Master stroking

Brand Upon the Brain!

Can a masterpiece also be unwatchable? Manitoba-bred filmmaker Guy Maddin’s Grand Guignol silent movie Brand Upon the Brain! seems likely to join Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and Pasolini’s Salò in the pantheon of provocative, intensely singular cinematic visions that are also a chore to sit through.

Brand Upon the Brain! was the result of a unique offer from the Seattle-based Film Company, which gave Maddin the opportunity to shoot anything he liked, as long as it was produced on a shoestring within a couple of weeks. The result is predictably scattershot, but each frame is infused with Maddin’s passion for his own obsessions—the teeming horniness of the old silents, sexual role-switching, outlandishly dysfunctional family dynamics.

Maddin slavishly attempts to recreate the look of old silent films, then takes the subtextual sexuality of the silents and thrusts it to the surface. Brand Upon the Brain! smashes about half a dozen genre tropes together (a mad scientist story, a zombie flick and a teen detective novel among them) to tell the story of Maddin, a lonely housepainter who returns to the lighthouse/sinister laboratory of his youth to settle some old scores involving creepy child experimentation and reraising the dead.

This could be fun, but the movie jump-cuts so relentlessly and pointlessly it almost seems like a contemptuous parody of silent filmmaking. To put it mildly, Brand Upon the Brain! is not for everybody; in fact, I’m not sure that it’s for anybody, with the possible exception of Maddin himself, who insists in a supplemental documentary that the movie has a strong biographical basis. Undoubtedly, his film is indeed a masterpiece of sorts, and should be seen by anyone who doesn’t mind that it’s an ordeal to watch after the first 10 or 15 minutes.