By Steven G. Kellman
In subtle books such as The Remains of the Day and The Artist of the Floating World, British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of restraint, of telling a story obliquely, through characters so repressed they cannot begin to understand or explain what is happening. In The Saddest Music in the World, the screenplay that he wrote with idiosyncratic Canadian director Guy Maddin, Ishiguro lets the pent-up emotion break out like a case of adolescent acne. Fluttering down from the far northern plains, this film is a rare bird: a lark begat upon a cuckoo.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? featured contestants desperate for prize money during the Great Depression competing in grueling dance marathons. The Saddest Music in the World, set in 1933, is the goofy story of an international cash tournament held in chilly, gloomy Winnipeg. Maddin's home town, called in the film "the world capital of sorrow," the city is made to resemble both a mining camp and an amusement park.
An olympiad of maudlin melody has been conceived by a local beer magnate named Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Rossellini). "If people are sad and like beer," she declares, "I'm your lady." Lady Port-Huntley offers a $25,000 reward to the performer who presents the saddest music. Each elimination round pits representatives of one nation against those of another: Siam vs. Mexico, Canada vs. Africa (sic), the United States vs. Spain, Serbia vs. Scotland. While Prohibition is still in force in the United States, participants and spectators at this Manitoban pageant of pathos are all awash in the sponsor's suds.
The film begins with a grainy, ghastly prologue in which, following an automobile accident, a doctor named Fyodor Kent concludes that one of Port-Huntley's legs requires amputation. But he is a wee bit soused and cuts off both. Fyodor feels almost as bad as his victim about his error, and he eventually tries to make amends by designing prosthetic glass legs that can both hold her up and hold her beer.
The action begins a few years later, when Fyodor's son, Chester (McKinney), a bankrupt theatrical impresario who has returned to Canada from Broadway, decides to try for the $25,000 prize. He finds himself contending against his own brother, Roderick (McMillan), a sullen cellist who has just returned from Serbia ("the little country that started the Great War," it is called) and bills himself as "Gravillo the Great."
All this and more add up to a heady brew that holds more spume than substance. It is hard to think of any other film in which mariachis vie against bagpipers, hockey players deliver a chorus of "I Hear Music When I Think of You," and a group of Bengalis posing as Eskimos croons "California, Here I Come." Ebullient Chester, who competes for the United States, not Canada, is a parody of Yankee boosterism; he pledges that his music will express "sadness, but with sass and pizzazz." The very idea of a monetary reward for the saddest sounds mocks North American culture's tendency to turn everything into a sporting event and to exploit dolor for dollars. Two play-by-play announcers provide chirpy running commentary on what they call the "cavalcade of misery."
John Keats observed that, "Our sweetest songs of saddest thoughts do sing." Yet The Saddest Music in the World is about as sweet as rancid beer. Maddin shot his quirky film from unexpected angles in gauzy black-and-white, interrupted occasionally by color. The soundtrack is layered with peculiar noise, including a faint reprise of Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You." I hope not. •