Film

TEARS, BEER AND ISABELLA

Guy Maddin’s new concoction is kitschy, delirious and brazenly showbiz

Brian D. Johnson May 3 2004
Film

TEARS, BEER AND ISABELLA

Guy Maddin’s new concoction is kitschy, delirious and brazenly showbiz

Brian D. Johnson May 3 2004

TEARS, BEER AND ISABELLA

Film

Guy Maddin’s new concoction is kitschy, delirious and brazenly showbiz

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

THERE’S BEEN a lot of debate about what kind of movies Canadians should be making, especially now that Telefilm Canada has hired the Hollywood mega-agency Creative Artists Agency to recruit expatriate Canadians into productions back home. A number of local producers are nervous that, in its quest to make our movies more profitable, Telefilm may sacrifice auteur filmmaking for a dumbed-down cinema. If that’s the case, Guy Maddin’s work would become an endangered species. This Winnipeg director, whose films are constructed like faux artifacts of vintage cinema, has a singular genius. And with the glorious folly of his sixth feature, The Saddest Music in the World, he’s taking the boldest leap of his career. Imagine trying to pitch this to Hollywood:

“Okay, we’ve got Isabella Rossellini, but minus the legs. She’s playing a double amputee beer baroness in Winnipeg during the Great Depression. She hosts a big contest to find the saddest music in the world, an Olympics of grief. It’s like a reality TV show, but on the radio, and everything looks really fake, including the snow. Especially the snow. Mark McKinney, one of those Kids in the Hall dudes, plays this cheerful slimeball who boinks his father’s girlfriend. He’s a riot. And the script is riddled with more goofy Canadian references than a Conan O’Brien broadcast from Toronto. But get this, it’s based on a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. He won the Booker for The Remains of the Day. It’s the Oscar for novels. Yeah, yeah, it got made into that downer movie with Anthony Hopkins. But relax, Saddest Music is nothing like that. It’s not even sad. It’s totally insane.”

And wildly original. Maddin bridges the worlds of cinephilia and Canuck kitsch with a giddy high-wire virtuosity. The film, a comic musical melodrama, comes across as a surreal parody of what the Great Canadian Movie might look like. Chester (McKinney), a failed Broadway impresario, comes home to Winnipeg with his sweetheart, an amnesiac named Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). He looks up his old flame, prairie beer queen Lady Port-Huntly (Rossellini). We learn how she lost both legs in a bizarre car crash involving Chester, fellatio, and a hacksaw wielded by his cuckolded father in a drunken rage. Now she’s promoting her Muskeg Brewery by offering a $25,000 purse to the musician with the saddest tune. As contestants flock to Winnipeg from around the globe, Chester vies for the prize, along with his streetcar-driving dad (David Fox), who plays The Red Maple Leaves on an overturned piano, and his mock Serbian brother (Ross McMillan), a morose cellist who keeps his son’s heart in a jar, preserved in tears.

Of Rossellini, the filmmaker says, ‘she’s one big walking enchantment and anachronism’

As Mexico faces off against Siam, and Canada against Africa, the contest unfolds as a carnival of antique ethnic stereotypes. A pair of unctuous radio commentators, recalling the rarified cadence of a bygone CBC, provide the play-by-play. The script is riddled with culture-conscious wit—lines like, “I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac.” But as the razzle-dazzle narrative whirls through a cirque of contortions, Maddin’s hectic brilliance elicits more amazement than mirth.

Shooting in black and white, with occasional bursts of colour, Maddin draws on a palette of distressed styles, from the grit of Dust Bowl realism to the flickering lustre of silent film. And the images are cut with a kaleidoscopic sense of montage. Amid all the arch fakery, it’s a challenge for an actor to be real. Rossellini is a fairy-tale witch in a platinum wig. But McKinney and Fox both break through the scrim of artificeQ with full-bodied performances. If the comedy lacks emotional ballast, perhaps that’s because in Maddin’s hyper-ironic art, the only genuine passion is for art itself.

“Guy wouldn’t have existed if there weren’t 100 years of films,” Rossellini told me. “Not just visually, but even his characters are more composed by the history of films than reality. In Winnipeg we watched a lot of Lon Chaney films. I always said Lady Port-Huntly would be the daughter of Lon Chaney and Cruella de Vil. And Mark McKinney was my Clark Gable.” As the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini, the actress has a keen sense of cinematic heritage. “I’ve worked a lot in film restoration,” she explains. “So when I saw Guy Maddin’s work, I was very touched that preservation is really his muse, and that it can produce new art.”

Asked to compare Maddin to ex-husband David Lynch, who directed her in Blue Velvet, Rossellini adds: “Well, they’re similar in their surrealism. Saddest Music is maybe more similar to [Lynch’s first feature] Eraserhead, because it’s so extreme. Guy Maddin is still very extreme.”

Last week, fresh from posing with Rossellini for a Richard Avedon photo shoot for the The New Yorker, Maddin had warm praise for his star. “She really cast a spell on me,” said the 48-year-old filmmaker. “I’ve always worried about introducing recognizable actors into my little universes, because they might burst the illusory bubble. But she’s one big walking enchantment and anachronism. She speaks exacdy like her mother. Every now and then she turns her head one degree and you see the lineaments of Ingrid Bergman. I found myself filming someone who’s not just five feet away, but five decades away.”

Saddest Music is Maddin’s most ambitious film, with (for him) a relatively plush budget of $3.5 million. With Rossellini’s star power and a rollicking, almost slapstick narrative, it may allow him to find a broader audience. “I dialed down the German expressionism, and the narrative has been turned up,” he says. “But the dials are all set at appropriate levels for the story.”

Written during the late 1980s, and set in London, Ishiguro’s original screenplay was radically revised. “The script got a heavy injection of Canadian DNA,” says Maddin, who co-wrote Saddest Music with George Toles, who helped him create Archangel, Careful and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Shooting in a warehouse, the director wanted to capture a Dirty Thirties Winnipeg winter, from “dreamy images of overexposed snow” to “frozen dirt—there’s nothing more depressing than frozen dirt.” But he got more winter than he bargained for. The warehouse wasn’t just unheated but unbeatable, with temperatures plunging to -45°. “We flooded a portion of it to make a skating rink, and the ice didn’t melt till May.”

The director wanted to capture a Dirty Thirties Winnipeg winter, complete with ‘frozen dirt’

With ice, parkas, playoffs and contestants sliding into a giant vat of beer, maybe Saddest Music isn’t as far removed from Men With Brooms as it might seem. It has a brazen sense of showbiz which Chester spells out in his pitch to Lady Port-Huntly: “Here’s an angle for you—America versus Canada. A brash son comes home to duke it out musically with his war vet pop. To win the dough, that Yank’s got to find his tear ducts in a hurry.” With Canadian modesty, Maddin is more circumspect about his own odds in the demonstration sport of Canadian cinema. “Really good movies still need really good luck. You just can’t control that stuff.” U]