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June 13-19, 2007

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'The Brand Upon the Brain!'

Photograph by Adam L. Weintraub
To the lighthouse: Sullivan Brown plays a young boy with seriously weird parents in Guy Maddin's 'The Brand Upon the Brain!'

Brain Fever

Guy Maddin puts his 'Brand Upon the Brain!'

By Richard von Busack

IF YOU ARE wondering why so many films carry what the poet Philip Larkin described as "the horrible smell of arse," maybe it is because so few of them lack exclamation points in their titles. Whatever happened to the mammoth self-confidence that once was the soul of filmmaking?—"Tonight on The $100,000 Movie! Baby Igor in Cashiered!" Guy Maddin's newest, The Brand Upon the Brain!, is an "orgasmatacular" homage to the most Freudian excesses of German Expressionist films. Set in the old, weird Canada, it consists of 12 chapters of mordant melodrama and shuddering nostalgia. Black-and-white and silent film are here spruced with what MaddIn has called "goat glands." (He's referring to a pre-Viagra manning-up surgery of the 1920s.) To put it plain: Maddin has added a poetic voice-over narrator on the soundtrack for the theatrical release. Isabella Rossellini does the narration (the splendid Joan Chen recited it live with an 11-piece orchestra and three Foley artists when I saw the film at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Also included on the soundtrack is a tune by a "castrato," Dov "The Manitoba Meadowlark" Houle, who is actually a Wayne Newton–style tenor, presumably unaltered—though ball-lessness is so prevalent in today's movie industry that one more eunuch would scarcely be noticed.

Parental castration serves, in fact, as a subtext in this tale of woe. Returning to the "Island of Vigilance," a house painter called Guy Maddin (played by Sullivan Brown in youth and Erik Steffen Maahs in middle age) must paint the family lighthouse, where he grew up under the unblinking eye of his mother (Cathleen O'Malley), a vampiric, sex-loathing hysteric who bathed in turpentine to scrub the disgusting urges out of her hide. His father (Todd Moore) was a half-alive drone completely devoted to his lab experiments. The lab is obscurely connected to strange marks, such as the welt left by a suckerfish's tentacle, on the back of the orphans' skulls. Into this threatening milieu comes the brother-and-sister team of dime-novel detectives Chance and Wendy Hale, who smell a mystery at the old lighthouse. Actually, it's only Wendy (the delicious Katherine E. Scharhon), who disguises herself as brother Chance, who is away on business. Guy falls for the sprightly, dark-eyed androgyne, little understanding her true female nature. So does his morally forsaken sister (Maya Lawson). The sound of the lowing foghorn and the fury of the winds whipping Lake Winnipeg accentuate the deadly story of "nectarite" trafficking, brain fever and the tantalizing "undressing gloves."

Elements of the plots of The Wasp Woman and Peter Ibbetson surface, but the film is more than just an exercise in Spot the Reference. One of the functions of Expressionism was to express something, after all. Consider all the elements that combined to brand Maddin's brain—the Scandinavian and Eastern European cultures of his city of Winnipeg, the long winters in close confinement with closer relatives and the desperate niceness of Canada in the 1950s—and you have the recipe for a filmmaker who prefers to suggest onscreen what he dare not enunciate outloud. Repression, like oppression, has its uses. And The Brand Upon the Brain! is a genuine work of art and not an ingenuous and ingenious joke.

Movie Times The Brand Upon the Brain! (Unrated; 95 min.), directed by Guy Maddin, written by Maddin and George Toles, photographed by Benjamin Kasulke and starring Sullivan Brown, opens June 15 at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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