Reviews

Brain Upon the Brain!

However we choose to brand it -- post-apocalyptic, postmodern, post-historical -- the fashion of outrageous mash-ups is intimately linked with the movies.


Brand Upon the Brain!

Subtitle: Criterion Collection
Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Erik Steffen Maahs, Gretchen Krich, Sullivan Brown, Clayton Corzatte
Length: 99
Studio: The Film Company
Distributor: Criterion Collection
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2008-08-12
UK DVD Release Date: Available as import
Website
Amazon

I.

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piece together silent black and white film stock, intertitles, mismatched footage -- and seemingly, whatever else is outdated, unusual, or close at hand.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.

II.

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 A related creative nostalgia for outdated technologies might also be responsible for the recent rise in vinyl sales, Andre 3000's new fashion line, and so forth.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.

III.

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.

IV.

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."

V.

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.

VI.

Brand Upon the Brain! is neither the most shocking nor moving of Maddin's films. (Archangel [1990] is arguably his masterpiece; The Saddest Music in the World [2003], 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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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