Brand Upon The Brain!


There are two films I adore without reservation. Both of them have been constant guiding influences on me, either consciously or in more subtle ways. One of them, Jacques Rivette’s Celine And Julie Go Boating (1974) I have seen umpteen times, whereas the other, Peter Greenaway’s A Walk Through H : The Reincarnation Of An Ornithologist (1978), I saw once shortly after its release and only again last year.

Of course there are dozens, or hundreds, of other films I have relished over the years, from Brief Encounter to Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, from Love And Death to Random Harvest, but somehow those two have been my touchstones. I saw them first when I was young, and they opened up new imaginative possibilities to me. It would not be true to say that I haven’t been bowled over by a film since then, rather that I can’t think of one that has given me precisely that sense of wide-eyed surprised gleeful imaginative abandon.

Until yesterday, when I went to see Brand Upon The Brain! by Guy Maddin. Hooting Yardists will need only to know that the film takes place in a lighthouse orphanage on Black Notch island, that the characters include a harp-playing teenage detective and an evil boffin in his underground lab, and that communications are made via aerophones and a foghorn, to understand my enthusiasm.

Here is Andrew Sarris in The New York Observer: “Brand Upon The Brain! succeeds at one and the same time in functioning as both a celebration and a deconstruction of the conscious and unconscious glories of silent movies through the barely thirty years of their existence at the beginning of the 20th century. Let us say simply and definitively that I have never seen anything like it. The pace of the twelve chapters, told over the course of ninety-five minutes, surges along, propelled by the archaic silent-movie storytelling device of intertitles coupled with a faux-naif verbal narration…[it] is one of the most compelling avant-garde excursions into the narrative cinema ever.”

Apparently the film is to be released on DVD next month, so everyone should buy a copy. It is a work of genius.

3 thoughts on “Brand Upon The Brain!

  1. At last a fellow devotee of one of the master works of world cinema. I remember the first time I saw the film, it was at the Virginia Film Festival in 1975 or 76 in a tiny cinema in Ware, Virginia, with my school buddy Spotswood Hunnicutt Jones. She thought it was boring and just another trippy drugy French art house flick. I, on the other hand, came out of the movie wondering just what it was I had seen! The defining moment for me is when the shadow of a stage curtain decends and we hear a round of applause. Suddenly the movie is a whole different ball-game.

  2. You might have gathered, though I did not say it, that I was talking about Celine and Julie Go Boating, rather than Brand upon the Brain which I shall seek out at once.

  3. Mr Bismark : Yes, that was clear to me, and I assume to other readers, given your reference to a “trippy druggy French art house flick” – which of course it *is*, in some ways, as well as being a masterpiece.

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