Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006)


Subliminal images!  Cross-dressing!  Girl on girl-disguised-as-boy love!  Molestation!  Youth nectar!  Mad scientists!  Mindless slaves!  Harps, breasts, penises, holes in the back of kids’ necks, aerophones, the watch tower, weird intertitles!  What a surreal, unsettling nightmare!  I don’t know how many more exclamation marks I can use in describing Guy Maddin’s grand experiment in essentially making a modern, manic update on the silent film, but if any modern film deserves an over-the-top, exclamation mark-laden description a la an ad for a circus freak show, here it is, folks.  “Brand Upon the Brain!” is a full-on spectacle, an assault on senses and sensibilities, a total mindfuck, a perfect simulation of a weird, weird, dream, and every other cliché in the book.  And that circus-esque spectacle factor isn’t just because of the film’s original road show-like presentation, with in-house orchestra, Foley artists, and narrator.  Even without that fascinating presentation (something I really wish I could’ve experienced), to still just watch this at home via a DVD player is still a unique, over the top experience.

Yeah, there’s a plot – Guy Maddin (at least a fictional Guy Maddin) returns to his childhood home, an island orphanage, to paint the lighthouse and remembers back to his childhood, featuring a sexually envious mother, flirtatious yet sexually repressed sister, sinister goings-on involving the orphans and Guy’s father’s late-night experiments, and the investigation of all of this by the teenage detective duo, the Lightbulb Kids.  But all of that really doesn’t matter.  All you’ll care about is how fast one image replaces another, the grainy, black and white cinematography that’s anything but steady, the bombastic score, the sounds, the facial expressions, the intertitles providing a bizarre commentary to the just as bizarre goings-on, repeated images and subliminal images, the stream-of-consciousness-esque editing.  A nightmare.  “Brand Upon the Brain!” is one big nightmare, an embodiment of Guy Maddin’s (the movie’s Guy Maddin – and hell, probably the real Guy Maddin too) deep-seeded psychological issues and sexual frustrations – the same issues any given person would have and try to hold back in waking life, but would come screaming to the forefront in the realm of dreams.  There’s the mother’s phallic search light; the implications of Wendy Hale of the Lightbulb Kids, disguised as her brother Chance, seducing Guy’s older sister Sis with the touching gloves, and Guy, enamored with the harp-playing, Venus de Milo-esque Wendy, finding out; the mother getting a little too close, physically and emotionally, to Guy; the Father’s phallic…well, thing, that he sticks in those poor kids to extract their precious nectar; the Aerophone device, that allows contact between Mother and Guy due to, of all things, their love for each other.  Every plot point and many of the images in “Brand Upon the Brain!” are sexual in nature, namely sexual/gender confusion and sexual repression, namely from Guy’s point of view – a surreal take on the classic pubescent identity crisis, magnified infinitely.

It’s a surreal and upsetting nightmare, a personification of pubescent sexual anxiety, not just because of the images, but because of how those images are presented.  This is the second film of Guy Maddin’s I’ve seen, and in both this and “My Winnipeg,” he cobbles together techniques of era after era of cinema, namely silent expressionism and 40s/50s melodrama, like he’s Dr. Frankenstein, and what emerges in this case is a silent film that looks like it could’ve been made in the 1920s, yet at the same time feels like something that’s never been attempted before, and is thoroughly post-modern and unique.  The images are grainy and black-and-white, the faces practically made for a piece of 1920s German Expressionism, yet the sporadic editing and lightning-quick transitions from one image to another give this old silent film a cruel reminder that it’s living in the 21st century.  The lack of voices and over-the-top orchestral score scream silent film, but then that musical silence is punctuated by the startling sounds of footsteps going up a wooden staircase, the innane garbling of mother’s voice over the aerophone, the slow creek of an opening door, the wind howling, the ‘castrato’ providing a singing voice for Sis – all of these sound completely artificial, obviously the work of Foley artists – but a movie like this wouldn’t have it any other way.  In a movie as bizarre and as displaced from any given time period as this, artificial sound effects add to that aura of the unexpected, of the bizarre, of the unsettling.  I haven’t done this film any kind of justice in describing it through words, and that should be taken as the ultimate compliment to how unique it really is.  It’s not completely unreliant on plot the way a pure piece of surrealism like “Un chien andalou” was, but in no time at all, really, I didn’t care about the plot that this did have.  “Brand Upon the Brain!” isn’t about plot, it’s an assault on the senses – you smell the fresh air in the forest and the salty air of the coast, you feel the corkscrew thingie plunging into the back of Sis’ neck, you taste Sis’ lips as she and Wendy/Chance have their tryst, you hear that grating scream of Mother over the aerophone that Guy feels compelled to obey as he longs for Wendy and for what Sis and Chance have, and you see all of these, and fleeting microseconds of memory with no distinct pattern – just like how a real mind works, both awake and within the subconscious.  It’s a challenging film, and not exactly comfortable to watch at times, to say the least, but boy, what a sensual experience – and just think what it would’ve been like to see it live, with all the bells and whistles of a narrator and orchestra and Foley artists!  I watched this with narration by Isabella Rossellini, her voice in and of itself providing a surreal contrast to the point of view of the male Guy Maddin, and the Criterion DVD features many more narration tracks by the likes of Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, and (the real) Guy Maddin.  That alone gives me the opportunity to experience something new with many rewatches to come, but even if I only had the one narration track, there’s enough dynamic images, presented indiscriminately and disjointedly and subliminally enough that I’d experience something new with every rewatch anyway.


2 comments so far

  1. ShotgunAndy on

    I love this film. Guy Maddin is one of the few people in modern cinema with an imagination. And what an imagination!

  2. Mango on

    This was one of the best in-theater experiences I have had.

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