Wrapped in a nimbus of nostalgia and reclaimed glamour, the films of Guy Maddin look like movies I should have seen in childhood (but didn't), when I basked in the light of my family's TV. Well into the 1970s, New York City television offered up an astonishing array of old movies that, while often shown in battered and nearly transparent prints, opened up worlds of wonder. Among the eagerly anticipated programs were "Million Dollar Movie" and, my favorite, "Chiller Theater," which beckoned viewers into make-believes alive with mystery and chesty vampires decked out in gossamer gowns and peroxide upsweeps.
In Maddin's latest feature, "The Saddest Music in the World," Isabella Rossellini wears a tatty peroxide wig of considerably older vintage than those worn by the bodacious bloodsuckers of my TV past. Rossellini's character — a legless beer tycoon named Lady Port-Huntley — wears a helmet of hair that looks as if it enjoyed better, more frolicsome days, perhaps plopped on the head of a chorine in a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical.
FOR THE RECORD: "Saddest Music" character —Lady Port-Huntly, the name of the character played by Isabella Rossellini in the film "The Saddest Music in the World," was incorrectly spelled Port-Huntley in the movie review in Friday's Calendar section.
Filled with old-fashioned movie magic and bountiful allusions from the big-screen past, Maddin's films inspire such rambles down memory lane. Lovingly cobbled together from his treasure-trove of obsessions and memories, his filmmaking — much as it has for Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino — exemplifies movie love at its most ecstatic.
Lady Port-Huntley always parks a glittering tiara atop her head, a fitting ornament for the so-called "Beer Queen of the Prairie." A central player in this Depression-era story, Port-Huntley has decided to stage a contest to determine the saddest music in the world. Contestants will be drawn from around the globe to Winnipeg, Canada (Maddin's hometown), the city judged by the Times of London as the world's saddest several years in a row. A forlorn Tibetan flutist will attempt to flood Mexican mariachis with a waterfall of melancholy notes, while Scottish bagpipe players try to blast away a crestfallen Serbian cellist with their sorrowful blowing. The contest will ensure invaluable publicity for Port-Huntley, who hopes to quench the thirst of Americans who soon will be liberated from the bonds of Prohibition.
As setups go, this one's a pip. Maddin, working with his longtime screenwriter, George Toles, has concocted more flagrantly nutty premises, but this time the collaborators are nicely tempered by Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his novel "The Remains of the Day."
This improbable convergence of talent originated with a screenplay by Ishiguro that was reworked by Maddin and Toles — here's hoping someone publishes the accumulated script revisions. Until then it's a matter of conjecture as to who wrote what, although it seems likely it wasn't the Booker Prize-winning novelist who cooked up the line "I'm not an American, I'm a nymphomaniac." This blissful non sequitur, by the way, emerges from the bow-shaped mouth of Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), companion to one of the most important players in this gloriously turgid melodrama, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney).
In time, Maddin and his cohorts connect the narrative dots between Narcissa and Chester, as well as those between Chester and Port-Huntley, and Chester's father, Fyodor (David Fox), and brother, the cellist and sad-music contestant Roderick a.k.a. Gavrillo (Ross McMillan). It's all terribly tortured, often laugh-out-loud, absurdly funny and, as with all of Maddin's movies, conveyed through images that are as lush and beautifully over the top as the story's emotions. The director has a refreshing disregard for filmmaking fashion, having created a singularly striking visual style built on tropes borrowed from silent and early 1930s cinema. The madness of his method means that "The Saddest Music in the World" doesn't just re-create 1933 through costumes; it actually looks like a 1933 picture, albeit a talkie with ample silent-movie filigree.
When Narcissa and Chester take a walk, the scene evokes a similar stroll between two lovers in F.W. Murnau's 1927 silent masterpiece "Sunrise," an allusion that works both visually and for the story. Maddin never reaches the sublime heights of Murnau, one of the art's true visionaries, but he easily earns the right to such sampling. Unlike directors who steal because they have nothing to say and no way to say it, Maddin loots film history as a way to travel back to the time when the movies hadn't yet been corrupted by corporate logic. (He's blissfully corrupt in other respects, however, sharing pre-Code Hollywood's delight in fast women and racy men.) What's wonderful about his work isn't simply his delight in a movie moment long past — it's that he's such a good and generous thief.
Like his contemporary Todd Haynes, who directed the neo-melodrama "Far From Heaven," Maddin walks a very fine line between camp and cornball earnestness. Maddin's preferred genre is the melodrama, but there's always an aspect of the thriller in his work. He pushes his movie allusions so hard, and twists and turns his plot into full-tilt absurdism, that there's always the worry he won't be able to get to the end without succumbing to parody. He never does. A deeply sincere cinéaste, like some latter-day Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th century anthropologist who discovered the lost city of Troy, Maddin has uncovered a wealth of glittering treasure buried beneath our noses. Unlike Schliemann, he may never seriously profit from his toils, but those of us lucky enough to share in the golden age of Guy Maddin will.
'The Saddest Music in the World'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Times guidelines: Sexual innuendo, adult themes
Mark McKinney...Chester Kent
Isabella Rossellini...Lady Port-Huntley
Maria de Medeiros...Narcissa
An IFC Films release. Director Guy Maddin. Writers Guy Maddin, George Toles. Based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro. Producers Niv Fichman, Jody Shapiro. Director of photography Luc Montpellier. Production designer Mathew Davies. Editor David Wharnsby. Composer Christoper Dedrick. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Exclusively at Loews Cineplex at the Beverly Center, L.A., (310) 652-7760, and at Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times