"Boy Crush!": Sexuality, Gender, and Memory in Guy Maddin's BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!
by Annie Mok
In summer 2007 I visited Chicago from Minneapolis and found in The Chicago Reader a movie that looked interesting, playing in its standard theatrical release in The Music Box’s smaller room. Little did I know that the movie in a different form had recently taken over the opulent main room, where I would see Satyajit Ray’s PATHER PANCHALI restored in 2015, under threat of a thunderstorm. BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!’s touring incarnation took the shape of a fully-orchestrated silent film, with a “castrato” soprano singer, foley artists, and a guest narrator including luminaries like Laurie Anderson, Crispin Glover, and Maddin himself. This ensemble toured as a film event, while the general theatrical release made for a somewhat more traditional presentation, with the soundtrack mixed into the film and narration by the mellifluously-tongued Isabella Rossellini. The Criterion Collection release includes a number of narrators on the soundtracks to choose from.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review that the film “exists in the world Maddin has built by hand over several features that seem to be trying to reinvent the silent cinema. Flickering, high-contrast black-and-white images, shot in 8mm, tell a phantasmagoric story [...] It's an astonishing film: weird, obsessed, drawing on subterranean impulses, hypnotic.”
His review reminds me of words by Franz Kafka (a favorite of Maddin’s): “Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”
And Maddin has been merciless: in a story that he has proclaimed as “97 percent autobiographically true [...] melodramatically true,” he paints a harrowing picture of the rank underbelly of family life. In BRAND, a harried-looking young man named Guy Maddin travels by boat to a secluded island to honor his dying mother’s wishes to give their family home, a lighthouse orphanage on Black Notch Island, two coats of paint before while she still lives and breathes. The film is subtitled A REMEMBRANCE IN 12 CHAPTERS, invoking the literature that Maddin studied as well as film.
“Cover it up, Guy!” Rossellini seethes while he slathes on two thick coats of white on the walls, making us feel his complex desires to both bury and unearth the past. All dialogue in the film is spoken by the narrator as the characters. By balancing memory sequences with Guy’s traversal of the island alone in current day, the story slowly reveals how Guy’s ever-silent, spectral-seeming father used science experiments to drain the life and youth of the orphans and give it to Guy’s mother so she can fulfill her dream of going back to before the “ripeness” of womanhood, to even become a baby again. When Father finally approaches Mother to give her the serum though, his shadow falls over her like Nosferatu’s and she cowers under the covers.
John Gardner wrote about writing, “As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).” BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! provides one, then the other. Guy Maddin makes his journey to the lighthouse, and in his memories from adolescence, he recalls the fateful day that Wendy Hale, plucky teen detective along with her yet-unseen brother Chance “known around the world as the Lightbox Kids,” comes to the island to investigate the mystery of the orphans’ marks upon their necks, the titular brand. Around a fire in the woods around the lighthouse, Guy’s older teen Sis tells the story of how Mother and her sister fought terribly in their youth. Guy’s best friend Neddie, who became epileptic following accidentally causing his younger brother’s death, shakes. Sis and Wendy kiss him on the cheek over and over. The screen flashes with the words “Jealous Guy!” as Guy pines after Wendy. It comes as a simple crush for Guy, one that soon turns deliciously confused.
Sis catches Wendy’s eye when she and Guy reenact the bitter battle between Mother’s mother and aunt that left Guy literally torn from the womb with a knife, and left the two young women dead. Sis sports an identical birthmark to Mother on her belly, joking that it “looks like Rumania.” Sis pulls up her dress to show Wendy, also cheekily revealing her frilled panties. “Charms,” the narrator says, “just asking to be enjoyed.” The next chapter is entitled “Wendy’s Chance.”
Wendy Hale decides she could “pursue her interests on Black Notch Island much better as a boy!” and so she puts on a beanie cap to hide her hair, assumedly binds her breasts, and continues on with her investigations.
Is this incarnation of Chance Hale trans? Well, Chance’s transformation (and I will use he/him pronouns for Chance from here on out) is not conducted under some sort of duress like Hedwig’s in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, or connected to an identity shed once its usefulness ends (Disney’s MULAN). If BRAND! is a period piece, it remains only the period of a dreamlike memory rather than a fixed time and place (other than simply “30 years” ago). So, we cannot quite assume a kind of cultural norm that would need Chance to appear as his brother. The transitioned Chance, already lively and cute as Wendy, appears as even lighter on his feet and terribly handsome as Chance.
Sis and Chance stand on the beach, soon to become a pair star-crossed lovers. Chance looks hungrily at Sis. Sis and Chance walk around with young Guy in tow, who pines for Wendy. “Guy, smitten again,” the narrator says, “this time Chance is the dazzling one.” The text “Boy crush!” appears. Chance dons a dapper Robin-like mask, a top hat, and a magician’s gloves because he “always goes formal” on intense missions. The near-constant smoke that engulfs many characters, especially Chance upon his arrival onto the island, reminds me of the “stage magic” that floods Maddin’s filmmaking. It’s all sleight of hand, tricks, the lies that tell the truth. Maddin described the film as “emotionally true, melodramatically true,” using his preferred term “melodrama” to describe the dream world of film.
Fitting in with director Guy Maddin’s troubled pathway to memories, he and editor John Gurdebeke developed a singular approach to cutting in which filmic memories stagger, rewind, jolt into one another. Maddin and Gurdebeke developed the technique by rewinding footage while editing, and they became attracted to the way the narrative jerked around, halted and continued, when they used the computer to drag the momentum of the footage back and forth.
There is a sensual nature to the film. “Out gush the torrents of memory,” the narrator says. Filmmaker Maddin admired the early Surrealists in part because “those guys were really horny,” he says in the Criterion documentary 97 PERCENT TRUE. The arousal, for 12-year-old Guy’s character, seems to begin in this bodily world: he runs his fingers across wallpaper, smells an old paintbrush, touches blades of grass growing from the sand (“I loafe and invite my soul”—Walt Whitman).
Chance and Guy work together to solve the lighthouse mystery, and in the process they use sleeping gas on Mother, Sis, and the orphans. Chance plants a clandestine kiss on Sis’s lips, whose little smile seems to give away that she hasn’t been quite so asleep.
Sis begins a romance with Chance, leading to Guy’s further jealousy, as well as engaging the watchful eye of their abusive and controlling Mother. “Button up!” Mother says at breakfast, reaching over the table to close up Sis’s top buttons. (Callous interactions between a cruel mother and a teen sister return in Maddin’s follow-up MY WINNIPEG.) Mother uses Father’s invention, a phonograph-like Aerophone that runs on heated emotion, to yell for Guy and Sis when she wants them to come home, which seems like always. Guy’s love for his mother rages in an internal war with his struggle for much-needed independence from her. Mother watches her children with a searchlight. Mother threatens suicide often to keep her children in line, among other terrors. “The threats gnaw like worms in the lad’s bosom,” says the narrator. Working alongside Sis and Guy and showing them his secret code, following a close call with Mother’s searchlight, Sis tells Guy to turn around. Sis and Chance embrace, but Chance says not to use her hands on him. Chance concocts the idea of the Kissing Gloves, gloves that endow the wearer with the power to touch their love, but not the other way around, to keep his identity safe. The strings rise on the soundtrack.
Chance becomes Sis’s savior, a knight in a black outfit and beanie, because Sis and Guy suffer daily under the terrors of their parents. When Mother takes issue with Sis, which is often, she calls upon Father’s horn to entrance her, and Father extracts Nectar from her as a sick sort of punishment. Mother places her own burden on Guy, often sexually—a cruel and unfair weight to leave on one’s child.
On a sweeter note, the Kissing Gloves become the Undressing Gloves when Sis trysts with Chance one night. Following a scare with getting caught, Sis, Guy, and Chance relax for a moment on Sis’s bed, and Sis takes the undressing gloves when Chance isn’t looking. Chance goes out to work every day, and Sis is left lonely. Sis steals Mother’s master aerophone to try to contact him, but he’s left his aerophone at the lighthouse. “At least let Chance’s room hear me,” Sis says in title card dialogue. “Hello washstand, it’s me! It’s me, rug! It’s me, bed!” How true to the nature of desire that Sis gets so lonesome for Chance that she ends up calling for the objects her love has touched.
Driven mad by the Nectar that Chance encounters in Father’s laboratory, he fucks Savage Tom, the older teen orphan, out in the grass. When Chance returns calmed down, he encounters Sis, who’s revealed her taking of the Undressing Gloves. A viewer senses his fear and yearning and questions before they’re even brought up by him, in the text—will Sis love Chance for who he is? Or be horrified that he isn’t what she may have believed he was? “That undressing hand will either lead me into Paradise,” he thinks, “or cast me into Hell!” Chance, sweetly relents and closes his eyes as Sis cradles his face and plants a kiss on him.
Father extracts more and more Nectarite from Sis’s brain while Sis stands in her underwear, and still entranced from the foghorn, Sis can bear no more abuse: she strikes back at Father, taking one of the large knives that litter the lighthouse, and kills him. Mother takes poison, overwhelmed by the thought of Sis with Chance.
“What’s a suicide attempt without a wedding?” the narrator blithely offers. Both wearing Chance’s masks, Chance unveils Sis. “Two hearts that beat as one!”
The Grand Guignol elements return as Mother orders the orphans to exhume Father’s body, from his not-so-final resting place under a few feet of water, buried by the orphans and offspring at high tide. Mother jolts Father alive with a huge dose of Nectarite harvested from her own body. This causes total chaos among the orphans, especially Savage Tom, who chants and lights flares on the beach as the orphans run. This is when Mother straight-up starts eating the orphans—”Nectar at any cost!” Sis and Chance drive Mother, Father’s body, and Savage Tom off the island by rowboat. In a move that paints Sis and Chance much more callously, Sis and Chance find new parents to adopt Guy and banish him from Black Notch Island. Sis takes Mother’s seat in the searchlight atop the lighthouse, while Chance takes Father’s place in the laboratory. The implications become mixed; Sis and Chance seem happy, in part at least, but is one doomed to repeat the sins of one’s parents?
In the final chapter, adult Guy the house painter resumes his work repainting the lighthouse. He goes down the lab and sees a ghost of Father, and for the first time viewers see Father’s face.
Guy searches, most of all, for his childhood crush Wendy. This is not the aged version of Wendy that would exist in Guy’s time, but the youthful vision of Wendy as he knew back then. Wendy explains that “Sis and Chance ran a cruel operation,” before “Chance stole away with a young lad and cargo of Nectar,” and the loss drove Sis to suicide by burning alive at the heat of the lighthouse’s lamp. Guy checks Wendy’s neck and finds a brand, just like Sis’s, just like the orphans. “Guy trysts with phantom Wendy,” the title card reads, and he kisses the leather of Wendy’s shoe lovingly. “Shabby lusts!” the text says, and is there any other kind?
Father and Mother return to the island but the oarsmen, orphaned there themselves, “pay off an old debt”: they burn Father alive for his crimes. Mother soon suffers a fatal heart attack. The string section rising again to take over the soundtrack, phantom Wendy, now almost nude, embraces and kisses Guy over Mother dying, and Wendy turns into Chance while tenderly locking lips with Guy. Chance disappears like the ghost he is to Guy. For Guy, escape lies only in memory, all to happen once and happen once again in the heat of reminiscence. As the “boy soprano” sings through Sis’s lips: “Wither wonder, wither wonder, everything, everything twice.”
Annie Mok is an author-illustrator and musician (Annie Mok & the Knight Dreams, formerly in See-Through Girls). Annie is a queer trans woman who is white/mixed (Irish/Chinese/Colombian/etc). She deals with Bipolar II and complex-PTSD in her life and work. Annie, New Jersey-raised, graduated from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design with a BFA in Comic Art in 2009. She then spent a stint in Chicago, making mistakes that led to her 2015 Ley Lines #1 comic book, Unholy Shapes. She received a 2014 Leeway Foundation Transformation Award. In 2015 she co-starred in Carman Spoto's feature film Phaesporia. Annie tweets @heyAnnieMok.
She lives in occupied Delaware/Lenape land AKA Philadelphia.
Contact Annie's agent, Adrienne Rosado, for business inquiries.
Annie's client list includes Rookie Mag, Autostraddle, Image Comics, Boom! Studios, DC/Vertigo,The Comics Journal, ZEAL, Penguin/Random House Canada, Seven Stories Press, Sui Generis Health, St. Stephen's Human Services / Homeless Against Homelessness, and the Red Umbrella Project.