Tim Hortons is coterminous with Guy Maddin when it comes to brands on brains.

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Designing Guy Maddin’s Big Brain

I first saw Guy Maddin’s Careful in New York around 1993 and I have been under the director’s spell ever since. The joke (on me) is that I am so entranced I that I ended up moving to Winnipeg (his hometown). Now share the same water supply.

Below is a heavily edited piece that I wrote a little over ten years ago about Brand Upon the Brain, a film performance that Maddin orchestrated with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. I often think about that strange show — the inimitable Isabella Rossellini and those Foley artists, in particular. Sharing this piece again here (with a bunch of edits) gives me a hard pinch of joy. Of all of Maddin’s work that I have seen, this is his most purposefully designed and his most moving motion picture.


Tonight, I saw Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain. (Update: this film is the director’s eighth feature and the middle film in what Maddin calls the “Me Trilogy”.) As an old school rapper like me might say, I’m going to break it down because it was the most coherently incoherent and gorgeous aesthetic spectacle I’ve ever seen.

First, let’s try to describe it. Maddin’s work — dark, enigmatic, kind of mossy and fully fantastical — is often maddeningly difficult to understand as prose alone.

Brand Upon the Brain was performed as part of the annual and renowned New Music Festival at the WSO. [Update: the film premiered at TIFF in 2006 with a full orchestra, a “castrato”, and Foley artists.] On the huge screen was a guy named Guy who lives in a lighthouse and pines after his sister’s lesbian friend, despite the fact that that friend plays a man, who also goes by the name of Chance and who is not as lovely, but is more loving, than the sister of Guy who is the character. Chance, who seems miscast at first, turns out to be a key figure in the distraught, anxious, and very unhappy young life of the orphan Guy who, as we watch all twelve chapters begin and end, comes back to visit his once and future home — an island with a lighthouse not far from the mainland which also feels very, very, very isolated.

The mother, via various forms of sexual and verbal escapades, becomes old and young while the father goes back to work as an old man and then a naked resurrected corpse and a young torturer. Meanwhile, the pining Guy is a witness to this unfolding story, occasionally surrounded by imprisoned orphans, all of them dressed in white.

The narrative itself somehow makes sense and maintains its own visual logic throughout every twist and turn.

A gorgeous, understated Isabella Rossellini narrated. Introduced by the charming and gentle Guy Maddin, Rossellini wore a sleek, black, Italian suit which matched her slicked down, curled-out hair. She was fully at one with the story, smiling and scoffing, waving and yelling. The drama unfolded in front of her on a monitor as she read her lines. At one point in the evening, she screamed and I think my own brain flew off.

To her right was a ten-piece orchestra with musicians pulled from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Their musical synchronization with the projected silent film above them was perfect. And conductor Rei Hotoda was so fully on, so completely engaged with those towering images that the swelling music overwhelmed and blended perfectly with the photography.

To the right of the orchestra were our Foley artists; three musician-cum-sound-effect-artists who slammed doors, creaked stairs, screamed babies, squeaked rubber chickens, popped bubble wrap, chopped cabbage, crushed celery, sounded horns, smashed cantaloupes, tripped foghorns, lapped paper waves — and did it all with a sweat-filled attention to detail. (Foley artistry is a practice in which sounds effects are created to build a greater sense of reality (or unreality) for a film or performance and is named after Jack Foley who worked at Universal Studios in the early 1900s).

Matched by all of this sound is Maddin’s glorious imagery. Included are:

  • Lighthouses and rotating periscopic chairs
  • RCA-brand Victor Talking Machine-era voices
  • Bowiesque Major Tom men, as attractively rendered as they are scary
  • Bowiesque Pierrot figures, walking amongst lapping waves
  • Laboratory instruments, framed against a window of darkness

Throughout, Maddin pulls together the very best yet disparate strands of one hundred and twenty years of cinema into a single 94-minute film. Shot in black and white, with touches of slightly strangled color, the film calls upon every important Surrealist, Expressionist, Soviet, and American Avant-Garde trope. Watching it, one cannot help but mourn the lost art of filmmaking. The fullness of the mise en scene nods to the beauty, simplicity, and directness of truly dramatic film content when movies were made to influence, and not just manipulate, our empathy for characters.

The film is designed within an inch of its life. It is scratched and dented throughout, as is often the case with Maddin’s work. It is as if the impoverishment of the film stock itself helps Maddin enrich our own connection and love for the medium. Interestingly, at certain points in the film, strange digital rectangles flickered across the screen, small remnants of the modern video medium being broadcast. I assume that these, too, are intentional and acts as reminders of our own digital media’s certain mortality.