Guy Maddin’s latest cinematic joke is on the audience.
BRAND UPON THE BRAIN – the latest effort from cult auteur Guy Maddin – rolls into Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre with quite a cache: The New York times’ Manohla Dargis has proclaimed the film “one of the year’s 10 best,” and Kenneth Turan offers up a highly favorable assesment in the Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately, the debut screening last night proved the work in question to be yet another fashion trend inspired by the Emperor’s New Clothes.
To put it bluntly, BRAND UPON THE BRAIN is a stain on the brain of anyone who manages to sit through it. It is almost an unintended parody of the excesses of art house filmmaking – like something that would have shown up on Dan Akroyd’s old SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE vignette “Bad Cinema.” It truly is unfortunate the MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 is no longer in operation, because this would have been perfect fodder for their brand of irreverent spoofery.
Thankfully, the experience of watching the movie was somewhat ameliorated by the live accompaniment. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN is done somewhat in the style of an old-fashioned silent movie, complete with subtitles. Although a pre-recorded soundtrack (with music and narration) will be available for most engagements, some special screenings (like the one last night) feature a live orchestra, a sound effects crew, and a narrator.
This lends a certain thrill to the viewing experince; I mean, it’s live – it’s happening right in front of you – you can see the musicians bowing their instruments, see the sound effects people banging blocks together, see the narrator emoting right in front of you. In fact, the film is so meandering and repetitious, you are like to find your eyes wandering from the screen to the live performers, just out of sheer boredom.
Pre-release info had indicated an eleven-piece orchestra, but I counted twelve musicians: seven strings, two horns, two percussionists (playing timps, snare drum, xylophone, and tubular bells), and a pianist. There was also a vocalist who warbled a childish tune once or twice.
The score itself perhaps was too much in tune with the film to be of great interest. It emphasized, without irony, the film’s heavy-handed and absurd melodrama. Too bad – it would have been so easy to compose an ironic counter-pont that could have deflated the pretensions and redeemend the experience with a little humor.
Perhaps more fun were the foley (i.e., sound effects) people, who produced a wide range of ambient and synchronous effects from what looked like extremely low-tech equipment. With three of them going at once, it was sometimes hard to tell who was creating what sound – using what device – but it was certainly fun trying to keep track. And unlike the musicians, there foley team did show a sense of humor: during a scene wherein an on-screen character urinates, the foley artist not only poured water into a tub to create the sound; he actually mimed the action. Perhaps unintionally, it looked as if he was metaphorically pissing on the whole movie, which is pretty much what it deserves.
For me at least, the highlight of the evening was the performance of Barbara Steele as the narrator. (The pre-recorded soundtrack features narration by Isabella Rossellini.) Ms. Steele starred in a series of atmospheric Italian horror films back in the 1960s: she is pretty much the only female horror star who was not a “Scream Queen” – that is, she played the villain as often as the victim. However, one unfortunate aspect of her classic film output is that, although she is herself English, the English-dubbed versions of her movies almost never used her fine voice.
Last night was, therefore, a splendid irony: a chance for her voice to be heard while we were watching other faces on the screen. Ms. Steel gave a bravura performance, emphasizing the melodrama and lacing the lines with sense of significance that almost overcame the shortcomings in the writing. The highlights had to be her wordless wails of anguish during a murder scene, which were then superceded by her orgasmic cries when the film’s distraught and disturbed mother resurrects her dead husband; the on-screen imagery – like a silent version of E.R. by way of a horror film, complete with “jumper cables” leading from the wife to the husband – was laced with sexual undertones, making the vocalizations utterly appropriate.
In the end, it was a bit disappointing to see this much effort extended in the service of a film that hardly warranted it. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN, despite its silent movie stylings, feels more like a bad music video stretched to feature length. The narrative is pointless, rambling, and repetitious; it could easily have been reduced to thirty minutes without losing any important story points. But for Maddin’s fans, apparently, the excess is a feature, not a bug. So we sit through a childhood reminiscence that turns into a kid’s detective story (a la Nancy Drew), and when that gets too boring, we shift into gender-bending, lesbianism, and even hints of incest and child molestation. In short, everything that would be appropriate to a sleazy exploitation movie, but dressed up in bogus art house trappings.
The story begins with “Guy” (implying that the film is somehow autobiographical) getting a letter from his mother asking him to repaint the old lighthouse where she used to run an orpanage. This leads to Guy’s recollections of his childhood, which are divided into twelve chapters. In a nutshell, all the orphans have a strange scar on their scalp, and a girl detective shows up to solve the mystery, while Guy mostly stands around pining for her. Problem is the girl detective has eyes for Guy’s sister, so she disguises herself as a boy and sets about seducing her. This distracts from the mystery, which could have been easily solved: Guy’s father is extracting “nectar” from the orphans’ brains in order to restore youth to Guy’s mother. After Guy’s sister is tapped, she stabs daddy to death, but mom resurrects him. Mom and Dad are exhiled from the island, and Guy himself ends up an orphan, finally returning to the lighthouse years later and reunited with his Mother – although why he would tolerate a reunion with the awful haridan is anyone’s guess.
None of it is the least bit engaging, and there is hardly any deeper symbolism or thematic underpinnings that would justify the indulgent approach to the thin narrative. The movie truly feels like the first draft ramblings of an over-heated imagination churning out private fantasies as if they were great universal truths. To be fair, there are a few brief traces of wit: as a youngster, Guy has a tendancy to faint a lot, like a helpless maiden in an old silent movie melodrama. This recurring character bit elicits a few chuckles, which were about the only entertainment value in the film itself (as opposed to the live performance).
With so little story to fill the frame, Maddin relies on the visuals to hold interest. Unfortunately, all the jittery camerawork and flashcuts in the world cannot elevate this drivel to the level of art, and even people with an appreciating for unconventional cinema may find themselves losing patience. The visual style is so far off-the-wall that it might be interesting for a few minutes, but after the first chapter you have pretty much seen all that the film has to offer. After that, you’re liking to find yourself counting down along with those chapter breaks: nine down, three to go before the blessed relief of “The End.”
UPDATE: If there were any more evidence needed for the old chestnut “there’s no accounting for taste,” here it is. While visiting Cinefile, my fave video rental store, I overheard an enthusiast film fan proclaiming what a wonderful experience BRAND UPON THE BRAIN was. He went on to praise actor Udo Keir, who performed the live narration on Sunday, for indulging in a full minute of “orgasmic breathing” during the ressurection scene, so perhaps it was the live performance, not the film itself, that accounted for the enthusiastic response.