Sunday, November 18, 2007

Guy Maddin, "The Saddest Music in the World" (2003)

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin has made some of the most idiosyncratic and memorable films of the last twenty years. Yet the vast majority of Americans have no idea who he is. That's in part due to the extremely low standards American film-goers require in their entertainment. The vast majority of people in this country that go out to see a movie don't want to be challenged. They want to be spoon-fed easy fare, and not asked to think too hard about what they see. In fact many folks get confused when they hear that there are some that look for anything in their movies beyond mindless escapism. Relatively few people are aware that there is a segment of society that actually perceives the medium as an art-form. This disparity of perception wouldn't present any significant problem if movies weren't so damned expensive to make. It is only in the last couple of years that the technology necessary to make decent-looking films has become (relatively) affordable. Of course this means that the vast amount of 'film product' released every year is aimed at the lowest common denominator.

Maddin has never produced films that would appeal to the hordes of consumers who expect roller coaster pacing, violent action sequences, CGI effects or dick jokes. That makes him rather unappealing to investors. Still somehow Maddin soldiers on, making both shorts and features that are consistently recognized for the artistry and originality that they contain. It is for this reason that the director was chosen (earlier this year) as the first artist-curator of the UCLA Film Archives. It is a well-deserved honor for a filmmaker that has been influenced by the silent films of Weimar-era Germany, and Soviet agit-prop from the 1920's. Maddin has managed to incorporate these elements into a body of work that remains undeniably distinctive and deals with post-modern themes of psycho-sexuality with sophistication and humor.

I became familiar with Maddin's work by watching his first feature- Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), which is a black-and-white cornucopia of dark surrealism that has been favorably compared to David Lynch's Eraserhead. Although it was often difficult to understand the film's plot, the tale of the relationship between two hospital patients and a small town's trials with small pox was fascinating to watch. It was the sort of distinctive and compellingly nightmarish vision that the viewer could watch repeatedly, and only through multiple exposures develop an impressionistic understanding of the perspective of its protagonists. While it wasn't a film that I'd want to watch every week, it was certainly one that I knew I would be returning to. I made a point to discover what else this strange artist had created.

When I learned that MGM studios was releasing a feature film on DVD directed by Guy Maddin, I was astonished. I wondered what type of concessions the artist would have to make to acquire that kind of funding and widespread distribution. The Saddest Music in the World stars Isabella Rossellini as a legless brewery baroness in Winnepeg in the midst of the Great Depression, who decides to run an unusual promotion to sell more product. The scheme involves bringing in musicians from all over the world to compete in a contest to perform sorrowful accompaniment for the edification of the beer-swilling townies. The description alone should suggest that Maddin managed to preserve his artistic integrity. If I had expected to see a typical Hollywood laugh-fest, I would have surely been disappointed.

The Saddest Music in the World retains Maddin's distinctive brand of visual genius. It has portions filmed in washed-out, black-and-white film stock, and includes several interludes in a strange trichromatic style that lends a dreamlike quality of magical realism to certain narrative events. The plot is much less convoluted than I might have been prepared for, and the motives and intentions of the characters were clear from its beginning. However, that doesn't mean that Maddin stripped the depth from the work. There is both a subtle perversity and a culturally satirical presentation to this film that ensures that it remains a bit beyond the reach of the average American film audience. Likewise, it's deliberate pacing and quirky editing style might leave a lot of people frustrated. But for those with an open mind and a bit of patience, The Saddest Music in the World has the potential of providing an ideal entry point into the career of an adept visionary.

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