As yet another season of multimedia marketing schemes masquerading as movies gets underway (hello, "Van Helsing"; goodbye, "Van Helsing"), one reaches out for other possibilities, other visions. And I have to admit that if you tell me there's a picture playing down the street about a legless female brewery tycoon who wobbles around on see-through prosthetic limbs filled with beer, and who is conducting a global search to find the saddest music in the world, chances are good that I'll be shelling out for tickets before you even get to the part about the world's most bummed-out cello player, who carries the heart of his dead son around in a jar, "preserved," as he says, "in my own tears."
I'm there! Sitting next to you, maybe. Because anybody who would make a movie like this clearly has little interest in big box-office numbers. No, anyone who would make a movie like this is clearly in the grip of some intense artistic compulsion, a compulsion possibly beyond the ken of Kate Beckinsale.
"The Saddest Music in the World" is a film by Guy Maddin, often referred to, somewhat dismissively, as "the Canadian David Lynch." Like Lynch, Maddin (who's been turning out strange little art pictures since 1986) has an affinity for deadpan surrealism and scenic decrepitude. But his distinguishing obsession is with antique visual textures, the primitive, flickery look of very old movies, from German Expressionist silent classics up through the soft-focus Hollywood romances of the 1930s. Maddin's blown-out, high-contrast black-and-white photography, his stuttery editing and his shabby deco set touches evoke lost worlds of filmmaking, and infuse "Saddest Music" with an unexpected emotional pull unrelated to its laughably absurd plot. For a weird movie, it's sometimes oddly touching.
We're in snowbound Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the winter of 1933. Winnipeg has been declared the world capital of sadness by ... somebody. Whatever. Lady Port-Huntley, the legless brewery owner (Isabella Rossellini), has become excited about the imminent end of Prohibition across the border in the U.S., and thus the opening up of a whole new beer market. Now if only she could find a way to draw international attention to the sad city of Winnipeg — and, not incidentally, to her fine line of lager. (She already has the ad campaign: "If you're sad, and like beer, I'm your lady.")
Thus the contest to find the world's saddest music. Lady Port-Huntley invites musical depressives from around the world to come to Winnipeg and vie for a $25,000 prize. Not surprisingly, in the slough of the Great Depression, they flock: a band of woebegone Mexican mariachis; a foot-stamping Spanish fado troupe; a group of Cameroonian tribal drummers (gouging their flesh in ritual grief); an all-girl Scottish bagpipe team; even a Siamese flute player. ("Nobody can beat Siam," a radio commentator chirps, "when it comes to dignity, cats or twins.") Two groups at a time go head-to-head with their most doleful laments. The winning act gets to slide down a chute from the stage into a big vat of beer: ploosh! Are you with me so far?
Three of the contestants are related, in complicated ways. Brain-fried piano player Fyodor Kent, a former surgeon and noted local lush, is the father of oily Chester (played by Mark McKinney, of "The Kids in the Hall"), a failed Broadway producer who has returned home with his mistress, a dreamy-eyed amnesiac named Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros, of "Pulp Fiction"). Chester is a proud scumbag: He plans to scam his way into the contest, representing the U.S., and to win it by whatever sleazy means necessary. ("Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass," he says. "It's all showbiz.")
Mark figures his one-time carnal relationship with Lady Port-Huntley should help. This is a tough sell, though. It was Chester who was responsible for pulverizing one of her legs in a car crash years earlier. And it was his father Fyodor, another of her lovers, who subsequently decided that the leg should be amputated — and then, in a drunken stupor, mistakenly cut off her remaining good leg first. (In contrition for this unfortunate surgical screw-up, Fyodor has ever since resolved to play the piano only while hunkered down on his knees; in further atonement, he later fabricates the glass legs that allow Lady Port-Huntley to finally get up off of hers.)
Meanwhile — stay with me here — also back in town is Chester's older brother, Roderick, the aforementioned super-sad cellist. Roderick, who wears dark glasses and a sort of giant black gaucho hat with a long black mourning veil stitched around its rim, now lives in Serbia, for some reason, and performs throughout Europe as Gavrilo the Great. Apart from hoping to win the contest as the Serbian entrant, he is also searching for his vanished wife, who wandered off after the death of their young son and has not been seen since. You can imagine his astonishment when he lays eyes on Chester's amnesiac girlfriend, Narcissa, and ...
Okay, that is a lotta plot, I know. And it's not even all of it. (We'll dispense with Narcissa's gastrointestinal tapeworm, which she sometimes consults for life-path guidance.) The story is happily preposterous, but there are glimmers of moral concern: Roderick is tormented by the public's fading memory of the 9 million soldiers killed in the First World War (which got started in Serbia in 1914) and by the fact that he himself is now more distraught by the loss of a single life, his son's. He is sad on top of sad, and if his sadness is preposterous, Maddin seems to feel that that's sad, too.
The movie is also a musical, of sorts. (Jerome Kern's swooning 1932 ballad, "The Song Is You," serves as a melancholy motif.) And it's certainly a logistical triumph: All of the film's sets were constructed in a huge, unheated Winnipeg factory building, with mountains of snow trucked in for icy vérité. You can almost hear the actors cursing the cold, or maybe the director.
"The Saddest Music in the World" goes on a bit longer than one might wish, and some people would no doubt find it tedious after a while. But it's a movie fueled by talent and inspiration and obsessive determination, not just by money. As an exercise in style, it's unique. I guess I don't really need to see it again, but I'm glad I saw it. And that's not something I can say about "Van Helsing," believe me.