Director Guy Maddin's latest film Brand Upon The Brain! has been screened around the world with a live orchestra and foley artists (even a castrato at the Toronto Film Festival) to great huzzahs. Most recently, the film screened in New York City, where a storied cast including Lou Reed, poet John Ashbury, Isabella Rossellini, Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach and Justin Bond (of Kiki & Herb, and the film Shortbus) brought it to excitable life. Although, perhaps not that excited in the case of Lou Reed, who fell asleep in the middle of his performance, and caused the director a moment of apoplexy so violent it resulted in a broken tooth. Chalk it up to the terribly weird life of Guy Maddin.
The strange and curious existence of one Mr. Maddin is a good example of just how odd we Canadians can be. Fathers with their eyes poked out, tyrannical mothers with big hairdos, and feverish torturous love is only the beginning. In this latest autobiographical outing, there are also small children with holes in their necks, teen detectives and satanic masses. What else could you possibly want? Isabella Rossellini? You got it!
But what of the film you ask? Well, okay, here it goes.
In the beginning of the story, a character named Guy Maddin (naturally enough) is rowing towards Black Notch Island, his childhood home, where at the behest of mother, he will try and restore the family's ancient lighthouse to something of its former splendor. Once he makes land, however, memories of his childhood quickly overwhelm him, and no amount of whitewash can cover up the past. Before you can say oedipal drama, old Guy is cast back into his boyhood days and becomes young Guy.
A tizzy of love
As a child, Guy and his sister (aptly named Sis) spend their days under the brutal watch of his omniscient mother, who scours the island with a searing gaze of pure light. The family operates an orphanage, which looks more like a prison camp. At night the children sneak out and stage a black mass presided over by a naked teenager named Savage Tom, whose frenzied gyrations both terrify and enthrall. Seething sex and violence is everywhere!!!! Yes, there are a great many exclamation points in this film, whether they stem from exhortation or exaltation, or exorcization (that's not really a word, I know, but perhaps it should be). Mad lusts and demons of desire run rampant. You would do well to recall The Tempest, where another sorcerer ruled the id and the ego. While their Mother storms and rages, Guy wanders the island in a reverie, and his sister fulminates revolution by keeping her hair on her forehead. Meanwhile, their mysterious father labours away in the basement inventing things like the areophone, a squawking box that erupts in static squeals when it's time for dinner.
The arrival of Wendy Hale (one half of the teen detective team the Lightbulb Kids) sets things in motion and sends young Guy into a positive tizzy of love. But Wendy is more than she seems, much more. In order to discover the secrets of the island, she decides to disguise herself as her own brother, Chance. This transformation (by way of a black toque) sends Sis into surging crisis of a crush, while Guy pines for the mysteriously vanished Wendy. Chance (in between lesbian trysts with Sis) sets out the catch Guy's parents in the act. The act of what, you may well ask? It appears there is a deep dark secret at the heart of the Island, something about those mysterious holes in back of the kiddies. Seems Mother and Father have cooked up a plot to suck the orphan nectar out of the brains of little children in order to send Mother back to the age of innocence. Don't worry about the plot too much, it will only make your head hurt. Things come to a furious head. And whenever young Guy sees something altogether overwhelming (such as his vampire mother chawing away on his little friend Neddie or Chance with breasts) he swoons. The audience might feel the same way. Symbolism this fast and fizzy (Black Notch Island indeed) is almost too much.
Brand!, the first Maddin film to be shot outside of Winnipeg (most of it was filmed near Seattle), is still vintage Guy -- a mixture of references all hyper-kinetically linked and swirled together (Grand Guignol, expressionist horror, Nancy Drew etc.). You may come out feeling a little dizzy afterward from watching all those ideas running madly in circles, like demented fireflies casting themselves at the light. It's a little spastic, a little dreamy, terribly demented, and charged with the energy of a horny preteen, not unlike the director himself. It's also visually and aurally stunning.
Trapped in the director's head
But despite all the stuff -- the foley artists, the different narrators and the castrato -- it can leave you feeling a little left out. There is a self-enclosed, almost hermetic feel to the material, which is understandable given that it's piped directly (like orphan nectar) out of the fevered brain of Guy Maddin. If you like Guy juice, and lots of people relish the stuff, it's all sunshine and rainbows, but it can sometimes prove a little too rich a concoction. Indulge him if you will, since what is art if not self-indulgent? Foisting your damp sweaty visions on a poor unsuspecting audience, and expecting them to pay for the privilege. The nerve.
A similar feeling of being trapped inside a director's head occurred at the end of another cinematic canvas, namely David Lynch's new film Inland Empire. The film graced the red warmth of the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, where it sold out. (If you missed it the first time, don't be sad, it's set to return sometime this summer). Lynch's opus makes an interesting companion piece to Brand Upon The Brain! The two films don't share much in terms of story, but neither director (Maddin nor Lynch) is hugely concerned with narrative. They're stylists, and in both films, it is atmosphere that prevails, as well as the capabilities of film: a beam of light that can carry ideas, feelings, memories, emotion, all fragile gossamer bits floating like dust motes in the air. Both directors plumb their personal history (be it autobiographical or cinematic) to generate new material out of old stuff.
The light in Lynch's film doesn't come from a lighthouse, just the opposite; its home is a darkened house, a spooky theatre in which the light hides more than it illuminates. Perhaps it's a clue, meaning we're all on stage, or rather, we're all characters on one enormous film set. None of us are exiting stage right so easily.
It makes sense therefore, that the central character is an actress named Nikki Grace, played by Laura Dern. In the beginning of the story, Nikki takes a role in some southern antebellum drama entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows. The twin stories of Nikki and her character Susan Blue blur until it's unclear which story is fictional and which is not, but of course, the distinction hardly matters. Inland Empire was made over the course of two years, much of it shot with a Sony PD-150 digicam. Many of the ideas examined in Lynch's previous film, On High in Blue Tomorrowsare in full flower here, although the feel and density of Inland Empire isn't quite as ravaging as the first film. I haven't seen Mulholland Drive in years, but scenes from it remain etched in my head. The director has a wealth of time to play with (over three hours) and he wads it full. The film is literally stuffed to the gills with ideas and images, some more critical than others. But in the centre of the film, like Mulholland Drive, there is a turning point, a place at which we leave the well-lit path and flounder off into the blackness.
Echoes and whispers from old Hollywood, in particular The Wizard of Oz (a star on Hollywood Boulevard that reads "Dorothy," and sky blue dress with its lingering essence of Glinda, the good witch of the South) keep resurfacing throughout Inland Empire, much as they did in a much earlier Lynch film, Wild at Heart, which also starred Laura Dern. One of the most memorable characters Dern plays in the new film could have been a later version of Wild at Heart's Lula. Hard-bitten, beaten down, she tells the story of an attempted rape in Lula's same deep twang. It's as if Laura Dern (the actress) is playing an echo of her earlier self/character. She gives it her all, and really who can blame her? These types of roles for actresses over 35 are few and far between, and Ms. Dern tears into the film like she's at the all-you-can-eat-thespian-buffet.
Inland Empire wanders from room to room, from prewar Poland to Hollywood and Vine, often feeling its way in the dark. Along the way, there are sitcom rabbits, movie sets, prostitutes dancing the Locomotion, circus people, and always Laura Dern, in whatever incarnation, stumbling towards the light. Explicating symbology isn't really much use here, since it doesn't lead you to any grand revelations. It's a shot in the dark, and I mean that in many different ways. But Lynch references to his body of work can sometimes prove claustrophobic, airless even, and after a time one longs for escape. Even the director seems to need a break from himself, and the denouement of the film tacks on an upbeat coda, undoing much that has preceded it. After the horror and bleakness of lonely violent death, the lights come up and it's a party filled with dancing women, and celebrity cameos (Nastassja Kinski and Laura Dern's husband Ben Harper playing the piano) in a big cast party. As the camera circles back to the beaming face of Laura Dern, there is an atmosphere of self-congratulatory, "Look at what we did! We made weird stuff!"
The one thing that David Lynch can do is to leave you with a lingering feeling. Long after a host of other films have come and gone, elements from his films stay lodged in your brain. Maybe this speaks to the depths in which his narratives operate -- subterranean places where glowing nightmare fish live. It's a curious place to visit, but after a while you have to resurface into air and sunlight. So, too Guy Maddin's films, where after the explosion of frenetic energy and raw desire, one feels the need for quiet and stillness. Much like leaving the fun fair, whether you spent your time in the haunted house or on the merry-go-round, it's a relief to leave and walk outside, where the ordinary world awaits your return.
Brand Upon the Brain! screens June 8-14 at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver, and Inland Empire returns there (due to popular demand) on July 13-18.