You might find this strange, but here goes: I often wonder if cinema was ruined with sound. That the noise and the clatter wrecked an image that so subtly tapped into your subconscious, made you dream differently, hell, even live differently. Have you ever seen a silent movie? Or even better, watched it on the silver screen? I have, a number of times. That’s all I do, it seems. Watch the silents, enjoy pure cinema. In theaters it’s so different: to sit with that many people, in the quiet, with only a piano tinkling away in service to the story. Once, I even closed my eyes. Piano. And then reaction. Gasps, laughter. The darkness and the silver quaking past my eyelids. Give me the silents–oh, the movies were never better. But I was born too late. I missed it by a long shot.
I’ll tell you something else: benshi. That’s right, a benshi, those crazy Japanese performers who narrated silent film all those years ago in mighty Japan. Live performance, a man in a flowing robe, explaining poetically the scene as it unfolded behind him, or, like a haiku, in few words and timed hush, allowing the image to move you. Often, this fellow would make sound effects. Sometimes he would do a back flip upon the death of a character. Or pull out a sword, its blade glistening in the light of the projector. Each town had its own benshi, their favorite, and I like to imagine great silent films coming to our town, in a painted van, with fanfare, and our favorite benshi doing his thing for our utter enchantment. A piano accompanying. Maybe a cello. I love the cello.
If I told you that there was a silent film in town, with a benshi, you’d go, wouldn’t you? I mean, if I told you to shake that little metal ball in there–tap, tap–in your brainpan, the one that rattles like a can of spray paint, and dredge up all that strange and foggy memory that’s settled in the sludge of daily life, you would, wouldn’t you? I mean, if I told you a movie could do that to you, make you a human being composed of moment and memory, you’d beg me for information, right? You’d say “To hell with the Cineplex, to hell with George Clooney and the Rock and malls!” and you’d drop your plans and go sit in an old neighborhood theater and watch something that, later, made you shiver?
This is Brand Upon The Brain! It is playing in an old movie theater whose front rows are comfy chairs. Painted on this theater’s walls are strange images on billowing, dusty curtains. When the lights go out, they go out, and there’s quiet, not the thump, thump of whatever movie’s blundering about next door.
Brand Upon the Brain! is black and white and silent. Brand gives us music, beautiful music, melancholy and thrilling, and reminiscent of the sea. You can almost smell the brine from the moan of the cello. Isabella Rossellini narrates, breathlessly, ordering us to participate, shouting her entreaties. She is a benshi, and one of the best. Of course, there is only a recording of Isabella, sweet Isabella. But she is our only benshi, sadly, and she wears that international crown with pride. “The past, the past, into the past!” she shouts, and with her we are thrust headlong into that past. We follow Guy Maddin, filmmaker, into his past and discover, simultaneously, that there are some discomforting parallels in all our childhoods.
What is it about? Man returns to island of his youth, called back by his mother, paints a lighthouse, cannot cover the grime, and falls back into the sticky tar-baby of memory. This past involves sexy detective work (with harp-playing shamuses), horrific childbirth, and a plot to drain the youth-giving orphan nectar from the kids who are housed there. There are mad scientists, the Undressing Gloves, the Light-Bulb Kid, a turpentine bath, and the great line, “What is a suicide attempt without a wedding?”
There are beautiful women, rugged men who get caught in their memories like a sailor trapped in a tropical storm, there are orphans, and, as mentioned, orphan nectar. There is science fiction, witchcraft, cross-dressing, and the manic, fearful, joyful and confusedly sexual life of a child.
What… are you scared of the silent film? Worried that you’ll be bored? Oh, you won’t be bored. Do you get bored when you dream? When you reminisce? When some little thing triggers a decidedly uncomfortable memory? That’s not boredom, it’s fear. Confront your fears my friends. Brand Upon the Brain! is a time machine, into cinema’s past, coming to us from Winnipeg, through Japan and American movie history, and somehow pitching its tent on the rocky surface of your own moony memories. As much as I love Isabella, if we were truly lucky, we’d have our own benshi, some lovely actor or actress gesticulating and singing and wielding harpoons on stage as this silver, silent madhouse shines on.
Then again, it’d probably be Garrison Keillor.