By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: The Film Company/Celluloid Dreams, 2006]
Guy Maddin’s latest fever dream of a film, “Brand Upon the Brain!,” descended upon the Walter Reade Theatre on October 15 to close out the Views From the Avant-Garde section of the New York Film Festival. In tow were an orchestra, a team of foley artists (for live sound effects), and Isabella Rossellini, who would perform the narration for the film, which was, as you may have guessed, silent. It went out with a bang, or to be more precise, a bang! No director today is as fond of the exclamation point as Maddin, the Canadian cinephile and creator of strange celluloid objects. His works are borne out of a mixture of silent movie melodrama and self-conscious camp — a mix of Frank Borzage and John Waters. The subjects range from incestuous psychodramas in the Alps (“Careful,” 1994) to Depression-era musicals starring beer-filled glass legs (attached to Rossellini in “The Saddest Music in the World,” 2003). The often outrageous material is played with absolute conviction, and is always tied to themes of family strife (recently it’s been missing fathers) and sexual repression, lending his films an unexpected emotional heft amid their giddy excesses.
His new film is no different. In the Fall issue of Cinema Scope, Maddin describes how the Seattle-based “The Film Company” offered him a budget to make a film before they even saw a script. They gave him complete freedom, the only restrictions being he had to shoot it in two weeks and use local actors. He had to scramble for a story, and earlier in the article he describes the image that spurred his imagination: “A lighthouse positively swollen with the unseemly sexual desires of children — and their parents!” From this charged thought a whole seamy narrative was woven, circling around the main character “Guy Maddin” (Eric Steffen Maahs) (after the screening the director claimed the film is autobiographical, like his hockey peep show “Cowards Bend the Knee” (2003)). The unseemly desires center around a teenage sleuth harpist, Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon), who’s investigating Guy’s overbearing mother for abusing the kids in her orphanage (and how!). Guy’s in love with Wendy, but she only has eyes for his Sis (Maya Lawson). Gender-bending, bosom-baring and slurpy sound effects filled the room until an orphan revolt, re-animation of the dead, and a barrel of brain nectar shuttled the film to its close. Maddin packs a whole serial’s worth of plot twists into its 95 minutes — and all of it is scored to the hypnotic tempo of Jason Staczek’s pulsing score and Rossellini’s formidable voice.
The actress, nattily decked out in a dark suit and red tie, deftly navigated the film’s hysteric rhythms without a wink of condescension while always returning to nail down its mournful refrain: “The past! The past!” (Rossellini has become a bit of a muse for Maddin, appearing in “Saddest Music” as well as the delightful short essay-film “My Dad is 100 Years Old,” which celebrates the work of her increasingly neglected father, Roberto). In the framing story Guy returns to the lighthouse after 30 years — and hallucinates visions of Wendy, including brief flashes of color (flowers! her lips!) in the midst of the grainy black and white Super-8 stock. Like Alain Resnais’ superb festival entry “Private Fears in Public Places,” which is diametrically opposite stylistically, it is an adult story about loneliness that leaves its characters adrift in the final scene, enclosed in Spartan spaces filled only with regret. Resnais opted out of the cannibalism scene, though. Both are without distributors as of this writing.