Art films are a genuinely acquired taste. I’m talking about the way out shit that reaches to be Luis Bunuel. David Lynch is a proven brand and the buck pretty much stops there. But there’s a problem. I don’t know if you’ve seen Inland Empire, but Lynch has declared that three and half hour masturbatory free for all his future and if that’s what we have to look forward to in terms of high Lynchian weirdness, stop the world, I want to get off. Lynch sates my personal desire to see someone adapt my own nightmares to film. Shit so fractured that it only makes sense after a year of internse talking therapy and dream interpretation. Lynch still foots the bill even if he feels like digital video has broken his personal chains. Guy Maddin, thankfully, came into my life with this movie, Brand Upon The Brain and offered his own take on the highly metaphoric, psychosexual, fractured twist on my own nightmares made into movies. He, of course, paints it all in silent black and white and references the shit out of every German filmmaker from the dawn of the medium.
I felt, early on, while conceptualizing this review, that I would just throw out a lengthy word associations and let you make of it what you will, but that’s a real pain in the ass. So I promise to keep the art school fantasy to a minimum and just tell you about this latest release from the unstoppable, untoppable Criterion Collection.
Guy Maddin, professional house painter, is beckoned by his dying mother to return to his childhood home, a lighthouse, and give it two good coats of paint. While there, he can’t help but be overwhelmed by memories of his 12 year old self, of a particularly intense time in his life. His overprotective mother dotes on him to an uncomfortable degree and keeps watch on him from the top of the lighthouse, shouting to him through his aerophone, a device invented by inventor father. When she’s not watching her son, she is paralyzed with fear that her teenage daughter is out fucking every guy that gives her the time of day. Of course, it’s all paranoia stemming from her obsession with the purity of childhood and her own deep rooted fears about sexuality. The lighthouse, itself, is also home to an orphanage run Little Orphan Annie style by his parents and each of the children in their care bears one or more strange marks on their heads and necks. This draws the attention of the Lightbulb Twins, a pair (or a single, depending on how you look at it) of teen detectives who are going to get to the bottom of this affair. Guy falls in love with the female half of the pair, Wendy, while his sister, referred to only as Sis, falls in love with the male half, Chance, who is actually Wendy in disguise. They’ll figure out what is going on in the orphanage but at a terrible cost.
Does the above sound confusing? It should. The film defies easy explanation and the point of all this is never entirely clear. Brand Upon The Brain can serve as many things. Maddin describes the movie as 97% true and serves as some kind of abstract autobiography but it’s also not hard to pull elements of the movie from it’s eerie framework and apply it to your own childhood. The dreamlike continuity dug up memories of my own adolescence and called into question the way I was remembering it. Puberty is a particularly traumatic time and our brains are well known for their ways of obscuring the means by which we store memories, often softening the way they come back to us in situations that are too heavy for us to handle without a little padding. Like the dreams that these sorts of arthouse flicks strive to be, Maddin’s movie succeeds at being highly interpretive in spite of his claims that the movie is about his own life. Take that for what it’s worth.
From a filmmaker’s point of view, Maddin is a revivalist, which is something that bothers me to some degree. Frankly, I’m a fan of progressive filmmakers and I love nothing more than a director who tries new things. I often feel like shitty movies can be saved by a single original act and Maddin’s movie could be labeled original if it weren’t for the fact that he was copying the visual style of filmmakers from the silent era. He’s doing the same sort of thing that Tarantino and Rob Zombie are known for, albeit with a style much older than their hangups with the 70’s. However, Maddin’s movies are more than just good looks. The visual style is impressive and frightening. Shot with sharp contrast between the blacks and the whites, the post production process fucks with the flow of time as well, often moving too fast or omitting ranges of frames causing everyone to move too quickly or entirely in reverse in a jerky fashion. The lasting impression is that you’re actually watching the hazy recollections of a man who isn’t playing with a full deck thanks to a particularly damaged upbringing.
Maddin actually had a bigger vision for this movie and unless you caught it at a film festival, you’ll never see it how it was intended to be shown. Maddin employed live narration, live music and a live foley crew at the actual film presentations to accompany the film as it played. Criterion’s release does the best it can, as most of their releases tend to do, to duplicate this. Depending on where you saw this movie, the narrator was different and the disc comes equipped with narration tracks from Isabella Rossellini, Crispin Glover and Laurie Anderson to name a few. The music and foley track is also intact, some of these recorded live at an actual screening. One track, featuring Rossellini, is an actual studio recording. To review, I listened to the Glover recording since I can’t get enough of that guy.
Brand Upon The Brain is an extremely creepy, deliberately confusing piece of arthouse that touts a beautiful and terrifying visual style. It explores adolescence, identity, gender roles and really bad parenting in a world of stilted science fiction and vampirism. It’s certainly not for everyone since it’s not only a wacked out art movie, it’s also a silent but people wired for this sort of movie are in for a real treat. I’m told that this is Guy Maddin realizing his full potential as both an experimental storyteller and filmmaker and it certainly worked on me. I’m railing to see more from this guy.