Thomas Wolfe wrote “You can’t go home again.” For example, in Brand upon the Brain!, Guy Maddin tries to go home again and discovers it has been replaced by Pandora’s box.
Hailing from Winnipeg, Guy Maddin can be very artsy (Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary) and quite funny (The Saddest Music in the World). He often shoots on super 8 film, fitting his style to the medium, emulating silent films and home movies. In Brand Upon the Brain!, much of the film is a flashback to the protagonist’s childhood; the jittery frame and quick edits resemble an amateur hobbyist’s footage, but they’re also carefully controlled and professionally done — the images aren’t classically filmed, but they’re evocative and striking.
The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini, and there are also intertitles telling the story from another point of view. The movie is about a character named Guy Maddin (let’s call him Guy; we’ll call the director “Maddin” if we need to make the distinction). At the requst of his aging mother, Guy returns to the island where he grew up to give the old lighthouse two coats of paint. His return to the island sparks his return to childhood.
Setting foot on the island, Guy remembers a particular summer that had all the makings of a golden, nostalgic tale worthy of Stand By Me or The Wonder Years. Celebrities came to visit the island. Young Guy (Sullivan Brown) got his first crush. He learned about boys and girls through his sister’s summer fling. Guy genuinely wants the magical summer promised by young adult fiction. He wants it as a child, and he wants it as an adult poring over his memories. But Guy is too honest to have the fantasy, and his psychotic mother ruins everything, both at time and in his memory.
The island is a home for orphans, and Guy’s mother (Gretchen Krich) is in charge. The children are allowed all over the island, but from her seat in the lighthouse, Guy’s mother can see everywhere. Additionally, she is connected to guy via an “aerophone,” a device that lets her call him home for dinner, wherever he might be.
Guy’s father is there, too, but we never see more than his back. As soon as he’s awake, he’s at his workbench, ignoring the children and his wife in favor of his inventions. He’s a nonentity in Guy’s life, and he doesn’t even have the decency to be absent, so that Guy could invent some interesting fantasies about his heroic deeds at sea.
So mother runs the lives of the children. She keeps them in line with threats of suicide. It’s too bad for Guy that she’s such an archetypally Freudian, anal-retentive, domineering, youth-obsessed bundle of neuroses. But she makes Brand Upon the Brain! a damned interesting movie.
Several examples stick out as profound, disturbing, and insightful. When Guy gets his first crush, the title card reads “Profane joy.” Guy is barely at puberty and already joy has been tainted. Mother bathes in turpentine to wash away the sin. She reminds her children as they head out to play: “Dirt is Wrong!” Mother feels twenty years younger after father visits her at night (although it may not be what you think) — what she really wants, she confesses, is to regress to an age before puberty. Perhaps the most oddly disturbing image is set up when mother, now over the edge, cuts off her golden locks off to look more like a boy. Guy wakes up in the middle of the night and innocently pees into the chamber pot, not realizing it contains his mother’s hair: which is both her femininity and the last outward sign of her sanity.
Then there’s mother’s really weird hangups: she sleeps with three gleaming knives, but she’ll move them to make room for her little boy, whose tushy she could simply eat up.
Boy Meets Girl
It’s hard for Guy to have a “Wonder Years” summer with a germophobic, puritanical matriarch watching your every move from on high. What might have been a naive, joyous, titillating sense of sexual awakening instead just seems awkward and dirty.
The celebrities who visits the island are the brother/sister teen crime-solving team of Chance and Wendy. Guy really admires Chance and has a crush on Wendy. But the line is a little blurry, and maybe it’s the other way around. He’s too young for us to really know for sure. Meanwhile, Wendy falls in love with Guy’s sister, and she disguises herself as her brother Chance to woo Sis (and it works).
And mother’s fear of sin and filth just makes everything equally forbidden, and therefore, equal. Homosexuality isn’t caused by psychotic mothers; but for a boy looking for a magical summer, or for a man looking for fond childhood memories, it’s hard to find the way when everything is so muddled.
Un- Happy Ending
Brand Upon the Brain! is unsatisfying but emotionally true. It’s a counterpoint to feel-good stories with happy endings that are too easy. Brand Upon the Brain! makes you realize how ugly and complicated real people can be, especially compared to most fictional protagonists.
Hopefully that won’t turn you off, because Brand Upon the Brain! is an interesting, rich, and fertile movie. It can’t be boiled down to a simple message. It a movie whose imagery, language, and emotion can be pulled apart, put back together, and formed into your own custom shapes.
Brand Upon the Brain! is not escapism, but art.