If you consider yourself a true film buff, an education in movies never truly ends. Whether you are one of the lucky ones able to attend a college with specialty classes in film or just have a good bookstore near you, filling in the gaps in your knowledge is a pleasure in and of itself. Because guess what: not only were there films BEFORE The Dark Knight, there are brilliant movies that come out all the time that don’t actually make it to your local cineplex. Luckily, we have The Criterion Collection.
If there’s ever a definitive edition of a film that’s worth owning, Criterion likely put it out. The films they pick to give their extraordinary special treatment to tend to be ‘critically’ acclaimed or historically established as classics. While there are exceptions (the mystery behind why they put out a version of Armageddon still stands) if it comes out on this label, and one considers oneself in any way a serious student of film, it’s likely worth a look.
This latest release, Brand Upon the Brain, comes from the bizarre and baroque imaginings of Guy Maddin. Spill readers (with the likely exception of The Eyeball Kid) almost certainly won’t be familiar with his works but he had some midnight movie success in 1988 with Tales from the Gimli Hospital and more recently in 2003 with The Saddest Music in the World featuring Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney which won a number of international awards. Maddin doesn’t have any interest in moving onto a more conventional form of cinema though because of the acclaim of his intellectual peers...oh no no no no..Unless suddenly Hollywood decides to start making silent film-ish surrealistic semi-autobiographical movies with Tom Cruise.
The story here is, according to Maddin in the disk’s accompanying documentary, 97% true. That is to say, based on his childhood but in a poetic metaphorical way rather than in a realistic one. No kidding. He chose to tell his story on tour, taking the film around to various festivals and theaters with a live orchestra, an experienced and creative foley crew to create the sound effects, and a number of different actors/celebrities who served as narrator.
Our tale begins with an older “Guy” (Erik Steffen Maahs) who is returning to the island of his youth and the lighthouse he grew up in. “The Past! The Past! The Past!”Isabella Rossellini, our default narrator, moans repeatedly and shortly enough the film lurches back in time. A young Guy (Sullivan Brown) was raised by his crazy mother (Gretchen Krich) and barely-seen inventor father (Todd Moore) amongst a orphanage they run. Mom is overprotective, obsessed with her children’s hair (she was born bald and has to wear a wig), and seems to be doing some weird stuff to Guy’s older sister (Maya Lawson) and the other kids from the orphanage. Mysterious holes keep appearing in the backs of the necks of all these kids. One of the adoptive families gets suspicious and gets famous teen detectives/siblings Wendy and Chance Hale (Katherine E Scharhon)to go to the island to investigate, only, there’s really only Wendy who poses as her own brother sometimes. Guy becomes obsessed with the older Wendy until she secretly changes to the male Chance and then Guy’s sister and she/he start making moony eyes. Despite all this budding lesbian romance, Mom is determined to keep Sis away from any dudes, no matter how secretly feminine they may be. She keeps sounding the foghorn that sends Sis into a trance where she disappears into Dad’s laboratory for a period of time, returning with no memory of what happened, but with fresh neck holes.
Forgive me here newbies, but I HAVE to reference some directors you probably won’t have heard of unless you’ve taken a history of film class; Guy Maddin has a career-long fascination with the surreal films of Luis Buñuel and the expressionistic lighting of F.W. Murnau and there’s just no missing it. Not that it’s a bad thing...it’s not like anyone else is doing ANYTHING like this. The juxtaposition of the old styles of film making with modern images of sex and horror rarely misses its mark when he uses it to unsettle the audience. The intentional ‘grand guignol’ of the whole spectacle is impressive and it is in these moments of melodramatic horror that the passion of Maddin for the source material is the most evident.
Guy, as mentioned earlier, made this as a biographical film. Perhaps his brutal honesty about his feelings and his childhood filtered through the poetry of the fantastic is where Brand Upon the Brain steps ahead of his previous works. There is a palpable sense of loss and regret as the older Guy tries in vain to cover up his bad memories literally, putting coat after coat of paint on the old crumbling lighthouse while still searching for the phantom of the young Wendy amongst the reeds on the shores.
What with this being a Criterion Collection release, it’s packed full of cool extras. The hour long documentary, that completely explains anything the viewer might have been confused about from the film, is worthwhile enough. Alternative “narrator” tracks from other stage productions of the film featuring Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, Eli Wallach, and others is a frightfully cool idea. Madden also made two short films accompanying and about Brand Upon the Brain: One called “It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today” about featured mock-castrato (!) vocalist Dov Houle (lots of stuff with two eggs being cut up and a distressed parakeet) and “Footsteps” about the brilliant foley crew who did the sound effects for the stage show.
This agonizingly beautiful movie unfortunately will appeal to only the artiest of arty film buffs. Basically, if you think David Lynch is too commercial, you’re the target audience. While I never felt Brand Upon the Brain was as inexplicably obtuse as some of Lynch’s films, its loving appropriation of archaic techniques of cinematography and the narrative insistence on dream logic won’t win it many fans from the summer movie crowd. The tragedy of the best art is that the viewer can’t simply just sit back and be mindlessly entertained to appreciate it. They have to be intellectually engaged with the film: something treated today as if that was a bad thing. Sadly, I shelve this title on my wall knowing Beau and I will probably be the only ones of my friends who actually have any interest in this gorgeous visual poem. Still, I imagine when it comes down to it, I’ll probably rush out to see the next superhero movie just as fast as any of you guys while judiciously waiting for DVD to see whatever Maddin comes up with next. Believe it or not, it's possible to appreciate the spectacle of city-destroying monsters being beaten down by big-titted superheroines AND the delicate art of films like Brand Upon the Brain.