Tonight, I saw Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain. As the rappers say, I’m going to break it down because it was perhaps the most coherent and gorgeous aesthetic spectacle I’ve ever seen.
I describe it, yes.
Brand Upon the Brain was performed tonight as part of the annual New Music Festival here at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra here in Manitoba. The primary visual focus consisted of a huge screen of Maddin’s visual narrative of a guy named Guy who lives in a lighthouse and pines after his sister’s lesbian friend, despite the fact that that friend plays a man, who goes by the name of Chance and who is not as lovely but is more loving than the sister of Guy the character. Chance, who seems miscast at first (and this is my only criticism of the entire event), turns out to be a key figure in the distraught, anxious, and very unhappy young life of the orphan Guy who, as we watch all 12 chapters begin and end, comes back to visit his once and future home, that being this island with a lighthouse not far from the mainland and which feels very, very isolated. The mother, through various kinds of sexual and verbal escape, becomes old and young again while the father goes back to work, even as an old man, a naked resurrected corpse, and a young torturer, not in that order. Meawhile, the pining third-wheel Guy is a romantic witness to the unfolding story, occasionally surrounded by imprisoned orphans of numerous races dressed in white. But the story is the easiest part to tell and, despite the above, it makes sense and holds its own visual logic throughout every Oedipal twist and lesbian turn.
The beauty of the piece came with the three live satellite features of the event. The inimitable, gorgeous, and understated Isabella Rossellini narrated the entire drama. Introduced by the charming and gentle Guy Maddin, Rosselini wore a sleek, black, Italian suit which matched her slicked down, curled-out hair, looking as engaged with the drama as she could possibly be, smiling and then scoffing, waving and then yelling. In front of her, she watched the drama unfold on the monitor and her lines were flawlessly read, nay, formed around the drama. At one point, she screamed and my elation reached new heights.
To her right was a ten-piece orchestra, pulled from the fantastic WSO. Their synchronicity with the silent film poised above them was exacting and lent the entire affair an emotionality that could never be felt via soundtrack, despite the fact the score, by Jason Staczek, was masterful. The conductor, Rei Hotoda, was so fully on, so completely engaged with the towering images that the music, when it wasn’t soaring, blended, perfectly, lovingly, joyfully, and tearfully.
To the very right of the orchestra were the Foley artists; three musician-cum-sound-effect-artists, they played their buckets of water, slamming doors, creaking stairs, screaming babies, rubber chickens, popping bubble wrap, chopped cabbage, crushed celery, electronic horn, smashed cantaloupes, silent clockers, barking foghorns, lapping paper waves, and painted books with panache and sweat-filled attention. Imagine the Blue Man Group quietly orchestrating a return as normal people who loved the symphony, fresh vegetables, and German Expressionism.
This brings me to the next full-on ramble, which is Maddin’s glorious imagery. I’m sitting here in jealous, loving rage at the director because the dude’s captured many of the critical images and moments that I, in my profound hope, would pull into a film that I would make. These include:
- Lighthouses and rotating periscopic chairs
- RCA-brand Victor Talking Machine-era voice-scopes
- Major Tom men, as beautifully rendered as they are evil
- David Bowiesque Pierrot figures, walking amidst lapping waves
- Laboratory instruments, framed against a window as continual darkness
Aesthetically, Maddin pulled together the very best yet disparate strands of one hundred and twenty years of cinema into one, single 94-minute film. Black and white throughout, with touches of harrowing and strangled color, the film calls upon every Surrealist, Expressionist, Soviet, and American Avant-Garde visual trope in the very best of ways. It does so with gallows humor and an inherent sorrow for the loss of those forms. The shapes and shades and shorts throughout make more than a nod to the beauty of simplicity and directness of emotional content – they resurrect the innocence of the times when films were made to directly impact, and not just manipulate, our very real feelings for the characters and the scenery in which they thrive and deny and dream.
The scratched and deprecated medium is present throughout, as it is in most of Maddin’s work. It’s as if the visual impoverishment of the film stock helps Maddin enrich our connection with our love for the medium. Interestingly, at certain points during the film, strange digital rectangles flickered across the screen, remnants of the modern medium being broadcast above our heads. I don’t know if these are modern-day effects intended by the artist or they’re reminders of our own media’s mortality.
I do know what it was when Wagner coined Gesamtkunstwerk , the total artwork that fulfills every sense and fills every space. The 1980s saw many fake versions of this in the contemporary art world, what with electronic lights and voices and bright imagery. But Maddin is the true heir to the form and I can only wish that he’ll continue onward.
My thanks to my friends D.C. and L.D. for organizing the evening. After the event, we noted that it will never be the same, this Brand Upon the Brain construction that is now memory. Despite, or rather because of it being a massively historical aesthetic event, it can never be repeated for better or worse. The monstrosity of the entire endeavor moved me terribly.