Brand Upon the Brain!
2007Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Gretchen Krich, Maya Lawson, Katherine E. Scharhon
his latest of Guy Maddin’s antiquarian, cinephilic comic-melodramas—for two decades, he’s brewed up an oeuvre of contemporary art-film perversities squeezed into mutations of long-obsolete genres—finds its White Whale in a figure that’s dominated movies since Griffith: Mother. Specifically, the imperious materfamilias of weak-willed antihero Guy Maddin, a housepainter who’s returned to his island home (in Bergmanic desolation) to slap three coats onto the orphanage/lighthouse where he grew up, per his purportedly dying mom’s request. We’re soon pitched into his inflamed memories of youth, and the curious habits of one of the more indelible monster/mamas since Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Mother Maddin (Gretchen Krich) keeps tabs on Young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and lusty teen Sis (Maya Lawson) from her tower perch via mega-powered searchlight, a trance-inducing foghorn, and an “aerophone” of her inventor-husband’s making: gramophone-like walkie-talkies that emit a horrid squawk and can only be powered by LOVE or RAGE (as lurid intertitles cap them). Whirling atop the lighthouse in a surveillance throne that spins 360 degrees, she marshals the island’s children at the tip of a clitoral symbol.
Mother insistently drives her orphan charges to maniacally scrub dirt from the floor and stairs, then KOs them with clouds of “sleeping gas” at bedtime. She fixes her tousle-haired, coquettish daughter with an icy glare and observes, “You look like you just left the bed of a seducer.” (Despite the purplish rhetoric, we’ve all heard equivalent damnations in the throes of adolescence.) Occasionally bathing in a tub of turpentine to “wash the sin away,” she can be overcome with hysteria in recounting being cut from her own mother’s belly by a knife-wielding infertile aunt, or by bouts of maternal love that compel her to raise Guy’s nightgown and dotingly kiss his tush. All of this is “too much for Guy!!” as another recurring title card exclaims. His rapt devotion to famous girl detective Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) is derailed when her investigation of shady doings in the orphanage is taken over by Wendy’s slick brother Chance—actually Wendy in a cap and pants, the better to indulge her erotic craving for Sis. All this youthful carnality and demented parenting (Dad is seen almost exclusively from behind, at work in his Frankensteinian lab) leads to horrible discoveries and worse consequences, amid the dripping of revivifying “nectar” and re-animated corpses…
The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has classified the thing Maddin does as “deranged heterosexual camp,” but the copious sensuality is generous with nudity of both sexes, and makes for a giddy polymorphous stew (particularly in a movie crafted to look like it’s from 1928) … and “camp” seems to dismiss the weight of the passions and primal scenes very apparent within the magic-lantern form and the wacky milieu. (Whatever autobiographical impulses guide the filmmaker, at least his namesake here is a fate-tossed, ineffectual boy; last time out in Cowards Bend the Knee, Guy Maddin was a compulsive, hockey-playing strangler.) Like traditional macabre fables, Brand is laden with remembered familial traumas. The needless amputations of other Maddin epics are absent, but there’s the awful legacy of an electrocuted sibling, and kiddie campfire merriment over forebears’ homicides. If anything, the director and his regular co-writer George Toles overstuff their plots with baroque strangeness, recalling the psych-folk songs of Robyn Hitchcock that burst with frogs, insects and ghosts. But the piston-rapid montages and inventive low-budget optical tricks supply the energy to keep the story from drowning in its fierce psychosexual tides.
Besides a dash of Bergman and the eerie fetishes of Eraserhead-era David Lynch, the farrago of Brand Upon the Brain! recalls the ’20s horror films of Tod Browning, juvenile horror and detective pulp, Grand Guignol, and the pansexual ’50s cinema of Jack Smith. Developing and shooting the script quickly for Seattle’s non-profit The Film Company, the Canadian conjurer Maddin here matches and occasionally surpasses his similarly styled Cowards in lunacy and fever-dream wigginess. Brand has been screened at festivals and in a few cities as a big-event “live show” with onstage musicians, “interlocutor” (narrator) and white-coated sound effects artists. But even in its soundtracked version it’s scarcely “silent”: The Pixelvision-like, grainy black-and-white images (and the accompanying pixilated ideas) are cut to a splendid, strings-heavy score by Jason Staczek, deadpan narration by Isabella Rossellini, and an aggressive mélange of aural stimuli (paint slapping, the flappp of Sis instantly draping herself when caught en flagrante with Wendy, sea waves, a hole being crunchily drilled into a child’s head). Divided into a dozen chapters with headings like “A Quivering Mass of Flesh,” Brand in its final scenes may not have the neatly poetic tragicomedy of Maddin’s best feature, The Saddest Music in the World, but its mythic nuttiness gets under your skin just as these archetypal figures gradually penetrate each other’s subterfuges, skulls, and orifices.
Brand Upon the Brain! is playing in limited release.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-06-06