Brand Upon the Brain – dir. Guy Maddin, 2006 – Originally toured as a cinematic event, this silent film – with accompanying folio artists and guest interlocutors- is a personal, moving and delirious excavation of family, memory and desire. Maddin weaves together libidinous distortion and autobiographical (mis)remembering to conjure a film that, like no other, disorientates past and present. Imagine a surrealist raconteur: one eye on the fuzz of old home/family footage, the other roving promiscuously amidst archives of silent film and Greek tragedy. An amazing achievement that works as a logical antecedent to the more cinematically polished vision of Keyhole, or, drawing upon the director’s own comments – as a less cynical companion to Coward’s Bend the Knee.
The film’s score, by Jason Staczek, is a beautifully realised work in itself; it accompanies the visual journey through humour, feverish melodrama, the macabre and tragic with emotive and natural (for the uninhibited Maddin world) flare. Apparently Maddin was aiming to harness his enthusiasm for the scores from Jean Vigo’s two main films: L’Atalante and Zero de Conduit. There are even two falsetto songs that, like the pulse of memory, disappear as abruptly as they arrive – like condensed and child-like arias they perfectly resonate with the often operatic scale of emotion.
A film that can convey the mesmeric charm and melancholy of memory and how our perception of textures, scents and the incidental can prompt encounters with the past, it is stunning. The erratic skip and judder of its cinematography (a technique discovered, fittingly, through chance in editing) creates a restless cinematography, one that enthrals with its own (distinctly surrealist and wonder-filled) visual syntax.
All this without mentioning the imaginative insanity of its peculiar content: vampiric science experiments, a maternal lighthouse, an invented tool of faulty communication, an orphanage, the reversal of time, a tension between Lord of the Flies esque barbarism and romanticised innocence, blurring of sexuality, Freudian dramas, nostalgic and quaint American teen mystery (think Hardy Boys…like an American Famous Five for adolescent adventure…all boyish treks into the wilderness and solving mysteries, while neatly evading imminent peril- be it crocodiles, smugglers or figures of parental authority), strains of surrealist sexuality (L’Age D’Or foot kissing, erotic incest, confused identities and even the appearance of a Fantomas – esque mask…which crops up as both linked with death, marriage and desire)…dear god it’s a bountiful pic n mix of the eccentric, the absurd and the bizarre…all lathering up in a steamy confusion of secrets.
For anyone with an interest in surrealist film, silent film, the relationship between music and image, family and the poetry of remembering – this is an altar of curious genius to kneel before, with hushed and inappropriate arousal…offering occasional toe fellating, by way of appreciation…metaphorically…whatever that might entail…!