Sunday, May 20, 2007


"Too Much For Guy!"

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN is the latest film from Guy Maddin, the Canadian auteur who specializes in making old-fashioned films. We were lucky enough to be able to see it with a live band, live Foley artists supplying sound effects, and a narrator (Edward Hibbert) who hit just the right note of fussy ferocity. I understand from a friend that Lou Reed fell asleep the night he was doing the narration.

And the movie was cool, too. One of Maddin's silent films, filled with cheap but effective effects and razor sharp editing, the kind of quick crazy stuff that they try to do in CHICAGO and fail miserably at doing. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! is easily the best of Maddin's films, a fast and furious melodrama divided, old-time serial style, into twelve episodes. But it isn't all fun and parody games. The film is labelled A Remembrance In Twelve Episodes, and the main character of the film is named Guy Maddin. I have no way of knowing if there is any real connection between the events of the film and the events of Mr. Maddin's childhood (for his sake, I bloody well hope there isn't), but the added feeling of autobiography lends the film an intensity that has been lacking in Maddin's other films. There's a fresh manic quality to several scenes that lift them straight into serious nightmare territory. One in particular involving Guy's youth-obsessed mother and a surgical procedure with a corpse hits Oedipal territory that makes PSYCHO seem downright quaint.

The film begins with a character named Guy Maddin returning to his childhood home, a lighthouse on an otherwise deserted island that once also served as an orphanage run by Maddin's parents. Guy is soon flashing back to his childhood life on the island with his family. Maddin's mother keeps strict tabs on young Guy and his sister through use of something called an aerophone, and is obsessed with regaining her lost youth. Maddin's father is always at work in his lab on some mysterious project that seems to have something to do with the strange wounds on the back of all the little orphans' heads. A love triangle eventually develops between Guy, his sister, and a visiting detective investigating Nefarious Deeds on the island.

I was no stranger to Maddin's films before seeing BRAND. His films always have the look of older films, like one of those exploitation films from the 30s that occasionally surface, like the immortal REEFER MADNESS or MANIAC or MARIJUANA: WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL. Films that have all the trappings of 1930s filmmaking, but with the surprising extra of nudity and drug use. Unfortunately, Maddin's films also have the drawbacks of those early 30s films: stodgy filmmaking and unfortunate performances. For all their visual beauty, they seem leaden.

All that changed around the time he made his short film THE HEART OF THE WORLD, a wondrous hyper-kinetic short in which Maddin seems to have abandoned the world of synch sound entirely. His camera was set free, his editing got sharper, the energy quotient was upped considerably, but more importantly, something seems to have been cut loose in Maddin himself as a filmmaker. His following features in this style (DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN'S DIARY and COWARDS BEND THE KNEE) are very exciting, but in BRAND UPON THE BRAIN Maddin really goes for broke. Its a great show.