By Chelsea Spear
Equal parts expressionist horror film, childhood reminiscence, crime procedural, and Grand Guignol reverie, Brand Upon the Brain! is the story of a teenaged girl detective investigating eerie abuses at an orphanage wracked by unseemly youthful desire. The juvenile sleuth befriends an adolescent brother and sister, and, lusting after the latter, goes into drag to seduce her. The young brother, meanwhile, falls under the spell of both the female and the male versions of the detective, forming a love triangle from just two people â€“ dangerous geometry for children!
Yes, friends, Guy Maddin is back. The astonishingly prolific cine-bard of Winnipeg follows up his 2006 Cowards Bend the Knee â€“ an autobiographical, stylized peephole installation- cum-featurette â€“ with another bit of psychological autobiography: Brand Upon the Brain! A lush-yet elliptical coming of age tale, the film is one of Maddinâ€™s most cathartic and emotionally engaging features since 1991â€™s Archangel. The rococo style and substance of this film are perfectly, if oddly, wedded. Maddinâ€™s feverish sensibility and love of the grand gesture perfectly complements the heightened sense of reality one experiences in adolescence.
On a balmy night in late May, Maddin and I shared an email correspondence about Brand Upon the Brain! and his other forthcoming projects. What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
Q: What role does your Canadian/ Manitoban identity play in your filmmaking?
I wish there was such a thing as a Manitoban identity. Thereâ€™s barely a Canadian one. We define ourselves through a circumlocution: weâ€™re not American in such and such a way, thatâ€™s all. I like the cross-pollination of Canadian and American temperaments. My screenwriting partner is American — George Toles, whoâ€™s from Buffalo. His brother is Tom Toles, the Washington Post cartoonist. He is a grasping intellect, insatiable, a real inspiration. Iâ€™m more of a passive receptor, and not a good one. Itâ€™s taken me years to commit to an active protagonist in the films, and Iâ€™m a better man for it, almost an American. In Seattle, I dare say I almost fit right in while shooting Brand upon the Brain! At least I thought I did. You should have seen how active I was.
Q: The shoot took place in eight days in Seattle. How did preproduction and location scouting go?
Everything in prep was conducted by email. Locations and auditions were sent as jpegs and Quicktime files. I just landed on the tarmac, met all the actors — who promptly disrobed for a group hug — then we were shooting the next morning at 5am. It was nine days in total. We actually had scheduled ten days and as the tenth day approached we noticed my plane ticket had me leaving the morning of the final day. So we shot two days in one on the ninth day. They were long days, but playful and exhilarating. I ran up and down the beaches of Puget Sound with my cameras. We had no walkie talkies or even cell phones — Iâ€™m not sure why we didnâ€™t have this latter thing — so I had to run have a kilometer just to ask questions of the art department. I lost 17 pounds in the 9 days. I wish the shoot had been two weeks longer, I wouldnâ€™t be morbidly obese now.
Q: How conscious are you of your influences â€“ either those you consciously seek out or those viewers see in your films — when you are writing/shooting/ editing your films?
Well, I was very aware of genres while writing. I like hybrids of genres. I wanted to mix the teen detective with the Grand Guignol. The childhood remembrance film with the surreal. These mixtures arenâ€™t just gratuitous. I think they complement each other somehow. there are even precedents of some of these combinations — in Feuillade, in Vigo.
Q: What did you think of working with the kids? How did you explain some of the, shall we say, not-kid-friendly aspects of the film to them?
I didnâ€™t explain anything to anyone, kids or adults. I assume the real young ones havenâ€™t yet seen the picture, although everyone in Seattle is a nudist so Iâ€™m not sure why not. I know Sullivan Brown, who played adolescent me, was 14 by the time the film was finished, and he watched it. By the time I was his age I was spending so much of my time in pervy reveries no film could have corrupted me.
Q: Why did you choose to draw on and reference your previous work in Brand Upon the Brain!?
I ran out of ideas and had to recycle. At least I reprised them in a better movie. When Josef von Sternberg reuses his best tricks in The Devil is a Woman, everything seems so tired and played out. That entire movie is a hand-me-down. But Brand Upon the Brain! represents everything Iâ€™ve been trying to do for years.
Q: I heard you were working on a film about Winnipeg with the star of Detour. Can you tell us about that?
It is true that Ann Savage of Detour fame has come out of a 52 year retirement to star in my Winnipeg documentary — if documentaries can have stars. I wanted to see what a noir femme fatale — the best ever, by the way — thought of Winnipeg, so I brought her in and filmed her reactions to the place during the darkest coldest depths of our winter. I take her out on a sortie following our cityâ€™s most delirious sleepwalkers, people who can walk our snowscape all night long in their pajamas without ever suffering hypothermia. Scientists have come from round the world to study this phenomenon and I just wanted to do my bit. Itâ€™ll be all edited and ready to go this fall. Iâ€™m going to narrate it live, like a travelogue, at least at its premiere.
U.S., 2006. 95 min., The Film Company