THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD

Directed by Guy Maddin

Written by Maddin and George Toles

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(Note: this was printed in the April 29 issue of GAY CITY NEWS, but did not appear on the paper's website.)
Guy Maddin is a regional filmmaker. That region happens to exist in his head. An excellent mimic, he’s able to pastiche the look of ‘20s and ‘30s cinema - especially as seen on TV or in ragged prints - while turning its influence to his own eccentric purposes. In some ways, he’s not that different from Quentin Tarantino - whose films derive far more from his video collection than the real world - but he’s far stranger. Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN, which aped ‘50s melodrama, is another cousin, but Maddin’s work is more evasive. It never comes across as either entirely campy or serious. For all the laughter at the screening where  I saw  THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD,  the audience rarely laughed together.

In 1933 Winnipeg, amputee beer baron Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) holds a contest to determine what country’s musicians make the saddest music in the world. The $25,000 prize, offered at the peak of the Great Depression, draws groups from all over the world. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) and his amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) enter as the American contestants, although Chester is originally from Winnipeg. His father (David Fox) represents Canada in the contest, while his brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), disguised behind a veil and false mustache, pretends to be a Serbian cellist.

Maddin’s best film, the 2000 short THE HEART OF THE WORLD, distilled silent Soviet cinema  into one exhilarating five-minute burst. Of his first three features, one was set in an unidentified Alpine country and another in Russia.  His imagination usually hues closer to Europe than Canada and the past rather than the present. In fact, Maddin and co-writer George Toles adapted THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD from a screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, set in ‘90s London.

Even so, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD grapples with what it means to be a Canadian. Not surprisingly, that entails some engagement with the U.S.  Maddin’s critique of  America  is sharper and subtler than Lars von Trier’s sledgehammer allegories. His American Dream seductively encourages immigrants to assimilate by aping their new culture’s most meretricious and vulgar aspects. As a wannabe American, Chester’s showbiz pizzazz  attempts to hit new heights of excess, especially when he tries to win the contest by co-opting foreign musicians to work with him. In pretending to be European, his brother also seems ashamed of his Canadian roots. Their father, Fyodor (David Fox), is a parody of patriarchal pride, performing his patriotic song on a piano turned upside down.  Chester and Fyodor both hold responsibility for the loss of Port-Huntly’s legs: the former for crushing one in a car accident, the latter for drunkenly amputating the wrong one. None of these models of national identity works very well.

The performances in THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD  rank among its highlights. Members of an African troupe mutilate themselves while dancing to drums, producing “tears of blood.” An all-female Scottish group blares away on bagpipes. Compared to the Kent family’s wreckage, Port-Huntly’s contest seems rather benign. If it reduces countries to stereotypes, this is no less true for Canada than Mexico or Scotland. In fact, the competition brings a film festival to mind.

Where Tarantino brings together film noir, the French New Wave, blaxploitation and Asian action cinema without making any larger cultural critique, Maddin’s style flaunts its hybrid nature. On this level, there’s a more hopeful alternative to his characters’ identity crises. In a culture obsessed with youth and flash, he’s committed to bridging the cinema of the past, present and future. By commercial logic, there’s no  reason why a present-day Canadian filmmaker would be so heavily influenced by the ‘20s work of German directors Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau, but Maddin  takes them as  his birthright. Importantly, he uses their influence irreverently, incorporating the technical limitations of Super-8 and video (especially the extreme grain created by a blowup to 35 mm) as a badge of pride. Grit is so central to the film’s look that one can imagine Maddin adding scratches to the stock.

As in many Maddin films, his energy went into creating a concept - and an enticing world around it - rather than a real narrative payoff. Unfortunately, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD  doesn’t sustain its initial brio. The jokes don’t add up to much more than clever bon mots. Although Maddin obviously loves melodrama, he has a better flair for comedy and music. When his performers sing and dance, the film takes flight; the more it turns to resolving the outlandish plot complications, the more it stays grounded. Even so, its high points are invigoratingly imaginative. Maddin’s not yet a great filmmaker and may never become one, but he’s a genuine visionary.