This may be a bit perverse, but I’m going to talk about a film that not only is not currently available on DVD, there is no release date for that format as yet. Fear not, though, as it will surely not be long in coming. The film is Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain!, and it is currently on tour, proving that there is still enormous creative life in the silent film, especially presented when presented in the fully live format. The DVD, inevitably, will be a reflection of the theatrical experience, and while that won’t be as optimal as the live version, it will still be essential viewing for all lovers of the brilliantly bizarre.
As with Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), the protagonist shares the director’s name, which adds a weird layer of god-knows-what to the proceedings. The story sees Guy (Erik Steffen Maahs) returning to the now-deserted island where he grew up. He has come, at his ailing mother’s request, to put a coat of paint on the lighthouse that was: a) the family home; b) the orphanage run by his tyrannical mother; c) the laboratory of his obsessed father. Once there, Guy lapses into memory, and the bulk of the film is traumatic flashback. A young Guy, on the cusp of adolescence, and his older Sis (the only name the film gives her) strike up a friendship with Wendy Hale, one of the Lightbulb Twins, a pair of teenage detectives in the vein of the Famous Five or the Hardy Boys. Wendy has come to investigate Guy’s parents. Guy falls in love with her, but she falls in love with Sis. She then disguises herself as her brother Chance, in order to better seduce Sis, and what follows is a typically Maddinesque nightmare of contorted Freudian sexuality, hilariously melodramatic subtitles (liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks) and comically gothic horror. The style can best be described as a mixture of German expressionism, D.W. Griffth-style adventure melodrama and Eisensteinian editing filtered through a 21st Century sensibility. As with so much of Maddin’s work, the film is an almost indescribable fusion of the cinema’s past and its future, and as such is, in a odd way, timeless.
In Winnipeg, February 5, the film was presented as part of the New Music Festival. Not only was the score performed live, then, but so were Isabella Rossellini’s narration and the sound effects. This gave the audience’s attention a bit of a workout, as it was sometimes hard to know whether to watch the film, Rossellini, or the foley crew (busy popping bubble-wrap to convincingly simulate a crackling fire, or turning celery into the sound of snapping bones), but it’s hard to complain about a surplus of artistic stimuli. The DVD, apparently, will have Rossellini on the narration again, and I should add that the voice-over is not constant. Rather, it engages in a dialogue with the intertitles, creating a narrative experience the likes of which one would have been unlikely to experience even during the silent era. So while you won’t be able to watch the sound effects being created before you on the disc (though who knows what extras might be included), the multiplicity of the narration, not to mention the joyful delirium of the movie, will be intact. Keep your eyes open for the release.