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The Song is You
Guy Maddin's
The Saddest Music in the World

Unless 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.

—Review by Charlie Onion





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