Brand upon the Brain!: Out of the Past

On Film / Essays — Aug 12, 2008

Every Guy Maddin movie creates the illusion of a secret history. His willfully primitive cut-rate spectacles seem like artifacts, reanimated bits of cultural detritus, but also like hauntings, the return of the cinematic repressed. From the start, Maddin’s sensibility was both fully formed and proudly anomalous. He emerged in the mid-1980s, a cult filmmaker from the icy prairies of Winnipeg flaunting an absurd fluency in the vernacular of early motion pictures. In the first decade of his career, he made a series of joyously strange and often very funny melodramas that reintroduced to the medium the handmade enchantment of Georges Méliès and the dreamlike gloom of German expressionism.

The second, more prolific phase of Maddin’s career, beginning roughly in 2000, has, if anything, been even more unlikely. His mannerist style, always in danger of seeming hermetic, has simultaneously intensified and opened up, even as his focus has turned inward. Increasingly he comes across less as a fusty antiquarian than a mad scientist, applying shock paddles to dead cinematic languages. The ghosts populating his movies are no longer just those of departed filmmakers (from Jean Vigo to Jack Smith)—they come from the author’s own life. Maddin’s films have always been intensely personal; now they are often nakedly revealing, at once travestying and transcending the contemporary vogue for memoir. A master fabulist who specialized in adult fairy tales, he has found an even richer métier in mythic autobiography.

Brand upon the Brain!,
Maddin’s eighth feature, is the middle film in what he calls “my ‘Me Trilogy,’” wedged between the self-flagellating confessional Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and the psychogeographic docu-fantasia My Winnipeg (2007). All three films unfold from the perspective of a character named Guy Maddin, drawn with a potent combination of narcissism and self-loathing. In Brand upon the Brain!, written with his regular coconspirator George Toles, the director’s fevered imaginings take on a particular poignancy, tailored as they are to the hormonal delirium of adolescence and the roiling swamp of childhood memory.

With each film in the trilogy, Maddin has experimented with form and presentation. Before it was stitched together into a feature, Cowards Bend the Knee was an art installation, designed to be viewed through a series of peepholes. My Winnipeg has elements of performance art, especially pronounced at screenings where Maddin has recited his own incantatory narration live. Brand upon the Brain!, in its original form, was easily the most elaborate of the three, an attempt to reinvent the silent film as a full-scale theatrical spectacle. It premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2006 with an orchestra, a singer (impishly billed as a castrato), an interlocutor (a tradition derived from the Japanese art of benshi), and sound effects by Foley artists in lab coats. The following year, as the film made its way across North America, it was accompanied by a lineup of celebrity narrators, from Crispin Glover to John Ashbery. (It also received a conventional theatrical run, with a soundtrack featuring Jason Staczek’s score and Isabella Rossellini’s narration.)

Maddin estimates that Brand upon the Brain!, shot in his familiar black-and-white Super 8, is “97 percent literal autobiography”—a statement that itself seems less than literal, given that the film is set in a lighthouse that doubles as a “mom-and-pop orphanage” where the hero’s parents engage in the vampiric harvesting of “orphan nectar.” Just as Werner Herzog seeks a poetic ideal of “ecstatic truth” largely by refusing to distinguish between documentary and fiction, Maddin’s wildly embellished memories, presumably lurching well beyond the factual, might be said to pursue a hysterical truth. The notion of an exaggerated memory is even encoded into his film language. His grainy, scratchy black-and-white images do not call to mind the silents of the twenties so much as they conjure, in a nuttily heightened version, the experience of watching them years after the fact in battered prints.

In Brand upon the Brain!, as in most of Maddin’s films, the past is not exactly recalled—many of his characters happen to be amnesiacs—so much as hallucinated. Grown-up Guy (Erik Steffen Maahs), a house painter (as was the real-life Maddin in his postcollegiate years), returns to his island-bound boyhood home, heeding the call of his mother to repaint the old lighthouse. This fraught mission immediately summons a host of phantoms and a series of tremulous flashbacks to his formative traumas in the orphan colony.

While his scientist father toils away on sinister experiments—are they related to the mysterious holes in the heads of the children?—his fearsome mother surveys the island with a searchlight, cracking down on unseemly behavior. Despite her watchfulness, lusty complications proliferate: young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his sister (Maya Lawson) become infatuated with the Lightbulb Kids, a newly arrived pair of androgynous sibling teen detectives. Most of the Maddin motifs, which have lent themselves to many delightfully lurid permutations over the years, are accounted for here: gender confusion, mistaken identity, sibling rivalry, oedipal friction, sexual jealousy, doppelgängers, romantic triangles. As usual, all this tawdriness provides an implicit running joke, suggesting silent movies stripped of inhibitions.

Maddin’s headlong lunge into quasi-memoir is often thought of as a recent development, but even his very first film, a 1986 short called The Dead Father, contained trace elements of autobiography. He lost his father as a young man, and in this surrealist portrait of grief, the bereft hero is faced with his father’s resurrected corpse (the first of many undead visitors in the Maddin corpus), which eventually prompts a cannibalistic fantasy. The features that followed grew progressively more stylized. Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), set amid a late-nineteenth-century smallpox epidemic in the Manitoba village of Gimli, spins the paranoid envy between two hospital inmates into a musty fever dream involving necrophilia and a curious form of Icelandic buttock wrestling. The Toronto festival rejected the film, turning it into a minor cause célèbre. It gained some notoriety as a midnight-movie curio with the help of cult-flick impresario Ben Barenholtz, who, a decade earlier, had been instrumental in the late-night afterlife of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (a film that Maddin has said “gave me the courage to make movies”).

Archangel (1990), set in Russia in the final days of World War I, introduces Maddin’s great theme of amnesia, a condition whose stock psychological explanations he habitually exploits for maximum melancholy. Forgetfulness in his films is a symptom of shame, a manifestation of guilt, a coping mechanism. Careful (1992), his first color film (designed to recall the garish hues of early Technicolor), takes his penchant for artifice to an extreme. An Alpine melodrama shot entirely indoors, this round-robin of competing Oedipus and Electra complexes is set in a mountain hamlet whose inhabitants speak in whispers for fear of triggering an avalanche. Maddin says he started out intending to make a “pro-incest” movie and ended up with a “pro-repression” one—it’s precisely this ambivalence about forbidden and frustrated desires, the recognition that repression is deranging and also its own kind of turn-on, that undergirds the erotic logic of Maddin’s films, not least his autobiographical works.

By the early nineties, Maddin was beloved by critics and programmers, a fixture at festivals and on year-end lists. But he was without question an acquired taste. The acclaim never quite translated to box office or made him a viable commodity in the eyes of funders. After Careful, Maddin tried developing a musical called The Dikemaster’s Daughter, which never got off the ground despite having secured the stunt-casting coup of Leni Riefenstahl. He limped on to his fourth feature, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997), ill prepared for the burden of a larger production—this time there were stars (including Shelley Duvall) drawn from outside his usual repertory, and it was his first (and to date only) feature to be wholly shot on 35 mm, a decision made for him by his producer and cinematographer. Noam Gonick’s documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight offers a glimpse of the psychic damage. Interviewed on the set of Ice Nymphs, ostriches swarming behind him, Maddin declares, with more than a touch of self-pity, “Just close the mausoleum lid on me. I don’t really feel like working on movies anymore.”

Maddin wasn’t happy with the finished film, which he called “stillborn” (many critics agreed). But the slump didn’t last long, and his gratifying second act seems to have stemmed largely from a recalibration of expectations on his part, an honest reckoning of his own strengths and limits. Simply put, Maddin came to terms with being a miniaturist, or perhaps more accurately, he realized that he could be, in the same breath, a miniaturist and a maximalist. This was the very point of his stunning micromasterpiece The Heart of the World (2000), an apocalyptic retro-futurist epic squeezed into six breathless minutes that accelerate the rabid fervor of Soviet montage to the brink of seizure (Maddin called it “the world’s first subliminal melodrama”). An allegory about the death of cinema, it revived its maker’s career.

Maddin’s subsequent films, as gleefully assaultive in their way as Jerry Bruckheimer spectacles, have relied on the principle of overload—a case, perhaps, of form catching up with content. His synopsis-resistant movies have always featured a comic surfeit of incident, which their increasingly jumpy, overheated style seems perfectly suited to communicating. With his editor John Gurdebeke, Maddin has developed a fractured, almost cubist approach to montage—he calls it “neurological”—that finds especially resonant usage in Brand upon the Brain!, with its merciless onslaught of memory and oedipal horror (as a recurring intertitle puts it, “Too much for Guy!!”).

The reinvented Maddin has been comfortable taking on commissions and work for hire, newly confident that his singular sensibility is in no danger of being diluted by external forces. In 2002 he made a rhapsodic ballet film, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, that reveled, more than any other movie Dracula, in the voluptuous repression of Stoker’s Victorian milieu. A semimusical with hints of geopolitical satire, The Saddest Music in the World (2003) transposed the original scenario, devised by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, from London to Depression-era Winnipeg, which Maddin consecrates as the “world capital of sorrow.” He had repeatedly constructed soundstages in the city’s abandoned warehouses but this was his first film to be set in his hometown.

The autobiographical floodgates opened with that same year’s Cowards Bend the Knee, which takes place largely within a hockey arena and a beauty salon, the hallowed masculine/feminine environments of his youth (his father, Chas, managed the local hockey team, and the Maddin home was above his aunt Lil’s salon). Speaking to the press, Maddin opened up about his biography, seeming to effortlessly merge bald-faced exaggerations and almost unnerving sincerity. At the core of this outlandish personal mythology was genuine feeling and even real tragedy (the loss of his father, the suicide of his teenage brother). He even offered up his diaries, recklessly sprinkled with indiscretions and neuroses, for public consumption—they were published in 2003, along with a selection of his film journalism, as From the Atelier Tovar. (Maddin’s writing, it is worth noting, is an uncannily exact mirror of his filmmaking—lush, torrid, hilariously baroque.)

Brand upon the Brain! represents the grand culmination of Maddin’s confessional impulses. He insists he strip-mined his past so thoroughly for the script only because he didn’t have time to concoct a fiction. The project was initiated by the Film Company, a Seattle-based production outfit, which offered to finance a film—any film—on the condition that he use a Seattle cast and crew. The shoot lasted nine days, and within six months of the initial phone call he had a feature in the can.

While the Guy Maddin of Brand upon the Brain! is a typical Maddin hero, hapless and somewhat recessive, the film’s dominant figure is also a familiar type: the smothering mother, who in Maddin’s movies—and in his life, he has suggested—embodies the alarming perversities and even more frightening tenderness of love. (Maddin’s mother, Herdis, appears in Cowards Bend the Knee, essentially playing her own mother.) Oblique or overt, the family stuff in Brand upon the Brain! cuts close to the bone. The director says he feels he’s “ratting out” his loved ones every time he sees the film. It may seem perverse, then, that he would have conceived of it as a grandiose road show—a recurring nightmare (or an exorcism ritual?) that he would have to relive over and over—but the combination of masochism and megalomania is quintessential Maddin.

When faced with artists who draw compulsively from their life stories, the temptation is to sift what might have happened from what probably didn’t, but that’s a fool’s game with Maddin. His recent project of dubious autobiography—the trilogy now complete, he claims he’s ready to move on—rests on the tension between recovered and invented memory. The opposition between real and fake is at the very heart of Maddin’s work, which has always thrived on the push-pull between authenticity and artifice, gravity and flippancy, deeply felt emotion and reflexively protective irony. The key to his particular genius is that he doesn’t view any of these as mutually exclusive categories. Instead he blithely juxtaposes one quality with its nominal opposite, heightens them simultaneously until the distinctions become meaningless. In so doing he also obliterates the gap between the ridiculous and the sublime.