Directed by Guy Maddin
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 99 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: August 12, 2008
Review Date: July 29, 2008
Experimental cinema has a long and honorable past, and avant-garde filmmakers have been intriguing audiences for over a century with their imaginative and unconventional endeavors. Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! is one such experiment. A surrealistic silent movie with tinges of autobiography and sci-fi, Brand Upon the Brain! is one of the most unusual movies to premiere in years, but it’s very unorthodox novelty means it won’t appeal to every audience and that without careful attention to plot, pacing, and execution, it can wear out its welcome before the film comes to its natural conclusion.
House painter Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) receives a command from his dominating mother demanding that he paint the old family lighthouse in anticipation of a family reunion. While carrying out his mother’s wishes, he reminisces about a life-altering experience from his youth involving the uncovering of his father’s (Todd Jefferson Moore) villainy (using orphans lodged in their lighthouse-home for medical experiments) and a growing realization of his own exploding interest in breaking free of his clinging mother (Gretchen Krich) and pursuing romantic feelings for a recently arrived young sleuth Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon). Wendy is part of a twin detective team with her brother Chance, and while on assignment she disguises herself as Chance and then catches the eye of Guy’s older sister (Maya Lawson) and the two embark on a (unknown to the sister) lesbian courtship. Romantic intrigue, parental control, and matters of life, love, and death all figure in the film’s serpentine but often nonsensical plot.
Maddin has filmed his story as a silent movie (perhaps one rescued from extinction but with decomposing elements) complete with a narrator, orchestral score, and sound effects track seemingly tacked on as some silent films did in the beginning of the sound era. Along with the narrator, there are ancient-looking title cards commenting on the action and occasionally providing dialog. It’s a bold concept, and combined with the very unusual, almost bitter story of retrospect that’s being narrated, it doesn’t make for easy viewing. The adults are all unpleasant (no slam against the actors who do their jobs with skill, miming in silent movie style with much assurance), and many of the story elements involving the young people are rather off-puttingly twee (wearing gloves to touch or even undress one’s beloved, an aerophone which allows the mother to summon her children on command in a kind of primitive walkie-talkie).
Modern cinematic experiments like this, The Blair Witch Project, or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow demand that the audience stay engaged in a story or characters before ennui sets in. In the case of Brand Upon the Brain! it overstays its welcome by about twenty minutes. Director Maddin reshuffles his deck of trick cards several times during the length of the film, but it’s never quite enough. There are intellectual ideas at work that are clever, and the pain he‘s venting in the story of an unhappy boy striving for some joy and freedom from parental restraints is keenly manifested, but the stylish execution grows monotonous eventually, and one consequently ceases to care. And ceasing to care when a movie is all about involvement and empathy is certain death to a filmmaker‘s goals.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. Not having seen the film in a theater, I have no way of knowing if the film on this DVD is an adequate representation of what was theatrically exhibited. All discussion of sharpness, contrast, saturation of the color inserts, grayscale, black levels and shadow detail seems moot for a film that’s designed to look decimated by time and at the mercy of its own supposedly ancient technology (it was filmed in Super 8mm and upconverted from that). It’s always watchable and seems to look exactly as the filmmaker wished, but no video score would really make much sense. The film has been divided into 15 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is well recorded and features a choice for the viewer of seven different narrators on eight audio tracks. The track I chose to listen to features Isabella Rossellini as the narrator in a track recorded in a studio, and of the eight recorded tracks offered, this one offers the best mix of narration, sound effects, and music. However, two other studio tracks (with director Guy Maddin and Louis Negin who recorded the original narration) and five tracks recorded live (with Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, and Isabella Rossellini) in a theatrical setting which includes the audience responses are also offered. (The film was initially designed to be a live theatrical event with live orchestra, Foley artists, and narrator present during its exhibition.)
Two short films directed by Guy Maddin, both in the style of the main feature, are offered on the disc. It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today is a look at Canadian castrato singer Dov Houle, offered in anamorphic widescreen and running 5 ½ minutes. Footsteps takes a 9-minute look at the group of Foley artists who provide sound effects for his films. It, too, is in anamorphic widescreen.
97 Percent True is a 50 ½-minute documentary focusing on director Guy Maddin and his evolving cinematic signature in the making of this movie and his previous shorts and features. Also participating in the discussion on the making of the movie are the film’s producer, cinematographer, composer, film editor, and co-writer.
One deleted scene is included on the disc. It’s in anamorphic widescreen and runs 6 minutes. Portions of the scene were included in the finished film.
The original theatrical trailer is offered in nonanamorphic letterbox and runs for 1 ½ minutes.
The enclosed 14-page booklet contains an essay by film writer and historian Dennis Lim. In it he celebrates the director’s individual vision and gives a lengthy analysis of the movie and of other Maddin films.
The audience response on some of the alternative audio tracks offered on the disc shows that many people really loved this unusual experiment in autobiographical soul baring. If you’re in the mood for something very different from the normal look back at a person’s youth, Brand Upon the Brain! may just be for you.