Monday, May 14, 2007

FILM/PLAY: "Brand Upon The Brain!"

For die-hard New York theatergoers, the Foley artist is nothing new. But these days, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thrill to see them dressed up in their lab coats performing live sound effects for Guy Maddin's touring film, Brand Upon The Brain!. The film will live on with a recorded version featuring Isabella Rossellini as the interlocutor, and the effects and score by Jason Staczek will all be there: but the chance to see it all assembled on stage is a real treat, and a true theatrical experience. Surround sound has nothing on natural acoustics, and Maddin's heavily stylized combination of expressionism and impressionism (fast jump cuts, pinhole shots, unsteadily assembled photo-montages and shots) is best served as exhibitionism.

The May 13th performance I attended featured poet laureate John Ashbury as the narrator; a perfect match, considering the poetic nature not only of the silent text on camera, but also the "dubbed" text he was required to read. The film is poetic too, a self-described "photo-play" that uses images the way others might use words. Here a picture isn't worth a thousand words, but there are more than a thousand pictures to serve as metaphorical subtext, lively presence, or a Grand Guignol of atmosphere.

Brand Upon The Brain! is a charming horror story that makes memory into a monster, and is billed as a "remembrance in 12 parts." The first and final chapters feature Guy Maddin (Erik Steffen Maahs), and could serve as a lush autobiography on Black Notch Island, and its lighthouse orphanage, if it weren't for the Maddin's tyrannical witch of a mother or mad scientist father, the two of whom are slowly harvesting "nectar" from the orphan's brains.

This fanciful bit of Gothic adventure is kept in check by the more realistic emotions it brings into conflict: young Guy (Sullivan Brown) has to face down his mother (Gretchen Krich), Guy's sister, Sis, has to face her father (Todd Jefferson Moore) and both have to come to terms with their raging hormones, represented by the Hale twins, Wendy and Chance (Katherine E. Scharhon). As self-branded detectives, they set out to expose the inner workings of the orphanage, and also to understand their own inner workings, and Maddin's comically bleak tone allows for a lot of clever devices (like the "undressing gloves" or the foghorn voice of their father). Also, while there's a limited amount of text, both on the title-cards and from the interlocutor, it is often used to emphasize certain points: "Dinner. Grim as usual," or "Dirt is bad." Though the film seems to lose narrative control (and with it, its riveting focus) in the final chapters, the chaos is so well matched by the orchestra, Ensemble Sospeso, that even the dissonance wins us over.

A word of advice: watching Brand Upon The Brain! will leave a mark upon your brain, and may make it difficult for you to go back to watching movies normally again; not just because Guy Maddin's cinematography is so distinct and engaging, but because, in the end, there's nothing more appealing than experiencing something live. This here's the best of two worlds.

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