Tag Archives: Kazuo Ishiguro

96. THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (2003)

“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

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DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin

FEATURING: Mark McKinney, , , Ross McMillan, David Fox

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.

Still from The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Saddest Music in the World was based on a screenplay by novelist (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 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 Continue reading 96. THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (2003)

CAPSULE: NEVER LET ME GO (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Romanek

FEATURING: Carey Mulligan, , Keira Knightley,

PLOT: Kathy,Tommy and Ruth grow up at the pleasant but isolated Hallisham Academy in a fictional Britain that never was; they fall in and out of love with each other and grow up to discover that the purpose of their lives has already been set for them.

Still from Never Let Me Go (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird, though the mix of genres is unprecedented.  The premise is speculative—it would be science fiction had it been set in the future instead of an alternate past—but the execution is conventional, laid down with a Merchant-Ivory-ish gravitas.

COMMENTS: I’ll respect convention and won’t give away the “spoiler” for Never Let Me Go, despite the facts that 1). the trailer reveals it to the observant viewer who has seen a couple of key B-movies from which the premise is derived, and 2). the mystery surrounding the children of Hallisham Academy is divulged about twenty minutes into the film. Point 2) is key, because this movie works not by slowly revealing twists and secrets, but by keeping us watching in horror at the ironic inevitability of the children’s unfolding fate. Locked away from the outside world in the comfortable but disquietingly totalitarian Academy, the kids make up horrible stories about what happens to disobedient children who leave the grounds (dismemberment and starvation); their myths about their own fates persist into adulthood, but the audience always understands that they are doomed even as they cling to desperate hopes.  One of the biggest problems with the film is that it lacks background detail; viewing things entirely from the perspective of the trapped children, we never get enough of a sense of the larger society and its skewed politics and ethics, and are left to raise a lot of issues for ourselves. Too many questions about this Brave Alternate World are left unanswered (primarily, why our protagonists go so gently into that good night, hardly struggling against their fate). The love story is predictable, but that doesn’t make it any the less emotionally affecting, thanks to some great performances. Carey Mulligan, a rising star, carries the film with an often heartbreaking performance: smarter and less prone to illusion than her companions, the despair starts to register in her eyes just a few moments before it reaches Garfield or Knightley’s.  She also cries on cue, including a doozy that rolls down her face and ends up hanging off her chin for a second or two.  Garfield, currently being groomed to be the next Spider-Man, is acceptable as the awkward and occasionally unbalanced male love interest, and Knightley is pro as the seethingly jealous and gently vindictive third point of the love triangle. Kudos go out to the casting director for signing a trio of child actors that are not only fine thespians, but are also almost perfect genetic models for their grown-up counterparts. The cinematography is pleasing, sometimes poetic, with lonely fields and deserted beaches lit by soft golden glows. Despite its effective mood of melancholy, however, the film never really takes off. Director Romanek seems self-conscious in adapting the famed literary property. He’s so careful to be respectful, restrained and tastefully subtle so that the film will come off as “serious” and “important” that the tale fails to live and breathe.  (Having the lead character deliver the obvious moral in a closing monologue—just in case viewers missed the script’s Oscar-caliber metaphors—was a bad decision).  The end result is a story that sends the viewer out mildly depressed, rather than existentially shattered. Despite not quite achieving its full potential, Never Let Me Go still a good choice for the arthouse patron jonesing for a flick with Brit accents, teardrops, and no car chases.

The film was adapted, with the author’s blessing and oversight, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel.  Ishiguro’s main weird movie connection is that he wrote the original screenplay for The Saddest Music in the World, although director Guy Maddin and his writing partner George Toles significantly surrealized the British writer’s scenario.  Director Mark Romanek’s previous feature was One Hour Photo (2002), an offbeat psychological thriller that cast Robin Williams way against type as a creepy, delusional photo developer.  His first, hard to find feature Static (1985), about a worker in a crucifix factory who thinks he has found a way to take pictures of Heaven, is reputedly quite weird (thanks to L. Robb Hubbard for reminding us of that last point).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an alternate universe that exudes some of the creepy calm of Wolf Rilla’s great English science-fiction flick Village of the Damned, but also the gloomy romanticism of Keats and Shelley.”–Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)