Cinephiles fortunate enough to live in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles are being offered a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience on the opening days of Guy Maddin's demented new film Brand Upon The Brain! Over a limited period, and no doubt at considerable expense, the film will be touring with live accompaniment by an 11-piece orchestra, a five-person team of Foley artists, and celebrity narrators including Crispin Glover, Eli Wallach, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Isabella Rossellini. (Check local listings on who's appearing when. It opens in New York's Village East theater on May 9, Chicago's Music Box on May 18, and Los Angeles' Egyptian Theatre on June 8.) Other engagements of Maddin's latest silent-movie mash-up will feature a pre-recorded soundtrack with narration by Rossellini, probably losing considerable charm in the process. Watching the film without live accompaniment, it's easy to imagine the sheer exuberance of Jason Staczek's score and a colorful performer like Glover carrying the material across. But coming after the inspired trifecta of Dracula: Pages From A Virgin's Diary, Cowards Bend The Knee, and The Saddest Music In The World, Brand feels a little like boilerplate Maddin rather than a fresh burst of inspiration.
Autobiographical overtones are clear from the start, as a character named "Guy Maddin" (Erik Steffen Maahs) returns after 30 years to his home—a lighthouse on a remote island that doubled as an orphanage. As he returns to fulfill his mother's dying wish to cover the lighthouse in two coats of fresh paint (no doubt to cleanse the blemishes of the past), "Maddin" flashes back to his youth. As a boy (Sullivan Brown), he witnessed horrifying things perpetrated by his tyrannical mother (Gretchen Krich) and mad-scientist father. In particular, he recalls a visit from the Lightbulb Kids, a pair of brother-sister sleuths (both played by the androgynous Katherine E. Scharhon) who come to the island to investigate why recently adopted children have mysterious scars in their heads.
A typically spastic, experimental mix of old-fashioned movie effects and overheated Freudian melodrama, Brand gives the odd impression of a movie that's elaborately plotted, yet made up on the fly. (Perhaps that's a side effect of the abbreviated time period in which Maddin wrote and shot the project.) Though Maddin's crazed genius shines through on several occasions—an interlude about a communication device called the Aerophone is particularly inspired—the film possesses neither the originality of Dracula (a re-imagining of the Dracula myth as a ballet) nor the conceptual hook of The Saddest Music In The World. As performance art, however, it promises to be a night to remember.