So, I haven’t done one of these posts in a while what with starting classes and all, but here’s a movie that demands to be written about: Guy Maddin’s quasi-musical comedy melodrama The Saddest Music in the World (2003, watchable here). Maddin, whom I saw giving a live director’s commentary this past June at the Heights Theater, is one of my favorite still-working directors; hailing from Winnipeg, he’s as much of an international envoy for Canadian cinema as David Cronenberg, and about as blatantly weird. But instead of expressing sexual hang-ups and Freudian confusion through gory physical displays like Cronenberg does, Maddin’s neuroses manifest themselves in explosive tributes to Hollywood films of the 1920s-’30s, full of absurdly overemotional characters and editing that could best be described as hysterical.
And out of Maddin’s films (though I have yet to see Careful or My Winnipeg), I’d say that Saddest Music hits all the right notes, emotionally and musically, bringing his style into a precise balance with the subject matter. It’s not quite as amnesiacally muddled as Archangel, and it expands impressively on the psychosexually tangled love triangles of earlier films like Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Fantastically entertaining, visually unique, and very strange – this could be Maddin’s masterpiece, lying deep in his fictionalized historical Winnipeg and yet relatively accessible to mainstream audiences (at least more so than, say, his silent ballet version of Dracula). So, where to start discussing it?
The plot of Saddest Music is fittingly complicated, with baroque psychological twists crawling out of the floorboards. It tells of a very dysfunctional family, the Kents: patriotically Canadian father Fyodor, sociopathic American showman Chester, and the melancholic hypochondriac Roderick, who’s taken on the Serbian national identity after the death of his child and the disappearance of his wife. The story’s background is that of the Great Depression, when legless beer baroness (the three words that really sell the movie) Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest to find the titular saddest music, pitting the Siamese against the Mexicans, the Germans against the Poles, and so on. It’s a concept from an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day) that found itself somehow in Maddin’s hands. Processed through his feverishly inventive mind, it becomes a perverse catalog of classical Hollywood cliches lovingly made ironic by Maddin and his writing collaborator George Toles.
Amidst the Kents’ emotional chaos is the film’s wild card character, Narcissa, played by Portuguese beauty Maria de Medeiros (of Pulp Fiction fame, though Maddin knew her from Henry & June). Roderick’s amnesiac wife and now Chester’s “kept woman,” she wanders hazily through the film speaking of attractive ears, telepathic tapeworms, and claiming to be not an American, but a nymphomaniac. She also triggers Roderick’s hysterical hypersensitivity, which points out one of the ways I view the film – as a battle royale between contrasting emotional viewpoints. I don’t think Maddin intended the film to be any grand statement about the wide palette of emotions, although I do believe he knew he was making a family melodrama that went over the top and back again. But, while last viewing the film, I found a way to reconcile this emotion-based vision of the film with its apparent lack of seriousness: by comparison with Amanda Palmer’s also highly ironic song “Oasis,” discussed many times on this very same blog. Just as Amanda Palmer has described “Oasis” as showing an alternative way to cope with trauma, Saddest Music‘s feuding central characters can represent happiness and sadness, glass half full or half empty. (As Chester says, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass.”)
So in Chester we have the embodiment of perpetual positivity, the quintessential Ugly American with a can-do, go-go spirit of rugged individualism. He manages to co-opt the other performers’ cultures, but only by offering to pay their way home. Chester – incidentally, named for and partially based on the character played by James Cagney in Footlight Parade (1933) – begins and ends the film by denying the sadness that’s filled his life, from his mother’s premature death to his own. “I ask you,” he says, always with a Cohan-esque lilt to his voice, “is there anybody here as happy as I am?” I don’t think it’d be too extreme to compare Chester to Amanda’s blithe protagonist in “Oasis.”
But turn Chester on his ass, and you’ve got Roderick, aka Gavrilo the Great, who proclaims, “In the jar, preserved in my own tears, is my son’s heart.” Whereas Chester appears impervious to emotional pain, Roderick’s life is nothing but. His behavior in the movie consists of one breakdown after another, puncuated by frantic pleas not to trouble his overly acute senses of touch, hearing, and smell. Roderick is the psychological hiccups and excessive reactions of melodrama incarnate in a character and played splendidly by Ross McMillan with a plaintive accent to match. So, as the title indicates, the film is largely on some level about emotions: Roderick fighting (but failing) to assert his genuine tearfulness against Chester’s “razzle dazzle showmanship” pretending to be sadness.
And always present alongside the characters’ escalating (and comedic) emotional intensity is Maddin’s far-flung visual style, which incorporates anything and everything to evoke the director’s madly oneiric vision of 1930s film. We have thick film grain, a coloring technique resembling two-strip Technicolor (used mostly for funeral scenes), nonstop rear projection, and manic montage for the film’s climax. Maddin is in love with the fakery and illusions of the cinema, and this love propels his film into violent visual and narrative fragmentation. The Kents’ house, as well as downtown Winnipeg, is constructed with claustrophobically expressionistic architecture, and the entire film was shot in a giant, freezing Winnipeg warehouse. You could go so far as to call it anti-location shooting.
This is one of Maddin’s bizarre triumphs, his view of the unconscious mind in relation to perceiving cinema. I think he referred to his brilliant short film The Heart of the World as the world’s first “subliminal” film, and on some level this applies to much of his other work as well. Realism is set aside, because old movies aren’t perceived as reality, and there’s nothing realistic – from a narrative or emotional angle – about the contortions and exaggerations of melodrama. In Brand Upon the Brain! (2006), the character of Guy Maddin is said to suffer from “brain fever,” and this is akin to the sensibility that informs all of the director’s work: the human brain is consumed with fever, every impulse or emotion heightened, every reaction doubled, every moment of the plot fractured via editing.
As he’s divulged in various interviews, Guy Maddin’s life has been fairly traumatic – a brother committed suicide, his father died young – and it’s definitely plausible to see his films as, in some ways, melodramatically dealing with the real pains of life. At the same time, he’s creating these insane but beautiful vistas of unreal cinematic worlds, retooling the materials of the past and our collective fictional memories, accelerating recollections of Cagney and Kirk Douglas, of Chaney/Browning collaborations, of Eisenstein and von Stroheim, Busby Berkeley, Astaire & Rogers. And all of this comes to dreamlike fruition in The Saddest Music in the World, where emotions and sexuality run like wild horses through a labyrinth of madness and memory. As usual, I want to highlight one particular scene that stands out, here being the fullest realization of the film’s musical side. It’s the part where Narcissa sings “The Song Is You,” an actual pop standard written in 1932 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. From Chester’s opening reminiscences, the song permeates the film’s atmosphere, whether on cello, piano, or played by a flashy big band as it is here. Maddin attributed this scene’s inspiration to Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (also 1932), where Maurice Chevalier’s singing of “Isn’t It Romantic?” turns out to be contagious.
Few films are able to engage the past so sincerely and with such frenzied passion as The Saddest Music in the World. It’s by turns dazzling, perverse, ironically tragic, very funny, and always mesmerizingly melodramatic. Whether you’re new to the chilly, phantasmagoric world of Guy Maddin or if you’ve seen a number of his films, it’s always worth rewatching, for Isabella’s dancing with glass legs, for the kneeling performance of “Red Maple Leaves,” for the surreal behavior of Winnipeg citizens in an age long forgotten, if it ever existed at all. With its spectacular blend of excessive emotion, hysterical past, and life uninhabited – all with plenty of musical fizz – The Saddest Music in the World is on of my favorite movies.