanny.

Ultimately, this is a delight. Long enough to find consistent ways to be imaginative and short enough to never outstay its welcome. It is an intelligent work of surrealism, a genre overcrowded with weird for weird’s sake. And though you could argue that it does fall prey to this latter critique, it uses its abundance of style to forge a genuine substance.

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