Brand Upon the Brain!

Brand Upon the Brain!

Before its world premiere at the Elgin last night, Guy Maddin’s new silent film, Brand Upon the Brain!, was shrouded in mystery. The festival described it as “equal parts childhood reminiscence, Expressionist horror movie, teen detective serial and Grand Guignol reverie”—whatever the hell that means. Much of the attention was lavished on the unique circumstances of this screening: Jason Staczek would be conducting members of the TSO as they played his score, actor Louis Negin would narrate and a genuine castrato—whom Maddin met in a Winnipeg steam bath would chirp like a meadowlark from the rafters. Sound intriguing? It was.

Brand Upon the Brain! is a gorgeous, frenetic, impressionistic voyage into Maddin’s past. It begins with Guy (well, a character named Guy) travelling back to the now-deserted island orphanage of his youth. When he arrives, he quickly gets down to painting over the cracks and rot, a metaphorical embodiment of his futile attempt to repress his childhood memories. Guy’s past is a bizarre, hallucinatory place, filled with teenage detectives in drag and parents straight out of burlesque monster movies. I won’t spell out the plot’s myriad absurd and hilarious unfurlings, but needless to say Maddin’s autbiographical mythologizing is never dull.

As to be expected, the film is a visual wonder. Shot on Super-8, Maddin’s images swarm and jitter and spin frantically, lending the film a hypnotic quality that is perfectly off-set by Nagin’s dry, self-deprecating narration. Nagin’s voice is akin to a cartoon character spooked by a ghost, flawlessly conveying a blend of horror and adolescent wonder.

Brand Upon the Brain! is about memory and the way actual past occurrence are so often obscured by shadowy passions and fictionalization. And it’s about desire and fear and all the rest of the wonderful terrors that haunt our teenage years. Mainly though, it’s about its own medium and the experience of watching silent film.

Whatever people may have thought about the coherence of Maddin’s vision, few could argue that, sitting in the Elgin as the castrato reached for inhuman registers, we were indeed witnessing a unique and stirring event. Maddin’s film will eventually get a standard theatrical release, with Staczek’s score wedded to the sound mix. But let’s hope the director gets to replicate Friday night’s event again in the not-so-distant future.