Bright Lights Film Journal

“Ode to a Nectarite Harvest”: On Brand Upon the Brain!

Maddin at his most masochistic — and magical

For a film as deliriously fecund and fittingly bizarre as Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), declaring the well-deservedness of its titular exclamation point may be something of an understatement. Sandwiched between his heavily autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) and the quasi-documentary My Winnipeg (2007), this is Maddin at his most masochistic — exposing his pained adolescent desires and private familial conflicts for all to see. Apart from some sound effects and an unseen narrator’s voice-over, this is very much a silent film in all aspects,1 but while such an archaic form dampens emotional affect in some ways, it paradoxically allows for a more uninhibited range of expression in others.2 The “neurological” editing style of Maddin’s recent films is especially pronounced here, replicating the processes of memory with images that momentarily stutter and flash into consciousness, moving at various speeds before finally searing into the frame.3

As with many other childhood remembrance stories, Brand obsesses over the long-past traumas that continue echoing throughout adulthood, like ripples returning from a distant shore. Here, Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs) has ventured back to his boyhood home at his dying mother’s behest, charged with applying two good coats of paint to the decrepit Black Notch Orphanage, a lighthouse standing atop a desolate isle — an appropriately phallic location for such a self-consciously libido-laden film. Where Proust had his dainty madeleines, Guy has the psychogeography of a whole island to re-explore, bombarding his senses with memories both voluntary and not . . .

Young Guy (Sullivan Brown) and his impetuous older Sis (Maya Lawson) live at the orphanage presided over by their puritanical Mother (Gretchen Krich), who maintains order with threats of suicide, complaints that no one loves her, and furious pronouncements like “Dirt is wrong!” Scouring the island for wayward youths with the panoptic lighthouse beam, she sends her misbehaving charges for a reprimand from Father (Todd Moore), a mad scientist perpetually at work in his lab. (As in Maddin’s other films, the Father is here by turns either absent, dead, or cowardly.) Every interaction on the island is built upon secrets kept hidden from one another, and above all, from Mother’s soul-piercing gaze. (“Secrets are hard things to keep secret,” explains the narrator.) Meanwhile, Wendy Hale (Katherine E. Scharhon) — sister half of a famous harp-playing, mystery-solving teen detective team — arrives on the island to discover why the Black Notch orphans all have strange holes drilled in the backs of their little noggins. Guy and Sis both become thoroughly enamored with Wendy, who then (unbeknownst to the Maddin siblings) disguises herself as her brother Chance in order to infiltrate the orphanage, posing as a lighthouse inspector. Sexually precocious Sis begins a secret relationship with “Chance,” leaving jealous Guy in the rut of this second love triangle, relegated to breathlessly assisting his hero’s clandestine investigation. Soon it is discovered that Father is siphoning nectar from the orphans’ brains, which Mother uses to temporarily grow several decades younger every evening, cannibalizing her own young in a vain attempt to regain the innocence of infancy. Chaffing under her Mother’s strictures, Sis finally lashes out, briefly killing her Father (until Mother restores him to life with a heart-to-heart resuscitation) before finally banishing her parents from the island. Guy is sent off to a foster home, leaving Sis and Wendy to their own devices as they resume the profitable nectar harvest until Sis is destroyed by her own greedy self-importance.

Having returned with his paintbrush thirty years later, all of grown-up Guy’s memories lead to Wendy, coalescing into an apparition of the beautiful detective. She explains the orphanage’s downfall, but Guy’s lovelorn advances are thwarted by the sudden arrival of his elderly parents. Now blind, his Mother is powerless to see4 or punish any indiscretions, including the Father’s immolation by several rancorous former orphans. Resolving to finally get to know his Mother in her dying years, Guy falls under her overbearing caresses and rediscovers his love for her shortly before her passing. Wendy vanishes into the past, distracting Guy from capturing his Mother’s dying breath, and he suddenly finds himself utterly alone.

Although delightfully mired in youthful fixations, Brand Upon the Brain! emerges as Maddin’s most mature and boldly personal work. In its final, ambiguous images, Guy stands nude on the roof of the lighthouse, staring down at the crashing waves far below, having been unable to shore up his childhood home’s structural cracks with mere paint. He appears confronted with a choice — whether to push ahead through his grief and isolation, or to follow in the steps of so many other Maddin protagonists and simply succumb to it — but there seems something almost hopeful on the precipice of this private apocalypse, a sure measure of inner strength beneath the cowardly exterior. Mourning for lost family members is a common theme in virtually all of Maddin’s films, echoing the sudden, premature real-life deaths of his older brother Cameron and father Chas, but the self-therapy at work in Brand suggests a preemptive strike upon potential future grief, given that his mother and sister are still amongst the living. As he writes in a 1998 journal entry: “I love my mother and I think I can actually feel it in the present. I’ve always mourned my inability to feel appropriately in the present, needing dreams to love later — on the installment plan.”5 Young Guy easily blends in amongst the orphans, suggesting that he has always been distanced from his parents; he forever rushes to please them, as if eagerly trying to prevent them from drifting away into the ether of memory too soon. “To be born to old parents is to be given a gift related to nostalgia,” Maddin writes in his diaries. “One has to work that much harder, look backwards so much further, to make real as people one’s parents.”6 Having attended more closely to the specter of Wendy than the actual flesh-and-blood presence of his aged progenitors, adult Guy’s neglect of deep familial bonds over the transience of unfulfilled romantic love is perhaps an even greater lament in Brand than his parents’ inevitable deaths. The film’s dramatic heart-to-heart resuscitation mirrors Maddin’s own autobiographical narrative strategy: subjecting oneself to great torment in order to revive the dead with a powerful love.

Amnesia has been the strongest recurring trope in Maddin’s films — a persistent forgetting of one’s relationships — which not only allows one to forget one’s emotional connections and traumas, but also to repeat them indefinitely. As the narrator of Brand Upon the Brain! explains, everything that happens will happen a second time, for the first occurrence will not stick in the memory (due to the effects of amnesia, we might surmise) until it recurs later.7 However, what sets Brand apart from Maddin’s earlier films is a deliberate drive to recover the past, to actively emerge from the mental fog, as though he has reached a new awareness of personal responsibility. (For example, during Guy’s reconciliation with his mother, it becomes clear that her middle-aged severity owed less to a cruel streak than to a fiercely excessive love for her children.) But the film also illustrates the double edge of this pursuit: the dangers of becoming seduced back into far-flung territories of one’s own mind. For Maddin, amnesia and remembering can both yield similar emotional consequences. The final, fleeting image of Guy perched high above Black Notch Island — reborn from the crucible of sorrow as either commanding his destiny or impossibly vulnerable — suggests this circular tension between either an abandonment or rediscovery of whatever is held most important.

Though one cringes at the thought of how his family will receive the film, Maddin’s journals, interviews, and other writings illustrate the great extent to which Brand Reflects his actual childhood experiences. At eight or nine years old, Maddin was “cast into the role of an unlikely mediator trying to bring peace” between his mother and teenage sister Janet (seven years his senior). The rebellious teen had become a local track star around the time that her father’s cachet as manager of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey team was on the wane, effectively leaving a power vacuum in the Maddin household. According to Maddin, the quarrels between mother and daughter “seemed really melodramatic in everyone’s sense of the word when they think of melodrama as completely uninhibited expressions of emotion. These fights had a lot of fireworks and they got pretty surreal.”8 Even when distorted by the logic of dreams and perfumed with outlandish Grand Guignol trappings, smaller personal details are also captured with remarkable accuracy, from individual lines of dialogue9 to whole scenes10 and subplots.11 When Mother and Sis declare a truce over Father’s corpse, Maddin’s subconscious seems to be stretching to explain the patriarch’s untimely death, as though Sis’s sexual exploits were somehow responsible. “One could almost surmise that sex kills loved ones,” Maddin wrote in 1998, “but this is no more true than a notion that anesthetic cuts open the chest.”12

Despite (or perhaps because of) the plethora of intimate details brought to light, Brand Strikes the most emotionally poignant note of Maddin’s career. While it may not wring sobs from a moose, the film’s wellspring of unrequited desire, adolescent angst, and familial loss are such universal flurries of the heart that only the most cynical will remain unmoved, especially when Guy fervently returns the love of his once-monstrous Mother upon her deathbed. Filmed on location on Puget Sound, the abundance of unsimulated outdoor scenes adds an unexpected layer of authenticity to the proceedings, creating a somewhat different feel than more artifice-filled Maddin films.13 There is also an infectious eroticism throughout the film, a charmingly queer air of sexual ambivalence as youthful desires are explored in multiple directions. (“Young Guy never suspects the secret genders of others,” we are told.) Behind closed doors, Sis finally discovers that “Chance” is in fact Wendy, but we are denied such a lascivious sight. What they do together remains a secret to Guy and audience alike, though the narrator wishes aloud that “there was a little keyhole that I could look through.” From the peephole installations of Cowards Bend the Knee to the countless iris shots and Vaseline-smeared lenses he liberally employs, Maddin is forever obscuring and fetishizing his objects of desire, deliberately placing them out of reach. “I like to look at certain women from the past in movies,” he once remarked. “And it’s also a matter of their inaccessibility — the keyhole stuck in the door that’s seven or eight decades thick makes them very alluring to me.”14

With his tainted memoirs proving the most expedient source for a film so hastily composed (after The Film Company’s offer to direct a short film quickly expanded into a feature project), Maddin turned to longtime co-writer George Toles for additional inspiration, and has been richly rewarded in turn. Shooting feverishly over a scant nine days, Maddin has crafted a work of strong emotions and considerable depth from his stores of lubricated instinct. Although the uninitiated may be perplexed by this most fucked-up of children’s movies, Brand Upon the Brain! abounds with the dark humor, melodramatic excess, eccentric minutiae, heightened sensation, and cryptic archaism so often praised by critics and fans. Not only is this one of the year’s best films, but it stands as perhaps the finest achievement of Guy Maddin’s oeuvre.

  1. In advance of a widely released print with Isabella Rossellini as narrator, the film toured the festival circuit with different celebrity narrators at each stop (including Rossellini, Crispin Glover, Udo Kier, Joan Chen, and Barbara Steele), several Foley artists, and a castrato. []
  2. See William Beard, “Maddin and Melodrama,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 2-17. []
  3. According to Maddin, this visually assaultive style (developed with editor John Gurdebeke) owes less to Russian Constructivism than to more recent experimental filmmakers like Martin Arnold and Matthias Müller. []
  4. Likewise, Maddin’s real-life mother, Herdis, was cast as her own blind mother in Cowards Bend the Knee, portraying Grandma Maddin as unable to see her grandson Guy’s steamy trysts occurring right before her nose. []
  5. Guy Maddin, From the Atelier Tovar: Selected Writings (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2003), 48. []
  6. Maddin, 152. []
  7. By recreating his own memories in autobiographical form, Maddin likewise preserves important personal events through their recurrence in his films. []
  8. David Church, “Dissecting the Branded Brain: An Interview with Guy Maddin,”Offscreen 10, no. 1 (2006). []
  9. For example, Maddin’s mother has repeatedly invited her son to be buried within his father’s gravesite (see Maddin, 215), though in the film she wants him to be buried on top of her when he dies. In another instance, it takes the weight of many orphans to sink the coffin of Guy’s dead father at high tide, whereas Maddin’s real-life grandfather had to be buried in a similar manner, with his offspring weighing down the coffin during the high waters of flood season (see Maddin, 222). []
  10. The spin-the-bottle scene between Wendy, Guy, Sis, and little Neddie (Kellan Larson) is inspired by Maddin’s early teen crush on fifteen-year-old Wendy Crewson (now a successful actress). A similar scene resulted in real-life Guy watching jealously as Wendy kissed his twitchy friend Jamie, who then suddenly and fearfully recounted the death of his younger brother (see Maddin, 53-4). []
  11. For example, an early subplot involving the eldest orphan, Savage Tom (Andrew Loviska), is based on a childhood friend named Tom who served as a half-nude “high priest” in dark ceremonies ranging from the immolation of G.I. Joe dolls to a planned harvest of a friend’s heart (see Maddin 194-96). []
  12. Maddin, 45. []
  13. The studio-bound exteriors of Careful (1992) are a notable example. Of course, having personally grown up on the beaches of Puget Sound, my own memories surely color the images of such all-too-familiar territory. But the Seattle area already held certain primal memories for Maddin as well, having been the site of the last trip that his whole family took together, for the occasion of the 1962 World’s Fair (see Church). []
  14. Marie Losier and Richard Porton, “The Pleasures of Melancholy: An Interview with Guy Maddin,”Cineaste 29, no. 3 (2004): 21. Here he relegates desires from his own youth (such as a love for Wendy) to the dustbin of history, presenting them as unnaturally old and impossibly unattainable. []