Brand Upon the Brain: Don’t Ask Just Watch

By Max Kath

Staff Writer

The silent era of cinema is one that most modern filmmakers try to forget. It was the way the early filmmakers had to make their films because the technology to record sound was not yet readily available and they had to make due with what they had. So the idea that any filmmaker purposefully put himself in the shoes of the old school directors of the 1920’s (Lang, Méliès, Murnau, etc.) is so absurd that it would make David Lynch do a double take -well maybe not. Such is the world of underrated Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, who has made a career out of making movies seem like they are from a totally different time and place. He seems to like the idea of making his films look like the sets were made in his garage and the images as scratchy as possible, so why would anyone ever want to go see his movies? Simple. They are some of the best independent films being made right now and within the next few years his movies will be showing up on many film class syllabi. Until then the next time you are trying to decide what to put in your Nexflix queue don’t go for the obvious pick of “Gigli”, though it is a classic, and go with Maddin’s 2006 masterpiece “Brand Upon the Brain.”

The movie’s plot defies most explanation, but the basic story starts with Guy Maddin. Yes he made himself the main character but does not play himself. He goes to the old lighthouse that he grew up in to put on two new coats of white paint because his mother wrote him a letter telling him to do so. While he is there he has flashbacks to his days as a young lad growing up in the lighthouse, which doubled as an orphanage ran by his crazy mother and mad scientist father. Also we see Maddin fall in love with an orphan by the name of Wendy Hale who gives Maddin his first kiss and then later, because she got bored, disguises herself as her twin brother Chance Hale in order to seduce Maddin’s sister, Sis. To give away anymore of the plot would take away from the fun of the movie, but it is quite apparent that Maddin used this film to vent some pent up issues he has with his childhood, albeit through a fictional story.

The story isn’t the only interesting thing about this movie; it’s how Maddin tells it. Instead of relying on more modern techniques to tell his story Maddin does something interesting. The film is shot in black and white, using narration and intertitles instead of real dialogue and non-diagetic sound effects over the images. The effect creates a unique and unforgettable experience for the viewer. This film serves as an excellent example of multi-media art making because when it was released to theaters in America it wasn’t so much seen as it was experienced. We are made to feel like we are inside of Maddin’s head and experiencing his memories. What we feel are parts of a fragmented, fearful, heartbreaking, and sometimes even beautiful experience. The angles Maddin used were usually very tight and claustrophobic, adding a sense of terror to the story. The story is also told in twelve chapters and one interlude which makes it seem like a book at times. The end of each chapter is also signified with end-of-chapter intertitles. Also, the film has different narrators who read the narration live. Some of the narrators include Isabella Rossellini, Crispin Glover, and Daniel Handler a.k.a. Lemony Snickett. The sound effects were done by live Foley artists, like the old time radio shows of the 1940’s and 50’s, and the music was done by a live orchestra, so the experience is always unique and different.

Lucky for us who didn’t get to experience this film when it was first released the Criterion Collection has put out a DVD that lets you choose from seven different narrators, some of whom were recorded live, to give you an experience that is close to that of actually seeing the film in the theater, not to mention some excellent short films and the making of a documentary, rounding out the already nice package. So if you are looking for something to do on a Friday night while everyone else is out on the town, pop this movie into your DVD player, sit back, and prepare to experience a movie that will surely stay with you for a long time to come, for better or for worse.