> Volume 6 > Number 18


Guy Maddin

Isabella Rossellini
Mark McKinney
Maria de Medeiros
Ross McMillan
David Fox
Claude Dorge

Release: 30 Apr. 04

The Saddest Music in the World


Rare is the director who can make his masterpiece in a single given year. Rarer still is one who can do it sandwiched between two other masterful exercises in his art. The Saddest Music in the World, though not near the mesmerizing genius of Cowards Bend the Knee, is the third trick from Guy Maddin over the course of a year, a crowning achievement that will likely never get the kind of press Steven Soderbergh got for making just two great films in 2000.

But I doubt Maddin is that hungry for media attention. His films, likely the most popular short postmodernist works since Maya Deren, are clearly made for a cineaste audience whose taste lean towards the torrid sexual violence underlying much of silent film’s style. His genius is unequaled, and, in the homogeneity of Hollywood, this Canadian would likely never be able to accept the confines of decent cinema (he’s like a talented version of Mike Figgis).

Based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, the film, like Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day, looks at the establishment of designations and colonization. Here, it’s Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, that has been named the world’s capital of sorrow. Such a statement must be taken as absurd, even in 1933 Depression Era Canada, but considering it’s from a decision by The London Times, a paper that would be unwilling to admit the bleak state of many of the crown’s colonies, maybe Winnipeg just seemed politically correct.

Hoping to turn this into a huge advertising ploy for her beer label, the city’s self-proclaimed queen, Lady Helen Port-Huntly, invites all the countries of the world to compete for $25,000 in a search for the saddest music in the world. With each winning round, which has countries go head-to-head as a rapturous crowd listens and color commentators drop inane facts about the competitors, the performers slide into a vat of Port-Huntly beer and prepare for their next match.

A filial-fraternal war, meanwhile, ignites between three frontrunners, as the Canadian father, a veteran of World War I must compete with his expatriate sons representing Serbia and America. To make matters worse, the Serbian, Fyodor (McMillan), is still getting over the death of his son and the runaway of his wife, who’s now the muse for the naturalized American sibling Chester Kent (McKinney; the character is named after Jimmy Cagney’s role in Footlight Parade).

Kent is representative of the American people, few of whom (at least among those in power) are from historically American backgrounds. That Kent is a first generation immigrant, at least in the eyes of his jingoistic father, is enough to make him representative of the entire greedy American structure. It comes as no surprise, then, that Kent begins to buy out the talents of past competitors so he can exploit them in his performances, which are more Broadway spectacle than the true anguish on exhibit from other countries. As the supremacy of the colony begins its final, dying breath (1933, of course, is the year Hitler came into power), the economic colonialism seen by Kent’s actions are meant to show the status of America in the ongoing battles for dominance in the world. Even if it’s the strongest, richest, most powerful country in the world, Maddin and Ishiguro seem to be saying that America will still try to prove its primacy in any competition. That, in retrospect, could be the saddest fact in the world

©2004, David Perry,, 30 April 2004