Brand Upon the Brain! ***1/2
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by Guy Maddin and George Toles
Gretchen Krich as Mother
Sullivan Brown as Young Guy Maddin
Maya Lawson as Sis
Katherine E. Scharhon as Chance Hale/Wendy Hale
Todd Moore as Father
Andy Loviska as Savage Tom
Kellan Larson as Neddie
Cathleen O'Malley as Young Mother
95 Minutes(Not Rated-Nudity, Some Violence, Some Sex)
Now I have only seen once of Guy Maddin's feature films-"The Saddest Music in the World"-and a couple of his shorts as they were presented before features at the IFC Center in Manhattan. Not knowing much about his work over the last two decades, it is still quite clear to me that he is one of the most visionary and talented directors still working. Maddin goes beyond the realm of imagination and enters into works of complete ambition and love. Maddin actually cares for his work, which is why whenever he tries to do something new and original, it ends up not being pretentious. You can sense the labor that he goes into creating his pieces. And with "Brand Upon the Brain!" I was able to experience Maddin's vision to the extreme.
"Brand Upon the Brain!" is a new silent film-told 99.9% in black and white, complete with overly dramatic facial expressions, grainy film, and title cards. The only real thing that separates this from silent films of the era are the extreme cuts and edits, and the nudity. Other than that, this is just about the real deal. Maddin tells the story of Guy Maddin in twelve chapters. Maddin has been written a letter by his mother to paint the lighthouse that she owned when she was younger. Maddin had his childhood there, where strange things would happen constantly, and he has been instructed to paint the house white-probably just to cover up the awful things that happened to him. His mother raised orphans, and when he was not eating grim dinners with the family, he was living with his angry mother and his father who was always downstairs in the basement working on experiments. These experiments catch the eye of Chance and Wendy Hale, a duo of harp playing teen detectives that decide to solve the mystery at the lighthouse. And then there is an odd twist as Wendy dresses up like her brother Chance, and then Guy's sister falls in love with her thinking that she is a he, and there are strange experiments with the father, all turning into this one of a kind experience where the plot becomes a side note.
Maddin is a very visual director, which is why the magic of this film comes from the images presented and not in the words written on the title cards. At times it is a little impossible to follow exactly what is happening in the plot, merely because so much is happening, but you can do your best. And it is a bit far-fetched, but it is the care and effort that Maddin clearly put into the work that makes it worthwhile. The version that it was presented to me was special, and not the way that many of you will be experiencing this. Being a silent film there was a fourteen piece orchestra, three Foley artists doing the sound effects(doors, waves, etc), and then there was a celebrity narrator reading through a microphone specific things that was written for the film. (My narrator was Tunde Adebimpe, whose work I am not familiar with at all.) To make matters even more awesome, the theatre that I went to was an old Yiddish theatre, and the screen was projected where the stage used to be, and I was sitting in a balcony seat. It was probably the perfect way to experience this one of a kind adventure.
I do admire how Maddin ends up telling his bizarre and nutty story through a silent film and not through a narrative, and I also admire how he told the story how he wanted to instead of trying to stick with the codes of that time period. The film has sex, it has breasts, it has lesbians, it has people eating the skin off others backs. The silent film was just a cool way to tell this story. And there is a constant act of feeling involved in the film, as Maddin uses an amount of cuts and edits constantly. I was always tempted to stop looking at the screen because I wanted to watch the musicians or the sound people doing their jobs, but whenever I did I felt like I was missing a crucial image on the screen. "Brand Upon the Brain!" does open this week with a prerecorded narrative and a score, but if it is possible in the next two days to catch the live event it will be well worth your while. This was quite an event, and it is probably more of a masterpiece in the way that it was presented to me. It makes you wonder what kind of nutty and original story Mr. Maddin will come up with next, and in what genius way he will present it. The film and the event are a must-see for any fan of silent film, or simply anything new and exciting-a welcome relief from the Hollywood bore, and more ambitious and exciting than any summer blockbuster.