Brand Upon the Brain! [DVD]
Director : Guy Maddin
Screenplay : Guy Maddin & George Toles
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Gretchen Krich (Mother), Sullivan Brown (Young Guy Maddin), Maya Lawson (Sis), Katherine E. Scharhon (Chance Hale / Wendy Hale), Todd Moore (Father), Andrew Loviska (Savage Tom), Kellan Larson (Neddie), Erik Steffen Maahs (Older Guy Maddin), Cathleen O’Malley (Young Mother), Clayton Corzatte (Old Father), Susan Corzatte (Old Mother)
It has been said that, in order to fully “get” any one of Spanish cult director Jess Franco’s films, you need to have seen all of them, and I suspect the same is also true of Canadian cult director Guy Maddin. Fully getting Franco is a tall order given that he has directed nearly 200 feature films under several dozen names since the late 1950s, whereas Maddin has only made eight features and about 25 short films to date. This was on my mind while screening Brand Upon the Brain!, the middle film in Maddin’s so-called “Me Trilogy” of gleefully exaggerated autobiographical fantasias, because, although I have read about Maddin for several years, I had never seen any of his films. Thus, my responses to Brand Upon the Brain! are largely confined to the film itself and not its placement within my experiences to his complete oeuvre.
That is not to say, however, that I am completely unaware of Maddin’s aesthetic tendencies and thematic preoccupations, all of which seem to be fully intact here. Like most of his films, Brand Upon the Brain! reanimates the cinematic past with its silent-film structure and willfully archaic visual quality. Shot entirely on high-contrast 8mm and edited like an experiment in Soviet montage, the film’s jumpy, hyperkinetic, grainy visuals create the illusion of watching a long-lost film that has been moldering in someone’s attic for decades, a tattered, brittle thing of sublime beauty that is as stirring as it is decrepit. The image flickers and shifts and skips, as if the print is in constant danger of finally breaking apart, which gives the film an added dimension of tremulous anxiety that is strangely intoxicating.
In terms of experimentation, Brand Upon the Brain! is certainly Maddin’s most ambitious, as it originally played as a full-scale theatrical event with a live orchestra, three foley artists creating sound effects, a singer, and a celebrity narrator (these included actors Crispin Glover and Eli Wallach, performance artist Laurie Anderson, and at times Maddin himself). Watching it on DVD, then, even with the best of home-theater equipment, creates but a dim approximation of the intended viewing experience, which, like that of all silent cinema, is largely lost.
Thematically, Brand Upon the Brain! delves deep into all kinds of Freudian neuroses about overbearing mothers, sibling rivalry, shifting identities, and gender confusion. The story, which aggressively defies any simple summary, takes the form of a memory (the film is subtitled “A Remembrance in 12 Chapters”) as a character named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) returns to Black Notch Island, where he grew up in a lighthouse that doubled as an orphanage run by his domineering mother (Gretchen Krich) and mad-scientist father (Todd Moore). The fragmented flashbacks have the fever pitch of a mad dream, with young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his older sister (Maya Lawson) discovering their parents’ terrible secrets with the help of Chance Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon), a boy detective who is actually his sister in disguise. Suffice it to say that the story eventually involves younth-engendering vampirism, a reanimated corpse, and a gender-bending love affair between Chance and Sis.
What to make of all this, especially without explicit reference to Maddin’s other films? In short, Brand Upon the Brain! is strikingly unique, albeit not for all tastes. I suspect that you have to have a genuine love of the silent cinema to even begin to appreciate Maddin’s approach to the material, which will fire the imaginations of those who adore the grim bleakness of Weimar-era expressionism and associative montage editing and alienate anyone who resists the ambiguous and bizarre. The story is fervid in its outlandish obsessions, but it holds together quite well, even if it closely approximates a train teetering on the edge of derailment.
|Brand Upon the Brain! Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||August 12, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Like all of Maddin’s films, Brand Upon the Brain! looks purposefully primitive, having been shot entirely on 8mm and then blown up to 35mm, which results in an exceptionally grainy image. Thus, there is something almost ironic about Criterion making a 4K high-definition transfer from a 35mm duplicate negative (the ultimate in digital high-tech meeting analog low-tech), but one can’t argue with the results. The image looks just as it should, constantly alive with shifting film grain that always looks natural, rather than like digital noise. The image is purposefully blown out, with extremely high contrast ratios that produce glaring whites and murky blacks. While there is almost no synchronous dialogue and only limited sound effects, the two-channel stereo soundtrack is quite impressive in rendering Jason Staczek’s bombastic orchestral score. The default soundtrack features studio-recorded narration by Isabella Rossellini, but the disc also includes complete alternate narrative tracks by Guy Maddin and Louis Negin, as well as tracks recorded during live performances by Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, Isabella Rossellini, and Eli Wallach. Granted, it doesn’t come close to replicating the experience of seeing the film live, but it’s the best we will get.|
|For those who may be just now familiarizing themselves with the work of Guy Maddin, 97 Percent True, a new 50-minute documentary produced exclusively for this DVD, is an excellent place to start. Featuring lengthy interviews with Maddin, cowriter George Toles, editor John Gurdebeke, cinematographer Ben Kasulke, producer Jamie Hook, and composer Jason Saczek, it traces his career from his early days making surrealist shorts to his current standing as a critical favorite. The second half of the doc focuses exclusively on the production of Brand Upon the Brain!. Maddin is particularly articulate in discussing his motives and aesthetics, and listening to him explain his autobiographical obsessions and love of silent cinema adds a new dimension to watching his films. Those who have already seen all of Maddin’s films will love the inclusion of two new short films: It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today (5:30), a biopic of the castrato Dov Houle, and Footsteps (9:12), which is about a Toronto-based foley effects team. There is also a 6-minute deleted scene and the original theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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