[24 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One imagines that if you gave Canadian auteur Guy Maddin a mainstream movie script and a cast of well known celebrities, he would still wind up making one unhinged example of avant-garde experimentalism. He’d have Brad Pitt as a half-blind double amputee with a kind of emotional Asperger Syndrome while co-star Cate Blanchett would be a mute muse he only sees while under the influence of a heady homemade elixir. It would borrow greatly from D. W. Griffith and the earliest days of moviemaking while adding enough Dali-inspired strangeness to make Un chien andalou look like Underdog.
Not known for his straightforward, rational, or even coherent aesthetic, this is a man manufacturing pictures based on his own fudged up film language. Maddin makes movies locked in his own unique approach, one that apparently hasn’t aged since Keaton and Chaplin were battling it out for box office supremacy. A perfect example of what he is after comes in the form of Brand Upon the Brain!, a self-described “97% accurate” autobiography of his early life as the abused son of a tyrannical couple who run a lighthouse orphanage while manufacturing an immortality serum. Seriously.
It’s not like the plot to the film (new to DVD from the Criterion Collection) clarifies things. When a fictional ‘Guy Maddin’ receives a letter from his dying mother asking that he return to the family homestead and give the place a much needed makeover, the middle aged painter agrees. Armed with a can of whitewash, he begins to touch up the fading walls of the Black Notch Island lighthouse, where his mother and father once ran an orphanage. Slowly, his memories of the past come flooding back.
He recalls his sexually frustrated older sister, and her physical awakening at the hands of a pair of Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew like detectives - Wendy and Chance Hale, otherwise known as “The Lightbulb Kids”. He remembers late night footsteps and long lines of orphans entering his father’s mysterious lab. He balks at reminiscences of his mother’s watchtower worrying, a weird telephone like device and searchlight seeking out anything remotely fun or satisfying. He even revisits his own ineffectual rearing, complete with too many intimate cuddles and his own awkward carnal confusions.
In general, Guy Maddin is either a stone cold genius or the kind of overly arty arsepipe that gives underground cinema a bad rap. Here’s voting for the former delineation. While you’ve probably never seen a silent scream as significant as Brand Upon the Brain!, Maddin makes his freak show fever dream relatively easy to digest. Sure, we grow slightly weary of all the peephole compositions and Lumiere like dissolves, but when the end result is this engaging, it really is hard to bellyache.
Indeed, Maddin earns major brownie points for out weirding David Lynch, circumventing Ken Russell, going gonzo where Terry Gilliam is merely giddy, and working it like a combination of James Whale, Tod Browning, and The Residents. Sure, it’s all pretend pretense, dramatics cleverly concealed inside manic moviemaking symbolism. But once you get a handle on Maddin’s cinematic dialect, the iconography becomes all too clear.
While he argues for the veracity of the events in Brand Upon the Brain!, it has also been suggested that the accuracy lies in ‘psychological’ truth. That means that Maddin’s character in the film was probably not the victim of a domineering and pseudo incestual mother. Instead, we can read in between the frame count to find the reality of an artistic young boy more or less smothered by his parent’s prearranged ambitions. Similarly, Sister could not have been a nun like nuisance that explored her sexuality via illicit trysts with ‘30s era teen spies. And let’s not even mention the occasional cranium draining that father forces on her.
Instead, Brand is plainly suggesting that, in a manner most understandable, Maddin’s sibling sought fantasy and freedom in unconventional ways, and when her family discovered this, their punishments figuratively leeched the life out of her. He wouldn’t be the first to cast relatives as reprobate from Hell. Such puzzle box pronouncements are all over this narrative. From Mother’s omniscient watchdog despotism to Father’s far away and distant kind of clinical disconnect, one sees a household orphaned, without the kind of conscious center that leads to love and open understanding.
Why else would Maddin’s movie mother want the residence painted over? Part of Brand Upon the Brain!‘s significance stems from the concept of hiding from the past. Indeed, the very approach of the film makes it all so meta. Sonic themes repeat - the call of the gulls, the ding of the off shore buoy, suggesting the kind of mental soundscape that shapes our memories. Maddin also repeats certain sequences, the better to emphasis his mother’s nonstop assaults, his Father’s “foghorn” like loss, or his own fascination with Wendy and Chance - the Lightbulb Kids.
Part of the fun in this film is deciphering the clues - what does naming these characters after Edison’s invention signify? An idea? An epiphany? Illumination? What about the statement that “raging = aging”? Is it merely a clever play on words, or a sensible psychological statement applied as a nonsense rhyme? The fact that Maddin literalizes everything, giving it shape and form where other filmmakers would strive for the suggestive, means that Brand is a film that fully expects you to play along. And since he employs a cast of unknowns, we can’t rely on celebrity to aid in our appreciation
Some can consider it confusing or even self-indulgent. ‘Interactive’ would be a much better label. Brand Upon the Brain! is like an incomplete composition, requiring the input and experiences of the viewer to realize its aims. Since the tale is told both visually and via a voice over narration, we get to play a kind of storyline compare and contrast. Even better, the implied dialogue frequently countermands the images, as when Mother’s maternal cooing appears almost erotic when applied to her young son.
There is a clear acknowledgement of the power of myth within Maddin’s work, and much of the time, Brand feels like Oedipus or some other famed Greek tragedy as spun and shuttered by The Brothers Grimm. The decision to use old silent filmmaking techniques really helps. By making Wendy and Chance the spitting image of Clara Bow, while his Father fumbles around in what looks like Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the homage to the artform’s past is particularly potent. It gives the fantastical, almost science fiction like format a real sense of significance.
In all honesty, Brand Upon the Brain! can best be described as a monochrome responsorial to Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s brilliant City of Lost Children. That French fable also emphasized the loss of innocence, the attempt to recapture youth, the feminine dominance of offspring and the typical ineffectual pining of the male. While the acclaimed foreign film wanted to feel like a bedeviled bedtime story, Maddin is more interested in producing a psycho-sensationalized mind play. One could easily envision this film being transformed to the stage, the various orchestration and foley choices accompanying a highly stylized recreation.
Of course, the bigger question remains - is any of this entertaining? Do we buy what this daring deconstructionist is selling, or would we be better served steering clear of his scrapbook as scar tissue? The truth is that Brand Upon the Brain! is not necessarily built for instant amusement. Instead, it sets up a subjective surrealist wavelength and wonders aloud (and often) if you’re capable of syncing up. Those who can won’t be disappointed. Those who can’t will simply shrug their shoulders and back peddle to the comfort of the mainstream. In either case, it’s a clear win for Maddin’s malarkey, and motives - not that he cares about such commercial aims.