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Global Blues

Guy Maddin smirks at the sorrow in every song.

The Great Depression. Well, with a name like that, it couldn’t have been any fun at all. But now that things seem to be in a constant downward spiral of ever-increasing horror, maybe laughing at the Great Depression isn’t such a bad idea. Especially when your reason to laugh is being provided by as brilliant a filmmaker as Guy Maddin.

Back in the frigid depths of February, the Walker Art Center, as part of its gala pre-remodeling/closing events, held a several-day Maddin retrospective, featuring many of his films. The highlights of the event were the Regis dialogue, featuring Maddin and New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, and the area premiere of Maddin’s newest film, “The Saddest Music in the World.”

Maddin and Mitchell discussed high points from the director’s career with the aid of clips, episodes from Maddin’s formative years, stylistic and directorial influences and other stories, some bizarre, some more mundane, but all very interesting.

Despite being genuinely intriguing, the dialogue has become a bit of a foggy memory, in part because the second-half of the evening featured Maddin’s new film. The room was filled with the sort of anticipation only true fans can generate. Most of the people in the room seemed to know Maddin’s work fairly well and all were excited for this new film. It is doubtful that anyone was disappointed.

Right from the opening frames, Maddin’s signature elements go to work on the audience. The setting in the 1930s is made all the more convincing by the strange and antique quality of the images and the film itself. Everything looks like it was actually shot at that time, on cameras and film stock made to be used in the 1930s.

Maddin’s films have a heavily dreamlike quality; images are bright to the point of appearing blown out, everything a wash of lights. Sounds both within the action and from the soundtrack mix meld and blur as the audience is constantly made aware of the materiality of this bizarre cinematic experience.

Mastering the apparatus of film lets Maddin continue to evolve his unique storytelling style, but the fantastic stories he writes aren’t merely excuses to shoot pretty pictures. In addition to his usual duties as editor, cinematographer, producer and director, Maddin also has at least a co-writing credit on nearly all of his films.

For “The Saddest Music in the World” Maddin stepped back from most of his other roles and focused on directing. The film is based on a screenplay by “The Remains of the Day” writer Kazuo Ishiguro, which Maddin and regular collaborator George Toles adapted.

The story centers on a family of three men, their interlinked romantic entanglements and a contest staged by a legless beer baroness, in which the prize is $25,000 to the artist who can present, as the title says, the saddest music in the world.

This is certainly Maddin’s most accessible film, that isn’t necessarily to say it is his best. Superlatives aside, it is often hilarious, has a couple of big stars and wasn’t shot in his basement, so that should make Maddin virgins a bit more comfortable with this film than others from his oeuvre.

Seeing Maddin’s films is a peek into what cinema can do, but rarely does, exploring the artistic avenues opened by the mechanisms of filmmaking, taking artistic and creative chances, enhancing rather than stultifying imagination. Not everyone will appreciate this film, and that is to be expected, but if you feel inclined to open yourself to new experience, this is worth a chance. Otherwise there’s always some major studio-produced piece of spectacular vacuousity to numb your mind and leave you just uninspired enough not to care. Get back to work.

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