Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Saddest Music in the World (2003) A Film by Guy Maddin

The 1930's were home to some great oddball studio films such as Freaks or Bela Lugosi's pictures, but none ever reached the lunacy of Guy Maddin's contemporary throwback films. He manages to input a modern sensibility to the rudimentary approaches of the 30's, spicing up his films with a myriad of obtuse elements that would not have been given a second thought in the era, unless perhaps they were seen through the lens of Luis Bunuel. The Canadian personality's 2003 superproduction, The Saddest Music in the World, takes off from a preposterous premise into utterly brilliant, amusing territory. In Depression-era Winnipeg, a legless beer baroness, played as a Goddess of sorrow by Isabella Rossellini, announces a contest to bring the saddest music from around the world to the world capital of depression for a prize of $25,000. In a zany, expressionistic theater, which has shades of Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, different countries showcase their music in front of hordes of drunken audience members, their competitions decided by both the bellowing sound of a horn, the raucous audience, and the final say of Lady Port-Huntley's (Rossellini) thumb.

Along for the ride are several of Maddin's memorable characters, tangled in a melodramatic web of uncertain pasts: Chester Kent, a Yankee theater producer who recruits nearly every country's musicians by the culmination of the event; Fyodor Kent, Chester's war veteran father who hopelessly lusts after Lady Port-Huntley, Chester's ex-girl, and has an infatuation with legs, manifested in his basement by glass legs filled with Port-Huntley beer; Roderick Kent, another of Fyodor's sons, as a laughable depressive from Serbia who illogically takes blame for Gavrilo the Great's launching of the Great War and the death of 9 million; and finally Narcissa, Chester's present lady (Maria De Medeiros from Pulp Fiction recognition), an amnesiac nymphomaniac who may or may not be Roderick's inexplicably lost wife. Maddin steeps his characters in bizarre histrionics, making it no surprise when Roderick discusses the jar he holds in his pocket, which contains his dead son's heart encrusted in his own tears. It's a kind of comedy that is strictly esoteric, but for me it worked perfectly.

The film evolves inside a kitschy artificial set that was constructed completely inside a frigid Winnipeg studio. Houses look as if they've been expanded from those inside snowglobes and are subsequently bent in unusual directions. A paper snow flutters around the action throughout most of the film, fusing into one with the grain that sits relentlessly over the super 8 footage that makes up Maddin's personal aesthetic. To achieve a hyper-foggy effect, vaseline was smeared on the lens in concentric circles, allowing for the bleached out faces of the actors to wisp away into the edges of the frame. Thematically, Maddin shoots for a scathing, unsubtle satire of a stereotypically depressing Canada. The dull angst of Rossellini's character is very humorous when paired with Chester's stupid optimism. The motif of beer as a method for drowning out sorrows is also hilariously overdone, so much that the winners of the musical duels shoot down slides into tubs of it and Lady Port-Huntley winds up putting a pair of Fyodor's basements souvenirs to good use. The Saddest Music in the World cements Maddin as a visual innovator and a clever veteran of magic realism.

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