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Tue August 17, 2004
The Saddest Music in the World
"The still, sad music of humanity."
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
And I thought "Dogville" was stylized. Canadian writer/director Guy Maddin ("Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary," "Archangel") has created a film like no other this year except possibly "Triplet's of Belleville." "The Saddest Music in the World" is a "musical" set in Winnipeg in 1933, where Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) is holding a contest to award $25,000 to the saddest music performer. In "Depression Era dollars," no less.
Winnipeg has been declared by the London Times "the world capital of sorrow" for the fourth year in a row. What happens in the film can be categorized as surrealism of the sort that marries the Melies brothers in their "Trip-to-the-Moon" wackiest to "The Twilight Zone" in Rod Serling's most hilarious (and that's pretty unusual) moments. Shot in distressed mode with 8 mm blown up to be grainy and silent movieish, "Saddest" has blue-grays and silvers and occasional bursts of washed-out color that give it an otherworldly cast meant to satirize the old movies and create a new look built on nostalgia and freedom from convention that some call expressionism.
Some of the bizarre acts vying for the prize are Fyodor (David Fox), a veteran of World War I representing Canada, who plays a deathlike version of ''The Red Maple Leaves'' on an upright piano he has turned over, and Indian singers in Eskimo costumes, who dance to ''California Here I Come'' with sitars and banjos commemorating a 19th-century kayaking accident. All the time an iris lens blurs the edges of the film to recreate the ancient look of film found in a vault after 50 years.
That Lady Port-Huntly needs artificial legs is not as bizarre as the back story of how she came to need them, and that the new glass legs have local beer coursing through them is just another creative and absurdist touch. With a resemblance to the robot in "Metropolis," she is an amalgam of strange and prophetic moments in film and culture.
I know I'm not making much sense here--Trust me that this film is bizarre enough to satisfy the geekiest cultist in our audience. For the rest of us, just trying to appreciate all the signposts Maddin constructs to further his absurd and funny vision is exhausting.
Wordsworth's words apply because we at least hear "the still, sad music of humanity."
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.