Strange brew; Guy Maddin's crazy-mirror movieworld

Many film reviewers are wont, these days, to go on about the mindless homogeneity of much of mainstream American cinema. Is there any future for movies, they wonder, except as blockbuster video-game extravaganzas?

Canadian director Guy Maddin wonders, too. "The Saddest Music in the World," his latest and most accessible movie, unreels in a twilight zone located somewhere between the flickers' past, as Maddin reimagines it, and a present where the self-destructing medium spreads outward from Hollywood to infect the world - not unlike the expanding fascist darkness that oozed over maps of Europe in so many World War II movies.

If your idea of a good time in the dark runs to sentimental waxworks ("The Notebook"), CGI machines ("The Chronicles of Riddick") or even delightfully inventive noodlings ("Har-ry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), you may want to give Maddin's surreal parody of a '30s musical a pass.

Buy a ticket if you like a challenge, if you don't mind being jolted out of the popcult status quo by the likes of David Lynch or the Coen brothers. But be warned: "The Saddest Music in the World," composed of equal parts horror and hilarity, demands that you actively see, in contrast to passively watching. And you will come to suspect, uneasily, that "Music"'s haunted screen may be looking back at you.

Maddin's strange cinematic brews - from "Archangel" to "The Heart of the World" to "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" - are notoriously short on conventional narrative and very, very rich in stylistic dementia.

Let me struggle to give you an idea of what "Saddest Music" is about, storywise: Up in Winnipeg, voted the capital of sorrow even in 1933, the nadir of the Depression, a legless, platinum-wigged and tiara'd hops mogul (Isabella Rossellini) plots to make even more money off beer-guzzlers by sponsoring a contest for the saddest music in the world, with $25,000 the prize. "Depressed" musicians from every corner of the globe flock to Maddin's snow-globe, art-deco version of Winnipeg, construct-ed entirely in a warehouse. The resulting teeter-tottery artifice is eerily evocative of the unreal village in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," the silent German classic about amusements and delusions that can kill.

Among the eager contestants are three native sons: Great War vet Fyo-dor (David Fox) is still madly in love with the suds queen whose legs he drunkenly amputated years before; his melancholy moan is a colorless Canadian ditty called "Red Maple Leaves." Fyodor's son Roderick (Ross McMillan) has morphed into Gavrilo the Great, a great dark droop of a Serbian, decked out in an impossibly wide-brimmed black hat complete with flowing veil. Lest we forget, his awful cello-dirge mourns the death of 9 million in World War I, the global conflagration that began in Serbia's Sarajevo with Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand.

And then there's Fyodor's youngest (Mark McKinney from "Kids in the Hall"), a down-on-his-luck Broadway producer who's taken the name Ches-ter Kent (Jimmy Cagney's moniker in the 1933 Busby Berkeley movie "Foot-light Parade") and adopted America as his home. Eternally optimistic, essentially heartless, Kent's good-time Charlie sports a brilliantined pompadour and little lounge-lizard mustache. Once his father's rival for the beer tycoon, he's currently shacked up with Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), Roderick's wife until the death of their son plunged her into blissful amnesia and nomadic nymphomania.

Amidst all the breast-beating and drear, Kent vows to add a little "sass and pizazz" to the proceedings by mounting an extravaganza that will prove "sadness is just happiness turned on its ass." (Recall Cagney's can-do musical entrepreneur who cheered up moviegoers taking a break from Depression breadlines.)

Representing America, Kent gathers in all the losing contestants, producing melting-pot musicals in which, at one point, Bengali ladies dressed in a Broadway notion of Eskimo garb reenact the little known kayak tragedy of 1898, to the accompaniment of sitar, panpipe and accordion. (He's used up all the big tragedies - slavery, the San Francisco earthquake, the sinking of the Lusitania - in earlier rounds.)

Sounds insane? Well, yes, but you ain't seen nothin' yet. Maddin makes this farrago look as though it's been shot on ancient, bunged-up black-and-white film stock. Vignetted, overexposed, occasionally blue or in garish color, the primitive images of "Music" incandesce out of the director's fever-dream of film history, an hallucinatory mélange of German Expressionism, Warner Bros. Depression movies, Soviet constructivist art and more. And threading through this deeply ironic musical are extreme variations on Jerome Kern's "The Song Is You," which mutates from romantic Muzak to invigorating Charleston to heartbreaking lament.

"The Saddest Music in the World" takes on - comedically, satirically and, yes, sadly - the interwoven themes of national identity; the power of bread and circuses, beer and degraded spectacle, to sedate unhappy citizens and mitigate grief; incestuously entwined families; history's long reach despite humankind's concerted effort to forget.

The movie careens through absurdity to vulgarity to authentic pathos; and from amnesia to catharsis. Maddin's cinemeditation resonates: its trajectory came to mind as I watched another movie, "The Nation's Week of Mourning for Ronald W. Reagan," unreel.

Mired in a sort of psychic Depression - what too-serious Jimmy Carter would have called "malaise" - Americans seemed to consciously opt for spectacle and amnesia last week, repressing the complex reality of our "sunny" 40th President, who shared some of Chester Kent's heartless, entrepreneurial optimism. Whether American dreamer or barker, he projected the nation as "shining city on a hill." It's an image that appeals, when so many of us feel the country has fallen under a cloud, misled into ugly fictions by a thin-lipped, incoherent, graceless actor.

The week's encomia were often as over-the-top as any outlandish musical production in "The Saddest Music in the World." But by the end, "Taps" and the golden light of the setting California sun were sanctifying. Out of false coin, ceremony gave birth to something genuine, a performance of sustaining value.

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