The Saddest Music in the World Review
We really should be used to Guy Maddin by now. After all, he’s been active since the late eighties and has a CV boasting numerous shorts and features. Yet The Saddest Music in the World is only the second disc to feature his work to gain a release in the UK (the first being Tartan’s handling of Dracula : Pages from a Virgin’s Diary) and even the most hardened of Maddin enthusiasts still find his techniques surprising such is his singularity as a filmmaker. Indeed, no one else appropriates the early modes of cinematic communication with such aplomb. 2000’s The Heart of the World, for example, paid homage to Russian propaganda flicks and I’m still surprised, ten years on, that he didn’t contribute to the Lumière et compagnie collection as seemingly every other major filmmaker did. For The Saddest Music in the World the principle influence is Hollywood of the early thirties and I whilst I can’t guarantee that Maddin had it in mind when making the film I was particularly reminded of Cecil B. DeMille’s odd, beguiling and little seen potboiler from 1930, Madame Satan.
Certainly, The Saddest Music in the World is typical Maddin and thus far from being a conventional work. It’s set in the Winnipeg of Depression-hit 1933 (Maddin’s settings and stylistic choices often going hand in hand - had the film been set at the turn of the last century then no doubt it would ape the cinematic forms of that era) and is ostensibly a family melodrama slash musical. Mark McKinney returns to his hometown having picked up some “yankee doodle pizzazz” and girlfriend Maria de Medeiros whilst in the States. He comes back to both legless ex Isabella Rossellini and estranged family members: his father (David Fox), the man drunkenly responsible for Rossellini’s lack of lower limbs; and his brother (Russ MacMillan), a world famous cellist. The musical element comes courtesy of Rossellini’s worldwide contest to find “the saddest music in the world”, one which pits the brothers against each other, as does the fact that de Medeiros is MacMillan’s amnesiac wife.
Plenty for Maddin to chew on then, yet as is often the case with his films, it is the style which grabs the attention. The plotting may be more complex than is usual for the writer-director, as is the presence of “name” actors (though Alice Krige had appeared in The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs), but we are never able to fully immerse ourselves within his narrative. In comparison, the experimental colour techniques during select sequences continually outweigh any dramatic frisson in our minds and as such can’t help but feel less important. Likewise, the casting of Rossellini appears to be dictated more by a need to emulate the Hollywood style of her mother (Ingrid Bergman) than what she can provide courtesy of her own talents. The net result is that Maddin finds himself in an awkward position. On the one hand, he can’t be faulted for his visual exactitude - and The Saddest Music in the World is a quite remarkable achievement on that level. But on the other, it’s to the detriment of the actual storytelling and thus his film can never truly satisfy. Certainly, it’s an unpredictable exercise peppered with delightful quirks and some truly great moments, yet with each progressing work it’s becoming ever more clear that Maddin’s short films are by far the more satisfying for these very reasons.
Indeed, among the supplementary features are three such examples: Sissy-Boy Slap-Party, Sombra Dolorosa and A Trip to the Orphanage. Admittedly the latter plays like a Saddest Music outtake (though all three work as spin-offs, each being music based and concluding with the intertitle: “the saddest music in the world?” - though Sissy-Boy was made almost a decade ago), but the first two demonstrate how Maddin can be far more fulfilling when he allows himself a narrower focus. Sissy-Boy Slap-Party plays like a goofy homage to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks and Jean Genet (bare-chested sailors courtesy of Querelle; black and white photography courtesy of Un Chant d’amour) as well as some po-faced example of ethnographic documentary. There’s no narrative as such, just the “slap-party” of the title - had it been included in The Saddest Music of the World it would have made a standout moment, as it is it makes for a standout short. And the same is true of Sombra Dolorosa, a demented take on demented Mexican melodramas replete with grieving widow, masked wrestler and garish (yet oddly beautiful) two-strip colour.
If that isn’t quite enough Maddin for you, then Soda’s R2 release goes one step further than MGM’s R1 and also provides 2003’s Cowards Bend the Knee, or the Blue Hands. Something of a curio, this 64-minute effort isn’t quite a feature as it started life as a peep show installation travelling around the gallery circuit. As such it’s a strange mixture of sex and silence (though not provided with music accompaniment) and has a plot involving infidelities, ice hockey, mad science and a revenge-bent hairdresser’s daughter. Split into chapters (though the disc is without chapter stops), Cowards Bend the Knee sits somewhere between a full-length work and collection of shorts, though it’s impossible not to look at it without considering its origins. Indeed, its use of repetition and awkward pacing can be trying in its current incarnation, not that it’s by any means a disappointment. Certainly, its biographical dimension (the lead character has been named “Guy Maddin”) will give the director’s followers plenty of food for thought.
Bearing in mind Maddin’s stylistic approach, the levels of grain that accompany the assembled films are wholly intentional. Setting aside this prominent aspect, the presentations are decidedly fine. No technical problems make themselves known and original aspect ratios are essentially adhered to (1.78:1 for The Saddest Music in the World, Sombra Dolorosa and A Trip to the Orphanage; 1.33:1 for the other two) though only the main feature is anamorphically enhanced. With regards to the soundtrack, Saddest Music comes with a DD2.0 mix which is as crisp and clean as you could expect from a Maddin film. Yet whilst the film sounds fine in stereo, this isn’t the original DD5.1 which accompanied cinema screenings or the R1 release and as such must be viewed as a disappointed. As for the other films on the disc, each is given a Dolby Surround mix, all of which sound as good as should be expected and again pose no problems.
Alongside the additional films, Soda have also provided The Saddest Music in the World with a supplementary stills gallery and a commentary by Maddin and his leading man McKinney. The former is as you would expect, though it is intriguing to see images from the film without the attendant dirt and damage, though the latter is most definitely deserving of a listen. Chatty and amiable, Maddin and McKinney meander all over the film and its production touching on everything from moustaches and Canadian alcohol laws to askew pianos and punching old ladies. Highly inviting then, it’s just a shame that they couldn’t be persuaded to chat over the other films on the disc.
All of which would suggest an excellent extras package - indeed it is an excellent extras package, though it’s worth noting that some features which appeared on MGM’s R1 disc are notable by their absence: two featurettes (‘Teardrops In The Snow: The Making of The Saddest Music In The World’ and ‘The Saddest Characters In The World: The Cast of The Saddest Music In The World’) plus the theatrical trailer and a handful of teasers. Having not experienced these extras I can’t comment as to whether the R1 still becomes an essential purchase to Maddin fans in light of this R2 offering, though I’m certain that owing to its commentary and Cowards Bend the Knee R1 owners will no doubt wish to pick up this release as well.