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Brand Upon the Brain!

There are not many movies out there like “Brand Upon the Brain.”  When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was accompanied by a live orchestra, narration, and a set of Foley artists (ie, sound fx guys.) Yes, it is a silent film. Made in 2006. Now you’re starting to get the picture.

It had a limited theatrical run (sadly, not many theaters are equipped with live orchestras these days.) Surely it’s weird stuff like this that makes living in the big city worthwhile, despite the rats and smog. I wasn’t sure it was going to be released on DVD at all, but thankfully Criterion has picked it up. There are 6 different narrator choices on the disc. I went with Isabella Rossellini. I’ll let you make your own choice.

Surreal, silly, pulpy, and subterranean, “Brand Upon the Brain” feels like a collaboration between Salvador Dali and Franklin W. Dixon, the guy who created the Hardy Boys. 12 year old Guy lives on a mysterious island with a bunch of orphans. The island is ruled by his mother, who may be the worst matriarchal figure ever – she rules via telescope and a thing called an “aerograph,” a sort of telephone that can only be used when one is speaking to a loved one – or when one is hopping mad. She routinely threatens to sell the island (which Guy is due to inherit) and/or commit suicide to make her children and the orphans do what she wants.

Wendy Hale, one half of the crack teen detective team “The Lightbulb Kids” shows up on the island to investigate mysterious holes in the orphans’ heads. But Wendy falls in love with Guy’s free-spirited sister and disguises herself as her own twin brother Chance in order to woo Sis with a pair of kissing gloves. Naturally, the investigation falls by the wayside, until a bizarre series of events leads to a bizarre series of revelations, which leads to another bizarre series of events, which… well, you’ll just have to watch the movie.

“Brand Upon the Brain” certainly ventures into some swampy acreage. Director Guy Maddin is in love with all kinds of pulp material, though Quentin Tarantino he’s not. The Hardy Boy gee-whiz earnestness gets crossbred with a much grittier type of pulp mag material, the kind that hosts lesbian vampires and the like. And underneath the pulp sexuality simmers another level of sexual preoccupation; Guy and his mother have a slightly icky relationship, and then there’s the whole thing with his naked resurrected father and the nightly visits that make Mother twenty years younger.

Filmed in black and white, taking enthusiastic advantage of old tricks like iris lensing, double exposures, and partially blurred images, “Brand Upon the Brain” is fascinatingly original, but can be a lot to handle. It’s edited at a hyper, sometimes headachy pace – I would guess that no image is on the screen for more than four seconds. Then cut, then cut, then cut. Once upon a time, I would’ve suggested this be watched while in a “chemically altered” state. I realized last night I was wrong about that. “Brand Upon the Brain” doesn’t require drugs; it works like a drug itself. If you allow it to, it will alter your state of consciousness, lead you through a weird, trippy, surrealistic experience. If you resist it, you might be in for a bad trip.


  • if you’d jump at the chance to go see a modern silent movie accompanied by a live orchestra, Foley artists, and a narrator.
  • If you dream vividly and write down your dreams, but never get around to interpreting them.
  • If the idea of a movie that might be able to function as a drug intrigues you.
  • If you’re an art major. Particularly a performance art major.

Not Recommended

  • if you consider yourself a normal person.
  • If you’re epileptic, and prone to seizures induced by rapidly changing images.
  • If you grew up on a mysterious island populated by orphans, and the memory is painful for you.
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