Brand Upon the Brain!

The Criterion Collection DVD of Guy Maddin's 2006 film Brand Upon the Brain! (trailer here) has just been released, and one of the special features is a documentary in which Maddin says his movie (which includes an island orphanage in a lighthouse where a mad scientist concocts a grotesque experiment, people communicate telepathically via souped-up phonographs, and a gender-bending girl-boy detective right out of Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys inadvertently [or not] creates a triangle of young love) is "97% true".

At first, I laughed. "Oh, that Guy Maddin, he's a joker!" But when I watched some scenes again after watching the interview, I saw what he meant, and it reminded me of things I've done myself, and things I have discovered other writers and artists to have done. Maddin says that he has often not responded in emotionally appropriate ways to certain events in his life, and he knew either at the time or soon after that he had not had the depth of response that was appropriate, and he always hoped for a second opportunity, a chance to get it right, and that movie-making is, in a sense, a way to do that, a way to re-enter an emotional space and provide the opportunity to feel what should be felt.

There is an immense store of emotion beneath the surface of Brand Upon the Brain!, and I found that when I allowed myself to be open to it, when I let myself ignore the things on the surface that are amusing (the camera angles, the extraordinary editing, the wonderful odd archness of it all) and instead entered into the world of the film simply as its own thing, not something to be interpreted or contextualized, it did, indeed, contain kernels of lingering, haunting feeling -- the weirdness becomes a touchstone, the aesthetic elements (music, image, voice) pull out emotion with a synecdochic force: none of this surface stuff is what has happened in my life, but it is what certain times felt like, or should have felt like. This, of course, is one of the great moves art can make: shadows on the wall lure us back to thought and feeling. Brand is covered with surface stuff that's fun to see and think about, certainly -- it's goofy, it's allusive, it's clever -- but it doesn't stop there, it allows other entrances. So often creators and critics seem to think there must be either/or, there must be surface brilliance or there must be emotional effect; there must be bizarre surrealism or there must be absolute realism. But the really affecting works of art, the ones that most linger with me and that I return to, are ones that seek to have both, to conquer every world, to ignore or deconstruct or disdain the supposed dichotomy.

So it is with Brand Upon the Brain!. Certainly, there will be viewers who don't like it, find it tiresome, find it too mannered for their taste. It's a Guy Maddin movie, after all, but if you don't mind the approach he has taken in his last few films -- the Eisenstein-meets-Brakhage editing style, the camera lenses obscured by Vaseline or made into a peephole, the melodrama -- then you're likely to find much here to think about and feel. I suppose Maddin is an avant-garde filmmaker -- I certainly don't know of anybody making movies in quite the same style -- but as avant-garde films go, his recent work is both accessible and entertaining once you decide to enter the film on its own terms. Brand is funny and weird, certainly, but it is also an affecting meditation on memory and regret, and that, ultimately, is what I value it as, because it is through the film's concerns with the past and how the past shapes and distorts our present that it ultimately creates, for me at least, its most vivid meaning.

I should note, also, that Brand Upon the Brain! was first presented as a theatrical event with a celebrity narrator, an 11-piece orchestra, a sound-effects team, and a castrato. I very much wanted to see it (especially since one of the producers, Gregg Lachow, is a friend), but was never able to attend one of the shows. The DVD includes multiple audio tracks with different narrators -- Isabella Rossellini, Guy Maddin, Louis Negin, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, and Eli Wallach -- some from the live shows, some recorded for the disc. I began watching the movie by flipping between different narrators, then finally settled on Crispin Glover, since his voice and intonations seemed most affecting and least jarring to me. The different narrators affect the experience of watching the film significantly, because though the narration is not always necessary to understanding what is going on, it is crucial for emphasis and tone. It occurs to me now that it would be interesting, too, to watch the film silently -- the evocative music (by Jason Straczek), the sound effects, and the narration all add dimension and power, but I'm curious what effect the imagery alone would produce. Well, I was looking for an excuse to watch the movie again...

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