AKA Brand Upon  the Brain! A Remembrance in 12 Chapters

“[Children are] constantly constructing, and then reconstructing and amending and annexing a model of their cosmos, their universe. The real joyous intoxications and wonderment come from building faulty models, and then tearing them down and rebuilding. But you never completely tear down your model, I think you just keep adding on to your faulty model of the way the world works. All if us, by the time we’re grown-ups, have built this really elaborate model, which we feel is right now finally. But at its very foundation, at the very bottom, its very earliest days, there are these errors that run like a motherlode through the ensuing years.”–Guy Maddin, “97 Percent True”



FEATURING: Sullivan Brown, Gretchen Krich, Katherine E. Scharhon, Maya Lawson, Erik Steffen Maahs, (narration)

PLOT: “Guy Maddin,” who has not been home in thirty years, returns to Black Notch, the island on which he spent his childhood, to fulfill his mother’s dying wish: to give the family lighthouse/orphanage two good coats of paint. The trip sparks Guy’s memory; he recalls when celebrity teen detective Wendy Hale arrived on the island to investigate the strange holes found on the back of orphan’s heads. Guy develops a crush on the detective, but Hale goes undercover as her own brother, Chance, and seduces Guy’s sister, all while investigating his dictatorial mother and mad scientist father on her way to uncovering secrets that will tear the family apart.


  • Brand Upon the Brain! was funded (for a reported $40,000) by a Seattle-based nonprofit organization on the condition that Maddin use a local Seattle cast and crew. The film was shot in nine days.
  • This is the middle entry in Maddin’s unofficial autobiographical trilogy, in which each film has a (different) protagonist named Guy Maddin. (The first was 2003’s Cowards Bend the Knee and the last was 2007’s My Winnipeg).
  • The script was written with Maddin’s frequent collaborator Geroge Toles, but Maddin regular (who usually appears as an actor) wrote the narration.
  • The idea of narration for a silent film was inspired by “explicators,” people who would be hired by theaters to explain visual and narrative concepts the audience might not get on their own during live screenings of silent films.
  • Originally staged as a live event with a small orchestra (including a “castrato”) and foley artists, different performances featured different guest narrators, including Isabella Rossellini (who does the definitive reading), Laurie Anderson, John Ashberry, , , Louis Negin, , Eli Wallach, and Maddin himself.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The lighthouse lamp, an all-seeing orb, sort of a rotating papier-mâché rendition of the Eye of Sauron. Several of Guy’s family members come to bad ends before it.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rumanian womb birthmark; holes in orphan’s heads; the undressing gloves

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s another mad Maddin false autobiography! This time, the director imagines himself as the offspring of a mad scientist and yet another iteration of his domineering mother archetype, raised in a lighthouse among a band of orphans. Absurd but emotionally true memories are jumbled up, with a melange of archaic obsessions each taking their turn in the subconscious spotlight: teenage detectives, confused genders leading to confusing crushes, family members transfigured into zombies and vampires, with all of this lurid melodrama shot on blurry Super 8 and edited by a drunken, psychotic subconscious. Pure madness.

Original trailer for Brand Upon the Brain!

COMMENTS: “The past… into the past!” Memory is the theme of Brand Upon the Brain! Not happy childhood memories, but faulty memory, flawed memory, erroneous memory, unreliable memory. Memories of black masses, exploited orphans, confusing lust, maternal cruelty, and a distant father buried and then resurrected. Painful memories that, like an abandoned lighthouse, must be whitewashed, with two good coats of paint.

Just for an example of how confused things get in Brand Upon the Brain: by the end of the movie, adult Guy is talking to Wendy, the teen detective on whom he had a childhood crush (possibly as a ghost). Describing events that happened after he left the island in exile, she tells him, “Sis and Chance ran a cruel operation!” Because young Guy didn’t know the person he thought was Chance was actually Wendy is disguise, she’s either lying to him or (more likely) Guy is unreliable, and his “second chance” with Wendy is a fantasy, a delusion. On the other hand, since the entire film is supposedly based on Guy’s memories, who could he not know Wendy and Chance were the same person? Has an omniscient editor snuck frames of reality into Guy’s fetishized memories? Or is he so deep in denial that he rewrites his own history to fit his desires without noticing the contradiction?

It goes without saying that in Maddin movies the insane plots are not to be taken at face value. He certainly sets up plot points and proceeds from point A to B with narrative discipline, even if the story only “makes sense” according to dream logic. But when Maddin claims this particular story, which involves orphans whose brains are milked for “nectar,” a crossdressing teen detective, and an erotic relationship with a phantom is “97% true,” he’s joking only a little. To him, whether he grew up in a lighthouse among orphans or in suburban Winnipeg is a matter of little substance. Realism is a mask that hides the deeper truths he’s getting at about human nature. Maddin sees people as a bundle of libidinous and violent desires which are usually repressed in polite society; but the real us comes out in dreams. His movies always concern secrets… shameful secrets. They could be repressed incestuous desires (the theme of Careful), homosexual curiosity (a big subtext in Cowards Bend the Knee), ambivalent love/hate feelings towards the mother (here, and pretty much all of Maddin’s movies). Although the director insists that these autobiographical movies address (obliquely) his real anxieties and neuroses, it’s not the particular secrets or desires being repressed that’s critical to his project. His thesis is rather that repression, purposeful delusion, is a (if not the) central fact of all our interior worlds.

Maddin’s form perfectly fits his message. If movies had subconsciouses, they would look like Brand Upon the Brain: fuzzy, subliminal, haphazardly edited. Maddin films are like movies misremembering themselves. The archaic qualities of the 1920s era styles suggest buried childhood memories resurfacing. The editing techniques—the way the film rapidly flashes on Sis and Chance’s different expressions from different angles as their lips near each other—seem designed to mimic the process of the mind itself, trying to fasten on the exact precious moment of memory it seeks. The intertitles, alternately titillating (“at the mercy of the Undressing Gloves!!”) and admonishing (“the Horns of Chastity!”), suggest flashes of the rational mind’s commentary on the underlying psychodrama. The delirium of the medium echoes Maddin’s protagonists’ troubled psyches, and gives his films their unique power: the perfect blend of form and content, with each ingredient making the other richer.

In the documentary included on the Criterion disc, Maddin says that he worried that the artificiality of his earliest movies, and what he called the “cynicism” of his first autobiographical film, was too distancing for audiences. Here he is attempting to be more sincere, to scratch his own itchy neuroses raw. Brand is less jocular than Cowards Bend the Knee, which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of absurd laughs (“butter on the wall… spoils of war”). Personally, I find middle-child Brand the weakest of the autobiographical trilogy. Cowards, where Maddin took the editing breakthrough of his seminal short The Heart of the World and adapted it to a feature film, was a giant leap forward in the his artistic evolution. And lately I’ve come to believe the impish pseudo-documentary My Winnipeg, which mixes the Freudian comedy of Cowards with the raw emotion of Brand, may be Maddin’s finest overall film. I find Brand‘s narration (which often repeats the type of breathless commentary reserved more humorously for the title cards) superfluous. But the film is still prime mythologizing Maddin. Brand Upon the Brain is the weakest section of a masterful three act play. Few artists take everyday personal insecurity and elevate it to the status of Greek drama; yet, these are the battles that go on inside every one of us daily. Maddin is a chronicler of an internal rebellion where libido and rage strain against the shackles of secrecy and shame, a struggle the waking mind whitewashes with fallacy and false memory.


“…a phantasmagoric story that could be a collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and Salvador Dali. It’s an astonishing film: weird, obsessed, drawing on subterranean impulses, hypnotic.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“…for those who like their cinema weird, it doesn’t get any weirder or more oddly fascinating than this.”–Ruthe Stein, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“It’s weird, creepy, imaginative and unlike anything else out there.”–Sean Axmaker, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)


Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) – The Criterion Collection – Contains he trailer, Dennis Lim’s essay, and a Maddin short film (“The Night Mayor“)

SPOTLIGHT: BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! Maddin & Glover – Sundance Channel interviews Maddin and Crispin Glover about the about the live Chicago performance of Brand

Brand Upon the Brain! – Jason Staczek’s wonderful score, uploaded to a YouTube playlist

HOME VIDEO INFO: Brand Upon the Brain! joined the Criterion Collection (buy) in 2008, soon after its theatrical run ended. The release is typically excellent. Extras include seven different narration tracks (Isabella Rossellini is the default), the trailer, a six-minute deleted scene in which a cross-dressing Sis faces a firing squad of orphans. The highlight is “97 Percent True,” an excellent hour-long mini-documentary in which Maddin explains his entire career up to Brand Upon the Brain!, expounding on his personal relationship to Surrealism and melodrama and his obsession with faulty memory. It encapsulates this director’s peculiar aesthetic better than anything I’ve seen. Of course, there is also a booklet essay by Dennis Lim.

Brand Upon the Brain! has yet to be released on Blu-ray, though it’s probably only a matter of time. Like all Criterion Collection releases, it is currently licensed to stream exclusively on filmstruck.com, although (frustratingly) only a portion of their catalog is online at any one time.

(This movie was nominated for review by “krjinn.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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