The Great Depression

Guy Maddin makes beauty of 'The Saddest Music'

I try to describe the opening scene of Guy Maddin's latest film to a friend. "A man is seeing a fortune teller, because his lover said her tapeworm was yelling 'fortune teller.' Anyway, the psychic says the man is very sad, which he laughs off. Then he remembers his mother's death. At the same time, he's getting a hand job from his lover, so when he finally does pull out a handkerchief, he's crowing, 'I didn't cry at my mother's funeral, and I won't cry now.' It takes place in some kind of igloo."

Right. And if I further explain that the man, whose name is Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), will soon be a contestant in a 1933 Great Depression battle of the bands hosted by a Winnipeg beer company owned by a double amputee (Isabella Rossellini), it will all become transparent as ice. If Maddin did studio pitches, they'd resemble David Foster Wallace novels: a three-page footnote attached to each word. For instance: Kent and Rossellini's Lady Port-Huntley hooked up once, until his father (Claude Dorge) sawed her legs off. Port-Huntley, whose factory is built of ice, is aiming to give Muskeg an edge in post-prohibition America by sponsoring a contest to determine which nation produces the "saddest music in the world." Born Canadian, Kent calls himself a "New York producer down on his luck"--he's the U.S. contestant. His father sings for Canada. His cellist brother Roderick (Ross McMillan) represents Serbia; Roderick's lost wife (Maria de Medeiros) is Kent's amnesiac lover. Argh!

Clearly, plot is not the point. It's brain icing, fantastic flourish, allowing Maddin to stage--and comment on--profoundly realized spectacle. A gorgeous woman perched on glass legs. A man floating face down in foamy beer. A showman leading a multiethnic orchestra in a swarmy tune as Indian women dressed as "Eskimos" synchronize-kick their artful legs. Meanwhile, a fawning radio commentator spouts: "Sadness isn't hurt one bit by a little razzle-dazzle showmanship!" and "In a world contest, ordinary tears aren't going to be enough." A woman confides: "I've been told I'm unbreakable." And a commercial jingle pipes: "Time's a wastin' if you're not tastin' Muskeg beer!"

In the past, with Careful, say, Maddin achieved a look of super-real fakeness. Here, and with last year's ballet adaptation Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, he has invented a kind of pinhole camera/silent movie effect, wherein the edges are shadowy, the center scratched, and the viewer squinting as if down the wrong end of a telescope at some blurry photos held up by a hand with a persistent tremor. (Super-fake realness?) I was rubbing that persistent wrinkle between my eyebrows afterward, I tell ya. But was the wrinkle a product of visual complexity--or thematic complexity?

Pushing that dour question aside for a moment, I would stress that this ice palace is just as fun to visit as the local version. Maddin reports that, in the search for authentic breath plumes, he subjected his actors to blood-curdlingly frigid sets. They all seem to be having the time of their lives. McKinney, the Kids in the Hall vet, drolly nails the smoothly self-absorbed American. Rossellini twinklingly overdramatizes. McMillan is frightfully sad, Dorge awesomely pathetic. De Medeiros listens to her tapeworm with a silent-movie actor's big-eyed attention. Maddin's comic set pieces--especially the band face-offs, with their nationalistic sports vibe--cut like a knife, to quote a fellow Canadian. "Why remember anything? It'll make you sad," muses Kent, who enacts a Southern banjo tune with white-robed "angels."

Of course, it's difficult to wield a glass shard without cutting oneself. Maddin seems cheerfully aware that the movie's critique of the American's vulgar showmanship is simultaneously a critique of his movie; it, too, is making a farce of sadness (not to mention internationalism!). With its references to WWI and colonialism, The Saddest Music has been viewed as a metaphor for Canadian dependence on the U.S. and England. Being a self-absorbed American, however, I can't help seeing it as a reaction to our reactions to 9/11. (All the world has seen tragedy; we make a production number of it.) These smeared, scratchy memories may hurt; they've also obviously been manipulated and treated. To what end? Maddin seems to ask. To enthrall, to anger, or to question? The movie keeps offering versions of the Hammerstein/Kern chestnut "The Song Is You"; the last, jauntiest take is the saddest, sung as the glass house goes down in flames.

 
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