All Show Biz
The music is sweet, and the words are true.
The song is you.
—Jerome Kern, “The Song Is You”
Every once in a while, I decide I’m going to dismantle my vocabulary and try to learn to speak filmically all over again, but then I discover new ways of expressing myself in this primitive fashion that make me as excited as a kid on the first day of kindergarten with a new box of crayons.
—Guy Maddin, Indiewire
Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World is swirling with scraps of movie and other recent history. Exhilaratingly inventive, political, and insightful, it digs in deep and wide, paying homage to classic musicals, soaps, war movies, Blue Velvet, Metropolis, and Citizen Kane, among others. And Maddin has it right: the result is just the sort of elaborate, thrilling pastiche that might be conjured by a child with a Giant Crayola Assortment.
Meticulously designed to appear an artful jumble of images, The Saddest Music in the World, shot by Luc Montellier, offers a richly textured, scritchy, filtered surface that recalls the snow globe so beloved by Kane, with edges irised and darkened. Relationships among characters fall together as the scenes collide on screen (mostly black and white, sometimes bursting into color), forming a story that’s less linear (melodramatic flashbacks aren’t always assigned to specific penitents) than poignant. Even as it becomes clear that everyone has something to feel very sad about, the film also generates undeniable energy: it is, as one character repeats, “all show biz.”
The setting for Maddin’s extravagant concoction is 1933 Winnipeg, deemed the World Capital of Sorrow. Determined to exploit the tragedy, flamboyant beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) comes up with a fabulous moneymaking scheme. In anticipation of the end of stateside Prohibition, she announces a competition to decide which nation produces the saddest music amid the Depression’s loads of woes (“a frightening contest of human despair, a cavalcade of misery”). The winner will go home with $25,000, and attendees will consume (and pay for) barrels of beer: “If you’re sad and like beer, I’m your lady,” she exults.
Based on an old screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (Remains of the Day), and revised by Maddin and Greg Toles, this plot is certainly odd and intriguing. And yet it is only the barebones framework for the movie’s frankly stunning ingenuity. The metaphorical possibilities are rampant—the “saddest music” derives from and reflects economic, social, and personal despairs; the musical numbers reorder “the past” as glorious, cacophonous segments; the bits of film-qua-film speak to a shared, U.S. produced burlesque of “world” culture; the succumbing of represented nations (including Mexico, Scotland, India, Canada, “Africa”) to U.S. money, domination, and pageantry; and, of course, the familial drama trumps all.
At the center of this drama, more or less, is Helen, who endured a long-ago romance with Canadian representative Fyodor Kent (David Fox), a World War I veteran and alcoholic former doctor who grieves his loss of Helen. That he is directly responsible for this loss is gruesomely revealed in a flashback: following a car accident brought on by her cavorting with Fyodor’s son Chester (Mark McKinney, of Kids in the Hall) (she’s giving him head while he’s driving), the doctor drunkenly attempts to amputate one of her legs, and accidentally takes off both. (Chester’s flabbergasted responses at the bloody sawing only underline the bizarre lapse of responsibility on both men’s parts.)
While Helen holds Fyodor primarily liable for her legless condition, he’s been devoting his life to constructing prosthetics (she’s allergic to leather and wood, so he’s come up with the perfect solution, glass, filled with bubbly fluid), which he means to give her on the occasion of the contest. At the same time, Chester, now a producer of musicals in NYC, shows up to win claim the prize for his adopted country, the U.S., even as his brother, the morose Roderick (Ross McMillan), now calling himself “Gavrillo the Great” and wearing a veil (“My skin is very sensitive”) to denote his perpetual gloom, shows up to represent Serbia.
If Fyodor and Chester share a difficult history with regard to a particular and overly symbolic woman, the brothers are now embroiled in a similar unpleasantness, as Chester’s star performer and lover is Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), previously Roderick’s wife and mother of their dead son (whose angelic face haunts his father’s heartbreaking flashbacks). That Narcissa has no memory of the marriage, the boy, or Roderick is appropriate, given her name, as it is also apt that she has no concept of how she affects those around her. Her amnesia looks desirable (“What good is memory Narcissa?” whines Roderick. “It only makes you sad”), but it also denotes lack of identity. Asked her own nationality, she asserts, “I’m not American, I’m a nymphomaniac,” as if these are discrete concepts.
The Saddest Music in the World is quite upfront about its critique of connections between ego and storytelling, or perhaps better, between victory and history (as in, who gets to write it). The film’s most often repeated tune, and arguably its saddest, is Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.” In sentiment and lyrics (“I hear music when I look at you, / A beautiful theme of every dream I ever knew”), it speaks to a central dilemma of desire, projecting oneself onto the love object, be it an individual, an idea, even, say, a nation.
As the movie rather fancifully explores the increasingly dicey relationship of the U.S. to Canada (filial, testy), it also frames America as a kind of all-consuming force. Chester proposes to win the contest with ostentatious iconography and clamor, announcing that he sees grief as attention-getting performance: “I don’t believe that all this sadness really exists,” he says, as he and Narcissa observe a funeral, all ritual and self-absorption. And so he designs numbers that are as complex and brash as the nation he represents: “It’s got to be vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks… sadness with sass and pizzazz. They’ll eat it up.”
And they do. His productions—“Abolition Blues,” “Lusitania’s Lament,” “San Francisco Quake of ‘06”—rearrange history as lurid, self-promotional displays, huge and irrelevant, stirring in the most imperial, schmaltziest, most American Idol-ish manner imaginable. The final big dealio, a performance of “California, Here I Come” features an Indian dance troupe Chester has bought off (as he’s bought off every other contestant) dressed as Eskimo girls with kayaks attached to their waists.
Starring Helen (who performs even though she’s the ferocious thumbs-up-or-down judge for the contest, yet another sign of the rigging allowed by U.S. cash, influence, and willingness to sell out for any paltry prize), the extravaganza eventually collapses in on itself, but not before revealing the lunatic, self-serving nature of cultural exploitation and consumption.