September 30, 2010

Rabid Rewind: Brand Upon the Brain

Title: Brand Upon the Brain
Starring: Erick Steffen Maahs, Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich
Narrator: Isabella Rossellini
Director: Guy Maddin
Written by: Guy Maddin, George Toles, and Louis Negin
Released: The Film Company (2006)
Genre: Horror

The New York Times called this "one of the year's [2006] ten best films." From that snippet and seeing the film for myself, I can only conclude that either I and the Times have very different tastes in film. For me, this was one of the most interminable pieces of cinema to sit through in some time. It's the kind of film that demands an explicitly open mind in order derive any kind of entertainment. I gave it a half-hour, which should have been plenty in order for the story to be told in the way it was told. However, this movie clocks in at ninety minutes, and that just won't do for me.

It's a silent film ... sort of. What the film does is pose as a silent film, but has dubbed sound effects and narration by the lovely Isabella Rossellini. The movie was anything but silent, but was stylized in a way to harken back to those old pre-talkie days of cinema. It's black-and-white clippy film with that Charlie Chaplin style of acting, with interjecting frames of exposition and dialogue. But the sound is crystal clear and the narration comes booming in over everything. I can appreciate it as a style choice, but it feels like such a put-on and so faked for the sake of appearances that I couldn't get into the story.

And the story sounded really interesting, which is why I borrowed the DVD from the library in the first place. Guy Maddin (not the real Guy, but a character of the director's name) is called back to his childhood home by his mother, asking him to repaint the lighthouse to bring it to some semblance of its former glory one last time before she passes on. Soon after arriving and getting to work, Guy starts seeing things and remembers the strange instances of his childhood. As a child under the watchful and repressive eye of his mother, Guy and his sister lived in the upstairs of the lighthouse along with the orphans the family cared for, while his father performed experiments in the basement. He recalls a mystery involving strange scars on the heads of the children, and a surreal encounter with a famed brother/sister detective team that came to the island to solve its mystery.

The whole story is a weird interpretation of moments from Guy Maddin's own childhood, though it is nowhere close to being an autobiographical piece lest he wind up in a madhouse. For the imagination and the daring to create such a film, and snagging Rossellini to narrate it, Maddin deserves a heap of credit. But the end result is a rather uninviting piece of film. Had it been presented as a short film, like 30-40 minutes, it would have been much more digestible for me. As it stands, a viewer really needs to have an affinity for experimental film making and eclectic approaches to the old-fashioned storytelling ways.

I can't say I'd recommend this to anyone looking for something more conventional. If you're a bit daring give a try, though. You might appreciate it more than me.

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