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Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Friday, May 11, 2007


An Unflinchingly True Account of Guy Maddin’s Touring Live Spectacular, A Wondrous Event for Eye and Ear


Reviewed by Lawrence Levi

Brand Upon the Brain!, the latest creation from Winnipeg’s maddest moviemaker, Guy Maddin, is billing itself as a “one-of-a-kind cinematic spectacle,” and it actually lives up to the hype. Maddin’s half-campy, half-expressionistic movies — among them The Saddest Music in the World (2003), in which a legless Isabella Rossellini teeters on beer-filled glass prosthetics — typically combine the absurd with the genuinely haunting in a style that’s an aesthetic bow to silent films. Brand Upon the Brain! is no exception. Only this time the film is touring (from New York to Chicago and Los Angeles) with an 11-piece orchestra, a three-person sound-effects team and a singer billed as a castrato. Each show also features a celebrity narrator, with much of New York’s line-up comprising a hipster honor roll: Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Justin Bond (the Kiki half of Kiki and Herb), Rossellini, Lou Reed and John Ashbery. (The film opens nationally in June with a pre-recorded soundtrack.)

At the first show in New York on May 9th, Maddin, who’s a boyish 51, introduced Brand Upon the Brain! as an “orgasmatacular,” promising that “Every sound you hear tonight will be generated within these four walls.” He explained that the presence of a live narrator harks back to the earliest days of silent cinema, a fact he said he discovered in Luis Buñuel’s autobiography. (There it is in chapter four of My Last Sigh: “In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience.”) Then, with the orchestra members seated and the foley crew arrayed in white lab coats and neckties amid a theatrical set of sonic toys, and with Glover ensconced in a red glow on stage right, the movie began.

The plot, concocted by Maddin and his frequent writing partner, George Toles, is pure loopiness — an autobiography by way of David Lynch. A man named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) looks back on his youth as the son of proprietors of an island lighthouse that’s also a “mom and pop orphanage,” one where the orphans bear mysterious scars on the backs of their necks. Prepubescent Guy (Sullivan Brown) has a crush on Wendy (Katherine E. Scharhon), an androgynous teen detective, while his horny sister (Maya Lawson) yearns for Wendy’s brother (or so she thinks). While their scientist dad (Todd Jefferson Moore) immerses himself in ominous experiments, their mom (Gretchen Krich) keeps relentless watch over her kids with the lighthouse’s glaring beam, quashing any budding carnality and tormenting Guy with guilt-inducing threats. Oh, the love of a controlling mother! Oh, the jealousy over a sexually adventurous older sister! Oh, the terror of Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), the devil-worshiping orphan bully! And oh, the agony of adolescence, turned up to a comically Freudian yet duly horrific pitch!

This delirious scenario plays out in an often-blurred black and white, with puzzling flashes of color, interspersed with exclamatory title cards (“Profane joy!”; “Too much for Guy!”) and the narrator’s dramatic declamations. (Glover proved himself an excellent in-person screamer, which won’t surprise anyone who saw Charlie’s Angels.) It’s a bizarre bildungsroman cum scare flick, with Mom as the chief villain — Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate by way of Psycho. And like so many of Maddin’s films, it’s oddly and uniquely affecting.

The score (composed by Jason Staczek) is suitably intense. The sound-effects crew are so much fun to watch that they’re a little distracting. As Sis goes in for her first kiss, a foley artist smooches her own hand; when flesh gets torn, it’s no less freaky when you notice the sound comes from tearing lettuce. There were a few first-show kinks: For much of the movie, both the orchestra and the foley folks were ahead of the action by a few seconds, which occasionally undermined the suspense, and once they missed the cue of a door-slam. When Dov Houle, the supposed castrato, emerged in a tux and slicked-back hair to sing two brief songs, someone in the audience laughed — in discomfort or disbelief, perhaps, since what we were hearing was very much a girl’s voice. (Maddin introduced Houle at the start as “The Manitoba Meadowlark,” and says on the Brand Upon the Brain! blog that, when he first heard Houle in a Winnipeg steam bath, he thought he was “somehow in the women’s steam bath by mistake.”) The songs are an Eraserhead lady-in-the-radiator kind of moment — when something already weird becomes so fucking strange that you realize you’re experiencing not just kookiness for its own sake, not just sheer originality, but a flat-out marvel of heartfelt beauty.


Brand Upon the Brain! plays with live accompaniment in New York through May 15, then moves to Chicago (May 18–20, at the Music Box) and Los Angeles (June 8–10, at the Egyptian)



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