Thursday, June 24, 2010

Movies I Love: Brand Upon the Brain!

"One memory leads to the next..."
Experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin clearly has a fondness for crossing genres, styles, and media: Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002) combines Expressionistic horror with a feature-length dance performance by the prestigious Royal Winnipeg Ballet; Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) is both a gorgeously photographed film noir and a loving tribute to Canadian hockey; The Saddest Music in the World (2003) is a morose melodrama, a screwball comedy, and a musical featuring multi-ethnic performers. His 2006 film Brand Upon the Brain! is a hybrid of several equally unlikely art-forms: silent film, teen detective mystery, mad-scientist horror pastiche, and imagined autobiography. It is also, and most affectingly, a profound meditation on childhood memory. Narrated by Isabella Rossellini, whose beautifully expressive voice adds poignancy to what is already highly poetic narrative.

Here's the bare-bones synopsis: Guy, the film's not-so-subtly named protagonist, returns to the isolated Canadian island where he spent his formative years. He has been summoned by his ailing mother, who operated an orphanage on the site when her children were young. Her last request is that Guy paint the island's lighthouse, an ominous and seemingly abandoned structure. These opening chapters, which feature Guy's return and his obsessive attempt to paint the lighthouse, are incredibly moving. What follows is a surreal journey back to Guy's childhood. We are introduced to Guy's rebellious sister, who resists her mother's dominance and idolizes the teen detective duo The Lightbulb Kids. Guy's mother, who maintains control of her charges by means of arcane discipline and comically omnipresent surveillance. And, Guy's father, a secretive figure whose laboratory holds some unsavory revelations. The revered detectives eventually arrive on the island, to investigate these sinister goings-on. Because this is a Guy Maddin film, you can count on comic melodrama, sexual repression, gender-reversals, and unparalleled technical mastery. (The method he uses to convey the passage of time in one's own mind is brilliantly innovative.) The film's trailer says more about the singularity of this film than I could say in a thousand words. Brand Upon the Brain! is a truly unique filmic experience, and I encourage all lover's of cinema to at least give it a try. You may not be transported by the film's exploration of memory and aging, as I was, but you will undoubtedly be awed by the director's mastery.

As if the film itself weren't heady enough, its original theatrical run featured live musical accompaniment and in-person narration from various celebrity guests. The Criterion Edition of the DVD allows you to choose between narrators, including: Maddin himself, performance artist Laurie Anderson, poet John Ashbery, professional eccentric Crispin Glover, and actors Louis Negin and Eli Wallach. It's interesting to hear different talents tackle the material, but Isabella Rossellini should really be considered the definitive voice of the film.

Brand Upon the Brain!: A Remembrance in 12 Chapters
Find it in the catalog!