- Jul 6, 2003
The Saddest Music In The World
Running Time: 101 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1)
Subtitles: English and Spanish
Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1
November 16th, 2004
While I believe his films fall squarely into the “not for everyone” category (indeed most operate in a world far removed from what most would consider “mainstream”), Canadian writer/director Guy Maddin (Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary) is certainly an uncompromisingly original and innovative filmmaker. Personally, one of the things I find most interesting about Maddin is his fascination with infusing the “feel” of the old silent films he loves into his creations, by employing such techniques as coating camera lenses with Vaseline to soften the image, removing frames during the editing process, and intentionally introducing grain and other imperfections into the image.
To be perfectly honest, I prefer the clean, colorful look of modern films. That being said, the way Maddin and company employ these archaic techniques to create such a wonderful atmosphere in his films, particularly The Saddest Music In The World, definitely strikes a chord with me. And while it may not be my usual cup of tea, I have the utmost respect for artists as proficient in their chosen medium as Guy Maddin is, and in this instance, I think his stylistic choices are a perfect fit for the film’s subject matter.
With regard to this particular film, over the past year I have heard several people argue that it is Maddin’s most “commercial” film yet, and while I agree to a point, The Saddest Music is still just as artistic, “out there”, and low-tech as any of the other Maddin films I have seen. Incidentally, aside from Dracula: PFAVD, and supposing that you care at all , I have seen Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, The Heart of the World, and Cowards Bend the Knee. Eventually, I’ll see more, but I am sure you can relate to my problem - too many films to see, so little time to see them…
Anyway, since this portion of the review is supposed to give you an idea of what the film The Saddest Music In The World is about, I promise to stop prattling about the unique visual approach favored by Guy Maddin and begin describing the plot!
Our story commences in the year 1933, in Winnipeg, Canada, where the Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) has just devised a contest to discover “the saddest music in the world”. The person submitting the winning song would receive the grand prize of $25,000, which is not exactly a lot of cash these days, but was a princely sum during the time of the Great Depression.
This may sound like the beginnings to a pretty straightforward story, but if you have seen any of Guy Maddin’s films, you already know that things are usually never as simple as they seem on the surface. For instance, our fair lady is not quite the patron of the arts that she appears to be. Indeed, as she has learned that Canada’s wealthy neighbor to the south is about to repeal its ban on alcoholic beverages, Helen’s devious ulterior motive is revealed…to utilize somber music (which presumably drives people to the bottle) to sell more alcohol, which she distributes. Hey, if this theory proves correct, what better way is there to sell her products than by continually playing the saddest song in the world?
Naturally, in Guy Maddin’s twisted world, Lady Port-Huntley’s contest draws forth an array of bizarre people that are competing against each other for the top honor, several of whom have extremely complex past relationships with each other. One of the top contestants is an entertainer/con-artist named Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), who has just returned to Canada with his memory-challenged girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros) in tow. Looking for a way to score some cash, Chester stumbles across the information on Lady Port-Huntley’s contest, and sets his sights on the $25,000 prize money. He is confident that he has the talent to win, but his attitude changes a bit when he discovers that Lady Port-Huntley is a former lover.
As if the contest were not already interesting enough for Chester, he learns that his father, Dr. Fyodor Kent (David Fox) is planning to enter as well. Fyodor was in love with Helen first, but she ended up pursuing Chester, which caused the elder Kent to become an alcoholic. His addiction would have dire consequences for the Lady Port-Huntley as well though, for when she and Chester were in an automobile accident, the doctor removed both of her legs, in an effort to save her life. As it turns out, this procedure was unnecessary, but in his inebriated state Fyodor thought he was doing the right thing.
To continue with the family affair, Chester’s brother, Roderick (Ross McMillian), also throws his hat into Helen’s ring. Apparently, Roderick, who has been living in Serbia (going by the name “Gravillo the Great”), is also supremely confident that he can walk away with the prize. His reasoning is that he has suffered through many losses in life, including a terribly tragic event that later caused his marriage to dissolve, so he has the life experiences required to write truly sad music.
Of course, all three Kent men desperately want to win, so they each try to use whatever will give them an edge in the contest. To give a couple of examples, Chester tries to rekindle his relationship with Helen, and Fyodor fabricates some prosthetics for her, as a testament to that his feelings for her also remain strong. The early advantage goes to Chester, who works closely with Helen on his tune of woe, but as I mentioned before, you can never be too sure how things will turn out for the characters in a Guy Maddin film...
Now I don’t want to reveal too much, in case you haven’t seen it, so I will stop here. Even in doing so, this superficial level of plot detail should be enough to make it evident that the story is chock full of incredible coincidences, which knocks the film down a notch. Further, while none of it was cringe inducing, dialogue has a tendency to be a bit on the corny side, which also hinders the film slightly.
In my opinion, these flaws are relatively minor, but I do want to bring up one additional point for your consideration. You see, in watching this film several times for this review, I noticed my initial infatuation with The Saddest Music In The World’s bizarre characters and their intricate relationships, and the intriguing plot, began to fade with successive viewings. Perhaps the novelty of the film’s stylishness and crazy characters simply wore off, or perhaps watching it three times within a couple of days overwhelmed me. Whatever the reason, since I am a person who can watch movies many, many times without tiring of them, I thought it warranted mentioning.
On the other hand, I suppose that once you are really familiar with any film, certain aspects of it, especially the humor found therein, become less effective. In this case, however, I would imagine that the silent-movie effects favored by Guy Maddin might also become a source of irritation for some viewers. For me, the film’s style was not a problem, and the aforementioned flaws are not only overcome by Maddin’s steady hand and creativity as a director, but are not big enough issues to drive most people away from this film (at least in my opinion). Moreover, the sheer passion and artistry behind The Saddest Music In The World, particularly Guy Maddin’s loving reproduction of early melodrama, makes it a film worth watching.
For all of its simplicities, however, The Saddest Music In The World is also a very complex and surreal experience, with hidden messages couched neatly throughout. Of course, I could be dead wrong, but I interpreted certain elements of this film as subtle criticisms or commentaries on the business practices of large corporations, which sometimes dilute the differences between cultures to market their products, and consumer culture, in general. I surely do not want to overanalyze this film too much, but I do want to point out that these complexities are there for those who wish to look for them.
As I mentioned earlier, with respect to style, Guy Maddin’s adaptation of a novel by author Kazuo Ishiguo contains plenty of the skillfully executed tributes to both German Expressionist films and the silent comedies/melodramas that were popular during the cinema’s infancy that you might expect from him. Again, it is hard to imagine that everyone will be interested in this style, but I think there is always enough raw imagination on display in The Saddest Music In The World to warrant giving this sad song a listen or two. Simply put, The Saddest Music In The World is creative enough, entertaining enough, and good enough to warrant some attention, even though it contains a few minor flaws and might not hold up to many viewings for some folks.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
For once, I find myself almost at a loss for words…well not really , but it is rather difficult to assess the image quality of a film that is intentionally made to look like it was filmed in the era of silent films. I suppose we should begin by discussing the clarity of the image, which is presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen (1.85:1). Apparently, the majority of The Saddest Music In The World was shot on a film stock that produces a lot of grain, which was desired by director Guy Maddin. The image is also fairly soft, since Vaseline was deliberately placed over the lens of the cameras to increase the illusion of age.
Obviously, the result of these techniques is a film that is less sharp than most of those made today, and which also exhibits a grainy, almost antique appearance that adds to its charm. Just for good measure, some flickering and a few light scratches were thrown in. Since the transfer depicts these stylistic qualities admirably, I think it deserves high marks for that. At the very least, the image does not look like it contains print defects or grain that does not belong there.
Turning to other aspects of the image, whites are bright and largely noise-free, and blacks are dark, smooth, and detailed. Contrast also never poses a problem, and I noticed no overt signs of edge enhancement. It is important to note that a handful of scenes either exhibit a bluish or reddish tint, or appear as if they have been colorized by the butchers who used to colorize black-and-white classics some years back. These are similar in quality to the rest of the film, and fit in with its style, despite their somewhat unnatural appearance.
Essentially, this is a very nice transfer of a film that was deliberately made to look “old”. For those of you who enjoyed this film in the theaters, I can’t see you being disappointed with the way MGM has encoded it for home viewing.
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Much like its visuals, the filmmakers purposefully manipulated The Saddest Music In The World’s soundtrack to enhance the feeling that viewers are watching an older film. In particular, crackling sounds, a light hiss, and other defects that go a long way towards achieving Guy Maddin’s desired effect have been sprinkled throughout.
Indeed, although it is always audible, dialogue often sounded thin to me, as if the media it had been recorded on had deteriorated due to extreme age. Again, however, this is a stylistic choice, and both characters’ speech and the music in the film sounds good, all things considered.
Since I usually begin this portion of the review with a comment on the spaciousness of the soundstage, or the quality of the disc’s frequency response, you may be wondering how the film sounds in 5.1 channel Dolby Digital. Well, honestly, this is a rather tame mix (fitting for the source material), with the vast majority of the film’s audio information is emitted from the front of the soundstage. More specifically, the LFE channel is used very subtly, and the surround channels are used mainly to generate ambience (crowd noise) or give the film’s music a bit more room to breathe. The rears are also used to reproduce a location specific effect or two, but make no mistake about it, this track almost might as well have been offered in monaural.
There are three fairly interesting short films included, two of which seem like they could have been made concurrently with Saddest Music (they appear to have been filmed in the same style and on the same sets). “Sissy Boy Slap Party” was apparently filmed during 1995. Each of the films runs for four minutes, give or take. The following is a very brief description of each:
--- “A Trip To The Orphanage”
This short seems like it could have been an outtake from the film, and features a song of sorrow being sung in an orphanage. It concludes by posing the question: “The Saddest Music In The World?”
--- “Sombra Dolorosa”
In this short, a mother engages in a wrestling match with the demon “El Muerto”, and must defeat him before the eclipse, to prevent her daughter from taking her own life.
--- “Sissy Boy Slap Party”
The name about says it all – a bunch of semi-nude men slapping each other around. Bizarre and interesting, I suppose, but not really my thing…
Teardrops In The Snow
Clocking in at a robust 26-minutes, this making of The Saddest Music In The World offers an interesting look at an unusual and entertaining film. It is even narrated by Orson Welles (okay, not really)! During the course of its running time, there are a variety of interesting topics addressed by director Guy Maddin, and key people associated with this film, including the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel for the screen, and Mr. Maddin’s approach to creating the film’s signature low-tech look.
If you are buying this film, I am sure you are already planning on watching this, so I am probably wasting my breath, but make sure not to miss this “making of”, as it is very thoughtful, interesting, and detailed! I only wish it was a little longer!
The Saddest Characters In The World
“Saddest Characters”, which runs for 22 minutes, is an interesting companion piece to the other featurette on the disc. In fact, it almost seems like a continuation of “Teardrops In The Snow”, only this time out the cast elaborates on the characters in this story, and the casting process. In my opinion, this featurette was not quite as interesting as “Teardrops”, but it is still a worthwhile watch for fans of the film.
There are a total of 9 short teaser trailers included, along with the original theatrical trailer for The Saddest Music In The World.
The disc kicks off with trailers for Walking Tall and Coffee and Cigarettes, which can also be viewed via the special features menu. On the same menu, there is a promo entitled “MGM Means Great Movies” and trailers for: Bubba Ho-Tep, Touching The Void, Walking Tall, Saved!, and Intermission.
In addition, there is cover art for: Fargo, Cyrano de Bergerac, Blue Velvet, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Wild at Heart: Special Edition.
(on a five-point scale)
Film: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Video: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Audio: :star: :star: :star:
Extras: :star: :star: :star: :star:
Overall: :star: :star: :star: :star:
THE LAST WORD
As I mentioned in my write-up on the film, I am certainly not as familiar with Guy Maddin’s work as some (probably most) of you that frequent the Home Theater Forum undoubtedly are. That being said, it seems pretty clear to me that The Saddest Music In The World is not a film that will appeal to the masses who line up in droves to the latest “heavy on effects, light on acting and plot” blockbuster playing in 10 of the 12 screens at their multiplex. Not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you…
In any event, if you have yet to experience one of Mr. Maddin’s films, The Saddest Music In The World would be the one I suggest you start with, as it is definitely the most “accessible” of his films that I have seen. At the very least, it should leave you feeling that there is still some originality in the wonderful art that is film. Now I am a bit concerned that the many coincidences in the story, somewhat corny dialogue, and unique look may mean that this film might not hold up to repeat viewings for some viewers. For me, however, this is one of the more unique and creative films I have seen in some time, and definitely a worthwhile experience (if only once or a couple of times)!
I will close by saying that if you have already seen the film, and enjoyed it, this release definitely warrants some consideration for a spot in your DVD library. In terms of the technical aspects of the disc, the transfers for both the audio and the image are fine, presenting the artificially “aged” source material with precision. In addition, there are a variety of interesting, strange, and well-produced bonus materials available for fans of the film to enjoy.
In considering all of these factors, I can easily recommend The Saddest Music In The World to both those who have seen it and those who think it sounds interesting! Of course, as always, if you have any doubts, rent or borrow first!