Northern Exposure

Winnipeg's avant-garde auteur Guy Maddin comes in from the cold

Maddin's awareness of the lassitude possible when pursuing arch stylization to its limits led in turn to his realization that things ought to be sped up. The filmmaker's fertile second coming sees him tossing off playful, aesthetically overloaded works that laugh heartily at traditional storytelling. This stage began in 2000 with the Soviet-constructivist-cum-sci-fi head rush "The Heart of the World." Shot out of an Uzi of inspiration, Maddin's masterpiece--one of the greatest short films ever made--is an entire melodrama in six minutes, frenetically edited to elide any need for plot development. Ironically, this primitive filmmaker found his groove through the use of contemporary technology; indeed, Maddin's recent work is unimaginable without digital editing.

Not merely a dance film made by a director with zero interest in dance, Maddin's Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary is an authentic work of silent Expressionism shot in oft-tinted monochrome. With its images of ballet reflected in mirrors, shrouded by plumes of fog, or sped up to the point of abstraction, Dracula (screening Wednesday, February 11 at 7:00 p.m., on a double bill with Maddin's Cowards Bend the Knee) feels like Dreyer's Vampyr crossed with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. Cowards, the director's "autobiographical" follow-up, might be a Feuillade serial run through a blender. Designed as an installation for Toronto's Power Plant gallery, where it could be seen only if the spectator crouched down and gazed through peepholes, Cowards is jam-packed with kinetically photographed action. The mythomaniacal director casts "Guy Maddin" (Darcy Fehr) as a hockey sniper made lily-livered by mother and daughter femme fatales, and resurrects his dead father as both the team's broadcaster and his own romantic rival. The plot verily drips with Grecian formula, as sordid family secrets spawn unintentional murders. Maddin fixates on his characters' uncontrollable desires, providing room for alternately poignant and explosive slo-mo replays. Frenzied moments of impulsive violence and sexuality lend the movie the sublime naughtiness of a hand-cranked skin flick. After all, the whole thing takes place within a single drop of sperm.

Compared to this, Maddin's "proper feature," The Saddest Music in the World (Wednesday at 8:00 p.m.), almost disappoints. Almost. Set in 1933 Winnipeg, a town that has accumulated a "glistening wealth of unhappiness," the audience-friendly Saddest Music has the ham-fisted Maddin touch. A Canadian-born Broadway "producer of musical spectaculars" (Mark McKinney) returns to Winnipeg penniless, and comes to represent the U.S. in a saddest-music contest--a scheme hatched by Lady Port-Huntley (Rossellini) to promote the brewery's peaty wares south of the border in the final days of Prohibition. The film finds brothers battling once again, this time over a nymphomaniac amnesiac (Maria de Medeiros's Narcissa). There's a father and son as romantic rivals (for Isabella's legless Port-Huntly), and two forms of cowardice: McKinney's crass extrovert Chester Kent (named after the Jimmy Cagney character in Footlight Parade) and his veiled, timid, and self-hating brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), reborn as Serbian cellist Gavrilo the Great.

Live! Tonight! Sold Out! Isabella Rossellini in 'The Saddest Music in the World'
IFC Films
Live! Tonight! Sold Out! Isabella Rossellini in 'The Saddest Music in the World'

Saddest Music is politics fused with autobiography. Although the film alludes to Busby Berkeley's Broadway Melodies and the paraplegic revenge melodramas of Lon Chaney, the standard that holds it together on an emotional level is Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You." The grist for the mill is Maddin's own career, with its inherent conflict between art and commerce. In fact, Saddest Music can be seen as the most pointed statement to date on American cultural imperialism, made in the country that has suffered from it the most. Seeking to put on a show that's "vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks [and] sadness, but with sass and pizzazz," Chester sounds like he could be the Pentagon's media consultant. As the contest climaxes, Chester buys off the other nationals, directing fish-spearing Eskimos, Swiss pan flautists, and Indian sitar players in a mongrelized version of a song sure to cockle the heart of many an aspiring Hollywoodian: "California, Here I Come." Furiously independent as always, Maddin is daring us to admit that the saddest music in the world might be the sound that change makes when it jingles in the pocket of someone who has just sold out.

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