Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren are
household names to you, Guy Maddin’s The
Saddest Music in the World will probably be
the strangest movie you’ve ever seen. It’s
certainly the strangest film currently available
as an MGM-released DVD.
Maddin is Canada’s
answer to David Lynch, which may not be such a great
thing, given Lynch’s own inability to turn
his relatively brief celebrity into sustained art.
Eraserhead made him the darling of the
college circuit, but it was Twin Peaks
that put Lynch on the cover of popular magazines.
The Saddest Music in the World is stranger
than Eraserhead — it’s seriously
strange — and it’s hard to imagine Maddin
positioning himself for a quirky but likeable TV
miniseries, much less big-budget Hollywood projects.
For such an odd, willfully
experimental film, though, The Saddest Music
in the World has got a heck of a hook. It’s
1933, and as we learn in the opening minutes, Winnipeg
has again been named “the world capital of
sorrow in the Great Depression.” To mark the
accomplishment, the town’s legless beer baroness
(well-played by Isabella Rossellini) announces a
contest to find the saddest music in the world.
The prize: $25,000 “in Depression era dollars.”
Prohibition is about to end in America, and the
baroness hopes the contest will draw American attention
to her bottled beer.
“If you’re sad
and like beer, I’m your lady,” she says.
In no time, people from
all over the world (or at least a mythical central
casting department that can provide Spanish Flamenco
guitarists, African drummers, Mexican mariachi bands
and Scottish bagpipers) show up to play their way
out of Depression-era poverty.
Among the contestants is
Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a relentlessly optimistic
self-promoter who claims to be an American producer
(“Nothing gets me down, sugar”), although
the street car driver from whom he gets a free ride
swears he’s Canadian. The driver should know:
he’s Chester’s father, and he’s
as relentlessly nationalistic as his son is optimistic.
“He may have the stink
of America on him, but I assure you he’s Canadian,
100 percent,” the father tells Chester’s
mysterious companion (played by Maria de Medeiros).
Chester, we soon learn,
has a brother who is contest-bound as well, and
like Chester, Roderick (Ross McMillan) also denies
his Canadian past. Known as Gavrillo the Great (“one
of the greatest cellists in Europe”), he wears
a black veil, we are told, “to express the
national sadness of Serbia, whose famed assassin
Gavrilo Princip fired the first fatal shot of the
Great War — the war to end all wars.”
(“Nine million killed, Duncan,” a radio
announcer notes. “That should make a man very
sad, indeed.”) Just to make sure we know he’s
sad, Roderick travels with the heart of his dead
son preserved in a jar filled with his own tears.
It is left to the Kent boys’
doggedly ‘normal’ father (David Fox)
to represent Canada. Dressed in his army uniform,
he performs “Red Maple Leaves” in honor
of the Canadians who died in the Great War.
The Kents aren’t merely
music contestants, though. In fact, as we learn
in a series of flashbacks, the Kent family has troubled
ties to the beer baroness, and winning her contest
will require that everyone dredge up their Oedipal-tinged
complaints for an extended dysfunctional airing.
As Chester tells the baroness, “Let’s
be fair, Helen: you can only hang one of those missing
legs on me.”
It’s a great setup,
and with the right crowd (think college circuit),
this film is a comedic blast. But it’s not
without its problems. As it turns out, the mechanics
of the music contest itself are far less interesting
than the comic / tragic interactions of the Kent
family members. And you can’t help feeling,
at times, that Maddin is pushing his characters
to their appointed marks, rather than letting them
find them in the natural course of things.
But as a visual experience,
the film is wonderful. Shot primarily in black and
white on Super-8 and video (and blown up for grainy
effect), it makes ample use of irises, expressionist
sets and Vaseline-smeared lenses (with the center
wiped clean, it gives light around the frame’s
edges an hallucinatory effect). The result is stunning:
it feels like watching an overlooked film from a
lost, make-believe world. The high point may be
when the beer baroness straps on two beer-filled
glass legs and — but no. To describe it would
only ruin the sublime scene.
Whether a randomly chosen
viewer would actually like this sort of thing is
hard to predict. People say you never know how you’ll
react in battle until somebody starts shooting at
you. The Saddest Music in the World may
be a little like that. Aficionados of German expressionists
like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang should definitely
be predisposed to liking at least parts of it, and
patient viewers will find it generously rewards
repeated viewings. (It helps to know where Maddin
is going with his seemingly disconnected plot elements;
it lets you in on his tricks.)
For the rest of you, all
I can say is… you still might enjoy watching
the Kenneth Anger-themed "Sissy Boy Slap Party,"
which is included with two other short Maddin films
on the DVD. The film’s name says it all.