The Guy Maddin aesthetic—if, say, we were warning a novice what to expect from one of his films—might be summarized as a hysterical resurrection of the subconscious (to slightly fuddle Freudian metaphors), but the subconscious of cinema itself.
Maddin’s movies piece together silent black and white film stock, intertitles, mismatched footage—and seemingly, whatever else is outdated, unusual, or close at hand. Fragments splinter further and recur in relentless repetitions; outrageous faux-retro-naïve narrations (by genuine explicadores in theaters) work against as much as with the images. The ‘poetic truth’ emerging from that counterpoint has something in common with Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness (1992) or Wild Blue Yonder (2005). Maddin, however, is both hysterically funny and just hysterical. His anachronism steals the limelight from even his fusions.
Minor and major lapses aside, the project continues to feel fresh. Maddin questions narrative technique, but by jerking us back in time before contemporary cinematic practices had quite congealed, much less standardized. At least, the movies seem to draw us towards some such mythic point of origin, confronting us with a maddening pastiche of our own silent movie-era clichés.
The fact that these borrowed, regurgitated bits are thoroughly tainted with foreignness—Weimar fashions, early Soviet montage—isn’t exactly lost on Maddin, whose recurring subject is an exaggerated Canadian provincialism. The more personal films like Brand Upon the Brain! tend to read as follows: 1) little Guy can never escape his childhood home/town/nightmare; 2) but his vivid dreams speak to a wild collective subconscious, shaped by and embodied in film.
Maddin’s deliberate anachronism calls to mind a fashion movement the New York Times recently tagged with the umbrella term ‘steampunk’. A related creative nostalgia for outdated technologies might also be responsible for the recent rise in vinyl sales, Andre 3000’s new fashion line, and so forth.
However we choose to brand it—post-apocalyptic, postmodern, post-historical—the fashion of outrageous mash-ups is intimately linked with the movies. The cult classics regularly invoked by ‘steampunk’ are George Miller’s 1980s Mad Max series, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), and Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children (1995).
Maddin is of course doing something far more sophisticated, mashing up materials and production as well as the images on screen: he, for one, is finished neither with the ideals of Surrealism nor outmoded film stock. Nonetheless, these earlier films go some way towards establishing a visual context, and probably an audience, for Brand Upon the Brain! The film claims its own sources also in live performance genres like vaudeville, burlesque, and varieté.
Early David Cronenberg also belongs on the list. (Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991), of three intercut Jean Genet stories, is another contender.) Cronenberg’s little-known Stereo (1969) is a black and white pseudo-educational-documentary about “telepathic experiments at the Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry”. I am not joking. Stereo in fact views much like Maddin, only bad. Shared leitmotifs in the two directors’ oeuvres—film as vampirism/viral infection in Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983); see also Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee (2003)—speak almost to the existence of a peculiar Canadian school.
Brand Upon the Brain! opens with adult Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the tiny island where he spent his childhood, to fulfill his dying mother’s last wish. Guy feverishly regresses to pre-pubescence (Sullivan Brown is little Guy) while he repaints the lighthouse of the old ‘mom and pop orphanage’, and we relive his Oedipal traumas filtered through horror flick mainstays. Mother (Gretchen Krich), sexually jealous of Guy and irrepressible older Sis (the really very lovely Maya Lawson—who knew people still looked like that?), bathes in turpentine before a recurring primal scene. Father (Todd Jefferson Moore), a mad scientist turned zombie, harvests orphan nectar from the hypnotized darlings. Mad Tom rallies the children for nightly satanic rituals, and so on.
Things get truly weird, however, when Wendy/Chase (Katherine E. Scharhon) of the Lighthouse Kids arrives. She, sometimes disguised as he, is one half of a twin teen detective team. Now, sex is really confusing! Suffice to say that Freud’s two pillars of civilization—no incest, and definitely no cannibalism—get somewhat shaken. An intertitle repeated throughout the film sums it up: “Too much for Guy!!”
Brand Upon the Brain!‘s extreme aesthetic confirms Maddin as a straight-to-cult status director, with dual fan bases in alternative pop culture and academicky circles. Somehow, even beyond the voyeurism-as-camp appeal (teenage lesbian sex—through a keyhole! zombie incest!!), his movies are funny enough to remain watchable despite breaking most rules of mainstream narrative film.
After the half-way mark, Brand Upon the Brain! admittedly pushes that limit. Twelve chapters long and clocking in under 100 minutes, it feels like a much longer movie. Reportedly, Maddin shot all the footage in nine days. (He is charming in a Film Monthly interview: “I felt like the super 8 camera I was holding in my hand was like a high-powered dust-buster that was just sucking up images.”) He also shot in Seattle, making Brand Upon the Brain! his first outside of Canada. The most recent, 2007’s Winnipeg, returns home with a vengeance.
The Film Company, an independent Seattle production team, more or less dared Maddin into making Brand Upon the Brain! In exchange for complete creative control, they insisted he use an all-Seattle cast and crew, and take no more than six weeks to shoot. Maddin being Maddin, he went even more extreme.
Time constraints necessitated certain aesthetic choices: no time to write dialogue, so silent; no time to invent fiction, so stylized autobiographical. Yet the resulting film was something Maddin had been dying, so to speak, to make. The second in a loosely autobiographical trilogy (Cowards Bend the Knee and Winnipeg are the first and last), Brand Upon the Brain! reputedly worked “better than therapy”, ‘freeing’ the director from his childhood.
As Maddin has protested modestly in the past: “I don’t think differently, I love differently.”
I most regret that I didn’t see Brand Upon the Brain! live in the theater, accompanied by Maddin and a mini traveling circus of performers and entourage. In 2006 and 2007 Brand Upon the Brain! toured Toronto, New York, and other film festivals with live narrators like Isabella Rosselini, Lou Reed, and John Ashberry. A singer billed as a castrato performed. Foley artists simulated kissing and flesh-tearing sound effects. (Cabbage apparently works beautifully for the latter). The spectacle must have been marvelous, more than making up for the claustrophobia of Maddin’s limited footage.
The Criterion Collection attempts to recreate that pageant on DVD as much as mechanically possible: the menu lets viewers choose between narrators, the ‘castrato’ solo still comes as a surprise, and so forth. The add-ons, including two Maddin shorts, are in general far more charming and worthwhile here than most. However, after switching through the options, and though momentarily charmed by Ashberry’s reading, I quickly settled back into Rosselini’s brilliantly campy narration and expect most viewers will do the same.
Brand Upon the Brain! is neither the most shocking nor moving of Maddin’s films. (Archangel  is arguably his masterpiece; The Saddest Music in the World , remains a favorite perhaps because it was my first Maddin.) Its repetitions, initially dazzling, threaten to become deadening: an intertitle helpfully explains that “Everything always happens twice! And again!” Jason Stascek’s score is however incredibly fun, and the pulsing montage inherently musical. Even short his best game, Maddin carves open wide spaces for experimentation too often vanished into the mainstream. Without Maddin, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier, and Werner Herzog, where would aspiring young filmmakers be?
And, even if Brand Upon the Brain! doesn’t entirely hold its own on DVD, it will doubtless project on a wall somewhere at a great many hipster parties.