Back to the theater

Okay, now it seems I’m back in the movie theater swing of things having seens 4 movies on the big screen and ready to share my opinions of all of them.

Brand Upon the Brain! (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title) is the latest of Guy Maddin’s idiosyncratic paeans to early forms of filmmaking, in this case, the silent era.  Before I continue, I should explain how this film was released.  Here in Chicago, this movie was presented as a multimedia extravaganza, making use of an eleven-piece live orchestra, on-stage dancers, a castrato and live narration by very independent filmmaker/actor Crispin Glover. I did not watch the film in this form, but instead saw it with the recorded soundtrack (as you would watch just about any other film) narrated by Isabella Rossellini.

The film recounts the fable of Guy Maddin’s unusual boyhood as the son of a cruel, domineering orphanage mistress and her creepy, mad-scientist husband. I say fable, because it becomes quite clear this is a story based on any strict notion of reality, but instead comes from someone with a wild imagination. Mother keeps a constant lookout for children straying too far from the lighthouse orphanage by shining her prison-like spotlights on them. Any hints of insubordination or “unhealthy” sexual lusts are dealt with by mind-numbing treatments from Father. Complicating young Guy’s life even further is the arrival of a young researcher Wendy, who, anticipating the arrival of her brother Chance, sets about investigating the family and the orphanage for a new book.

Presented as a story in twelve chapters, Brand Upon the Brain!, even in the shaved-down form I saw it, is definitely one of the most unusual movies you will see this year. Filmed entirely in grainy black-and-white, this is a truly modern “silent” film, as none of the actors speak and no live sound is recorded. Maddin is tuned in to modern viewing sensibilities, anticipating most viewers’ needs for quicker editing and more mature themes than most silent films. His constant flashing of images seem to indicate an attempt to remember from the deep past, just as small snippets of memory jog our minds to recall the fading specters of past events. It’s a truly fascinating presentation.

But with all the great style and imagery, my patience grew thin at times. I knew there had to be an unpleasant resolution with Mother and Father at the end, but was kept waiting a little too long I felt. I was also not truly taken in by Maddin’s ceaseless infatuation with Wendy.  Hey, I had boyhood crushes too, but by the film’s end I felt the elder Maddin could have used a visit from a psychologist. Otherwise, this film would have been about two chapters shorter. Still, a visually dazzling challenging indie film that’s a little long is better than most of the swill you’ll find on the suburban big screens, that’s for sure.

Next: a “Grim” movie.

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