“The Past! The Past! The Past!” reads the repeating text in Guy Maddin’s latest film, Brand Upon the Brain!, which opens theatrically Wednesday at the Village East. The words imply the narrative structure of a semi-autobiographical work focusing on the tortured adult recollections of childhood experience: A grown man named Guy returns to the island where he was raised to paint a lighthouse at the request of his dying mother. As he does this, memories flood back forcing him to relive the iron-fisted rule of an orphanage below the lighthouse; his unrequited crush on young detective Wendy (who in turn falls in love with Guy’s sister); and Wendy’s subsequent disguising herself as her sleuth brother Chance in the hopes of seducing Sis. Chance soon discovers small wounds on the necks of the orphan children, and dark family secrets in the form of perverse sexual and emotional relationships come to light as the movie unfolds.
The narrative represents the most linear thread Maddin has put together in a while, especially compared to recent titles like Cowards Bend the Knee and The Saddest Music in the World (neither of which can be described as abstract). Such aspects are secondary, however, to the mounting buzz about the screenings’ live sound effects, onstage castrato and special guest narrators including Isabella Rosellini, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover and TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe. Not having experienced these elements in my press screening, though, I recently spoke with Maddin about the artistic decisions that shaped Brand Upon the Brain! — beginning with how he felt about his first filmmaking experience outside of his native Canada. “It felt kind of good,” he told me. “I felt like a real gun for hire — my first foreign film.”
Paddy Johnson: I saw that on a trailer this morning — you talking about it being a foreign film. It seemed really awesome to think about a film made in America that way.
Guy Maddin: Yeah, that was exciting, and I also welcomed the chance to step (away from) my regular collaborators in Winnipeg. You know, it felt like I was having an affair. We did end up using one Winnipeger though; John Gurdebeke is my regular editor. I work with him all the time. The task of editing in two different cities was just too modern for my sensibilities. It could have been done e-mailing the files back and forth; it’s just that you need to be close with your editor. I was going to say, the editor is the filmmaker almost. It’s really important, and it’s the one craft that’s least valued in the public. It’s just something that speeds by at Academy Award time, and I’m even convinced that peers can’t even judge the impact another editor brings to his or her own project.
PJ: You mean even another editor?
GM: I mean, yeah. I’m convinced of it. I’ve talked about this with my editor because there are just too many factors that go into a film. It’s really fascinating to me because you can judge what an author does because they start with whatever’s in their head, but an editor starts with what’s given to them and they can only make it so good. So the editor might win an Academy Award for best editing because it’s conspicuously flashy, but meanwhile he’s sabotaged the performers by holding onto a shot too long or by using the wrong take or just by putting the wrong kind of energy into the movie. So I’m convinced that even another experienced editor can’t judge what really happened during the cutting of a movie. There are just too many variables. So anyway, this is just a long-winded way of saying that editor is very, very, very important. And I’ve got a nice marriage going with my editor. I like him. I trust him entirely.
PJ: Outside of the more obvious factors like the shape of the land, what do you see as the most visible effect that the new location had on the film?
GM: I think I got really caught up in the romance of finally just going somewhere, not knowing anyone and getting to know them in a hurry. Because instead of working with people I got know over a period of years, I was getting to know them too well — old accounts were constantly being reopened. But with these ones I forged new relationships, and they’re also intimate because — especially physically — I work very primitively; I have my own style about what I’m going to shoot. I like to just assemble my actors go over their characters, and I sort of block it out the way a quarterback would in a huddle: “You’re going to go long, you’re going to go short. You’re going to cross here.” And then I’ll shout out audibles while the play is happening, which you can do while you’re shooting a silent film. And if I see something that looks way better than I planned, I’ll shoot that instead.
PJ: One of the things I always really liked about the way some of your movies look is that while they use this old-timey silent film aesthetic, but they never seem to me to be too carefully constructed.
GM: I’m too impatient for that.
PJ: Is it primarily working style that determines this look? Or…
GM: In this case it sort of evolved with the subject matter, and then the subject matter evolved a lot with the style. But I’ve tried to always make sure they are evolving in the same direction. That’s why I like writing my own scripts because quite often my style is so specialized that I just thwart any other schools, but in this case the childhood recollection and the way I shot this thing was just highly improvised camera movements — sometimes just intentionally not even looking through the camera — and just leaving to chance what I get.
PJ: That’s really interesting because, again, the editing is very specific.
GM: Well, then you get the freedom to choose. I decided before cutting that I was going to try a different facsimile for memory. In film we’re most comfortable with most ways in which memory is presented; the most conventional is the flashback or the blur or just someone thinking and going back. Or maybe (we’re) equally comfortable now with things just aggressively cut across time periods, like The Godfather Part II did or 21 Grams. But I wanted it to be more neurological. I wanted to come to an editing style that matched my camera style, which is primitive. And I sort of thought: Well, if you’re remembering, say, your favorite romantic moment that happened 10 years ago, 15 years ago, you don’t just remember it like it’s a movie with a beginning, a middle and an end. What happens is you almost get a sneak preview of that wonderful moment. You get a glimpse of it, then you go back to the beginning of the episode, and you start racing ahead, like a stone skipping water. You skip over stuff that doesn’t matter, just touch down on the images you like and then you almost go past. You go past that moment — the best moment — and you come back to it, and then you replay it a few times. You want to remember it, and the more you replay it in your head, the less flavor that comes out if it each time, and you’ve got to slow down on that moment and then cherish it. And then you realize, “I’d better move on or I’ll ruin this memory for good by just sucking on it for too long.”
I wanted them to have that kind of neurological facsimile. It’s all just facsimile anyway; you can’t duplicate life or there’d be no need for art. It’d just be “life.” So I thought I would try this neurological facsimile because it would match the kind of kinetic camera shit that was going on, and it would enable me to come up with equivalents of the close-up with out using close-ups quite as often. You know a close-up is just a director’s way of saying, “Hey, more attention to this face now.” There’s other ways of doing it, and that’s repeating it three times or slowing it down or playing it backwards or giving yourself a preview and leading up to it. So I tried to do that kind of stuff.
PJ: One of the most interesting things about this movie and the movies in the past is your use of props: The ice tit in Cowards Bend the Knee, or the glass leg in Saddest Music. Here, the aerophone is maybe not so absurd, but by contrast pretty irreplaceable —
GM: That was important, yeah. Well, everyone has an aerophone built into their heads. You know when the people who love them or hate them are audible; they hear them always.
PJ: What I really liked about the aerophone of course, is that it was imperfect, and that it would call Guy —
GM: With false alarms or echoes —
PJ: Yeah, and it made me think that love and hate have a will of their own.
GM: That’s very nice. Thank you. It feels right. I just know from my own experience that love, lust, hate travel further than the other emotions. And that you don’t really need an aerophone for those things, but the placebo effect is pretty powerful. So this stupid tin horn hear is going to make you hear… I’m not going to make an attempt to explain it. I like your explanation. It’s very nice.
PJ: Another theme I was thinking about is the role of disguise, or rather transformation. Wendy turns herself into her brother Chance; the mother is seeking youth and using the nectar to transform herself nightly. My sense was that part of that was because she felt so unloved. And that this transformation was always temporary. It never solved any problems.
GM: They are temporary, but thank God for transformation. Once again, I’m no anthropologist or psychologist or anything, but I do like the first chapter of Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Maybe no one remembers that book any more, even, but she just talks about the ruthlessness of nature and how everything just comes from this fog of disorder and chaos and irrational cruelty. And things change, and they’re scary when they change. And they change ideally (unless you’re schmaltzy and romantic); they’re supposed to change savagely for sex and other impulses. The ones that have really written history all involve metamorphosis. But like I say, it wasn’t anything I consciously put into the DNA. It’s something so part of human life that when I’m telling my autobiography, I guess there just happened to be some metamorphosis in my childhood. And when I’m recounting it they’re just there cause I just tried to get everything in.
PJ: You certainly don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to issue a spoiler to the movie, but the end seems pretty dark. It looks like Guy is going to jump off the top of the lighthouse. Is this the reading you intended for this scene?
GM: Yeah, I hadn’t really thought of it. I think it came about because for some reason when we went to shoot it, the actor’s costume had been mistakenly sent to the dry cleaners, and all he had was his own clothes. So I thought, “Ah, we’re going to have to do this nude.” And so I had him remove his clothes. Putting him on the ledge may be a bit dark, but he’s not necessarily jumping. He’s just painted himself onto the ledge maybe…
PJ: Sure, sure.
GM: Ah, whatever. I’m not too sure about that. It’s pretty open, and the editing starts breaking down at point, too. It’s just images that no longer have any continuity, and then the narrated nursery rhyme, so it’s like the wheels are just falling off everything, and you can just abandon this whole wretch of childhood. “Now you’re free to go; it’s fallen apart.” That’s how I’ll rationalize it.
This piece was originally published on The Reeler, May 8, 2007