Saddest Music in the World
Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003 (2004 theatrical release)
Posted: November 18,
From Terms of Endearment to Steel Magnolias and
Beaches, shamelessly manipulative tearjerkers are a Hollywood staple.
Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, operating well outside the mainstream,
indirectly comments on the contrived tearjerker with The Saddest Music
in the World, a film that wants us to laugh through the tears while
never forgetting that this is just a movie and is deliberately
toying with our emotions.
Of course, Maddin's antiquated film style -- choppy frame rates,
artificially tinted colors, and stiff dialogue -- rarely allows the viewer
to fall into his films. Rather, Maddin rejects immersion in favor of an
exaggerated, carnival theatricality, deliberately crippled
smoke-and-mirror deceptions that don't attempt to mask the ultimate
objective: to thrill, cajole and fascinate the paying customers. This is,
after all, a director who filmed a ballet based on Bram Stoker's "Dracula"
and made a six-minute short about the end of the world that took great
delight in taking the air out of similarly intentioned but bloated
Armageddon-like disaster flicks. Maddin's a genial, self-conscious
magician who'll give away the secret to his craft over a pint and a little
Speaking of pints, The Saddest Music in the World (adapted from
an original screenplay by respected author Kazuo Ishiguro) is all about
beer -- specifically, crying into deep, sudsy mugs. Isabella Rossellini
plays Depression-era Winnipeg beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly. The
ruthless, cunning Port-Huntly, who lost her legs in a bizarre roadside
amputation accident, understands the connection between beer and sadness
("If you're sad and like beer, I'm your lady") and sponsors a contest to
find the world's saddest music. Naturally, with all that depressing music
being played, enormous vats of Port-Huntly's brew will be consumed. It's a
promotional coup. Shortly, representatives of various nations from across
the globe arrive, bringing indigenous dirges to Lady Port-Huntly's
cavernous factory/beer hall.
Key participants include transplanted Canadian and American
representative Chester Kent (Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall fame), who
spurned Port-Huntly's advances years earlier; Narcissa (Maria de
Medeiros), Chester's amnesiac, sleepwalking, nymphomaniac muse; Roderick
Kent (Ross McMillan), Chester's morose, cello-playing brother, whose son
died young, causing the dissolution of his marriage to Narcissa (who of
course, in her current state, hasn't a clue who he is), representing
Serbia; and alcoholic physician and father of the two boys, Fyodor Kent
(David Fox), representing Canada. Fyodor's devotion to Lady Port-Huntly is
symbolized by a gift he makes for her, a pair of glass legs filled with
(what else?) beer.
Fyodor loves Port-Huntly, who desires Chester, who's enamored with
Narcissa, who is just one sad song away from snapping out of her
sadness-induced amnesia and recognizing Roderick, her husband. Amidst
these complicated love games, the contest between nations is creatively
staged with a battle-of-the-bands-style showdown, with Lady Port-Huntly
rendering her thumbs up/down verdict in true Roman Empress fashion. Wintry
Winnipeg (actually a soundstage -- but one located in Manitoba's capital
city) serves as an appropriate setting for the swirling inclement
conditions, and the film's reflection on hearts long frozen over and those
Maddin's major idea here is that sadness is a plea for sympathy.
Whether it's attending a funeral or singing a song to a dead child, the
important thing to remember is that it is the living craving attention at
the expense of whatever it is that's made them so glum. And that is where
Maddin's critique of carefully calculated big-screen weepers hits its
target. The only character not longing for a little compassion is Chester
-- the brash representation of America. Chester is bluntly honest and
shrewdly pragmatic. He's also the saddest player in the story, for without
sympathy (either giving or receiving), can a person truly be human?
The shortcomings in Saddest Music are few but notable. Maddin
overplays his narrative hand with a cartoonish, icebound seeress who
foretells Chester's downfall. And it doesn't take an old wise woman to
accurately predict that the final showdown for the Saddest Music in the
World will come down to the sibling rivals.
The Saddest Music in the World will undoubtedly expand Maddin's
profile; it's his best work to date. And fortunately, there's little doubt
the determinedly independent filmmaker will continue to operate by his
unique set of filmic principles, regardless of how large the budgets grow
or how sweet the smell (or sound) of success. Cheers to that.
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