Beyond the toques, hockey, and those ever-rampant igloos, Canada houses a veritable smorgasbord of media talent. Unfortunately, much of it migrates to the States and becomes part of the "They're Canadian!?" contingent -- including game show host Alex Trebek, and actors from Michael J. Fox to Fay Wray. Heck, even Jack Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, was born in London, Ontario. Yet on the northern side of the 49th parallel, a lot of talent still thrives. This is the inaugural post of Northern Exposures, a monthly column that will highlight great Canadian films you should check out, and the wider-recognized work they are similar to.
Film: The Saddest Music in the World
Director: Guy Maddin
Comparable to: David Lynch
The Saddest Music in the World might not be the most accessible film to throw at wide-release audiences, being a grainy, 8mm black and white film blown up for the big screen, but being the indie side of Cinematical, I can't help but start off with my favorite Canadian film. Before he wowed audiences with Brand Upon the Brain!, Guy Maddin concocted the movie he'd been waiting years to make – one with recognizable, real movie stars and a $3.5 million budget. While it sounds like dreary fare, Saddest Music is actually a quirky, almost fantastical satire about love, greed, pain, and the undeniable allure of show. After being chosen by the London Times as "The World's Capitol of Sorrow in the Great Depression," frigid Winnipeg, Manitoba is going to host a world-wide contest to find the saddest music in the world, led by beer baroness Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini). The lucky winner of this contest of despair will land $25,000 in "Depression Era dollars" and claim "the jewel-studded crown of frozen tears." But this is more than a desire for woe – it's the Lady's scheme to continue the allure of alcohol in the "happy suds party to the North," while America lives its days in dry prohibition.
Meanwhile, fresh from the fortune teller with his psychic, tapeworm-carrying girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Canadian ex-pat Chester Kent (Mark McKinney) is determined to win. He visits Lady Port-Huntley to put his hat into the ring, and the bigger picture soon becomes clear. He and the Lady were lovers long ago, when he stole her away from his own father, Fyodor Kent (David Fox). The tryst, however, came to a dangerous end during a particularly lascivious car ride. The couple crashed because of Fyodor, and he further mucked things up, leaving the Lady leg-less. Unfortunately, she's allergic to wood and leather, so prosthetics were out of the question until, years later during the middle of the competition, she's presented with long, shining glass legs filled with beer.
In the world of Maddin, this is, of course, only part of the story. Chester also has a brother, Roderick (Ross McMillan), who has traveled back home to represent Serbia in the contest. He is plagued with the wretchedness of over-sensitivity, and can be bothered by the mere act of someone swallowing too loudly. Roderick is also mourning the death of his young son and subsequent disappearance of his wife -- Narcissa, who doesn't seem to remember. He's so distraught, in fact, that he carries his son's heart with him in a jar, preserved by his own melodramatic tears.
What is to come plays out over the course of the competition -- a farce in its own right. Countries square off against each other -- Siam vs. Mexico, Canada vs. Africa -- broadcasting their sorrow in sound. While the countries vie for the title of most-miserable, two announcers give a running commentary of the proceedings, which is both utterly ridiculous and kind-of on-target as far as passionless reportage goes. After a few rounds, Lady Port-Huntley flashes a thumbs-down to the unlucky, less-sad loser, and an admiring thumbs-up to the pitifully sad victor, who gets to slide into a vat of beer.
Now, just as Chester is the optimistic, light brother to Roderick's darkness, Guy Maddin is the bright directorial brother to David Lynch's shadow. If you're drawn into the darkness of films like Eraserhead, chances are you will find similar enjoyment in Saddest Music. Each director creates a fantasy of dysfunction. However, where Lynch's worlds are saturated with epically dark suffering and drama, Maddin uses the absurd to tackle similar issues with mirth and frivolity. In some cases, their scenes are almost identical. In Twin Peaks, Lynch has Leland Palmer fling himself, sobbing, on his daughter's coffin; in Saddest Music, an unknown, grieving relative does the same thing. Where one director displays chilling grief with a side of humor, the other is all about the farce. Lynch is the real, cold metal of the barrel to Maddin's less-serious finger guns. And yes, you will see finger guns in the film.
Maddin's style lies in the bizarre, from the earnest performances of his cast, to the way that he shoots them, and each piece intertwines into a seamless whole. While he is one of those unique, art-house sort of indie directors, he is also one of the most accessible. His vision might be a bit of an adjustment, but his absurdity is easy to consume -- being both intelligent and utterly juvenile. The plus that Maddin has over Lynch is that in all of the film's strange twists and fantastical logic, it makes sense. While films like Inland Empire will leave you eternally wondering about how the story fits together -- a futile task considering the fact that Lynch shot footage as it came to him, regardless of the narrative whole -- films like Saddest Music and Brand will just leave you musing about his mirth.
Note: Over at the Village Voice, you can not only read an article Maddin wrote about Lynch's Blue Velvet, which also starred Isabella Rossellini, but also a farcical production diary that the director wrote for the site.