You probably never thought you'd see the day when you could buy a ticket to a silent horror serial, but, thanks to Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin and his latest cinematic fantasia, Brand Upon the Brain!, the improbable has become a reality. Albeit, a very, very surreal one.
This is Maddin's milieu, though; his imagination -- which is something like Baz Luhrmann on mushrooms that hit you like an Alejandro Jodorowsky double feature -- spills out onscreen and is better experienced rather than questioned or even dissected in a review like this. Consider the master of short film's brilliant image of muse Isabella Rossellini hobbling about on glass legs filled with swishing beer from his 2003 feature The Saddest Music in the World. In Brand Upon the Brain!, the world is just as demented and wondrous.
The grainy black-and-white flick (shot on Super 8 mm stock and later transferred to HD video) is delivered in 12 chapters, divided up in silent-movie fashion by intertitles. It is both a celebration and deconstruction of the silent-movie era, a daring feat that probably hasn't been attempted outside of film student-thesis movies. Ever. And then, probably never as well as it's done here. Images flicker and hiccup like the Lumiere brothers' work, reveling in a sort of relevance that stopped being fresh before D.W. Griffith. Using filmmaking techniques almost a century old, Maddin has made a movie that feels entirely new.
A mock autobiographical work, Brand begins with its director, or at least a character also named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), returning home to the remote island where he lived as a child and where his parents ran an orphanage in a lighthouse, of all places. Oh, and Guy's domineering mother (Gretchen Krich) communicated with him via an emotion-powered "Aerophone" and the orphans were subjected to surgical brain experiments by Guy's father (Todd Jefferson Moore), who liked to drill holes into the backs of their skulls. Pretty typical childhood, when you think about it.
Let's not even bring up the storyline about how Guy's mother gets younger every time she has sex with her husband. That would just be ... well, beside the point.
His mother is dying and, even though Guy hasn't been back in decades, she wants him to repaint the lighthouse that haunts him. As soon as he's back, ferried there in a rowboat, long-buried memories hit him like an Aerophone to the head, and we flash back to his childhood, to a much-younger Guy (Sullivan Brown) and the arrival of two junior detectives.
We learn Guy's parents' bizarre experiments have attracted the attention of twins Wendy and Chance Hale (both roles played by Katherine E. Scharhon), who are sort of a Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy tag team and who, like all teen sleuths, want some answers. Wendy, of course, becomes Guy's love interest -- as well as that of Guy's sister (Maya Lawson). When her brother Chance leaves the island, Wendy stays behind only to pose as him; this As You Like It gender-reversal plot twist leads to a duplicitous lesbian love affair, but even after "Chance" is revealed to be Wendy, both Guy's sister and he remain devoted to her.
This is all followed by some revelations of the darker nature -- like the possibility that Guy's father's experimental potion is distilled from orphan brains -- but if you're looking for any sort of logical storytelling, Maddin's movies are not the place to turn. They are, like Federico Fellini's less-traditional work, simply beautiful, comic, and sometimes, disturbed expressions of his own id. As with Fellini's films, you often have no idea what's going on, but you can't ignore how the movie demands to be watched.
Starts Fri., July 13. Melwood