Though most folks (who know him at all) know him thanks to his feature films, Guy Maddin is a master of the short film format, having birthed more than two dozen shorts in his career, many under five minutes. The Heart of the World, his apocalyptic valentine to Soviet constructivist cinema, is the director’s best known and most impressive brief work, but anything by Maddin is worth looking at for a few minutes. Therefore, we thought the three short films included on MGM’s The Saddest Music in the World DVD deserved their own synopses. At their best these mini-movies are like a shot of pure rye whiskey: they burn going down, but they give your soul a jolt, and you want another as soon as you’ve digested the first.
“A Trip to the Orphanage” appears to be an outtake from Saddest Music, reimagined as a pure mood piece. The finale of “Orphange”—when Maria de Medeiros kisses a sleepwalker on the cheek, and he says “goodnight, mother” to her—actually appears in the film. There, the episode has no explanation. You won’t get one in “Orphanage,” either. The man walks through a wintry street with a sleepy, dazed expression. We also see shots of de Medeiros’ China doll face, and briefly view her posing with an anonymous child. A woman appears and sings a generic aria of lament: “so fraught with pain his yearning soul…” A sparse piano accompanies her. Snow falls over all the characters, and lace curtains billowing in the wind are superimposed on the picture; sometimes there’s one set of drapes waving in the foreground and a second set in the background. Singer Sarah Constible’s voice is opera-trained and lovely, and “Orphanage” is a Canadian saudade that’s as melancholy as a lone snowflake drifting on the wind. It’s also just as light, and in a mere four minutes it’s there and gone, just like a dream.
“Sombra Dolorosa” returns us to more familiarly comic Maddin territory, with a deranged plot, hysterical intertitles (“to save your daughter you must defeat… El Muerto!!”), and the same psychotic editing that characterized Cowards Bend The Knee. It tells the story of a bereaved widow who must defeat death in a wrestling match, before an eclipse arrives, in order to save her daughter from suicide (“FROM SUICIDE!”, the titles remind us). After bodyslaming El Muerto into submission, however, the rules suddenly change. Now, Death must eat her husband’s corpse before the sun comes up, or he’s forever lost! Meanwhile, inconsolate daughter Delores decides to kill herself anyway by throwing herself into a river, but a good Samaritan saves her. It all ends happily (?) with the father’s ghost entering a mule to wander the world. “Sombra” shows Maddin’s gift for grabbing key elements of a milieu—in this case, Mexican folklore—and filtering them through his distorted lens to create a unique, rich and cohesively warped world. It’s the dream you might have if you fall asleep in front of a TV showing Mexican wrestling after chasing a bad burrito with three shots of mescal.
A whole different kind of weird comes in “Sissy-Boy Slap-Party,” a humorous approximation of what a pre-Code homoerotic smoker might have looked like if it was made by a clueless pervert who found the Three Stooges strangely erotic. The plot has a fetishistic simplicity: an old man leaves on a bicycle to buy condoms, warning the languid shirtless men sunning themselves on rocks on a stagebound tropical island, “remember: no slapping!” No sooner is he out of sight than the boys decide to give the foley guy a real workout as they sissy-slap each other with abandon, in every combination and variation imaginable, non-stop for three minutes until their overseer returns from his errand. African tribal drums and a jungle bass pulse provide the prono throb, but the desperate avant-garde violin solo laid over the beat carries the slappers to an ecstatically anxious musical climax. The joke is simple but very strange, and effective because of its absolute dedication to its absurdly kinky premise. The humor hits you like—well, like a slap in the face. It’s a short every weird movie fan should seek out.
Sissy-Boy Slap-Party keeps getting longer. It began its life in 1995 as a 2-minute short; unused footage was re-cut into the 2004 Saddest Music in the World version to extend it to four minutes. A six-minute “director’s cut” also exists and can be viewed on Guy Maddin’s Vimeo page. I think the four-minute version is the best; the long cut uses a lot of editing tricks that make it overly obvious the movie is a postmodern experiment instead of twisted erotica from a bygone age.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…[the shorts] demonstrate how Maddin can be far more fulfilling when he allows himself a narrower focus. Sissy-Boy Slap-Party plays like a goofy homage to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks and Jean Genet… Sombra Dolorosa [is] a demented take on demented Mexican melodramas replete with grieving widow, masked wrestler and garish (yet oddly beautiful) two-strip colour.”–Anthony Nield, The Digital Fix (R2 DVD)