Monday, May 28, 2007

on Brand Upon the Brain!

Dearest reader:

I'm often afflicted with amnesia. So I can't remember if you've seen Brand Upon the Brain!, Guy Maddin's newest film. I can't recall if you've ever even heard of Maddin, or if you have already been infected with the brain-fever his movies spread. No matter — I'm going to talk about the film; you'll have to decide if you want it spoiled, or if you've seen it yet. I'll leave a dotted-line trail, as of breadcrumbs, to tell the wary where to wait, or skip ahead to safety.

In a sense, I'm ill-equipped for the task I've set out for myself here: I always need to watch each of Maddin's films twice, once to allow myself an overview of the ways its threads of plot, motif, and image work together to form its whole, and again to actually see the film, guided along by an Ariadne's thread of hindsight that keeps me from losing my way. They're too fevered and hallucinatory for anything less. Nonetheless, I charge ahead, knowing I do so half-blind...

Brand Upon the Brain, like Maddin's other films, eludes easy description. Like Careful it is, to use his own words, an "opera without singing." An especially operatic opera, certainly.

The film's ideas sleep furiously: images are all staccato. They pant and they tremble. They hold their breath in anticipation. Voices float in from on the aerosphere, carried by emotion's waxy wings. They cackle and crumble — they crackle. Vaseline makes memories spit-slick and blurry. Searches are mounted to find them. Others — coated and covered over with paint.

Along the way, "nectarine" changes its meaning, is lapped up with gusto. Color fleetingly flashes — it flickers. (And, as an aside — it is forgotten by many who see it!) Rules are drawn, and designs dreamt up. Desires are disguised; others are pursued under the guise of others, of brothers. Gloves are there for the kissing, for undressing. Secrets yearn to be told. Rage rages, gasps are gasped, sotto voce. Rumania blushes on bellies — a map. Certain designs are dashed like hopes. Scientists invent inventions, while matriarchs rule, and repress, at telescope's reach. Vampires run rampant, if wingless...

— - — - —

[This is where I start to really read the film's "last pages" aloud... O! reader! take care to be cautious!]

Brand Upon the Brain! wants for easy coherence, but nothing about the film really wants it, either. Subplots multiply, but are often uneasy in their relationships with one another. ("One memory leads to another," the silent film's intertitles tell us, without articulating the joints between one memory and another.) Threads wind their ways together, becoming a tangle rather than knot. That's true of all of Maddin's films, even those that last less than a few minutes.

Within Maddin's fevered and nightmarish scenario, an orphanage is ruled by those with designs on the brains of their wards. The vampiric wardens steal "nectarine" with signet-rings from the brain-stems of the children, using the orphans to ensure eternal youth. Allusions abound, and the whole of it — this subplot, at least, though it is only one among many — can be read as allegory of the rhetoric employed by opponents of stem-cell research. I'm tempted to offer such a reading.

But such a reading seems overly simplistic. Maddin — remarking on the film's framing device, of an adult recalling his childhood ("A remembrance in 12 chapters") — suggests a more complex relationship between film and reality, referring to "the faulty models of the universe one constructs while trying to make sense of the world." And the film's status with regards to the world is further embodied, and further complicated, in the fact that it presents itself as autobiography. In an interview, Maddin explains further:
At the dawn of memory, one makes some wildly incorrect models of the world — these result in the almost narcotic magic of every new sensation being received incorrectly. Cause and effect are often flipped; new phenomena loom up hyperbolically and misleadingly; mysteries deepen instead of clearing up; everything is dreamy and wondrous! Truths are made more emotionally truthful by the mistakes and untruths.

To take up this approach is to reread the film's allusions less as allegory, as a one-to-one palimpsest of map and world, and regard them instead as points of departure, as occasions for invention. To reread the film thus is to see it as a variation or play on the rhetoric employed by those who oppose stem-cell research. Less a manifestation of the unconscious mind than a form of discourse analysis that revels in — rather than, say, critiques — a hidden and fabulistic level of the discourse, turning it not against itself but into its own ends.

— - — - —

[Here, my words become once again safe, even for the most skittish among you, O reader, readers, mine!]

The Village Voice describes the film as, if I may be allowed a loose paraphrase, just another Guy Maddin. There's truth to this: recurring motifs and themes from elsewhere in his oeuvre recur here as well. The characteristic lurid tone remains lurid. Repression and desire play between one another — and the latter bursts forth from its fetters — as before. What is queer about his cinematic vision is queer once again. But these repetitions are worth repeating, and as Maddin repeats them.

And though it may be that Brand Upon the Brain! is not his best — that award would be shared by Careful and Archangel, as well as the shorts "Heart of the World" and "Sombra Dolorosa" — "another Guy Maddin" is, as those in the know know for certain, no minor thing.

— - — - —

The savviest among you have by now already turned to the interview with Maddin linked above. Those that haven't should! For, there, our swooning auteur announces a future project, and confirms a rumor. The rumor, that he is working with John Ashbery, is exciting enough — and doubly so in its truth. But even more exciting is that the project will borrow its structure from Raymond Roussel's New Impressions of Africa, and thus promises this: that parenthesis will enclose parenthesis, and so on, ad infinitum.

[ADDENDUM: Watch the trailer here.]


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