Guy Maddin’s snow globe cinema, hermetically sealed in ghostly adoration of silent cinema, is well matched to this darkly comic fable about a legless beer baroness’s search for the saddest music in the world. Musicians from the four corners of the globe assemble in the frozen city of Depression era Winnipeg for the opportunity to win a $25,000 prize. Taking a central part in the competition is a father and his two estranged sons, one a fast talking, wannabe Broadway producer (a surprisingly effective Mark McKinney) and the other a grief stricken cello player mourning the death of his son and the disappearance of his wife. Maddin displays his characters like so many wind-up tin toys stranded in a fish bowl, melodramatically absurd castaways from a rogue Monty Python sketch. Yet absurd as they may be, their pain is never belittled by Maddin’s baroque leanings; the opposite is in fact true as the director’s penchant for stylistic artificiality lends an operatic significance to the sadness of every character. Lest this imply that the work is primarily concerned with a dour exploration of grief, let it be noted that the film is quite funny. Maddin’s success comes in allowing the comedy to be, by turns, as cartoonish and as serious as it needs to be. A wild orchestration of flamboyantly touching images and fair ground theatrics, The Saddest Music in the World is, love it or hate it, a refreshingly and exuberantly personal vision of the world.
Not having seen the film during its theatrical release, it can only be imagined how much more stunning Maddin's carnival displays would have looked writ large. But it's clear that the film has lost none of its strange comic dementia and dreamy significance now that it is pared down to DVD and the small screen. Of special note is the music in the film, a collection of international sounds from Scottish bagpipes to African drums, and, again, the theatrical aural spectacle of these competing national soundscapes, as good as it sounds on DVD, is probably only slightly approximated by the home viewing experience.
The DVD features a number of extras, most enjoyably three short films by Maddin presumably filmed concurrent with The Saddest Music in the World as they feature many of the same performers. Of particular note is the slapstick homoeroticism of Sissy Boy Slap Party, apparently Maddin's tongue-in-cheek response to Kenneth Anger's S&M-infused shorts. The two featurettes on the film's production and cast are unfortunately hurried but intriguing nonetheless, particularly the latter as it shows Maddin actually at work wielding his 16mm and Super 8 cameras. The actors all appear slightly befuddled and yet genuinely charmed by their director's idiosyncratic tendencies-with the possible exception of Maria de Medeiros who just looks confused throughout. When discussing his working methods and approach to filmmaking in "the making of" featurette, Maddin asserts that a bigger production would probably have forced him to buckle under the pressure as he isn't "tempermentally suited" to such a responsibility, which is to say suited to a hundred overseers and money handlers questioning every little move. And, indeed, as co-producer Niv Fichman mentions, he felt that his responsibility was to surround Guy with people "who got it." The notion of Maddin as a delicate genius watched over by protective, shepherding influences, an impression reinforced by the gushing enthusiasm of his production team-like watching a group of adoring adults indulging a particularly precocious child. But Maddin obviously inspires a great deal of loyalty in his cohorts. If only more directors could say as much.
An enjoyable DVD release of a wonderfully strange film.