USA / Canada, 2006
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 20 September 2006
Source Celluloid Dreams 35mm print
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The initial experience of watching a film is seldom given the same degree of significance that it once was granted when audiences were only able to view film in theatres. With the rise of the home video market and the phenomenon of DVD, the quality of a film is often evaluated using the notion of “repeat viewings,” which appears more of a method used by consumers to justify purchase behaviour rather than simply to judge the artistic worth of an individual film. Hence the merit of a single film becomes akin to a mathematical equation comparing costs and through a twisted form of consumer logic, viewers begin to attach more value to the DVD as a product than to the film as an experience. The execution of this economic concept becomes mildly annoying to observe when implemented by friends while shopping, especially exhausting when discussed amongst members of numerous internet forums, and absolutely frustrating when witnessing it’s application as a method to evaluate a project whose primary objectives are far more artistic than commercial.
Somewhat related to this methodology is the stubborn belief that a film must continue to reveal novel ideas and possess unknown depth upon subsequent viewing in order to remain “important.” Thus, it’s unusual to hear praise for a film regarding its ability to generate a truly distinctive and intense initial experience. As someone who appreciates and respects the continued analysis of films by film scholars, this viewpoint may appear contradictory, but to diminish the importance of our original experience with a film is to deny a great deal of the power of filmmaking.
With this in mind, attending the premiere of Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! at the 2006 TIFF was a memorable occasion, in that Maddin’s black & white silent film was a spectacle able to create a delightfully unique experience and a thoroughly interactive atmosphere. Admittedly, I have some personal bias in evaluating Maddin’s work as he is something of a minor celebrity within my local filmmaking community and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter George Toles, was my professor in university. Even ignoring personal proximity, Maddin is an enjoyable personality within contemporary film culture, given that his films are both visually expressive and wildly humorous, and also considering his tastes in cinema are so decidedly unpretentious (he somehow mentions Far From Heaven in the same breath as Undercover Brother). Having confessed that I cannot claim complete objectively, and though the film treads in previously charted waters, I remain convinced that Maddin’s latest effort is a substantial achievement within his body of work, if only for Maddin’s ability to create an alluring ambience during the film’s sole screening at the festival.
Accompanied by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the guidance of composer Jason Staczek, Maddin screened his silent film with a multitude of live-performers in attendance, including three (almost distractingly) expert foley artists, an animatedly droll narrator, and a perplexingly piercing “singer” who all executed their duties with astoundingly adroit precision. While the trend for silent film screenings seems to favour the anachronistic application of modern music to ripened classics, Maddin continues to create feverish films that emulate elapsed eras using modern filmmaking and respectful traditional scores. In this instance, the live musical accompaniment only heightened the experience of watching Maddin untangle his customarily convoluted combination of numerous influences using his usual blend of murky montage to wade through his own hideously humorous memories.
As with most of Maddin’s work, Brand Upon the Brain! defies succinct summary but carries his typical themes and tactics. Filmed on a Seattle beach, the North-western location closely resembles the gloomy shores of Maddin’s own childhood home in Gimli, Manitoba, and the director claims his film contains some incoherent autobiographical elements within its complicated narrative. The basic plot involves a young man named Guy — Maddin’s compulsory amnesiac — returning after an absence of thirty years to his childhood home on the isolated island of Black Notch, upon his mother’s request, to restore the family’s lighthouse which he stands to inherit. Instructed by his stern matriarch to apply “two good coats of paint,” Guy finds the vapours restoring his memories of childhood when the lighthouse also served as an orphanage run by his parents.
Guy soon recalls the strict supervision of his over-protective mother, the daunting detachment from his secluded scientist father, and the adolescent antics of his covertly rebellious older sister. We also meet Savage Tom, an adolescent orphan determined to cause a commotion at the orphanage by organizing pagan rituals in protest of the tyrannical tactics applied at the orphanage, as well as Guy’s frequently frightened friend, Neddie, an innocent orphan who once accidentally killed his own brother. While his overbearing mother monitors the island’s orphans using an extravagant telescope mounted atop the lighthouse, Guy’s mechanical father compulsively labours in the basement toiling away at secret experimentation, and Guy, Sis, and Neddie glumly distract themselves from their parents’ devious designs to harvest a scarce but potent nectar. However, the arrival of famous teenage sleuth Wendy Hale, gives the children cause for excitement, as the detectives seek to uncover the cause of the mysterious markings that are branded upon the heads of the children in the orphanage.
At this point, the description of the story becomes difficult given that Maddin and Toles wander around in their own amusingly eccentric obsessions, creating both hilarious circumstances and suspenseful sequences while grasping and dropping plots points without hesitation or concern for complete narrative coherence. Though Maddin restrains his trademark manic montages slightly, he continues to apply hysterical editing, ominous compositions, and restrictive framing to convey the discomfort of his characters, while simultaneously sculpting dreamy images of surreal recollections that seem ideally suited to silent film. As always, Maddin’s humour is almost multidimensional, creating awkward narrative situations, visual sight gags, uproarious auditory jokes, before surprising his audience with a mournful melody. While the opening moments feature a multitude of narration, Maddin is confident enough to finish his film using purely cinematic methods, relying heavily upon his lustrous visuals and his accompanying splendid score to convey sorrow, catharsis, and finally possibility.
As with most projects marked with the fingerprints of Maddin and Toles, a fair degree of sexual tension exists between the various characters, including family members. Despite Mother’s demands for her children to remain unsoiled and keep their chastity, through a wacky series of events involving flirtatious games and androgynous disguises, Guy and Sis wind up being attracted to both Wendy and her brother Chance. We also witness some uncomfortable moments for Guy, as his overly-affectionate mother bathes him in an almost inappropriate manner in order to wash away the dirt and to ensure his cleanliness and purity. Likewise, we also witness a few intimate moments between father and daughter, as well as the parents, though these appear to be in service of science. The sexual stress inevitably bursts, resulting in a fatal stabbing of a family member that conceivably references the sexual imagery of so many other cinematic sequences.
Much like their previous collaborations, Maddin and Toles squeeze as many subjects as possible into Brand Upon the Brain!, dabbling in the trauma of both birth and death, hinting at generation conflict over blossoming adulthood, illustrating how parents use their children to recapture their own youth, demonstrating how children replace their parents, and delving into the relationship between vanity and immortality. Maddin also carves out a divergence between nature and science, as the kids engage in depraved carnal acts in the beaches and shrubbery surrounding the lighthouse, while the parents use machinery to scrutinize their subjects and technology to concoct their own methods of thwarting natural maturation, eventually discovering a means to restore youth and ultimately causing a twisted technique of resurrection. Hence a dichotomy is created between the natural world and modern advancements, yet in Maddin’s universe it isn’t entirely correct to categorize these worlds as mutually exclusive. Through all of these clashes, Maddin appears convinced that fate is resigned to allow for constant repetition. By echoing earlier imagined memories with parallel images, Maddin conveys that we sometimes cannot escape the destiny fashioned by our families.
In sketching an unreliable account of his personal past, Brand Upon the Brain! is yet another work within Maddin’s oeuvre which attempts to envision an imaginary history and clings to the prospect that these memories could be reliable enough to replace reality. However, what makes the experience a memorable, nearly unforgettable, event for the viewer is that each live performance of Maddin’s silent film can hardly ever be created with such satisfying results in any other time, place, or medium. Hence there is a simultaneous charm and frustration to witnessing Maddin’s exhibition of silent cinema within specific surrounding parameters that, much like the memories that swarm Maddin’s film, can never be repeated and replicated reliably no matter how often we endeavour to recreate the past. In creating such a specific scenario, Maddin is expressing the true potential of cinema as its own distinctive experience.