Brand Upon the Brain!
Running time 95 minutes
Directed by Guy Maddin
Written by Guy Maddin and George Toler
Starring Erik Maahs, Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich, Maya Lawson, Catharine Scharhorn
Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, from a screenplay by Mr. Maddin and George Toler, succeeds at one and the same time in functioning as both a celebration and a deconstruction of the conscious and unconscious glories of silent movies through the barely 30 years of their existence at the beginning of the 20th century. Let us say simply and definitely that I have never seen anything like it.
Brand Upon the Brain! is one of Mr. Maddin’s two dozen cinematic exercises in hyper-eccentric self-expression and self-revelation dating back to a 26-minute short feature, significantly entitled The Dead Father, in 1986. I say “significantly” because there is in Brand Upon the Brain! the father of a son named Guy Maddin, and this bizarre paterfamilias passes between life and death and back without ever turning around from his lifelong scientific endeavors. But the strangeness of this character is only a small part of the overall obsessive strangeness of Brand Upon the Brain!, which might be more precisely (if less poetically) entitled Hole in the Head!
Imagine for a moment an island with a lighthouse tower that once contained Guy Maddin and his mother and father, who operated an orphanage within the lighthouse. There is where the child Guy Maddin (Sullivan Brown) grew up with his older sister, Sis (Maya Lawson). Mother (Gretchen Krich)—often shown in vintage iris close-ups—keeps a watchful eye on her two children with the intrusive help of the lighthouse tower’s searchlight, which scans the entire island.
Then try and imagine the grown-up Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the now-deserted island he has inherited to dredge up the detritus of his childhood memories, and the once-tremulous passions they still evoke. The power of the flashback in old movies to bring the past to life and into sharp focus unleashes here a torrent of images of scrambling orphans of both genders, of a teenage boy-girl detective team, Chance and Wendy Hale (both characters played by the actress Katherine E. Scharhorn), and a very disturbed older orphan named Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), who wants to cut out the heart of a terrified younger Boy Neddie (Kellan Larson) for some primal ritual of reincarnation. Chance and Wendy have come to the island to confirm their suspicions of an illicit trade—run by Guy’s mother and father—in smuggled body parts from the orphans.
After a time, Wendy Hale pretends to be her brother Chance in a gender-reversal process familiar from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and Sis develops a crush on him/her. Meanwhile, Guy has remained faithful to his childhood adoration of Wendy. When Chance/Wendy is finally unmasked and unclothed, both Guy and Sis remain constant in their obsessions. And so it goes, with Mother becoming incestuously involved with Guy—or at least with his tush—and Sis enthusiastically entangled in a lesbian relationship with the faux Chance/Wendy. There are magical elixirs drained from the children’s heads and necks that make Mother young again, with devastating consequences. Yet Brand Upon the Brain! escapes the gruesomeness of modern horror films by re-creating the visual indestructibility of the human image to death and beyond.
And the pace of the 12 chapters, told over the course of 95 minutes, surges along, propelled by the archaic silent-movie storytelling device of intertitles coupled with a faux-naif verbal narration expressing a remembered wide-eyed innocence at the dawn of the miracle of the movies. Brand Upon the Brain! has already been screened with a kind of live-action theatrical accompaniment at the venerable Village East Theatre at 12th Street and Second Avenue in the East Village. If it is ever revived there or released on DVD, don’t miss it. It is one of the most compelling avant-garde excursions into the narrative cinema ever.