Critics with visions of advertising blurbs dancing in their heads are too often given to superlatives where superlatives aren't due. But on rare occasions a film demands superlatives. On just such an occasion, the weird and wondrous world of Guy Maddin reaches its apotheosis with Brand Upon the Brain!, a film so uncontained that it demands exclamation points: in its title, its chapter titles (for it is constructed as "A Remembrance in 12 Chapters"), and its title cards (for it is a near-silent film). Since Brand Upon the Brain! concerns youthful sexual enthusiasms and traumatizing realizations about the secret lives of adults, the exclamation points are appropriate both in the film and above viewer's heads.
An expressionistic, Freudian cinematic romp—if indeed a film about child abuse and sexual confusion can be called a romp—Maddin's blown-up, black and white Super-8 film captures an artist in love with his art, but not so preciously that he forgets to share the love. Brand Upon the Brain! functions as somewhat of a museum piece—for those content to appreciate its cultural allusions and plumb for deeper meaning—but also vigorously strange cinema that can catch open-minded viewers unaware and draw them into what Shakespeare called "a dream of passion."
The story takes place primarily in memory and entirely on Black Notch Island. There sits the lighthouse where the protagonist—named Guy Maddin—grew into manhood. The suggestion of a conusming abysm ("Black Notch") and the maternally "manned" tower of psychosexual power—ever in contention—announce the filmmaker's allegorical intentions. In the present, Guy (Erik Steffen Maahs) fulfills his mother's desire for the abandoned lighthouse to be painted, a suspect effort to slather over the past. In that past, young Guy (Sullivan Brown, a magnetic doppleganger of Jean Pierre-Leaud, circa The 400 Blows) loves Mother (Gretchen Krich), fears Father (Todd Jefferson Moore), and tangles jealously with Sis (Maya Lawson) as the siblings pine after the same object of desire.
Mother and Father operate an orphanage within the lighthouse, and overbearing Mother uses its searchlight and telescope to root out her children's secrets. Father, clad in Colin Clive whites, toils drone-like and alone behind the closed door of a laboratory, his project a well-kept secret. Enter Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon), half of the famous teen-detective team known as the Lightbulb Kids. Along with her twin brother Chance, the sibling sleuths (and harp players) pursue ostensibly wholesome adventures with dark undercurrents. Maddin delights in bringing to the fore the titillation of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys by way of sexual transgression. Wendy arrives, alone, as herself, then reappears in the guise of her brother; both incarnations inspire equal horniness in Guy and Sis.
The mystery, of course, is one of self, which the real-life Guy Maddin explores through a fictional Guy Maddin. What are the forces that move us, shape us? And can we learn to forge our own paths despite the formative brands upon our brains? "Oh, the past! The past!" sings one title card. "Chains of memories!" Though nominally "cheated" with extensive Isabella Rossellini narration and selective sound effects, the silent form feels fresh in Maddin's hands: sometimes out of focus, sometimes "iris-ed in," and always suffused with the grainy integrity of a born photographer. Innovative editing—call it rapid-image-movement—a richly realized score by Jason Staczek, and ingenious production design aid in Maddin's psychic penetration.
The entrancingly unique results recall Feuillade's Fantômas, expressionist horror, and David Lynch's Eraserhead, another modern investigation into psyche (Maddin and Staczek's song-of-resolution "Whither, Wander" might put one in mind of "In Heaven"). Maddin's remembrance of budding sensibilities ultimately carries lessons for its middle-age present. "Rage ages," and by extension, youth flourishes with joy. Guy's arrested development ticks along with his bedside metronome, not forward but back and forth. In adulthood, Guy muses on history repeating: "When it happens again, I'll get it right." The film's refrain "Too much for Guy!!" may prove true for the average viewer, but Maddin's exhilaratingly disobedient Brand Upon the Brain! enjoys repeating history and getting it right this time.
Maddin's opus gets the Criterion Collection's grand treatment, beginning with a perfect anamorphic widescreen transfer that captures all the subtlety of the black-and-white Super-8 photography (captured by Criterion from a 35mm negative).
As for the audio, that's half the fun of the disc: viewers can choose one of eight stereo tracks. Each track features narration by a different performer: Isabella Rossellini (heard both in studio and live recordings), Guy Maddin (studio), Louis Negin (studio), Laurie Anderson (live), John Ashbery (live), Crispin Glover (live), and the legendary Eli Wallach (live). You can flip around on the fly using your audio button and decide who you like best. For the most personal touch, choose Maddin. You can't go wrong with Rossellini's exotic purr, and any time spent with Eli Wallach is never wasted, but all of the tracks have their selling points.
Criterion's 14-page supplemental booklet always sports impeccable design and content. The meat here is an extensive essay by film critic Dennis Lim on Maddin and the film; you also get film credits, film specs, and disc specs. The chapter listing can be found looking up at you from under the clear amaray case.
The director-approved special edition features begin with the short films "It's My Mother's Birthday Today" (5:30) and "Footsteps" (9:12), both filmed exclusively for the Criterion release of Brand Upon the Brain! and shot and edited in the same vein. The former is a piece on Dov Houle (a.k.a. the Manitoba Meadowlark), a castrato who perfomed on the film's tour; the latter is an artful rendering of the film's foley recording and undoubtedly the most creative behind-the-scenes featurette you will ever see (until the next one directed by Maddin).
"97 Percent True" (50:39) is a newly produced documentary on Maddin the man, Maddin the filmmaker (in process and style), and the specific production challenges of Brand Upon the Brain! from pre-production to post-production. We get a look at some color set photography, behind-the-scenes footage, and the film's tour and varied narrators, including Udo Kier and Daniel Handler. Featured participants in the documentary are Maddin, co-writer George Toles, editor John Gurdebeke, cinematographer Ben Kasulke, producer Jamie Hook, and composer Jason Staczek.
Surprisingly, a "Deleted Scene" (6:10) is included, with a text-based introduction wherein Maddin explains his intentions for the scene and why he cut it. It's a fascinating and generous inclusion by Maddin for the film's fans, a sequence involving a firing squad that would have ended the film's major flashback. Last up is the film's "Original Theatrical Trailer" (1:34). Criterion is the best distributor in home video, and their marriage to this future classic results in a must-buy disc.
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