“I’m actually trying for something a little bit different this time. I’ve always used, as a safety net, dreamlike delirium, confusion among the characters. On this I don’t really have a safety net. It feels good to remove the safety net… I really need to tell a story the way my idols had to tell a story. Still, it will, perhaps, I hope, strike people as ‘different’ than most of the other pictures made today.”–Guy Maddin on The Saddest Music in the World
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
PLOT: During the Great Depression Lady Port-Huntley, a legless beer baroness from Winnipeg, organizes a contest to discover which nation produces the saddest music in the world, offering a $25,000 prize. Musicians from across the globe descend upon the city, including three members of a Canadian family: a father (representing Canada) and two brothers (one a Broadway producer representing America, the other an expatriate cello virtuoso playing for the honor of Serbia). It turns out that the family has a twisted history with each other, and with the contest organizer, involving amnesia, medical malpractice, broken hearts, betrayals, and beer.
- The Saddest Music in the World was based on a screenplay by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go), but was extensively rewritten by Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles (for one thing, the setting was moved from 1980s London to Canada in the Great Depression).
- With a budget of 3.5 million Canadian dollars, this was the largest budget Maddin had ever worked with. Unfortunately, the film made back less than $1 million at the box office.
- Maddin sent Rossellini copies of the “legless” performances of Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar and The Penalty to watch in preparation for the role of Lady Port-Huntley.
- The Saddest Music in the World was the second Maddin feature released in a busy and amazing 2003; Cowards Bend the Knee (also Certified Weird) debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival in January, while the relatively more mainstream Music was first shown in August at the Venice Film Festival.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Isabella Rossellini’s bubbly new gams, which she proudly displays while dressed as Lady Liberty as dancing girls dressed as Eskimos lie on their backs kicking their heels in the air, all set to the heartbreaking strains of the melancholy ballad “California, Here We Come!”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Guy Maddin’s promiscuous mix of retro-film techniques, including iris lenses and a primitive two-strip Technicolor process, that drops us into an artificial, alternate movie world that never really existed. These visuals illustrate a preposterous plot packed with the delightfully absurd coincidences that were the coin of early melodrama—everyone of importance in the movie has a dark, hidden history with everyone else—all interrupted by screwball one-liners and absurd Busby Berkeley-style production numbers. It’s as if random selection of melodramas and musicals made between 1915 and 1935 had been carelessly stacked on top of each other, and over the years the degenerating nitrate gradually melted into a single filmstrip.
Original trailer for The Saddest Music in the World
COMMENTS: The Saddest Music in the World is the strangest, and funniest, movie about sorrow you’ll ever see. Chester, a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer, is unable to feel sadness, and proud of it. An ominous stock fortune teller from the film’s prologue warns him he must “look to your own miseries… otherwise, you are a dead man!” But when Lady Port-Huntley recounts the tale of how she lost her legs and asks him, “doesn’t that make you sad?” his chipper response is, “life’s full of surprises—take away those surprises, and life’s a pretty dull proposition!” This Canadian transplant takes a typically “American” approach to sad music: “it’s gotta be vulgar, and obvious—full of gimmicks. You know, sadness, but with sass and pizazz!” His final contest entry—a spectacular number with scantily clad dancing Eskimos memorializing a kayaking tragedy—lives up to that promise. It’s also an apt description of the movie: sadness, but with sass and pizazz.
At first former “Kid in the Hall” Mark McKinney’s hardboiled, campy performance as Chester seems like its going to be a trial to watch for feature length, but the longer the movie goes on, the more it grows on you—the more appropriate his blithely vapid approach to a vapid character becomes. McKinney’s got a swell Depression-era mien, at least, for a palooka. He can’t feel sadness, but he’s better off than his estranged brother Roderick, who’s eternally bereaved over the death of his child and disappearance of his wife. Roderick always dresses like a beekeeper at a funeral, and he has become so sensitive that the sound of someone breathing through their noise can drive him to hysterics. He didn’t feel that he was sad enough on his own, so he took on the national sorrow of Serbia, becoming “Gravillo the Great,” the world famous “maestro of melancholy.”
Chester can’t feel sadness, and his brother can’t feel joy. Roderick can’t forget his personal tragedy, and Chester’s mistress, the nymphomaniac Narcissa, can’t remember anything about her history. Clearly, these are characters who operate only at the extremes. Legless Lady Port-Huntley, the domineering baroness bent on cornering the American beer market when Prohibition ends, is almost the normal one in the bunch; but she, like all the others, is slowly revealed to have bats in her belfry, too.
Lady Port-Huntley’s plan to increase brand awareness south of the border quite logically involves hosting a depressing battle of the bands, of global scope. The contest has families across the world glued to their radios. The first challenge pits a Siamese flautist backed by birdsong (he’s put out his parakeet accompanists’ eyes so they’ll have “a bit more soul” in their chirps) against a Mexican mariachi band, who sing a mother’s traditional mourning song for her dead child (the lyrics implore the tyke to stay in his grave and not come back as a ghost to suckle at her breast). A buzzer announces each contestant’s turn to play, while the crowd guzzles Lady Port-Huntley beer; the winner celebrates advancing to the next round with a slide into a swimming pool-sized vat of ale. Other marquee musical match-ups include a Canadian pianist vs. by African tribal drummers playing pygmy funeral music, and the Serbian cellist taking on a Scots drum and bagpipe corps. Spanish flamenco ensembles and sad Italian clowns get their shot at jerking prizewinning tears, as well. Melodramatically, in the end it all boils down to a contest of brother versus brother: the American Broadway producer versus the Serbian virtuoso.
That’s all strange enough, but Maddin can’t resist adding surrealistic embellishments, like the sleepwalkers roaming the snowy streets of Winnipeg, the talking tapeworm who psychically controls Narcissa, and the hockey teams who break into spontaneous serenades. And, most obviously, there’s the director’s fond embrace of weird primitive monochrome aesthetics: the grain in the film so thick it’s becomes like smoke covering the picture; the way the iris lenses keep the center of the scene in crystal clear focus while the edges of the frame bend and melt away; the way Klieg lights hitting pancake makeup make Isabella Rossellini’s face glow with an unearthly brilliance. There are color sequences here, too; scenes tinted blue for memories, red for nightmares, and glorious Technicolor for climactic production numbers (and, for some reason, funerals). But even the color scenes are blurred, faded and hazy; the reds and blues are so unnaturally prominent, it looks like each frame has been clumsily colored in by hand. Maddin is entranced by the awkwardness of style found in decaying old movies, by the way they imperfectly capture the visual world, the way they exaggerate the extremes of light and shadow and turn the ordinary into the strange. Maddin’s art is all about finding the beauty in imperfection—in imperfect shots, imperfect plots, imperfect thoughts.
Comedy is also a form of imperfection, found in the gap between the world as it’s supposed to be and the world as it is. The Saddest Music in the World is, first and foremost and without apology, a comedy, with jokes that collide at the corner of calamity and hilarity. The film contains the single funniest double amputation ever filmed. Roderick always carries with him a jar, containing his dead son’s heart, preserved in his own tears—and if that’s not funny, I don’t know what is. The screenplay is crammed with sappy, snappy lines that spit in the eye of sorrow: Chester’s pithy “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass!”; a radio commentator’s observation that “no one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats or twins, but I’m embarrassed to say that before now I’d never taken Siamese sadness all that seriously;” and Lady Port-Huntley’s famous pronouncement, “if you’re sad, and you like beer, then I’m your lady.” What, in life, is a happier subject to laugh at than the concept of sadness itself? Guy Maddin is too lighthearted to ever create a truly sad, heartrending movie; but if he does, I’ll be disappointed it he doesn’t name it The Funniest Joke in the World.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What Maddin makes of [the plot] is a comedy, yes, but also an eerie fantasy that suggests a silent film like ‘Metropolis’ crossed with a musical starring Nelson Eddy and Jeannette McDonald, and then left to marinate for long forgotten years in an enchanted vault.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“…the weirdest, freest-wheeling, most obsessively inventive motion picture you’ll see this year. Parts are confusing, parts are berserk, parts are exasperatingly slow. But in a wold of cookie-cutter movies, Maddin’s movies are like nobody else’s — funny, Romantic, as deliriously overwrought as a drug lord’s wedding.”–John Powers, LA Weekly (contemporaneous)
“Maddin… is so in love with his own kooky ideas that he hasn’t bothered to comb through them for any real meaning. He takes his zany devices — beer-filled legs! Who’da thunk of that? — and churns them up with old-movie-melodrama tropes, and the result is not magic but a peculiar kind of experimental-movie mud.”–Stephanie Zacharek, salon.com (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Sad Songs Say So Much – Maddin’s mock-serious (“today I paid a scenic painter $2,000 not to sleep with the Polish soprano who’s been singing in the lunchroom the last three days”) production diary for The Saddest Music in the World, published in The Village Voice
DVD INFO: Surprisingly, MGM Home Video bought up the DVD rights to The Saddest Music in the World and issued an excellent package (buy) that lacks only a director’s commentary to make it the ultimate Saddest release in the world. The disc features the original theatrical trailer along with three minutes of teaser trailers organized around the various “sad-off” musical matches from the film. Even better are the fifty minutes of featurettes, divided into two mini-docs—“Teardrops in the Snow” and “The Saddest Characters in the Word”—both narrated with arch humor (“how does such a strange and wonderful picture get made? Arcane, almost cabalistic methods are required…”) by a voice actor who simultaneously channels Orson Welles and Vincent Price. But the best treats of all are three complete Maddin shorts: the melancholy mood piece “A Trip to the Orphanage” (which stars Maria de Medeiros and is possibly a deleted scene from the movie—a small bit of it does actually appear in the film); “Sombra Dolorosa,” in which a bereaved widow wrestles death to save her daughter from suicide (!); and, best of the best, an extended four-minute cut of “Sissy Boy Slap Party” (1995), a sort of pre-Code homoerotic Three Stooges fetish short that must be seen to be believed. (These three short films are reviewed in more detail in this post).
MGM’s decision to purchase DVD rights for Saddest Music may have something to do with a perceived need to fill out their catalog of musicals, since they soon released it as part of a baffling ten-disc collection of musicals (snuggled up with such strange bedfellows as A Chorus Line and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) (buy). It’s also in a 4-disc collection (buy) along with The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Without You I’m Nothing, and Absolute Beginners!
The Saddest Music in the World is also currently available on Video on Demand (rent).
(This movie was nominated for review by “alexis” who called it one of her “favorite weird ones.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)