Brand Upon the Brain!
Canadian Guy Maddin doses audiences with another mad vision of yesteryear
Brand Upon the Brain!
Directed by Guy Maddin
Cast: Sullivan Brown, Katherine E. Scharhon, Gretchen Krich
Experimental Canadian fantasist Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, Tales From the Gimli Hospital) continues his somewhat prolific career of weirdness with Brand Upon the Brain!, a curiously anachronistic horror-mystery the filmmaker describes as “semi-autobiographical” (with, we’ll assume, a heavy emphasis on the “semi”).
The film is shot like some long-lost turn-of-the century movie serial, complete with high-contrast, black-and-white cinematography and silent film title cards. Narrated passionately by Isabella Rossellini, the film introduces us to Guy Maddin (Erik Steffan Maahs), a housepainter called back to his childhood home by his dying mother. The foreboding island of Black Notch is an isolated Northwestern promontory topped by a crumbling lighthouse. In the past, the island served, rather incongruously, as an orphanage run by Guy’s parents. While fulfilling his domineering mother’s request to repaint the lighthouse (“two good coats”), Guy wrestles with his memories of growing up on Black Notch Island.
In flashback, we see young Guy (Sullivan Brown) living happily on the island, despite the fact that Mother (Gretchen Krich, Cathleen O’Malley and Susan Corzatte at various stages) lords over the area like Big Brother, spying into the lives of her extended family from high atop her creepy lighthouse observatory. (In keeping with the obtrusive tone, the entire film looks like it was lit with a single spotlight.) Father (Todd Moore), meanwhile, remains locked in his basement laboratory performing various mad scientist duties. Among dad’s oddball inventions is the “Aerophone,” an emotionally powered gramophone device that allows Mother to harp on her young son wherever he may be.
One day, into this simmering pot of Freudian psycho-sexual repression comes the fetching Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon, who, like most of the actors here, is a first-timer). Wendy is a world-famous, harp-playing teen detective, star of her own young adult book series, who has arrived at Black Notch to solve “The Mystery of the Face in the Lighthouse.” Seems all the orphans at Black Notch have mysterious wounds on the backs of their necks. Who is causing this and for what sinister purpose?
Young Guy finds himself smitten with the dark-eyed Wendy, an attraction that only gets more complicated when Wendy decides to disguise herself as her twin brother Chance. Guy develops a repressed sexual attraction/admiration for “Chance,” while his naughty older sister, Sis (Maya Lawson), falls in love with the androgynous detective, leading to even more gender confusion among the Maddin family.
Eventually, it’s revealed that Guy’s parents may be harvesting life-giving fluids from the orphans in order to remain eternally young. (Again, I’m hoping this is only “semi”-autobiographical.) It’s all very mystifying, but Maddin is less interested in the mechanics of plot than in the overall effect of this moody and mysterious cinematic experiment. Shot on grainy 8mm and tricked out with digital effects that look like they were developed by Thomas Edison, the film comes across as a flickering fever dream where nothing is quite real.
Thankfully, Maddin’s queer sense of humor remains intact. What could have been a wearying and pretentious experiment (Matthew Barney, I’m looking at you and all 398 minutes of your Cremaster Cycle) is leavened by plenty of deadpan, self-referential jokes. At one point, for example, the film demures from a sexual tryst between Sis and Wendy. Rossellini the narrator waxes poetic on the need for secrets to remain hidden behind closed doors ... before bemoaning the lack of a keyhole.
Originally, the film was designed to be performed with live musical accompaniment and celebrity narrators (a duty Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed and others have undertaken in the past). It’s a shame to have missed out on such an event, but Rossellini’s dramatic recitation and Jason Staczek’s recorded score do just fine in this more commercial (if such a word can be applied) version. Strange, but strangely absorbing from start to finish, Brand Upon the Brain! is pure, unadulterated Maddin. That’s as good an endorsement as anything.