The Portable Maddin
by Andrew Tracy

The Saddest Music in the World
Dir. Guy Maddin, Canada, IFC Films

At this point it’s hardly necessary (or possible) to grant Guy Maddin any more of the acclaim he deserves. Seven years after the failed Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) sent Maddin into a personal and professional slump, he’s come storming back with a polite Canadian vengeance: his television film Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002) had a highly successful theatrical run, the installation Cowards Bend the Knee (2003) is undergoing crossover success as a feature, Maddin retrospectives have been held worldwide, and a book of writings, From the Atelier Tovar, has been published. For those who care about the state of world cinema, Maddin has safely assumed his perch as one of the most singular filmmakers working today. Now that the true value of his previous work has finally come bearing down upon the film world in a rush of recognition, concern shifts forward: where to from here?

As always with Maddin, the answer is simple: straight back into the swooning, antiquated dreamworlds of half-remembered movies past, melting and recombining in strange new configurations. Despite originating from the pen of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, The Saddest Music in the World is Maddin to the core. Set in a mad hallucination of Depression-era Winnipeg (Maddin’s now-fabled hometown), Saddest Music weaves a tangle of melodramas around a contest staged by the beautiful (and legless) beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) to bestow the doleful prize of the title. Returning to his frigid northern hometown from the bright lights of Broadway, fast-talking producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney)—Port-Huntly’s former lover—sets out to win the contest with a series of vulgar musical spectaculars starring his companion, the amnesiac nymphomaniac Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). . . who happens to be the long-lost wife of Chester’s brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), now going under the guise of Serbian cellist Gavrilo the Great. . . while Chester and Roderick’s father, the WWI-veteran Fyodor (David Fox), nurses his unrequited love for Port-Huntly by fashioning for her a token of his affection: a pair of glass legs filled with her sudsy product.

So all the habitual Maddin paraphernalia is in place: florid melodrama, ornate language, incestuous love, and mutilated bodies, all filtered through the gauzy mists of outdated film stock. The almost tangible physicality of Maddin’s instantly recognizable visuals—his shimmering images seem to be the last violent gasp of a strip of celluloid before its irrevocable decay—is part and parcel of his entire style. He doesn’t make films so much as artifacts, curios from an imagined past whose emotional affect is ingrained in their feeling of imminent disintegration. It feels almost improper to commit Maddin’s films to the cold, pristine perfection of DVD—they should be discovered at the bottom of a triple-bill in a theater about to be demolished, or playing at 4 a.m. on a station which you thought had gone off the air.

This transient quality, however, is both Maddin’s great strength and ultimate weakness. His films are more to be dreamed upon than watched; the individual works are nowhere near as potent as the half-imagined whole they constitute. There’s a reason why The Heart of the World (2000) remains Maddin’s most acclaimed work: it packs everything he’s got into six minutes of absolutely exhilarating cinema. In the features, by contrast, the sheer relentlessness of Maddin’s invention can become wearying, and when combined with the grinding absurdity of his plots, tiresome. By the midpoint of almost any Maddin film, the dizzying pace of his fever dreams becomes a muddy slog; his best, most sustained feature, Careful (1992), works as well as it does because Maddin effectively breaks the film in half, replacing one incestuous narrative with another. Unbridled energy can be just as stifling as claustrophobic neatness—indeed, in Maddin the two are almost synonymous. There’s an element of complacency in the frenetic pacing, a manufactured sense of urgency imposed upon a temperament which prefers to swim placidly through its obsessions. The chaotic action, the overheated emotions, the grotesque contrivances are all safely contained in Maddin’s eminently sensible Canadian head. Like a madly whirling carousel, Maddin’s films plunge us into frenzy but leave us sure of being deposited right back where we began.

The rather muffling effect this has open the overall impact of Maddin’s films is magnified in The Saddest Music in the World by another factor. Much of the charm of the earlier films resided in their touchingly naive (while completely self-aware) conviction that the hoariest of melodramas could channel directly into our dark psychic dramas and pull forth emotional truths—that the tattered detritus of a century of cinema could be used to embody needs in the present. That naiveté is still present in Saddest Music, but it’s coupled now with Maddin’s awareness of his place in the film world. To draw an analogy, Saddest Music is Maddin’s Blue Velvet: it marks the point at which the filmmaker becomes conscious of his audience, and while his craft has never been sharper, the mysterious needs which drive him have become somewhat programmatic, geared to the gallery. When the insufferable Roderick/Gavrilo (insufferably played by McMillan) reveals that he carries his dead son’s heart in a glass jar, “preserved in my own tears,” it feels like a mark on a checklist, a roll call of Maddin Motifs. Maddin seems to be doing his archivists’ work for them. In Saddest Music, the fleeting memories left by Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), and Careful have been confined to the pages of a weighty, permanent tome, their free-floating and flat-footed delirium dutifully catalogued in a compendium of Maddinism. Despite McKinney’s smirking energy, Medeiros’s dreamlike moon face and hook nose (what a perfect addition to the Maddin universe!), and the gloriously absurd sight of Rossellini perched atop those bubbling glass stems, Saddest Music can’t shake the dragging weight of calculation, the waking life intruding upon the dream.

It seems almost churlish to fault Maddin for recapping his work thus far, for it’s not as if he leaves himself much room for development. Like a number of fine artists, in the cinema and elsewhere, Maddin is essentially making the same film over and over again, constantly reordering and embellishing his themes and technique. Not a problem—until the limits of the themes and technique start becoming more apparent. Only a cad would ever want to start a Maddin backlash—and I’m sure there are some ready to take up the whip—but to drown the man in praise only further obscures the small, genuine beauties of his films. Recognition has finally come Maddin’s way, and rightly so. Perspective comes next.