Sunday, May 20, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!: My brain has been branded

Brand Upon the Brain!
2007, directed by Guy Maddin

I think this is the first full Guy Maddin movie I've watched (I tried to watch Tales from the Gimli Hospital a few years ago, but couldn't finish it), and it's a good one to get acquainted with his style. Maddin is a Canadian filmmaker who makes modern silent movies, and weird ones at that. This was was especially cool though, part of a touring production that's currently going on; I saw it at Chicago's Music Box theater. The fun part of this production is the presentation; in addition to the film, there is an orchestra in the theater playing the music, foley artists doing sound effects, a singer providing occasional vocals, and a celebrity narrator (in this case, Crispin Glover). Depending on the show, other narrators will do the honors, and Isabella Rosselini provides the narration for the non-live version of the film. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I attended a couple similar performances at the famed Alamo Drafthouse, in which an old kung-fu movie was played with performers doing the music, vocals, and sound effects right there in the theater. That was tons of fun, but last night's show was like the high-budget version; even though Maddin is an independent filmmaker, he probably has some decent funds behind him.

Anyway, how was the movie? The answer: really fucking weird. The story involves a character named Guy Maddin (which lends an autobiographical air to the film, although I highly doubt anything that happened in the movie happened to Maddin in real life) returning to his childhood home, a lighthouse on an island, to fix it up for his mother, painting it with (try to imaging Crispin Glover saying this) "two good coats". While working, he reminisces about his childhood, and most of the film is made up of flashbacks to that time, when his mother ran an orphanage contained within the lighthouse and his father worked endlessly in a basement lab. There's a lot of weird stuff going on, as his mother keeps a close eye on him and his sister from her swiveling, telescope-equipped turret at the top of the lighthouse, constantly yelling at them through the aerophone, an invention of their father's that resembles a phonograph but operates via emotions. It's hard to explain, or even understand.

Life is complicated when Wendy Hale, half of a pair of famous harp-playing twin child detectives, The Lightbulb Kids, arrives on the island to investigate the strange goings-on and rumors that Guy's parents are engaged in untoward activities involving holes in the back of all the orphans' heads. Much weirdness follows, including psychosexual shenanigans involving Guy, Sis (the only named his sister is ever called), and both twins (sort of). There's also brainwashing, reverse aging, lesbianism, death and reanimation, rape, cannibalism, urination, and copious male and female nudity. I'm not especially clear on everything that happened, but it's one of those surreal movies where you kind of just have to go with it.

While the strange plot is a big part of the movie's appeal, Maddin's filmmaking style adds a lot to the presentation. The movie is in black and white (although there are some color frames inserted here and there), and done in the style of old silent films, from text intertitles on screen (which often require some mental multitasking to read while listening to narration at the same time), to hairstyles, to jerky camerawork. The camerawork and editing really interested me, as Maddin goes beyond trying to replicate the presentation of silent films, almost making the film an exercise in subliminal imagery. He will often flash an image or text on the screen for only a few frames, forcing you to absorb a good amount of information in a very short period of time. I found it quite fascinating.

The narration is another interesting addition to the mix. It adds an interesting complement to the action (and text) on screen, and Crispin Glover's delivery was perfectly in tune with the atmosphere. I might have to check out the movie when it comes out on DVD, just to see if Isabella Rosselini's narration can match up to it. Just imagine Glover delivering lines like "I really like...goats," or screaming "Rumania! Rumania!" to get a feel for what it's like. Interestingly, the narration seems to stop for long stretches of the movie, especially near the end. It's pretty constant at the beginning, but maybe there is a point where the imagery takes over and voiceovers are not needed as much. Whatever the case, it is very effective when present.

So it's a pretty crazy movie, and if this is the sort of thing you like, I highly recommend checking it out, preferably at one of these live performances. It makes for a good night at the movies, and it'll leave you scarred for life.

I still have at least one comic to review, so hopefully I'll get to that later today.

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