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The silent treatment

Guy Maddin outdoes himself with `Brand Upon the Brain!'

June 07, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

GUY MADDIN'S "Brand Upon the Brain!" is arriving in Los Angeles this weekend, but don't imagine that just another film is showing up. It's more like the circus is coming to town. And a very weird circus at that.

"A one-of-a-kind cinematic spectacle!" scream the heroically retro print ads for the live-action-and-film extravaganza at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood from Friday to Monday night, adding, as if it were necessary, "You'll never see anything like it again!"

In some ways, that description fits the entirety of Maddin's outre oeuvre. A one-of-a-kind filmmaker based in the one-of-a-kind city of Winnipeg, Canada, Maddin is known for his evocatively titled films such as "The Saddest Music in the World," "Cowards Bend the Knee" and "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs."

A backward-looking visionary, Maddin filters a fascination with film history, especially the silent era, and the joys of Grade Z exploitation cinema through his own singular sensibility and comes up with films that never are mistaken for anyone else's.

Because "Brand Upon the Brain!" is as much spectacle as screening, it has already played in festivals in New York, Toronto, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Berlin and other cities. "For the longest time," Maddin said at the film's San Francisco Film Festival screening in early May, "I wanted to trick people into seeing a silent film." Which, in a sense, is what he's accomplished.

Maddin has made that happen by using what he characterizes as "boredom insurance" to turn his silent film into a kind of multi-ring circus. The ultimate for vintage silents these days, a live musical accompaniment, is just the beginning for "Brand Upon the Brain!"

In addition to an 11-piece orchestra led by composer Jason Staczek, the film builds on early silent tradition and utilizes a celebrity narrator to read the intertitles, a task that has been taken up by actor Crispin Glover, poet John Ashbery and others. (The Los Angeles narrators will include actress Barbara Steele and writer Daniel Handler.)

There is also a high-pitched male singer -- Maddin alternately refers to him as an "onstage castrato" and "the Manitoba Meadowlark" -- and, most dramatic of all, a trio of foley artists, dressed in white lab coats like mad scientists, using everything from whirling wheels to sheets of tin to create the sound effects for the film.

More than this, the form of "Brand Upon the Brain!" is classically silent as well. The credits tell us this is "A Remembrance in 12 Chapters" and, just like the silent serials, each episode closes with an "End of Chapter" title card. And Maddin has made sure that his film stock looks as distressed as it would if this were a vintage silent suddenly come to light after years of decay.

(While the live performances of "Brand" will take place this weekend, the film will also screen with prerecorded narration by Isabella Rossellini next week.)

The content of "Brand Upon the Brain!" is far from traditional. For perhaps the first time, Maddin has combined his fondness for genre excesses with autobiographical elements, though his typically droll insistence that the film is "96% literally true" should probably be taken as a form of kidding on the square.

"Brand" begins in the present, with a professional house painter named Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) rowing out to isolated Black Notch Island to fulfill his dying mother's last request.

For when Guy was a boy, his parents ran a peculiar orphanage out of a lighthouse on this island, and his mother's request, an especially convenient one for a house painter, is that he give the old lighthouse a few new coats of paint.

But the adult Guy does more than paint and paint, he sinks into deep reveries, binding himself in a "chain of memories" that leads him to brood and brood again on things that happen to him when he was a boy of 12 (played by Sullivan Brown).

Guy's parents, it turns out, were quite a pair. His father (Todd Jefferson Moore) was rather the mad scientist, working feverishly in the lighthouse basement on the devil knows what. Meanwhile, his overbearing mother (Gretchen Krich) used a massive searchlight and an amplification device known as an aerophone to make life a living hell for Guy and his older sister Sis (Maya Lawson).

Into this island hothouse comes celebrity sleuth Wendy (Katherine E. Scharhon), who along with her brother Chance are known as "The Lightbulb Kids." Wendy is investigating why orphans adopted off Black Notch Island all have suspicious-looking holes in their heads, holes that one might describe, if one were into cinematic hyperbole, as "brands upon the brain."

Wendy's presence on the island soon leads to brain fever, sexual hysteria across multiple genders and all manner of magnified Maddinian emotions.

The director's form of genial cinematic dementia is guaranteed not to be to all tastes at all times, but those who are looking for something strange and different will feel right at home.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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`Brand Upon the Brain!'

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Live performances, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Monday; films shown with prerecorded narration, 9:30 p.m. Monday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through next Thursday.

Price: Live performances, $20 to $30; prerecorded performances, $7 to $10

Info: (323) 466-3456, americancinematheque.com

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