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The Criterion Collection presents
Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

"Too much for Guy!!"
- Repeated intertitle

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: August 12, 2008

Stars: Erik Steffen Maahs, Gretchen Krich, Sullivan Brown, Maya Lawson, Katherine E. Scharhon
Other Stars: Andrew Loviska, Kellan Larson, Todd Jefferson Moore, Megan Murphy, Annette Toutonghi, Clara Grace Svenson, Clayton Corzatte, Susan Corzatte
Director: Guy Maddin

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, sexual themes, implied incest, gender-bending, neck gouging, psychosexual trances)
Run Time: 01h:39m:00s
Release Date: August 12, 2008
UPC: 715515031127
Genre: experimental

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-AB+ A-

DVD Review

One of my biggest cinematic regrets is that I missed an opportunity to see Canadian director Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! in a theater. It stopped in Chicago during a road show tour that presented the "silent" film with a live soundtrack—the narrator (Crispin Glover!), the Foley artists, the musicians, all sitting just off screen, racing to keep up with the picture as it unfolded. It's the kind of elaborate experience that hasn't been a part of going to the movies since the 1920s, but only fitting for a Maddin production—he's in love with the tropes of silent cinema, and his movies hearken back to a day when images on a movie screen promised to be truly spectacular.

If you've seen one of Maddin's previous films, doubtless you know what to expect. If you haven't, a passing familiarity with early Hollywood melodramas, German expressionism, and Freudian sexuality might be a good place to start. It is technically a silent film, with intertitles standing in for the dialogue, but in addition to the score, the audio track also includes elaborate, obviously constructed sound effects and periodic input from a narrator (Isabella Rossellini, who starred in Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World). Shot in 8mm and blown up to maximize grain and print damage, Brand Upon the Brain! looks like a lost relic of the last century, but the story—an absurd mystery, a farcical romance, an oppressive family drama that the director claims is autobiographical—could never have been filmed back then, if only because Guy Maddin wasn't around.

The lead character is, in fact, Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), visiting his childhood home for the first time in decades, returning to the lighthouse that his mother and father operated as an orphanage on the grim island of Black Notch. He's back in order to cover the building with a few coats of paint, literally covering up the past (the intertitles put it subtly: "Secrets! Secrets! Secrets!"). In flashback, we see that Guy has plenty to repress. While his unseen father (Todd Moore) performs experiments in a basement laboratory, Guy's mother (Gretchen Krich) keeps a close eye on her son and Sis (Maya Lawson) from the top of the lighthouse with a spyglass and sweeping searchlight, ordering them home for dinner with her aerophone, a phonograph-like device invented by Father that allows communication between two people who love each other, though the fact that it works gives Mother little comfort. She throws fits when the kids don't pay enough attention to her, and has been known to fake a suicide or two for sympathy.

Meanwhile, adoptive parents are finding strange holes in the heads of the island orphans, prompting a visit from famed teen detectives the Light Bulb Kids, Chance and Wendy Hale. Guy is immediately smitten with Wendy, who appears to him out of the fog and seduces him with a harp song (any sleuth worth her magnifying glass won't investigate without her trusty harp), while Sis is infatuated by Chance (Guy too, to his great confusion, though it makes sense—the Light Bulb kids are keeping secrets too).

Though Maddin says the story is 97-percent true, I somehow doubt he ever lived in a lighthouse or had to protect his orphan friends from a voodoo-obsessed villain like Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska). His relationships with his parents strike me as accurate enough, however. Mother's fixation on her children is oppressive, selfish, and a bit creepy, but Guy is nothing if not a mama's boy ("Racing to please!" the intertitles shout). Faceless Father is a perennially absent workaholic, even after his murder (dead or alive, there's work to be done). The weirder stuff—gender confusion, youth potions, vampirism—feels true enough.

The subjects are familiar ones for Maddin, who never passes up the opportunity to make a mother/son scene really uncomfortable (witness young Guy laying across his mom's lap so she can brush his teeth). The style is, too—Brand Upon the Brain! exists in the same cinematic world as Careful and The Saddest Music in the World, but the silent film tropes are taken even further. The images move jerkily and at an unnatural speed, as if filmed by a hand cranked camera, with choppy editing and missing or repeated frames. The murky picture is illuminated by iris shots and blotches of hand-tinted color. No one else makes movies like this, and watching requires some adjustment. Sometimes you are still adjusting when the movie is over.

Overcooked melodrama aside, this is Maddin's most entertaining film, and his funniest—the exclamatory intertitles managed to make me laugh more than the dialogue in a lot of comedies (my favorite comes after young Guy comes upon the aftermath of a butter fight between Mother and Sis: "Good for dippin'!"). Then there's the stuff I'm not entirely sure is supposed to be funny, though it's almost too absurd to be anything else. Like, say, a very odd sequence in which someone recently resurrected is burned alive (is alive the right word?). Even the tortured denouement, which sees Guy nearly collapse under the strain of doing right by Mother, can't resist sticking it to the old woman in the end. You'd say she deserves it, but it's not her fault she's in a Guy Maddin movie.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: How to review the picture quality when the image has been intentionally degraded to look like the film was rolling around loose in someone's closet for 80 years? Black levels appear strong, while whites appear crisp. Detail isn't an issue, since shots are often intentionally out of focus or are simply incredibly grainy. All I can say is that the black-and-white image (with a few splashes of color) seems true to form for Maddin—specifically, it looks really rough around the edges, but in the most beautiful way imaginable.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English Stereoyes

Audio Transfer Review: The primary audio track is presented in a simple stereo mix that actually sounds quick striking. The myriad of Foley effects that create the "silent" film's soundtrack are enveloping, if intentionally somewhat artificial. Isabella Rossellini's narration is crystal clear.

There's also the option to watch with no less than six additional narrators. Two of them were recorded in a studio and sound as good as the default option. The rest (including an additional performance by Rossellini) were recorded live along with the rest of the sound effects during special "road show" presentations. Though not as clear as the main mix, these slightly airy alternatives are more than watchable (hearing the audience react to the movie is fun too).

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Two new short films by Guy Maddin: It's My Mother's Birthday Today, Footsteps
  2. Seven additional narration tracks
Extras Review: Brand Upon the Brain! is a surprisingly recent film for Criterion, but it's hard to imagine it coming from anyone else. The DVD is loaded with stuff that doesn't explain a lick of the film but somehow explains everything.

You'll see what I mean after watching 97 Percent True, a new hour-long documentary featuring interviews with director Guy Maddin and his colleagues, including co-screenwriter and cinema historian George Toles, editor John Gurdebeke, cinematographer Ben Kasulka, producer Jamie Hook, and composer Jason Staczek. The director talks about the winding career path that led him to movie making, while frequent collaborator Toles expounds upon Maddin's working methods. The story behind Brand Upon the Brain! is revealed: a Seattle company offered to finance a movie as long as it was completed by a set date. Maddin and Toles decided to make it a silent because they didn't have time to write a complete screenplay. The rest of the crewmembers discuss their contributions, intercut with a smattering of behind-the-scenes footage. Finally, the last few minutes focus on the film's "live tour," complete with footage of some of the different narrators.

Maddin has made some celebrated short films, and contributes two new ones to the DVD. The nine-minute Footsteps is an examination of the Foley artists who created audio for the film, and in a weird way, it plays like a Maddin version of a behind-the-scenes featurette, exploring the art and technique of what they do. The shorter It's My Mother's Birthday Today is billed as a look at the life of the castrato Manitoba Meadowlark. It's typical Maddin. I enjoyed it more than his Sissy Boy Slap Party anyway.

A six-minute deleted scene is a confusing flashback of Sis in front of a firing squad. It's really long and very slow (Maddin comments that it made the movie feel twice as long). There's also a short trailer.

In the category of "appreciated, but perhaps excessive" fall the multiple narration tracks for the feature. As I said above, Brand Upon the Brain! originally played in selected theaters in a road show format, with all of the audio, from the narration to the Foley effects to the musical score, performed live. A pre-recorded track narrated by Isabella Rossellini was also produced for regular showings. Here, you're given the option to watch the studio mix or one of five live tracks narrated by someone famous: Rossellini again, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Crispin Glover, and Eli Wallach. Additionally, Louis Negrin and Maddin himself contribute new studio tracks apparently created specifically for the DVD.

The live tracks are a curiosity, and worth sampling, but the studio mixes make for a more satisfying experience at home. Note that if you watch with the subtitles on, they are timed for the primary Rossellini track, and are a bit off for the live versions. A brief "About the Narrators" scene reveals where each track was recorded.

The presentation is the usual for Criterion: great cover art, evocative menus, and a nicely designed booklet with a wordy essay by film scholar Dennis Lim.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

Brand Upon the Brain! is Guy Maddin at his weirdest and most wonderful, a pastiche of silent film homage, bizarre personal history, melodrama, and Freudian psychotherapy session. Maddin's films are love letters to cinema in a language all but forgotten (if it ever existed at all). This one is my favorite.


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