Thursday, May 24, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!

One of the more unique experiences I've ever had in a movie theater was Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!, which played the Music Box in full regalia last weekend. On the one hand, I worked on the film. My official title is "Set Journalist" but as it ended up I didn't do any of that - Guy Maddin likes to have somebody write a production diary that he can use for press kits or maybe give to the cast and crew, etc. I ended up as more of a garden-variety Production Assistant, being as helpful as I could, always planning on catching up with the writing later. The truth is, though, that during those ten days 2+ years ago I was busy and tired, and the whole set diary thing felt horribly redundant. It was the most well-documented set I've ever encountered (not that I've really been on that many sets), with an official photographer, an official videographer, and several unofficial videographers. Plus I hate diaries, in principle. So I kept busy instead. Anyway, I was there for just about everything, and that meant that I couldn't watch the film last Friday without recalling the actual shooting of each individual scene or set-up. Which I think makes me a little too distracted to adequately judge the film on its own.

As a spectacle, though, I can with confidence say that the experience (extravaganza) was top notch. Crispin Glover narrated and four extremely skilled foley artists provided sound effects in front of the screen right next to an 11-piece orchestra playing Jason Stazcek's score. And there was a castrato - who was lip-synching, obviously, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt anyway. (I'm a willing dupe, what can I say?)

Jason's score was distractingly good, Crispin Glover was great but occasionally just distracting, and I loved everything about the foley artists and their sound effects. They were off to the side and I tried to watch them out of the corner of my eye. There were plates being thrown, gigantic aluminum sheets being gonged, etc. The production of the little noises was clever, the big ones often had big gestures, and of course those were the most fun (i.e. the plates).

I remember reading an early draft of the script - at which point the main character was named "Bruno" rather than "Guy Maddin" - and thinking of it as Maddin's (very) rough approximation of Proust. The film's all about memory and nostalgia, but it's a physical, tactile sort of memory. With Maddin the dreaminess is a style and a logic, but at base his stuff remains flesh-bound. Brand is extremely literal-minded when it comes to memory: Guy (the character) touches a rock and instantly brings up a memory in his head and on screen, and it's the same memory every time he finds that rock. He wanders the landscape trying to find the right combination of objects to conjure up the girl he loved - and when she materializes she's both there and not there, a fleshy apparition somehow more "real" than the other memories wandering the island but nonetheless insubstantial, only partly there. The nostalgia of Guy's mother for her own childhood is enacted by an actual, physical return to childhood thanks to a mysterious "nectar," drained from the brains of orphans, that makes her young again. In other words, Maddin takes a literal approach to non-literal ideas, and it's all based in play with the medium - these conjurings and youth serums are, at base, nothing more than flashbacks or fantasies that can be seen by the characters as well as the audience.

The film is pleasantly skewed, like all of Maddin's films, but its fever-dream logic is not as intensely focused as it was in Cowards, and its baroqueness is not as grandiose as it was in Saddest Music in the World. Other than Dracula, it's the least melodramatic of Maddin's films, more intent on a very contemporary kind of self-pity than on Sirkean hyperbole. It's interesting that as his style becomes denser and, in a sense, more guarded, his films start to move away from genre and towards a confessional mode. Plotwise, the central mystery, about draining the orphans' brains, feel insufficiently explored, and the big revelations not as shocking as they maybe should be. The teen detective subplot was a huge audience pleaser, and Chance/Wendy was the most compelling character, an indication that perhaps the narrative focus was either misplaced or was inadvertently hijacked by the more interesting sub-story.

Maddin's fond of blank-faced heroes, but here his hero is divided into two actors (grown-up Guy, who isn't on screen all that much and young Guy) and neither is given the chance to display much personality. The girls take over the movie, but the dramatic focus is on Guy, and this shared focus lessens the narrative's melodramatic impact - the miserablism that replaces the melodramatic structure doesn't have a dominant figure of association, it's all dissipated among four different actors. And it's my own particular quirk that I dislike framing devices, and for me the framing portion with adult Guy and his elderly mother drags us away from the main story without adding all that much to the flow of the film. Of course, Maddin's project requires that focus on remembrance, and he does a wonderful job of integrating the frame and flashback. The past bleeds into the present in all sorts of ways, but the narrative momentum nonetheless comes from the flashback portion of the film. And the frame is, in that sense, a sort of distraction.

As much fun as the big show was, I'd like to watch the wider release version - which would be on 35 rather than the (I think) video projected at the Music Box. My experience on the set already draws me out of the typical viewer experience more than most, and the further (awesome) distractions of Crispin Glover and company pulled me out even more. The thing is, I love Maddin's films and it's curious to me that I see a difference between this one and his earlier films, but the reviews seem to be about the same, describing it in the same terms and loving it or hating it for the same reasons they always do. So, is it me, or is it the film?

The trailer:

I believe this is the "official" behind-the-scenes video, with Guy narrating:

Guy Maddin talking in very Eisensteinian terms about the film:

It looks like the distributor's Vitagraph, whose notoriousness (which I can personally attest to) is such that I'm pretty sure I won't be able to talk Doc into bringing the film to campus for a second-run screening. Uggh.

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