The Saddest Music in the World

Monday, August 16, 2010 5:39 PM By Simon

I once read a comment on a site from a guy who asked "What's the difference between Guy Maddin and David Lynch, really?"

(This is the blog equivalent of a McGuffin, people)

While David Lynch heavily uses, one might say relies on, symbolism and Rule of Weird to get across his dubiously-existing messages of disenchantment, isolation, memory...something, Guy Maddin, for all his frenetic, Ye Olde-filmmaking style, disturbing imagery, deviance and misery abound, he tells a core coherent love story. Not that I'm an expert. Thus far, I've only seen My Winnipeg and this. And they've both been romances, turned on their heads, no doubt, but romances nonetheless. A love story between himself and his beloved Winnipeg, Canada, would be my best guess.


The Saddest Music in the World is about an arrogant prick named Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), failing Broadway producer during the Great Depression. He and his amnesiac, nymphomaniac concubine Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) visit an old fortune teller, who predicts doom in Kent's future. Laughing, Chester and Narcissa take a train into Winnipeg, where Lady Helen Port-Huntley, legless former lover of Chester (Isabella Rossellini) announces a worldwide competition to find the saddest music in the world (hoping it would attract business sales of her eponymous beer, especially since US prohibition is predicted to fall). Soon, representitives from all around the world come pouring into Winnipeg. Among them are super-Canadian father of Chester, responsible for Helen's impairment, Fyodor (David Fox), and Roderick, Chester's brother, back from self-imposed Serbian exile with the heart of his dead son preserved by his own tears (in a pickle jar), and a missing wife.

As I said, Maddin's filmmaking style is bizarre and reminiscent of the 20s and 30s, black and white (the bits in color resembling two-strip Technicolor), grainy, slightly out-of-synch sound and expressionist backgrounds to make Caligari weep with joy. Vaseline wiped on the lens to make the image blur at the edges. Right. It may be bizarre, but it is never dull, and the plot is relatively simple (if you just look at actions). A comedy about sadness.

Chester is what he believes the perfect American: corny phrases riddled with over-enthusiastic gusto, bragging of how he's never felt sorrow, selfish and sociopathic. Roderick has mastered his perennial state of melancholy, keeping the jar in one pocket and a recording of his treasured song, the one he shared with his wife, in the other. It would surely win the competition, he says, but he would never play it again for anyone but his wife. Helen is a malicious, bitter business mogul who keeps a sextoy of her servant Teddy, who has a wife and two kids, and must have sex with her to keep his job. Fyodor, who, we'll keep it at, cut off the wrong leg, bears the responsibility for this, creates her a beer leg...

Narcissa is not very dissimilar to de Medeiros' most famous role, Fabienne in Pulp Fiction, naive (most likely attributed to her amnesia, granted), soft-spoken, scatter-brained, hooked up with a domineering professional showman, a kind-of cool name. But Narcissa has an overall sadness to her almost emotional obliviousness. She stars in many of Chester's lavish and gaudy musical numbers, but backstage she recounts a dream she had, implying the vague reappearing of her memory, which Chester brushes off. She giggles "You really don't understand me at all," so giddy in those few minutes it's hard to imagine any bitterness behind the words.

Right. Please ignore these random musings, I long since forgotten my point.

The performances, as should be expected, are fantastic. The actors perfectly capture the individual absurdities or their characters, the sadness of their lives, the self-absorption and malevolence in all of them.

It is also, of course, a versus country in the competition, acts from Spain to Mexico to Siam to the Ukraine perform their takes of the saddest music in the world. Much of the music serves as plot points, but they themselves never tell stories relevent to the plot itself. So take that as you will.

Filmed on a tiny set, with cardboard backgrounds and the works, it paints a glorified portrait of Winnipeg, as so many of maddin's films do, a bustling metropolis of the world.

Not easily digestible in the first take, The Saddest Music in the World is an (almost) avant-garde comedy on individual grief, an original, dizzying spectacular that has never gotten the attention it deserved.

PS Maddin is also disconcertingly normal in interviews.


D Swizzle said...

teach me how to be smart, if you would.

August 16, 2010 at 6:44 PM
Franz Patrick said...

I will never forget those glass legs that contained beer. Sadly, I don't recall much of the movie because I saw it about 5 years ago. When I think of this movie, I think... blue. May I recommend "Brand Upon the Brain!"?

August 16, 2010 at 8:52 PM
Andreas said...

I got the rare opportunity not long ago to see Maddin doing live audio commentary on Saddest Music - he was disconcertingly normal, but with little eccentricities. E.g., he talked about how he was overwhelmed when trying to film Isabella Rossellini, and had her film herself.

At heart, Maddin seems like a hardcore 1930s film buff. He referenced different actors he wished he could've cast, like Franklin Pangborn, or putting James Cagney as Chester Kent. Saddest Music is just such a weird masterpiece of anachronistic filmmaking, and so fun to watch. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Also, if you liked the amnesia/hyper-melodrama angle of Saddest Music, definitely check out Archangel, an earlier movie of Maddin's set in WWI Russia. Or, better yet, his short film The Heart of the World, which is probably one of his best (I haven't seen My Winnipeg, though):

August 17, 2010 at 12:13 PM
Simon said...

Danielle: Can't be taught, my dear.

Franz: You may. There should be more neo-silent films.

Andreas: He's so normal, it makes me nervous. You're so lucky, going to see him live. There was a recording of a live audio reading on the My Winnipeg disk, it looks like fun to be there.

August 18, 2010 at 8:09 PM