The Saddest Music in the World (2003)

The next step is to make sure… that it stays a Guy Maddin film. I feel that the way to do that is to surround Guy with people who get it.
— Producer Jody Shapiro, “Teardrops in the Snow: The Making of The Saddest Music in the World

But young Maddin is convinced that the more cold his actors are, the more piquant their performance.
— Narrator, “Teardrops in the Snow: The Making of The Saddest Music in the World

“There are tears for things, there are tears of things, there are tears from things.” At the start of the “Teardrops in the Snow: The Making of The Saddest Music in the World,” Guy Maddin appears in grainy black and white. Soberly asserting a sort of declension of sadness, he stares into the camera, not even pretending to be comfortable. A notoriously idiosyncratic and inventive artist, Maddin here introduces his “most ambitious project.” Indeed, according to narrator Michael O’Sullivan, it “should prove to be the perfect crystallization of his eccentric talents.”

And with this, the documentary commences, a stagehand plopping down a sandwich-board announcement on a sidewalk: “Filming in Progress: Proceed with Caution.” Indeed. The film in question is completely weird and brilliant. The Saddest Music in the World swirls with scraps of movie and other recent history. Exhilarating, 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. Star Isabella Rossellini applauds the film’s “childish” charms, available in every frame: it’s the sort of elaborate, thrilling pastiche that might be conjured by a boy with a Giant Crayola Assortment.

Shot by Luc Montellier, Saddest Music offers a richly textured, scritchy surface that recalls the snow globe so beloved by Kane, with edges irised and darkened (in the making-of film, super-8 cameraman Ruben Guzman shows how he uses Lip Therapy Vaseline — not Standard Vaseline — to achieve the specifically filtered effects on his lenses, to distort “the periphery of the frame”). 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.”

This much is evident as well in the extraordinary short films included on the DVD, apparently shot during the Saddest Music production, but left out of the final cut. These are, in order of increasing strangeness, “A Trip to the Orphanage” (in which a sleepwalker is troubled by images from his sad past), “Sissy Boy Slap Party” (a bizarre and antic exercise, where a “father figure” leaves a band of young sailor types, who begin to slap one another to increasingly speedy drumbeats, leading to a veritable frenzy of slaps and beats), and “Sombra Dolorosa” (in which a widow fights El Muerto, Eater of Souls [and literal eater of corpses, a grotesque moment titled “Meal of the Dead”] in a professional wrestling match, to save her daughter Dolores from suicide).

Saddest Music is at least as odd, set in 1933 Winnipeg, here deemed the World Capital of Sorrow. (Maddin describes his concept as “something that’s just steeped in sadness, but it’s almost never directly shown.”) Determined to exploit this pervasive sense of tragedy, flamboyant beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), a double amputee and millionaire during the Depression, comes up with a fabulous moneymaking scheme. (In another DVD extra, “The Saddest Characters in the World: The Cast of The Saddest Music in the World,” Rossellini calls Lady Port-Huntley “our homage to Lon Chaney, who was an incredible silent movie actor” — Maddin sent her copies of Chaney’s “legless” performances.) 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 George 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.

“I’ve grown more and more obsessed with the idea of mythologizing,” says Maddin in the making-of documentary. “It’s just a way of being autobiographical, talking about yourself, without directly talking about yourself.” At the center of this reflective surface is Helen, who endured a long-ago romance with Canadian representative Fyodor Kent (David Fox), a World War I veteran and alcoholic former doctor. He yet grieves over losing her, in part because it was his doing, an event gruesomely revealed in flashback: she’s giving head to Fyodor’s son Chester (Mark McKinney) while he’s driving, the car wrecks, and Fyodor comes on the scene. In a drunken upset, he attempts to amputate one of her legs, and accidentally takes off both. Chester’s flabbergasted responses at the bloody sawing only underline the horrific 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 gaudy 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 must collapse in on itself, but not before revealing the lunatic, self-serving nature of cultural exploitation and consumption.