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Muskeg Ramble: Beer heiress Isabella Rossellini plays coy with world-class cad Mark McKinney.

Dolefully Adequate

Guy Maddin's new film, 'The Saddest Music in the World,' rails against the death of music

By Richard von Busack

IF THE REALM of the American filmmaker is action, the realm of the Canadian filmmaker is mixed emotions. Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World is his strangest and yet most fully realized film. It is hilarious, too--an heir to the work done up north by the SCTV and Kids in the Hall troupes. Which doesn't mean it will be putting Van Helsing out of business, even if both films share the same roots of expressionism.

Set in a woozy version of 1933, the film is derived from a script by Kazuo (The Remains of the Day) Ishiguro, who has renounced the film. Maddin's opus, which blends sex, violence and silent-film melodrama, serves as his protest again the commercialization of music, laid out in the barely recognizable package of a Depression-era backstage musical.

Maddin's biggest budget movie yet ($2.5 million) even makes room for stars. Maria de Medeiros, the Portuguese Betty Boop, plays the love interest. In this movie where every nationality declares itself, her Narcissa identifies herself as a "nymphomaniac," in the same way Bogart in Casablanca declares his nationality as "drunkard."

The villainess is Isabella Rossellini, playing crippled beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley: a woman bitterer than 100 Joan Crawfords. Ironically, this merchant of intoxicants was once mangled by a drunken doctor. Is that irony enough? Of course not. The amputating physician was her lover, Fyodor (David Fox), out of his head with jealousy because his heartless bad-seed son, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), had stolen the woman he loved.

Years after this botched emergency surgery, the rich and warped Lady Port-Huntley decides on a marketing scheme for her Muskeg Beer. She stages a radio contest with a $25,000 prize--"That's 25 thousand in Depression-era dollars," she says insinuatingly--to the nation that can perform the saddest song. The contest will take place in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Maddin's hometown), which has won the world's dreariest city title four years in a row.

Soon, sad musicians inundate the prairie capital: Siamese bamboo flutists, woeful klezmer bands, crestfallen flamenco guitarists and lamenting mariachis. (There's no Magyar team armed with the "Hungarian Suicide Song" as seen recently in Gloomy Sunday.) Fyodor, now a clean-and-sober streetcar conductor, enters with a depressing musical elegy for the Canadian soldiers who went to Vimy Ridge in World War I and never came back.

A favorite is the Serbian contestant, "Gravillo the Great" (Roderick McMillan), a cello/horn player who hides his face under a veil of mourning, like the minister in the Nathaniel Hawthorne story. The veil isn't just for decoration. He's possessed with a neurotic sensitivity to light and sound, like Vincent Price in The Tomb of Ligeia. Yet this Gravillo is a fraud. He's as Canadian as Canadian bacon. His real name is Roderick, the other son of Fyodor, the reformed ex-doctor.

This tearjerker musical Olympics is as crooked as a dog's hind leg. Chester, Roderick's brother, returns to town. He has a diabolical plan to yentz his entire family--nay, the entire world--out of first prize.

A public besotted on American Idol ought to get Maddin's picture. At their worst, these amateur-hour spectaculars divert the public in the crassest manner possible: by convincing the hopeless that they, too, can be stars. Moreover, there are weirder plots in those classic-era Hollywood musicals featuring hustlers with slippery hair. One point of reference is James Cagney peddling his "musical spectaculars" in the 1935 musical Dames. McKinney, a hulking, snarky figure with a zesty line of patter, is a veteran of the phenomenal improv troupe the Kids in the Hall. Naturally, any really talented comedian can play a bastard--with ease.

There is heart to this film, though. The genuinely pathetic folkloric music duels with Maddin's theme: the show tune "The Song Is You." It recalls the happy days, before death, jealousy and drink broke up Chester, Roderick and Fyodor's family. The song becomes mutated, soaked in much razzle and dazzle by Chester's chorus of hired international ringers.

Maddin has created a symbolic satire of what really happened to popular music. The roots of musical comedy tunes were gospel, blues and Jewish laments. Broadway and Hollywood took the forgotten suffering of unknown musicians and polished it up as a mass-consumption pain reliever during the 1930s.

But Maddin's film isn't cranky. The melancholy House of Fyodor overflows with poseurs. The father is a flag-waving Canadian, uselessly flaunting his nationalism on the edge of the mighty U.S. of A. His sharpy son Chester claims to be an American. "You have the stink of America on you," quavers the old man.

And Roderick is a spurious Serbian. (One of Maddin's magic lines: "I never was truly myself, until I walked the streets of Belgrade.") The film shows up the peevish stylized anti-Americanism of Lars von Trier in Dogville. The Saddest Music in the World gets down to cases about the fraudulent, stagy side of nationalism and how the same music that characterizes a country also caricatures it.

Noam Gonick's documentary on Maddin, Waiting for the Twilight, notes that Maddin's film education came from marathon viewings of scratched prints from the University of Winnipeg library. Maddin has always tried to throw a veil on his images. He re-creates the poor visual condition of great films--a stance guaranteed to throw even more viewers off than his berserk plots and flamboyant performances.

In films such as Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Careful, Maddin has summed up the burnished yet decayed look of old silent films, with their mixed luminescence and rot. His movies look faded and dark, as if they've been vinegaring in their obscure tins. The Saddest Music in the World would have been easier for an audience to understand if Maddin had taken the easy way: just re-created the familiar nailed-to-the-floor camera style of the early sound musicals, using the standard Hollywood studio lighting of the time, as spotless as a coffee-shop counter.

While The Saddest Music in the World includes expressionist montages--the so called "Vorkapitch Shot"--mostly it's conducted in the studio-bound murk of an old silent movie, complete with foggy, cardboardy sets. Maddin is rapt with silent film, and that makes him in the minority right there.

Silent-film star Lillian Gish commented that if you saw silent film juxtaposed with sound, you'd think that the former came later. Silent film was a pure cinema of images, without language, with intertitles that could be changed to any of the world's tongues. I'm hardly arguing we should turn back the clock, but the advent of sound turned cinema into a Tower of Babel. Today, the primacy of the English language in movies is dominating everything in its path.

It's only human nature to forget sorrow, to deny it; it's particularly American to renounce it utterly, as if it never existed. That's what The Saddest Music in the World is about--melting-pot amnesia. On the threshold of domination by American film, there's one Canadian making work about his fears for the future, by lavishing a mix of laughter and tenderness over cinema's past.

The Saddest Music in the World (Unrated; 99 min.), directed by Guy Maddin, written by Maddin, Kazuo Ishiguro and George Toles, photographed by Luc Montpellier and starring Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney, opens Friday.

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From the May 19-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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