Guy Maddin's BRAND ON THE BRAIN! is art first, film second, and stands like a puzzling and intriguing piece you'd see in a museum. A description in one of extra features on the disc explains that BRAND ON THE BRAIN! "toured as a live event to many cities around the world, featuring an eleven-piece orchestra, a Foley team, a celebrity narrator, and a castrato." So, really, this film is basically a silent movie presented like a concert, with the celebrity narrator and Foley team becoming an essential part of the act itself. Some of the narrators were Isabella Rossilini, Guy Madden himself, Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover and -- and this was a big surprise -- Eli Wallach. The disc supplies a couple of those performances from the 2007 New York presentations as alternative tracks. Whichever one you choose, in an ingenious display of melding style and meaning, Maddin utilized the limitations inherent in the silent film era to conjure the sense of distant memory. It incorporates not only the dropped frames, which exaggerates the spliced editing, but his minimal use of sound and distortion creates a sense of dreaming and semi-consciousness. It suggests the sense of a memory deteriorated by time, yet one that has lost none of its power. His recollections flicker on the screen not so much as what they were in reality, but how they settled into his subconscious. Therefore his mother is depicted as a possessive harridan enthroned in a turret atop a lighthouse, scouring the beachhead with a searchlight, searching for escapees from her dysfunctional authority. Sometimes her voice is rendered as just a harsh squawk by the Foley team. It's worth noting that no actual dialogue of the actors is ever heard, but is instead conveyed through the mellifluous narration supplied on the default track by Rossillini. Sometimes her voice was synced with the actors lips, most of the time not, as she simply tells you what is being said, and sometimes conveying just the gist of what was going on. So like a dream, you're there and not there; and the most bizarre events are paradoxically eerie and mundane.
There is a story here really, too, if you're inclined to look at it. But it's all symbolic and surreal. I found it so intriguing as it was, with his dark shadows and blanched lights, I really didn't care to analyze the archetypes to delve into their deeper meaning. It was fun watching his imagination at work. The end product exists somewhere between dadaism and science fiction, embellishing an archaic medium with a darkly humorous panache.
I can't say, as some others have, how this fits into the Maddin canon. I've only seen one other of his films, and it didn't strike me the way this one did. I highly recommend this if you're interested to see what a film can be in the hands of an artist, of a man who treats the medium with no regard for the mainstream. And if you're not impressed the first time out, watch it a time or two more. It's something you really shouldn't miss. Then you can go back to normal life.