Brand Upon the Brain! is Guy Maddin’s most fully realized exploration into silent film form and aesthetics to date. Loosely subtitled “a remembrance in twelve chapters,” Brand Upon the Brain! recalls both the childhood of its protagonist, a young Guy Maddin (Sullivan Brown), as well as the films and film-going practices of a golden age of cinema. Finding inspiration in the 1920s, when movie palaces and their grand orchestras were as important to audience members as the plot of the work being shown, Maddin creates a unique silent film experience.
Brand Upon the Brain! bends genre and gender, invoking much of the same film history repertoire present in Maddin’s previous works. Part expressionist horror, part early sci-fi, part teen detective serial, Brand embodies the seemingly impossible collision of multiple genres. Maddin likewise combs almost all stylistic facets of the silent film past: within Brand, F.W.
Murnau and Fritz Lang seamlessly co-exist with Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. It is through this blending of so many silent film references and styles that Maddin generates his original approach to filmmaking. With his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, the director weaves the past with the present, the intensely private with the public, to create what he describes as an “emotionally autobiographical” film.
Reluctantly lured back to his birthplace by his ailing mother, the adult Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) embarks on a disturbing, surrealistic yet whimsical journey into the grotesque crevices of his childhood. Memories of strange events blur the line between the wild imagination of a child and the ravings of a lunatic. Maddin’s all-seeing, ever-present mother (Gretchen Krich) runs an orphanage from a lighthouse, while his mad-scientist father labours incessantly in the basement. Suspecting Maddin’s father of experimenting on the brains of the orphans, famed teen detective Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) comes to investigate. Young Maddin falls in love with Wendy, but Wendy falls in love with Maddin’s older sister (Maya Lawson) and goes into drag as Chance Hale to woo her. The subsequent juvenile love triangle becomes even more intricate and ruinous when young Maddin finds himself also falling for Chance, his sister’s lover-in-drag.
Adolescent libido complicates the dividing line between childhood innocence and adulthood; the newly sexually awakened youth stand to punish the repugnant crimes of the parents. In its portrait of unbridled lust, Brand Upon the Brain! signals the importance of remembering the wild imagination and chaotic emotions that were the spirit, if not the facts, of adolescence.
This film marks the first time the director worked outside of his native Winnipeg. Having been commissioned by the Film Company, a not-for-profit production company based in Seattle that greenlights filmmakers rather than individual projects, Maddin, together with regular collaborator George Toles, composed a script in under a month and then travelled to Washington
to begin filming.
From the beginning, Brand was conceptualized as entirely silent. Maddin simulates the graininess and decay of surviving silent films by shooting with Super 8 film. With its title cards, iris shots, live narrator and original score by Jason Staczek, Brand Upon the Brain! is Maddin’s richest expression of the silent film aesthetic. There is, however, one exception to the claim that Brand is entirely silent. While in the editing stage, having finished shooting several months previous, Maddin decided to go back and shoot a single sound sequence featuring the sister character singing. This last-minute endeavour reminded Maddin of the late 1920s shift from the silent to the sound era. Specifically, Maddin considered his film an evocation of 1929, a tumultuous year in film history when many entirely silent films were produced then awkwardly re-edited with added dialogue so as to avoid the condemnation of being old-fashioned. Brand Upon the Brain! depicts this dramatic transition, which often resulted in a tension between the outmoded and the modern.
Premiering at the Elgin Theatre as a special presentation in the thirty-first Toronto International Film Festival, Brand received a full gala treatment circa the late 1920s. With an eleven-piece orchestra, five-piece foley (for special-effects sounds), castrato and narration by Louis Negin, a frequent actor in Maddin’s films, Brand fully captured the bygone days of a nearly forgotten
style of exhibition. The narration of the film received special attention from the director. As Maddin notes, silent films in the Western world traditionally had a live narrator who would explain the plot to an often confused, sometimes illiterate audience. Rather than use this interlocutor style of narration, however, Maddin wanted an approach associated more with the Japanese benshi tradition. He sought an interactive narrator who would build a personal
relationship with the audience throughout the film. When Brand was shown at the New York Film Festival and as it subsequently toured North America, Maddin employed well-known personalities to perform narration, including Isabella Rossellini, who starred in Maddin’s previous film The Saddest Music in the World (2003), as well as actor Crispin Glover, musician Lou Reed, American poet John Ashbery, multi-media artist Laurie Anderson and horror film icon Udo Kier.
Maddin impeccably blends intertextual film references with invocations of an often troubling and confusing childhood. Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) (the latter being an early sound film that clung to silent film form) are all somewhere evoked in Brand Upon the Brain!, suggesting that much of the director’s upbringing and approach is defined and inspired by the great films and film practices of the past.