Brand Upon The Brain! (2006), or The Return Of The Silent Film

15 09 2009

They don’t make films like Brand Upon The Brain! anymore. For one thing, it’s a Surrealist experimental film in the tradition of Luis Buñuel that attacks the cerebellum and viciously taunts the common sense glands. And on top of that, it’s a black-and-white silent film made in 2006! Director Guy Maddin is at the forefront of a new wave some call the “Anti-Progressive” movement, a retro style combining the striking black-and-white visuals and concepts of the German Expressionists while adding a post-modernist sensibility, a la David Lynch. With its roots firmly planted in Canada and Western Europe, it’s an aesthetic choice that really intrigues this young American, and after seeing Maddin’s first real international flagship for this interesting sub-genre today, Brand Upon the Brain!, I feel like, while not for everybody, that I could really grow to love this style.

The story is told haltingly and incredibly briefly in between macabre shots of frightened monochrome people, but from what I gather it’s a strange, otherworldly semi-autobiographical look at Guy Maddin’s adolescence. Fulfilling the last request of his mother by painting a picture of his childhood home, Guy returns to the strange place where he grew up and begins remembering his haunting childhood. Living with his sister in a spooky lighthouse orphanage, the two meandered around the ominous nighttime passages of the house, constantly being monitored by their haranguing, evil mother. Things all changed when possible adoptive parents notice unusual wounds on the childrens’ skulls and two incredible teen detectives were sent out to investigate. The “Lightbulb Kids”, as they were called, started out as mere investigators, but to Guy and his sister, they became objects of infatuation and adulation. But the Lightbulb Kids had no time for romance, and investigated into the unsound practices being perpetrated by Guy’s father, a mysterious inventor with a penchant for secretive experiments. What exactly happened to Guy and his sister in that strange and irrevocable chasm of youth? Will he have the heart to remember every agonizing detail? Or will he paint the picture  of his childhood home in a spattering of his own tears?

What a mind-fuck! This movie turned the notch up to eleven on the Huh?-ometer! Maddin takes everything that used to be weird and mixed it with everything that is weird, and KA-BOOM!, this movie comes out. For a silent movie buff, it’s everything that once could ask for. It has unexplainable imagery (the horde of orphans really freaks me out), a loose and dream-like story, and plenty of grainy, beat-up visages to gawk at. The interesting part about making a silent movie today is the power of distance. The German Expressionists were daring for their time, but many restrictions still remained. In 2006, we can get the strangest shit on camera and there are no ramifications! Our forefathers would be so proud of us!

There is a little communication between the characters here, obviously, because of the limitations of the medium. But that limitation becomes a strength here, where Maddin is forced to be more creative with his character relationships. Everything is evocative and subtle, slight touches here and there between the people. A touch here, a glance there, an untitled whisper somewhere in the periphery. Like ships in the night, it is interesting how they speak to one another, if they even speak at all.

But all bets are off when it comes to the visual style! While the characters are gingerly and quiet (with the exception of young Guy’s overbearing mother), the visuals are stark, angry, and on the verge of some haunted assault. Flashes of ghosts, nightmares, visions of terror, and all sorts of oddities exist in the same possessed sphere as the fictional Guy Maddin. It is a chaotic, brutal form of storytelling, one that seems to hold more in common with a seance or alchemy than with modern filmmaking. But in these bizarre images some brief glimpses of genius can be divined, like a segmented masterpiece ripped into shreds by the creator. The title Brand Upon the Brain! seems to reference not only particular moments in the film, but also the effect the film has upon you, the way it burns certain images forever into the inside of your skull.

Maddin recreates the feel of a film from the 20s and 30s with surprising effortlessness. His self-taught talent showcases the heart of a fan rather than a student. He never went to school to learn how to shoot a movie; instead, Maddin just saw a bunch of films, and after years of sitting in front of the screen he found it was time for a different view. He makes movies the way I would make movies; with a steady eye and a visceral heart. The camera is calm and somber, like any shot from the silent movie days, but the intensity in the shot is what counts, and Maddin captures a muted intensity like no other.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just end this by saying that Brand Upon the Brain! was a very, very good movie that genuinely shocked me with its fearlessness. Bold filmmaking is always a fine commodity, so anytime I can be treated to something that seems desperate to get in my head, I welcome the experience with open arms. It’s innovative, it’s inspired, and it’s downright beautiful. It took the concept of a retro film and made it entirely its own entity. Words fail me in the face of this silent movie, so I’ll just cut the small talk and hand Brand Upon the Brain! 9 Lightbulb Kids out of 10! A high recommendation!

Come by tomorrow for my deliecious and nutrituous Talkes From the Crypt: Demon Knight review! Get it while it’s hot! Yum!