The great bane of independent filmmaking is pretention, often manifested as the “weird just for the sake of being weird” syndrome. Some directors, especially novice ones, believe incomprehensibility is the same thing as depth, and they imbue their films with nonsensical dialogue and druggish images.
“The Saddest Music in the World” shows the positive flip side of cinematic weirdness. It is a crazy, crack-smoking movie, no question, but it’s weird in an accessible, amusing way. It’s not obtuse or illogical. Its plot, in fact, is entirely straightforward. It’s the way the story is told, the details, the fringes, the camera work, that make it a giddy, insane lark. It’s bizarre filmmaking that regular people can enjoy, too.
Directed by Canadian maverick Guy Maddin, the film is set in Winnipeg in 1933, the midst of the Great Depression (which Canada totally stole from us). Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), a Winnipeg native who became a Broadway producer, went broke, and has now returned home, is desperate for a new idea (“It needs to be vulgar and obvious, full of gimmicks,” he says of American sensibilities), and also for money. His girlfriend, Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), who claims to have a tapeworm that talks to her, is as broke as he is. They are in love, but love doesn’t keep you warm during the Manitoba winters (unless you set your love on fire, I guess).
Meanwhile, beer-industry maven Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) has found a way to garner publicity for her beer halls. Since Winnipeg has been named the saddest city in the world three years running by a London magazine, Lady Port-Huntley will sponsor a contest to determine which nation produces the saddest music in the world. The musician who can prove his native land to be the dreariest, song-wise, will win $25,000.
Chester plans to represent America. His father, streetcar driver and alcoholic one-time doctor Fyodor (David Fox), will represent Canada. Chester’s brother, a fellow expatriate named Roderick (Ross McMillan), will represent his new homeland of Serbia (starting point of World War I, after all, putting it right up there in terms of sadness).
All three Kents have ties to Lady Port-Huntley, who lost her legs in a tragic car accident years ago. Narcissa is involved, too, and the connections among all the characters are revealed as the story progresses.
I am struck first and foremost by the film’s odd sense of humor. A pair of play-by-play announcers give us the low-down on each of the competitions in the tournament (Mexico vs. Siam, etc.), delivering a hilarious line almost every time. (“No one can beat Siam when it comes to dignity, cats or twins,” one of them says. Later, a cellist is remarked to have “drawn enough moisture from hardened Old World eyes to fill the English Channel.”) Lady Port-Huntley’s leglessness, and the eventual solution to that problem, are a continual source of amusement, too.
Visually, the film is composed to look like it was shot in 1933, including being in black and white (except for a few scenes, apparently randomly chosen, that are in color). The picture occasionally jumps a bit, as if frames are missing, as often happens with old films. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier frames some scenes with foggy edges, and makes others look like they’re set inside a snowglobe or a raindrop. It’s as though an old German expressionist film were discovered in a vault and is being shown now for the first time.
I don’t know whether the film would hold up to repeat viewings; it may be that the fun of it wears off once you’ve been through it once. That first run-through, though, is a doozy. It’s a fantastically weird and funny movie that exhibits creativity in its most sharp and disciplined form.
A- (1 hr., 39 min.; )