They don't make movies like they used to. Or do they? Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain is a silent movie for the contemporary art crowd. It winks at cinephiles, those interested in gender and sexuality, and lovers of old-fashioned movie magic. The film gets a general release June 8, but on Tuesday (June 5), as part of the Luminato fest, it gets a rare live performance that includes a narrator (actor Louis Negin), a full orchestra, singer and foley artists.
How did you come up with the idea for the film, which includes a boy named Guy Maddin, a gender-bending teen detective and not-so-nice parents?
I got a call from a Seattle film company asking if I wanted to make a film. I had to use an all-Seattle cast and crew and have a new script ready to make in about a month. I'd always wanted to make an autobiographical film, and this was the time, since I didn't have time to make up anything.
How autobiographical are we talking about?
Most episodes and themes are from my childhood, including this super war between my mom and my sister when she hit adolescence. My mother was trying to will every pubertal development back into my sister's body, and when will didn't work she used a hammer. That spilled over into the rest of the household. The friendly fire claimed many victims.
And Wendy, the gender-bending detective?
I fused two Wendys together. There was one in my sister's life who turned out to be a completely different gender. And I fell in love with the actor Wendy Crewson when I was 15 and she visited Gimli. She came out one summer and smote us all and then left. Unrequited love.
Have you ever met her?
Not since 1971. I don't think I'd be able to. I think I'd faint.
Why name the protagonist Guy Maddin?
There's a masochistic pleasure in parading your own weaknesses, your self-loathings and humiliations. I know other filmmakers and authors use autobiographical elements all the time yet don't admit to it, but I got pleasure from it. I'm paying for it big time. It's not the wisest thing to do when your relatives are still alive.
I love how you get at the childhood fear that our parents are trying to suck the life from us.
A lot of parents do try to do that, damned if I know why. I have a daughter and I'd just as soon not suck the life out of her. I'd rather help her.
What do the narrator, orchestra, singer and foley artist add to the experience of watching the film?
Live music is always more interesting, and the foley artist is just delightful to watch. These are normally people who work in complete anonymity on movies. Here they'll be lit and will wear white lab coats, ties and glasses to look like heroes. But it's mostly the narrator who makes a connection with the audience and helps set the tone. If the audience is a little dead, the narrator can dial them up and can ride the wave of energy.
You've curated a series of silent films for Cinematheque. How much fun was that?
A lot. I chose a couple that I haven't seen but that come highly recommended by Cinematheque's James Quandt. Others, like Sunrise and Broken Blossoms, are just great movies.
I noticed there weren't any comedies, no Chaplins or Keatons.
For some reason I think of silent film and silent comedies separately. Although one of the great viewing experiences I ever had at the Cinematheque was watching The Kid. And I love Keaton. James had suggested some prints he knew that were in good shape and available. I picked the most intriguing titles from that list. There's one by the Japanese director Kinugasa (Page Of Madness) that's apparently a must-see. It'll probably never come out on video.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On how silent films have influences his talking films: