Thursday, November 18, 2004

The Saddest Music in the World Directed by Guy Maddin

Many critics, whether implicating foul play or not, labeled Dogville as un-American. Even anti-American. Of course they were all wrong. (To be fair, most of the really good ones shied away from this kind of knee jerking.) Barring that I’m uninformed, it seems that no one has made the case for The Saddest Music in the World as a decry of the red, white, and blue. I am genuinely (and - it should be noted - happily) surprised by this; especially considering that T.S.M.i.t.W. seems to say more specifically about the American way than Dogville.

The premise is a contest; moreover, a contest held by a legless beer baroness (Isabella Rossellini) to crown the saddest music in the world in nation vs. nation battle. The competition takes place in Winnipeg during the prohibition/depression years. Plotwise, that’s pretty much all you need to know. On the technical side: the film is shot mostly on 8mm black and white. Strongly influenced by German Expressionism, it looks very similar to the films of the late 20’s and early 30’s, the main difference being the editing, which is fast, choppy, and calculated.

As far as the America critique goes – it is less about America as a country, and more about the general American attitude. Namely: arrogance, emotional void, and the heavy hand (read: $$) which is used to bully others. (I guess the “others” refers specifically to “other nations,” making the film, well, yes, a little bit about America as a country. But the general gist is the American attitude, which, if you think about it, influences the manner in which our foreign policy is handled.) Representing America is Chester Kent, who brags of having a “tiny heart, covered in slime.” He, with his nymphomaniacal girlfriend in tow, declares entrance into the competition, determined to win the $25,000 purse at any cost. He buys the Mexican entrants, offering to pay for their trip back to the homeland if they join his team. He wears a smug grin at all times. And, most importantly, he has no idea about what it means to be sad. Yet he wins his first round. And continues to win further rounds. His songs are spectacles! of excitement about (ahem) slavery, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the ‘Alaskan kayak tragedy of 1898'. They’re about sad things, but hardly sad themselves. What’s their purpose? To make money.

I think this is Maddin’s point: look at how tightly America holds its billfold to its heart. And at the sacrifice of what else? Early in the film, Kent says, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass.” And what’s happiness to Kent? Entertainment. You should approach sadness the same way as you approach happiness, with head high and fangs bared. Then Maddin gets into the tricky stuff: why isn’t America sad? More importantly, what does it take to get America sad? In The Saddest Music in the World it’s the baroness’ prosthetic beer-filled legs shattering. Her two legs shatter, first the left, then the right. Immediately the audience melts into chaos - people run for the exits, women and children scream, everything is destroyed, ignited, or knocked over – total chaos. What did it take in actuality? Two towers shattering, first the left, then the right – you get the picture. Kent is murdered by the baroness - absolutely apropos – and, after claiming through the whole picture that he’s really, truly sad, calls himself the happiest guy in the world while in the throes of death.

I do not believe that Guy Maddin is anti-American, or at least The Saddest Music in the World is not an anti-American film. Rather, it is a call to realization, a bizarre fable on the depletion of sincerity and morality in America, and the spread of that vapidity to the world at large.


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