Buried near the end of my last post, a lengthy preview of the S.F. International Film Festival, was a heads-up about the special presentation of Guy Maddin's ambitious extravaganza, Brand Upon the Brain!. Although I was enthusiastic in my recommendation, I wasn't off-my-meds hysterical, jumping up and down, shrieking in capital letters. I apologize. Because those who were at the Castro this past Monday night (May 7) had the abundant pleasure of experiencing the movie highlight of the year.
Now that I've ruined your morning, I hasten to add that you have other chances, if you can spring for the airfare to New York, Chicago or L.A., Or you can wait for Brand Upon the Brain! to open June 15 in San Francisco, albeit with a pre-recorded soundtrack and without the abundance of live performers who graced the Castro stage and orchestra pit.
Maddin, who lives and works in Winnipeg, has a fervid and singular imagination that has thrilled, amused and confounded audiences by way of eight features and roughly 20 short films. His work is best described as Canadian Gothic, as oxymoronic as that sounds, for his willfully melodramatic plots typically incorporate a tormented childhood, repressed sexuality, wintry isolation, sibling jealousy and a bizarre revenge. It's the lonely, mystified outsider experience, basically, brightened with an ironic and self-deprecating sense of humor.
The wonderfully wacky Brand Upon the Brain!, subtitled A Remembrance in 12 Chapters, centers on a boy named Guy (make whatever autobiographical interpretations you will) who lives in a lighthouse with his family. Mother runs an orphanage in the basement and keeps a close eye on Guy and Sis, while Father's always hiding out in his lab tinkering with some invention. The story spirals outward to encompass harp-playing twin detectives, nectar siphoned from the orphans' brains (!), a gender masquerade and "Kissing Gloves" (and "Undressing Gloves").
The story, wild as it is, is inseparable from Maddin's style. Brand Upon the Brain! is shot in black-and-white without sound, mimicking the look and feel of old silent movies. Maddin employs iris shots, fadeouts, intertitles, strobe-like flashes and various other techniques that haven't been glimpsed since the days of speak-easies. But his aesthetic is so alive -- the editing and the pace are 21st Century, make no mistake -- that Maddin can't be accused of trying to resurrect some lost era. He doesn't want to live in the past; he simply loves to dream in herky-jerky black-and-white.
Although Maddin plainly has the soul and sensibility of an artist, he also gets a kick out of channeling P.T. Barnum. The director is uncommonly generous in providing all kinds of pleasures to his audience, from richly textured images to a buoyant score. I found Brand Upon the Brain! to be his breeziest and funniest work yet, but maybe I've finally given up trying to follow every detail of his labyrinthine plots or fathom the deep-seated psychological nuances. I just sat back and basked in the breadth and beauty of his creation.
The Castro event featured a 13-piece orchestra, a trio of foley artists creating the sound effects on one side of the stage, and a tux-clad singer at the other end who lip-synched to a castrato (on two brief occasions). In front of him, actress Joan Chen stood at a podium and narrated the film. Chen's function was that of the benshi, a skilled performer in Japanese silent cinema who not only read the dialogue but performed all the parts.
This exuberant shindig is being repeated in a week-long run in New York and shorter stints in Chicago and Los Angeles, with guest performers stepping into the role of the benshi. (Isabella Rosselini, who starred in Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World, delivers the goods on the soundtrack of the "traditional" release.) Frankly, I don't expect the recorded soundtrack to be as soul-charging as the live performance, but I'll still see Brand Upon the Brain! a second time when it hits Bay Area theaters June 15. Needless to say, I encourage you to do likewise.