Billed as a silent film, Guy Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain!” is actually closer to a live theatrical event — a feature-length motion picture screened with the accompaniment of a live orchestra, plus Foley artists, sound effects technicians and assorted vocalists, too. Together, they provide the elaborate soundscape for a typically frenetic, Maddin-esque amalgam of the autobiographical, Freudian and willfully absurd. Prohibitive cost of staging live performances may keep pic (in its current form) confined to big-city fests, though it’s easy to imagine a touring version (with recorded sound, a la Maddin’s last “silent” pic, “Cowards Bend the Knee”) enjoying a small yet enthusiastic arthouse following.
Directed by Maddin from a script he co-wrote with regular collaborator George Toles, “Brand,” which reps the cult Canadian auteur’s first pic shot on American soil, was commissioned by the Seattle-based indie production house The Film Co. (whose founder, Gregg Lachow, himself directed the silent-with-live-cast feature “Silence!” back in 2001).
House painter Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) arrives by rowboat at his childhood home of Black Notch Island, having come to repaint the family lighthouse at the behest of his dying mother (Susan Corzatte). But before Maddin can set his paint brush upon the lighthouse’s peeling walls, he finds himself awash in a tide of turbulent, long-suppressed memories.
Pic then flashes back to the adolescent Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his teenage sister (Maya Lawson), who spend their days exploring the Black Notch wilds, all the while being spied on from the lighthouse, which doubles as an orphanage, by their domineering, puritanical mother (played in this younger incarnation by Gretchen Krich). Mom runs the orphanage with an iron fist, inducing feelings of guilt by threatening suicide, and calling to her children at any moment using a telephone-like device known as an Aerophone, powered not by electricity but human emotion.
Meanwhile, Guy’s scientist father (Todd Jefferson Moore) toils away in his basement laboratory, concocting an unspecified potion which may just involve fluids harvested from the orphanage residents.
Turning up to investigate matters is the brother and sister teenage detective duo of Wendy and Chance Hale (both played by the effectively androgynous Katherine E. Scharhon), who quickly become objects of pubescent infatuation for Guy and Sis, respectively. At which point, we’re not even halfway through the film’s 12 “chapters.”
As will come as no surprise to the Maddin faithful, sinister revelations, oedipal attractions and even one seemingly miraculous return from the dead lie in store. But as usual in a Maddin film, the elaborate (and frequently nonsensical) plotting is of considerably less importance than the director’s feverishly comic expression of his own id by way of the most primitive filmmaking processes available.
And following in the spirit of “Cowards” and the acclaimed short film “The Heart of the World,” “Brand Upon the Brain!” takes Maddin’s signature imagery to such ragged extremes as to make “The Saddest Music in the World” look like a conventional studio film.
Shot on grainy, black-and-white Super 8mm film stock (transferred to high-definition video for its Toronto screening), the movie doesn’t recall the great masterpieces of silent cinema so much as it does the earliest filmmaking experiments of Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers, in which the images flickered and stuttered their way on to the screen and seemed to cling there with every particle of their being.
That, combined with Maddin’s exuberantly attention-deficient editing style, makes for movies that don’t look or feel like anyone else’s, but which can be exhausting when they go on for too long. And if “Brand” has a critical flaw, it’s that, at 95 minutes, it’s a good half-hour longer than “Cowards,” and those 30 minutes are undeniably felt.
Maddin’s aesthetic brio should not obscure the fact that he is also very good with actors, whether the “name” talent of “Saddest Music” or the unknown faces that populate “Brand,” all giving fully of themselves to the project’s go-for-broke zaniness.
As intentionally ragged as it is visually, “Brand” is rich sonically, especially as it was presented in Toronto, with Jason Staczek’s imaginative musical score (full of ominous string arrangements and melodramatic symbol crashes) brought to life by 11 members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, while a small army of Foley and effects performers (all decked out in white lab coats) held forth in the side boxes of the majestic Elgin theater.