The Cinema of Loneliness: The Saddest Music in the World (2003)A column article by: Nick Hanover
Celluloid International is a series of multi-part essays on different cinematic movements across the globe, some well-known, others less so. We're kicking it off with Nick Hanover's examination of what he's termed "the Cinema of Loneliness," a theory that Canadian film, because of the geography of its home, is predominantly concerned with isolation, whether it's of the emotional or physical variety. Earlier versions of the first three essays were originally published at Spectrum Culture.
The Cinema of Loneliness: An Exploration of the Emotional Center of Canadian Film
Part Two: The Saddest Music in the World and Canada's Self-deprecating Nationalism
Much of the international criticism focusing on Canadian cinema posits the notion that Canadian artists are perpetually in the shadow of America, leading writers to continuously create theories about Canadian film that center around its American parallels. This is such a pervasive theme that even one of the key books on Canada’s film industry, written by Canadian Mike Gasher, is titled Hollywood North in reference to its focus city Vancouver’s sometime nickname. To say that Canadian art may be suffering from the international form of sibling rivalry would not be an understatement. Indeed, many of the directors who have come to be seen as Canada’s greatest successes, such as David Cronenberg and James Cameron, arguably made their careers by exiting the Canadian system. This is an important context to keep in mind when viewing Guy Maddin’s masterpiece The Saddest Music in the World, a complex, sometimes dizzying film about a different kind of nationalism by an unabashedly Canadian director.
Maddin’s first feature was the surrealist Tales from the Gimli Hospital and focused on the goings on of the small town Manitoba hospital in the title; one of his most recent films is My Winnipeg, a “pseudo-documentary” about the town Maddin calls home. If Cronenberg and Egoyan’s canon largely consists of anonymous and therefore universal alienation, Maddin’s consists of the alienation that comes with living in a country with an inferiority complex. Rather than make excuses for his home country or attempt to embolden it by usurping American film techniques, Maddin has made a career out of Canada’s potentially greatest export: dry, deadpan humor.
The Saddest Music in the World takes that humor to an entirely different height altogether with its multi-tiered plot, based on a story by Kazuo Ishiguro that Maddin and partner George Toles completely dissected and restructured. Set in Depression-era Winnipeg, Saddest Music could be boiled down to a story concerning the isolation pride brings and sometimes vice versa. Lady Helen Port Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) is a beer heiress trying to keep her company afloat through the Depression and the tail end of Prohibition who stumbles upon the idea to hold a contest to determine which country has “The Saddest Music in the World.” The contest manages to somewhat reunite the fractured Kent family, whose patriarch Fyodor (David Fox) has seen his two sons Chester (Mark McKinney) and Roderick (Ross McMillan) run off to America and Serbia respectively. Unfortunately, the two sons have returned only to compete against one another for their adopted nations, leaving Fyodor to represent Canada himself.
Fyodor’s plight isn’t all that dissimilar to what Canada itself experiences with its artists, who leave the homeland seeking the riches promised elsewhere only to find that failure is an international trait. Chester briefly made it in America, only to fall with the rest of the population during the Depression; Roderick found love in Serbia but has now exiled himself because of the tragedy of the death of his son and disappearance of his wife, choosing to embrace his loneliness to drown out the pain of everything else, keeping his family as far away as possible. All three are of course perfectly suited to the contest at the heart of the film, which holds failure up as a symbol of greatness. Chester’s failure is that he’s just an anonymous emblem of greed, lacking all emotion after an accident caused his then lover Lady Huntley to lose both her legs due to the poor surgical skills of none other than his own father. Fyodor is still living in the failure of that accident and his unreciprocated love for Lady Huntley, for whom he has built glass legs containing her brand of beer. Roderick can’t forgive himself for his son’s death, carrying around the child’s heart in a jar filled with his own tears as a preservation fluid. All three refuse to exit the past, choosing to live there by themselves rather than in the present together.
The nature of the contest brings out the worse in all of them, causing the family members to take immense pride in their own brands of sadness: Fyodor’s is the waste of his potential, which he has kept perpetually soaked in alcohol and unreturned love; Chester’s is his inability to accept the human condition, treating everything as a contest or commodity; Roderick’s is his unending belief that his sadness is more important than all other emotions, that his suffering is forever going simply because he keeps it that way. Like black holes, each of the brothers suck everything and everyone else into their loneliness, Chester in particular assimilating all the other nations in the competition into his America, a true melting pot of nationalities if there ever was one.
The Saddest Music in the World ends in flames, the subject of the title revealing itself to be Chester’s swan song, played as he’s lost everything and therefore won. Roderick has found his wife and leaves with her, but his success comes at the cost of Lady Huntley’s own happiness, however artificial it may have been. In typical Maddin fashion, the film ends on a fiercely moral note, Chester’s demise clearly stated from the beginning, laughed off by himself at his own peril, his pride therefore necessitating his fall. Maddin’s passion for silent cinema and surrealism goes beyond just visual techniques, his work displays the structures and patterns of both- silent cinema’s deceptively simple moralism and surrealism’s devotion to symbolism above all else. The Saddest Music in the World confirms there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with being all alone, as long as you don’t take too much pride in it.
And that's something Maddin has largely built on in the years since The Saddest Music in the World. Earlier this year, Maddin released Keyhole, which twisted Homer's Odyssey into an epic personal journey that played out in a haunted house rather than across myriad islands and godly locales. Curiously, Maddin chose to frame the nationalist struggle that sparks the original story in the context of Canada's bootleggers, with the characters trapped in a police siege that featured its own Trojan horses. Maddin's interest in pride-- be it national or personal-- makes his reinterpretation of a Greek classic not as odd as it seems on its surfaces. After all, The Odyssey is the grandaddy of epic stories concerning sinfully proud figures and Maddin's take on Ulysses (as played by Jason Patric) pays the price for his price just as much as his historical namesake, witnessing the death of his "crew" as he stubbornly continues his quest to return "home," in this case a destination more psychological than physical. That quest is likewise what keeps Ulysses in complete isolation, no matter how many ghosts or loyal lieutenants he surrounds himself with. None of them can experience the truth of his personal journey and that uniqueness enables the film to be a convenient foil for The Saddest Music in the World, juxtaposing the shared attempts of an entire nation to find the "home" of its identity with one man's journey to the home of his heart.
Next week: Bruce McDonald and Canada's language war in Pontypool...
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover