Your NPR news source

Brand Upon the Brain!

SHARE Brand Upon the Brain!

Made up from patchwork portions of psyche and cinema, Eros and pulp, Brand Upon the Brain! flashes to life in grainy, high-contrast black and white as if seen once before on a remembered screen. It’s a film made yesterday that looks like yesteryear. Guy Madden’s film is a silent film that’s far from silent, with a narrator and musical score. This weekend, it is being presented as a spectacular with the accompaniment of live orchestra, live sound effects provided by expert Foley artists, and narration by Crispin Glover. Later screenings will feature a narration recorded by Isabella Rosellini.

The film comes labeled as a Remembrance in 12 Chapters. It all starts when grown-up Guy Maddin receives a note from his mother… whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Obviously there’s some unfinished business here.

Young Guy grew up on suggestively-named Black Notch Island. When he lands there again after such a long absence, he doesn’t have mere flashes of memory; he has “spurts of memory” — an indication of the lubricious atmosphere wafting through this luscious hybrid. Guy’s despotic and overprotective mother ran an orphanage on the island, while Guy’s father worked incessantly in a laboratory in the basement, doing unknowable mad-scientist type things.

At the core of every melodrama lies a mystery. Maddin’s point of departure is a question: when you were a kid, what were your parents really up to? There are lots of answers, some actual, some psychoanalytical, some reserved for the imagination, which is the province of Brand Upon the Brain!

On Black Notch Island, all the orphans have curious head wounds. For this kind of mystery one needs the right kind of detectives. Enter the team of sleuths known as the Lightbulb Kids. Guy develops a raging crush; something hard to keep secret with his overbearing mother surveilling his every moment and keeping in constant contact via a device invented by his father, the aerophone. The electronic squawk of this device perfectly captures the way the voice of authority hits the youthful ear.

Maddin’s facility to play with film genres and forms – as if they were so many notes of a cinephile’s scales – isn’t empty formalism. Brand Upon the Brain! looks like an Expressionist horror film from the early German cinema. But what is it doing crossbred with a teen detective serial? Why does it look like it might have been directed by an early 20th century French filmmaker steeped in the techniques of mid-to-late 20th century experimental and avant-garde filmmaking?

The answer, I venture to say, is simple: it’s all done to tell a true story. Intricate exchanges of desire and indifference, jealousy and favor, neglect and attention, turn every family into its own island with a mysterious past. Maddin twists this truth into the stylish forms that give his films their distinctive identity. Around a kernel of personal emotional history, he wraps sophisticated wit and velvety black humor.

Meanwhile, psyche and sex, marinated in cinematic essence, are stirred to a boil in a pot. Back to the story: Guy has an older sister. This always complicates things. The alluring teen detectives become the focus of emanations of libido from Guy and Sis. Maddin thinks there’s something sexy merely in the name of famous teen detectives: The Hardy Boys! Apostrophe! Nancy Drew! Whew! Their wholesomeness and superior powers of deduction no doubt masked the inevitable hormonal surge of teen spirit. But they were never sexy in the way Maddin makes his investigators.

Guy’s crush is forced to leave the island, while his sister’s new boyfriend Chance remains. Things and people are not what they seem. And the mystery deepens. What happens when Guy’s sister falls into a trance at the sound of the foghorn? More I cannot say.

The plot reaches appropriately grand melodramatic heights encompassing attempted suicide, marriage, re-animation of the dead, guilty parties exiled from Black Notch Island.

A bittersweet melancholy threads through the undertones of this whirlwind experimental narrative. That is Guy Maddin’s gift. In his six minute-long film The Heart of the World, made in 2000, he put more pure cinema smarts, beauty and feeling than some filmmakers can ever hope to get into an entire life’s work. While not as compact, Brand Upon the Brain! is every bit as breathtaking. Maddin’s latest film is a wry artifact full of formal twists and eccentricities that makes great entertainment. If one has grown tired of the same old types of films, the refreshing collage of Maddin’s film – made out of the types of old films – offers perfect antidote. It hits the eyes like a bracing shot of nectarite – but to find out what that is you’ll have to follow Guy Maddin on a trip to long ago happenings on Black Notch Island.

Brand Upon the Brain! opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

Throughout the weekend, the film will be accompanied by a live orchestra, sound effects by a Foley artist, and narration by Crispin Glover.

The Latest