Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)
Director: Guy Maddin
Narration: Isabella Rosselini; with options of Laurie Anderson, Guy Maddin, Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, others
Studio: The Film Company/Criterion Collection 440
Video: 1.85:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9, B&W (mostly)
Audio: DD 2.0
Extras: “97 Percent True” – new documentary, interview with Maddin and collaborators; Two shorts by Maddin made for DVD: “It’s My Mother’s Birthday” & “Footsteps;” Deleted scenes; Theatrical trailer; Essay by film critic Dennis Lim in printed booklet
Length: 99 minutes
Rating: * or ****, depending on viewer
Guy Madden is surely one of the most eccentric filmic auteurs around today. This release is well-timed to coincide with his latest feature making the theatrical rounds – My Winnipeg. In the lengthy and informative documentary made especially for this DVD release Madden compares his approach to that of garage band rock groups who pick up some secondhand instruments, don’t really know how to play them, but do their own thing throwing together a band, recording on some amateur equipment and putting out a CD. Madden usually films silent with Super 8 black and white film (I didn’t know it was even still available!), adding the soundtrack later – often as live accompaniment to the films for a complete theatrical performance as sometimes done in silent movie days (but probably not with three foley artists in white lab coats plus a so-called “castrato” – as he did with Brand Upon the Brain!)
Maddin grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and has centered many of his films on life in that area as John Waters has done with his city of Baltimore. Maddin wanted to be a writer but realized he didn’t have the chops for that; then he saw a film by the quirky low-budget Kuchar Brothers (who also started out in 8mm and who also influenced John Waters and David Lynch) and realized he could do the same thing right there in Winnipeg. His films emulate early German expressionistic silents such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and have many other filmic reference points in them as well. He he loves irising-in and out as did Griffith and others in their silents. The images are jerky, hand-held, very grainy and often misty. Even the intertitles jump up and down as they appear on the screen, reveling in lots of exclamation points. His stories usually combine Gothic eeriness with sci-fi elements, and some of his favorite themes include gender confusion, mistaken identity, oedipal friction, sexual jealousy, doppelgangers, sibling rivalry and romantic triangles. One critic described Maddin’s film world as silent movies stripped of all their inhibitions.
Brand Upon the Brain! seems much more twisted and insane than the other two Maddin movies I’ve seen. He was offered a nine-day shoot financed by a Seattle nonprofit film company if he could come up with a screenplay in six weeks. Maddin said that wasn’t enough time to write a completely fictional story, so he was forced to use autobiographical material. He claims in the documentary that what is in the film is 97% true, but nobody’s childhood could be as nightmarish as what’s in Brand Upon the Brain! Among the elements of this imaginary childhood are a lighthouse (in the middle of Manitoba?), a group of orphans with holes in their necks, a hellish and controlling mother, a father who works in his mysterious laboratory all the time (sometimes in the nude), a teenage detective modeled on Nancy Drew (who dresses like a boy but is a girl), and a funeral where due to a flood the family of the deceased have to stand on top of the coffin to force it down because it keeps floating back up.
Considering the purposely rock-bottom-budget approach to shooting Madden’s films, they are not going to benefit in the least from the Blu-ray series that Criterion is going to start on in a couple months. In fact you may suffer from sensory overload of quite a different sort than experienced with today’s CGI-full big-screen action movies. Frankly I couldn’t watch all of Brand Upon the Brain! at one sitting – had to conclude it on my iMac the next day in a corner of my 20-inch screen while I did email. If you haven’t yet sampled Maddin’s mad mind, I’d suggest instead his semi-musical with Isabella Rossellini on screen this time (playing a legless brewery baroness): The Saddest Music in the World.
– John Sunier