Reviews: "Brand Upon the Brain!", "Golden Door"

Matt Sussman June 12, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!: apostrophe, hyberbole, catastrophe

While one might imagine the version of "Brand Upon the Brain!" prepared for theatrical release would be slightly underwhelming compared to the P.T. Barnum-esque traveling multimedia spectacular that Guy Maddin steered through the San Francisco International Film Festival in May — replete with an orchestra, foley artists providing live sound effects, Joan Chen reading the narration, and the piece de resistance, a supposed castrato — the film itself is no short supply of Maddin’s usual firecrackers: apostrophe, hyperbole, and of course, catastrophe.

Maddin has always claimed that his movies, as much as they resuscitate and plunder the techniques and look of early cinema (iris shots, highly gestural acting, inter-titles), are in fact x-rays of his own neuroses, flaunting the Maddin family’s proverbial skeletons in the viewer’s face. Even with its narrative’s Frankensteinian hewing of Hardy Boys mystery to Grand Guignol spectacle to Shakespearian mistaken identity comedy, "Brand Upon the Brain!" is no exception. In fact, it might be Maddin’s most baldly personal film.

Divided into 12 chapters, Brand follows our hero (also named Guy) who has ventured back to his childhood home, the mysterious Black Notch isle, where his mad scientist father and domineering mother once tyrannically ran an orphanage in a now decaying lighthouse. "Everything that happens will happen again," intones Isabella Rossellini — our off screen interlocutor — with a delicious boogeyman drawl that recalls Basil Rathbone reading aloud Poe.

And so it does. Guy is condemned to repeat the past even if he can’t forget it. Maddin certainly seems to relish in the masochistic tension generated by letting his on-screen self re-live the tortures of boyhood — cannibalistic rites, gender confusion, sibling rivalry ("Too much for Guy!" is a frequent title) — especially the psychological welts delivered alongside endless trays of cookies by Guy’s domineering banshee of a mother.

But as Maddin is cannily aware of, unlike other fairy tales in which the witch is defeated by a pure heart, there is no way to fully excise the creatures from the black Freudian lagoon that haunt Black Notch isle. Everything that happens will happen again. And so, Maddin will, doubtlessly, continue to make movies.

"Brand Upon the Brain!" opens this Friday at Bay Area theaters.

"Golden Door" opens a new chapter on an old world

An emigration story that avoids the clichés and traps of U.S. immigration debate, Emanuele Crialese’s "Golden Door" opens a portal to a richer set of metaphors for the experience of leaving one’s home for the promise of the new. One of Crialese’s most magestic scenes features a huddled mass dividing in two like an amoeba as the ship traveling to the New World unmoors from the rocky land of the Old. One people, set to occupy two places, are separated by a body of water that expands their distance by the day.

The film engages familiar dualities in the transition from one continent to another: the old world has superstition and the new — when they finally reach American shores — mechanization and science (though it turns out that science, eugenics, was pseudo-). In the processing plant that was Ellis Island, family is unceremoniously broken down into its constituent parts to be reassembled as usable American product. Excess, such as a matriarch who refuses to submit to the new order, or a son deemed unintelligent, are to be recycled back across the ocean.

The plot is straightforward. A family leaves Italy for America, and most of the action takes place in steerage, amongst a group of Italians and a British lady (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who could just as easily be from Mars. She’s to be clumsily, and eventually lovingly, integrated into the family.

What remains with you as original after taking Crialese’s journey is not so much the idea of cultural contrasts, which we’ve become all too used to making, but the images that accompany them. Agnes Godard has lensed some stunning landscapes, beginning with a climb up a mountain by two men with rocks in their mouths. Their destination, a shrine, may not pay spiritual dividends promised, but the pilgrimage is mythic. Exaggerations etched in comic magic-realist style feature heavily in another set of images the film stains into memory: a literal river of milk, trees that fruit coins, root vegetables the size of men.

If all that enchantment devolves into chaos and tribalism en route to another shore, followed by industrialized attempts at stripping away identity by the powers keeping America’s gate, it’s not wasted on us. America’s immigration rules are followed, but Godard’s peoplescapes remain. And in them we see hopeful, indomitable spirits, people whose essential character, Crialese intimated in the Q&A following the film’s SFIFF Opening Night screening, can’t be crushed or divided by an ocean of any size.

"Golden Door" opens Bay Area theaters this week.