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Brand Upon the Brain!
A remembrance in twelve chapters

Brand Upon the Brain!
Criterion 440
2006 / B&W / anamorphic widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date August 12, 2008 / 39.95
Starring Gretchen Krich, Sullivan Brown, Maya Lawson, Katherine E. Scharhon, Todd Moore, Andrew Loviska, Kellan Larson, Isabella Rossellini
Cinematography Benjamn Kasulke
Production Design Tania Kupczak
Film Editor John Gurdebeke
Original Music Jason Staczek
Written by Guy Maddin, George Toles
Produced by Amy Jacobsen, Gregg Lachow
Directed by Guy Maddin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Canadian director Guy Maddin is finally emerging from the cult ghetto into a wider audience, finding life beyond the festival circuit. Some of Maddin's earlier works have been marginalized as faux silent movie imitations, or grandiose-artsy gay fantasies, but time and experience has revealed the quirky personal signatures on his cinematic fever dreams. The bizarre melodramatic pastiche Brand Upon the Brain! is too serious to be camp and too obsessively pure to be the work of a dilettante. In Maddin we find an experimental filmmaker steeped in arcane film lore, yet too intelligent to simply ape older styles. Viewers frustrated by the obscurantism of David Lynch, the still-reigning experimental king, may find new inspiration in Guy Maddin's emotionally charged and retro-melodramatic excesses.

Brand Upon the Brain! was originally presented as a theater event with live musicians, Foley artists and a 'special guest' narrator.

Synopsis (very thin):

Wanderer Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) returns to remote Black Notch Island, to repaint the lighthouse where his parents ran an orphanage. Memories flood back and he's soon reliving strange events from years ago: Guy's mother (Gretchen Krich) is a clinging puritan who bathes in turpentine and uses a telescope to keep watch over Young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his sister Sis (Maya Lawson); they also communicate through "Aerophones" made by Guy's father (Todd Moore), an inventor conducting mysterious experiments in the basement. Mistreated during the day, the orphans sneak out at night to attend semi-Satanic rites conducted by Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), the alpha male orphan. Girl's literature heroine Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) comes to the island to investigate why the orphans all have strange holes drilled into the backs of their heads. Guy falls madly in love with Wendy, but she's attracted to Sis and disguises herself as her own brother Chance Hale for romantic encounters. Mother's behavior becomes more erratic, and she sometimes seems to be much younger for a few hours after father's special "treatments." The nighttime foghorn puts the orphans into a trance, and they sleepwalk one by one into father's basement lab ...

Guy Maddin's oddball style demands that viewers pay keen attention but Brand Upon the Brain! is certainly a rewarding experience. Those that dismiss Maddin's work as imitation silent films forget that silent films never really looked like this (although Kirsanov's Ménilmontant comes close). Maddin shoots on film but his editor John Gurdebeke makes heavy use of digital tricks on Final Cut Pro to give new footage the look of a fourth-generation B&W relic that won't run through the film gate smoothly. The picture jumps at cuts and the cuts are often staggered with odd flash frames, an impression that recalls the experience of watching bad 16mm dupes of "classic cinema" in old film school classes.

Maddin's editorial style goes far beyond, cutting shots down to unusually short lengths and making staccato montages out of grainy and often out-of-focus snippets. Maddin actually achieves some of the feeling of "psychological discovery" that he says is the aim of his editing style. Russian-style montage editing was in part an attempt to develop film as a perceptual and psychological medium, and the best thing that can be said about Brand Upon the Brain! is that it advances the kind of filmic experimentation not seen since the heyday of the Avant-Garde. Maddin's films have nothing in common with pretentious art cinema that uses static frames and enforced boredom as a tool. Brand Upon the Brain! earns its candidacy as film art.

Maddin brings a battery of talents to his work. The stylized acting is impressive, and the art direction taps into the liberated imagery of early cinema. Symbolic images place the characters in a psycho-mythic framework. The lunatic mother is at once deeply in love with her children yet in a constant rage over their perceived sins, like a harpy-mom from a Grimm fairy tale. Expressive inter-titles places the story conflicts on a melodramatic plane that bypasses camp in favor of a weird emotional purity. Savage Tom's coven-like meetings seem to be little more than expressions of rebellion. Just when Tom prepares to cut out a child's heart, Mother's voice comes over the Aerophone to call the kids to dinner. Wendy Hale does her detective snooping in a top hat and mask, looking very much like Fantomas. The foghorn trance sequence is like the call of the Eloi in George Pal's The Time Machine. George Toles' story evokes fantastic elements from movies as disparate as Nosferatu (a zombie paterfamilias) and The Leech Woman (a signet ring used to pierce the brain cortex).

In his interviews, Guy Maddin claims that the movie is an emotional autobiography: a distant father labors on suspicious projects, a clinging, disapproving mother is terrified of growing old. Maddin laces the story with lesbian longing and gender panic, and "little Guy" has a habit of fainting in stressful moments, mainly when he rhapsodizes over the idealized Wendy. For all its weirdness, the film has sympathy for people and is free of cynicism. Some characters die -- some die more than once -- but the overall vision is positive. The eccentric , funny Brand Upon the Brain! is not for general tastes, but it definitely has artistic integrity.  1

Criterion's special edition DVD of Brand Upon the Brain! gives this bizarre audio-visual workout a sterling presentation, in enhanced widescreen. The B&W image reproduces the film's handmade look.

The extras will attract any fan of Guy Maddin. He offers no commentary but provides good interview material for the new featurette 97 Percent True. The producer of the touring live audio version of the movie explains how the multiple narrators worked: Isabella Rossellini is on the "official" soundtrack but live narrations from Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, Guy Maddin, Louis Negrin and Eli Wallach are included as additional extras.

Maddin also offers two more short films, It's My Mother's Birthday Today and Footsteps, both said to have been made specifically for this DVD. A deleted scene serves as another extra, along with a trailer. Dennis Lim provides the insert essay, and Criterion's disc producer is Kate Elmore.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Brand Upon the Brain! rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two short films, featurette, alternate narration tracks, deleted scene, trailer, liner essay by Dennis Lim.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.


1. If my descriptions of Brand Upon the Brain! don't suffice, Savant recommends readers take a look at the Youtube presentation of The Heart of the World, a terrific Maddin short subject from 2000. It's basically Abel Gance's The End of the World (La fin du monde), with a generous helping of J'Accuse as well. It is only six minutes long yet is a fully functioning mini-masterpiece.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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