Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review :: Brand Upon the Brain!

Navigating the fragility of memory and the potentially deadly traps of reminiscence, saturated with regrets and guilt, twisting together disparate film elements and genres with nearly iconoclastic zeal, haunted and haunting, irreverent, horrific, inspired, wildly funny and more than a little disturbing -- Canadian art house auteur Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) is a seemingly semi-autobiographical meditation upon many things, chiefly familial relationship, love, childhood, and the inescapable and suffocating grip of the past. In the film, Guy Maddin (not played by Guy Maddin) returns to desolate little island in order to repaint the lighthouse, his childhood home and site of the orphanage that his tyrannical mother and mad scientist father had run. Though the lighthouse is falling apart, the good and dutiful son Guy will paint it, twice, in what very quickly becomes an obvious attempt to whitewash the trauma of his childhood. However, as William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past," and soon, despite his best efforts, Guy's past launches itself at both him and the screen in a dreamy and nightmarish whirl of phantasmagoria and Freudian anxiety.

Brand Upon the Brain! is ostensibly a silent film, complete with title cards and narration. It is black and white, frantically shot on rough and grainy super 8, and hypnotically edited. The film was originally designed to be a "cinematic experience," more a piece of performance art than a conventional theatrical film. It debuted at the Toronto Film Festival with live musical accompaniment and several live foley artists; in the festival circuit it has been narrated live by Maddin himself, Eli Wallach, Isabella Rossellini and Crispen Glover, amongst others. For this fantastical and metaphorical trip down memory lane, Maddin harvests nearly every genre imaginable, from melodrama to horror, fantasy to science-fiction, erotic thriller and teen detective story. Vampires, secret teen lesbians, Lord of the Flies-style savages and the re-animated dead become the principal characters on the stage of Guy's memory. And yet, as Maddin continually mashes up genres and themes and as he overlaps motifs and elements, a surprisingly coherent film emerges. The film never feels forced or disjointed; it all makes a type of emotional and resonant sense. In this sense, Maddin is very much a Canadian counterpart to David Lynch; however, unlike the often off-puttingly esoteric nature of the Lynch's narratives, even a casual film goer, were he able to withstand the unabashed art house sensibility of the film's style and storytelling, would easily be able to understand the broad sweeps of Brand Upon the Brain! Its touchstones and themes -- such as first love, maternal attachment, the ambivalence and ambiguity of adolescence -- are broad and universal enough that, though the film appears to be deeply personal it is immediately identifiable.

While it's clear that Brand Upon the Brain! is firmly couched within a metaphoric sensibility, it's difficult and probably deliberately impossible to firmly identify where biography breaks off and where fantastic and perhaps slightly indulgent metaphor takes over. Both metaphor and myth are, I think, a very appropriate vehicle for self-revelation and Maddin deftly uses both here. However, if I were to lodge one protest against the film it would be that it almost feels dishonest. By using his own name as the name of his protagonist, Maddin establishes an autobiographical tone that the film's more outrageous elements almost immediately challenge and call into question and you begin to suspect that autobiography is not on Maddin's agenda after all. The relationship between Guy and his mother, for instance, seems designed to inflame, and perhaps poke fun at, Freudian anxieties rather then legitimately explore deep-seated emotional or psychological issues. In fact, throughout most of the film I think it is more likely that Maddin has his tongue in his cheek rather than his head on the couch. It is perhaps best to think of the film not as an exploration of Maddin's past (of course, for all I know about Maddin's childhood, it may well be just that) but rather an exploration of the past in general, it's impact and import, and its highly subjective nature. Guy becomes not so much a director's surrogate as an audience's and that, when executed as expertly as here, is a thrilling experience of which to be a part.

Every time I think that the limits of film have been bounded and set, I find someone like Maddin who brazenly over-steps the bounds and pushes the medium in directions I hadn't expected. Brand Upon the Brain! isn't a perfect film and it certainly isn't for everyone. In fact, chances are that unless you count yourself amongst the pretentious cinematic elite you probably haven't even heard of the film. It is, however, an exuberant, thrilling and rather marvelous little film full of whimsy, menace, sentimentality and sudden and bright splashes of affection. Brand Upon the Brain! is the first Guy Maddin film that I've seen -- an embarrassing admission for a Canadian critic, I know. After seeing it, however, I can say that I am indeed very eager to catch up on some of his other films such as The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg. Guy Maddin's vision in Brand Upon the Brain! is compelling and unique and worth the time of anyone who loves film.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Other than a ranting, and in retrospect slightly hypocritical, diversion about Grand Theft Auto IV and the media circus that surrounded that game's launch, I've steered clear of any real gaming discussions or reviews on Rivers. Though I'm a rather enthusiastic gamer, I've always thought that gaming doesn't deserve much critical attention or serious thought. For the most part, gaming is diversionary -- it's entertaining but it's hardly what I'd call art. Braid, however, demanded my full attention. It even demanding that I rethink my position on games as art.

Tim is off on a search to rescue the Princess. She has been snatched by a horrible and evil monster.

This happened because Tim made a mistake.
Braid is about the sorrow of lost love, about time travel and bittersweet forgiveness, and it's about the inescapable conclusions towards which most of us hurtle along. Deeply personal, surprisingly metaphysical, steeped in a keen sense of lose, and capable of evoking previously unknown levels of intimacy for a game, independent developer Jonathan Blow's first major release trumps years of big-budget game development in a single, unexpected burst of creativity. Like last year's Portal, Braid proves that the truly important developments in gaming are coming from the small releases, from unexpected places, in unexpected forms. While high-profile studios such as Bungie, Blizzard and Rockstar are constantly looking for ways to milk every last dollar from their respective franchises, Jonathan Blow has released a game with more emotion, more innovation and more genuine artistry than most of last year's releases combined.

Braid is a unassuming little game. In an obvious homage to Super Mario Bros, our protagonist, Tim, is searching for the Princess. However, this Princess is not the helpless damsel in distress and Tim is not the stalwart hero we probably expect him to be. Tim has made mistakes. Big ones. It's his fault that he lost the Princess. He lost her not because he made a deal with the wrong people, not because he had enemies, not because he was involved in some diabolical scheme, and not because it's convenient to the game's plot; in fact, it's not because of any of the usually tropes and narrative conventions that get recycled game after game in an industry even more creatively stagnated than Hollywood. Tim lost the Princess because he walked out at the wrong moment. Braid is the story of Tim, an average man, trying to say sorry to his girlfriend. Or at least, that's what the story appears to be about. The game starts as one thing and ends up as another, however; or rather, the game does end where it starts but picks up and develops several other overlapping narratives that could be the same story from another perspective or could simply be thematically guided excursions into related territory. Braid's themes and plots begins to overlap, conflict and eventually collapse in upon itself in a type of narrative singularity. It's a bit dizzying. You might expect this sort of literary maturity in a novel or a particularly good film but you probably would not expect it from a video game. Braid tells us that we should expect it from now on.

At it's core, Braid is a platform puzzle game. Like any good platform protagonist, Tim can run, jump, drop down on enemies, bounce off them, grab keys, unlock doors, all the platforming usuals we've come to expect. Braid's distinguishing gameplay mechanic, however, is that Tim can manipulate time. If he falls to his death, fails to solve a puzzle, or sets up his strategy poorly, he can simply rewind time, go back to the beginning, and start anew. Different objects in the game's worlds react differently, however; some will obey Tim's temporal dictates, others will not. Knowing what object will do what at a given moment and under a given condition is crucial to solving these puzzles. However, as interesting a gameplay mechanic as this is (and believe me, it's pretty damn interesting... and fun), it is not Braid's true genius. It's true genius is the meta levels upon which it operates. The game is not what it appears to be. Here, in Braid, gaming grows up.

rethinks the medium entirely and manipulates it in ways that are, as far as I can tell, wholly new. It is possible, I suppose, to see it only as a simple platformer and dismiss it as nothing more than an interesting excursion into an almost antiquated gaming formula. It is likewise possible to think of Hamlet only as a play or The Starry Night only as a painting. Braid's deceptively simple appearance overlays a deeply self-aware and reflective game experience. Braid's gameplay itself is, in fact, a metaphor. The entire game is a type of dream, a digital manifestation of Tim's psychic quest to undo the damage he has done. All the game's major elements reflect this interior focus. The tripped and Monet-esque dripping wet-paint art direction as an image of dream quest or of a desire for an altered reality; the platformer puzzles as a representation of an underlying assumption that every problem -- even emotional and relational ones -- is a riddle easily solved by manipulating its elements; the core mechanic, the ability to rewind time to effect a more desirable outcome, as a expression of the fundamental wish of the guilty to go back and do things right: the game is operating on all these levels and it's operating on all of them beautifully, with a subtle hand and a quiet affirmation. Braid is as transcendent a gaming experience as is perhaps possible on the medium.

In the last little while, we've seen glimpses of what gaming could be. Games like Ken Levine's Bioshock, which combined a deeply satisfying FPS experience with a 1940s art deco sensibility and a surprisingly thoughtful philosophical mediation, and Valve's Portal, which is one of the only truly original and innovative games to come out in years, have elevated the medium beyond it's simple escapist heritage to something approaching art. Braid is another of these elevating games. It is as important a game as we're likely to see for a long time. Though the medium, or perhaps the nature of the industry controlling much of the medium, is not normally predisposed to the creation of art -- and by art I generally mean a product of imagination that offers anything from a full interpretation to a small comment on the human condition -- it seems as if truly artistic efforts can succeed on the medium after all.

Braid is available on the Xbox Live Arcade. I believe it is right now exclusive to that platform but as far as I'm concerned this game should be released on every platform possible. It deserves to be played.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On Klaus Kinski

Last night I watched Mein Liebster Feind, Werner Herzog's documentary/tribute to his friend, the explosive, volatile and absolutely mesmerizing German actor Klaus Kinski, whom Herzog had worked with, and fought with, on five of his most famous movies, including Aguirre: The Wrath of God and the now legendary Fitzcarraldo. Perhaps because in Herzog's films he always plays a character who is either teetering on the edge of madness or who has whole-heartedly plunged into it I've always just assumed that Kinski himself was a sort of a madman. A genius, but a thoroughly diabolical one. And apparently, I was right. Kinski was mad: egomaniacal, conflicted and perhaps a shade delusional. Prone to raving fits and explosive, violent outbursts, Kinski was not so much an actor to be directed as one to be wrestled with. He could rant for hours, foaming at the mouth, over the smallest of artistic differences; he could become physically violent, lashing out at actors and extras he thought were performing poorly; he would, as a matter of course, threaten to walk off a project entirely. Herzog apparently had to actually threaten to shoot him in order to keep Kinski from walking out during the filming of Aguirre. But Kinski could also be an extremely courteous and gentle man, capable of moments of truly sublime beauty. Here are some videos of Kinski that I find simply fascinating. Unfortunately, the first two are in German but Kinski's real grandeur is his face and emotional volatility, which translates without subtitles just fine. The first one is a famous clip from Kinski's "Jesus Tour," a one man show in which he interprets Jesus and the Gospels as the ravings of a lunatic. This is perhaps not as blasphemous as it sounds; most of what Kinski is doing is establishment subversion rather than heresy. Still, some members of the audience didn't appreciate Kinski's take on Scripture. The second one is an interview he gave in 1971 that spiraled into him raving at the reporter. It's a long clip. Kinski starts to get extremely agitated at about the 6:00, if you don't want to watch the whole thing. The third is the final scene of Herzog's Mein Liebster Feind and shows the other, more gentle side of Kinski. Enjoy.