Maddin to make world sadder

By Peter Hemminger

Ignoring the fact that it’s a contradiction in terms, assume there is a book of unwritten rules. Under the arts and literature section, there would be an entry explaining the difference between reality on a stage and reality in film. On stage, grand gestures and evocative set designs create an exaggerated world, necessary to keep an audience involved. In film reality must be presented in a way that looks, well, real.

Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is not a fan of rules, written or otherwise. His films shun reality altogether–film grain and cracks are intentionally added, audio is edited to not quite sync with the action on screen–anything to remind the audience they are watching a narrative.

“It’s always bothered me that people feel films have an obligation to be what they call realistic,” explains Maddin. “I just like movies that scream out artifice. I am artificial, right away. All silent film is, because no one, except for I guess deaf people, can even think for a second that that’s the way life is. All films are just filmed campfire stories, and they don’t have an obligation to be real or true.”

Even when set in an actual time and place, Maddin feels no need to ground his movies in fact. Take The Saddest Music in the World, his latest and probably most accessible work. A competition to anoint the world’s saddest song is held in depression-era Winnipeg officially recognized as the indisputably saddest city on Earth. That most Canadians are too modest or simply too timid to make such a bold claim vexes Maddin.

“There’s just such a literal-mindedness about Canadians that they can’t get into the fun of history. They don’t know when to go fake. Alfred Hitchcock knows when to go fake. He’s a great artist, maybe the greatest film artist, and he knows just when to throw up that lousy rear-screen projector and go fake.”

The United States, on the other hand, has “always been better at packaging” itself. Growing up in Winnipeg, Maddin’s exposure to the rest of the world was limited to what he saw on TV and in the movies. The Americans’ penchant for creating their own mythologies struck a chord with the director and inspired him to present his own worlds in the same way.

“You look at the world through the media,” he says, “through satellite television or cable vision or movies. So not only do the fictions you’re given as a child, the conspicuous fictions seem kind of fictional, but the news events and glimpses of the world that you’ll probably never set your actual feet on, they seem fabulous as well. New York doesn’t really seem to exist. Even when you go there, finally, it seems it’s a different New York, and the fabulous New York that you grew up considering will always remain a fable.”

One of the major themes in The Saddest Music in the World is the desire of nations to gain fabled status. Everyone is sad, but each competing team hopes to prove their nation epitomizes the world’s depression. Even in misery, there is always competition.

“The game of sadness is sort of a competitive one with third world nations needing a lot of handouts from wealthier cultures,” according to Maddin. “And there’s only so much wealth to go around, so much sympathy to go around. So in the sort of competitive, adversarial nature of sadness, they feel they have to take their genuine privations and exaggerate them and pile fake ones on top just to win. It would be like putting four pan-handlers on the street corner and watching them limbo down lower and lower, each one trying to look more and more miserable, until the winner gets the most alms.”

Maddin himself is not above that game. In declaring Winnipeg the world’s saddest locale, he’s sure to attract some attention to Manitoba’s capital. It’s all a part of his emulation of American myth-building.

“I just like to challenge people to find out more,” he admits. “My entire life, Winnipegers had to go elsewhere to find things out. It’s kind of fun to see if anyone’s willing to come here and find out things for themselves.”

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