The Saddest Music in the World
Isabella Rosselini, Mark McKinney, Maria deMadeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan
Guy Maddin and George Toles, based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro
by Kate Bobby
It’s 1933 in Winnipeg, “the sorrow capital of the world”
and legless beer baroness, Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rosselini), has
come up with a brilliant scheme. In a nutshell: she will host an international
competition, awarding $25,000 to the creator of the saddest music in the world.
As for the idea behind the idea, it is simple. Underwritten by proceeds from
Lady Port-Huntly’s very own beer and liquor holdings, the contest will
inspire millions in Winnipeg to drink like fish, in turn, encouraging a frenzied
end to the Prohibition Era in the States. Port-Huntly’s ad campaign tagline:
“If you’re sad and like beer, then I’m your lady.”
If the premise alone hasn’t thrown you, the absurdly and surreally comic
The Saddest Music in the World may indeed be your kind of film. That
is presuming, of course, that you have a frame of reference for this brand of
Music’s maker, Guy Maddin, has been creating experimental shorts for
well over a decade and taking plenty of top honors for it, too. Unfortunately,
all the same, the Winnipeg native has never truly broken past the cult status
barrier and its plenty easy to fathom why. But while the wildly funny and visually
breathtaking Music could well find Maddin that broader audience he
so deserves, even then you’ll find yourself in rarefied company.
Hands down, his films will remain an acquired taste.
As in a dream, Maddin’s Music not so much asks as it forces you to abandon
all expectations with regard to its storylines and characters. This disorienting
fissure between story and emotion only widens as Maddin delivers a mock-sendup
of a vintage Hollywood landscape.
Moreover, since the only rules are no rules, Music is the meeting place for
a feverishly tainted tincture of cinematic vocabulary. A tongue-in-cheek salute
to German Expressionism links arms with the perky MGM musical. Bunuel meets
Orson Wells. Douglas Sirk tips his hat and shows his hand to Preston Sturges.
in the Rain waltzes with Sir Michael Powell’s Red
Shoes. To film buffs, Music is surely a head trip and treasure trove,
Maddin’s cast, too, is clearly in on it, not so much acting as winking
at you with what could best be described as the sinister glee of conspiring
schoolchildren. Detractors, of course, could write it all off as pretentious,
but Maddin is not the precocious wunderkind dressing to impress. If anything,
he could be accused of failing to consider an audience at all.
This criticism would also ring hollow, however. Maddin simply rides the ferry
all the way across, pursuing film as art, come what may. He fashions unique
cinematic universes from old materials he adores. The welcome mat, in truth,
has always been out. The door is always open. What we do with the invitation
is completely up to us. The best to be expected is that Music will actually
open doors for us, granting a wider audience greater access to Maddin’s
brave and entirely new cinematic world.
All in all, not a bad thing.