Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! is — together with Cowards Bend the Knee, to which it is a sort of sequel — the best thing Maddin has ever done. Cowards and Brain are alike quasi-autobiographical, with protagonists named “Guy Maddin” involved in all sorts of Oedipal entanglements. Maddin says, in a short documentary about shooting the film, something to the effect that Brain is “autobiographical” because it reproduces the emotions he remembers having felt years ago, during his childhood. That is to say, the film is affectively autobiographical, rather than literally so. It is not really the case that Maddin’s mother ran an orphanage, or that his father was a mad scientist — it is only that that is what they become, or how they feel to Maddin today, when they are refracted through the double delirium of memory and the movies. In all his films, Maddin seeks to present to us the reality of the past: which is to say, not the past as it really was, but the past as past, the past as a memory, the actuality of the past as it is re-called or re-presented, rather than actually present. The past is spectral, hauntological; it “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
All of Maddin’s films emulate, or recall, the styles of older film, and especially silent film. They look, intentionally, archaic. And they mimic specifically, the oldness of these older films — that is to say, they try to look, not like silent films must have looked at the time they were originally made and shown, but how they look today, in prints worn down by years of use and chemical decay. They deploy visual conventions and acting styles that look out of place, because they self-consciously correspond to what seemed like naturalism to audiences of 1917, and which therefore today seems entirely mannered and artificial, entirely at odds with what audiences take for naturalism in 2007. Against the myth that film preserves the living presence of what has passed away in reality (i.e. the idea that Garbo’s films preserve her youth and sensuality intact, despite the fact that the real Garbo grew old and died) — against this myth, Maddin equates the cinematic perpetuation of images with the pastness and inaccessibility of that to which the images refer. This is very nearly literalized in Brand Upon the Brain!, in the monstrous figure of the father who is murdered, but then brought back to a sort of zombified life, so that he may continue his vampiristic scientific experimentation, which consists of stealing the vital energies of the young, extracting vital fluids from their brains and spinal cords, in order to rejuvenate the older generation (in a process which is, at best, temporary and delusive).
In order to create the decayed-silent-film look, Maddin shot Brand Upon the Brain! in Super8, which he then blew up to 35mm, so that the predominantly black and white images (there are a few seconds in color) look, at various times, grainy, washed-out, overly-high-contrast, etc. There is no synchronized sound; the soundtrack combines music, a few songs, and Isabella Rossellini’s voiceover narration (supplemented by intertitles). (At some initial screenings in big cities, the soundtrack was provided live; but the screening I attended in Detroit used a prerecorded soundtrack). Many of the images, with the actors’ exaggerated gestures, and the scenes forming tableaux, were vaguely reminiscent of D W Griffith-style melodrama, with interpolations from German Expressionism. The editing style, however, is not like anything from the 1910s or 1920s. The delirious editing, with many scenes broken up into jump cuts between fragmentary closeups, might suggest Eisensteinian montage as a contrast to the Griffith-like mise en scene; but (at least at one viewing; I really need to see the film again) it didn’t really seem “constructivist” in the way that Maddin’s short Heart of the World, which explicitly referenced 1920s Soviet cinema, did. That is to say, Brand Upon the Brain! is edited emotively, rather than providing any sort of “intellectual montage.” It’s a bit too crude to say that the editing emphasized shock effects instead of comprehension; but everything Maddin does works to express how the events of the film might feel, or make us feel, rather than what is actually happening. In contrast to contemporary action montage, the emphasis is on gaps and disjunctions, on making us feel abruptly disconnected, lost and puzzled, rather than on piling on kinetic shocks as quickly as possible (in the way that filmmakers like Michael Bay like to do). Individual shots, or sequences of shots, are also often allusive to all sorts of stylistic tics and mannerisms from the history of film (and not just silent film — for instance, there is one shot, probably no more than two or three seconds, that references Night of the Living Dead). The film is edited so as to emphasize the impossibility of fully capturing the events that it nonetheless shows. It is noteworthy that the 12-year-old “Guy Maddin,” the protagonist of most of the film, repeated passes out in a swoon because the events he witnesses are too much for him.
The plot of Brand Upon the Brain! has so many twists and turns as to be nearly indescribable. It involves a basic Oedipal configuration — the smothering and controlling mother, the distant, detached, yet ultimately sadistic (and even more ultimately, dead or living-dead) father, the brother and sister with their incestuous desires. Both brother and sister fall madly in love with an androgynous “celebrity” figure, the alluring girl/boy detective, who comes to the island on which the film takes place in order to investigate the “mystery” of what the overwhelming and terrifying parents are really up to (which involves, as I have already mentioned, vampiric preying upon the young). The mother fluctuates in age throughout the movie, becoming younger whenever she imbibes the rejuvenating fluid that is extracted from the orphans in her care, and then becoming older again whenever (as often happens) her smothering love for her children transforms into a violently possessive rage. But within this basic scenario there are so many variations and changes of direction that it becomes impossible to summarize — it is as if all conceivable variations on the Oedipal triangle, and the androgynous-love triangle as well, had to be played out at some point in the course of the movie. There is therefore no real narrative progression, but only a series of peripeteias, punctuating passages of dread, suspense, and anticipation. Brand Upon the Brain! has a feel to it of lurching seasickness, and of nightmarish repetitions from which we (like the protagonist) are unable to awaken or escape.
The film is framed by the return of an adult “Guy Maddin” to the island which he left, as a child, thirty years previously. He is swamped by the childhood memories that comprise most of the film, and that invade and compromise his adult present with their ghostly insistence. We are told, repeatedly, that everything that happened before will happen again — twice. (This almost seems like a parody, both of Nietzsche’s eternal return, and of Marx’s observation that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce). Repeated intertitles invoke “The Past! The Past!” — and sometimes this is transformed into “The Future!” — for, evidently, no future time can be secure from the past that returns to fill it up.
As always in Maddin’s films, the intense emotional material is so hyperbolic, so over-the-top, and so outlandishly — and stiltedly — overacted, that it becomes campy and ridiculous. In Maddin’s earlier movies, I have generally tended to see this pattern as a sort of defense. The campiness and ridiculousness serves as a sort of (psychoanalytic) disavowal; disavowing the hyperemotionalism of the films’ basic material through ludicrousness is actually a way of protecting it from criticism. Maddin can get away with melodramatic hysteria precisely by pretending (to himself, as well as to the audience) that he isn’t serious about it — whereas any effort at a “sincere” presentation would immediately fall flat on its face. But even if that was what was happening in Maddin’s earlier films, I don’t really think it is the case anymore. Even in the earlier films, campy exaggeration and ludicrousness don’t only work as modes of disavowal; they are also, in a strange way, direct enablers of emotion, in that they serve as a medium of expression for feelings that “dare not speak their name.” But in Maddin’s most recent work — Cowards Bend the Knee, and now, Brand Upon the Brain — even a further transformation is at work. This has to do with modes of display, or of what I can only call (somewhat oxymoronically) a self-conscious obviousness. A Freudian depth-psychology reading of Brand Upon the Brain would make no sense, precisely because all the Freudian motifs are right there in front of us. They so fill up the overt, manifest content of the film, that there is no sense in looking for a hidden, latent meaning behind them. [This “self-conscious obviousness” is, I think, one of the ways in which Maddin is radically different from David Lynch, to whom in some other respects he can be closely compared]. There is a sort of hysterical overfullness to the way in which the film seems to cram into its plot every conceivable permutation of Oedipal desire, and also every conceivable generic twist of melodrama (with hints of horror as well). The campy exaggeration of Maddin’s earlier films is now an almost literal too-muchness, an overplenitude that is strictly coordinated with the film’s insistence on spectrality and absence, on the pastness of the past, on the ways in which memories, like movies, allure us without ever allowing us touch them. The result is that the film jumps the rails (jumps the shark?) in a certain sense. The only way to describe Brand Upon the Brain is with a Freudian account of trauma and Nachtraglichkeit, and with an ontological dialectic of presence and absence. Yet the film also seems to mock these terms, by demonstrating to us how utterly inadequate they are. You can’t separate the ridiculousness from the horror and the pain any more. Brand Upon the Brain develops a sort of flow, incessantly turning back upon itself, that fuses and confounds all the distinctions I have just been trying to make about it. I am tempted to say the film is finally more Deleuzian than Freudian/Lacanian, that it has to do with flows that almost become abstract, that traverse the earth in a way that is both so intimate, and so utterly artificial, as to break down such distinctions altogether. But even to say that would probably be to reduce the film, to put it in terms that it adamantly resists. Rather, it is something about the sheer beauty of Maddin’s images, the ways that they dissolve into one another, the ways that their very distance and inaccessibility registers affectively. The way it makes me run out of things to say about it, and only feel the need to see it again.