"The past isn't dead," William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, "it isn't even past." And perhaps no filmmaker has taken that idea and run farther with it than Guy Maddin, whom I'd describe as the bastard son of David Lynch, John Waters and - oh, I don't know G.W. Pabst. You may not recall Pabst, but he directed the classic silent film Pandora's Box, where Louise Brooks unleashed a torrent of flapper-girl sexuality. Maddin, who hails from Winnipeg and has based most of his work there, is nothing if not a devotee of silent films. In fact, his whole career can be seen as an attempt to keep alive the spirit of silent films, the way they speak to us across great divides of time and cinematic technique. His own films are, for all practical purposes, silent; and they look as if they were pulled out of some old film vault, dusted off and sent out into the world to herald the discovery of a long-forgotten renegade talent.
Maddin's latest, Brand Upon the Brain!, is as good a place as any to enter his swirling cosmos, where Freudian conflicts are filtered through silent-film conventions that give them a gothic fairy-tale-on-absinthe quality. Asked whether the story was based on his own childhood (there's a character named Guy), Maddin said it's 94%-96% autobiographical, numbers he appears to have pulled out of a hat. But I leave it to you to judge whether any of this has even happened to anyone, except in the deepest recesses of a severely disturbed psyche. We open with a man in a boat - Guy, called back to the lighthouse he grew up in so that it might receive a fresh coat of paint before his mother, who used to run an orphanage out of the place, passes away. A sentimental journey, then, but Guy has barely set foot on Black Natch Island when long-buried memories come bubbling to the surface.
It's the way those memories come bubbling to the surface that distinguishes Maddin's films from just about everybody else's out there. Shot in black-and-white, the images have the gauzy softness of a dream, and Maddin likes to use irises, à la the silent era, so that individual faces and objects are framed in an aura of light. But the editing is another matter altogether. In fact, those prone to seizures may want to check with their doctors first, because the shots, some of them held for only a fraction of a second, whirl past you, like random-firing synapses. And they often insert themselves into other shots. "When you fast-forward in Final Cut Pro [film-editing software]," Maddin told Salon recently, "things don't just go faster, they skip like a stone over your footage." And he felt that "this neurological skittishness" is akin to the way we remember things. Our memories don't pour out, they flicker by.
Our movie memories, do, certainly. And Brand Upon the Brain!, on top of everything else, is like some repressed piece of Grand Guignol from the early days of cinema. For it appears that Guy (Sullivan Brown, as a boy) witnessed some very strange happenings while lurching toward manhood. His mother, played by Gretchen Krich with the full panoply of silent-era pantomime, was a crazy woman - incestuously kind one moment, hell on wheels the next. And his father, a mad scientist, spends the whole movie down in his lab cooking up God knows what. But the orphans have these holes in the backs of their necks that look like plug-ins, a mystery that brings on a visit from the Lightbulb Kids, a brother-sister pair of teen detectives who become romantically involved with Guy's sister (Maya Lawson). It turns out, though, that they're really just a single teen detective who cross-dresses to increase her chances with Sis.
And why not? Keep in mind that the story only has to make sense within the confines of our movie-fed imaginations, if even there. And I'll say this for Maddin, he never allows things to spin out of control. For all its frenetic razzmatazz, Brand Upon the Brain! seems quite well organized and must have seemed even more so in its big-city screenings, where a live narrator, a live vocalist and live sound-effect artists brought some P.T. Barnum showmanship. Without all this hoopla, the movie can seem a little hermetic at times. But Isabella Rossellini's recorded narration is wonderfully cheery-creepy. And Jason Staczek's recorded score is more than effective. And the sound effects still seem added on, beautifully detached from the things they're supposed to be the sounds for. And the movie as a whole? With its virtuosic orchestration of sight and sound, it seems both timeless and of the moment.