Adrolly phantasmagoric, silent-film spectacle in which Freud meets Feuillade and Frankenstein! An auditorium crammed with an 11-piece live orchestra, a Foley effects team, and an onstage castrato! Celebrity guest narration by the likes of Isabella Rossellini, Eli Wallach, Crispin Glover, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Kiki (without Herb), plus that dude who sings for TV on the Radio! Countless intertitles spelled out in purple run-ons and punctuated by exclamation marks!
Brand Upon the Brain!—director Guy Maddin’s latest pomo revitalization of early-cinema tropes and aesthetics—sees the Winnipeg-based fabulist attempting a blockbuster event; think of it as counter-programming to Spider-Man 3. Sure, the Tribeca Film Festival had $18 tickets (unjustified!) and the publicity machine dubbed “Spider-Man Week,” but the first seven days of BUTB! in NYC offer all the aforementioned in-person excitement for only $30 a pop (totally justified!). And just when you thought the sprawl of Tribeca couldn’t stretch any farther, check out the fest’s executive director Peter Scarlet with his fingers in both pies: He’s on tap to narrate a screening of Maddin’s extravaganza himself.
At more than a half hour longer than Maddin’s comparably autobiographical Cowards Bend the Knee, BUTB! will be shown two ways: as a live spectacle in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, or with a pre-recorded Jason Staczek score and Rossellini soundtrack in subsequent screenings here and elsewhere. In other words: had-to-be-there jubilation versus clock-watching disappointment. Not to discredit its wild artistry by saying the gimmick’s the prize, but . . . the gimmick’s the prize. Without all the hoopla, there simply isn’t enough variation to this stylized fever-dream to justify its fatiguing running time, nor to call it anything less than predictably Maddin–esque.
Behold the classically grainy, mostly monochromatic imagery that’s yet again edited with a modern rapidity belying the bygone era it superficially represents! Gaze into the stark-contrast shadows of what might’ve been a German Expressionist horror flick, its Super 8mm pinhole visions strobing quickly to form a unique cinematic pointillism whose oblique linearity could only be pieced together by an overstimulated, 21st-century mind!
Erik Steffen Maahs frames the film as the middle-aged Guy Maddin, returning by rowboat to his Black Notch Island home, where his folks once ran an orphanage out of a lighthouse. Unveiled as “a remembrance in 12 chapters,” the serial flashes back to the dysfunctional childhood of young Guy (Sullivan Brown), along with his budding teen sister (Maya Lawson), their age-obsessed tyrant of a mother (Gretchen Krich), and the workaholic inventor dad who never leaves the lab (Todd Moore). Familial melodrama absurdly slides into psychosexual misadventures with the entrance of a harp-playing teen detective, who disguises herself as her own twin brother (gender-bent lust!) while investigating the strange holes found in the heads of all the orphans (Cronenbergian penetration!). Vampirism, organ harvesting, Lord of the Flies primalism, and monstrous human resurrections soon bubble up from thick swamps of repression and secrecy. Seriously though, would any of this be half as outrageous without the voyeuristic jollies of staring at famous people in the flesh, each wishing aloud for a little keyhole to spy on two nubile lesbian lovers?